Campgrounds come in all shapes and sizes. There are your standard issue campgrounds (state parks, national parks), private mom-and-pop outfits, and, these days, even experiments in land-sharing. There are campgrounds that excel in catering to families and those better suited to monastic solitude, marriage proposals, and me-versus-the-elements adventures. Before you head out for your first or hundredth camping trip, explore the variety of campgrounds available and ask yourself a few key questions about what you want from your experience.
Car-camping vs. Backpacking
There are two kinds of camping: car-camping and backpacking.
Car-camping is far and away the more popular option (apparently over 70% of all campers like to snooze near their wheels!). It involves showing up, parking, and maybe walking a short-ish distance to your campsite. It also means you can pack without giving much thought to weight and can go back and forth to your car, truck, ATV or popemobile to retrieve any essentials, like beer.
Backpacking, on the other hand, is all about hiking and schlepping your things off the beaten path. When you backpack, you will likely aim to pack the lightest version of everything you need for your trip (e.g. a tiny camping stove, a tiny bottle of soap, and various other tiny things). From there, you’ll be “hiking in” until you reach a designated area (often the case in popular national parks like Yosemite) or until you find a spot that feels just right. Wilder areas, like Denali National Park in Alaska, encourage people to explore and discover their own sites.
For our purposes, the following tips and recommendations will focus on car-camping.
What do you want from your experience?
People camp for all kinds of reasons. Ask yourself these questions so you know what you want and what to look for when narrowing down your choices.
What’s the vibe of my crew?
When sitting around the fire, will you be sharing a) bourbon, b) back rubs, or c) bedtime stories?
How many tent sites are there? Make sure everyone has a spot and you don’t end up sleeping in your car.
Is there water available? You’ll want to know how far the water is from your site so you’re not stumbling around for half a mile trying to get water for your morning joe.
What’s the bathroom situation? Porta-potties? Outhouses? A hole that has yet to be dug (by you)? And what about showers? Many campgrounds have decent bathing facilities but you’ll want to know the setup (i.e. Are the showers coin-operated?).
Can you have a fire and is there a grill? You’ll want to know if the key element of your camping trip vision—canoodling with your SO while eating s’mores, for example—is on the cards or banned due to fire risk.
What do people do for fun? A lot of campgrounds will offer on-site recreational activities (nature tours, outdoor pools, sports equipment rental, etc.). Others are more minimal. Do you want to chill out by your tent for the day or get a head-start on a big day hike? Are there kid-friendly activities on-site?
Is there a cut-off time that you have to reach the campground? Pretty self-explanatory but often overlooked! It’s also a good idea to note how early you’ll need to leave in order to have enough daylight for an easier camp set-up.
With all due respect, America’s campgrounds are a bit of a hot mess to sort through. Despite the country’s good intentions, the chaotic online presentation of public and private lands, and the various organizations vying to be the “middle-man” between you and your campground of choice can make the selection process unappetizing.
We’ll try to give you the basics here.
National Parks: With substantial federal funding, national parks are our first choice for reliability and quality. In addition to your show-stoppers (e.g. Yosemite, Arches, Glacier, etc.), there are hundreds of other national parks that deserve a visit. Because of the popularity of national parks, it’s a good idea to reserve your site well in advance. Car entry is around $30 and campsite permits run between $10-60. Peruse the full list on the National Park Services website.
Learn more here: http://www.nationalparks.org/explore-parks/find-park
National Forests: Same as above but with no fees for car entry*
Learn more here: http://www.fs.fed.us/visit
State Parks: With temperamental budgets, state parks vary greatly in quality. You can expect to pay entry and permitting fees but they are usually less expensive than national parks.
Learn more here: http://www.americasstateparks.org/
* Many of these parks also offer a first-come, first-serve option, but when you’re planning a trip with other people, we’d hesitate to go sans reservations. (It’s one thing when you’re looking for adventure with a couple of buddies and quite another when you’ve got toddlers involved).
** There are also lands operated by the BLM (Bureau of Land Management), which you can generally camp on for free. Learn more here: http://www.blm.gov/wo/st/en/prog/Recreation.html
The high school reunions of camping, private campgrounds are highly unpredictable. There are all kinds of spots with varying degrees of camaraderie and quirkiness. In addition to the old standards, like KOA Campgrounds, which offer 485 locations across North America, and mom-and-pop outfits (like our favorite Fernwood Resort in Big Sur), there are also new opportunities for land-sharing that are cropping up across the country.
We are especially excited about this latter option being pioneered by our friends at Hipcamp, as it has the potential to conserve thousands of acres of pristine natural land for camp use.
Dos & Don’ts
DO book your campground ahead of time even if you’re not 100% on your dates, crew, etc. It will save you the headache of trying to find a place last minute.
DO purchase an annual pass if you’re planning on camping more than twice.
DO plan for the maximum number of people (you can always go down from there).
DO call ahead if you can’t make it so someone else can snag the spot.
DO read all of the instructions—some sites have gate codes while others require a print out of the reservation to be placed on the dash.
DON’T be afraid to book out of the way spots. Just because a site is popular doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best.
DON’T try to do too much. If you’re new to camping, go easy with the planning and give yourself time to simply enjoy (and adapt!) to the actual experience of camping.
This is #1 in our Fireside Basics Series, which will cover all the ins and outs of how to have a truly enjoyable camping experience. Subscribe to our newsletter below to receive the next installment in our series, or visit the Fireside Journal from time to time. Until then, happy trails!