A lot of people assume that camping is a low-cost way to take a trip or go on vacation.
But is it really?
You’d be surprised at how expensive camping can really be, and those expenses can really add up if you want to visit a unique place and be as comfortable as possible.
If you’re camping on a budget, it would be wise to record all of your anticipated expenses as you plan your trip.
That way, you’ll be able to see just how much you’re spending—and consider limiting or cutting anything that looks excessive.
Here are the costs you can expect to incur when planning any camping trip.
Why camping gear is so expensive
You need the right kind of gear to go camping, plain and simple.
At the very least, you’ll need:
- A three-season tent
- A sleeping bag with the appropriate temperature rating
- An air mattress or sleeping pad
- Fire starting supplies
- Cookware, dishes, cutlery, and an optional camp stove with fuel
- A first aid kit
Although there are many affordable options, these items alone can easily cost you at least a few hundred dollars if you don’t have them already.
For the highest quality items, you can expect to spend a lot more.
For instance, a good three-season tent can cost over $400, and a top-notch sleeping bag can easily exceed $200 or more.
We haven’t even gotten into all the extra items you’ll probably want (but not necessarily need) to stay comfortable and enjoy your trip.
These might include:
- Camp chairs
- A rain tarp
- Headlamps, flashlights, and lanterns
- Bug protection
- Sleeping bag liner
- Dishwashing kit
- Power bank chargers
- A saw, axe, and/or hatchet
- A gas-powered heater (for cold weather camping)
- A personal locator beacon/GPS satellite messenger (for backcountry camping)
This list goes on and on.
Camping is one of those hobbies where you can easily acquire a lot of gear—and more is never enough.
Expect to pay more for this kind of gear…
Here are the most common gear attributes that make certain items more expensive than others:
- High quality materials
- Brand name (MSR, Big Agnes, The North Face, etc.)
- Latest product version (updated for the current year)
How to spend less on camping gear
Chances are you’ll have to spend some money on gear—especially if you don’t have any—but there are ways to do it without breaking the bank.
- Buying an older model or a less reputable brand
- Browsing local marketplaces to look for used gear
- Renting gear from local outfitters
- Borrowing gear from friends, family, and fellow campers
- Sacrificing luxury items (like camp chairs) in favour of necessity items (like a good tent and sleeping bag)
Just keep in mind that no piece of gear is forever.
If you decide you want to upgrade a piece of gear in the future when you have the budget, you can always do so.
You can even sell your existing gear on local online marketplaces to recoup some of the cost.
Why campground/campsite fees are so expensive
Every campground requires booking a campsite for the number of days/nights you’ll be staying, paying a fee, and being able to provide proof of payment with your permit.
You can expect to pay an average of $5 to $35 per night depending on the park or campground, your particular campsite (including size and amenities), and number of people in your group.
Some parks, however, cost much more.
For instance, if you were planning to visit Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada, it would cost you almost $75 per night to book an equipped campsite at the Two Jack Main campground.
An “equipped” campsite is a booking that comes with essential gear rental items—like a tent, sleeping cots, camp stove, fuel, and bear-proof bear locker.
Booking the same campground with your own gear would cost about $23 per night.
Keep in mind that for government-run parks (national, state, and provincial parks), there are often online booking fees and cancellation fees on top of the nightly rate.
As far as RV campground rates go, these tend to be higher than tent campsites at around $15 to $80 a night.
The reason that RV campsites are more expensive is because they typically come with more amenities, such as water and electrical hookups, dump station access, and more.
They also have to be bigger than tent campsites to accommodate the size of the RV.
When researching campgrounds, it’s important to consider the differences between government-run campgrounds and private campgrounds.
Private campgrounds tend to be more expensive than government-run campgrounds because of the extra amenities they offer, such as swimming pools and hot tubs.
However, this doesn’t mean that government-run campgrounds are always less expensive.
Government-run campgrounds tend to make adjustments to their fees every year or so to account for inflation and to stay competitive with local tourism services.
One example of this is Parks Canada increasing its fees by 4.2% in 2022, with the next adjustment scheduled for 2024.
Factors that influence campground prices include:
- Landmarks and attractions
- Recreational options
How to spend less on campsites
You’re going to have to do some research and comparison, but by putting in the extra time and effort, you may be able to save $100 or more just by picking a different park or campground.
