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Where to Sleep: Campgrounds & RV Parks

We'll teach you how to pick you camp site, plus we've got a doozy of a tips list for ways to save and how to behave.

June 16, 2004 -- The answer to the question of where to sleep in your RV is "almost anywhere." There are more than 16,000 campgrounds in the United States that can accommodate RVs, some offering hookups, others for self-contained or "dry" camping. A few are free, but many more are lavish resorts that may cost $50 a night and up for full hookups, cable TV, phone service, spas, swimming pools, tennis courts, playgrounds, and miniature or par-3 golf courses.

If you prefer ranger hikes and scenery to horseshoe pits and pancake breakfasts, head for one of the 29,000 campsites in our national parks and monuments. The national forest service has 4,000 developed campgrounds in 155 forests, and the Bureau of Land Management oversees 270 million acres of scenic outdoor sites, many with free camping.

For watery wonderlands, check out the Corps of Engineers projects, with 53,000 campsites near oceans, rivers, and lakes, with fishing, boating, swimming, and water-skiing on tap.

Bird-watchers can overnight in many of the nation's wildlife refuges to get the drop on feathery friends, and game-watchers can take advantage of the optimum spotting times of dawn and dusk.

Should You Sleep by the Side of the Road?

While more than half the states permit some overnight parking in highway rest areas, except where posted, we feel there have been too many recent incidents of violence in these areas and would not consider parking overnight in our RV in a rest area, mall parking lot, truck stop, or by the side of the road. Some of our friends do, however, and consider us money-wasting wimps for overnighting at a secure private or public campground.

The thing that amazes us is how many owners of expensive motor homes take the risk of sleeping free in a parking lot or by the side of the road when the cost of their vehicle advertises how much in cash, credit cards, and expensive electronics might be inside. All this to save $20 or $30? Campground fees are a modest enough investment in security and peace of mind. Besides, unlike RVers, the truckers with whom you share the road have few other options when they need to rest. Why take up their space?

Campsites: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

As backpackers, we would set up camp at any clearing that didn't have too many rocks and spread out the ground cloth and sleeping bags. As tent campers, we looked for scenery, shelter, and seclusion, but not too far away from the water source and facilities. Now, as RV campers, we have a long list of Ls:

    Location: We want to be away from the highway and campground entrance and not too near the swimming pool, bathroom facilities, garbage dumpster, playground, or dog-walking area.

    Large: It must be big enough to back our 36-foot motor home in and park it, open two slide-outs and still have space for chairs, table, and charcoal grill.

    Level: There's a lot of running back and forth to check spirit levels inside and outside the vehicle; sometimes we have to wedge wooden blocks under the tires until that pesky little bubble hits the center. Hydraulic jacks make this procedure much easier. (What happens if it's not level? Something dire and expensive befalls the refrigerator.)

    Length: The umbilical cords from the vehicle to the electric, water, and sewer connections (where applicable) must reach comfortably.

    Look out: Watch for any low-hanging branches or wires that could damage the roof air conditioner or TV antenna; for a potentially noisy neighbor; and for wet or marshy ground that could mire you down if it should rain all night.

    Width: It's not an "L," but it's important; with most newer vehicles containing one or more slide-outs (portion of the living and/or bedroom that slide out to expand the interior area) the width of the site becomes more important. Some older campgrounds can't handle a slide-out and will say so. Others may have room for the slide but there will be nothing left to use as recreation area. Any campsite width under 15 feet will limit comfortable use of the site unless you're just stopping overnight.

A campsite may or may not contain a picnic table, grill, or fire ring. What is critical for tent campers becomes an added luxury for an RVer, who already has a table, chairs, and stove. While we all want to overnight in the best campgrounds, we find that campground ratings-for example, those in the popular Trailer Life Campground/RV Park & Services Directory -- do not always seem to relate to us. The guide, issued annually, rates campgrounds according to a detailed form that scores in three areas: facilities, cleanliness (particularly of toilets and showers), and visual or environmental appeal.

