When you are travelling around Australia, one of the biggest costs is often camp sites. How do you decide what is fair, and what’s too much to pay for a slice of ground to set up on for a night?
Inevitably anything that relates to money can be a touchy subject, but I’ve been fascinated lately by how different people will call a particular price per night fair, and others will say its far too expensive and isn’t worth the money.
Camping has traditionally been an economical way to travel, but that’s changed a fair bit recently, and I can see its going to keep changing in the coming years. In actual fact you could travel majority of the way around Australia and pay almost nothing for camping locations, but that also comes at a cost, even if its not a financial one.
Free camping in Australia is huge, and there are plenty of places where you can stay without paying a cent. However, often there’s a balance between paying a bit of money for a slightly nicer site with some facilities, and where you draw the line is entirely up to you.
If you were paying $30 a night for a nice camp site with lots of people around, would you pay another $15 to have it to yourself? If it had nice hot showers and flushing toilets would you pay another $5? What do you value, and what are you prepared to pay for?
What’s worth paying for?
Incredible locations and scenery
For us, one of the largest attractions to a camp site is its location and scenery. If you are camped metres from an amazing river, or overlooking a beautiful dam, or on the pristine Ningaloo Coastline then its hugely attractive to us, above and beyond anything else.
There’s certainly something nice about a good, hot shower and clean toilets. The better the amenities, the more the camp site is worth, but to a point. We are self sufficient and are happy to have no amenities if the rest of the camp site makes up for it.
Remoteness and privacy
The next big thing in camping is remoteness and privacy. People are starting to realise that they are prepared to pay more for a camp site that is a decent distance away from the nearest neighbours. Private property camping is the perfect example of this, where you often pay more for less, but it comes with a lot more privacy and peace and quiet.
The X factor
Some camp sites have an X factor that just can’t be competed with. Camped right on an amazing cliff, or next to a lake full of fresh water crocodiles are things that have an X factor that not many other camp sites can come close to. We stayed at Lakeside Caravan Park in Kununurra and had a spot right next to the lake, which was spectacular. We saw a heap of fresh water crocodiles, and little bee eaters and had a great time.
Pender Bay is probably our most favourite camp site in terms of X factor, and you can clearly see why below.
Nothing is worse than trying to fit your camping setup onto a site that is too small. Even worse is when you are literally camped 30 centimetres away from your neighbours, which happens all the time in caravan parks that cram people in.
When we travel, we like to find amazing places to check out in between our camp sites. If you can camp close to great attractions then its often worth it. I see people free camp 50 kilometres down the road just so they don’t have to pay, but when you add up the fuel and maintenance you aren’t anywhere near in front, and that doesn’t even consider your time lost in travelling. Sometimes a few dollars extra pays for itself.
What else drives the price?
Camp sites cost a hugely varying amount of money to run. If they are remote and don’t have water, gas or electricity running to them then things are going to be significantly more costly from the get go. A lot of caravan parks, private properties and station stays run off their own diesel generator, and that can be very costly.
Add in the cost of having to bring in your own supplies and its no wonder that you pay a premium to stay at remote locations. Places like Dirk Hartog Island and Lorella Springs are in the middle of no where, and cost a lot of money to keep running.
The more camp sites that compete against each other, the lower the prices will be. This ties in directly to supply and demand, but if there is more competition, generally the pricing has to go down to compete. As a consumer this is a good thing.
When you can literally rent a house for the same price as some of the camp sites in Australia, its no wonder that alternative accommodation plays a role in the price of camp sites. Why would you stay in a swag in a caravan park if you can stay in a cabin somewhere just down the road?
Supply and demand
If 2021 has taught us anything, its that camping, travelling and 4WDing in Australia can be extremely popular and busy. There’s always been some sites in WA that have been hard to book, but with everyone stuck in their own states the business hit a level that I’ve never experienced before.
