How to choose the perfect campground, you ask? When we first had this brainy idea of living in a camper, we had no idea what we were doing. So when it came to picking our campgrounds, we literally spent 30+ hours researching routes, cities, national parks, campground reviews, internet providers, and even mail services to plan our trip.
To save you time and hassle, here are some tips to help you pick your perfect campground.
1. Plan your Route
Are you planning a long multi-month trip? Where do you even start? Where do you want to finish? Which continent/ county / states or province do you want to see?
This year we picked a general route around the USA. Since we had gone through the middle of the country on previous road trips, for the next year on the road, we wanted to do a loop around the outside of the country: across the Southwest Rockies, down the Pacific Coast, the South, and the East Coast…and eventually back to Alaska across Canada during the summer.
Other future trips on our bucket list include: South America, Europe, New Zealand…the list goes on and on. But this year, we are sticking to the USA and Canada.
Use Trip Planning Apps
We’ve been using a service called RV Trip Wizard to map our route. It helps with mileage between campgrounds, has campground reviews, offers photos, and also gives a great proximity to the place you want to go. For example, most cities have a “CITY NAME RV Park” but in reality the RV park is 30+ miles from town. This is important to know when planning your activities. Who wants to get stuck in a car everyday for an hour+ on your vacation? Not us!
The layout of the site is not our favorite but the functionality is there. Good Sams also offers a trip app but we’ve never used it. Others have recommended it to us so may be worth checking out.
Once you have picked your overall route, pick the top destinations along the way.
2. Pick Your Destinations
Finding destinations could be as simple as pulling out a map of all the national parks and drawing lines connecting them. Or your destinations could be from a list of cities you’ve heard of that you’ve always wanted to see or destinations you’ve always wanted to visit. Whatever your criteria, half the fun of travel is planning.
A. Pick your Climate
We knew, without a doubt, we wanted to be somewhere warm for the winter, and cool in the summer. When you’re living in a 15ft T@B camper, your living room is the great outdoors. We were also planning to stay in the USA (this trip) so for the winter, that limited us to the southern states. Check! See, already narrowed down 80% of our options.
B. Pick your favorite Activities
This one can be anything that’s important to you. Do you want to see: national parks, cities, concerts, art museums, architectural styles, movie sets, celebrities, cheese factories…whatever your thing is…you get to do it! This is where you shine. If you are in a relationship and have different interests than your partner, navigating this may mean including destinations and types of activities that appeal to both people.
But what if you can’t have both? Aw, c’mon now! You’re an adventurer, you gotta choose what’s most important.
For us, weather was number one. Second, we wanted to see a variety of national parks in depth, and third, we also wanted to see a variety of cities we had heard of but never had a chance to visit. We had heard New Orleans was cool, but had no idea HOW cool and historic it is. We had heard of Zion and Arches Parks in Utah….but we didn’t realize how many amazing national parks Southern Utah offers.
C. Consider other constraints
Are there other constraints to your time or budget? Do your kids or partner drive you crazy after 4 hours in the car? Plan destinations that are less than 4 hours drive from each other. Do you want to stay with friends and family? Prioritize cities near people you know. For us, we decided to only move on weekends, which gave us time to get settled for the week.Whatever your personal constraint may be, go with that, and design your trip around your needs.
3. Choose your campground
Ok now that you’ve picked your prime location, and time of year, it’s time to pick your perfect campground in that location.
Things to look for: Does it offer full hook ups? A day or two without a bathroom isn’t the biggest deal but if you’re staying for two weeks you may want to consider full hookups -trust us, at 3am this is a nice thing to have. Is it close to the town/park you want to visit? Does it provide all the things you’re looking for?
We can’t stress enough doing your research before pressing the “reserve” button. Does this campground have good reviews? There are a variety of sites that offer campground reviews including Good Sams, RV Park Review, and of course, we have a much smaller list of campground reviews as well.
These reviews have made all the difference. There have been a few nights we didn’t make reservations, chose a campground at random, and were terrified the entire evening. Campgrounds can sometimes be in very random settings-like a corn field or in the middle of an industrial area-so it’s always good to know what you’re getting yourself into. As two women traveling, safety is our number one concern so we always *try* to check this beforehand.
