The Cost of Eating While Car Camping

Trying to stay thrifty on the road

A few weeks ago, my fiancé and I visited my parents the night before they left for a cruise. Toward the end of the visit, my mom rummaged through their fridge and pawned off food on us: the decent-looking leftovers, ground coffee, veggies from their garden. We received an unexpected grocery windfall, and they got to leave town with a clean conscience and an empty refrigerator. Win-win.

One of the beautiful things about camping is that there’s no need to strategically consume or give away the contents of the fridge before you leave; you can just chuck it all in a cooler to eat while you’re gone! However, with car camping, there’s also always the real temptation that if none of your meal options sounds good, you can jump in the car — it’s parked 15 feet away, after all — and head to town for pizza and beer.

Our most recent camping trip was five days in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. For a number of reasons, including minimizing food waste, thrift, and being further out in the boonies than usual, I made it my mission to plan tasty, more-or-less healthy meals that made use as much perishable food as possible, plus stuff in the pantry that had overstayed its welcome or was approaching its expiration date. To make things a bit more awesome, and challenging, we received a bi-weekly CSA delivery two days before we left.

We paid attention to how much we ate or didn’t eat of what we packed, plus how much we spent on food while we were gone.

So how did we do?

Pre-trip groceries: $80

Because man shall live not by oatmeal and CSA tomatoes alone, we made a couple trips to the grocery store before heading out of town. Purchases were mostly staples such as pasta, raisins, coffee, tortillas, apples, and cheese. Plus chips and M&Ms, because another beautiful thing about camping is the opportunity to eat junk food around a campfire.

In a flurry of meal prep, I used our groceries, pantry ingredients, and CSA produce to make granola, slaw, roasted vegetables for wraps, lentil soup, cold brew coffee, red pepper hummus, pancake mix, marinara, corn and tomato salad, and gorp. The granola turned out to be an exceptionally useful way to use up random things in our pantry, ranging from an open package of slivered almonds to dried apricots of unknown age.

fruits of my labor

Ice: $8

To keep the yogurt from getting funky!

Food while away: $112

  • Coffee and soda: $17
  • Ice cream: $21
  • Other sweets & snacks: $6
  • Meals: $62 for three meals, plus a fourth that a friend treated us to (thanks buddy!)


We came home with extra slaw (as it turns out, one head of cabbage will get you pretty far), the lentil soup, yogurt that did eventually get funky and needed to be tossed, and some non-perishable food that went back into the pantry and/or emergency kit.

Lessons Learned

  • Vacation isn’t vacation if you don’t treat yourself, at least some of the time. As much as I was motivated to eat cheaply on the trip, I also firmly believe food is one of the best parts of travel. For example, I can’t imagine spending five days in the UP without having a pasty (similar to an empanada or calzone, rhymes with “nasty”).
  • Having the option to say “screw it, we’re going out for breakfast” is important, especially when morale is low. We woke up one morning to a steady drizzle and plans to spend the day on a kayak tour with no refund for bad weather. That day, it just took some hot coffee, bagel sandwiches, indoor seating, and free wifi to boost our mood.
  • We may have an ice cream problem. We had some form of ice cream each day of the trip. I’m still craving it daily. Yikes.
the cone that started it all
  • The CSA guideline of “eat what’s most perishable first” works well! After each camp meal, I took a peek in the cooler to identify the item with the shortest shelf life. It would then become part of the next meal. The idea is simple and logical, and yet it hadn’t really sunk in for me until this trip.
  • Meal planning saves money, but it carries other costs. By the time we actually left for the trip, I had put so much thought and effort into planning that I was pretty wiped out. While researching recipes, cooking, and packaging food for travel, I thought often of friends who, on a camping trip several years ago, arrived for the weekend with exactly three food items: a loaf of bread, a carton of eggs, and a ham. There’s something to be admired in their minimalist approach.

Lindsay Woodbridge is looking forward to one more camping trip before the snow flies, and vows to pack more than one fork this time.

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