The Cost of Camping
In many parts of North America, the cost of camping has become outrageously expensive.
I got a fresh reminder of this on a recent two-week road trip across a few Northeastern states (NY, Vermont, and Maine, plus Quebec). My girlfriend and I figured we’d set up our tent in cheap campgrounds along the way and find cheap airbnbs in the cities. In New York and Vermont, we managed to camp in free spaces (like in the Adirondacks) or on a patch of grass on new friends’ lawns. In Canada, we’d finally have to pay. Quebec is a beautiful, wild province. For hours we drove through pristine forest and past the occasional country town. Despite miles and miles of forestland, there were no obvious opportunities to camp. There was nowhere to pull off and set up my tent–nowhere, at least, where I’d feel we were doing something safe, legal, and unintrusive. Posted on trees everywhere were No Trespassing signs.
Just before dusk, I happened upon Mont-Mégantic National Park. I thought about setting my tent up in the park’s woods, but a sign said backcountry camping was prohibited. The park campground was filled to the max, except for an extra non-electrical spot for cyclists. The ranger kindly offered the spot because she said it was likely that no cyclist would arrive at this late hour.
It was a simple spot: there was a fire pit, a picnic table, and a gravel patch to set up a tent. That’s it. No electrical hookup, no sewage service, no private water, and all of this was okay because all we wanted was a cheap place to sleep. But this spot wasn’t glamor camping, either. The ground wasn’t level. There was plastic trash in the fire pit. And because the spot was for a cyclist, it didn’t come with a parking spot, requiring long walks to and from the trunk of my car. I didn’t mind the inconveniences. What I did mind was the $25.50 USD price. I was outraged. $25.50! Just to set up a tent on a weekday night! The ranger offered a few logs of firewood for another $8.
Next was the state of Maine. Over the Internet, I looked up the campground costs of Maine’s state parks, and the prices were just as bad. For a non-resident in Maine, it typically costs $30 a night, plus a $5 reservation fee, plus a 9 percent lodging tax. That’s $38 just to pitch a tent! ($38 x 30 days = $1,140/month. I could probably find cheaper rent in NYC and only have to share a toilet with a roommate or two.)
This all seems so absurd when you drive across these states and provinces and see nothing but wild forestland—there are literally millions of places to camp, but because it’s all private land, we’re only allowed to camp in a few select spots where we’ll be charged an arm and a leg.
I looked up the camping fees of surrounding states for non-residents:
(It should be said that none of the above prices include all the taxes and fees that nickel and dime us to death. $20 a night could very well end up being $30.)
With these camping prices in mind, let’s compare them to the airbnbs I stayed at, which were all nice rooms in a shared apartment that came with all the features of convenient living: Wi-Fi, bathroom, electricity, kitchen, etc. (All special fees and taxes are included in the following prices, and these dollars are in USD…)
Toronto – $32 a night Montreal – $28.50 Quebec City – $53
You can see where I’m going with this… A typical camping spot is as expensive as a decent room in a fancy city.
The Maine campgrounds were too pricy, so I looked up airbnbs and found a person’s backyard lawn for $15 (taxes included), where I had a bathroom, Wi-Fi, and a giant lawn. This isn’t just a Northeast issue. Just as I was stewing over this, I got an email from a friend in Colorado:
One of my goals for the summer was to take my son camping. That has proven far more difficult than one could reasonably expect. I looked through dozens of campsites in the surrounding national forests and state parks and found virtually nothing available for a single Saturday. They all required longer stays or were completely booked. I eventually found one that isn’t even in the woods (it’s next to a lake). That stay was supposed to be tomorrow night. Unfortunately there are going to be heavy rains all weekend so we’d be driving 100 minutes to set up a tent and sleep in the rain. I then figured out I could change my reservation to a new date at the same campsite. There was exactly one weekend night at one site available for the entire summer. I then had to pay an extra $10 for that luxury. All in all the $22.45 campsite is up to $44 assuming the weather holds next time and I actually use it.
Of course it’s not like this everywhere. In North Carolina, Hanging Rock State Park is $17 a night, which is borderline reasonable. I remember traveling through small towns in the Great Plains states in my car and finding camping spots for $10-$15. And then there are of course free places to pitch a tent in our national parks, national forests, and BLM lands, but, for most people, these places are hard to find and difficult to access.
Nature has become expensive. A seven-day pass for Yellowstone costs $35 for a car, plus at least another $15 a night for a campsite. If you decide to visit the adjacent Grand Teton National Park, that’s another $35 entrance fee, plus $24 a night for a campsite. And let’s not forget the expense of driving hundreds or thousands of miles to get to the park in the first place.
I can’t find any studies that support my position, but I believe the high price of these places deters people from experiencing our parks and nature. Let’s say you’re driving across country and you want to see a park. (Let’s say Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota). You get to the park’s entrance and discover that you have to pay a fee. Think about this question: What’s the price that’ll make you turn around? For me, if I learned about the price beforehand, it’s probably $25. I’ll find somewhere cheaper, some state park without entrance fees. If I learned about it at the entrance gate (after all that driving), it’s around $35—which is the fee at 17 of the most popular parks. (Theodore Roosevelt National Park, by the way, has a $30 entrance fee.)
