Does "Pay To Stay" at a Campground or RV Park Make Sense?

Sometimes it might make sense to pay up front instead of paying more later.

Does "Pay To Stay" at a Campground or RV Park Make Sense?
Staying at an affordable (and lovely) RV park in New Mexico

Amongst van life & RV nomads, many prefer to boondock/stealth - as much as possible or exclusively, but does it sometimes make sense to “pay to stay” at a campground or RV park?

Does Pay to Stay Make Sense?

“Never Pay Rent!”

The idea is that by avoiding rent it is possible to live more cheaply or more “free.” To be honest, some areas in the US are now so expensive that someone living in a vehicle and boondocking/stealth parking may save thousands of dollars per month.

I have given up on stealth parking except for rare occasions while traveling, but I do prefer to boondock as much as possible. This preference is only partly about saving money, but is instead largely about preferring to be camped far from other people so thatI am able to enjoy nature, wildlife, and peace, quiet, and solitude.

My 2021 Summer Experience

I typically spend summers based in northeast Wyoming in order to spend time with family.

On a good year, northeast Wyoming is hot all summer and has several heat waves. This year the temperatures have been in the 90s most of the summer - and have hit 106 twice already and it is only the first week of August.

Normally I end up basing in northeast Wyoming and making multiple trips to and from the mountains in an effort to avoid the worst of the heat. The closest boondocking location with cell coverage for work is about 5 degrees cooler and costs about $40 in fuel round-trip at current prices. The next closest place with cell coverage for work is a bit higher elevation and is usually about 10 degrees cooler, but costs about $50 in gas round-trip. Trying to access a spot that is even higher in elevation so that it is more than 10 degrees cooler with cell coverage for work is even further and costs $150 to $200 in gas round-trip.

These fuel costs add up quickly and this does not even consider the maintenance costs with that mileage. Over the past two-plus years driving vans, my average cost for fuel and maintenance has been around 22 cents per mile.

This year I decided to do something different and “pay to stay” at a local RV park that is within just a few miles of my kids and grandkids - and less than two miles from Walmart and other shopping. Partly this was for convenience, but as it turns out it would have been essential anyway due to the record-setting heat this summer.

At the time I decided to stay at an RV park this summer I had only the van. Now, with the travel trailer, my fuel costs to drive back and forth to the mountains would be even greater

By paying to stay close to where I need to be anyway I enjoy several benefits:

  • I am saving hours of time driving back and forth
  • I avoid needing to stealth park
  • I have electric, water, sewer, and trash
  • I am close by for unplanned family events/activities
  • I am saving as much - or nearly as much - on fuel and I spend to stay at the RV park

Fuel Savings

I track all of my fuel costs and MPG in an app on my iPhone. The last time I bought gas for the van was on July 26, 2021. It occurred to me then that I could not even remember the last time I had bought fuel.

I checked my app and realized that the last time I had bought fuel was when I filled the tank on June 23 in Riverton on my way back from Idaho. Riverton is about four hours away - on the other side of Casper. I arrived back in Gillette with 1/2 tank of fuel - and that half tank lasted for more than a month!

I often spend $300 or more on fuel in a month. With the temperatures this summer, I would have been spending more than that driving back and forth between the mountains and town to see family.

Bottom Line

The bottom line is that considering fuel costs alone I am probably at a break-even point by paying to stay at an RV park vs. trying to avoid paying rent. If I were to add in vehicle maintenance costs I am probably saving money. If I were to add in productivity gains (I’m a digital nomad) I am absolutely saving money by paying to stay in town.

It may not always make sense to pay to stay, but sometimes it does. It’s not always cheaper to avoid paying rent. It’s easy to get stuck focusing so much on avoiding spending money that we end up spending more money.

I’ve always understood since being on the road full-time that sometimes it made more sense to spend some money to stay at a campground, RV park, or motel. A few situations that have prompted me to do so in the past (often when I was traveling in a minivan or car) include:

  • Extreme heat
  • Extreme cold
  • Not enough solar power due to clouds/rain
  • Flooding

On these occasions I have paid to stay at a campground, RV park, or even motel for access to heat/AC, electric, etc. This is the first time I have stayed in an RV park for several months (I have stayed for up to a month previously), but in this situation it actually makes sense.

At worst it costs me nothing over the alternatives, while at best it may be saving money

Backcountry Costs

There are also some additional “hidden” costs to dispersed camping - meaning it’s not really as free as it may at first seem. We’ve already talking about fuel costs, but there are a few other factors that may serve to make dispersed camping or boondocking not exactly free

  • Upgrades to the suspension, tires, etc on your vehicle to be able to safely travel off-road are an expensive investment
  • Wear and tear on your vehicle when driving on primitive roads - even if it is set up for off-road driving, and let’s be honest and acknowledge that many times that is not the case - is more significant than normal wear and tear from driving down a paved road
  • The likelihood or getting stuck or breaking something is a lot higher when driving on primitive roads than it is driving on pavement - and off-pavement recovery or towing is very expensive

So for now this makes sense. And I am looking forward to getting out on the road and enjoying some boondocking once again in the fall.

Depending on where exactly I travel, I will boondock as much as possible - but I will still likely “pay to stay” for short periods of time when I am in locations where I don’t have easy access to good boondocking.

I am not suggesting that everyone should pay to stay all of the time (though some do choose to do so). It is, however, worth considering whether it sometimes makes sense.

What do you think? Have you found it sometimes helpful to pay for a campground or RV site when boondocking is not readily available or the weather is not cooperating?