I enjoy camping, now that I have all the gear that I need, I think that camping is an inexpensive activity. The real question is “is camping expensive?” since someone that is new to camping might have to buy a bunch of new gear. There are also other costs besides gear that can add up.
So, is camping expensive? Camping is a relatively low-cost activity compared to many other activities. Camping can be expensive or it can be very affordable. It all depends on what kind of gear you get, where you go camping, and for how long.
There are several costs when it comes to camping such as gear, camping fees, car gas, food, etc. These are variables that can come at a high cost or they can come at a low cost. It just depends on how you manipulate those variables. I factored in every variable I could think of in order to get a realistic expectation of how much camping really costs.
By the way, If you are in the market for a new tent, then you should click here to see the one I recommend on Amazon.
The costs of camping
The cost of camping can vary depending on many factors. In order to make a fair estimate of the price of camping, I will use averages and median figures whenever possible. For gear, I will assume entry-level gear that is high quality, and yet relatively low cost. There is always going to be a range in the estimates because different choices can cost more or less.
One thing to keep in mind when it comes to the cost of camping is that gear is a “one-time” cost. Pretty much everything else discussed in this estimate will be a recurring cost. The recurring costs of camping are relatively low, and that is what most people calculate when thinking of camping costs. However, one of the assumptions I will make in this analysis is that you start out with no camping specific gear at all.
Other assumptions that I will be making include:
- Camping in a mild climate (no special gear is needed).
- The transportation will be by vehicle.
- The one-way traveling distance is 136.8 miles.
- The group size is four people.
- Basic entry-level camping gear.
- Camping for only two nights.
Tent ($150 – $250)
Probably the first thing you need to think about is a shelter. Tents are the most popular shelters for camping, and for good reason. They are lightweight, low cost, and can protect you from the elements. Tents can get really expensive, but really most of us don’t need a tent that is that expensive. My first tent has lasted me for several years and has been through many different landscapes. It hasn’t failed me yet and I got it for a really good price. Check out more on my tent here on my website.
For a first tent, it doesn’t need to be expensive, but it does need to be of a good enough quality to protect you like it’s meant to do. For a group of four sleeping in one tent, I would recommend getting a six-person tent like this one on amazon.com. A decent six-person tent can be had for about $150 all in. You could find it even cheaper than that, but it is important to look at reviews to see if other people believe the tent is a good quality item.
A tent is probably going to be the most expensive item that you are going to need, but that’s because it is probably the most essential. For recreational camping, a standard dome-style tent made of polyester material is probably good enough for 99% of people. These tents can be used well in most environments outside of extremely cold temperatures.
So, for a 6 person tent, we will add $150.
Sleeping Pad ($40-$100)
The next most important camping item is something to sleep on that will provide insulation from the cold hard ground. Comfort is a great aspect of a sleeping pad, but the real magic is the fact that it helps resist body heat loss from underneath you. That feature is really needed when the temperatures at night dip down pretty low.
A lot of people like to use air mattresses instead of using sleeping pads, but this is really only a good option in the middle of summer since air mattresses are not well insulated like sleeping pads are. Once I made the switch from an air mattress to a sleeping pad, I knew that I could never go back. Not only are sleeping pads warm and comfortable, but they are also more convenient to inflate and are lightweight and easy to transport.
Check out my first sleeping pad here on this page. You can see that sleeping pads for recreational camping don’t need to be that expensive either. They are a lot tougher than air mattresses and can be repaired more easily if they become damaged. Everyone will need their own sleeping pad, but that also means no one can take up your side of the bed.
So, for four sleeping pads, we will add $160 ($40 each).
Sleeping Bag ($30-$100)
Sleeping bags are needed for many camping trips because they can keep you warm enough during those cold nights. For your first sleeping bag, you do not need to get one that can survive a trip to Antarctica. A simple summer sleeping bag should suffice. You can easily find a good sleeping bag that is rated for 30 to 40 degrees for a little more than $30.