Since we always use our own toilet and shower facilities, we are not concerned with the campground's, and we rarely, if ever, take advantage of a TV lounge, swimming pool, Saturday night dance, or children's playground. Therefore, for us, a highly rated campground may have less appeal than a remote area in a national forest, or a simpler family-run park in the country. However, Trailer Life is adding some new elements to their ratings: modern conveniences such as computer dataports and phone hookups at the campsite.

Occasionally, in both private and state park campgrounds, you may encounter what we call a "parking lot" design, with rows of paved spaces fairly close together. The up side is that you're usually level and don't have to spend time checking spirit level bubbles and putting ramps (otherwise known as wedges) under tires. (Newer vehicles have hydraulic jacks that will automatically level the vehicle as well as stabilize it at the touch of a button.) The down side is that your dining room window may be 2 feet away from your neighbor. The saving grace is that with an RV, you can close your curtains or blinds, turn on some soft music, and be alone in the universe. On the other hand, we are always thrilled to find those enlightened campground owners who have spent extra time and money to create terraced areas with landscaping that gives a sense of space, light, and privacy.

Using the Directories to Find a Campground

While we frequently are at odds with campground ratings, we find the directories, especially the one from Trailer Life, invaluable when traveling, particularly when we're making 1-night stands and need to find a place to overnight. Being able to call ahead for reservations is also helpful; you won't have to drive 5 miles off the route only to find there are no campsites left. This is where a cell phone comes in handy.

Careful reading of an entry can also tell you the site width (important if you have an awning or slide-out); if there are pull-throughs; if you can expect any shade trees; if the campground is open year-round or only seasonally; and if there's a dump station on the premises.

The Best Campground Directories

Insider Tip -- A good way to begin is to get a free videotape about RV camping by calling the GO-RVing Coalition (a group of RV manufacturers, retailers, campground owners, and parts manufacturers) toll-free at 888/GO-RVING.

    Bureau of Land Management, 270 million acres of public land. Ask for free camping information from BLM, Department of Interior, Room LS406 (Public Affairs), 1849 C St. NW, Room 5600, Washington, DC 20240 (tel. 202/452-5125;

    KOA, 615 campgrounds in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. You can receive a guide free, or send $3 for an annual guide from Kampgrounds of America Executive Offices, P.O. Box 30558, Billings, MT 59114-0558 (tel. 406/248-7444;

    National Association of RV Park and Campgrounds has a directory with listings of more than 3,000 RV parks and campgrounds. National ARVC, 113 Park Ave., Falls Church, VA 22046 (tel. 703/241-8801;

    National Forest Service, 4,000 campgrounds. For a free guide, write to U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, Public Affairs Office, P.O. Box 96090, Washington, DC 20090-6090 (

    National Wildlife Refuges, 488 refuges. For free publications, write to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, Public Affairs Office, 1849 C St. NW, MS-5600/MIB, Washington, DC, 20240 (tel. 202/452-5125;

    Trailer Life Campground, RV Park and Services Directory covers 12,500 campgrounds in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Available for $25 at bookstores and camping stores, or write to the following address. 2575 Vista del Mar Dr., Ventura, CA 93001 (tel. 800/234-3450;

    U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 53,000 campsites near oceans, rivers, and lakes. For free publications, write to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, OCE Publications Depot, 2803 52nd Ave., Hyattsville, MD 20781-1102 (tel. 301/394-0081;

    Wheelers RV Resort & Campground Directory. The cost is $12.95 from Print Media Services, 1310 Jarvis Ave., Elk Grove Village, IL 60007.

