With the number of vast spaces, excellent national parks, and unspoiled nature, camping in the USA is a great way to live it all in full. Being fully immersed with the environment around you is a whole new experience, unlike any other form of tourism.
It is not extremely easy if you are inexperienced, though. The first advice for somebody new to camping and campgrounds would be to travel with somebody who did it already, an expert. That will make the experience a level or two easier.
If you don’t have experience and want to know more for yourself, then keep on reading. Let’s see everything you need to know about camping at campgrounds.
Camping In the USA – The Basics
Not all campgrounds are equal, nor have the same rules. Campgrounds in USA are split into two main categories: federal and private. On Recreation.gov you can find a list of the federal ones.
These are usually the cheapest ones for camping. They can be booked for an affordable price like 20$ – night, whereas private ones can be 50% more expensive (as a start). Of course, the rates may include extras like shower access, internet, laundries, etc. It may be worth paying much more if you are going to use those facilities often. It depends on your style of camping.
Most campgrounds will offer you a monthly or even a yearly rate, with an advantageous flat price. For long staying, it is a perfect way to save money.
Private campgrounds can give you a wealth of amenities over federal ones. If you’re up to splurge, some offer unlimited access to showers, restrooms, endless hot water, free internet, and even swimming pools. They can be a great choice if it is the first time you are going camping in the US.
Book Your Campground Early
This is an advice that is generally valid everywhere, not only for campgrounds in the US. Yet it may be even more advantageous for the camping grounds that are
nearby like national parks; Yellowstone, Glacier, Grand Canyon. The campgrounds around those parks fill up quickly, so do book well in advance.
Some campgrounds in the US work with a first-come-first-served system. They don’t accept any reservations, but when they open in the morning, they let you in according to the number of open spots that are left. If you are late, you may not be able to enter and will have to look for another campground for camping.
It goes without saying that it is vital then to be at the entrance as early as possible. Especially in peak season, long queues may form outside these campgrounds. To manage to be early at the entrance, you may need to book the night before at a motel in the area. Wake up early, be there as quick as you can, and hope to get a place. Some campgrounds allow you to enter even if full. Then it’s up to you to look for a spot or for a dweller that is leaving soon. Like you do in a car park.
Whenever and wherever you find your spot for camping, be sure to pay within the first 30 minutes when you settle. Otherwise, somebody else may snatch it from you.
If you don’t want to try your luck at these types of campgrounds, book one that allows reservations. Some need to be booked through a ranger or the Recreation.gov website. All will give you a number that corresponds to a spot in the campground. Head there, and you will find your place.
Free Camping In the US
Another option is to find a free campground for camping without all these bookings and fees. Also known as dispersed camping, free camping is an alternative for more experts, as these campgrounds provide you no facilities whatsoever. Staying and camping in these campgrounds are free, but you won’t have any restrooms, showers, internet, trashcans, and any other amenity. You’re on your own.
Therefore, bring everything you need with you like water, food, etc. The advantages of these free campgrounds are they’re economical, they’re free, but also that you won’t have to deal with the booking and the internal regulations like
the other campgrounds. Plus, they are often in quite remote but stunning places, so the views and nature are worth the hassle.
The disadvantages are that it is often difficult to access by the road to these campground sites, or not at all. Make sure you and your car can manage to reach the campground. No internet is available at the campground, and not even mobile signal is present most of the time. Free campgrounds are in very remote places that technology doesn’t reach. Be prepared to deal with this isolation.
Don’t think that free camping means you can do whatever you want. You still may need a fire permit (a permit that allows you to light a fire), and yet will have to abide by the leave no traces principle: don’t leave anything behind when you’re done with your camping. Don’t litter nor pollute the nature around you. Always be respectful and thoughtful about the environment.
Camping In the USA – General Tips
Remember that as with hotels, reservations can be cancelled at campgrounds too. If you booked a campground in a not-so-nice spot and another with a better position becomes available, you can cancel the first booking and book the new one most often. Sometimes you can be lucky if somebody else cancels their reservation mere days before your arrival.
Don’t count on having mobile signals all the time, even near national parks. Be ready to spend nights and days alone with nature. Bring a book if you fear to feel bored at the campground.
A tent is the quintessential camping equipment, but an RV is more comfortable to live on for most. You can rent one everywhere, even close to the campground of your choice. An RV can carry a lot more than any car and gives you more privacy and independence.
In national parks, you may be allowed to camp in the wild, even outside the properly designed spaces of a campground. It is not necessarily forbidden to ask a ranger if it’s possible. That will be a great solution if all the campgrounds in the area are booked (happens with popular places).
Campgrounds – What To Bring
Make an inventory of the things you can’t do like at home and find ways to bring them or substitute them. Don’t count on electricity to be present everywhere, nor to be strong enough to power all your electronics. Camping is an excellent lesson in minimalism and self-sufficiency. Take the chance to learn a few things about yourself and your dependency on some objects. With that said, do bring everything you need. Don’t ruin your stay at a campground because you thought you could do without too many objects. In the beginning, nobody can.
Don’t be stingy on your sleeping pad. A good one can make all the difference between a comfortable night of sleep and an awful one. Foam pads are common and cheap but offer less comfort. Inflatable ones give your body a much larger and softer surface to rest on but can be punctured quite easily. Handle them with care. Take with you the thickest and most comfortable one that you can carry by yourself.
A covering for shade or against the rain may be a valuable item to not have to spend hours inside the tent.
Food is essential, and a good tip is to pre-cook some at home and bring it with you to the campground. Vegetables like carrots, parsley, and potatoes can be pre-fried and last quite a few days. Same for meat, even if probably you can light a fire at the campground and cook it there. Tortillas can be an impressive dish to make in advance and bring it with you. Boiled eggs also can last a couple of days and fill you up quickly. You don’t have to cook a lot before leaving for your camping experience in the US, but a bit helps in having more variety there.
Of course, anything you need for cooking as stoves, dishes, cutleries, and so on will have to be brought by you. Lots of water for cooking, especially if the campground doesn’t offer clean water.
Don’t forget the lights! Lamps and flashlights are a must to be able to see and do things after sunset outside of sleeping. Some campgrounds can have lighting. Free ones won’t.
Enjoy Your Camping Experience In the US
Above all, enjoy the camping experience. Leave with flexibility in mind, focus on being in contact with nature. Take the camping experience slow. If something doesn’t work or it’s not entirely comfortable, don’t get pissed off or discouraged. Camping is a different way of traveling and one that is not about comfort but being free and immersed in the surroundings.
Having some difficulties in replicating your exact life back at home is part of the fun of camping. Campgrounds in the US are, for the great part, well-kept, organized, safe, and easy to find. The nature is incredible, the spaces are aplenty, and there’s a long tradition of people camping every year. They will be happy to help any beginner in difficulty. Plus, rangers in national parks are there to support visitors, don’t be afraid to ask them for any info or help.
Choose your area and go look for a campground near it. You won’t regret trying camping in US!