In fact, check out this page that has the sleeping bag that I personally use all the time. I paid very little for it and I am able to use it for most of the year in the west. For recreational camping, you don’t need a winter sleeping bag. Your first camping trip will probably be in the summer anyway. If you are really unsure if camping is right for you and you don’t want to invest in too much gear then you can go without a sleeping bag if the weather at night is warm.
You could get away with using blankets from home during the middle of the summer if it stays relatively warm at night. If it is going to be chilly then you are going to need to get a sleeping bag because they are so much more efficient at preventing body heat loss.
So, for four sleeping bags, we will add $140 ($35 each).
Ice Chest ($50-$300)
If you want to make some great tasting food while camping then you are going to need an ice chest to keep your food fresh. A good starter ice chest can be found for around $50 that can keep ice for a few days. Your first ice chest doesn’t need to make ice last forever anyway, but using some clever techniques like keeping it out of the sun, opening it only a few times a day, and putting a damp towel over it can maximize how long it will keep ice cold.
All you need for your first ice chest is a simple one like the one I use. As a bonus, a good ice chest can make an extra chair or mini table around the campfire. If you are really strapped for cash then you could opt out of getting an ice chest for your first camping trip, but then all of the food you bring would need to be non-refrigerated.
So, for an ice chest, we will add $60.
Camping stove w/ fuel ($50-$150)
You are going to need something to cook your food when you go camping. Most likely your best option is a portable camping stove. Most of them run on either propane or butane. A simple two-burner camping stove like this one on Amazon.com is all you need. Just be sure that you get some extra fuel that matches what your grill needs.
Amazon also sells the propane bottles that go along with your stove, although if you have the time you can usually find them at any big box store for a lower price. If you are unsure if you want to invest in a camping stove just yet then a possible alternative would be to cook all of your food with your campfire.
This does mean that you would need to buy a lot more firewood, but cooking food on an open campfire makes pretty much anything taste delicious. There are many recipes you can find online for ideas on how and what foods you can make with your campfire. Getting a camping stove makes cooking a lot easier and more convenient though. Plus, you can use the camping stove for more than just camping, they work great for regular picnics at the park too.
So, for a camping stove and some fuel, we add $60.
Total starter gear costs:
6 person tent: $150
4 sleeping pads: $160
4 sleeping bags: $140
1 ice chest: $50
1 camping stove: $60
Total estimated cost: $560
I actually added all of these products into my car on Amazon.com and got a slightly lower price of just under $520, so the estimated cost above shouldn’t be far off from actual costs incurred by a beginner camper than needs some basic new camping gear.
Food is definitely an expense that you will incur when you go camping, however, it’s also an expense you are going to have regardless of what you do because we all need to eat. The good thing is that food expenses while camping is very low because they are just groceries. I will also assume that you have no food that you can bring from home that you already have (which is highly unlikely).
Food costs, of course, vary depending on where you live and where you buy your food from, but we can generate a generic template of what kinds of foods you might want to bring with you when you go camping, and they don’t need to be expensive at all. Some common foods that work very well with camping include things like:
- Canned Tuna
- S’mores (duh)
To make the cost estimation fair I will be using statistics from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA puts out monthly reports of estimated grocery costs with four levels from least expensive to most expensive. The four levels are thrifty, low cost, moderate cost, and liberal. I will use a moderate cost estimation for my calculations.
I referenced this report from the USDA to find that a family of four with two small children should spend about $244.80 per week on groceries. Since we are only doing calculations for two nights of camping, I will use 3 days of grocery costs. So $244.80 divided by 7 days in a week gives us a daily grocery cost of $34.97. For 3 days of camping, this would be an overall cost of $104.91 for groceries.
That cost might sound high or low to you, but that is based on what the USDA estimates it will cost for a family of four in a moderate food budget. Personally, 3 days of food for over $100 seems extremely high to me. They must be dining exclusively on Rib-eye steaks and lobster tails…I don’t know. I will use this figure for the estimate though.
