How Much does it Actually Cost to Car Camp?

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Theodore Roosevelt National Park at sunset with wild horses
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota

How much does it cost to car camp? This is a very popular and often difficult question to answer as there are so many variables that go into car camping costs and they tend to be different for everyone.

I touched on this question in a few of my other car camping posts, but I am dedicating this post to answer this popular question in detail.

If you have been following me on Instagram for a while, you know in 2021, I embarked on a 9-month car-camping road trip that took me across 23 states and over 17,000 miles. I broke this trip into two parts, Spring and Fall, and spent most of the summer in upstate New York with family. I mention this because although I was away from “home” for nine months, I spent 3 of those months living with family for free, which of course, saved me a ton. My car is also paid off, and I didn’t run into any car problems or auto accidents that negatively impacted my car camping costs. It is always important to have an emergency fund in case those unexpected things happen.

I wrote down my daily expenses in a notebook I stashed in my glove compartment. I am sure I missed a few things here and there but I did my best to accurately record my expenses so I could actually see how much this road trip of mine was costing.

In this post, I am listing my top 5 major expenses: Transportation, Supplies, Food, Lodging, and Gas along with minuscule expenses (mostly entrance fees) to give you an idea of how much it may cost you to road trip around the country.

Costs can vary greatly for each type of car camper. If you are considering car camping, I recommend setting a budget and sticking to it. If you only have $1,500 to spend, your plan and route may look a bit different than someone who has $3,500 or $10,000 to spend.

You definitely do not want to run out of money for gas or, worse, car repairs that may leave you stranded. I relied on my savings to fund this trip and feel blessed that I was able to embark on this adventure because I wanted to, not because I had to. I mention this because I met some car campers along the way who were forced to live in their car after losing their job and active income. I worked in the corporate fashion world for 12 years and saved as much as I could to fund my travel obsession, so when I lost my job (although I panicked at first) I had savings that allowed me to see the world in addition to retirement savings (that I won’t touch until I am retired). For everyone, that is not the case.

I chose to spend more money on things that would keep me comfortable, so I could enjoy my trip longer. Of course, every car camper will have different needs and therefore different budgets.

I hope this article is helpful to you and gives you more insight into whether a car-camping road trip is something you should do. If you have any specific questions, please leave a comment and l’ll reply ASAP.

Route 66 mural in Tucumcari New Mexico
Tucumcari, New Mexico Route 66

Transportation

I define transportation as your car camping vehicle.

I traveled in my paid-off 2010 Hyundai Santa Fe. I’ve always kept up with maintenance and spent just over $740 on upkeep right before I left on my trip.

It took me a few solid weeks of researching and YouTube to decide on my car camping setup. I searched “Hyundai Santa Fe car camping set up” on YouTube, and the results were endless. I went for the least amount of work, the least expensive, and something I could easily build on my own.

I have a Car Camping highlight on Instagram leaning more into how I built my sleeping platform to fit in my Santa Fe with images that show exactly what it looks like and how it functions.

If you have options give yourself a few weeks to do research before you decide what is best for you. You want to choose a setup you will be comfortable in, otherwise, it may ruin the entire trip.

Some things to think about are: how tall are you? Do you constantly have to use the bathroom in the middle of the night? Do you need a level sleeping platform? Do you have space for supplies and a bed?

Some people may decide to buy a new or used SUV, or camper van, but most will probably need to make do with what they have. You can even sleep in a tent next to your car. This would require a bit more planning but it is an option. As you see, costs can vary greatly with whatever transportation method you decide to use.

For reference, new built-out camper vans can cost $60,000-$100,000. I’ve seen used vans for $8,000-$12,000. I’ve seen camper rentals for about $200 a night + mileage. The best option is to use something reliable. If you are not sure if you will be comfortable, start small, do a weekend trip, and see how it goes.

Whatever you end up using, make sure it checks out and is up to date with service and upkeep. Continue to get oil changes and watch tire usage to improve safety on the road and help avoid unexpected transportation costs.

Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo Texas

Supplies

In total, I spent nearly $1800 on supplies. It is important to note many of these items are start-up supplies, meaning they will last for years to come so each time you go car camping plan to spend less and less.

Below is a chart I created with everything I purchased prior to leaving on my road trip. I definitely overbought things I didn’t end up using, such as a magnifying flip mirror, potty bags, a portable toilet, and even a camping stove.

