Livin' in Tin - Where to Camp
Updated: Feb 4, 2022
Want the skinny low-down on where you can put your trailer, tent or RV across the U.S.?
There are at least six distinct categories with a range of sub categories. Read on if you want to know where to lay your head in a way that combines scenery, privacy, location and cost.
This is what you see driving down the road. They are everywhere. And the quality and experience vary greatly. They are the most expensive option at $40 - $65 a night. What they all have in common though is that they jam the rigs in like sardines. Why waste valuable real estate in a for profit model? On the other hand, they are “full hook up.” That means you have water, electric and a sewer dump right at your campsite. And, as we are wont to say when we find ourselves in such a place “I love full hookups!” It’s glamping at its best. You don’t have to worry about how much water you use. You can charge your phone. The microwave, air conditioner, and coffee maker are all at your disposal. And you don’t have to go to the dump station to drain the holding tanks. But in return, you can also peer into your neighbor’s RV and see the whiskers on their cat. Still, they are very popular. My theory is that people who purport to want to “get away from it all” really want to get to a place where there are plenty of neighbors to bore with fish stories since their spouse isn’t having it any longer. We often use private campgrounds as “dump and pumps” between more off-grid options.
Yet, some of these are great, like the very nice one in New Orleans that is a 4-block walk to the French Quarter. And even the rather chaotic scene above is the very same campground as this next shot was taken, where I could fish steps from our front door.
National Parks & Monuments
Most RV folk will want to see at least a few of these on their journey. The skinny on them is that they are usually very well located (as close to the good stuff as you can get) but with virtually no amenities. The campsites rarely have views but are reasonably well spaced. There is potable water nearby, but the bathrooms typically don’t have showers and often have a real prison vibe to them since they were probably constructed in the 1940s (more pampered travelers prefer to stay in a private campground outside the park instead). National Parks campgrounds are underpriced. Hence, demand far exceeds supply. Reservations must be made six months ahead of time, and even then, the most popular parks will sell out in seconds before you can nab one. Monuments are easier. Nearly as scenic, way less crowded.
Note: If you are a tent camper, rejoice. Tent only sites are still considerably easier to get close to your dates in the most popular parks.
National Forest Service Campgrounds
The amenities are often limited to some water and a vault toilet. But they are also typically first come first serve, and not that hard to just roll up to and find a super sweet spot on the river or lake with great hiking nearby. And they are cheap, at $10 - $15 a night.
Maybe my single favorite campsite of the trip was this one on Lower Redfish Lake in Stanley, ID.
These are kind of the sweet spot for us. They are often in very scenic locations. Less expensive than private, a bit more than National Parks. The campsite itself may enjoy a great view or lake/river front. And depending on the state, the amenities can be fantastic with clean modern bathrooms (imagine), hot free showers, dishwashing stations, camp stores, laundry facilities, the works. Many of them are full or at least half hookup (water & electric). The nicest shower that I’ve been in this entire trip was in a state park in Utah. It was huge, tastefully tiled and had a big rainfall style showerhead. No quarters needed. Like National Parks, they are often underpriced and can be hard to get reservations at, but not as hard as with NPs. The best state parks we’ve been to are in Florida, Texas, and Utah. The worst, by a good margin, is Vermont. So much for living in a high tax state.
Boondocking & BLM Land
This means totally off the grid. And free. There is no campground, just a place you put your rig. That can be at a Walmart or a Cracker Barrell – handy for those days you just need a convenient place to sleep when you are putting in big miles between destinations. Or it can mean the opposite, where you light out into virgin BLM or Forest Service land to create your own little corner of paradise with no neighbors for miles. Some folks pride themselves on almost never paying for camping and learn to stretch their water, power, and food for 10 days or more in these places.
You can even boondock on the beach as we did here in Texas.
Another free option is Harvest Hosts. You join and then can stay for free at thousands of types of properties around the country. It began with wineries and now includes breweries, farms, museums, golf courses, etc. The idea is that you park for free, and you drink their wine, or beer, or tour their farm, etc. Quid pro quo. Some of them are very scenic. One of our most enjoyable nights of the trip was a winery in New Mexico where we had dinner and watched the moon rise over their vineyards while enjoying a bottle of wine. Another was a restaurant in El Paso that let us use their old dinner theatre dressing rooms for showers and their office to stream a high school basketball game.
There are a wonderful and wide range of options out there. Something for everyone and every style of camping. Planning ahead is important for some of the options, or for weekends, especially holiday weekends. But sometimes, the best campsites are the ones you just happen upon.