So, for food costs, we will add $104.91
Some extra things are going to be needed for a successful camping trip. Some are optional but highly recommended. The best thing you can do is set your own budget and then list some of the necessary items in order from most important to least important. If you are in need of a complete camping checklist then check out this post that I wrote that has a free downloadable .pdf camping checklist.
Some of the more highly recommended items you may need to buy include:
- Light source (Headlamp-Flashlight-Lantern)
- Rubber mallet
- Hydration Backpacks
- First aid kit
- Water storage
For necessities, I will budget $50, but it really depends.
Transportation is probably the biggest ongoing cost associated with camping. The cost of transportation isn’t just car gas either. Wear and tear on your vehicle is where most of the transportation costs come into play. Just because a cost isn’t immediate does not mean that it will be accrued.
For example, every mile you drive, your vehicle gets closer to needing an oil change. You won’t pay for the oil change until you hit a certain mileage, but you are slowly accruing that cost every day that you drive. Transportation costs in total can vary widely depending on many things.
I have already put at the beginning that I will be assuming 136.8 miles one way for the camping trip. This is a very far distance, but it was found to be the average one-way distance for people going camping. While I wouldn’t advise that someone new to camping drive that far in order to try and experience camping, I will use the statistic to be fair in the cost analysis.
136.8 miles one way means 273.6 miles round trip. This will be the base mileage that will go into calculating everything else. Gas is the most obvious transportation expense that you will pay for because you have to pay for it as you use it. There are, however, other transportation-related expenses we must account for in order to fairly estimate camping costs. Other expenses we will factor in include new tires, oil changes, depreciation, and unexpected repairs.
Gas is one of the easiest to account for if we know how much we are paying per gallon, how many miles per gallon our vehicle gets, and how many miles we are driving. Since all three of those will have high variability, I think that it is fair to use median statistics. The median is the middle number of all observed numbers in a data set.
The median gas price as I write this is $2.61 per gallon according to AAA. Gas prices in the United States drastically vary state to state so your expenses may be higher or lower. The average miles per gallon (mpg) for the model year 2017 vehicles is 24.9 mpg according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Of course, smaller cars tend to get better gas mileage and larger SUVs and trucks tend to get worse gas mileage. This means that your mileage may vary, literally.
So if the average vehicle is getting 24.9 mpg and the camping trip is 273.6 miles round trip then that would mean that about 11 gallons of gas would be needed for the camping trip. With gas prices of $2.61 per gallon, this would be a total fuel cost of $28.71 for the trip.
So for gas, we add $28.71.
For every mile you drive, you put a little bit of wear and tear down on your car’s tires. This is normal and necessary for our vehicles. In order to calculate how much cost comes from mileage on your tires, you need to estimate tire costs and their lifespan. For example, if a tire has a warranty of 50,000 miles and it costs $500 for all four tires and installation of the tires then the cost would be $0.01 per mile if you replace the tires when the warranty is over.
You can do this for your own tires by dividing their lifespan in miles by their total cost of replacement and installation. It is not unrealistic to get all four new tires installed for $500. Plus, 50,000 miles warranties are pretty standard. At $0.01 per mile and a total mileage of $273.6 miles, we have a total tire cost of $2.74.
So for tire wear and tear, we add $2.74.
Oil change costs can be calculated very similarly to new tires. If you get your car’s oil changed with basic motor oil every 3,000 miles and you pay $30 per oil change then your cost is $0.01 per mile. If you get a synthetic blend oil change and pay $50 for it, but you only have to get an oil change every 5,000 miles then your costs are the same: $0.01 per mile.
Lastly, if you put fully synthetic motor oil in your vehicle and it lasts for 10,000 miles but costs $100 per oil change then again the cost per mile is the same: $0.01. You can do this for your own vehicle if you know the costs of an oil change and the interval of how often to change it. Simply divide the interval by the cost of the oil change and that will be your cost per mile.
So for oil changes, we add $2.74.
