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. Whether you’re booking on Recreation.gov or navigating another website (or going analog and picking one out in person!) there are a few tips and tricks to getting the best one in the campground.
First, a disclaimer. The user experience on Recreation.gov (and some state websites) leaves a lot to be desired. I don’t blame you if you get frustrated, but this isn’t a tutorial for how to use these websites. This is a guide to the campground jargon and clues to help you pick the best location (hint: not by the bathrooms).
Which loop do I want?
Well, first, what’s a loop? It’s how campgrounds are organized. It’s basically the section of the campground where specific campsites are located (campground = the whole shebang, campsites = individual site that you book/camp at).
Assuming you are camping in a tent, you should consider camping on a tent-only loop or a loop that doesn’t allow generators. This is also sometimes referred to as a non-electric loop. On Recreation.gov, this information is generally listed in the Facilities section on the overview page that first comes up when you’re looking at a campground’s webpage. Camping on a tents-only loop is generally quieter and can make you feel like you’re a little more ~one with nature~. I personally haven’t found it that fun to camp in a sea of RVs when I’m in a tent.
If you do have a trailer, or just a large truck, make sure to look at any vehicle length or night limitations for specific campsites. Because of trees, sharp turns, or tiny roads, certain loops may not allow vehicles of a certain size. Take these seriously because even if the rules aren’t enforced, you might get stuck!
Campground Amenities and Facilities
–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.
–Flush 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).
–Drinking Water: Don’t also assume there is drinking water available unless it is specifically mentioned. Some campgrounds have nothing, some have water pumps that only provide water appropriate for washing dishes.
–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 if you are purchasing from a campground host. 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 or Fire 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.
Things that only matter for RVs
–Dump Station and Utility Hookups (Electric, Water, etc): The first is a place to dump your poo and the second is where you hook-up to get electricity and water. I’ve never camped in an RV so I’m not familiar with how these work, admittedly.
What Does “Walk Up Campsite” mean?
It means you better be ready to haul all your crap up to the campsite from your car. 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 or pulling into the parking space provided at standard sites.
The length of the walk varies wildly from 10 feet to a quarter-mile, so if you want to try out a walk up campsite, make sure you research exactly how far you’re walking. When in doubt, you can always call the provided phone number. On Recreation.gov, this is on the “Contact” tab at the top of the campground page.
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 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.
Trees are nice to have around your campsite! They keep you from roasting when the sun comes up in the morning, or getting blown away if it’s 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 with a restroom icon. You don’t want to stay RIGHT next to the bathroom, especially if they are vault (non-flushing) toilets because they are smelly. For bathrooms with flushing toilets, there’s less concern about the smell, but the exterior lights of the bathroom, sounds of people tromping back and forth, and the flushing noises can be a bit disruptive. 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.
You can also tell which campsites might have a bigger gap between you and your neighbor. If you see one without a campsite on either side, go for it! Worry less about someone across the road from you then someone next to you, particularly if you don’t have many trees or bushes to separate you.
At super-popular national parks like Yellowstone, you don’t get to actually pick your campsite, you’re assigned one by the park. The one we were assigned was not private at all and dinner around the campfire was practically a group activity. My husband and I drove around multiple loops of the Canyon Campground and visited a few first-come, first-serve campgrounds while we were there and none of them had much personal space. We thought we just got unlucky with the site we were assigned, but really we just needed to accept that you don’t go to Yellowstone for privacy.
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. You can also check maps of the park available online.
National parks often provide their own activities and programs, many of which will leave or take place at a campground. Interpretive programs are programs to help you “interpret,” or learn about, the outdoors. Think stargazing, nature hikes, and other ranger-led activities that help you learn more and better understand the beautiful sights around you!
Being in close proximity to some sort of 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.