Campground cruising: How we pick a great spot to camp


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So how do we pick a great spot to camp? Well, we do some campground cruising–by way of the internet super-highway. If there’s one really important lesson we have learned over our years of camping it’s: Carefully research the campground, because the environment will often make or break the trip. Fortunately we have had mostly positive experiences due to that research, and hopefully your trips will be too with a few tips to help make the process a little easier:

Step 1: Decide where you want to go

Typically we use our camping trips to go places where there is something in an area that we are interested in seeing or doing, whether along the outdoor trail, on a historic path, for amusement fun, or just some city life. Sometimes we even choose to camp so we can visit family who live several states away.

 

When we had the pop-up campers we would typically only choose one campground per trip to cut down on the set-up and tear-down time. However, this meant that we would routinely drive at least an hour in different directions to visit regional attractions. One of the major benefits of upgrading to the travel trailer is that set-up and tear-down time has been greatly reduced. This gives us the freedom to stay at more than one campground during a trip so we can camp closer to attractions that we want to visit.

Step 2: Start the campground research

This is typically the longest and most difficult process. I usually start with Google to get a feel for any campgrounds within about 30 minutes from the attractions that we are hoping to visit.

First I usually check state parks, the Army Corps of Engineers, National Forest Service, and national park websites to determine if there are any public campgrounds in the area. One of the most extensive websites to search for these types of campgrounds is Reserve America.

If there are not any public campgrounds in the area or if we need something closer to a highway, I will then explore private campgrounds. We have found that KOAs or Good Sam Campgrounds are frequently located with easy access to highways.

Once I have an idea of the available campgrounds, I then check campground forums to find out information about these campgrounds. Some of my go-to websites are the following:

You of course have to take other reviewers’ opinions with a grain of salt, since everyone has different standards, and therefore different opinions about different campgrounds. Also watch the date of reviews, since many campgrounds can change–for good or for bad–as time passes. Reading through other people’s observations, though, can be helpful to get a better feel for the campground. (Which is especially important when you have a wife with high bathroom standards!) Once I’ve finished researching, I can narrow my campground choices and from there I will base my decision upon which one has the best reviews in the best location for our touring.

Step 3: Selecting a site

Once I pick the campground, then the debate becomes which site to reserve. This usually means a pad of paper and lots of mouse clicking (more on this in a minute). However, I will sometimes call the campground directly and ask a few questions to guide the search. Sometimes this is a helpful move, other times it is a total waste of my time–it all depends upon who answers the phone. The questions that I typically ask are:

  • Which site is the most secluded;
  • Which sites have afternoon shade (in summer) or full sun (fall/spring);
  • Which sites are close to water (if it is not a full hook-up);
  • Which sites are on higher ground and not in a dip (so if it rains you are not in a pool);
  • Which is the most reserved site (i.e. most popular).

If I am solely using the internet for reserving sites, here is the method to my madness:

  • I use campground maps to determine where bathrooms are–because of young kiddos, Kristin likes to be somewhat near to them when we do not have full hook-up.
  • I read site descriptions for length of pad and whether it has shade or sun.
    • Our camper is 31 feet long, so if I can, I get sites that are at least 40 feet so that the van will fit on the pad too.
  • I take note of the ability to have slide outs, or any other limitations of the site.
  • I note distance to other campsites and if the campsite is on the inside or outside of loops. We typically like to be outside of loops as you are more likely to not be backed up to another site.
  • If available, I will look at pictures of the campsites–this is very helpful to determine slope and distance to the next site.
  • If a website does not have pictures I will bring up Google Maps and BING Maps to determine some of the features of the site. If the campground is heavily wooded this is not as easy to do.
  • Once I have all this written down, I rank my choices and then, with Kristin’s input, I settle on a site to reserve.

Of course, there will be times that the site you really want will already be reserved, so ranking the sites you like is beneficial when you get to the reservation step.

Keep in mind that some campgrounds will not let you select a specific site; rather you will have to pick a type of site and then you select a specific site when you arrive. While campgrounds do this to maximize site usage, I have mixed feelings about it. On one hand it is great that you have a definite reservation but don’t have to commit to a site until you see it in person. However, when you arrive at the campground if there are only a few of those types of sites left, they might not be the sites you would typically pick if you had the option.

Step 4: Print reservations and build an itinerary to give to family for emergency contact information.

Step 5: Start researching all the things to do in the local area–but that is for another post!


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