Depreciation is a hidden cost of transportation that almost no one pays attention to. However, depreciation is a costly transportation expense that is mostly based on miles driven. It is very difficult to make a general assumption as to how much depreciation your vehicle will experience because of the camping trip. Depreciation is correlated with mileage on a vehicle, but different types of vehicles depreciate differently.
First and foremost, the most depreciation of a vehicle happens with new vehicles. Carfax claims that a new vehicle depreciates about 20% in the first year of ownership. Then, for the next 4 years after that, a vehicle will depreciate about 10% every year. This means that if you purchase a brand new vehicle and drive it for 5 years, the vehicle will have probably lost 60% of its value on average. Scary, right?
Depreciation has many factors, mileage on the car just being one of them. The way I like to calculate depreciation is to first take the initial cost of the vehicle and subtract the resale cost of when you trade it in. Then divide that number by the number of miles you drove when you owned the vehicle.
For example, the average transaction price of a new vehicle is $36,410 according to the National Automobile Dealer’s Association (NADA). If you bought a brand new car for that price and owned it for five years with a 60% decrease from its original value then you would have sold it for $14,564. You would have incurred a depreciation cost of $21,846 over those 5 years.
On a per miles basis, we just need to divide the depreciation cost of $21,846 by the total number of miles driven in those 5 years. The average total miles per driver per year is 13,476 according to the Department of Transportation (DOT). If we take that average and multiply it by 5 years then we would have a total amount of miles driven equal to 67,380 miles. Now, taking the depreciation cost of $21,846 and dividing it by 67,380 miles gives us a depreciation cost of $0.32 per mile.
$0.32 per mile might not sound like much, but if we applied that to our roundtrip camping trip of 273.6 miles then that would add a cost of $87.55. Keep in mind that this is kind of a worst-case scenario since it is the depreciation of a brand new vehicle. If you have an older vehicle with more miles on it then your actual deprecation cost might be less.
It is literally impossible for me to make a blanket assumption for how much depreciation will cost per mile because it is one of the most variable costs that are dependent on many different factors. It is also a cost that you will not see until you sell or trade-in your vehicle. This is why I am not going to be adding it to the overall cost analysis. However, it is really important to know that the depreciation cost is a real thing.
Unexpected repairs are really difficult to calculate because they are unexpected and they could vary widely in costs to repair the vehicle. Each mile driven does most likely make unexpected repairs more likely, but there is no real accurate way to account for their costs beforehand. It’s only after you actually pay the bill for an unexpected cost that we can calculate how much it costs per mile. For this reason, I will not be adding unexpected repairs to the overall cost analysis. However, it is really important to know that unexpected repairs are a real thing.
Campground fees can vary widely from free to $35 a night in most campgrounds located on public lands. The fees are widely correlated to the number of amenities included at the campgrounds. Amenities typically include things like bathrooms, showers, running water, trash removal, fire pits, and picnic tables.
If you are new to camping then you probably should be staying at a campground with more amenities. This is so that you can ease your way into more wild camping later on. To get all of these amenities your costs will be towards the higher end so we will estimate $35 a night.
It is important to know that a lot of public land offers something called dispersed camping which is free camping outside of developed campgrounds. Dispersed camping is typically free, but it includes absolutely no amenities. National Forests have exceptional dispersed camping opportunities, and if you want to know information about free camping in every National Forest, then read this article. This might sound scary to those that are new to camping, but for more experienced campers it is the most fun!
So for two nights of camping at $35 per night, the campground fees are a total of $70.
Entrance fees and permits will differ depending on where you are going. Some public lands like most National Forests have day-use passes that cost $5 per day if you are going to be parking outside of your designated campground. In most places, if you stay at your campgrounds then you might not need additional passes, but this isn’t always the case.
At the same time, buying annual passes is probably your best bet, especially if you will be camping or just visiting public lands like National Forests and National Parks at least a couple of times per year. For example, in California, you can purchase an annual National Forest Adventure Pass for $30 and it is valid for an entire year.
