Is Camping Cheaper Than Hotels? An In Depth Analysis


Camping can be a great way to travel and sightsee while spending less. However, just like with traditional vacations you can scale the costs up or down significantly. One thing you may have wondered about is if it is cheaper to stay at campgrounds rather than at nearby hotels.

So, Is camping cheaper than hotels? Camping is generally lower cost than staying at hotels, however, it is possible to scale up your camping costs to meet or exceed that of staying in hotels. There are many variable costs that need to be considered when trying to make a full comparison.

Just like there are many kinds of hotels with varying “fanciness” there are ways that camping can become glamping, and therefore more expensive. For the comparisons, I will be comparing tent camping with your average hotel. There are a number of other assumptions I must make in order to make this a fair comparison, but I am sure that the conclusion will surprise you!

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.

Here is a summarized table of the calculations:

Expense DescriptionTent CampingAverage Hotel
Gas$109.66$120.84
Lodging$519$1,859
Food$363.60$553
Entertainment$280$280
New Camping Equipment$490
Total Cost:$1,762.26$2,812.84
Difference In Cost+$1,050.58-$1,050.58
*If You Already Have Gear-$490
Total Cost$1,272.26$2,812.84
Difference In Cost$1,540.58$1,540.58

Assumptions to be made

Prices will vary depending on where you are going, when you are going, and for how long. There is no one way to calculate exactly how much it is going to cost you to go camping or how much it is going to cost you to stay in hotels. However, we can make use of some general assumptions utilizing averages and get a well-estimated answer.

In order to do this, we must first make some assumptions for it to make sense. I will be comparing the costs of camping versus the costs of staying in a hotel. In order to fairly do this, we must make some assumptions that would apply in most situations. For this analysis, the purpose of comparing camping to hotel stays is to determine what is a cheaper option for taking a vacation. If you didn’t know already, camping can be an awesome way to take a vacation. For 17 reasons to go camping on your next vacation, check out this post that I wrote.

Assumption #1: Length of Stay Is 14 Days

I will be assuming that the vacation will last 14 days (or two weeks) The reason for this assumption is derived from the Bureau Of Labor Statistics (BLS) information. According to the BLS, “Private industry workers received an average of 15 paid vacation days after 5 years of service in 2017”. The number of vacation days jumps to just 17 after 10 years. How little amount of vacation the average American gets is a subject for a different article, but it is safe to assume that taking a vacation of 14 days is probably pretty likely and possible for most people.

So for both scenarios of either camping or staying in a hotel, the length will be for 14 days (or two weeks). 

Assumption #2: Distance Traveled Is The Same

For this assumption, I will make the distance traveled equal for easy comparison’s sake. However, if you are staying in a hotel while on vacationing near an outdoorsy location then you most likely will have more transportation costs since you will probably have to commute from sightseeing spots and your hotel as opposed to if you were already camping near the sightseeing locations. We will be assuming that the vacation trip will be 300 miles one way (or 600 miles roundtrip) from home to destination. 

The exact miles traveled doesn’t matter much for this assumption since it will be the same total distance, but a longer distance would equal more transportation costs. In addition, I will be assuming that the mode of transportation is the same. The mode of transportation will be by car and gas prices will be the same throughout the trip (which is unlikely). The national average for regular gas prices at the time of writing this article is $2.65 per gallon. These averages were taken from the AAA.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average fuel economy in the model year 2017 was 24.9 mpg, which is reported as a record high. Putting all of this together, we assume a roundtrip mileage of 600 miles (not including daily driving, which will be added later) achieving 25mpg while paying a national average gas price of $2.65 per gallon. This brings us to 600 / 25 x $2.65 = $63.60 for gas.

Please keep in mind that this calculation does not account for other transportation costs, only for gas. Driving your car costs more money than just gas. Driving your car also costs money in the form of depreciation, oil changes, new tires, repairs, etc. We are not factoring that in here, just the price of gas. Also, you might pay more or less for gas depending on where you live. You might drive a car that gets better or worse mpg. Or you might drive more or less to get to your vacation destination.

Assumption #3: Camping Equipment

In order to make things fairer, I will assume you start with no basic camping equipment. This means that you will need to buy all of your camping equipment for the vacation. Don’t worry though, great equality camping gear does not need to be expensive, just check out my recommended gear page that has all of the camping equipment that I personally use. All of the essential camping gear can be had for a very modest price. As an added benefit, you can continue using the gear long after this particular vacation.

The basic essential camping gear you will need to get for a vacation is:

  • Tent
  • Sleeping Bags
  • Sleeping Pads (Or Air Mattresses)
  • Camping Stove (And Fuel)
  • Light Sources
  • Chairs

Of course, this isn’t a complete list of what you will need for your trip, but it is the bare necessities for camping. For a complete camping checklist, check out this article that I wrote. It has everything you will need for a camping trip. There is also a super helpful pdf checklist that you can download and print for free. Everything on the small list above is what you will need to buy before the trip. For everything else, it is assumed that you already have it, or you can go without.

Tent

The size of the tent that you are going to need is going to depend on the size of your family. For our assumptions, we will assume a family of four consisting of two adults and two children. Does this mean that you should get a four-person tent? I would say certainly not since you could technically fit four people in a four-person tent, but it would be terribly cramped. Instead, a good rule of thumb to follow is to get a tent rated for two persons above what you actually expect to sleep in the tent.

So for the family of four following the rule of thumb they should get a six-person tent. A decent six-person tent will run you about $150 in the mid-range. You don’t need a very expensive tent for most recreational camping. Check out the larger tent that I personally recommend on this page of this website. The price is very fair for the amount of quality you receive, I believe the six-person size is a perfect tent for a family of four or less.

Sleeping Bags

Sleeping bags keep you much warmer and more comfortable than standard blankets when you are sleeping outside. A nice versatile car camping sleeping bag can be found for around $40 and it can last for many years. For a family of four that gets four sleeping bags that would be a price tag of about $160. For recreational camping, your sleeping bag doesn’t need a super high-temperature rating unless you are going out in the dead of winter.

I believe that the sleeping bag I have used for many years of camping is going to be enough for most recreational campers. Check out this page of the website that has the sleeping bag that I personally use when I go camping. This sleeping bag combined with basic warmer layers can even get you camping in spring, summer, and fall in some places.

Sleeping Pads (Or Air Mattresses)

Depending on the level of comfort you are going to require when camping has a lot to do with if you should go with an air mattress or sleeping pads. Since this is a two-week camping trip that we are assuming, We can also fairly assume that it may be better to go with two air mattresses. One for the adults, and one for the kids.

You can get a very comfortable higher quality air mattress for around $50 each, sometimes even less when they go on sale. I like using my air mattress for longer camping trips and I can never go back to the cheap air mattresses that break after just one trip. So for our scenario, the air mattresses will cost a total of $100. Check out this page of the website that has the air mattress that I personally use on some of my camping trips, you won’t be disappointed by the quality or the price!

If sleeping pads suit you better than air mattresses, then check out this page on the website that has the sleeping pad I use all the time for camping. These are better for shorter getaways or when the temperature is going to be colder at night.

Camping Stove (And Fuel)

You are going to need to cook some food while on a camping vacation and so you are going to need a camping stove and fuel to go along with it. A great tabletop camping stove can be had for around $50. A little more if you want it to be free-standing. Fuel for the entire trip can be found for another $10. So in total for cooking, we have $60.

If you want to see what camping stove I personally use then click here to go to my review of a camping stove that I personally use while camping. A good stove is essential for making some great tasting meals while on a camping trip, but they don’t have to be super expensive.

Light Sources

Most people probably already have flashlights somewhere around the house and they do just fine. You don’t have to have a lantern or a headlamp, but they are nice to have so you are more handsfree at night. We will assume that you need to spend $20 for some more light sources for the camping vacation.

If you want to see what I personally use for light when camping then check out the camping accessories page of this website. It is jam-packed with all the important accessories that I personally love using when camping.

Chairs

Chairs aren’t necessarily “essential” but they are really nice to have when camping. Sitting on a log or a rock does get old after a while, and it’s kinda painful. For a two-week camping vacation, you are going to want some nice camping chairs to lounge around in. You can find some decent quality camping chairs for around $40 each.

