Okay, lets go ahead and get the bad news out of the way first. You don’t always get to choose your campsite. Some campgrounds operate on a first come, first served basis and if you show up late on a weekend, the best spots (or all the spots) can be taken. Other campgrounds will let you reserve a site in advance, but not a specific site. Again, unless you get there early, you might be stuck with a cruddy site. Lastly, there are loads of campgrounds, especially in the national parks, that let you reserve specific sites. However, unless you reserve far enough ahead of time, all the good ones can be taken. See the pattern here? Plan ahead. Book in advance if you can. Especially the more popular places like Yellowstone and The Smokies and such. A lot of those parks start taking reservations up to six months in advance. For campgrounds that don’t let you pick a site until you get there, try to plan your trip so your arrive there on a weekday. The weekends are always more popular for camping, but if that’s your only option, try to get there as early as you can on Friday.
So. Let’s say the stars align and you get to pick whatever site your lil’ camping heart desires. How do you choose? Well, first you have to pick a campground.
A lot of the national parks (especially the big ones) have multiple campgrounds to choose from. Do some research on their official nps.gov sites to see what each one has to offer. One may have better mountain views while another may have more active wildlife in the area. Some may be busier (nosier/more crowded) than others. Different campgrounds may have different amenities. Study the maps of the parks to see where each campground is located in relation to where you’ll be spending most of your time. If all of the campgrounds in a national park are full, there are often privately owned campgrounds near the entrance to the park.
For state parks, you might have to do a little more digging to get good information. Most state parks are smaller and have just one campground. For those that do accept reservations, they may require a two-night minimum on weekends. Some state parks aren’t the best at keeping their websites up to date, so it’s always a good idea to call and ask about their current procedures for securing a site.
You can always check google or tripadvisor.com for reviews of any campground. Just remember to take them with a grain of salt, especially the negative ones.
Once you’ve chosen a campground, it’s time to decide where you’re going to pitch your tent.
Most national parks use recreation.gov and reserveamerica.com for booking campsites. Both of them provide detailed information about each individual campsite. How many tents can fit and what size. If there are picnic tables, water pumps, fire rings, grills, shade, etc. Another great resource is campsitephotos.com. When choosing a site be sure to look at a map of the campground. How close do you want to be to the bathrooms? Do you prefer a site that has more privacy and is set a bit apart from the rest? Don’t choose a site too close the main entrance of the campground because there will be a constant flow of traffic. Be careful of choosing a site that can be used by tents and RV’s because you may end up surrounded by generators and big screen tvs. Look for the “tent only” campsites. They are usually grouped together away from the shared sites. Sometimes there are even “tent only” campgrounds. My personal favorite are walk-to sites. These are usually several hundred yards away from whereyou park your vehicle and offer a little more solitude. You have to lug all of your gear a little farther, but it’s definitely worth it in my opinion.
One important thing to remember: If you don’t get the “perfect” campsite, your trip is not ruined. Just make the best of it and enjoy your time in the outdoors with your family.
If there are no showers in your campground, there may be some pay showers nearby outside the park. Google can help you find them.
Many parks that don’t accept reservations for individual campsites will accept reservations for their group campsites. Find some friends to travel with.
Don’t be scared to ask if you can change your site if you’re not in love with it.
Follow all the campground rules. Especially regarding food storage and wildlife. The only thing that sucks worse than raccoons eating all of your food because you didn’t store it properly is getting a $75 ticket to go with your growling stomach.
Even if you want to be close to the bathrooms in case you need to make a mad dash in the middle of the night, don’t get a site right beside it. The constant noise of chatter and doors opening and closing. People walking right through your site. Bright lights shining through your tent windows all night. It will get old very fast.
I cannot say this enough. If you want to camp at one of the popular national parks, you need to book as early as you can. Parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite will have their campgrounds almost completely booked up within the first few days of sites becoming available.