Do you wanna spend $50 to sleep on the ground? Didn’t think so. Money Saving Tips for Camping on Southern California State Beaches!.

By Posted in - San Diego & U.S.A. on May 24th, 2010

So the last few weeks we have been doing quite a bit of camping for a couple of reasons.

1. We are planning on camping through most of Europe to save money and it’s cool to test out the gear.

2. We are kinda homeless. We are out of our lease, got busted at the marina and we leave for the RTW in 10 weeks so we have decided to wing it. We’ll see how this works out!

We have camped in quite a few places in California including Joshua Tree, Anza Borrego Desert, Carlsbad State Beach & San Elijo State Beach. I’ve learned a few things about camping in California and how to make the most out of your stay.

One of the many ocean campsites at Carlsbad State Beach. Note the wire fence that obstructs your view if you are sitting in your camping chair and looking at the ocean.

There are a few things you should know:

1. Camping in California is not a budget adventure. It is nothing like the $6 camping I always had fun with back home in Massachusetts. Oh no, make no mistake – thanks to the Governator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), camping in California has become big business. Especially if you are going to be on the coast. If you’re like me you will be surprised at how much it costs to sleep on the ground.

2. It is actually possible to camp for free at some places in the desert. However it’s on government owned land with absolutely no amenities. Not really a big deal when you’re on a budget but what is a big deal is how comfortable you feel doing it. Try not to think of all those weird, creepy movies you’ve watched that took place in the cold, lonely night desert landscape. Even though I’m a desert girl, there is something about being totally away from it all, in the desert, in a tent that is 100% unappealing to me. I just can’t do it – but maybe you can! If so, I’ll have some upcoming posts on where the free campgrounds are by Joshua Tree & the Anza Borrego Desert.

3. If you’ll be camping on a busy week (like Spring Break) or on a weekend you better make reservations in advance or you’ll be left out in the cold.

The hard, cold (like the ground) facts:

1. Camping on the Southern California State Beaches is not cheap. It cost $35/night for an inland spot and $50/night (yes you read correctly) for a water view spot. In my opinion, you are better off going with the $35 since the $50 spots have a large wire fence in front of them and you are only about 25 feet away when camping inland. On top of that if you are there during the week you can hang out and eat at an empty $50 spot while sleeping in the $35 one. The waves are just as loud and yes, they are awesome to fall asleep to.

Carlsbad State Beach. A view from an inland camping spot. The white trucks are the ocean view spots at $50/night. And yes, because it is SoCal people actually exercise the entire time they are camping.

2. The lure of free Wifi is a total lie. We see this advertised all over the campgrounds and have yet to get any free Wifi. There is always one reason or another why it’s not working, so don’t plan on having free Wifi unless you leave the campground and head to a bookstore or coffee shop.

3. It cost $12 extra, per night, to have an additional car at your campground site. What??!!? I am still trying to figure this one out because they allow 3 tents but only one car. Another way to nickle & dime the camping experience is what I think. Oh yeah, if you roll in with a trailer and a car hitched to it – that counts as 2 vehicles! As a disclaimer I don’t know if they charge the same in the desert, my guess is probably not

4. The reservation situation is ridiculous at best. The first time we tried to camp on the beach we ended up 3 hours away in Joshua Tree because unknown to us at the time, there were no sites available ANYWHERE up or down the coast (I checked at least 10 campgrounds). The kicker is this – you have to make a reservation 48 hrs in advance. You cannot make one 24 hours in advance even if there are available spaces. The next interesting thing is that you cannot make a reservation through the campground itself. You have to contact an outside service which charges $8 to make a reservation with them!! I am actually serious. Alternately, you can try to roll into the campground the morning you want to camp and see if anything is available. If it is during a weekday you should be fine but don’t even take a chance for the weekend because you will not get a spot. Also keep in mind because of the 48 hr window, if you get a spot on Thursday morning, you will not be able to reserve it for Friday because it will be under the 48 hr time frame.  If you plan on trying to get a spot in the morning you have to be there at 8am, or earlier. Every day there is a line of people trying to do the same thing, hoping for a spot. You need to be one of the first in line to get one. Then after you wake up early and get yourself a spot, you will have to turn around and leave since you can’t check in until 2pm! Even if the spot is currently vacant, you will still have to wait until 2pm. This whole system is just insane. Thank you Arnold for running us into the ground and screwing with the State Park system.

