Finding Cheap & Natural Campgrounds
We’re in the very midst of planning our 2011 trip. Having wintered happily here in Markham, FL we’re starting to get the itch to move again and have decided (for better or worse) to start moving around Jan 24th. Since it’s still the cold period we’ll be hugging the South, travelling the West coast of FL, then along the Southern coast of Alabama, Mississippi, and on towards Texas. There we’ll wait for things to thaw out before moving North to the mountains.
Now, all of this means we need to do some campground planning. We don’t always book ahead, but during “high-season” and for specific locations we’ll usually try to have a basic plan. On top of that we like to stay in unique and natural settings and, as a final cherry point, we want to keep our costs down. It’s not that we’re cheap as such, but campgrounds can take up to 40% of the monthly budget and since our budget varies with our investment income we like to keep things flexible. Choosing the right campground can mean the difference between spending $400/mo to $1000/mo in campground fees….or…camping for free! So, how does one go about finding these exclusive, natural, dog-friendly, frugal spots?
When we first started RVing we used to stay at private parks and used Trailer Life and Woodall’s as our campground guides. It was a tad pricey and most of the campgrounds weren’t exactly the “natural setting” we were looking for (plus some had dog restrictions). So, we ditched this approach and started looking elsewhere which brought me to the set of references we use now:
1/ Public Campground Locations – Public Campgrounds are usually great deals and include lovely, natural (and dog-friendly!) spots like National Forest, State Parks, City Parks, Army Corps of Engineers, Provincial Parks and so forth. There’s a ton of them around, and they’re not always easy to find. I used to laboriously work through each choice individually going to up to 5 different sites (city, state, forest etc.) to locate my sites. Recently however, I discovered http://www.uscampgrounds.info/ which magically combines everything for me. Just click on the map, or download it to your laptop or iPhone and presto! You have almost every public spot out there! The site gives basic details on each individual campground plus locations on the map. This has become my #1 reference site and from there I go check further details using the following:
- Army Corps of Engineers – http://corpslakes.usace.army.mil/visitors/ is the best listing.
- National Forest – http://www.fs.fed.us/recreation/map/finder.shtml and http://www.forestcamping.com/ are the two best references. The first is the “official” forest website. The second is compiled by 2 full-time RVers who do all the research themselves.
- State Parks – Most states have their own website (e.g. For FL, there’s http://www.floridastateparks.org/), so just search on the State you’re visiting
- RVParkReviews.com – http://www.rvparkreviews.com/is the biggest, free campground review site out there and I always, always use this as a back-up to the above sites to see what people actually think of the campgrounds. Not all public campgrounds are listed, but many are. The reviews give you “insider” info on the campgrounds with real experiences from people who’ve stayed there. Invaluable stuff!
2/ Free Campgrounds & Boondocking – The next step over from public, developed campgrounds is to go totally free. That means zero $$, nada moolah and likely no facilities either. What a great combo! The art of camping in these remote locations is called boondocking and most of the sites are well-kept secrets by those who know them. But, there’s a couple of resources to help you discover the main ones and get started on discovering some of your own:
- Online Free Campground Listings – http://www.freecampgrounds.com/, http://freecampsites.net/ and http://www.boondocking.org/ seem to have the most complete listings that I’ve found.
- Online communities – Lots of online RV communities such as Escapees, iRV2.com and RV.net have forums dedicated to boondocking. If you ask around and read the threads, you’ll often get ideas on where to go. If you become a member of Escapees, you can also get access to their “Days End” list with details of low-cost and free sites.
- Books – Don Wright’s “Free Campgrounds” books seem to be the best we’ve found. Not all the campgrounds listed are free, but there’s a good choice of low-cost and free alternatives together with map locations.
- Forest Service – Many National Forests will have “dispersed” camping locations especially if they don’t have a lot of developed campgrounds. Your best bet is usually to visit the office in your area and ask them for tips. There’s a stay-limit (often 14 days), but you can usually also move between sites.
- BLM Land – The Bureau of Land Management manages a ton of public land, a lot of which allows dispersed, free camping. They have a website http://www.blm.gov/wo/st/en.html, and the local office can usually help to give more precise info on areas to try. Many BLM locations do have a stay-limit (again, often 14 days), but some areas allow longer term stays (LTVA – Long Term Visitor Areas) where you can stay up to 6 months at a time for a small fee.
This coming year we’re planning on sticking to public campgrounds, leaning towards more boondocking as we get out West and I’ll be sharing all our locations on the blog. Should you should feel a sudden and generous urge to share your own secret spots with us, we’ll be more than happy to get the tip 🙂SPONSORED LINK:
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We LOooVE Comments, So Please Do
Great post Nina! We just published a new guest post on “Where to Park your Rig in the Sunshine State (http://blog.rvparking.com/2011/01/14/where-to-park-your-rig-in-the-sunshine-state/). I’m sure you have plenty of thoughts on that.
