U.S. Camping Options
Once upon a time, you just hitched up and went. Roll into Yellowstone in your paneled station wagon and say "which way to the campground Ranger Ted?" Sadly, that ship has sailed. But you can still camp in Yellowstone, and you can even still be wildly spontaneous and drive down the road with only scant idea where you will sleep that night.
It just takes some planning and knowledge.
There are at least five distinct RV camping categories with a range of sub categories.
Read on if you want to know where to lay your head in a way that trades off scenery, privacy, planning, location and cost. We use all of them, depending on what we are looking for, where we are, and a myriad of other ever-changing considerations as we roll on down the road. Skip to this section to learn how much we do, and do not, plan our campgrounds ahead of time.
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 $45 - $65 a night in most places, but plan to spend well over $150 a night in the Florida Keys or in other select locations. What they all have in common 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 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 finest. 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 upon departure. On the other hand, 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 just 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.
Still, some of these are great, like the French Quarter RV Resort in New Orleans that is a 5-block walk to the French Quarter. And even the rather chaotic scene below (center image) is the very same campground as the image on the right was taken, where I could fish in a lovely creek just steps from our front door. I don't fish. But I think the point remains.
How to Book
For the most part, directly with the campground, typically by using the telephone as many of these are still mom and pop shops whose online booking engine is dodgy or non-existent. But there is a vast ocean of options in this category, so for example if you are a KOA (Kampgounds of America) fan, you can use their locations across the country and book everything online. And there are many, many 3rd party web sites and apps that will identify and sometimes connect you to the independent options. Some of the ones we use will be covered in the section below.
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 (in the U.S., Canada is better). 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 and not updated since (more pampered travelers may prefer to stay in a private campground just outside the parks instead, but that comes with the downside of having to queue up to get back in each day).
National Parks campgrounds are underpriced, typically around $35 - $50 per night. Hence, demand far exceeds supply. Reservations must be made six months ahead of time at Recreation.gov, and even then, the most popular parks will sell out in seconds before you can nab one. Monuments are easier. Nearly as scenic, and way less crowded. As one camper put it "National Monuments are National Parks without all the people." Though, I wonder for how long this will be true, based on the way things are trending.
In the section below, I talk about how we plan our travel. If National Parks are on your agenda, get those first, as far ahead of time as possible, and then build the rest of your itinerary around those dates.
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.
How to Book
Most National Parks, Monuments, and National Forests are booked through Recreation.gov (there are some exceptions to this, including in Yellowstone, but especially with National Forests). Some National Parks do have spaces that are first come first served as well (get there early but don't be afraid to try, someone has to get them). Rec.gov is also where you go to find things like shuttle tickets and timed-entry passes. And if you don't know what that is, do your homework before going to parks like Zion, Glacier, Acadia or Yosemite as you might find yourself all dressed up with no place to hike/drive.
National Forest Service Campgrounds
If you don't mind primitive amenities, often just a vault toilet and a water tap, these can be some of the most beautiful campsites you will find. Without a doubt the most scenic campgrounds we have had were in this category, and they typically cost in the range of $9 to $20 per night. They are typically very peaceful and yet proximate to great hiking or other types of recreation. Tough to beat if you are self-contained in an RV or even if you are tent camping.
How to Book
Many of them can be booked through Recreation.gov others are through a private party booking site. But many of them are simply first-come, first-served (FCFS in RV parlance). And that's great. We will pick two or three that are somewhat near each other, plan to arrive by 10 or 11AM and we nearly always get a great site. But we've also landed plenty of amazing sites arriving well into the afternoon, so don't be afraid to try. It's just good to always have some sort of backup plan in mind.
State Park Campgrounds
State Parks are a great in-between sweet spot for campers. They have some of the incredible scenery and space of a National Park, but with much better amenities in many cases. Each state is unique, but some states like Florida, Texas and Utah are downright luxurious in terms of the bathrooms, park stores and full hookups (or "3-way" to use the Canadian term, which I like because it sounds vaguely sexual). The best shower I had on our last 9-month trip was in a Utah State Park. It was like being at the Four Seasons with beautiful tile and waterfall shower head.
They cost more than National Parks, but still far less than private options at anywhere from $35 to $50 per night. Consequently, they are very popular. Florida State Parks, on the Gulf or the Atlantic, fill up as soon as they open up, a full calendar year ahead of the date you want.
How to Book
Many states contract out through a private company called Reserve America. Others, like Florida, and California use their own reservation system. Still others seem to be a blend. So you simply have to check which the state or park uses. Reserve America claims to offer access to over 100,000 campsites from their site including state parks, and private campgrounds, so it's often a good place to start.
Free Camping aka "Boondocking"
This means totally off the grid. And free. Or free-ish since there can be an in-kind obligation expected at some. There is no campground, just a place you park your rig. That can be at a Walmart or at a Cracker Barrel – 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. Related to free-form boondocking is Harvest Hosts and Boondockers Welcome.