Total Costs For Camping Gear

One six-person tent for $150

Two air mattresses for $100

Camping stove and fuel for $60

Light sources for $20

Four Camping Chairs for $160

Total costs for some new camping gear: $490

Assumption #4: Where You Travel To Is Outdoorsy

We are assuming that you can drive to the destination and that the destination is a more natural and outdoor area (This is a camping website after all). So this means that you are not visiting a city where the hotels would have a bigger advantage, instead, you are vacationing in or near a National Park, National Forest, State Park, or something similar. This means that camping will most likely get you closer to all the sights that you want to see.

Assumption #5: You will eat roughly the same kind of food

Whether you stay in the hotel or camp, you are going to spend roughly the same amount on food. Although one could argue that food costs would most likely be higher if you were staying at a hotel since there is nowhere to cook. There will be some reflection of that in my analysis, but it won’t be exaggerated to the point where just because you are staying at a hotel instead of camping that means that your family will eat out at a restaurant three times every day.

The point of this is to not unfairly overcompensate the food prices of one option versus another. I am attempting to not show too much bias towards camping (Although again, this is a camping website). Okay so now let’s get into the nitty-gritty price comparisons.

Costs of camping for 14 days

Transportation

We already calculated the base transportation using the assumption that your trip is 600 miles roundtrip at a gas cost of $63.60. Now we need to add some more because you will probably drive a little bit more once you are at the location. Since we are camping closer to the sights we will estimate a smaller overall driving mileage. We can estimate that you will drive the national average amount every day for 12 out of the 14 days since two days are reserved for driving to and from the destination.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), the average annual miles driven of all combined age groups is 13,476 per year. If we take this annual mileage and divide it by 365 days in a year we have an average daily driving mileage of 36.92 miles driven per day. We can round this up to 37 miles per day while camping. For 12 days this gives us an additional 444 miles driven during the vacation. With national gas prices of $2.65 per gallon, 25mpg, and 444 miles driven that is an additional cost of $47.06.

So where does this leave us with gas costs and camping?

$63.60 to get there and back.

+ $47.06 while you are there.

= $109.66

*Just keep in mind what I said previously about how the true cost of transportation is more expensive than just gas.

Campground Costs

Camping can be free or it can be a little pricey depending on the style of camping. We will have to assume that there are going to be some campground costs because the vacation is 14 days in duration, and that is actually a long time to be camping. Therefore the family is going to requires some basics like running water and showers. Campgrounds with these kinds of amenities are typically not free, but they aren’t necessarily expensive either.

For example, many campgrounds in the California State Parks system like this one in Big Sur cost $35 per night. The campground has potable running water, flush toilets, and warm showers. A campground like this is probably one that can be realistically stayed at for a full two weeks by most recreational campers. So at $35 a night for 13 nights, the campground costs $455. In addition, some campgrounds have online reservation fees of about $8 per reservation so we will add that too. That brings us to a cost of $463.

Let’s not forget about those wonderful warm showers though. Unfortunately, they aren’t free in the particular campground I am using as an example. They are included sometimes, but not always. I have to play a little devil’s advocate here and include the price of showers. A quick 4-minute shower is $1. For a family for four that takes one shower per day, it is $4 per day. For the full 14 days, it comes to a total of $56 for daily showers.

So, where are we at with the campground costs?

$463 for camping fees and the reservation fee

+ $56 for daily warm showers

= $519

Food

Camping can save you some money on food because you will be cooking most of your food. Groceries are cheaper than restaurants and convenience foods, everyone knows that. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) puts a low-cost meal plan for a family of four at around $166.80 to $196.80 depending on the children’s ages. We will take the average of those two figures for a weekly cost of $181.80. For the two week vacation, we can budget $363.60.

Entertainment

Entertainment will be the same costs for camping as it will when staying in a hotel for our calculation purposes. This allotment is to serve for any miscellaneous vacation-related expenses that come up. For two weeks we will budget $20 per day, or $280 total for the vacation. This could seem high or low depending on who you ask, but the more important thing is to keep it constant with camping or hotels.