B. State park vs RV Park?
Not all state parks and RV parks are treated equal. And we don’t want to put ALL state parks nor ALL RV parks into these categories, but in our experience, these things have become a trend along our adventures. Again, not always, and nothing is black and white, but here it is anyhow.
State Park CampgroundS
Location In NATURE
One the most attractive things about state and national park campgrounds is that they are right next to the action, if by action, you mean nature. In Arches National Park, there is a beautiful campground, right in the park, nestled between some of the most iconic hikes. Carpenteria State Park (near Santa Barbara, CA) and Silver Strand State Beach (in San Diego, CA) are literally right on the beach.
Want to have a good ol’ fashioned campfire with your neighbor? A state park is where we’ve met some of the friendliest people. This is where we met Jennifer and Ray, the inspirational story from a previous post. State parks usually host a lot more families, weekend warriors, and people that are camping for the first time. This means people sit outside a lot more equalling more opportunities to chat!
And don’t get us wrong, you’ll find this in RV parks as well, just not as much.
State parks are so much cheaper! If you’re looking for a great budget friendly option outside of boon-docking, this is a good choice. We stayed in the Carpinteria State Park, right next to the ocean for $35 a night. Not bad at all.
So if you are looking for something rustic and beautiful, state park campgrounds can be great options.
Very basic amenities
Our experience thus far show that bathrooms are a bit more rustic. For example, in Caprinteria, sure there were showers but you had to pay $.25 per minute and the shower head was about 4 feet off the ground. We *believe* this was to prevent surfers from using the shower but we really have no idea. When were people ever 4 feet tall?!
Also, don’t expect a handy camp store to find those last minute items you forgot. Not that big of a deal if you’re in a big town, but if you’re in the middle of nowhere its sometimes hard to find last minute RV supplies if something breaks.
Now, don’t get us wrong, state parks are incredibly maintained parks that do an amazing job keeping things relatively clean. But, on the other hand, they don’t have $1,000 leaf removing machines like some RV parks, and for good reason- who can afford that? But the result is often camping in a lot more dirt. *Gasp* Dirt, while camping?! Ok, ok , not the WORST thing ever, but when you’re in a rainstorm for two weeks straight, you tell us how much you like those muddy, soggy shoes every morning.
RV Park CampGrounds
Every RV park we’ve stayed at has been incredibly clean. Leaves, sand, dirt blown across campsites….magically cleaned up by park staff….each of the privately run RV parks we’ve stayed at have been incredibly well maintained.
We’ve been spoiled staying at RV parks that offer pools, hot tubs, miniature golfing, horse shoes galore and more. We’ve stayed at a few KOA’s because they’re guaranteed to offer amenities such as a camp store, dog-run and full-hookups. KOA’s also offer a 10% discount with membership, which paid for itself after staying at one KOA for a week. Definitely worth the investment.
If you’re looking for staying more than a couple of weeks, RV parks are probably your best bet because other campgrounds typically have stay limits. RV Parks are designed for the snowbirds and full-timers so they also offer monthly discounts. Did you know you can stay in Zion for $340 a month? If you’re into winter sports, this is a super place to stay for the cold weather.
Have you ever heard a leaf blower for 8 hours straight while trying to work in your camper? We have in San Diego! Not only did they have an average of 5 leaf blowers going at a single time, they also had a street sweeping machine to pick it all up. And that thing drove by each spot 20-30 times a day. The results were incredible: it was one of the cleanest parks we’ve been to…but holy hell it was noisy!
In another park in Taos, New Mexico, the bathrooms were closed from 2-4 everyday, no matter what. Having cleaned toilets in Alaska (traveling is not always glamourous folks), we know it doesn’t actually take 2 hours to clean 3 showers and 3 toilets. Hate to say it, but it’s kinda hard to schedule certain body functions…so naturally, the ol’ body perfectly timed 2:30 as the time to do some necessary business in the bathroom. Not so fun.
We’ve been pretty impressed with the maintenance and amenities of the RV parks we’ve stayed at so far. One downside is that many times these campgrounds are in industrial areas, or in random parts of town. In San Diego, we were super impressed by the upscale resort feel of the park, yet it was right under the freeway in a random suburb far from San Diego’s signature attractions.
