How We Choose Campgrounds
What's The Big Deal?
Well, as full-time RVers, where we park is very important to us. Part of the beauty of the lifestyle for us is to change our scenery. We are in or around our RV a lot since it is our home and not just a means of getting from one place to another. So, when we park for several days at a time like we tend to do, we care about aesthetics, quiet, natural surroundings, and access to activities in nature.
Over time we've learned that many others like the type of campgrounds we do, and many don't. This page is for those curious about our process of hunting down and selecting campgrounds. For everyone else, this page will likely confuse, you, bore you, and perhaps frustrate you, so you may want to skip it. :)
Let's Get Started
Most of the time, we are traveling to a destination for some event whether it be for a workamping gig, a rally, a wedding, a reunion, etc. Usually, the event is a few months out and we sort of meander in that direction.
Hard-Copy Campground Directories & Why We No Longer Use Them
We started out on our journey with five hard-copy campground directories - the 2005 Trailer Life Directory, the Frommer's Best RV & Tent Campgrounds guide, the Escapees campground directory, the Passport America campground directory, and a Big Rigs Best Bets Campground Directory. For the first few months, we used them quite a bit. By the end of the first year on the road, we used them only to support a campground selection. Since then, we've barely looked at any of them other than to use their pages to help start campfires. :)
Since we don't use the directories any longer, this may not be helpful, but I thought I'd tell you why we don't use them now.
First, Trailer Life and Woodall's (another directory many people prefer) are both owned by the Affinity Group which owns the Good Sams RV Club. Both directories give campground ratings and list amenities, pricing, etc. by "city". They also indicate which campgrounds offer 10% discounts to Good Sam members. We found the following: 1) The listings include the most information on the types of campgrounds we don't particularly care for, 2) As we learned that we don't care for private RV parks, the 10% discount wasn't really an incentive, 3) In the few campgrounds we did visit based on info from the directory, the ratings didn't seem to match up with reality often leading to disappointment, and 4) It seemed the campgrounds that had bigger ads in the directory got better ratings whether they deserved them or not.
The Big Rigs Best Bets directory didn't really include much information other than providing listings of mostly private RV parks that can accommodate big rigs. It doesn't really provide any useful opinions or ratings. And there are lots and lots of places not in the directory that can accommodate big rigs.
The Frommer's Best RV & Tent Campgrounds directory was our favorite early on because it gave ratings based on beauty, spaciousness, and privacy. For the most part, it was helpful, but after a couple of disappointments, we didn't really trust it anymore.
Even though the Escapees directory has a listing of campgrounds that offer a 15% discount to Escapee members (some now even offer a 50% discount), it was still a directory of private RV parks that we wouldn't choose anyway just based on the discount.
We no longer looked at the Passport America directory, because you can get the same information online and it is more current.
As we have mentioned several times before, the campground experience is very important to us. I spend hours researching and choosing campgrounds.
We're not ones to just drive and pull off the road somewhere when we get tired. Nor do we just choose an area and consider a campground or RV park as just a place to sleep. We've never overnighted in a Walmart parking lot or a Flying J or anywhere like that.
If I can't find the information I want online (i.e. the campground doesn't have a website), we usually won't take the chance. When we get ready to leave our current destination, we know where we will be staying at the next stop. But we don't make reservations. We've made reservations maybe four times in our four years and I think we canceled two, maybe three, of them. :)
We just don't like to be tied to a particular schedule by a reservation, and we hate to pay reservation fees or potential cancellation fees. By traveling on Mondays, Tuesdays, & Wednesdays and arriving early in the day, we can usually get a spot as a walk-in. But just to be sure, I call the campground ahead of time the day of travel or the day before we travel. If it looks like getting in could be a problem, we try to have a back-up plan.
Public Campground Search
It is well documented in our Journal and elsewhere that we prefer the public campgrounds: state parks, national parks, national forests, Corps of Engineers, etc. So where do I start?