We’re looking forward to seeing more boondocking reviews from you guys on RVParking.com in the upcoming season!
What do you use for charging batteries while camping in “no hookup land”?
We have a generator and last year that’s what we used. Running it once every day or so usually did the job. This winter we installed solar too (you can see details in the blog from Dec) so that will give us even more flexibility.
Thanks for the information, this is a real help in getting started in reducing my expenses and getting more fun out RV’n. The times I have stayed at Forrest Svc Camps have been good, I think I’ll do it more often. I am going to experiment with boon docking also. It sounds fun and adventurous.
It’s definitely fun and we love Forest sites! Let us know how you get on! Nina
John Hicks says
Starting about an hour north of Tampa,
It’s right where US 98 connects with US 19. Haven’t been there.
I’ve read that you can boondock at Shell Mound in the Cedar Key Scrub, off SR 24 about halfway between US 19 and Cedar Key. Don’t know for sure.
At Chiefland, Manatee Springs SP is very nice.
Newport Campground, US 98 in Newport at the bridge over the St. Marks river. Was $15 with w/e last spring. It’s a nice stopover in an area that has essentially no campgrounds. Be sure to go out to the lighthouse at St. Marks NWR; the road is right across 98 from the campground,
A little ways west, south from 98, go have a great dinner at Spring Creek Restaurant.
Boondocking was allowed at the marina under the bridge at Apalachicola for a minimal fee; no idea if that’s still the case.
Ho-Hum RV park just outside Carrabelle is a classic.
At this time of year getting into state parks might be rather difficult and reservations are a must. Although it’ll be rather chilly up there in the Florida Big Bend area and west, it’s a lot warmer than the frozen north and much cheaper than south Florida so the parks may be fairly full.
We’ll be following the same path, probably into Mississippi, but we’re leaving around March 1 and will eventually arrive in the Tennessee mountains about April 1.
Thank you for the outstanding tips! I’ll be adding them to our list of potentials for the trip. Enjoy your own trip this year too. If you’re looking for a sweet forest campground in TN check out Rock Creek in Erwin (I’ve got details in my campground review section for TN). Nina
Thanks for this post – as someone new to RVing (and has animals) these links will become invaluable! 🙂 We also want to trend towards outdoorsy areas when we are not in a contract, versus the stack ’em up places I have seen pictures of.
So happy the post is usefull! We’re so with you on the whole nature and space thing. It’s the very reason we went RVing to begin with. Nins
John Hicks says
BTW, on the way north from the sunny south, Ortona South (COE) on the Caloosahatchee west of Lake Okeechobee is a very nice super-clean little park. There’s nothing to but watch the water slosh but that’s something to do, right?
thanks for the great overview
when i am reading some of the forums i frequent, and when i read where someone who is ‘brand new’ and asking “Where can I get info” – your post is perfect!
So happy it’s helpful! Nina
Manana is D-day for you all and we wish you well in your travels. It seems like just last week you were checking into Markham for the holidays. My, how time flies! Anyway, thanks for the research links. I’ll add my tips at some point.
In the meantime, we want to extend an invitation to linger awhile in SE AZ – don’t just blow past us on your way to the Pacific coast. Although we don’t have a huge supply of well-developed government parks such as Markham out here, there are some nice NATURAL out-of-the-way spots worth visiting along the way.
Check out anything posted by FT RVer Rex Vogel at VogelTalksRVing.com He has some GREAT tips on where/when/why to RV whether you are into birding or just great nature spots west of the Mississippi. His insight into the community, foods, cultures, climate and his favorite subjects – birds – are just wonderful and spot-on.
Tally Ho !
Yup, tomorrow is the big day and I can’t believe it’s all gone by so fast!! Definitely want to spend some more time in AZ next year….nothing like boondocking in the wild, open desert. It’s magical in it’s own way.
Oh, and yes…I follow Vogel as well. Love his posts. See ya on the road! Nina
Hope you have a great (warm) winter. That’s for the campground sources.
The problem I have with driving my diesel pusher coach on dirt roads is that the engine sucks in all the dirt kicked up by the wheels, because the engine is in the back. Don’t you guys go through a lot of air filters? They’re really expensive. There’s also a very real risk that one of the rear tires will kick up a rock that will fly into the radiator fan and destroy the radiator, which costs about $2,000 and takes as much as two months to get the radiator rebuilt… Don’t ask how I know this stuff! (laugh) …I’d love to camp on dirt roads if I had a smaller rig with the engine in the front though.
Our air intake is up at the very top of our rig, so it’s actually not as bad as you imagine. Still, we DO change our filters yearly. We haven’t had much issue with rocks at all. We have mud-flaps on our wheels & another large (long) mud-flap on our back, so haven’t actually had any rocks kick-up. Still, there’s no doubt boondocking on dirt roads will push your RV much harder than private parks. It’s a risk, for sure.