I learned a lot about what is a necessity and what I can live without. I recommend only buying necessities and then buying other items as you need them along the way. Walmart, Camp World, Home Depot, REI Bass Pro Shops, and other outdoor sellers are sprinkled all over the US making it easy to stop along your route and pick up anything you need. It is hard to know what you really need until you need it. I took cues from a lot of car campers but learned quickly what works for others does not necessarily mean it is going to work for me.

Depending on the kind of car camping you are doing, you may find some of the items I didn’t use might be a necessity for you. I mainly stayed in public parking lots and some campgrounds. I usually only stayed a night in each location so although I had all I needed for a comfortable campground set up I never “set up camp.”

When I stayed in public parking lots, I would use the restroom, eat, and “get ready for bed” somewhere different than my overnight parking spot. Once I parked for the night, I never got out of the car. In the a.m, I would climb back into the driver’s seat head to the closest public restroom, and then get ready for the day. I never wanted anyone to see that it was just me in the car if I was going to be parked for a while, so I avoided advertising that as much as I could.

Car Camping Supplies + Costs

ItemCostIs it a Must-Have?
Jackery 300 portable power station$200Yes! It charged my phone and laptop a lot faster than the car
Jackery Solar Panels$180No, I never used them. Would be good if you are camping on BLM more frequently
Rinse Kit Plus$180Yes, a must for teeth brushing, washing my hands, and washing my face daily
Folding table$40No, I never used it. Great for lone term tent camping
Folding memory foam mattress$80Yes, this one was so comfortable
Folding chairFree (borrowed)Yes! The best brand to keep items colder and longer
Bed Platform$50Yes, it’s a must to have a level sleeping area (DIY with supplies bought from Home Depot)
Sleeping bag (15 degrees)$140No, I never used it. Great for long-term tent camping
Coleman camp stove$60No, I didn’t use it enough. Only for tent camping
Wild Wind Camping Stove$50Yes! The best thing for heating water in under 5 mins and warming up food without a microwave.
Wool Blanket$50No, I never used it. The sleeping bag was enough
Luna LED Mirror$40No, I never used it.
headlamps + lanterns$20Yes! A must, great for the car and walking to the bathroom at night
Yeti 24 Roadie Cooler$200Yes! The best brand to keep items colder for longer
Cooler dry storage trays$25No, not a must-have item
Yeti Cooler Ice pack$20No, I rarely had anywhere to re-freeze it
Tool for recycling fuel canisters$10No, I never used it.
TarpFree (borrowed)No, I never used it. Good for tent camping though
Tent$70No, I never used it. Good for tent camping though
Waterproof Blanket$40Yes, even though I only used it two times. It is great for wet ground to sit on
70 Qt clear Tupperware$5Yes, clear makes it easier to find things
Portable battery-operated fan$17No, I was glad I had it on warm days and nights but it was not must-have
Window Covers (DIY)$20Yes, a must-have for privacy and blocking light
Backseat car storage bag$30Yes, it worked great to put my toiletries in
Hand Trowel$17No, I never used it. Great for digging bathroom holes for wild camping
Body wipes$20Yes! The best for no shower days
Collapsible sink basin$8Yes, great for washing dishes, face, and teeth daily
Portable Collapsible Toliet$30No, I only used 3 of the absorbent bags that came with the potty when I had emergencies in the middle of the night
Go Anywhere Bags $30No, Never used them. Great for backpacking
Fuel Canisters$40Yes, but I bought way too many (6). I only used 1
Camping kitchen supplies (silverware, lighter, pots, pans, storage, etc.)$50Yes, but I didn’t use all of it. You only need one of everything, then wash it
Emergency First Aid Kit $30Yes, (just in case) Luckily I never needed to use it
Sky Roam WiFi Device + 3-month service$120No, it hardly ever worked! You need good cell reception and I used my phone mostly
Total Cost of Supplies$1792wow, it turns out it’s more than I thought!

Necessary Supply Summary

To summarize, these are the items I now always pack for the style of car camping, I do:

  • Jackery 500
  • Rinse Kit
  • Sleeping Bag (better than heavy blankets because it pack up better)
  • Absorbent toilet bag (for middle-of-the-night emergencies when you are in a public parking lot and digging a hole is not possible)
  • Yeti Roadie Cooler
  • Wild Wind or Jet Boil + fuel
  • Reusable Utensils
  • Car organizer
  • Mesh window or sunroof cover
  • Black-out window covers
  • Body Wipes

If you are going to be staying at campgrounds or wild camping for longer periods you may need to bring more camping gear such as a stove, table, chair, or tent.

