Camping across America is a great way to really see the country up close and personal. It is also a very affordable way to travel. But camping is not for everyone. And not everyone has the same idea about what camping means.
For some, it means minimal supplies, tent and sleeping bags, in a remote area where you can appreciate being relatively alone with nature. For others, it is a “traveling” house, that moves from mini-resort to mini-resort, with lots of opportunities to meet new people and participate in organized activities. And then, there is everything in between.
If you are thinking about doing a road trip, camping along the way, as we did, you should carefully consider camping styles and your own expectations. Some outdoors enthusiasts see the ideal camping experience as a rugged backcountry, minimalist adventure. Other campers may feel insecure in a primitive forest campground accessed by poor roads, and would prefer a well-regulated facility with a live-in campground host. Then there are those folks who are just looking for a place to pull their trailer onto a manicured lawn, set out a barbecue grill, and split time between the Jet Ski and the golf course. Figure out which type of experience you will find most enjoyable before making your plans.
STYLES OF CAMPING
Camping options can be divided into three basic types: backpack camping, car-tent camping, and RV camping.
BACKPACKING: Backpack camping is the most “extreme” minimalist natural experience. Here you carry everything you need on your back, and hike through trails, selecting your own campsite, and dealing with basic survival challenges such as finding water and even finding your way. It allows for amazing experiences of the natural world, and the satisfaction of overcoming physical and mental challenges along the way.
It also requires time. To truly enjoy this experience, you must have enough time, at a minimum, to hike-in and hike-out again. So while it is a great option for a “break” during a roadtrip, it is not such a great option for day-to-day lodging.
Additionally, backpacking requires a minimum of physical fitness, as you need to be able to carry your gear, and walk uneven trails for a certain distance. When considering this type of camping, obtain trail maps in advance so you know the distances you will have to walk, and also what type of terrain it is (walking 4 miles on flat land is really different than 4 miles up a mountain). Also, make sure you have the right equipment (and know how to use it), especially if you are going to a more rugged destination, where trails may be harder to follow and might require real orienteering skills (i.e., using a map and compass), or where water sources might not be readily available. And always make sure you have basic emergency supplies,including water and/or water purification tablets or filter.
CAR-TENT CAMPING: This is the “typical” camping option for most people, as it requires only a minimum of equipment (a basic tent and some sleeping bags) and can accommodate campers of very different skill levels. It is also the most versatile — you can camp anywhere from remote primitive tent sites to regular family campgrounds complete with all the comforts of home. And tent camping can be great for only a few days or for a long stretch of time. Basically, you “drive-in” to your site location, and pitch your tent. From this “base” you can go hiking on trails, exploring by canoe (where available), or participate in any other activities available in the area.
RV CAMPING: “RV” stands for “Recreational Vehicle”– a “camper,” “trailer,” or “motor home.” This is the most “luxurious” option, as some of the RVs are truly homes on wheels — with air conditioning, satellite TV, and all the comforts of a fine hotel. This form of camping allows you to travel the country in comfort. However, there are some disadvantages: besides the obvious high-cost of renting one of these (assuming you don’t already own one), you should be aware that RVs can’t go everywhere. If you are interested in primitive or rustic sites, RVs cannot access these locations, and depending on where you are traveling there are also some roads that they cannot take (for example if you are traveling Route 66, RVs cannot take the Sitegreaves Pass road to Oatman).
PLACES TO CAMP
The USA has a vast range of camping options. Everything from primitive campsites at the end of dirt trails, with no amenities to lush locations with live-in hosts, showers, laundry facilities, electrical hookups, and a complete schedule of organized activities. Campgrounds are “public,” meaning managed by a government entity (either federal, state, and local agencies) or “private,” meaning a “privately-owned” facility operated as a for-profit business.
Camping on Federal Government Land
The U.S. national government manages quite a lot of land across the country, and while not all of it is open to camping, much of it is. There are three categories of Federal lands where camping is allowed: National Parks, National Forests and Bureau of Land Management land.