We've used all of these options extensively.
We like Cracker Barrel for our highway days, when we need to cover lots of territory via an interstate. They are always right off the freeway, friendly and offer me the chance to indulge in a guilty pleasure like biscuits and gravy. Other times, we might want to stop in a small city, so we'll find a brewery on Harvest Hosts that is right in town but has a big parking lot for RVs to enjoy a few beers and a pizza after checking out the town. The protocol for any free campground that is hosted like this is that you are extremely respectful and you patronize their services. So buy groceries at Walmart. Tuck into a breakfast at Cracker Barrel. Don't put out your chairs and tables and have a Barbecue in their lot. Most importantly, do not assume anything is a given. Always call or check online if that particular location allows RVs. Some Walmarts no longer can, not because of Walmart, but because the neighbors have complained and the town has passed an ordinance to ban it. Remember at all times that you are there at their pleasure. None of us want to see this benefit disappear completely.
We have also boondocked right on the beach in Texas. And outside of Zion NP on BLM land. Incredible campsites. You just have to bring your own water and bathroom. Sadly dozens of these places close every year because bad people literally trash them. A true tragedy given how popular, scarce and frankly competitive good campsites are becoming.
We are members of Harvest Hosts. It now costs about $100 per year. That gives you access to a few thousand properties that offer free boondocking. The name comes from the fact that it began with vineyards, which tend to have attractive pieces of property and tasting rooms. The bargain was you camp for free and you buy some wine or whatever else is on tap. The service has extended to breweries, museums, churches, farms, golf courses, etc. We use this both as an easy stopover when the location is between two points on our journey, but also as destinations unto themselves like the magical winery we stayed at in New Mexico (image on the right below). Boondockers Welcome is a sister service that connects you to private homeowners that will allow you to stay a night on their property, presumably for the pleasure of your company. This service used to be free but no longer is. There are many other types of clubs and organizations that offer a similar service via their membership. Some folks even join the Elks Club as they offer a boondocking option at their locations, or maybe it's for the cheap cocktails? By and large, these are no-hookup and stay a single-night stay options. But there are exceptions to that as well. We've had 3-ways (the camping kind, not the sex kind) at several Harvest Host locations.
How to Book
First Come, First Served for anything except Harvest Host and Boondockers Welcome.
Should We Plan Ahead or Just Wing It?
This is one of the great practical and philosophical debates of the moderns camping era. A few important facts and considerations first:
Tent and small rig campers will have better luck with finding last minute options. The bigger the rig, the tougher the gig.
Some states are far easier to wing it in than others. The East Coast has virtually no public lands and far fewer true boondocking options than the wide open west. All three coasts (East, West, Gulf) are just far more populated for obvious reasons, and have less unattended or federal land. Places like Utah, Arizona and Nevada have a lot of BLM and National Forest land that offer FCFS camping.
How close to some well known destinations are you hoping to be? Boondocking right next to the Grand Canyon is possible, but you probably want to arrive earlier and have a back up plan.
In the end, this is also really about personal travel style and comfort. Some people love the idea of just seeing where they wind up (as we sometime do) because they can be delightful surprises. Others would sooner gargle with kitty litter than not have a plan. We all know who we are here. And maybe it's your spouse who wants that cute little RV Park, full hookup, with bingo night locked in for the whole trip? And you need to sleep next to that person, in a small RV.
Lori and I do it all, based on where we are traveling, and many other factors. In 2022 we did a trip to the Southeast where every night of a 2-month outing was pre-booked. We were moving every 2 - 4 nights between Harvest Hosts, State Parks, Private Campgrounds, and National Parks sites. Why? It was springtime in Florida, in the post-Covid camping frenzy and reservations were somewhere between tight and impossible the places we hoped to visit. There is little public space as there is out west. Plus, I had the time over the winter to spend the hours it takes mapping it all out. On longer trips, I simply don't know or don't have time to plan much beyond a week or two out. So, would I have done this trip without a single reservation? Maybe not to that area at that time of year, but we still do a lot of unplanned days and weeks. The equation for me is if the places we want to go are particularly popular, I'll plan as far ahead as is possible. If we are going to be in somewhat less well-known destinations, I'll keep it pretty loose. It tends to net out as a mixture of booked and not booked nights throughout our tours.
As mentioned above, start your planning calendar with National Parks. They are often the highlight of a trip (places we've always dreamed of seeing) and you don't want to ruin it by not having a place to stay or paying way too much to be outside the park miles away. So get out in front of it. Get on recreation.gov six months to the day before you want to camp and book those dates (make sure you are already logged in and familiar with how recreation.gov works or you may be too slow for the most popular options). Then build out the dates around those nights with other options, including FCFS nights where you just see what happens. And don't despair if you are too late to book something. We had a site reserved in Glacier NP that we didn't love once we arrived. So we packed up the next morning and drove over to the FCFS campground and found a wonderful spot that people were just leaving and stayed there a week. It pays to be persistent.