If I knew what I now know, I could have saved a ton on supplies. Probably close to $1,000 but no regrets, you learn with experience and even though I didn’t use everything I bought for car camping, they will still come in handy for other outdoor adventures.

Arches National Park

Food

In total, I spent just under $2,000 on food while I was car camping.

A lot of people asked me “How did you eat”? I was surprised a lot of people thought it would be hard to eat while on the road but it was very easy to find food along the way.

There are many options when it comes to food while car camping. You can essentially pay a bit more, eat out 100% of the time (if your route takes you through towns and along interstates) or save money and cook your meals as much as possible. I did a mix of both.

I mostly ate two larger meals a day with plenty of snacks in between. I ate a lot of dehydrated soups noodles and Maya Kaimal’s Everyday Dahl that comes in easy-to-use microwaveable sacks. Tuna salad and crackers, PB&J sandwiches, yogurt, whole fruit, lots of dry snacks, and way too many Little Debbies and Double Stuffed Oreos were also on heavy rotation. I used the Wild Wind water boiling system and a microwave (when at hotels) to heat all my food. I also stopped at grocery stores for pre-made salads, fruits, vegetables, yogurt, milk, etc. that I kept cool in my cooler.

The cooler and ice situation was a little bit of a nuisance. The ice would melt after a few days and the items that did not fit in the cooler’s dry trays ended up waterlogged. I was forced to toss a lot of food in the beginning. Buying food every few days became the best idea to avoid waste.

The thing about car camping is you have the freedom to drive anywhere. If I was craving something, say red Thai curry (as I do regularly), I drove to pick it up. If I was going camping for a few days I drove to a grocery store to pick up gallons of fresh water and food to cook. If there was not a good food store or developed town where I was, I could drive 30 minutes to an hour to find one. I never went hungry and found it pretty easy to eat and prepare food along the way and plan routes that would allow me to stock up every few days.

I quickly realized the camp stove required more setup and clean-up than I felt like doing and only used it once. Since I mostly slept in public parking lots, I wasn’t about to start cooking in a parking lot advertising myself. I had planned to stay at more campsites, but many were sold out and required reservations weeks or months in advance. Since I had no set plans, prebooking campsites didn’t work for me.

Some days I lived off of miso soup because that is what I had and I didn’t want to spend any more money while other days I hit every bakery on the way to my next stop and enjoyed devouring every carb and calorie I could. Food is really relative to your preferences, I learned I can survive without anything fancy but a good hot meal from time to time is always in order.

Lodging

I spent over 450,000 Hilton Honors points and $2,330 on accommodation throughout the trip. This includes campground fees, hotels, and Air B&Bs.

Accommodation ended up being the largest expense, which is ironic, seeing how the whole point was to sleep in my car. At most, I slept 5 days in a row in my car (buying showers along the way at YMCA’s or Travel Centers but usually, after 3-4 nights, I would get a hotel or Air B&B for two nights at least, mainly to shower, use wifi, do laundry and get a good night’s rest.

My car camping setup is comfortable but it was hard to get a good night’s rest when parked in a public lot. Unless I was in an official campground, my mind would start racing, wondering if I was “safe,” if I was going to get a knock, if I unknowingly parked illegally. I always follow my car camping safety tips but there is always a risk that kept me wondering each night.

Hotels are not cheap and I always look at safety first so I would spend a little more if I needed to if that meant staying in a “safer” area. $112-$163 (with taxes & fees) was the range I stayed in for most nights. I used Hilton Honors points when I could for free stays; mostly, I chose rates that were 30,000-44,000 points a night, which roughly translates into a stay of no more than $160 a night, including taxes and fees, depending on where you are. If an area was more expensive than I planned, I would drive outside of town to lock in a cheaper rate.

On a few occasions, I stayed at inns for under $100 a night, but the common theme there was the stench of smoke that made my stay really uncomfortable. I quickly realized an extra $30-$50 a night for a non-smoking hotel was completely worth it when I was in a location that did not allow car camping.

White Sands National Park

Campgrounds are a great place to stay when car camping, but depending on the area, you may have to book in advance. Campgrounds ran me anywhere from $8 to $45 a night. Usually, the ones that offered running water and flush toilets cost the most. A few campsites, usually ones with good views, had no amenities but charged $35 a night. I never paid for a place to sleep if it didn’t have at least a toilet.

