My family’s favorite way to travel is camping. It’s affordable, and there’s a lot of freedom in bringing your own beds and kitchen with you. We actually sleep better in our little pop-up camper than we do in a fancy hotel room. I think it’s because it feels more like home when you have your own pillows and blankets.
Over the years, I’ve learned one of the keys to having a great camping trip is finding the right campsite. Here in Michigan there are 13,500 campsites in our 142 state parks. There are thousands more in hundreds of private campgrounds. So how do you know what campground to choose and which site to select?
Pick Your Shelter
Of course, the biggest factor is what kind of shelter you’re using: tent, RV or cabin. Because that affects everything else.
I can’t tell you what kind of shelter to use. It’s really an individual preference. We have a pop-up camper, because sleeping on the ground just doesn’t appeal to me. Roughing it is not my thing, and a pop-up provides a few basic comforts like beds and a kitchen sink.
Trailers, fifth wheels and motor homes have even more amenities. There some folks whose RVs are nicer than many of our houses. You can really get deluxe, if you can afford it!
If you decide to stay in an on-site cabin, those can vary in amenities too. Some just have bunks and no electricity. Others have dishwashers in the kitchen and hot tubs in the bathroom.
What Utilities Do You Need
Speaking of electricity, your utility needs are the next thing you need to figure out: water, electric and sewer. Each campground offers different hook-ups and individual campsites are set up to serve different types of camping.
If you’re totally roughing it, you won’t need electricity. You’ll find rustic sites like that in state forest campgrounds in Michigan. They’re the place to be if you’re looking for true seclusion. However, tent sites at many campgrounds come with basic 20 amp service. That comes in handy if you want to use small appliances like a coffeemaker or fan on a warm night.
If you have an RV, you need to know if your rig uses 20, 30 or 50 amp electricity. Be sure to choose a site that offers the appropriate hook up, and bring a 50 ft extension cord. Most of the time the electrical box is right at your campsite, but we’ve camped at a few places where we had to run our cord across a couple of sites to reach the box. Without an extension cord we wouldn’t have had electricity. You can find the right kind of heavy-duty cord for your RV at an RV supply store.
You need plug adapters too. For example, you may have a 30 amp RV, but the box at your site is only 20 amp. The different types of electric service use different plugs.
You also want to know if water is available at your site. If you’re tent camping at a rustic site, you may need to bring your water with you to the campground. Many modern campgrounds have a central location where you can fill water containers if there isn’t water right at your site.
If you have an RV, it’s convenient to book a site with a water hook-up. Many RVs do have self-contained water systems. If you plan to use it, you either need to fill it up at home, or make sure your campground has a fill station where you can get water. Filling up at the campsite keeps your RV lighter when you’re on the road, which saves gas and makes it easier to tow.
If you have a bathroom in your camper, you may also want a site with sewer hook-up. That will save you from taking a trip to the dump station.
For campers like our pop-up that just have a sink, you’ll need a portable gray water tank to drain the sink water into.
Many campgrounds have a central dish-washing area for tent campers to use.
It’s almost always against the rules to dump dirty water on the ground at a campground.
If you’re tent or RV camping and don’t have your own toilet or shower, you want to consider the proximity of the campsite to the bathrooms. Especially if you have small children. It’s helpful to be close by, or it can be a long walk in the middle of the night. Don’t just assume there are bathrooms at the campground. Rustic campgrounds may offer vault toilets only, or you may find nothing but a bush and the great outdoors.
Most modern campgrounds offer bath houses with showers, but again this is something you won’t find at a rustic site. If a daily shower is important, be sure to check that your campground has the necessary facilities. Don’t be surprised if you have to pay for a hot shower. Some places, especially National Parks, have coin-operated showers, so bring your quarters!
Campsite Location and Terrain
When you make a camping reservation, most campgrounds allow you to choose your site, so take a look at their map. Here are some things to consider:
- Is the campground just off a busy road? If so, do you mind falling asleep to the hum of semi-trailers in the night?
- Campsites near the entrance to the park will have more traffic pass by than sites at the back of the park.
- Is there a playground? If you have children you may want to be close. On the other hand, it will be noisier the closer your are to the play area.
- Is the site shady? Tree cover will keep your tent or camper cooler on a sunny day.
Often you’ll even find individual site descriptions on a campground’s website. Read them carefully.
- Is the site level? You don’t want to pitch your tent on a slope and sleep on an incline. An RV can be leveled, but it’s easier to start out with flat ground. Last year we camped next to some folks whose site was so un-level they had to dig out under some of their wheels and stabilizers, so their camper wasn’t precariously leaning to one side.
- If you have a tent, is the site in a low-lying area that will fill up with water when it rains? That’s bad, bad news.
- Is the ground cover dirt, gravel, sandy or grassy? You may want a tarp or outdoor rug to put down if it’s anything other than thick grass. In a week’s time, you can track a whole beach worth of sand into your tent or camper.
Many campgrounds allow dogs, but have strict rules. Most require dogs to be leashed at all times and always in the immediate care of the owner. You aren’t even supposed to leave them closed up in your camper while you’re gone. That means if you go site-seeing, the dog has to go too. Some campgrounds also restrict the size and breed of dogs allowed.
You want to think about your dog’s temperament as well. If they’re nervous around strangers, territorial or prone to barking at every noise, they may be better off at the kennel than a campground full of people.
Quiet Hours and Curfew
Does the campground have quiet hours? Many campgrounds ask campers to be quiet overnight, usually 10pm to 7am. If you’re concerned about young children getting enough sleep, a place that enforces quiet hour is probably a good idea. If you plan to leave the campground and not be back until after dark, be sure you can get in when you return. We’ve come across a few campgrounds that locked their main gate after midnight.
What amenities are available at the campground? A swimming beach, boat launch, fishing pier, basketball court and pool are just a few things you might find. Some private campgrounds are like resorts with hot tubs and water slides. One campground we stayed at provided a pancake breakfast every morning, complete with eggs, sausage and O.J. That was a nice break for me, since it meant I didn’t have to cook or clean up that meal.
Is there a camp store on site? If not, is there shopping nearby? If there isn’t easy access to supplies, double-check when you pack, so you don’t forget anything. Hot dogs without the ketchup just aren’t the same.
Can you even have a fire? The campground may not allow them, or there could be a local burn ban because of dry weather. If fires are allowed, all the sites at the campground may not have a fire ring or pit, so check if you plan on cooking over an open fire.
If fires are allowed, can you bring in firewood? Many campground don’t allow you to bring your own. It helps prevent the spread of invasive species and diseases. You usually can’t gather wood at the campground either. They don’t want you chopping down all their trees.
Firewood should be for sale at the campground or from a local retailer, but be sure to include the price in your budget. Depending on where you camp, wood can be surprisingly expensive. It was $10 a bundle where we camped in Canada last summer.
If you plan ahead and carefully choose your campground and campsite, you’ll set yourself up for a week of happy camping!
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