Driving with Donna: How to Find Suitable RV Parks & Campsites
Posted: September 20, 2022
Categories: Travel & Lifestyle
How to Find Suitable RV Parks & Campsites
If you’ve followed my blog posts at all, you’ll know that I’m not one to comfortably just hit the road and hope for the best, though I am getting a little more relaxed at it. After all, as I sit here writing this, I have no idea where we will be this weekend. But that’s another story.
Some people meditate, some people jog, others build model airplanes. Me? I plan. And I’m generally pretty good at it. The reward for the time and effort invested is most often when we get all settled into a campsite and Vic says to me, “I like this place. It’s really nice.” But don’t get me wrong, despite all the planning, preparation and careful selection, sometimes you still end up next to the dump station.
As full-time RV travelers, finding suitable RV parks and campgrounds is a full-time job. We are headed home for the fall months, and I am presently working out our route from the Pacific Northwest to Georgia. It’s going to be a fast three weeks, with few opportunities to really stay in one place, but still the process is the same.
1. Make a Plan & Categorize Your Stops
There are as many strategies for finding the best RV parks and campgrounds for your adventures as there are adventures. The first step for me is deciding what sort of experience I am looking for. Even on these longer hauls, our stops usually fall into one of a few categories.
Rest & Relaxation
On a long haul between destinations, we sometimes just want a few nights in a quiet campground with scenic views and very little distractions, so we can recuperate from long driving days. Last summer, on our way across the country from California, we planned a three-night stay at a state park in Abilene, Texas for exactly this purpose.
There wasn’t much in the area that we felt the need to see or experience. The campground was pleasant with nice walking paths along a lake, and it was midweek during the quiet shoulder season, so there was not a lot of activity or noise in the evenings. This was a wonderful respite after being on the road for nearly two weeks straight. We didn’t need any specific amenities, so location and price were the driving factors. Anything else was a bonus.
For us, the act of being tourists in a place for several days means getting up early and heading out to see the sights. We don’t particularly care if the campground or RV Park has any fancy amenities, picnic tables and firepits or if there’s even room to set out our camp chairs and grill. Chances are we will be gone most of the day and crash into bed when we return.
Depending on the length of our stay, we often won’t even unpack the toy hauler garage except to unload the motorcycle. This gives us room to use the folding table inside. We’ve also made do with a small TV tray and a jackknife bench if we don’t unload. If we are fortunate, we’ve found a budget-friendly place with at least power, an easy entrance and exit and close to the things we want to do.
Camping & Glamping
These are stops when the campground experience is the focus of the stay. Are fires permitted? Is there a picnic table? How close are we to the neighbors? Is there a view? Do they have a pool? This is when we look for a place to let the toy hauler ramp down, unload the toys, set up the grills, chairs and other campsite accessories, then enjoy a nearby trail or bike path in the place we’ve stopped.
While we’ve done exactly this sort of thing in a more rustic state park or BLM campground, we splurged recently and stayed at an RV resort with on-site restaurants, pools and hot tubs, a bowling alley and live music events. We don’t go “glamping” often, but choosing this for the July 4th holiday suited our purposes just fine! We’ve learned that staying at cheaper federal and state park campgrounds over the holidays can be hit or miss with crowds and our level of enjoyment.
Chores, Maintenance & Restocking
The more mundane chores of full-time RV traveling can happen at any of these stops, but sometimes we choose a spot specifically for a maintenance project if we can anticipate the need. After all, repairing a gray tank dump valve is not something to be done on a gravel or muddy campsite without a sewer hookup!
Prepping travel meals, deep cleaning, deferred maintenance, picking up a mail drop and using fast internet is often more easily done from an urban RV park in a populated town with a variety of stores and services. If we are lucky, there’s something fun to do nearby when we need a break from adulting.
Just a Place to Park
I recently wrote a post about overnight stops, boondocking and the best places to park and RV for free. On a three-week cross-country trip, there will be several of these!
2. Start the Hunt
Once I’ve decided on a route — in this case an efficient route that avoids potential October weather pitfalls — I’ll look for areas along the way that we’d like to spend a few nights to break up the drive. For this trip, Denver is about the half-way point, and my son just happens to have moved there this summer. So, that seems like a great place to spend a few days touristing and visiting. I’ll fill in the rest of the route with a few boondocking spots, and since we aren’t fans of driving for days on end, I’ll pinpoint at least one additional R&R stop.
In Denver, we want a place convenient to the kiddo with full hookups, so we can refresh the tanks and enjoy comfortable, spacious campsites, and the kids can come visit us for a night if they want.
Using RV Life and Campendium, I can enter some of those requirements into a search for campgrounds while also filtering by ratings, price and RV size to narrow the options. Once I’ve found a few potential spots, it’s a matter of availability, reviews and a peek at the satellite view to get a feel for the place.
How nice would it be to plug all the criteria into one website and see what’s available across multiple campgrounds? Within the state park reservation systems and Recreation.gov, you can sort of accomplish this. Plus, a few nationwide campgrounds like KOA and Sun Outdoors offer broad search options, but for those small mom-and-pop stops or local campgrounds, you must put in the time and effort to contact each one individually.
Let's Talk About Reviews
For reading campground reviews, I stick with websites specifically designed for finding campgrounds like RV Life, Campendium, and to a lesser extent, I’ll read the reviews on Recreation.gov or ReserveAmerica. There’s some math out in the statistical world that indicates most people don’t post a public review unless they are extremely displeased or rewarded for leaving a positive rating, and that’s how I view the more public reviews on Google Maps or Yelp. Think about it, when was the last time you left a review?
When trying to decide on a campsite, I look for a pattern of complaints like unlevel sites, neglected amenities or whatever trait might turn me off. There will always be a one-off complaint about something that would never bother me, so I go beyond the star-rating. If I just need a place to park for a few days while we go touristing, I don’t really care that the sites are close together or that the camp store didn’t sell firewood. I just want to know it’s safe and offers value for the price.
Pictures Are Worth 1,000 Words
Websites that offer reviews with photos are great. But here’s a note to campground owners with online photo galleries: When you focus on the campground mascot or beautiful sunsets and don’t provide me with a picture of your facilities, I get suspicious.
We have a tall 5th wheel, so campgrounds that tout shaded sites are a red flag for me. Using satellite views on Google Maps, street view or Campsitephotos.com, I can sometimes get a sense of the suitability of the campsite that may not be apparent in the descriptions or reviews.
There is another website that I haven’t used, but am intrigued by, called Campgroundviews.com. They offer virtual tours of quite a few campgrounds found on recreation.gov and apparently some private campgrounds. This would be helpful for campgrounds that have a lot of trees where satellite imagery doesn’t quite cut it. Maybe I’ll give their one-week trial a try. Strangely, I’ve never seen them mentioned in social media when someone is looking for websites to find the best RV parks and campgrounds.
3. Make the Selections
Once I’ve found a few suitable places, I’ll compare value, cancellation policies, availability and make the reservation. For our upcoming trip, I won’t book a spot in every place in advance, but I will reserve a few anchor spots, one in Denver, maybe another near Hot Springs, Arkansas, just to be sure we have what we need in those places. Since weather and whims may change our route, the other stops can be more fluid, but I’ll have done some of the research already. Using the apps to save or mark a spot as a favorite can save time and frustration when we are on the road without reliable internet.
Even the Best Laid Plans Can Still Go Wrong
Back in April when the month of August unexpectedly opened up for us, I spent many hours searching for campsites, calling each one to check availability and juggle the options until a three-week plan for the Olympic Peninsula fell into place. Driftwood RV Resort and Campground in Copalis Beach, Washington, was the last stop along our route. The price and cancellation policy weren’t ideal, but it was near the beach, so we splurged and took the risk. When we arrived, the lady who met us to check us in went back and forth to the office a few times, double checked our name and asked for our site number and generally looked concerned. Uh oh.
I followed her into the office, pulling up the reservation on my phone. That’s when I realized our reservation was for the NEXT Sunday – the same date we were to check in at an Oregon state park 150 miles away. ACK!
For the first time in two years of full-time RV traveling, I double booked us for the next week and had nothing reserved for THIS week. All I could do was laugh remembering how difficult it was to get this site (or what I thought was this site for this week) four months ago. I knew it was going to be nearly impossible to find another spot for the full week. The best I could hope for was a few nights here and there. Despite the busy summer season, the campground had one available site for us, but only for a few days. We took it! Looks like it’ll be Harvest Hosts stops for the weekend!
Lippert Scouts Donna Weathers and Vic Mulieri are retired veterans who have been traveling the U.S. full-time for the past two years. They alternate their time between months-long volunteer gigs at state and national parks and road tripping in between those opportunities. Unencumbered by deadlines, pets or kids, they often have no idea what day it is and have forgotten how to set alarms. Their home on wheels is a 5th wheel toy hauler and they love exploring the outdoors, historic places and great restaurants wherever they visit. To follow Donna and Vic’s RV adventures, be sure to subscribe to Donna’s blog at wheretonowus.travel.blog.