Gas

I spent $2,210 on gas for 17,000 miles. Gas was cheaper when I started out and more expensive the further west I went.

There is an app called Gas Buddy that helps you locate the cheapest gas around. I downloaded it but never used it. I try to keep my tank 1/2 full and always stop at stations along my route rather than driving further for cheaper gas since most stations were no more than $0.10 cents a gallon difference anyway.

My car uses the low-grade 87 gas, but of course, gas always fluctuates, and depending on what kind of car you are driving, you may need to pay for premium or diesel fuel, which is much more expensive than the low-octane fuel.

Since you can’t drive without gas make sure your budget has a hefty emergency fund for fluctuating fuel prices and if you are tight on money- don’t go far! Few things are worse than getting stuck in the middle of nowhere because you ran out of gas.

Miniscule Expenses

You may want to enjoy a movie a museum, take a tour, do a wine tasting, walk around a state park or donate to a conservation fund you find along the way. These types of expenses are all included in “Miniscule Expenses,” as well as parking fees, tolls, entrance fees, and any souvenirs I purchased along the way (which was very few).

I used the “America the Beautiful Park Pass” for $80 which got me into all National Parks (and some state Parks) over the course of a year. Some states let you pay for one state park and enjoy as many as you want in a day.

To avoid spending too much on tolls, I always used the no-toll route on Google Maps. I only ended up using 4 toll roads the entire trip totaling less than $40.

I wrote down about $330 dollars worth of minuscule expenses, but I’m willing to bet I missed a few things here and there. The most expensive state I went to was Kentucky because I paid $30 for a walking tour of Mammoth Caves, a $100 tour of Churchhill Downs, and went on a few Bourbon tastings that were about $30 each.

With all of these categories combined, the below summary should be a good estimate of what it costs to travel around the country for 6 ish months. Remember, there are many ways to travel for less, and of course, there are always ways to spend more. In my case, I wanted to enjoy the experience as much as possible and spent more to make myself “comfortable” when I needed it along the way.

Summary of Total Costs

Transportation $740
Supplies $1800
Food $2000
Lodging $4300 (I included the estimated cost of Hotels w/o using Hilton points)
Gas $2210
Miniscule $330
TOTAL SPENT $9,200 (rounded up)

After about nine months on the road and over 17,000 miles, I spent just over $9,000 dollars. I know I could have done it for a little less, but I also could have spent so much more on food and accommodation if I wanted to. I “roughed” it just enough to get an authentic car camping experience but still kept myself comfortable enough to enjoy being on the road for over three months straight.

***

I hope this post sheds some insight into the realities of car camping and helps you decide if car camping is the right experience for you. Road-tripping and car camping is a fun and adventurous way to see the country, especially if you are on a budget. It is not free, but it is a very budget-friendly option that allows you so much freedom. There is nothing like being in your car with no set plans, driving wherever you want, making unique stops and lifelong memories.

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Sam wearing backpack and hat walking through town.

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4 Comments

  1. I just read your article on the cost of car camping and I have to say, I found it super informative and well-researched. I have always been interested in car camping but have always been hesitant because of the costs associated with it. But after reading your article, I feel more confident about taking the plunge and trying it out. Your breakdown of all the expenses was incredibly helpful, and I appreciate the detail you provided on how to minimize costs. I also liked how you included a rough estimate for each expense, making it easier for me to understand the cost implications.

    One of the things I found most interesting in your article was the section on how to save money on gear. As a beginner, I have been worried about the cost of gear and how it would affect my budget, but your tips on how to save money by renting gear or buying used gear were incredibly helpful. Your recommendation on buying gear in the off-season also made a lot of sense. I also liked how you included information on the most important gear items to invest in and the gear items that can be skipped, saving me a lot of money in the long run.

    Overall, I found your article to be a valuable resource for anyone interested in car camping. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and experiences, Sam. I’m excited to put your advice into practice on my next camping trip!

  2. An amazing breakdown of the cost of such a trip! I am in the process of planning my own and am glad I found this. Thank you for putting the time and effort into sharing

  3. I’m planning ax trip this summer (2024) and I’ve read up on car camping and in two years of search/read, your info by far the best. Thanks.

    1. Samantha Stamps says:

      Aw that is AMAZING to hear! I am so glad the information is helpful. I know I would have loved to get more real insight before I started my first few road trips so always try to share as much practical information as I can. I hope you have a fantastic experience!

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