Most visitors will chose to camp in some form of “developed campground.” “Developed campground” is the official term for an area that has been designated for camping, and can have a wide range of amenities. Sometimes a “developed campground” is little more than an official sign, and maybe a fire ring or two. Other “developed campgrounds” have extensive facilities including restrooms, running water, picnic tables, ramadas, dump stations, and sometimes even power hookups. Most such facilities are considered “US Fee Areas” and require a nightly payment for use.
NATIONAL PARKS: Most National Parks preserve some area of unique and amazing natural beauty — think the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, etc. — with breathtaking scenic vistas that make each visit special. National Park campgrounds are invariably clean and efficiently run. They are expertly developed in a way that respects the land, while allowing campers to safely experience the best of the surrounding natural environment with minimal negative impact. Most provide amenities such as bathrooms and access to drinking water. Campsites are well patrolled by rangers and campers must observe strict quiet hours (usually between 10:00 P.M. and 6:00 A.M.), which means you wont have to worry about noisy neighbors or disturbing generator hum. As a bonus, the rangers lead nature walks, give lectures, and host evening campfire programs that are geared to both children and adults.
Depending on the park, campsites can be remote and rustic or crowded close together. To get an idea, see how many sites are available in a specific campground area. If there are many sites, chances are it will be crowded. If there are only a limited number of sites, or if you need a special permit to access the area, you should think about securing an advance reservation. Though these sites may be well separated, so that you feel you are alone in the midst of the natural splendor, most of these locations are in high demand, and fill up well in advance.
NATIONAL FOREST & BLM CAMPGROUNDS: National Forest service and Bureau of Land Management campgrounds range from remote and extremely primitive sites to well-maintained facilities with live-in campground hosts. Many Forest Service campgrounds strike a good balance between comfort and rugged outdoor living, offering well-spaced sites in a pristine setting, while providing basic amenities such as purified water, picnic tables, and, sometimes, indoor plumbing. They also tend to be less pricey and less crowded than national and state park campgrounds. Many primitive forest and BLM (Bureau of Land Management) camps are free.
NATIONAL FOREST & BLM DISPERSED CAMPING: Both the National Forest and BLM allow “dispersed camping” in certain areas of the land under their control. “Dispersed camping” means that you are free to set up your own campsite anywhere, outside developed campgrounds, in the forest and in the wilderness areas. Obviously, these areas have no facilities such as toilets or treated drinking water. Check with the National Forest or BLM for specifics concerning campsite selection. Sometimes campers are required to obtain a no-fee “permit” or locations might be limited in order to protect endangered flora and fauna.
Generally speaking, dispersed camping is permitted anywhere on BLM or Forest Service land unless otherwise posted, usually with the following rules:
State Park campgrounds are often more “developed” than those on Federal government land. Some can be in amazingly beautiful locations with well-spaced campsites nicely secluded, while others can be densely crowded with tents and RV’s packed so tightly you feel like you are camping in a parking lot. When considering state park options, it is best to research the individual park to see what kind of facilities are offered. In some places there are cabins, lodges and other types of structural accommodations available in addition to the usual choices of tent or RV sites. It is also a good idea to find out what kind of activities a park offers, as a place that is ideal for fishing may not be so much fun for swimming. Or if you are hoping quietly paddle a canoe in a pristine setting, you might want to avoid a lake that allows motor boats and jet skis.
In some parts of the country, town and county parks have campgrounds. These are hit or miss, and sometimes require residency or advance permits, so you should research these options carefully before setting out.
Privately operated campgrounds are very different than the public land options. Many private campgrounds, like the popular KOA chain, have a resort atmosphere, including showers, laundry facilities, pools, putting greens, a general store, and other amenities. There are those located near a highway that cater to overnight travelers — whether in a tent or an RV. Others are strictly RV parks, where people settle in for a long vacation stay.
TERMS TO KNOW
As you are researching campgrounds, it helps to understand a few key words commonly used to describe the facilities: