Whether planning a trip from home or looking for a place for the night, there are numerous places to find RV campground information. Once we have an idea of where we want to travel, we start looking at the campground options. We look on a map to determine what public lands and cities/towns are in the area. Regardless of the source we use to find campgrounds, once we have potential campground(s) selected, if we have internet access, we usually go to RV Park Reviews to see how other campers rate the park. Most of our trips end up having a mix of public & private campgrounds depending on where we are going and what we are doing.
- 1 Free Camping
- 2 Campgrounds with Fees
- 3 Private Campgrounds
- 4 Public Campgrounds
- 5 Camping “Apps”
- 6 Making a Reservation
If you are looking for free places to stay, there are multiple options including Walmart parking lots, Flying J service plazas, rest areas, and dispersed camping on public lands. Not all Walmart locations allow camping, so it is recommended that you ask before staying there. Flying J’s that have RV parking allow overnight parking. Early arrival may help secure a spot, as the number of spaces is usually limited. Rest area rules vary. Some states allow overnight parking and some don’t. Many rest areas that do not allow overnight parking will have signage, but lack of signage does not mean it is allowed. Rest areas and Flying J’s are typically along major interstates, and tend to be noisy, a challenge for light sleepers. Dispersed camping on public lands varies by location. By looking at the websites for the National Forest or Bureau of Land Management area, two of the most common types of public lands with dispersed camping, you can find out if and where it is allowed. All of these options do not include any hook-ups, i.e. primitive, dry camping, or “boon-docking”. There are some rest areas that offer dump stations, we have seen this most commonly in the mountain time zone states. If you need heat or air-conditioning which requires using a generator, then you should check for rules around generator usage especially any time restrictions.
Campgrounds with Fees
If you want hook-ups and other campground amenities, then you will typically encounter a fee. There are a wide range of a campground amenities and price ranges. Campgrounds are either privately or publicly owned. Public options include: State Parks, National Parks, National Forests, Corps of Engineer, and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Campgrounds. Public campgrounds are frequently less expensive than private campgrounds, but may have less amenities, such as no water or no sewer. The other challenge can be the size of sites. In our trip planning research, we find numerous public campgrounds that can’t accommodate larger RV’s. Always make sure the sites are long enough for your rig.
Private campgrounds are often a one location operation, being owned and managed by the same person(s). They can vary greatly in amenities and customer service depending on the owner. Some of the nicest campgrounds we have stayed in have been one-offs. There are also some chains such as KOA, which is described below, or Yogi Bear’s Jellystones which have criteria for the member campgrounds in order to use the chain name. These can still vary greatly from campground to campground. Reviews by other campers can help you decide if a campground is the right place for you to stay.
Good Sam Membership & Directory
If you use private campgrounds and camp enough nights a year (more than 8) at Good Sam qualifying campgrounds, then we recommend getting a “Good Sam” membership, which currently costs $25/year. We have found that a large number of private campgrounds are Good Sam members and offer the discount. With this membership, you get 10% off of participating campgrounds’ rates. If you consider an average campground cost of $35/night (low end of range), at 8 nights with a 10% discount of $3.50 per night, the cost of the membership is 100% covered. Any nights used beyond those first 8 per year, the discount equals savings in your pocket. We always keep a copy of the “Good Sam North American RV Travel Guide and Campground Directory” in our RV. This comes in handy for when we don’t have a strong internet signal on the road. This directory is updated annually and includes public and private campgrounds, including ones that are not participating in their discount program. The directory is organized by state and sub-divided further by town/city. With a Good Sam membership, the directory costs about $10 and can be purchased at any Camping World store. We do not buy a directory every year, I think you can easily go 2-3 years between buying directories, but some of the information may be out of date. Some campgrounds offer a discount with AAA. I always inquire at the time of making a reservation. Some campgrounds require you to let them know about membership at the time of the reservation, but many will amend the reservation at the time of check-in.
Big Rigs Directory
“Big Rig Best Bets Campground Directory” by Ken & Ellie Hamill is a smaller guide of campgrounds, fuel stops and restaurant tips that specifically accommodate a big rig. The authors have stayed at every campground in the directory. They also include big rig directions for accessing the campgrounds. They drive a 40 foot rig. They have information across 49 states and 8 Canadian Provinces and include specific site number recommendations. From personal experience, I can tell you that it can be frustrating to wade through other directories/websites, decipher the sizing descriptions if the information is even available, to find that a good number will not accommodate your rig. We found this guide helpful in our Alaska trip planning.
KOA’s: Kampgrounds of America
If you’ve looked at our Itineraries or Campground reviews, you probably noticed that we have stayed at a good number of KOA (Kampgrounds of America) campgrounds.Their membership costs $27/year which gives you a 10% discount on campground fees. The KOA campgrounds can cost a little more, but I think the breakeven number is about 10 nights/year to cover the membership. You also earn points for every stay, which you can exchange for cash rewards toward campground fees. This makes them more affordable. With enough points you can earn a VIP membership which accrues points at a higher rate.
In some areas, like the Badlands in South Dakota, we like the KOA the best for its proximity and amenities. Other times we’ve used a KOA because of their convenience. Many KOA’s are great for families because of pools and other activities on site. We don’t typically use the activities, so the biggest advantage to us is the ability to easily make reservations online. The website stores our basic information so we don’t have to enter it every time. We can book multiple campgrounds online in the amount of time it can take some campgrounds to make one reservation over the phone. Also, many private campgrounds frequently do not answer the phone due to not enough staffing, which is understandable based on their size. When you call, they want you to leave a number for them to call back. It never fails that I am in the middle of grocery shopping or another public place when they call and want me to provide my credit card for the reservation. If I don’t answer their return call, it seems like we always begin a prolonged game of “tag- you’re it” phone calls. If we are already on the road, we inevitably drive into an area of poor cell service after I leave my information.
Casinos are another camping option. Many offer free or reduced cost camping to patrons. Some require a “member” card, which is usually free. There are often other perks such as dollars that can be used in slot machines and free or reduced price meals at their restaurants. The decision of whether or not this is a cost savings depends on if and how much money you spend in the casino. If you have a hard time controlling the money going into the machines, then you may want to stay away from casino camping for money savings. The camping areas are usually pretty good, but may be sterile and close together compared to a state park.
National Parks, Corps of Engineers, National Forest, and Bureau of Land Management campgrounds are excellent choices if the camp site sizes are large enough for your rig and the hook-ups meet your need. Many of these are listed in the Good Sam Directory described above. A positive is the offering of online reservations through Recreation.gov. Some of these campgrounds have a limited number of sites that can be reserved in advance, while the rest of the sites are first come first serve. These campgrounds are often less expensive than private campgrounds.
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the largest provider of water-based outdoor recreation in the nation. It has 403 lake and river projects in 43 states which provide a diverse range of recreational opportunities. Visitors can enjoy activities like hiking, boating, fishing, camping and hunting, and for those slightly more adventurous there is snorkeling, windsurfing, whitewater rafting, mountain biking and geo-caching. The campgrounds offer direct access to the activities. There is a directory by Don Wright: “The Wright Guide to: Camping with The Corps of Engineers”. Corps of Engineer campgrounds vary in amenities, but are more likely to have hook-ups and space than National Park campgrounds.
National Forests & Grasslands
Bureau of Land Management (BLM)
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) may best be described as a small agency with a big mission: To sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of America’s public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations. It administers more public land – over 245 million surface acres – than any other Federal agency in the United States. Most of this land is located in the 12 Western states, including Alaska. Their mission mandates that they manage public land resources for a variety of uses, such as energy development, livestock grazing, recreation, and timber harvesting, while protecting a wide array of natural, cultural, and historical resources, many of which are found in the BLM’s 27 million-acre National Landscape Conservation System. The BLM system includes 221 Wilderness Areas totaling 8.7 million acres, as well as 16 National Monuments comprising 4.8 million acres. In addition to campgrounds, BLM also offers dispersed camping in some areas.