Here’s what you can do:
- Plan to visit parks or campgrounds that are farther away from big cities or tourist attractions
- Check out websites like The Dyrt, Hipcamp, and Campendium to compare campground rates at different parks and locations
- Consider booking your trip in the shoulder seasons (spring and fall) when campsites are less in demand and fees may be lower
- Look for campgrounds or campsites that don’t come with extra amenities (like showers, for example)
- Consider going backcountry camping instead of frontcountry camping, which can sometimes be cheaper because it’s less accessible and has fewer amenities
Why camping food is so expensive
Everyone’s gotta eat when they go camping, but planning meals and packing the right food can be a challenge.
You need food options that are convenient and easy to prepare, which can be pricey.
You also probably want to go with foods that have a longer shelf life and don’t spoil so easily given that you may not be able to keep them cool or frozen for very long.
And lastly, you’re going to want food that fills you up, satisfies you, and nourishes you.
Here are some things that can totally blow your food budget:
- Relying mostly on freeze-dried camping meals because of convenience and shelf stability
- Buying brand name food items
- Buying pre-packaged, single-serve food items
- Buying over-priced food items from nearby convenience stores or campground stores
- Bringing too many foods that need to be kept cool (like meat) and then having them go bad before you can eat them
- Buying and bringing too much food in general
- Planning to buy and bring lots of beer or alcohol
- Eating out at restaurants on the drive up to your campsite and then again back home
How to spend less on camping food
It’s important to take meal planning seriously rather than just try to wing it.
You’re much less likely to waste money (and food) if you take the time to plan ahead.
Here’s what to do:
- Plan your meals and snacks according to your activities and itinerary
- Break down the ingredients/items for each meal/snack in a spreadsheet along with estimated price for each
- If you plan on eating out on the drive up or back home, research restaurants along your route to get an idea of the menu and work them into your budget
- Dehydrate your own meals instead of buying expensive free-dried camping meals
- Favour cheap but shelf-stable foods like bread, pasta, rice, and potatoes
- Choose healthy snack foods (like fruit or nuts) over processed snack foods (like cookies or chips)
- Opt for cheaper protein sources such as beans and lentils over more expensive options like steak or salmon
- Buy in bulk rather than individually packaged items
- Make most of your camp meals vegetarian (like veggie campfire pizza, for example)
Why getting to (and from) your camping destination is so expensive
The final big expense—and one that’s easy to disregard—involves your method of transit to your camp destination (and back).
Most people probably travel by car or RV, which means they have to pay for gas, tolls, and possibly parking fees.
If your campsite is very far away or perhaps in a remote destination (particularly if you’re backcountry camping), you may also need to pay for:
- Plane or train tickets
- Taxies or shuttle services
- Ferries or charters
- Motorboat, canoe, or kayak rentals
The number one culprit of increased transportation and fuel expenses is distance.
The number two culprit is accessibility.
If you can get to your campsite by car or RV, then you’re fine.
But as experienced backcountry campers, we’ve personally had to work costs for float planes, shuttle services, and charter boat trips into our budget.
That’s on top of spending at least a couple of hours to drive there first.
How to spend less on transportation and fuel
This is a hard one, because there aren’t a whole lot of options.
Here are your top three strategies:
- Book campgrounds that are closer to home
- Take a fuel efficient vehicle (such as a small car rather than a big RV)
- If you’re backcountry camping, ensure that your campsite is accessible by foot or canoe/kayak (no float plane or charter trips required)
If you’re really set on getting to a specific destination, you may find that you have to sacrifice other expenses to make up for it.
If you can make it work, it’s probably worth it.
After all, camping is about exploring new places and having new experiences.
Other reasons why camping is so expensive
We’ve covered the main expense categories that camping involves, but there are other trends that have contributed to the rise in cost lately.
Gear is more high-tech than it’s ever been. From ultralight tents to solar-powered chargers, campers have an ever-growing selection of modern gear at their fingertips.
There’s higher demand for campsites. According to KOA’s 2022 camping report, camping accounted for 40% of leisure trips in 2021 with RVing being at an all-time high.
Food and fuel are more expensive than ever mostly thanks to supply chain issues and inflation.
All things considered, camping doesn’t have to be expensive.
Just like saving money on any other aspect of your life, all it takes is a bit of planning and smart decision-making.
Elise is an experienced backcountry canoe tripper and winter camper from Ontario, Canada. She loves cooking up a storm over the campfire, taking in all the backcountry views, and enjoying a piña colada or two while relaxing at camp. She’s also certified in Whitewater Rescue (WWR) I & II and Wilderness First Aid (WFA).