One of the popular posts here on CampingBlogger is Find Great Campsites Online, where I talk about using online resources like Reserve America and Recreation.Gov for locating campgrounds in a particular area. Finding that perfect campground is only half the battle, though. It is just as important to locate the best camping spots within the campground, too.
What makes a good camping spot?
Your particular camping situation will dictate what makes one camping spot better than another. If you are tent camping for longer than a weekend, you will probably want to be located in close proximity to a drinking water source. If you are camping in an RV, however, you probably have plenty of drinking water and even your own bathroom, so the location of these facilities is not nearly as important.
Another consideration, particularly for family camping, is a camping spots location on the road system within the campground. Popular campgrounds, particularly those that are located around major tourist areas like national parks, offroad recreational areas and beach communities, can have a great deal of traffic in and out of the campground.
Fortunately, the major reservation sites provide basic maps of the campgrounds that show the locations of the various facilities, greatly increasing your odds of choosing a good one. For non-reserveable campgrounds, the USFS and BLM sites usually offer similar information, but not nearly the level of detail that the two reservation sites offer.
Finding good camping spots
This is a screenshot of the Whitney Portal campground in California’s Inyo National Forest on the east side of the Sierra Mountains. It’s pretty much in the middle of nowhere, which is the first thing that I look for in a campground! Since I have three small children, I like to look at the probable traffic patterns within the campground so that I can narrow my search to camping spots that are off of any major thoroughfares.
Once I have established where the major traffic patterns are likely to be, I’ll zoom-in on the map and try to weigh the pros and cons of the various campsite areas within the campground. In this campground, I would immediately throw-out area #2, as those sites back-up to the major road. I’d probably discount area #3 also, since two of the sites are close to the bathroom, and a bathroom symbol with no drinking water probably means a pit toilet – even worse. The sites in area #3 further away from the bathroom sit across from other camping spots, which is also not ideal.
Area #’s 1 and 4 look pretty attractive. If I were tent camping and thought that I’d be needing to replenish my water supply during our stay, I’d certainly be interested in reserving one of camping spots in area #4 along the creek, due to their closer proximity to the drinking water. Packing 40 pounds of water back to area #1 could get old really fast! If I was in an RV, however, or if water was not a concern, area #1 would probably be my first choice. It is well away from the rest of the camping spots, tucked into its own small loop, and backs-up to the creek.
Spending a little extra time choosing the best campsite can help make a great camping trip even better. Fortunately, today’s online resources make finding the best camping spots an easier task than it has been in the past. What are the things that you look for in choosing a particular campsite?
My wife and I have been thinking about going camping for a while now, but we didn’t know how to choose the right place. One thing that really stood out to me is that you say to find out the major traffic patterns. It would be nice to know that you will be able to get into an area that won’t have too many people.
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Jenn – good idea on the pictures. I keep a file of the campground maps that they handout and circle the one we stayed at and add some notes to it. We tend to camp at the same site in a particular campground (if we liked it, that is). Banging doors on the pit toilets – there’s one that drives me crazy!
Good post, covers all the basics you need to think about.
I only camp in Wisconsin right now. There is one Forest I go to that has what I want nature wise and I feel comfortable there as a single camper. One spring before the trees and ground foliage leaved out, I walked around and took pictures of most of the campsites with the # in the pic so I could remember what things looked like. Sometimes I do the non-reservable thing and show up on Sunday to get a site, and sometimes I do the reserve thing and spend the $9 because the campground fills up on some weekends that might be the only time I can camp.
I have experienced the smelly bathroom thing(Smell it from my campsite), loud neighbors (there is also the 6th grade girl party camp out…oh lord!), too many lights next door, showers closed because not enough staff, and banging doors on pit toilets and the techno light display in the middle of the night! During my last trip the people in the next campsite didn’t show up at their campsite one night for some reason (rain!) and had left out a lot of food (in crinkly wrappers). The night critters had a feast that night (2am-ish) and ran around the area hollering to each other about their good fortune, dragging those crinkly wrappings through the underbrush.
Once, camping with family in Yellowstone, we reserved a site that turned out to be a cleared field, with a buffalo trail running through our campsite. We didn’t know that’s what it was and pitched our tent over it. Beside the tent was a big circular wallow type of thing… Come sundown, here comes the buffalo who manages to not rundown the tent, flops in his/her big wallow thing, rolls over on his/her back and rubs around like a cat in the garden. One of the kids slept in the Suburban that night. The rest of us(6) went for the tent. Did you know buffalos are pretty stinky? He/she was gone in the morning, but it was a little strange that Yellowstone would offer that spot as a campsite since they give you a paper as you come in about how dangerous the buffalos are. We were suppose to be there for 3 nights. We packed up and left the next morning and passed on the site fee. Wasn’t worth the hassle.
If I am going to camp in a campground I don’t know, I would consider where the roads are (don’t want to hear cars), and how close I am to the next site…probably my biggest concerns.
I could use some help finding a campground that meets all my needs. I would like to camp at or near a beach in Southern Ca with tent and rv sites and we need wheelchair accessibility. We camped at Big Sur this year but I really would like to try something more south. What I am trying to attempt is to find something so that my family that lives in So Ca don’t have to do all the traveling every year. It’s time to trade off and have us up north drive down south. Is there any one who has information or maybe a website that can help me? Thank you
Tiffany – I have not camped in SoCal since I was a kid, but there are some great places:
Just wondering if you’ve done camping with your family in southern California. We’re trying to find a great place to camp with some friends and our very young kids (2 1/2 and 9 months). We haven’t camped in years and even then were pretty inexperienced. Any advice or places would be appreciated. I’m overwhelmed by all the choices! Thanks
The majority of campsites nation wide have to keep a certain percentage of campsites open and available as walk-ins. So if you get to a organized campsite that offers something like a lake or river near to it, most of the time from my understanding of organized campgrounds, the better sites with the most flat area, closer to the attraction are the un-reservable. Some campgrounds that offer tent only areas away from RVs have a very limited number of tent sites. The resersvable sites are usually the handicapped sites that are completely paved over so it is impossible to erect a tent with stakes. What we do when we go to these kind of camp grounds is plan the trip early enough in the beginning of the week and just show up to see what is available. People normally leave on Sundays so we always plan on arriving on Monday or Tuesday. And once in a walk-up site, its first come, first served, so we are there until we live!
What I dislike about the reserve ahead of time is that their fee is a hefty $9.00 and for what? Plus the fees for using the campsite, or even buying wood from your host if he or she has any. Sometime restrooms are clean as a whistle, most of the time they are not up to my standards. If you cancel, you gotta fight like the dickens just to get 50% back and none of the $9.00 fee. Another item is the maps, they are over simplified for the stupid. There is no good photographs of the lay-out of the land. Your site may on a hill and you’ll have to sleep on a hill(not me). That is why when I get to a campground I try to take as many different photographs as I can of a place so when I share my camping experiences on other websites that accept photos I can show people what that campsite is. If you decide to sleep next to a restroom, there is going to be a lot of foot traffic there and at all hours. Maybe there is a sewer problem and the smell is there. Most campground restrooms have interior lights that stay on at night or light up when a person goes in, will that bother you, it bothers me. Does the door on the restroom close quitely, most of the time they slam shut, can you camp with that, I won’t. If you camp next to the campground host and the maps don’t show you where the host is at; if the campground has campers who are not polite and push the limits established the campground host has to get up and drive their little electric golf cart to the scene, he is making noise trying to get the campers quite. If he has to call the police, whoopee it’s a techno light show for free. If the campground claims that they have flush toilets some time those toilets won’t work so everyone is back to the basic camping toilet. Earlier we use to camp where there were showers available, but when we arrived we found out that they have been closed all season because there isn’t enough people to host the camp and do all the dirty work too. And all it is going to cost you is that $9.00 fee plus your campsite that you have no idea what it looks like or how close to your neighbor you will be.
The only good reason for these reservable campgrounds is if you don’t plan ahead, maybe you can get lucky to get a site unseen that you won’t like when you really want to camp!
I love to be secluded from the world so generally the furthest away from everything makes me happy. Water-side is even better. However, I have a family to think about so being close to the bathroom is important though I’m encouraging my boys to pee behind trees. My wife too would think being next to the restrooms is very important..
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Yeah… even if there are only three other sites on the loop… it only takes one of them to come back from a night time catfishing excursion at midnight and shine their headlights in my tent to wake my kids up!!!! 🙂
I actually tend to only camp in campgrounds where I can drive through and pick a site before I stay. I usually look for a few key things:
1. Shade! Nothing is worse than tent camping in the blazing sun all day!
2. No power boxes or large stationary objects that bees/hornet can have a nest in.
3. A couple trees close together for a hammock, and a couple of other trees far enough apart for a clothes line for beach towels.
4. The location items formerly mentioned. (away from trails, headlights, and pet walking areas)
I suppose it is a product of having young kids. As they grow, we can stray further from home and closer to the commotion.
Hmmm – true about the loop, I hate that. I was thinking there wouldn’t be much traffic on it, though, with just 3 sites. Worst site has to be that one down there by the restroom and the drinking water. I bet everybody (and their dog) walks through that site!
I have a couple factors that lead to my desire to be as far away from the comotion as possible:
1. I tent camp. A thin ply of nylon doesn’t keep much noise out.
2. I have small kids that “sleep” in that tent. Even after a day of outdoor activities, they still are light sleepers.
I wouldn’t want one of those sites on the loop in area #1 where all the headlights would beam right into my tent when people drove that loop. I try to avoid sites that are straight out from sharp bends in the road to avoid headlights.
I also avoid the sites that are right next to the playground to avoid noise. I love the laughter of children, but not at 5:30 in the morning! 🙂
I don’t like to be the campsite next to the pet walking area, or the trail to the wash house either.
I guess I am a campsite snoot!
Thanks John, I agree; quiet, privacy and beauty are essential. I prefer the campsites that have the camping area (picnic table, fire ring, etc.) located behind the parking pad, instead of beside it – they are a lot more private.
Excellent post combining how to use the Internet with practical advice on choosing a great campsite.
My prime considerations are quiet, privacy, and beauty. Distances to water, restrooms, and attractions are less important. However, I don’t have small kids (or any kids, for that matter) that I have to take into consideration.