State Park campgrounds are a good public campground option. Many of these can be located and reserved through Reserve America.com. Each State also has its own website which describes that state’s parks including campgrounds and other activities available at each such as hiking, fishing, etc.. We have stayed in several Colorado State Parks and have been really impressed. We are planning to stay at a number of state campgrounds in Alaska (summer 2016). One tip: if you will be staying enough nights in one state and/or taking day trips to that state’s parks, you should consider purchasing an annual pass. There is often a day-use fee for your tow vehicle and to park at hiking trailheads. With enough days planned in one state, the annual pass becomes a “no brainer”. The trick is to make that decision before you begin buying day passes, as you can’t exchange a bunch of day passes toward an annual pass. In Colorado for example, the day passes cost $7-9/day and an annual pass is $70/year. The year is from when you buy it, not a calendar year. With 10 visits within a year to a Colorado state park (hiking/fishing/camping/etc) the pass pays for itself and any other visits are free. Prices vary by state. Alaska’s price for 2016 is $50 for an annual pass, with daily parking fees ranging from $5-10/day. Each state has information about their pass offerings on their website.
If directories and websites are too old school for you, there are many “apps” for mobile devices that are designed for locating campgrounds. I have just downloaded the following free options and will test them over the next several months and write more about them after trying them out:
This app caters to RV’ers: “Completely FREE with NO ADS. Built by a full timer to help RVers on the road. Find over 25,000 listings of RV parks, camp grounds, rest areas, gas stations, and stores. Get information, view pictures, get directions to where you are headed to next.
– Includes RV Parks categorized by: Commercially Owned, Public Parks, Military Camp, 55+, KOA, Jellystone, Casino
– RV friendly stores like Camping World, Cabela’s, Cracker Barrel, and Walmart
– Rest Areas and Welcome Centers
– Fuel Stops including Flying J’s, Pilot, and TA Travel Centers”
Another free app. This one doesn’t cater to RV’ers and covers less campgrounds. Here is their description:
“For those looking for great places to start camping, Woodall’s has you covered with information from over 12,000 different camp sites around the North American region. Whether you are a tent camper or an RVer this app will give you the full rundown for your potential campsite including: recreational activities, pet rules, swimming areas, Wi-Fi hotspots, pricing, directions, and tons more. In addition, Woodall’s will present ratings about a site based on an official evaluation. The bottom line is that if you are an avid camper, you will not want to be caught without this free app guiding you to some of the best camp sites out there.”
Oh, Ranger! Park Finder
This app does not cater to RV’ers: “Free app that finds the parks nearest you with the activities you want to do. A comprehensive database of every federal and state park in America. Thousands of national parks, state parks, national forests, wildlife refuges, BLM sites, US Army Corps recreation areas and many more public lands. Each location contains information on the available activities, so you can search for the park nearest you with the activities in which you’d like to participate. Choose from 20 different activity categories to find the right place for you and your friends and family.”
This app focuses on RV parks: “RV Parks, powered by RVParking.com, helps you find RV Parks across the U.S. With detailed information on more than 20,000 parks, it’s the perfect companion for your next trip.”
This app does not cater to RV’ers. It is powered by Reserve America.com: “Looking for a campground for a future camping trip, or need to find a campsite now, for tonight? Use ReserveAmerica’s mobile app to search for available campsites in state, federal and private campgrounds across the US. Search by location, date or amenities, and display search results on a map… View campground details and photos… Even save your search settings to make finding your next campground as easy as opening the app!”
Making a Reservation
Once you have selected your campground you may want to make a campground reservation online or over the phone. Before starting, you should have the following information handy:
- What type of hook-ups do you want (30 or 50 amps? sewer? Water?)
- How long is your motorhome/camper and your entire rig length?
- Pull through or back in site?
- Any membership cards (Good Sam, AAA, KOA, etc)
- Credit Card to hold the reservation
- How many people/pets
The amount (cost) of a campground deposit varies widely based on each campground’s policy. Some take one night’s fee, some charge a percent of the total stay, some charge 100% up front, some take your credit card number and don’t place a hold charge but will charge one night if you are a no show. Cancellation fees and timeframes also vary. Most will volunteer this information.
Note: No campground systems, apps, or directories have given us any compensation for writing about them.