The campground you choose—even the campsite—has the potential to make or break your car camping experience. If you’re a novice camper, here are some pointers for how to choose a campground that will suit your needs and desires.
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Public or Private
Of the many thousands of campgrounds available in the U.S., they can be divided into two basic categories: public and private.
Public campgrounds are those run by national, state, regional or county governments and paid for by your tax dollars. Some of the best, most beautiful campgrounds in our country are public campgrounds.
Private campgrounds are small businesses, most of them family businesses. There are also many, many very beautiful campgrounds that are run privately. Often situated near key tourist destinations, private campgrounds can be a good alternative when nearby public campgrounds are already booked.
Here are some general distinctions between them:
- Public campgrounds tend to cost less than private.
- Private campgrounds tend to have more amenities than public.
- Public campgrounds tend to be immersed in some of our best public lands, with spectacular scenery…however, some of those campgrounds also tend to fill up so quickly that it can be nearly impossible to find a site. Sometimes it’s possible to reserve a site ahead of time, but many are first-come, first-served.
- Private campgrounds, almost without exception, allow for reservations. If you’re traveling any distance, you know you’ll have a place to pitch your tent for the night.
A Campground’s “Personality”
Campground environments or personalities vary. What kind of setting are you looking for in a campground? Would you like to be in a remote area with no traffic noise, no cell service and few people? Do you prefer less remote with more comforts, but still plenty of peace and quiet? Or do you like being where the action is, and where you can drive easily to local attractions?
Our family has stayed in public campgrounds where the entire campground is dead silent at the stroke of 10 PM, when quiet hours begin. And we’ve stayed at public campgrounds where some groups are up laughing and talking well into the wee hours.
Private campgrounds that host many of the same families year after year will have a different atmosphere than huge national park campgrounds that see millions of people come through.
We’ve learned to look on our map app to see what’s surrounding a campground. Is it near a busy highway? Train tracks? We didn’t do this once and found ourselves between an Interstate highway and a trucking company—with semi-trailers driving in and out all night long!
The best way to find out what individual campgrounds are like is through online travel review sites like Trip Advisor, RV Life and Trip Savvy. Once you’ve settled on a handful of possibilities, do an online search for “[name of the campground] reviews” and you’re likely to find some help from other campers.
What conveniences are important for you when you’re car camping?
- Vault latrines or indoor plumbing (a vault latrine is another name for outhouse)?
- Hot showers? Private campgrounds will have showers, public may or may not.
- Camp store for easy access to ice, snacks, forgotten gear and merch?
- Laundry facilities, wi-fi access, cell service, electricity?
The on-site activities available at the campground, or nearby, are another important consideration.
If you have young kids, you might want a beach or pool for swimming, a playground, camp games or sporting areas. If you have a dog it could be an off-leash dog park.
Maybe you want easy access to outdoor recreation: hiking trails, bike trails or paddling opportunities. Some campgrounds have direct access to these, others may be a short drive away. Still others may not have them available nearby.
Choosing Your Campsite
In many campgrounds you can reserve a specific campsite.
Almost all campground websites will have an online map of the campground that includes the numbered sites, where the latrines/bathrooms/showers are, water spigots, campground office, pool, etc. Some websites will even show you a photo of each campsite with a bit of description, which is so helpful.
When you choose your site, think about what you’d like to be close to or not close to. Quieter sites are usually on the outskirts of the campground. Or maybe you’d like to be as close to the bathrooms and office as you can.
We chose one particular campsite in the Bighorn mountains because we could see from the photo and the map that it backed up to a large meadow. Sure enough, we were rewarded with a gorgeous, unobstructed view of the mountains, and could see moose meandering through the meadow.
Number of People, Tents and Vehicles Allowed
Almost every campground limits the number of people, tents and vehicles at their campsites. It’s common to see a limit of six people per site. (If your nuclear family has more than that and all your kids are under 18, check with the campground. It’s likely they’ll let you take just one site.)
Some campgrounds limit vehicles to one per site, but have a general parking area for overflow. Others allow two vehicles. Most campgrounds allow up to two tents per site, but often no more than that. Keep in mind, many sites also can’t accomodate more than two tents.
Be sure to check these limits before you reserve your campsite.
If you can’t imagine leaving home without your dog, you’ll want to be sure to investigate each prospective campground’s pet policy. These policies vary, and you don’t want any surprises once you get there.
Be aware that while most national parks will allow your dog at your campsite, leashed at all times, your 4-footed pal will not be allowed on many of the most popular hiking trails. Neither will it be allowed unattended at your campsite.
Most campgrounds with swimming beaches will ask you not to bring your dog along to the beach.
You’ll have to decide whether it’s better to bring your pet along and be more restricted in your activities, or to leave it home with a trusted friend or kennel.
Sitting around the campfire in the evening roasting marshmallows and looking at the night sky is a favorite activity for almost every camper, but it’s important to know local rules and regulations before you go.
- In some areas, there will be a campfire ban due to dry conditions and the danger of forest fires.
- If you’re allowed to have a campfire, keep it small, only within the fire circle, and controlled at all times. Before you go to bed, let it burn out, then dump loads of water over it. More than you think necessary. Forest fires have started by seemingly dead campfires and the right wind.
- It’s against many states’ laws to bring firewood across state lines and even across county lines. This is in the effort to control the spread of pests. Plan to buy your firewood in the campground.
- If you dream of cooking over a campfire, know ahead of time it requires time and patience…and dry conditions (but not dry enough for a fire ban!). It’s alway a good idea to bring a camp stove as a backup.
If you can’t imagine a camping trip without the campfire experience, be sure you choose a campground and area that allows it. Areas of the country that tend to dry out during the summer—like the West—will often have campfire bans the further into the summer it gets. So head somewhere else or go early in the season.
Even if you love to be spontaneous, if you want a certain campground for a certain time frame, your best bet may be to make reservations, if possible. Especially if it’s a holiday weekend or a popular campground.
All private campgrounds offer reservations, sometimes up to a year ahead. Many public campgrounds have a combination of reservable and non-reservable sites, though some are first-come, first-served only.
Before you reserve a campsite, check into that campground’s cancellation policy so there are no surprises. Most of the time you’ll have to lay down at least the first night’s campsite fee to hold your reservation, plus an online reservation fee. It may or may not be refundable if you cancel your plans, depending on the campground.
If you find it impossible to get a reservation at your dream campground, consider moving your trip to one of the “shoulder” seasons, rather than its prime season. Popular campgrounds are busiest during school holidays, weekend holidays and weekends in general.
Choosing the right campground for car camping ultimately comes down to personal preference. If you’re looking for a bit more solitude, or ready to go beyond camping at public or private campgrounds, you might be interested in dispersed camping.
Ultimate Guide to Car Camping
Photo credits: Car camping photo by Paul Chambers/Unsplash; Giant chess and campsite at OARS American River Outpost – James Kaiser; Campfire circle near lake – Cari Morgan