    Woodall's Campground Directory. Purchase one for $22 by writing to 28167 North Keith Dr., Box 5000, Lake Forest, IL 60045-5000 (

    Yogi Bear's Jellystone Park Campground Directory is free from Leisure Systems, Inc., 6201 Kellogg Ave., Cincinnati, OH 45230 (tel. 800/558-2954;

Insider Tip: Gathering Information -- Always stop at the tourist information offices or welcome centers when you enter a new state on an interstate highway. You can pick up everything from maps to campground booklets to individual flyers for private RV parks that may offer a discount for visitors-all of it free.

California state parks have instituted something called Enroute Camping, in which sel-contained RVs may stay overnight, from sunset until 9 or 10 am next morning, in the day parking lot for the park's basic camping fee. These parks are located primarily along the coast and designated with RV profile signs.

A Recommended Series From Frommer's

Check out the Unofficial Guides to the Best RV & Tent Campgrounds, a series that gives individually written, detailed profiles and overall quality ratings of the best campgrounds, and also lists their rates, hookups, facilities, and amenities. There's a national guide with ratings and rankings of almost 10,000 campgrounds in the United States. There are also seven regional guides covering the best RV and tent campgrounds across the US areas. The guides are available at your favorite bookstore, or can be ordered online directly from

Making Campsite Reservations by Phone

You can call 800/280-2267 for campsite reservations in national forests and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Campgrounds -- although the line is usually busy and applicants wait on hold for a long time. The line is operative daily from 7am to midnight eastern standard time. Their website is

Ten Ways to Save Money on Campgrounds

    1. Never pay for more park than you'll use. Posh playgrounds with swimming pool, spas, tennis courts, and miniature golf are usually pricier than simple, clean, mom-and-pop campgrounds. The latter are adequate for an overnight stay. If there is a charge per hookup, take the electric and water and forgo the sewer unless you really need it.

    2. Remember, you can camp without hookups comfortably for several nights as long as you don't insist on using the TV, air conditioner, or microwave. Read a book or listen to a CD for entertainment, and cook on your gas cooktop or outdoors on a grill. You'll still have running water, lights, refrigeration, heat, and hot water for dishes and shower.

    3. If you're on a tight budget, watch out for campground surcharges such as extra fees for running your air conditioner or hooking up to cable TV, a surcharge for 50-amp electricity, or "extra person" charges for more than two people when you're traveling with your kids. Some of the campgrounds that accept pets may also levy a fee on Fido's head.

    4. Join membership clubs that offer a discount to member campgrounds, such as KOA (Kampgrounds of America) and Good Sam, which usually discount 10%. KOA promises the discount whether you pay by cash or credit card; Good Sam usually grants the discount only if you pay cash. In most cases, you can join up right at the campground when you register.

    5. Take advantage of age. If one of you is over 62 and applies for a free Golden Age Passport with proof of age at a national park visitor center, your vehicle enters the park, national monument, recreation area, or wildlife refuge free, and gets a 50% discount on overnight camping areas administered by the federal government.

    6. Look for free campgrounds, such as those in the southwestern desert, administered by the Bureau of Land Management.

    7. Invest in a current campground guide (such as the Unofficial series, above) or request a state tourism office's free campground listings. County, city, and national forest campgrounds range from free to considerably less expensive than most privately owned campgrounds, although they do not often offer the luxury of hookups.

    8. If you arrive late at a campground, ask about staying overnight self-contained in an overflow area at a reduced price. Some owners are amenable, some are not.

    9. Stay longer than a week and you can negotiate discounts, usually from 10% to 20% or more, depending on the season and length of stay.

    10. Consider volunteering as a campground host if you're interested in staying a long time in one area. You can camp free and may pick up a bit of pocket change for performing specified duties on the premises.

How to Become Campground Hosts

Energetic retirees or full-timers on a budget can camp free and sometimes pick up a little extra income as well by volunteering as campground hosts or work campers. In theory, it's a great idea-living in your RV in a lovely campground with free hookups, maybe even with your pick of sites.