5. Electricity – some campgrounds have it and some don’t so be sure to check before you make your reservation. However unless you have a lot of money to spend, you might want to think twice before you plug in. The cost? $20/day just to plug into the electric! What on earth could you use camping that would use enough electricity to cost $20/day??!! Go ahead and try to find an outlet somewhere else (like the camping store) to plug your laptop in for a few hours. Good luck finding a place, there are little to no outlets that you can sneak energy from. I always have to leave the campgrounds in order to work during the day. This is a pain since I have to bring a little dog with me wherever I go. Luckily he likes to sleep all day and I just bring him into a bookstore in a bag and no one knows he’s there!

All this tallies up pretty quickly as you can imagine. Picture this, you are going to the campground for 2 nights. You pick an inland site and you have a trailer. You are now paying $70 for your site (2 nights), $24 for the extra vehicle, $8 for your reservation fee, $40 for electricty & appx. $4/day for a luke warm shower. That’s about $75/night to camp. If you pick an ocean site that tally is $90/night! Even if you’re tenting it with one car, it still adds up to about $43/night for and inland site without electricty ($58 for an ocean site). Now add in the firewood and all the other little things you need for camping and you’re going to start to wonder why you just don’t get a hotel room instead with a nice mattress and fluffy pillow.

Tips to save money & make the most of your camping experience.

The street at Carlsbad State Campground. To the right are the inland sites and the to the left are the more expensive, obstructed, ocean view sites.

1. The biggest tip I can impart is that you should try to get yourself a disabled State Campground card. I did a little research after I discovered that camping would kill our budget and found that if you are disabled you can get 1/2 off of your nightly rate – which is huge! So what is disabled, exactly? Well I did some more searching and found an application and on the back it lists some of the disabilities. When I saw Chronic Bronchitis listed as a disability, I knew that we would probably be able to get a card. Randy has Crohn’s and I have Hashimoto’s. Randy called and they said that both would work. So Randy went to the Dr., she signed the form and in 2 hours we had a disability card. We got the distinct impression from them that if you have any sort of illness (even bronchitis) that you could get the card. Also the lady told Randy that the Dr. doesn’t need to specify your illness. She/he simply needs to sign the form. So if you’re camping in California, print out the form, talk to your doctor and get 1/2 off your rate. Suddenly it’s starting to seem more like real camping again. This is a little known secret that most people don’t seem to know about and it appears if you do the research they will grant you the card. You do not need a disability car placard.

2. If you have two vehicles, park one outside the campground. There are a lot of residential streets by most of the campgrounds where you can park your car easily. Bam! $12 saved just like that!

3. If you come in during the week without a reservation and want to stay several nights do yourself one giant favor by asking the camping attendant which spots are available for multiple nights. Most of the time they know in advance and instead of giving you a list of 20 sites to choose from, you might get a list of 5. This will make your life much easier though because you should be able to keep the site for the next night since it is under the 48 hr. reservation window and no one else should be able to book it online. We learned this lesson the hard way and I wished we took some video of the time we had to move camp. It wasn’t too far away so we decided to put everything in the tent and just carry it so we wouldn’t have to break it down and set it back up. That was truly a laughable moment as we were both barely keeping the tent above the ground and tripping our way to the next spot with everyone starting at us as we carried a big, orange tent down the road.

4. If you are rolling in on, say a Tuesday and you want to stay until Sunday morning you should ask first if any of the spots are open over the weekend. Hopefully one will be and you will need to call the reservation line, pay your $8 bucks and book the weekend days for that site. Even if you are in the campground on Tuesday with a spot, I highly recommend you do this. At that point someone else could book your site for the weekend. You could end up breaking down your campsite just to move a couple hundred yards down the road, or worse, you might have to leave and have nowhere to stay. I’ll say it again: If you plan to camp during the weekend, call ahead and pay the $8 to make your reservation. It will be worth it in the long run. If you’re just camping during the weekdays you should be fine without a reservation. I’m mentioning this because as a budget traveler, this is exactly the type of thing I would try to cheap out on. I did and it came back to bite us in the butt.