One of the biggest factors for us being fairly happy with our campgrounds so far, is because we did A LOT of research and reading reviews to pick the best spots in our target areas.
C. Other Things to consider
Sure, everyone thinks about the campground cost, but have you thought about the gas milage to get there? Or how much the activities cost? Or how far away the campground is to a grocery store?
When we stayed in a campground in Zion, we were 20 miles from the closest grocery store, and you know what we did? We ate out a lot more, which cost a lot more. These are things we didn’t think of before choosing our campgrounds. We also found when the weather was bad, we ate out a lot more (because cooking outside sucks in the rain). Lesson learned: location plays a big role in budgeting.
Know your Electrical Load
We have a 30 amp electrical load so the camper easily converts to a basic household outlet if we need to. It’s important to know how much electrical load each of your appliances are, however, because you don’t want to over-do the system. For instance, say your rice maker is 5 amps and electric kettle is 12…you can’t also run another 15 amp appliance at the same time. Bigger RV’s have 50 amps, but those sites are often more expensive, and not all campgrounds offer 50 amp electrical outlets. This is another one of those things we had no idea about before leaving on this adventure. It pays to do your math, folks.
For us, internet runs our life. If a campground has spotty wi-fi or none at all, we have to create our own hotspot. After reviewing this for several weeks, we decided to go with the *Verizon jet-pack 4G LTE because it had the most credible reviews out there. And we couldn’t be more happy! This hot spot is super FAST! But here’s the downside, it only works if you have cell phone service. Total bummer when you’re in the mountains. In Zion, the cell service was bad, and the campground internet was also horrible. We picked Verizon because we thought it had more rural coverage, and for the most part it does. While we generally prefer being closer to nature, the need for internet has inspired us to pick many locations closer to metropolitan areas.
This is still a hard one for us but we are learning a few tricks.
We had never heard of this but when we were in a pinch to get a package we found out about general delivery. In the USA, did you know you can have packages/mail sent to a post office? No PO box needed. All you do is make sure the post office offers this service (normally one per town does) then send the mail to General Delivery, Name, City, State and Zip Code. Easy! All you have to do is bring your photo id to the post office to pick up. It will look something like this:
Carpenteria, CA 93013
Mail to the campground
Another option is to have your mail sent directly to your campground. Call or look online because not all campgrounds offer this service but pretty sure most (if not all) KOA’s do.
Other Mail Services
Some RV clubs come with mail forwarding services. You can set their address as your permanent address, and then they forward mail to your current location. We hear Escapees has the most reliable service for mail forwarding and they’ve been doing it for over 20+ years.
Things happen and things change along the way. Want to stay at a place for extra days? Or get snowed in and can’t leave because the roads are bad? You want to choose places with leniency in their cancelation policies. We’ve seen everything from 24 hour notice with full refund to 1 month notice or they will take 50% of the cost. Also, some campgrounds ask for the complete cost upfront for the reservation while, again, KOA’s don’t.
Do they take reservations?
A few more times than we would like to admit, we chose a campground that did not take reservations and were “first come, first serve.” Every. single. time. these campgrounds were full by time we got there. Again, want to support the little guys BUT sometimes it’s worth the piece of mind to have a site for the night.
Memberships to consider
Memberships are an old school thing that RVers love! Here a few that we have:
Get 10% off at every KOA you stay. This really adds up quickly!
A LOT of people recommended Good Sams and, honestly, we’ve never used it as a reference. They sent us a huge book of their campgrounds around the USA and we had zero space for it.
Again, a lot of people recommended Escapees to us for their mail forwarding services and general RV support. We have yet to use them but worth checking out!
In conclusion, there is no such thing as a perfect campground for everyone. Some people want something long-term while others want a nice weekend getaway. Some people want something rustic and close to nature, others want more luxury with amenities. What is great about one campground or city, may be the same thing that’s not so great about it. No matter what your camping style, do your research. Look for reviews online to make sure it’s a match for you. And after all, if you get somewhere unexpected…it’s ok to change course! That’s all part of the adventure!
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Want to read more?
Here are some reviews of campgrounds we’ve visited so far: