4 Tips For Winter-Season RVing in Florida
It’s been a few weeks since we left FL and we’re already well into Spring (seriously, how fast did that happen??!), but before I take you further north I did want to share some of the many tips we learned from our winter stay in the Sunshine State. This will hopefully give those of you planning to come here in the future something useful to refer to.
Florida is a SUPER popular winter location not just for US-based RVers but also Canadian RVers that come down from the blustery north every year, and it’s easy to see why. It’s one of the warmest and sunniest winter spots in the USA with tons of beautiful beach areas, lush tropical greenery and bustling communities. But it’s also densely populated and its popularity means that it can be pricey, plus finding that perfect RV spot can take some serious planning. We came to FL our very first year on the road (almost 7 years ago) and what we learned back then helped us enormously to plan this winter and make our stay more relaxed, a (tad) cheaper and just generally easier all-around.
So how did we do it? And did we like it? That’s what I’ll cover today.
1/ PLAN Well Ahead (Or Plan To Be Flexible)
Perhaps the biggest and most difficult thing for us coming to FL is that we had to start planning almost a year ahead. We needed to stay in a fixed spot (South Florida) within fixed dates, so planning ahead was the only way to be sure we secured where we needed to be at the times we needed to be there. It was a pain, but it was part of the deal we made to come here.
State Parks in Florida are fabulous, but sites are limited and when reservations open up 11 months ahead it’s not at all unusual for them to book out solid from Nov-Mar. To get the best sites in the best locations you’ve got to be ON the system right at 8AM open, and throw in a bit of good luck too. It can be a frustrating experience. There are plenty of Private Parks options, but they’re much more expensive and the most popular locations often book out a year or more ahead too. Many regular RVers will book their next-year stay before they leave the park year before, and parks will prioritize these regulars over folks like us who come in on the fly.
So, what’s a newbie RVer do?
Book/Plan Ahead If You Can: If you’re the planning type it most definitely pays to book ahead. Start looking 11 months before you plan to be in FL and just book it all up if you can. It’s the only way to ensure you get the exact spots you want for the exact length of time you want them. I hate planning like this, but given our “beastly” size and the fact that we needed to be in a specific spot all winter it was really the only option. We booked most of our 2016/2017 winter spots early last year.
Look For Last-Minute Cancellations At State Parks: If you’re not the planning type there is always the chance to catch last-minute cancellations at the State Parks, especially closer to the date(s) you plan to arrive. You see FL State Park bookings are so crazy that there are lots of folks who book 11 months ahead, but then find out they can’t make their reservations last minute. So spots DO open up on a regular basis. But you have to remain super flexible in your schedule and be ready to grab these openings as soon as they do. You may not be able to stay in the exact spot you want at the exact time you want it, plus you might find yourself moving quite often (a few days here, a few days there), but if you remain flexible you can make it work. We know many folks who RV all winter this way.
Try First-Come-First-Serve At The State Parks: A little-known fact in FL is that many of the State Parks keep a select few sites (usually only 2-4) for folks driving in without reservations. You have to be on-site to get them, and there’s always a chance they’ll already be full, but it’s another option for getting into SP’s without reservations. It’s a gamble, but sometimes it’s a very worthwhile gamble. The key is to arrive early, be ready to wait around several hours for check-out (typically around 1PM or so) and have a back-up plan ready if you can’t stay.
Look Inland/North: In Florida everyone wants to be on the coast and everyone is looking to go as far South as they can (it’s warmer down there, you see) so those are the spots that book out the fastest and are the hardest to get into. If you look inland or further north you’re more likely to find open spots even during the height of the winter season.
Boondock Or Free Overnight Camp In-Between Reservations: If you’re knocking around from one reservation to another and you have some days in-between there’s always the possibility to boondock or free overnight park:
Boondock you say??? Yes, there are actually real boondocking spots in Florida, specifically at some of National Forests in the North and also through the various Florida Water Management Districts in the North & South. Several of our friends have tried these options (see The Wynns, and Technomadia), plus you can read a detailed overview of all of them in THIS post from Cheap RV Living. It was frankly too hot for us to boondock this winter, but we’ve filed these spots away for a cooler day.
Free Overnight Parking??? Not all spots allow overnight RV parking in FL, but there are certain rest stops that do and many “RV friendly” organizations such as Walmart and Cracker Barrel do too. Rules vary by city and location, so before we go we anywhere we always check one of our “go to” resources, such as overnightrvparking.com or Escapees Days End Directory. We can usually find somewhere to stay this way, even for our “beastly” size.
2/ Budget For Your Stays
For folks like us who typically boondock (free camp) out West all winter, our time in FL was pretty expensive. State Parks cost between $16-$42/night (depending on the park), whereas Private Parks are typically pricier and can vary anywhere from $25-$200/night (depending on location). Also most of the usual go-to discounts such as PA (Passport America) usually don’t apply during the high season of winter. So, how do you save?
Book Monthly (or Even Yearly) Stays: Every private park, even the most expensive ones tend to offer monthly discounts which can save quite a bit of $$ over the nightly rate. Some of the fancier parks even offer yearly discounts which can sometimes make sense if you’re staying more than a few months in one place. Again, you have to PLAN and book these well ahead in order to grab them, but they can often be well worth it.
Go Inland: As I mentioned above the inland parks don’t tend to be as popular as the coastal locations, so you can often find some outstanding deals here, even in the height of winter. As an example you can stay at the Escapees Bushnell park for only $340/mo (!!) whereas a park on the Coast might easily cost you upwards of $1500-$2000/mo. It’s a significant difference.
Boondocking, Overnight Camping & Other Alternatives: As I mentioned above free camping is possible in FL, depending on location so if you sprinkle that into the mix you’ll definitely save some $$. Other alternatives are membership programs such as Harvest Hosts (not many in FL, but there are some) and Elks (again not many, but there are some).
Look For Sub-Rentals: One of the more unique ways of saving money on RV camping in FL is to look for sub-rentals. Lots of folks own RV lots down in FL and not all of them use them every year, so they’ll rent out their lots at (usually) deeply discounted prices to folks like us that are just passing through. It can be tough to find these, but they can be super worth it if you do. Good resources to check are Craigs List, RV Property, RV Park Store, word of mouth and just plain ‘ol Google. This is what we ended up doing for several of the months we were in FL and it definitely saved us some moolah.
Consider Discount Camping Clubs: I am generally not a big fan of the big camping clubs like Encore, Thousand Trails, Coast-To-Coast mostly because the campgrounds are not in the areas we typically like to be, but if I were planning to camp regularly in FL I might well consider it. There’s a decent number of locations in FL, plus $$ savings can be huge! For example, you can buy a short-term Thousand Trails Pass for only $49 which allows you to camp in any Thousand Trails Campground for 14-days for only $20/night. If you use that pass somewhere expensive like say, the Florida Keys (e.g. Sunshine Key RV Resort, ~$120/night) you’ll literally save hundreds of dollars over a few days! Longer term passes can save even more, so if you know where you want to be and plan ahead this can really make a lot of sense.
NOTE/ Check out the parks and make sure you thoroughly understand the fine-print and stay terms before you buy into any kind of long-term pass. Also if you’re serious look for resale memberships -> Thousand Trails has a very active 2nd hand (resale) market where you can often get a great deal on comprehensive multi-zone passes.
3/ Be Prepared For The Weather (And Possibly Bugs)
Our first winter in S. Florida (2010/2011) was actually pretty cool with mostly mid-70’s the whole time we were here, but this winter (2016/2017) was hot, almost too hot. We had one of the sunniest, hottest winters on record and most days temps were 85 degrees or above. It’s the first winter we’ve run our A/C the entire time (from beginning of Nov through end-March) and without it we would have been pretty miserable.
Now generally speaking coastal camping (right by the beach) is better for both bugs & heat than inland camping (where it can really roast) mostly because there’s a pretty constant ocean breeze in FL, but sometimes $$ means you need to stay in-land for a while. So, we have several strategies to beat the weather:
Beat The Heat: This winter we did several things to beat the heat. Whenever possible we parked the RV with our big front heat-generating windshield facing North, plus we used Reflectix inside & shade cloth outside (we have a Magna Shade) to reduce temps. I can’s tell you how BIG a difference these two little things make! We also have a 15’x8′ EZ Zipblocker shade cloth for our awning that we use from time to time, and will always try to make the most of any natural outdoor shade too. In the heat, trees are your friend 🙂
Beat The Bugs: Much to our surprise the bugs really weren’t bad this winter. Winter IS the low season for bugs, but folks will often complain of mosquitoes and noseeums (especially by the beach areas) nonetheless. In our case, apart from our stay in the Everglades (which was pure torture, bug-wise!!!!) our camping was mostly bug-free. We had a few afternoons of noseeums in the Florida Keys (especially around sunset) and a few mosquitoes in Miami, but mostly it wasn’t bad at all. We did prepare however and added several things to our “bug arsenal” that we really liked:
- DEET: We always carry a small bottle of 100% DEET on-hand for the worst bug scenarios. It’s pretty nasty stuff so we never use it on our pets or directly on our skin, but we’ll spray it on hats and on our clothing around feet & hands. We use it sparingly, but it really works.
- ThermaCell Mosquito Repellent: A blog reader recommended this snazzy little $25 device to us before we went to the Keys and we were totally impressed! We used it while sitting outside and I have to admit it’s been pretty darn effective. It’s become a permanent part of our bug arsenal.
- Citronella Candles: A true and tried mosquito repellent, plus they’re cheap ($5-7) and I quite like the smell. We usually keep a few of these in our outdoor “sitting area”.
- Permethrin Clothing Treatment: This is the only treatment that claims to be effective against both mosquitoes, ticks, chiggers and mites. For $15 we treated all our regular hiking gear with this and it really did help. This saved us in the Everglades IMO.
- Instant Outdoor Screenhouse: We bought this inexpensive $90 Coleman 15’x13′ outdoor screenhouse before we went to the Keys and we ended up quite enjoying it not just for the bugs, but also for the shade. Plus the cats like to hang there. We bring our citronella candles and ThermaCell into the tent and we’re golden.
Beat The Ants: Florida is a haven for ants, especially if you’re camping on bare ground (as opposed to concrete pads), and we encountered several infestations before we became savvy. A tried and true “old-timers” remedy is to sprinkle Ajax around your RV tires after you park. For the eco-conscious Diatomaceous Earth is a wonderful natural bug-killer that will provide a barrier for both ants and fleas. Inside prevention helps too, such storing food in the fridge or air-tight containers and not leaving anything edible outside.
4/ Paws Are Welcome (But Beaches Take Some Research)
Florida is both great and also not-so-great for doggies mostly because of one simple thing, and that’s the Florida beaches. For whatever reason the majority of Florida Beaches don’t allow dogs. This is true of ALL State Parks, most County Parks and almost all City Beaches. There are exceptions, but you have to hunt them down. So, just be prepared to do some digging to find that perfect beach-spot to dip with paws.
On the other hand we found that going out with Polly to restaurants and bars was a breeze. Pretty much everywhere we went in FL, as long as the spot had an outdoor area, allowed dogs. And since almost everywhere we went had an outdoor area (it’s FL after all) that meant we could bring Polly pretty much anywhere we pleased. We dined out with Polly more here than just about any other State we’ve visited, and it was really a joy that it was so easy to do.
So, How Did We Like It??
To be honest our winter in FL was a bit of a mixed bag. We came here for family and from that point of view our stay was a resounding success. It was awesome to gather everyone together, we loved our little house-vacay in Miami and it was super special to be close to loved ones for so long. You simply can’t reproduce those same family experiences when you just fly in for a few days. Weather was good (hot, but good), bugs weren’t bad at all and we managed some seriously good beach-time in the Florida Keys. Plus I’m now blonder/tanner than I’ve been since I was a teenager, and can actually wear a bathing suit without blinding fellow beach-goers. That’s saying something 🙂
On the other hand it was crowded, the RV parks were all packed, traffic was bad (especially in Miami) and it was certainly more expensive than our last few years out CA/AZ.
Would we come back? For the RV Parks, no. Nothing feeds my soul quite like boondocking in the SW desert in winter and nowhere we stayed in FL can even (remotely) compare to that. My heart still lies out West and I know that’s where we’ll end up in the long-term. For family however, absolutely yes. Between everything we had some amazing experiences, found some spots we really enjoyed, and being able to spend time with family was super special. We may well be back and when we do we’ll be even more prepared than last time 🙂