One of the more time consuming aspects of planning an overlanding trip is figuring out where you’ll camp at night. It’s all well and good to plan where you’d like to go on your adventure–Utah! Alaska! South America! – but planning where to stop at night can take some serious sleuthing.
In this guide, I’ll explain how I find campsites when I’m overlanding, both in the planning phase and when I’m on the road or the trail. While I’ll focus on the United States, the principles will apply to many other countries and regions of the world. That said, always do your research when you are heading into a new country to make sure you understand the landscape, rules and risks.
Types of Campgrounds and Campsites
I’ve done plenty of camping in the backcountry, but when I first became interested in overlanding, I had tunnel vision when it came to campgrounds. Like most people, when I thought of camping with a vehicle, I picture your classic reservation-required developed campground with bathrooms, fire pits, picnic tables and other amenities.
But the possibilities are much wider, and one of the great pleasures of overlanding is getting off the beaten path to less developed and popular places. With that said, there are essentially three broad categories of camping options: developed, primitive, and dispersed camping.
Developed campgrounds offer amenities such as running water, electricity, toilets, and showers. These campgrounds are often located in national parks and forests and offer a convenient place to camp while enjoying the great outdoors. Some developed campgrounds may also have fire pits, picnic tables, and other facilities to enhance your camping experience.
Primitive campgrounds are a more rustic option for those who prefer a more natural camping experience. These sites usually have a fire pit, picnic table, and maybe a toilet, but usually lack amenities such as running water and electricity. Primitive campgrounds offer a peaceful and quiet camping experience surrounded by nature.
Also known as boondocking, dispersed camping typically takes place on public lands away from established campgrounds. This type of camping offers a unique and more remote experience for those who enjoy being far from civilization.
Dispersed camping requires a good understanding of Leave No Trace principles, as well as being self-sufficient, as there are often no amenities available. It is also important to research and understand the rules and regulations for dispersed camping in the area you plan to visit.
Where to Camp with a Vehicle?
Half the battle is knowing where to look. The three types of campgrounds I mentioned above can be found within a variety of different places, from public lands such parks, forests and wilderness areas. Here are some of the different places where you can find campsites for overlanding:
Public Lands & Campgrounds
Public lands, managed by various federal agencies, are some of the most popular places for overlanders to camp as they are generally plentiful (some states like Texas being outliers) . These lands include national parks and monuments, national forests, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands, and State Lands.
To make a reservation for a campsite on public lands, you can use the website Recreation.org. This website allows you to search for available campsites, make a reservation, and pay for your site.
National parks and monuments are managed by the National Park Service, which is part of the Department of the Interior. These parks offer a variety of camping options including dispersed camping, first-come-first-served sites, and reservation-only campsites. You can find detailed information on national park campsites on the National Park Service website for each park. To find a park or state by state guides, its Find a Park page is handy. To search for and make reservations for National Parks campgrounds online, visit Recreation.gov.
National forests are managed by the National Forest Service, which is part of the US Department of Agriculture. In contrast to national parks, which are highly protected areas set aside for recreational and conservation, national forest allow multiple uses such as recreation, logging, and mining.
Access to backcountry roads and trails is typically greater, as are dispersed camping opportunities – though they typically also offer first-come-first-served sites and reservation-only campsites. You can search for forests by state via a form on the forest service website. Each forest is subdivided into different ranger districts, and each district page will have information on camping.
The forest service also maintains a free visitors app that provides general camping info and campground listings for national forests that you can download from the website for Apple and Android devices. You can also use the browser version of the national maps from that same link, which lets you explore maps that have campgrounds labeled.
To make reservations for national forest campgrounds that take them, use Recreation.org or you can call a reservation number found on the campgrounds page on the National Forest service website. For instance, here’s the page for Laguna Campground, a popular local NFS campground in California’s Cleveland National Forest.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages approximately 245 million acres of public lands in the United States, offering a great deal of dispersed camping opportunities, as well as some first-come-first-served sites and reservation-only campsites.
If you are looking for solitude, BLM lands are some of the best places to explore. Located mostly in the western half of the United States, they are ideal for those who are looking for a more self-sufficient camping experience. You can find information on camping on BLM land on the agency’s website.
Here’s a video they produced on establishing a campsite in primitive or undeveloped spots:
State lands, including State Parks and State Forests, offer additional camping options for overlanders. State Parks are similar to National Parks, but regulations and restrictions may vary by park and state. For example, some state parks allow dispersed camping while others may have more restrictive policies. You can find information on state parks and forests on the respective state websites.
Private Land & Campgrounds
In addition to public lands, overlanders can also camp on private lands. Private campgrounds are commercial camping sites that offer amenities such as running water, electricity, toilets, and showers. Some private campgrounds may also have fire pits, picnic tables, and other facilities to enhance your camping experience.
Examples of private campgrounds run by national chains include KOA (Kampgrounds of America) and Thousand Trails. These won’t be the most rustic of experiences, but if you are trying to patch together camping locations for a trip, they can come in handy. There are also thousands of private campgrounds around the country that aren’t owned by large companies.
Nowadays, private lands owned by individuals are another option for overlanders. Thanks to the internet and platforms like Hipcamp, which is essentially an AirBnB for camping, it has become easier to connect with landowners and secure a spot to camp on privately owned land.
This option provides a unique opportunity to camp on scenic and remote locations, often with access to outdoor recreation activities such as hiking, fishing, and more. One added benefit is that these sites are often limited to one or just a few parties, so you won’t have to deal with the crowding of some public campgrounds.
How to Find Campgrounds
Finding a good campground to fit your needs can be a challenge, but with the right resources, it can be a breeze. Here are some of the best places to find information on campgrounds:
Public Park, Forest and BLM Websites: These websites will typically have information on camping, including campground locations, amenities, and reservation systems.
Reservation Websites: Websites like Reservation.gov and state camping reservation systems can help you find and reserve campsites, as well as provide valuable information on the campground.
Websites: Regional outdoors websites often post camping guides that offer local insight into the best places to camp. For instance, my other website OutdoorSoCal.com has camping guides to several areas here in SoCal, where I live. Sorry, shameless plug.
Google it: Searching Google for “camping in” followed by the name of your destination can reveal helpful resources and insider tips on great campsites.
Travel Guides: Travel guide companies, such as Lonely Planet, Falcon, and Wilderness Press, offer information on campgrounds in different regions, making it easy to find the perfect spot for your camping adventure.
Camping Apps: Apps like Campendium and Hipcamp are specifically designed for camping and offer detailed information on campgrounds, including reviews from other campers. AirBnB also brokers camp sites. The National Forest Service app, mentioned above, is also handy – and free!
Paper Maps: Good old-fashioned paper maps, such as road maps or topographic maps, will typically mark established campgrounds, making it easy to find your ideal camping spot. There is a range of guidebooks that can be helpful.
Travel Guides: Some are general travel guides to certain regions, national parks, or cities. Look for the ones that cater to outdoor enthusiasts and include info on trails, campgrounds, and scenic byways. In a few cases, you can find off-road trail guides, which are really handy.
REI’s maps and book section is a great place to start if you are planning to travel within the United States. If you are traveling outside the United States, check out Lonely Planet’s collection of guides.
Social Media: Social media platforms, such as Facebook groups and Instagram, can be a valuable resource for finding campgrounds, as well as sharing tips and recommendations with other outdoor enthusiasts. Just try to avoid the gear FOMO that comes with seeing all the fancy rigs out there.
YouTube is also a great resource for exploring different camping locations and finding inspiration for your next outdoor adventure. You can watch videos of people overlanding and get a sense of camping in different areas.
How to Choose a Campsite
When overlanding and searching for a campsite, there are several things to keep in mind to ensure a successful and comfortable stay.
- Firstly, you want to find a site that will fit both your vehicle and/or trailer, if applicable. Make sure to check the dimensions of the site and compare it to your vehicle before arriving to avoid disappointment.
- Consider the size of your party and make sure the site will be able to accommodate everyone.
- Check if the site has potable water, as this can be a vital resource for overlanders.
- If you require RV hookups, make sure your campsite will have the necessary connections for your needs.
- Before setting up camp, be sure to have all the necessary permits or reservations, and bring copies with you just in case.
- Some campgrounds only accept cash payment, especially if you arrive after hours, so be sure to bring enough cash.
- It’s also important to keep an eye out for any closures due to weather or seasonal changes, as this could impact your plans.
- Always remember to leave no trace and follow all Leave No Trace principles to help preserve the natural beauty of the area for future generations. This is particularly important when dispersed camping in backcountry areas.
Backcountry Camping Considerations
When camping in the backcountry, safety should always be a top priority. When looking for a backcountry campsite, make sure it is safe and not located in a place where other vehicles might be traveling, such as on a road or trail.
It’s important to be aware of your environment and potential dangers. For instance, avoid camping under bluffs or cliffs that could collapse, or in areas prone to flash floods. Also aware of any rules for camping, such as the distance your vehicle must be from an established road.
To minimize your impact on the environment, consider camping in established areas where others have camped in the past. This not only helps to preserve the natural beauty of the area, but it also helps to prevent damage to the environment from new, previously unused campsites.
By following these guidelines, you can ensure a safe and responsible backcountry camping experience, while also respecting and preserving the beauty of the wilderness.
Tips on Scoring Camping Reservations
To book a campsite at popular national or state park campgrounds, you need to bring your A game:
Plan ahead: Know when you can first make a reservation, which is generally 6 months in advance. Be ready to log into the reservation system at the exact hour it opens to secure the best sites. For example, the California state parks reservation system (Reserve California) opens at 8 a.m. PST and the online booking on Recreation.gov opens at 7 a.m.
Use email alerts: If you miss the opening to book a campsite, use Reserve America’s email alerts system. This system informs you when a site becomes available due to a cancellation. Move quickly after you receive the email, as the site may book up again.
Know the rules for each park: Some parks have a first-come-first-serve policy, while others require reservations. For example, Joshua Tree requires reservations from September through May.
Have a contingency plan: During peak season, it can be difficult to secure a spot. Be prepared with a backup plan, such as dispersed camping, in case you cannot find an available campsite.
Hopefully, this has given you some helpful info and tools to find your dream campsite. Finding a great place to call home for a night or even a few days can really elevate the experience.