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Camping Life Corner: How to Choose the Best Campsite
How to Pick the Best Campsite
Tips and tricks to help you get the best site for your money
By Stuart Bourdon
Having a wonderful camping experience is a combination of factors. Some of those are providential, and a few are completely out of your hands. Luckily, there are some you can control. It's impossible to control the weather, but you can keep track of it and update your gear as conditions dictate. And the campground may not always offer many choices, depending upon its size and reservation level. Sometimes you just have to go with the flow and enjoy. The good news—with proper planning, quick and accurate assessment in the field, and some flexibility, you should be able to find just the right spot in any campground.
Private and public campgrounds both have a place on the outdoor destination roster. Which you choose often has to do with your style of camping. Private campgrounds (KOA, Jellystone, etc.) offer a more controlled and manicured park-like atmosphere where the focus is often on activities (movie nights for kids) and recreational facilities (pools, etc.) inside the campground, and are more likely to have full RV-camping amenities (power, water, sewer hookups). Public campgrounds (state parks, national parks and forests, Army Corps of Engineers) tend to deliver a wilder, less controlled experience, and activity and recreation are typically more outdoor-oriented (trail hiking, fishing, boating), and are less likely to provide power and sewer hookups.
Either way, you can improve your chances of an enjoyable, rewarding stay by paying heed to some simple guidelines.
Plan Ahead When Choosing a Campground
An advanced reservation is suggested for any campground, public or private, and for many, it's a must. If you make your reservation online that's fine, it's convenient and almost all campgrounds—public and private—offer online reservations now. Before you do, though, make a point of contacting someone (forest ranger or park manager) by phone (best) or e-mail (second best) to ask questions about the lay of the land. Have a campground map (most have one online) and orient it so you know which direction is North, East, South and West.
When making considering a campground, think about whether it's down in a valley, on top of a ridge, or half-way in between. Campgrounds down in the bottom of deep canyons and valleys can be colder during the day (especially in the morning) because of the lack of sun, and can be damp and subject to ground fog. Ridge top sites can be more exposed to weather extremes and make for a cold blustery camp. Sometimes finding a spot in the middle is best. One that's also sheltered from the wind, but exposed to morning sun, would make it the perfect find in our book.
Ask questions such as: Which way does the prevailing wind blow? Does it chance direction from morning to evening? Where are the trees and other prominent features in the campground?
The answers to these questions and others like them will allow you to position yourself in the campground where it best suits your needs. You may want to be where a cool evening breeze could most easily reach you, or want to know which sites in the campground are most protected from the wind by trees or other natural breaks.
Find out which sites are exposed to the morning sun if you like a quick warm-up when waking up. If you prefer a shady afternoon, ask which sites have trees or tall hills to the West to block the hot afternoon sun.
Find out where the bathrooms are. You want to be close enough to walk to them in the middle of the night without tramping across the entire width of the campground. However, you don't want to be so close that you hear the toilets flush when you're trying to enjoy a good night's sleep in the outdoors. And find out if they are pit or flush toilets. You don't want to be anywhere near pit toilets on a sweltering summer day.
Ask about fires. Are there fire pits? Can you have a fire at that time of year? Or are there just grills for charcoal cooking? Can you bring your own fire pit? Some campgrounds that don't have fire pits will allow the use of the new portable bowl-shaped outdoor fire pits (there are even nice dome-topped, screened units) that are so popular and widely available now.
Can you bring your own firewood? Many national and state forests and parks are no longer allowing campers to bring in their own wood. This is not because the park wants a monopoly on the firewood sales market. It's because of the increased risk of invasive species being introduced into the forest through firewood brought in from areas that have already suffered from tree-killing bark beetles and other damaging insects.
Ask about other camp amenities such as picnic tables. Do the bathrooms have hot showers? Where is the dump station if there is one? Are there sinks for washing cookware? Is there a camp store and what does it offer; and if not, how far is it to the nearest store for supplies?
As you begin asking the park ranger or campground manager these basic questions, you'll begin to think of others. In time, you'll come up with your own personalized list of questions to run through before you give them your credit card number to secure the campground reservation.
We all hope that nothing bad happens (have a plan to avoid trouble), but should always have a plan in case it does. It's a good idea to know the location of the nearest hospital where ever you are staying, at home, on the road or in camp. If you camp with pets, the closest veterinarian would be good to know. Ask the campground contact for recommendations, and then follow up with your own research.
One last thing before saying "thank you and goodbye" and then hanging up the phone; ask for detailed driving instructions to the campground. Sometimes there are little quirks in the course that can't be understood by simply looking at a map or typing an address into your GPS. In addition, roads get closed, washed out, renamed, removed; you name it, we've seen it. Always get detailed and up-to-date directions from a reliable source on-site before hitting the road.
Arriving at Your Campsite
Arrive as early as possible. This gives you more time to reconnoiter the campground and make sure it's all it's cracked up to be. Things can change, and you might want to, too.
Trees are great for shade and as wind blocks, however, when considering a campsite that places your RV directly under trees, first make sure there are no "widow makers" (broken and loose branches or debris) tangled up in the tree that could come tumbling down on you in a stiff wind or storm.
Don't camp under a lone tree, especially on high ground, if an electrical storm is expected. You and/or your RV may become a lightning rod in the event of thunderstorm.
If you have a site with hookups (water, power, sewer), inspect the electrical source and make sure you have power to your camper. Also look for leaks in the water spigot or seepage from the sewer inlet. You do not want to spend the weekend dealing with a wet or stinky campsite.
Avoid sites with hazards such as anthills, large bee or wasp populations, or piles of rocks or thick brush that may harbor snakes or other pests. Take a good look around before committing to a site. There's no reason to invite trouble if you have the opportunity to change your campsite upon arrival.
Never set up in a natural watercourse. This is really only a concern when engaged in "dispersed" camping in areas where there are no improved sites. If it looks like water flows through your chosen campsite when it rains, choose another site. A rain storm, even dozens of miles away in the hills, can quickly turn your camp into a creek.
Speaking of water, it's easy to get caught up in having a site right next door. After all, who doesn't appreciate a shimmering sunset reflection on still water or the babble of the brook? Think ahead, though. Is that babbling going to drive you nuts at midnight when you're trying to sleep? See how loud it is when you are in the tent or trailer. And still water, depending on the time of year, can mean bugs, especially around dusk.
Any problems should be reported right away. Inspect your reserved site as soon as possible after arriving at the campground, and if needed, immediately let the ranger or park manager know that you are requesting a move. Come prepared with empty site options in hand, you'll have better luck making a change. With proper advanced planning and some quick thinking, you can improve your chances of getting the perfect campsite.
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