Tanya DesRoches says
Hi there, we are leaving Mayo Florida after 5 months down here (avoiding snow) and heading back home to Prince Edward Island Canada,we plan stop in Georgia around the Savannah area,Myrtle beach,Virginia beach and other locations along the way back home.Can any one give us some good locations to camp in a 38ft. Coach with 4 small dogs.Looking for budget friendly
I’ve not personally been to those areas but I’d recommend checking out the State Parks and freecampsites.net. Between the two you should be able to find some affordable and dog-friendly options.
Thank you for all the information you give. When my husband retires this is something we are looking at. I have a question i have not really seen talked about. That is laundry. Our motor home will not be big enough for a washer dryer but I do not want one any way. looking for ideas on how to do it inexpensively. Laundry places cost quite a bit not to metion what has been put in the machines. Any thoughts about it or how everyone is doing there laundry I would love to hear how they do it. Thanks again and safe travels.
We have an on-board washer/dryer (which I do love), but when we’re boondocking and saving on water we’ll usually use public laundromats. Honestly I’ve not found them too much of an issue to use. Some laundromats are more expensive than others, but most of the ones we’ve been to are clean and have decent machines.
One tip which I DO think helps with laundry costs (in general) is to buy/wear no-wrinkle, quick-wash and quick-dry clothing. Most of what I wear on the road is “camping type” clothing made out of materials that are made to be easily washed and dry quickly. I started using this type of clothing during my backpacking days, and I just love it for travel (in general). Since my clothing is all quick-dry, many times I don’t even use the dryer at the laundromat. I just take my clothing home and hang it around the RV (some folks travel with a collapsible drying rack). Within an hour everything is usually dry. Also I’ll sometimes hand-wash smaller items (e.g. underwear), which allows my other stuff to “stretch” a bit further between washes. Again, having quick-wash, quick-dry stuff helps here (all my underwear is Patagonia).
A last piece of advice is to wait a bit longer between washes. Many laundromats offer “industrial-size” machines which take 4 or more loads at one time and are (overall) significantly cheaper than using multiple of the smaller machines. So, if you are able to wait until you have bigger loads, you can save money over the long term.
Hope that helps!
I’m looking for some information as we are newcomers to this type of travel. We recently rented out our home due to the climate being too cold, and would like to travel. However, the biggest concern is I’m in college and I’m not sure how to handle my work while on the road. The access to the internet is a big concern and then keeping it economical. If anyone can assist me on where to start putting this together.
There are lots of way to get internet on the road, and several options for higher bandwidth plans too. We use cellphone carriers & since we rely on internet to work we currently have 3 providers (Verizon & ATT, plus T Mobile as a back-up). You can see our current set-up here:
The 2015 Wheelingit Internet & Phone Set-Up
As far as learning about mobile internet, the absolute BEST place to do this is thro’ our buddies Technomadia at this link:
RV Mobile Internet Resource Center
They also have a book and a Facebook page:
AAAAnnd they are holding a FREE Webinar on Mobile Internet on May 18th which I highly recommend attending. See here:
Hope that helps you get started!
You have a very informative site. Thank you for posting practical things for us newbies. As I read your post a few questions have come up that you may have answered in other posts that I haven’t read yet. I would like to tell you our situation and then ask a few questions as to what we should do.
I am a planner and I like to know most things, especially financial, up front. My husband and I are planning on full time RVing in two to three years. I will be retired but he will continue working as long as his company keeps him or 70 whichever comes first. He is a computer tech so will need reliable internet and phone on the road. Our reason for full time RVing is that we have one son and family in Oregon and one son and family in NC. We want a chance to spend time with each family for at least 5 months a year. Winter in NC and summer in OR. We also have an aging cat who we can’t leave at home to travel. What we will have to do with my husband’s job, when we are traveling back and forth across the US twice a year, is to stay someplace stationary for 5 days, travel on the weekend, stay stationary for 5 days, and so on until we get to our destination. Even though my husband has a good job we don’t make big bucks so we need to keep it on the frugal side. We love nature and love to explore but we also like to be safe. We are planning for it to take us at least a month to go across the US. So here are my questions:
Can you get good internet and phone reception at the places in your references, public parks, etc.?
If we boondock, how do we know where to get safe water and where to dump waste. (Yes, I know, total newbie)
When we are wintering or summering, is it more cost effective to move around from park to park or to pay for a private park for the full five months? We will want to stay close to the Portland area and to the Wilmington area so we can be close to the kids but we also don’t want to spend a wad for camping.
I have a bit of time before we do this but I want to get as many ducks in a row as I can so we can budget this new phase in our lives without many surprises. I would appreciate any advice you could give me.