Total Costs For Camping

Gas: $109.66

Campground Costs: $519

Food: $363.60

Entertainment: $280

New Camping Equipment: $490

Total: $1,762.26

Costs of staying in an average hotel for 14 days

Transportation

The transportation cost to and from the destination is the same as with the campground at $63.60. However, daily transportation will be assumed to be increased since hotels are typically further from main attractions in outdoor recreational areas. So instead of using the combined national average of 13,476, let’s just use the male national average of 16,650 miles per year (according to DOT).

Taking 16,650 and dividing it by 365 days in a year we arrive at 45.34 miles driven per day. If we round this down to 45 that would give us 8 additional miles driven per day compared to the camping assumption of 37 miles per day.

Then we can take the 45 miles daily and multiply it by 12 to find 540 miles driven during the trip. Divide it by our 25mpg to find 21.6 gallons of gas needed. Multiply that by the national average gas price of $2.65 and we finally arrive at a gas cost of $57.24

So where does this leave us with gas costs and hotels?

$63.60 to get there and back.

+ $57.24 while you are there.

= $120.84

Lodging Fees + Taxes

This is where things can get pretty expensive. Obviously, the cost of lodging at a hotel is usually much higher than that at a campground. According to Statista, the average daily rate for a hotel in the United States was 129.83 in 2018. So if we round this to $130 per night for the 13 nights we have a price tag of $1,690. This doesn’t include any additional taxes and fees that are usually added to the overall cost.

It is safe to assume that taxes and fees will be at least 10% extra. Usually, it is more, sometimes much more. If we do assume 10% then that adds an additional $169 to the cost of the hotel.

So, where are we at with the hotel costs?

$1,690 for 13 nights at $130 per night

+ $169 for taxes and fees

= $1,859

Food

Staying in a hotel can increase your food costs if you are consistently eating out at restaurants. You can keep food costs down by still buying groceries. You may not have access to a real kitchen, but a lot of hotel rooms have mini-fridges and microwaves available. Some also come with free breakfast, which is very convenient. For our food assumption, we will refer back to the USDA chart and utilize the “Liberal Plan” in order to account for increased food costs due to eating out while staying in a hotel.

The Liberal Plan comes in at $254.70 to $298.30 per week. Taking the average of this is $276.50 per week. For the entire two weeks, it becomes $553.

Entertainment

Entertainment is assumed to be the same whether in a hotel or camping. Although one could argue that there are more opportunities to spend more while at the hotel since it might be located next to other shops and businesses. To keep things fair, entertainment will be held constant at $20 per day, or $280 total.

Total Costs For Staying In A Hotel

Gas: $120.84

Hotel Lodging + Taxes: $1,859

Food: $553

Entertainment: $280

Total: $2,812.84

Is This Price Comparison Perfect?

No, it isn’t. But then again no price comparison with so many variables can be perfect. Many variables can be different from the scenario that I have created. Your family could be bigger, gas prices could cost more, hotels in the area could cost more or less than the average, The campground could cost more or less, etc. There are so many variables that affect a price comparison between camping and hotels. The best thing for you to do is take this format that I have laid it out and try to plug in your specific prices to see what would be a more cost-effective choice for you and your family.

At the same time, the cost is not the only thing to consider when taking a vacation. A hotel is most likely going to be a more comfortable stay than camping, especially because not everyone enjoys the outdoors on the same level so keep in mind more than just costs when evaluating what decision to make. Costs are definitely an important thing, but they aren’t the only thing.

Related Questions:

Is Camping Cheaper Than Airbnb?

Airbnb’s are probably better priced than hotels in most cities, but out in natural areas they tend to be more expensive. Of course, this all depends heavily on the area you want to visit. Airbnb’s usually also have a full kitchen, so they can help you keep food expenses down just like camping can.

Is Renting An RV Cheaper Than Hotels?

On a short term basis such as two weeks, RV’s are certainly not cheaper than hotels. Buying an RV for a two-week vacation is most likely a bad idea. Renting an RV is a better choice, but it still is most likely going to be more costly than hotels. Gas is a huge expense when it comes to RVs and can often be overlooked.

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.

Zachary Smith

Zach is an avid outdoorsman that loves going camping with his Prius every chance he gets. He also regularly enjoys hiking and fishing. When he's not outside you can probably find him writing about it on this website. See his full bio here

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