There’s nothing like sitting in a friend’s car, watching them use the backup camera, and feeling a surge of jealously. Backup cameras increase driver awareness and make baking out of tight spaces a breeze—everyone can benefit from them. But you don’t need to feel jealous of anyone, because you can easily add a backup camera to your “old” car.
Let me clarify something before we get into the weeds. People tend to use “backup camera” and “rearview camera” interchangeably, but they are two different products. A backup camera turns on when you’re backing up your vehicle, while a rear-view camera gives you a live feed (or recordings) of drivers behind you.
Yes, You Can Add a Backup Camera to Your Car
While backup cameras may seem like a modern luxury, they really aren’t that advanced. In fact, they’ve been around for decades. We’ve simply reached the point where LCD displays and small digital cameras are affordable enough to stick in every new car.
Since backup cameras are so simple, you can install one in any car, truck, SUV, or RV. Aftermarket backup cameras are incredibly common, and universal options will work in just about any vehicle. Plus, brands like Pioneer and Kenwood sell add-on backup cameras for their head units, allowing for seamless upgrades.
That said, you don’t even need a fancy head unit with a big screen—there are a ton of backup camera kits that come with a dashboard display or rearview mirror monitor. That said, a nice head unit or “infotainment center” will give you the best experience with a backup camera, and it will often result in a cleaner setup without any visible wires.
I should also note that backup cameras work with trailers. If you find yourself hitching things to the back of your vehicle every few weeks, a backup camera is a seriously awesome investment.
Which Type of Backup Camera Should You Buy?
Shopping for a backup camera is a relatively easy task. Sure, you need to worry about features like night vision, but these features are very straightforward and easy to understand. And although manufacturers sell hundreds of different backup cameras, they all boil down to three distinct form-factors.
Here are the three types of backup camera:
- Retrofit Cameras: These backup cameras connect directly to your head unit, giving you a video feed when you go in reverse. That said, they require a head unit or “infotainment center” that’s capable of playing video. (I strongly suggest buying an add-on backup camera from your head unit’s manufacturer to make installation easy.)
- Cameras with Dashboard Displays: Some backup camera kits come with a small display that sits on your dashboard or sticks to your windshield. These kits are usually wireless, so they’re a great low-cost option if you aren’t confident dealing with wires.
- Cameras with Mirror Monitors: For a cleaner setup, you can buy a camera kit with a rearview mirror monitor. This monitor doubles as a mirror and a screen. It’s usually wireless, and it either sits on top of or replaces your existing rearview mirror.
Once you choose which form-factor is right for you, it’s time to hunt for features. I strongly suggest buying a backup camera with night vision and parking guide lines. You may also want to buy a wireless camera, which eliminates the need to run video cables across your vehicle.
Other features, like DVR recording or image quality, are up to you. But if you plan to buy a camera with a rearview mirror monitor, you may want to get a one with an integrated dashcam.
Can You Install a Backup Camera Yourself?
Installing a backup camera isn’t a difficult task, but it’s time-consuming and requires a bit of experience with cars. Even “wireless” backup cameras need power, and that means disconnecting your vehicle’s battery to splice wires.
Most people should opt for professional installation, which will cost at least $100. But if you’re comfortable working on a car, installing a backup camera isn’t a big deal.
Here’s the gist of the process:
- Disconnect your car’s battery
- Mount the backup camera (usually to your license plate)
- Hardwire the camera for power (usually to your brake light)
- Run video cables under your door seal to reach your head unit or display
If you buy an add-on display, you may need to hardwire it to your head unit or interior lighting system. That said, some add-on displays connect to your cigarette lighter for power, which may make installation a relatively quick job when combined with a wireless video system.
I should also note that some add-on backup cameras, like the ones that Kenwood makes for its head units, do not require a dedicated power source. Instead, they draw power from the video cable that plugs into the back of your receiver.
Bear in mind that an electric shock from your car could kill you. If you don’t know how to safely work on a car, you should pay a professional (or a knowledgable friend, at least) to install your backup camera.
Are Backup Cameras Expensive?
On their own, backup cameras are shockingly cheap. Most models run between $30 and $70, with some going for even less. The problem, of course, is that your older car probably doesn’t have a head unit or “infotainment center” capable of displaying a backup camera’s feed.
As I mentioned earlier, you don’t need to upgrade your head unit to use a backup camera. But you will need to drop some extra cash on a backup camera kit, which will include a dashboard video screen or a rearview mirror with an integrated display.
These kits start around $120 and are relatively easy to install. That said, advanced features (like an integrated dashcam or DVR functionality) will quickly push the price up to $200 or $300. And if you need professional installation, which is probably the case, it’ll cost you an extra $100 or more.
If you choose to buy a new head unit with your backup camera, you can expect to pay at least $400 before installation. And that’s a very conservative estimate—you may need a manufacturer-specific camera for your new head unit, and of course, the price of a new head unit depends entirely on which features you want.