Any price higher than that, for me, is unreasonable, since all I probably want to do is go on a day-hike and camp for a night, for which I expect to pay at least another $15.
All of this is made worse by “Reserve America,” which is a call center owned by the corporation, Aspira. If you look up the price of a campground online and call the campground, you’re actually probably calling someone at an out-of-state Reserve America call center. They probably can’t give you any good information about the campground, park, trails, and rules of the place you’re visiting because they have never been there and they have to handle calls for thousands of campsites across the country.
In the end, you’ll have to pay for the campsite and a series of special Reserve America fees:
$9 to make a reservation
$9 to make a cancellation
$9 to make a change to your reservation
Why are these fees so high?! Let’s say you reserve an affordable state campground in Wisconsin for $15 (plus the $9 reservation fee). And then let’s say that your son gets sick and you want to cancel. Between the reservation and cancellation fee, the cost is $18, which is more than the actual $15 camping spot! And you didn’t even get to camp!!!
Reserve America has eight offices worldwide and 1,000 employees. They manage reservations for 32 of 60 North American parks and 75 percent of our state parks. This involves 150,000 campsites, 4,500 public and private parks, 17.5 million campsite seekers, and 50 million annual transactions. (All numbers come from Aspira’s website.) You’d think that a company that is this big and that has been in the business for so long (30 years) would have learned by now how to streamline their process, create good apps and software, and bring costs down to a minimum.
Instead, what you get are unconscionable fees and lots of horror stories like the one my friend above wrote about.* And it’s not like the bulk of this money is going toward maintaining these campgrounds or financially assisting campground hosts (who are usually volunteer retirees). From what I can tell, most of this money stays with Reserve America. According to this Marshfield News Herald, a paper in Wisconsin, “Of the $9.70 reservation fee, the [Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources] keeps $1 and the rest goes to ReserveAmerica.”
If Reserve America gets approximately $8 per transaction, and there are 50 million annual transactions (as they claim on their website), that’s roughly $400 million a year. To me, that seems like a lot of money for a company that provides a relatively simple service that functions entirely over the phone and Internet. On top of that, Reserve America got a 10-year $97 million contract from the Forest Service in 2005.
Why does it cost so much to reserve a space? Why is Reserve America so bad at it? Why can’t campgrounds handle their own reservations? (Or why can’t, perhaps, a state’s department of natural resources handle the reservations?) Why do we have to outsource this work to a pricy, incompetent private corporation? Our state and national parks are our places—yet a company like Reserve America deters us from visiting them. I don’t pretend to understand the particulars of government contracting work and Reserve America may very well have good explanations for the high cost. I can say for sure, though, that both the campsite and the reservation fee are too high.
I asked all the people on my Facebook page what they thought a fair price would be for a basic campsite. Their dollar amounts were actually lower than mine. Typically they said around $5-$8 for a night. I agree, and I think $15 (with no hidden taxes or fees) is justifiable if it’s an especially nice campground. $25 is outrageous. Over $30 is unconscionable. Reserve America’s costs are baffling.
We need to encourage people to spend time in nature. Prices like these are prohibitive and only easily affordable to the reasonably well-off. Easy and affordable access to the outdoors, I believe, is a fundamental human right. Having a relationship with the natural world is good for individuals, society, and nature itself. Camping, therefore, should be encouraged as an activity, and we should make it available and affordable for all.
Ideas of action 1. I searched online, and couldn’t find any dissertation, research paper, or in-depth article on the high cost of camping, so this inadequate blog post may be the best there is on the Internet. Someone needs to study camping costs in all 50 states and someone needs to study how the high costs of nature tourism may deter visitors. 2. Someone needs to properly investigate Reserve America. My treatment, here, is admittedly makeshift, entailing little more than an hour of googling. Someone who understands government contracts and who might be able to visit one of these call centers and expose the Reserve America racket is very much needed. 3. Perhaps private enterprise could compete with the public parks on quality and price. There are so many unused lawns in America that could be utilized. Sites like airbnb and hipcamp could provide camping places for affordable rates (though the prices on hipcamp sites in Vermont appear to be just as bad as the parks). 4. My favorite subject: The right to roam. Countries like Scotland and Sweden permit responsible overnight camping on private land. If we opened up the private area of the Lower-48 states (which makes up 75% of the land area), we’d have so much more camping opportunities, and people wouldn’t have to funnel into a few select parks. The right to roam could alleviate visitation pressure on our state and national parks and give people places to camp closer to home. 5. De-privatize camping reservations. An inept company like Reserve America shouldn’t be able to have a monopoly over camping registration, allowing them to charge unconscionable fees. Our public agencies can handle it. *If you want to see how clunky Reserve America’s website is, go to their FAQ page. Where are the FAQs? Click on one of the select states and see if the link takes you anywhere worthwhile. And then where’s the “back” button to get you back to the previous page?