Finding Campgrounds Isn’t Always Easy

I’ve spent quite a bit of time recently trying to book our travel, and I thought I would take a minute and talk about how challenging it can be, especially for a newbie.  I knew from reading Howard that he spends hours finding really great campsites, but I guess I thought as long as I did X, Y, and Z, then I would find them too.  The problem is that everyone’s situation is very unique and the more limitations you have, the more difficult finding campgrounds can be.  At first I was really down on myself, thinking I was doing something wrong, or maybe wasn’t spending enough time on it, so I called my friend Deb who seems to be a genius at this planning, and spent an hour on the phone with her finding out exactly how she is doing it.  I got some terrific tips, but I also realized that my restrictions and her restrictions were not the same.  So I thought I would write down my steps (along with challenges) in the hopes it might help someone who is new to this as well.   These steps start after you have determined an area of the country you would like to be in and a rough time frame.

1.  Will you have cell coverage?  Most of my work is done on the phone and although I don’t have to have 4G I need at least 3G for emails and conference calls.  Deb told me about a terrific app called Coverage? made by a couple called Technomadia who have been working from the road for a long time.   They have some great information on their website about finding campsites, internet on the road, boondocking, and many other topics, and the app was certainly worth the very reasonable $2.99 fee.  You can select your carrier and the type of coverage (3G, 4G, etc) and it shows the area you are going to visit.  Recently I spent quite a bit of time looking up campsites on the east side of Glacier National Park in Montana only to discover that the cell coverage for ATT is very spotty.  Some people will buy a short-term coverage plan from another carrier in these situations but since my work phone is ATT, I always need ATT coverage. 

2.  Do they have sites you can fit into?  As I’ve discussed before many of the older campgrounds are designed for 35′ trailers, or shorter, yet more and newer fifth wheels and Class A’s are 40′ -45′.  If you have a longer rig it will significantly reduce the places you can stay.  Many people downsize to a smaller rig because of this factor, but since we love ours and it’s here to stay we just need to be aware of this.  Unfortunately the length information on many websites is either missing or inaccurate.  Sometimes you can fit in a 35′ space in a fifth wheel because the back-end can hang over the pad, assuming there is no obstruction behind you. Sometimes campgrounds have a few sites that will fit 40′ or longer. The best websites list the footage by site, but those are rare and in some cases that information isn’t 100%.  Calling the campgrounds to verify seems to work the best and I also use that as an opportunity to verify the cell coverage in Step 1.

3. What is your budget?  Our budget is roughly $25 a day (sometimes we spend more and sometimes less), but we use that as our starting point and this is where length of stay comes into play.  Some places have seriously discounted weekly or monthly rates and others are part of clubs like Passport America, Escapees, or Thousand Trails that significantly reduce the cost but only on certain days of the week or for a certain number of days. Also, contrary to what I used to believe State Parks are not always the lowest price.  You can certainly make the case that they provide the highest value, but you also have to be extra careful the criteria for Steps 1 and 2 are met. Again, a phone call for this step is often valuable because they might have a monthly rate that they are not advertising on their website…many do.

4.  Would you stay here? This is a very subjective question and very difficult to know if your aren’t there.  Many people solve this problem by waiting to make reservations until they get to an area.  This can work well if you have a high amount of freedom of movement and the willingness/ability to boon dock overnight if you can’t find a place. We are trying to schedule our travel days on the weekends and be settled during the week for my work.  We also need to know at least a couple of months in advance where we will be so I can schedule work flights.  I know most people don’t have these restrictions, but others may not be comfortable with a high level of ambiguity in their travel plans…especially not in the beginning, so these factors can cause you to make a decision with limited information.  RV Park Reviews has been very helpful.  I look for patterns of comments more than any single one and if nothing else it might give me pause and look farther down the road.  Also, really good comments can solidify my decision.  We also look at Google Maps, especially for long stays.  You can see the area that surrounds the campground and then use what you see to ask questions such as…Is there traffic noise?  How close is the nearest grocery store?  It’s VERY easy to see on Google Maps whether a campground is a parking lot or a wooded area with water nearby.  Those things can’t be fudged, but it won’t really show you what the tree height is so if you are in a bigger rig keep that in mind. 

5.  Do they have availability?   Unfortunately you often go through steps 1-4 to find out they have no availability during the time frame you want to be there.  This can be incredibly frustrating to get to the end and find that out, but I think it’s better than falling in love with a campground and then seeing it won’t work for you because of 1-4.   You might feel differently and do the steps in a different order, but I would rather look at what I can have and discuss changing our travel times than look at what we can’t ever make work.  I’m not much of a window shopper. Sometimes the availability information is on-line, but you need to be careful because it isn’t 100% accurate.  If you are reserving through Reserve America or KOA (one of the big reservations sites) you’re probably ok, but with the smaller ones I tend to pick up and call and reserve over the phone.  Plus many of the family owned campgrounds take only reservations over the phone.  Some of these will accept credit card deposits, but others will only accept cash or a check in the mail.  So they are holding the site until your check comes theoretically.  This can be a little stressful until you get a confirmation the money was received which in some cases can take a couple of weeks. If you live in the area, these campgrounds are not hard to book, but doing it from another state can be challenging.

As I am going through the various steps I have numerous windows on my computer /Ipad open, because as I am answering the questions in the steps above I am going through the various campsites one at a time.

  1. Have Coverage? open to see the area with a 50-100 mile radius
  2. Check Ultimate Campgrounds for city/county/state/ federal parks
  3. Check Recreation.gov for federal campsites which include Bureau of Land Management and Corps of Engineer sites
  4. Check Passport America
  5. Check Escapees Campground book for deals
  6. Look at RV Park Reviews for trends in comments for sites you think are possibilities

So as I was sitting here writing this I thought I would go and try to book two weeks at Glacier Park in August.  Because it’s a Sunday and still winter there I was unable to verify cell coverage and if we would fit.  Kept going though because I was feeling pretty good about it and then picked a spot and got all the way down to the end and read the Park Reviews.  First three reviews for St. Mary campground in Montana state very clearly that there was no ATT service.   So that was two hours spent and I am just left frustrated at the end and frankly without the immediate energy to start all over.   Shame on me…I should have followed my own steps.

So after taking a break …Deb called me and what ensued was amazing.  I was working from the computer and desktop.  She was working from her laptop and phone in the car while they were driving and between us we managed to coordinate a week together right outside of Glacier Park.  It was fun doing it with Deb because it took some of the pressure off, and making decisions on what would work gave me a higher level of confidence.  So happily I can report we are all set from Aug 22nd – 30th and then Steve and I will both be taking a week off from work so we can go deep into Glacier and not have to worry about cell service.  Should be a ton of fun…miss Deb and Steve quite a bit and can’t wait to see them.

Lessons Learned

  • Don’t underestimate the complexity of planning your trips, especially if you’re new at it.
  • Don’t panic! You will figure something out, it may just take a while.
  • Figure out what your process is and follow it to avoid making yourself crazy.
  • Don’t skip steps as it will probably burn you down the road.
  • Planning with a friend is more complicated but can also be more fun as many hands make light work.

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5 thoughts on “Finding Campgrounds Isn’t Always Easy

  1. Awesome post! I’ve been asking others for their process for selecting a site and really have not been getting any replies. Fortunately, with all the time we have to plan, I’m able to cheat and have a spread sheet going for times when I read about a good site. So, I’ll be watching where you stay as well for good leads.

  2. It is always a challenge finding a good site for the first time, especially with specific requirements. Ours are similar to yours with the exception of the need of cell service and hookups. Fortunately, this opens up a lot more places.

    Sounds like a blast to be able to hook up with Steve and Deb this fall!

  3. Great Post Tracy! I always make a spreadsheet for our trips, with mileage, diesel stations, cost, the address of camp, with phone number. I always ask about trees as we are 13’5″ tall, we have noticed that they don’t always keep their trees trimmed and boy can they do damage. I always have a back up campground as well. It is time consuming doing the research, think you found a great place only to get there and the campground does not meet your requirements, so you are stuck with your choice and are very disappointed. We don’t have to worry so much about the cell or internet but we have to worry about enough room for this big 45′ coach, as well as enough room for the truck.

    What a fun trip it will be with Deb and Steve they always find the best places!! Love their awesome pictures!!

  4. Ah, you’re gettin’ there. We’ve moved around quite a bit so getting better at it. You will too! Hopefully more of us 14’ers will be in and around the area of Glacier! Looking forward to hearing about your adventures between now and then!

  5. Pingback: First Year – By the Numbers | Camper Chronicles

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