We have a general idea of our next destination. Then I look 100 to 200 miles out from our current location. Sometimes, if nothing is appealing, I'll move the search area to 300 miles out, but it's rare to go much over that.
State Park Campground Search
I start by researching the state park websites for whatever state we will travel through. All the state park websites have general maps of the state park locations. Some states have great websites and wonderful details on camping. Other states have terribly little information on camping. But usually all of them will at least tell us which state parks have camping and which ones don't.
Once we narrow down the state parks in our target area that have campgrounds, I read through the sites of the parks nearest our intended route (although we don't mind going several miles out of our way). If the park sounds like our kind of place with hiking, boating opportunities, or simply, remoteness, I do more research on the campground. Can we get our rig in there? What is the campground like? Hook-ups? No hook-ups? Pricing?
Then, I almost always check RVParkReviews.com to see what people have to say. I don't pay much attention to the ratings, but I do look at trends in the comments. Some will say "It's out in the middle of nowhere and not convenient to anything". Then I know it's probably our kind of place. Often the disparaging remarks from a reviewer are just what we like about the place. :)
Federal Campground Search
After I've done my search for state parks, I'll look for Corps of Engineers (COE) campgrounds and other federal campgrounds. The best way to do that is to do a map search on Recreation.gov. That's basically the federal campground reservation system website and the maps show all federal campgrounds that have reservations (usually a portion of the sites are reservable and the rest are "walk-ins", meaning "non-reservable").
We use Recreation.gov to find campgrounds, but we never make reservations through the system. ReserveAmerica runs the federal reservation system, and we are certainly not big fans of ReserveAmerica even though they now handle reservations for several state park systems as well as federal campgrounds. The personnel at ReserveAmerica know nothing about the campgrounds, so they aren't much help at all if you need or want more details. Plus, in our opinion, their service isn't worth the annoying reservation fees.
Now, though state park websites list campgrounds whether or not there are reservable sites, often there are federal campgrounds in our intended route that are entirely first-come, first-served and they may or may not be listed on Recreation.gov. Those take more research to find.
If that's the case, or I just want more details than Recreation.gov provides, I go directly to the National Park Service - Find A Park page, the National Forest Service - Find A Forest or Grassland page, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) home page where you can click on a state to get to the state BLM page, and the COE Corps Lakes Gateway website. Sometimes it really takes some digging on those sites to find the campgrounds. Those sites are not extremely informative on the campgrounds, but they give campground names to Google just in case there is some additional information out there somewhere on the net. :)
Note: There is a private website by Fred & Suzi Dow called ForestCamping.com that provides as much detail as you will find on National Forest campgrounds.
Oh, if I have an idea of where we want to land, I still search RVParkReviews.com. Mostly those are reviews of private RV parks, but sometimes there are reviews of public campgrounds. And every once in awhile there will be a review of a campground that sounds good to us that did not show up anywhere else in my searching.
That often happens with city or county campgrounds. Sometimes there are some real gems out there run by local governments. But those can be really hard to find. Other than RVParkReviews.com, the best way to find those is by searching for the county or city Chamber of Commerce website or a Travel/Tourism website. Of course, that's great if you know exactly where you are going, but we often don't have a clue in the beginning what city or county we will be near, so it would take days to search all the possibilities. :)
Follow-up On The Campground Selected
Once we select our campground, I call the campground or the park directly to ask questions about the campground. Will we be able to get a spot if we walk in on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday? Do you have sites that will accomodate our rig? How are the interior roads as far as big rig maneuvering? How about the roads to get to your campground or park? We run a business with a rooftop satellite internet dish, so are there sites with a good view of the southern sky?
The people at the public parks/campgrounds are usually very helpful on the phone, and they will give you information you cannot find elsewhere. If we can find no other option than a private RV park, then that phone call may help make our decision. If the person on the phone is friendly and informative, we'll give 'em a shot, but if there is rudeness or a lack of interest, we won't.
Private RV Park/Campground Search
Discount Camping Clubs
Now, if we just can't find a public campground on our route or a good boondocking area, then I look at the Passport America website for campgrounds in our destination area. That's when we might just do an overnight stay, and the cheaper the better. But, like I said before, we still prefer paying a little bit to stay in a campground of some sort than parking in a Walmart or Flying J parking lot - that's just us.
Passport America, Happy Camper, and Camp Club USA (another Affinity Group company) are all half-price camping memberships. The theory is RV parks will offer their campsites during off-peak times (during the week or off-season) at 50% off. Usually the discount is for a limited time or a limited number of nights, but occasionally you can find RV parks that don't restrict usage of the discount. You have to read each RV park's rules on the discount very carefully.
I don't think a membership in more than one of the discount clubs is necessary because most of the campgrounds on their lists overlap. Sure, there will be some on one list that are not on another, but I still don't think having all the memberships is worth it unless you travel from RV park to RV park based solely on pricing. For comparison, as of this writing, Passport America has over 1600 campgrounds with a membership cost of $44 per year; Happy Camper - over 1200 campgrounds, $49.95 per year; Camp Club USA - over 1100 campgrounds, $49.95 per year.
Now, there is a huge range of quality between the RV parks that accept the discount clubs' memberships. Many of them don't have websites to check out and they can be real dumps or in bad parts of town. However, lots of folks that use the discount clubs will post reviews on RVParkReviews.com, so you can check there if you can't find any information elsewhere.
The Next Step
If I just can't find a public campground that is suitable, and I can't find a discounted campground through Passport America, then I look at the remaining options. If it's an area that we sort of have to go through and it's not appealing enough for our preferred three-day to two-week stop, we'll just find the cheapest place we can find.
But, if it is an area where we want to spend some time and there is no preferred public campground or the discounted campgrounds are just too bad to stay for several days, then we will look at private RV parks/campgrounds for the most "public-like" option.
That takes me back to Chamber of Commerce websites, Travel & Tourism websites, RVParkReviews, and general Google searches. I look at the subtle differences between area RV parks/campgrounds according to our criteria and compare pricing/value. Weekly or monthly rates may help make our decision. And, once again, the ever-important phone call to get a "feel" for the place is made. It may seem silly, but we've abandoned our first choice many times just based on that phone call. :)
Of course, we always look at Escapees parks. Escapees is probably the best general RV club for full-timers. We can count on friendliness and great pricing at those parks. And we especially like their "family feel" during the Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Year holiday periods.
We'll always choose an Escapees park over other private campgrounds/RV parks in the area. Of course there are only, I think, 19, as of this writing, spread out across the country. :)
Now, with that said, Escapees parks are usually set up like other private RV parks, so if there is a more appealing public campground in the area, we'll often select the public campground even if it is more expensive.
For those that are interested in learning more about Escapees, click on the link. If you decide to join ($70 the first year and $60 renewals), we'd appreciate you using our Escapees membership number (SKP 88487) when you sign up. That gives us referral gift certificates toward our renewals. :)
A Few Additional Resources We Use
Here are a couple more web resources: RV-Camping.org and FreeCampgrounds.com (campsites for $10 per night or less). Those sites are helpful in finding boondocking sites. However, most of the FreeCampgrounds.com listings seem to be Walmarts or Casinos.
Speaking of casinos, we will sometimes resort to CasinoCamper.com to look for RV-friendly casinos. Occasionally, the casinos have full-blown RV parks, but more often they just allow free overnight parking in their parking lots. They can be an inexpensive option if we can't find anything else along our route.
In addition, I use Google Images to search for photos of the campgrounds. Often, I can get pictures of the campground taken by campers rather than the nice photos shown on the websites. :)
And sometimes I use the Google Maps satellite view to zoom in on the campground to see the surrounding terrain. Often, a campground website conveniently leaves out how close they are to an interstate or train track or industrial area, etc. By getting a satellite view, you can see how much noise there might be and how the sites might be spaced.
Whew! I think that about covers it. I'm sure I left out something, but you get an idea of how important it is to us to select just the right campground. Hopefully, some of that will be useful to you. :)