The more demand the higher the prices can be, and people will still pay for it just to have a break away. Likewise, when the demand is low or non existent camp sites end up costing much less. I recall seeing caravan parks that were offering sites for under $15 a night just to get people in the door over east after the fires, and it was sad to see.
Expensive state run camp sites
One thing that really grinds my bones is having to pay extensive camping fees to access national parks, and other state run camp sites. Many of these are built and maintained using tax payers money in the first instance, and to be stung a huge amount of money for a slice of ground in the bush just seems ridiculous to me.
WA has historically been fairly reasonable, but its getting far more expensive today. Potters Gorge will cost you $28 a night for a couple, and you get very little for that. Head down the road to Fonty’s Pool Caravan Park and you get the full suite of amenities, plus an amazing natural pool for not much extra a night (in off peak times).
Things are not always balanced either. You can stay at Henry White Oval with plenty of attractions, hot showers and flushing toilets and lots to do nearby for $15 a night. However, many of the other DPAW sites are $11 – $15 per night with almost no facilities. What is fair?
Over East, you can be paying more than $60 a night for a family to camp in a national park. That’s $420 a week for a slice of ground, and the same as what many mortgages cost in Australia. Absolutely ridiculous, but this is the world we live in.
Private property camping
In the last few years, the number of private properties that have opened their gates for camping has skyrocketed. You’ll find a massive number of these on Hipcamp, and its a huge privilege to be able to camp where someone, or often a family calls home.
We find these are often the best camp sites as you get some amenities (but not always), a lot of peace and quiet and there’s always an X factor that you don’t get in a Caravan Park.
That said, some private properties are charging a ridiculous amount of money, and we draw the line at anything over $50 a night for our family (and that’s for short term stays!).
When you are being charged $30 an adult per night, plus $15 a child, plus the Hipcamp fee’s, its entirely possible to spend more than $200 for a camp site for the weekend with no amenities. Are you happy to pay that? We aren’t, and I suspect in the coming years there is going to be a huge amount of additional properties listed, which will drive competition and ultimately result in lower prices.
It’s a free market though, and you can list your property for what ever you want. If its too high, people won’t come, and you’ll have no choice but to lower it.
Are caravan parks becoming redundant?
Many years ago you’d mainly see tents in a caravan park, with the odd camper trailer and caravan. Today, its the complete opposite; you see a few tents around but the large majority is caravans and camper trailers. These caravans and camper trailers have come in leaps and bounds too, with the level of luxury and facilities hugely improved.
Many are so well equipped that you don’t actually need to visit a caravan park to plug into water, to use their toilet facilities and to connect to 240V power. Its entirely possible to travel in serious comfort today without ever visiting a caravan park, and that’s an interesting thing to consider.
People visit caravan parks for the social side of things, but they no longer need to pay a premium for facilities that aren’t actually needed. There’s also caravan parks in locations where you aren’t able to free camp, or low cost camp and in that case you really have no choice anyway.
I have a huge problem with the prices that some caravan parks charge though. People are literally paying $150 a night for a slice of grass in some parts of Australia during peak season, and that’s more than you pay for a mortgage.
What do we prefer?
Sarah will tell you I’m the ultimate miser. That said, I’m logical about it; I’m not going to drive 300km from Perth just to ‘save money’ by staying at a free camp. I would rather stay out of a caravan park, unless its quiet, laid back with big sites and in a great location.
People raved about the Darwin Free Spirit Resort and Caravan Park. We enjoyed it, but give me Koolpin Gorge any day of the week.
I’ll pay more to stay at a quiet, picturesque private property than I would at a caravan park, and we make individual decisions based on how long we are visiting, and who we are travelling with. We will often go with family who need a chalet, and that limits your options to some caravan parks.
We love national parks, but detest the high fees that many of them impose, and try to weave our way around them. Free camps are awesome, but few and far between, and often come at a cost of extra time, fuel or maintenance and aren’t worth it anyway.
I’ve stayed at roadside stops with feral drop toilets and more people than you could poke a stick at, and its not something we make a habit of.