5. If you are working and camping, like the digital nomad you are, then you will most likely need to leave the campground to work. I did spy one outlet in the laundry room at Carlsbad State Beach which you might be able to use but for the most part you need to have a good laptop battery and your own WiFi or you need to find another place to work. The best place in my opinion is either a Barnes & Noble or a Borders Bookstore which are located close to both the San Elijo & Carlsbad Beach Campgrounds. There are a few cool coffeeshops around but amazingly most of them don’t have Wifi (Yes, imagine my own surprise when I discovered this) and they usually have a real lack of outlets as well.

We’ll have more posts coming up soon about individual campgrounds and what we think of them. We’ll also have some posts coming out about some fantastic campgrounds in Joshua Tree and where the free camping is located.

View of the ocean from the campground. This is looking over the wire fence. It is a beautiful area and the waves are very loud & relaxing at night.

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(11) awesome folk have had something to say...

  • Erica -

    May 24, 2010 at 8:52 am

    Not that our beaches are that great here in Texas, but at least you get a year camping pass for like $20! I couldn’t imagine paying $50 to go camping. :X
    .-= Erica´s last blog ..A Case of the Doubts =-.

  • Adam -

    May 24, 2010 at 9:15 am

    WOW, I had no idea it would be so ridiculous to camp in California. We really are lucky here in Missouri. Obviously there is no ocean and beach to go along with it, but there are plenty of crystal clear rivers and beaches and beautiful areas to chill along there, and for way less than half the price. Crazy how much they try to gouge you. Good tips though, and a west coast road trip, complete with camping, has always been on our trip itinerary, so this will come in handy for us at some point down. Really looking forward to the Joshua Tree tips. We’ve been there before for a day trip from Indio, and it was spectacular. We all commented on how it would be great to come back one day and explore and camp. Thanks for a very informative post. I’m guessing many people, especially outside California, would have no clue about this and would be shocked at prices.
    .-= Adam´s last blog ..Hoping for the Best in a City I Love =-.

  • […] the ocean, feel the earth under your feet all day and night, and every night is a grilling party.  Beers and Beans wants to save you from the expense that you sometimes run for this little slice of camping heaven […]

  • Ashley -

    June 3, 2010 at 3:05 pm

    Haha…could California make camping any more complicated??? I’m confused and I live there. Planning on taking a camping trip this summer (my first real one, with tents and everything), so great tips! And that reservation line is pretty ridiculous.
    .-= Ashley´s last blog ..Quick (and free!) Tour of the de Young Museum =-.

  • beersandbeans -

    June 3, 2010 at 5:58 pm

    Ashley, I know, it’s kinda hysterical really! I hope the tips help though. I was in complete shock when we arrived the first time and couldn’t get a spot – ANYWHERE. Then I was more surprised the next week when we did get one and it was so expensive! Really gotta find the loopholes when it comes to camping in CA.

  • […] you’ve read my other posts about the high costs associated with camping in California state parks, you’ll know this is pretty […]

  • […] If you drive in, you will most likely not get a site. To read more tips on getting a good site read our other post about saving $$ on your camping site. To read our review of the Carlsbad campground please click […]

  • Caitlin -

    August 23, 2010 at 11:37 pm

    What a revelation. Well that happens in some places but not all in California. Maybe that is just some sort of miss understanding. California can be the best option for you, you know. The sceneries are so remarkable.
    .-= Caitlin´s last blog ..Great California Camping Tips You Shouldn’t Miss =-.

  • […] 20. Started living in a tent and actually had to sleep in the car a couple times -First a 350 sq. ft apt, then a 27′ boat, then a tent – what the hell was i thinking? I should also note the car was a Hyundai Accent and again, 2 people/1 dog. What haven’t I given for the big trip? In the end it was cool. We slept at the beach and it prepared us for the nights we car camped in Europe! […]

  • […] NOTE: To read more tips on getting a good site and saving 1/2 off of your rate, read our other post about saving $$ while camping at California state beach campgrounds. […]

  • josh berlin -

    December 27, 2013 at 12:21 pm

    Pretty simple…. Places like yellowstone, grand tetons, grand canyon, california coast are global destinations for people from all over the world.

    The middle of Nebraska isn’t.

    Hence why it costs so much and why you have to reserve way in advance.

    Supply and Demand people. Not rocket science.

    Otherwise this just sounds like a lot of whining but I do appreciate the handicap tip. The rest of it is common sense like parking the extra cars outside the campspot. Who wants a campspot full of cars anyway? Are the kids going to use them as a jungle gym?