U.S. national parks and campgrounds are almost inseparable things. If you want to see these parks, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to avoid camping for at least a few nights. In this LCN Outdoors article, we’ll discuss how to camp in the United States and the issues involved.
Campgrounds are specially designated places where you can use your own tent or RV (mobile home). Yes, in the US you can’t just pitch a tent anywhere you like, you have to find a campground for that (there are exceptions, about them below). They are located almost everywhere in the United States: both in the national parks themselves and in other places.
Campgrounds are paid, free, with facilities or completely “wild”. I’ll start with the simplest.
Remember the “definition of a national forest”. This is an area owned by a country (not a state) and governed by federal law. The forest is clearly marked on all maps, plus there is a very prominent sign at each entrance indicating that you have entered a forest. It should be noted that the “forest” here is probably the most natural desert with sparse shrubs and a density of one large tree per square kilometer.
In theory, you can stay in any national forest, in any place you like. In practice, each forest has its own nuances. For example, somewhere you may not be allowed to stay overnight because of the threat of fire, somewhere you can only camp in specially designated areas (camping areas or campsites), somewhere you can’t physically stay at all because there are no ramps or fences.
At the entrances to national forests, there are almost always special information boards detailing all the conditions. For example, if you are only allowed to stay in designated areas, there will be a map with those places marked on it. If campfires are banned, this will also be mentioned.
It is not difficult to find a place close to the road – look for signs of people who have been here before (ruts, trampled places). There is usually a campfire with rocks on it. Be careful – just because there is a campfire doesn’t mean you can make a fire. This may not be allowed at this particular time due to the threat of fire (there will be information on this at the park entrance) and the fines for violation can be quite high.
Keep in mind that there are no toilets or other facilities, including water sources, in such places. However, there are some well-equipped campgrounds, but they are located in areas off the beaten path or inaccessible by car (for walkers only).
Of course, most campgrounds are fee-based. They range from semi-wilderness campgrounds with minimal facilities to campgrounds with showers, laundry facilities, and even cabins. You can find them in all national parks, state parks, and the same national forests. For convenience, I have divided the campgrounds into the following categories.
- for tents only (those with parking spaces) at a cost of $20-$50
- for RVs (motorhomes) at a cost of $20-$100
- mixed (these are the most common).
All of the paid campsites we’ve been involved with have at least one table, a flat area for tents, a campfire equipped, and a toilet. There was often water, at least technically, for washing hands and using dishes. Sometimes there is drinking water as well.
At some campsites, you can even take a shower. There is usually a charge ($2-$10 per person), but sometimes it is included in the camping price (overnight stays there are usually expensive). In general, if you want to shower and don’t plan on staying in a hotel, you should look for large RV campgrounds on the road where you can easily get yourself cleaned up for the same $2-$10 fee.
RVs usually have additional services such as electricity, water, and the possibility to drain all “sewage”. Usually, these services are paid for separately, but in some places, they may be included in the price of an overnight stay.
How to Pay for Camping
Some campsites can be reserved in advance, others offer first-come, first-served camping. The second option can be interpreted as “first-come, first-served”. Usually, there is a mix of campsites – half of them can be booked in advance and the rest are for those who cannot plan their trip in advance.
A. Online payment
The first option everything is clear, you book a place on the website and pay immediately (for example, with a bank card). We have never done this, but I don’t think there could be any difficulties.
However, if you make a reservation by phone or email, remember to get a confirmation! If you are making a reservation by phone or email, remember to get a confirmation. Check all the necessary information immediately: cancellation and refund policies, details of early or late arrivals, rules, etc. Please note that in most cases, you will be charged immediately.
B. Payment to the ranger
If there is a kiosk with a ranger at the entrance, it’s easy – you give him the appropriate amount and that’s it, you go where he says (most likely, the ranger will tell you the place himself).
C. Self-funded (Iron Ranger)
Many campgrounds are self-paying. They have a special iron box at the entrance (hence the name “Iron Ranger”), which is exclusively for payment. I will show you how it works in practice.
- When you arrive at the camp, there must be an information board at the entrance. If there is no ranger booth, somewhere near the sign you will see a slotted metal box with some kind of sign that says “pay here”.
- Next to the payment box, there will be another envelope with money in it. You have to take the envelope and go choose your own place.
- Each seat will have a pillar with a number on it. On the same stamp, there will also be a paper clip with his/her details and the date of parking (this piece of paper is torn from the envelope). If there is nothing on the peg – then the space is empty. Or, in less popular places, expired papers can hang for days on end if the ranger doesn’t clear them, so check.
- Once you have chosen a place, you immediately fill in the required fields on the envelope: the car number, its make, your name, the number of the chosen place, the date of payment, and the number of days (how long you will stay). You have to fill it twice; on the stub and on the envelope. Then you tear off the stub and fix it to the post.
- Put the right amount of money in an envelope and take it to the entrance and put it into the money box. That’s it, the place is yours.
I recommend that you always have pocket money on hand, as getting change on the spot can be difficult.
The rangers usually come very early in the morning to collect the money (empty the box), but they may also visit during the day to check that everything is in order at the camp. We noticed that in sparsely populated campsites, rangers may not come for days. Some people take advantage of this and don’t pay for their space. But I wouldn’t recommend this; firstly, it’s not fair; secondly, the amount isn’t significant, and saving £10 isn’t worth the hassle if you get caught.
Where to Find a Campsite
List of tools to find a campsite.
- Recreation.gov campground reservation site
- Official website of the National Park Service parks, is not very official http://www.nps.gov/index.htm
- LCN maps and articles
- all the places we stay overnight, and many other campgrounds – everything is marked on the maps posted in the articles about the parks and lodging.
- Google Maps – just type in “camping” or “campground” + the name of the park (location) of interest.
OSM Maps – wonderful offline maps with many different point-of-interest (POI) markers, including campgrounds. To use these maps, for example, you can install the OsmAnd program on your smartphone or even download the maps to your GPS.
- Printed state maps and related brochures – they can be purchased on-site, at any gas station, or in advance, for example at Ozone. At gas stations, if I remember correctly, these cards cost about $5-$10. You can also purchase them as souvenirs.
- Park cards – are issued at the entrance of any park.
- Travel Guides– For example, LCN Outdoors has a lot of information about campgrounds.
The way we find campgrounds is very simple: if we have a paper map of the state, check it out; then we check the data on the OSM map; if we really don’t find anything (which is very rare), we search the internet and continue our search on other sites.
Visitors are often afraid that some popular parks don’t have campgrounds, so everything needs to be reserved in advance. In fact, we haven’t seen this yet. If the place is popular, then there will be more than one or even two campgrounds, so there will definitely be a place.
However, if you have absolutely no time to find a campground and don’t need any surprises, it’s best to book everything in advance. Given that some parks are very popular with tourists, some of these campgrounds are fully booked months in advance. This must be taken into account – either book in advance or already look for it on site.
During our two-month trip, we only encountered a shortage of spots once, and that was at Zion National Park, but we just had to keep an eye out for people leaving in the morning. As practice has shown, campground people come actively on Fridays and many leave on Sundays.
If by some sudden miracle there is not enough room at the campground where you plan to stay, there is always something else nearby. Near any park, at the entrance, there are usually other campgrounds. For example, we spent a few days at one of them, Capitol Reef, and it was free. In addition, we were the only guests there.
Campfire at the Campground
With campfires, everything is different in Asian countries. First of all, they can only be burned in specially designated places. Although, in campgrounds, each place is almost always equipped with a special fire pit for this purpose.
Secondly, you will have to buy firewood. Yes, yes, firewood piles can lie around, but you can’t collect and burn them, you can only buy them. You can do this at most gas stations, park stores, or other places, there are plenty of places. A small bundle of firewood will cost you $3-$10. I think that is enough to warm up for one night.
Usually, you will find notices that it is not appropriate to burn firewood brought in from other places, only those that are grown here. What if the redwood bugs move to the peach and decide to establish a colony there? Or bring seeds of some undesirable plant in the area. Usually, this is just a suggestion, not a hard requirement.
The important thing to note here is that there are exceptions. At some free campgrounds, there are signs saying that you can collect dry firewood to burn, but don’t be overly enthusiastic. In other words, be cautious, don’t destroy live trees, and don’t build a fire.
I recommend stocking up on sausages ahead of time and frying them over the fire at night. However, romance.
Let me remind you again – if you don’t stop at an official campsite, but find a place in the national forest and carefully study all the leaves attached to the information board at the entrance – what’s there that says it’s impossible to build a fire now?
Rules of conduct – How to Camp in the United States
All campgrounds have something like “quiet hours”. It usually starts at 10 pm and ends at 5-6 am. It’s not customary to make a lot of noise at this time, or a neighbor will call the ranger and he’ll make you noisy.
Don’t litter where you live. Take away all the trash and don’t leave anything behind. Nothing. After you leave, the place should look like no one has been there for a long time. If you suddenly see trash left in front of you, don’t be lazy and take it away. Maybe someone just didn’t notice.
In some campgrounds, food must be stored in special steel boxes to protect it from theoretical possible encroachment by bears. Read more about the relationship with horseshoe feet here.
If the campground has a toilet, don’t pour dirty water near your place (after washing dishes, for example) into the toilet. And, if there is water there, there will definitely be a special place for washing and draining dishes – usually a large sink with the word “gray water” on it. The rest is up to you. The main thing is how to behave.
Why You Should Stay in a Campground Instead of a Hotel
First of all, you’ll be closer to nature. The deer won’t come to visit you in the hotel but go to the campground to relax.
Secondly, it is much cheaper than a hotel. Campgrounds cost about $10-$20 and hotels in the park and surrounding areas are much more expensive.
Third, you sometimes don’t have a choice. In some places, hotels are either overcrowded, ridiculously expensive, or non-existent. That said, they will be dozens of miles away from where you might want to greet the dawn.
What You Need for Camping
We didn’t see any equipment rental services directly at the campground, so everything should be your own: tent, sleeping bag, carpet (for sleeping bags), utensils, and preferably a stove for cooking.
The related article “The Camping Checklist and Essentials You Need to Know!” describes everything you need for camping in detail here.