- National Parks: We love the idea of staying in National Parks when they have camping available, but have had mixed experiences. Some National Parks only have "dry" camping sites with no electric, water, or sewer. You can run your generator during specific hours only. Other parks are run by vendors, and you are basically sitting in a parking lot in the middle of the National Park. After some of these experiences, we look more carefully at the National Park options before we book. If it is a very large National Park, and the RV park is centrally located within it, we will put up with the conditions for the convenience of location. If you do decide to stay at a National Park, you will most likely need to reserve far in advance. You can reserve up to six months in advance at recreation.gov. If you plan to visit at least three National Parks in a year, it is definitely worth buying the Annual Pass for $80. This does not give you a discount on camping, but it gets your vehicle into the park without paying the entrance fee each time.
State Parks: Not surprisingly, some state parks are fabulous, and some are not. In general, we find that they give us the bigger RV sites and more "primitive" experience we are looking for. Each state park manages their own reservations, although many of them use reserveamerica.com. However, you sometimes have to go to the state site first, and then click through to that state's specific reserveamerica.com section. Another good app for finding a park is the "Oh, Ranger" app available for your smart phone or tablet. How far in advance you can reserve varies - up to a year in advance. Many of these parks also book up very quickly. Try booking a park in the Florida Keys, in December, for instance.... Barbara set her alarm to be able to make a reservation the first possible minute they were available (several days in a row) and could not reserve a site eleven months in advance! Most states also have annual park passes available. Some offer discounts on camping and some don't. You have to consider each one to decide if it is worth it to purchase the pass. We have quite a collection of them ourselves!
Commercial or privately owned Parks: There are many privately owned parks. Many of these parks are part of camping clubs, such as KOA, GoodSam, Thousand Trails, Encore, Passport America, and others. Many of these camping clubs offer a discount if you pay for a membership. All the clubs have both printed directories as well as online directories of their member parks. Some have a monthly fee, and then you are able to stay a certain number of nights free at their locations, or receive a discount. Some of the camping club options:
- KOA - You don't have to be a member to stay, but you can become a member to get a discount. Generally they are: Conveniently located near main interstate highways, well maintained, have a lot of amenities (pools, etc), and are pretty expensive.
- GoodSam, Passport America - Independent RV parks become members, and are included in the directories. The parks also receive ratings from GoodSam or Passport America. You pay a membership fee and receive a discount. We have found GoodSam discounts to be easy to understand and pretty consistent, and definitely worth the membership price. Passport America parks were not as consistent with their discounts. Many did not allow you to get the discount if you made a reservation, or did not allow discounts during peak season. We dropped Passport America because it didn't work well for us with all the restrictions.
- Thousand Trails / Encore: Thousand Trails is a network of parks where you can pay an up front fee or make monthly payments and then you can stay in their parks for free a certain number of nights per year, and discounted rates after that. They sell memberships in geographic zones. You also get discounts at their partner Encore parks. They often offer deals where you can get two zones for the price of one, or other discounts when you purchase a membership. We signed up for a four year membership with them for two zones, and feel that we have already gotten more than our money's worth. But you should definitely consider where their locations are, because they don't have locations everywhere.
"Free", less expensive, or unconventional options:
- National Forest or BLM (Bureau of Land Management) - Especially out west, we have found a lot of National Forest campgrounds and BLM land where you can camp for a very low fee, or free. These are typically very primitive campgrounds, often not very large sites, and usually dry (no electric, water, or sewer). We have not camped at any of these because they don't take reservations, roads and sites are pretty rough, and we don't usually camp dry. I don't have a good source to share where you can find where these locations are. Usually locals know about them. I know there is an entire community of RVers who love this kind of camping, which is also referred to as "boondocking".
- Walmarts, truckstops, or casinos - For a quick one night stay, there are some retailers, most notably Walmart, who will allow RVers to park in their parking lots. Truckstops will usually allow this also. We have also found a surprising number of casinos that will allow you to park for a low cost, and some even had hookups. There are some apps that help with finding these locations, and also provide information on which will allow you to stay.
- Military bases - if you are a former military member (thank you for your service!) you can stay at many military bases across the country. Barbara's parents are retired from the Army, and they have stayed at many bases across the country and have had positive things to report. We have not stayed at one, but have heard that any prior military with a DD214 can stay.
- City, county, or other local parks - We have found several very basic RV parks run by cities or counties. Often they are free (or free for the first night or two) and then priced very reasonably. Some of these we have learned about from family or friends, and others I have found on rvparkreviews.com. Surprisingly, they often have decent electric and water.
Barbara was shocked when her Mom told her that she never made any reservations over all the years they have traveled in their RV. Barbara, on the other hand, has yet to go a single night without knowing exactly where they were going to park for the night. Whether you are at one of these extremes, or somewhere in the middle, there are many options and resources for choosing your backyard!
We tend to prefer the more "out in nature" experience, so we usually try to find a national or state park first, and then if that is not an option, we will look for what we call commercial or privately owned RV parks. I have two favorite online resources for finding RV parks. First, I simply search for "rv parks" on google maps in the area where we want to stay, and then click into the individual RV park websites. My second favorite resource is rvparkreviews.com. Not only do I get reviews of the parks, it is useful in finding parks in a particular area.
Price can vary greatly, from free to over $100 per night in some very desirable places. Many parks offer discounts if you book weekly, monthly, seasonally, or even yearly. There are also "resorts" where you can purchase a spot. On average, we probably spend about $25 per night, but we move a lot, and are focused on specific destinations. Many people we know spend less than $400 per month. And there are truly many free options, if you are willing to dry camp.
Zion National Park. One of our favorite backyards!