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 🙂