In practice, however, veterans of a season's work seem to either love it or hate it. Some mutter darkly of being treated like migrant labor, while others describe it as a highlight of their lives. A lot depends on how thoroughly you check out the campground and its management ahead of time and how realistic you are about doing hard and sometimes unpleasant chores like cleaning toilets and showers or telling a noisy camper to turn off his generator at curfew. If campground-hosting sounds like something you may want to do, here's how to get started:

  • Apply well ahead of time. Veterans of the program suggest a year in advance is not too early.
  • Learn about job openings in RV publications under "help wanted" or from a newsletter called Workamper News, published six times a year in Heber Springs, Arkansas, by Greg and Debbie Robus. Call 800/ 446-5627 weekdays between 9am and 5pm, central standard time, for more information or a subscription.
  • Good Sam Club members can also apply through that organization's Campground Host Program, P.O. Box 8540, Ventura, CA 93001; tel. 805/667-4426. The application form requires your name, Good Sam Club membership number, address, telephone, type and size of RV, first, second and third choice of states as a work area, months available for work, and the period of stay-a minimum of 60 days. In addition, they ask if you would consider working the entire season, what RV hookups you require, and any special considerations you wish to add.
  • Volunteer in campgrounds by contacting the National Forest Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, P.O. Box 2417, Washington, DC 20013; the National Parks Service, 18th and C Street NW, Washington, DC 20240; or the Bureau of Land Management, Public Affairs Office, 1800 C Street NW, Washington, DC 20240.
  • You should apply to several campgrounds, using a resume that should include both personal and business references. Some ads ask for a recent photograph, which many applicants think shows possible discrimination because of age, physical appearance, or condition. Many campgrounds prefer a couple to a single person, or require a single person to work 30 to 40 hours a week rather than the 15 or 20 a couple would work.

If you get a positive response, ask for references from the campground managers so you can interview people who have worked previously for them. Check privately owned campgrounds with the local chamber of commerce or Better Business Bureau.

One cautionary note: Out-of-state workers who volunteer for California campgrounds are required to register their motor vehicles, including RVs, in California since live-in volunteers are considered to be gainfully employed.

Ain't Misbehavin': Campground Etiquette

    1. No claim jumping. Anything marking a campsite, from a jug of water on a picnic table to a folding chair in the parking space, means that site is occupied and the campers are temporarily away in their car or RV. You may not set it aside and move into the site.

    2. Mind your fellow campers' personal space. Teach your kids never to take a shortcut across an occupied campsite, but to use the road or established pathways to get where they're going.

    3. Keep your pets from roaming. Never let your dog roam free in a campground. It should be walked on a leash and exercised in a designated pet area.

    4. Avoid using your generator whenever possible, even within designated generator-use hours, to keep from disturbing other campers with the noise and fumes. If using electrical appliances such as microwaves and TV sets is that important, go camping in a private campground with hookups.

    5. Avoid loud and prolonged engine revving in the early morning and late evening hours.

    6. Don't play radios, TVs, or boom boxes loudly at any time in a campground. Many of your fellow campers are there to enjoy the peace and quiet.

    7. Never ever dump waste water from holding tanks, even gray water, on the ground. While some old-timers claim it's good for the grass, it can also contain virulent salmonella bacteria if raw chicken has been rinsed in the sink, or bits of fecal matter from diapers. This matter can be transferred to anyone touching or stepping on contaminated ground. Gray water, like black water, belongs only in a dump station.

    8. Do not cut trees for firewood. Most campgrounds sell firewood at special stands or the camp store. Even picking up or chopping dead wood is forbidden in many parks.

    9. Watch what you throw in the fire. Never leave aluminum foil, aluminum cans, bottles, or filter-tipped cigarette butts in a campground fire ring or grill. They do not burn but remain as litter. And never crush out cigarettes on the ground without picking up the butts and putting them in the garbage.

    10. Don't leave porch or entry lights on all night in camp; they may shine in someone else's bedroom window.

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