What’s even better is that you can get what is called an “America the Beautiful Pass” which is applicable to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites. It includes lands managed by the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and many more. This pass is only $80 and it is good for an entire calendar year. It is what I get every single year, and what I would highly recommend to anyone that enjoying traveling in the outdoors. I will assume that you will get the federal recreation pass for the camping trip
So for entrance fees and permits, the initial cost of an annual pass is $80.
Adding it all up
Starter gear costs: $560
Food costs: $104.91
Tire wear and tear: $2.74
Oil Changes: $2.74
Unexpected repairs: ???
Campground fees: $70
Annual entry pass: $80
The total cost of camping in this scenario: $899.10
Keep in mind that some costs are only one time, for the most part, each time you go camping, the initial costs become less and less. In this example, the recurring costs would be $ for the same trip without the initial costs of camping gear, necessities, and an annual entry pass. At the same time, you can find campgrounds at a cheaper price if you don’t need as many amenities.
Cost for the same trip, without gear costs, necessities, and a new annual entry pass:
Food costs: $104.91
Tire wear and tear: $2.74
Oil Changes: $2.74
Unexpected repairs: ???
Campground fees: $70
The total cost of camping in this scenario: $209.10
Cost with cheaper campground fees of $20 per night, and low-cost food plan:
Food costs: $84.04 ($196.10 / 7 = $28.01 x 3 = $84.04)
Tire wear and tear: $2.74
Oil Changes: $2.74
Unexpected repairs: ???
Campground fees: $40
The total cost of camping in this scenario: $158.23
As you can see there are many ways that you can manipulate the costs of camping to make them higher or lower. A few easy ways to make them lower is to go camping somewhere that is a closer distance, drive a fuel-efficient vehicle that is a few years old, and buy low-cost foods.
- Camping gear
- Food (every trip)
- Necessities (consumables)
- Gas (every trip)
- Tire wear/tear (every trip)
- Oil Changes (every trip)
- Depreciation (every trip)
- Campground fees (every trip)
- Annual pass (only once per year)
What about borrowing gear?
Borrowing camping gear is the best thing that you can do if you are just getting into camping. Doing so would mean that you have no commitments to new camping gear you just purchased. Camping is awesome, but I know it is not for everyone. So if you know someone with camping gear and they are willing to lend it to you then go for it and save all the money that would have been spent on gear until after your first camping trip.
What about other camping items?
Some gear that we associate with camping is really nice to have, but not technically necessary for camping. One good example of this is everyday camping chairs. Camping chairs are very comfortable and they have become a staple in camping culture. However, you don’t technically need a camping chair, especially if you are unsure if you want to continue camping regularly. You can use the picnic table that is usually provided or being regular folding chairs from home.
Another luxury camping item is hammocks. Hammocks are wonderful inventions that are great for camping. I have several of them and never go camping without them. However, you don’t technically need a hammock to go camping so it is an optional luxury item. You don’t need to commit to too much extra camping gear if you aren’t sure about being interested in camping more often.
What about activities?
All activities during camping can be free. Camping isn’t really like summer camp in the movies with daily structured activities. Instead, try doing things like going on a hike, swimming, exploring, etc. At the same time, you can just sit around the campfire and play games at the campsite. If you need some ideas for games to play then check out this article I wrote with 28 ideas.
How much does it cost to camp at a national park?
Camping is National Parks can vary anywhere from $0 to $30 in some cases. Each National Park is managed separately and each has its own policies and fees. Higher campground fees are usually correlated to more amenities.
Where can I camp for free?
Camping for free can be found on many public lands such as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, National Forest land (USFS) land, and some National Park (NPS) land. For a complete list of information on free camping in National Forests, check out this post.
My Favorite Camping Gear
- Air Mattress: click here to check out my favorite on Amazon.
- Tent: click here to see my favorite tent available on Amazon.
- Sleeping Pad: click here to check out the one I love on Amazon.
- Sleeping Bag: click here to see the one I recommend on Amazon.
- Camping Stove: click here to see the best camping stove on Amazon.