Camping is supposed to be a simple way to connect with nature, but if you’ve never done it before, choosing a campsite can seem much more complicated. Fortunately, you can book a campsite online in most parks at Recreation.gov. Even if you can’t book your campsite online, playing around on the website will help you learn more about potential campgrounds.
First things first. Assuming this is your first time and you are sans-RV, you will want to pick a site that is suitable for tents. A tents-only site can be nice if you want to have a more traditional camping experience. Some campgrounds offer tent-only loops or loops where generators aren’t allowed, so make sure to check the description of each campground you’re looking at. Worst case scenario, there are usually at least some limits on the length of RVs. It’s not that fun camping in a sea of recreational vehicles.
So you’ve found a tent-friendly site. Now what in the world do all of these “amenities” mean?!
–Vault toilets: not an actual toilet. Basically a glorified port-o-potty since it’s just a hollow toilet in a larger room. This does NOT include a sink or running water of any kind. Bring hand sanitizer, and if you have one, a headlamp since you can’t accidentally drop it into ~the hole~. Sidenote: do not ever look down into the hole. You will see things you will never unsee.
–Flushing toilets: A real, live, flushing toilet complete with modern amenities such as sinks, lights, mirrors, running water, and hand dryers/paper towels. Soap runs out quickly, though, so I would bring extra sanitizer or soap with you.
Make sure your campground has one of these options! You don’t want to be going THAT rustic on your first trip. If no toilets are mentioned, do not assume there are toilets! Not a good look for your first camping trip (or, to be honest, any camping trip I want to go on).
–Firewood: A firewood vendor usually indicates that the park itself sells firewood at some facility on the campgrounds. A simple “Firewood” listing means there is a campground host you can purchase firewood from. You will need to be able to pay in cash in both instances. If neither of these are listed, plan on purchasing firewood at a supermarket or gas station once you get close to the campground. Remember, do not bring firewood from home! It is very harmful to the ecosystem.
–Camp Store or Ranger Station: This means there is basically a mini-mart within a short distance from where you will be camping. Prices will be higher, but if you’re a novice camper, it can be super convenient to just be able to drive over to the ranger station and pick up something you forgot. Ladies – this is a great place for any emergency tampons or other ~feminine hygiene~ products you need in a pinch.
Not having a store or ranger station is not a dealbreaker, however. You’re probably close enough to some semblance of civilization (or at least you should be for your first time out) that it’s easy enough to go grab something.
–Campfire Ring: Basically, a fire pit. Every basic campsite usually has a fire ring or designated area to make a fire. Some have grates to cook things on, some don’t. Bank on there not being much of a grate to set food on and buy one of these handy dandy skewers. You’ll need it for s’mores anyways.
What Does “Walk Up Campsite” mean?
It means you better be ready to haul all your crap up to the campsite from your car. Usually, it’s not very far (depending on the campground), but walk up/walk to/walk in all mean the same thing: you have to walk all of your stuff to your site, as opposed to simply backing into the parking space provided at standard sites.
By the way – you won’t need to worry about utility hook-ups. Those are irrelevant for tent campers.
Walking up to your campsite isn’t the end of the world, but for your first trip it is REALLY nice to be able to just walk ten feet to the car. Plus, if the campground does not provide bear boxes for you to store food in, you have to keep everything in your car, which can make cleaning up after dinner and s’mores a pain (especially if you’ve had a few beers).
Picking The Actual Site
If you can book online, there will be a map for you to look at of the campsite. It will look something like this:
You can zoom in and out on different loops, and the really nice thing about the Recreation.gov website is that when you click on one of the icons, it will most likely bring up a little picture of your potential campsite. This is a great way to check out how sheltered the site is and how close it is to other sites.
You will want as many trees as possible around your site so that you aren’t roasting alive when the sun comes up in the morning, or being blown away if it gets windy. It’s also nice to have a little privacy between you and your neighbors.
As for actual locations, once you zoom in on the map it should indicate where the bathrooms are, which you should stay a safe distance from for obvious reasons. Don’t be so far away that you won’t make it there if you get up in the middle of the night, but give them some breathing room. Same for dumpsters, although they’re not always marked on the map.
Proximity To Other Activities
My final tip is to do a little bit of research about nearby activities. Personally, I don’t go camping just to sit around and eat delicious camping food (although that is a big bonus). I go camping to also go hiking, so I want to make sure I have access to trails wherever I’m going.
Most campgrounds will have access to trails, but if that information isn’t already listed on the campground description, then try heading over to Trip Adviser or the campground reviews on Outdoor Beginner.
A close proximity to general civilization is also a good bet if you’re going out on your first trip. You’ve got plenty of time to head out into the wilderness, so start simple. Google your campground’s name and see what is nearby on Google Maps to judge this.