Campgrounds for Dummies
May 30, 2006 8:57 AM   Subscribe

Need advice for two tent camping newbies about to travel the country via Honda Accord. Is KOA generally reputable/nonscuzzy nowadays? Any other hints for this year's summer season? Recommendations on equipment? Do you have to reserve ahead of time (we are trying to not schedule ourselves too much!) or can you usually show up in the evening and get a spot? This question is as broad as can be - all advice welcome. We are happy to do some off-trail places but don't want to backpack necessarily.

The route is roughly a triangle stretching from New England west to Yellowstone, southeast to Atlanta, and back home through the Appalachians.
posted by kirstin to Travel & Transportation (24 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I found this little trick if you want to camp/squat off the grid in national parks: do it during the full moon, at that time there are a lot of cars parked in irregular places and you won't arouse as much interest.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:08 AM on May 30, 2006

If at all possible, I'd try to avoid KOAs, opting instead for state/national park type campgrounds, which should all appear in your highway atlas.

Though they usually have a few tent spaces, KOAs tend to lean toward trailer and RV camping, which brings with it all the attendant grubby children, loud generators, people watching satellite television, etc.

When I was a kid, my family tent camped all over the country, and they tried to avoid KOAs like the plague. State parks are everywhere, tend to be delightfully varied and filled with interesting people and cool stuff to do. I doubt you'll have problems finding sites anywhere along this route by just showing up, with the possible exception of Yellowstone. But I've been there a few times, and don't recall having problems finding a place to set up a tent there either.

In two decades of tent-based travel, the only place I've ever been turned away from a full-up campground was the Big Sur region of California.

Equipment -- you can't spend too much on a good quality tent.

Route -- I'll assume you're planning on driving up the Blue Ridge Parkway. Nice.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 9:09 AM on May 30, 2006 [1 favorite]

If you are planning to camp in/visit a lot of National Parks, get the pass that lets you into all of them for a year. You might run into trouble with "just showing up" during the weekends since it is now officially vacation season, but we did it that way in fall. Definitely call ahead to Yellowstone as soon as you know what day you will arrive.

We also had a guide to all the BLM land in the country, where you can legally camp, but it is wild (i.e. no actual campground facilities, but you don't have to backpack). There is usually a permit you have to buy, but you don't have to worry about it being full.

I always recommend Grand Tetons National Park. The Crazy Horse monument is a nice alternative to Mount Rushmore if you are passing through that area. Also, the Badlands (SD) and Painted Dessert (NM) are awesome.
posted by mikepop at 9:12 AM on May 30, 2006

Contrary to some others, I've actually found some KOA campgrounds (and other "private" campgrounds) to be much nicer than their state/National Park counterparts. One example was a place in Utah that was next to the most hideous 'campground' I've ever seen - cement slabs and picnic tables for acres - no shade, no grass, no trees - we left and went a half-mile to a shady (big trees, grass even!) private campground on a creek, and it was $7/night cheaper too! The KOA in Silver City, NM is a real treat - one of the managers there is a quite a birder, and has even written a guidebook.
Also know that if you arrive early in the day (noon-ish) at a National Park and they are "full", hang around the entry booth and check back every half-hour or so, the rangers are great about letting you about cancellations (and there are always cancellations) - we got into the South Rim of the Grand Canyon on a Friday in early September (a very busy time there) that way.
Be flexible, take extra tarps and line (for additional rain shelter) and have fun!
posted by dbmcd at 9:31 AM on May 30, 2006

We drove from Santa Barbara to Atlanta several years ago, and from Atlanta to Quebec, camping along the way.

We did end up in a few KOAs. Yeah, they were mostly filled with RVs and kids and generators, all crowded up against the tent sites. Avoid if at all possible.

In our experience, state and national park campgrounds did fill up with some regularity during high season, especially around the Grand Canyon and along the Blue Ridge Parkway. We had to camp in an unimproved BLM area near the Grand Canyon (in the rain!); nothing terrible, but no facilities or water or anything. The next night at the KOA was luxurious by comparison.

My advice would be to map out all the state parks and such, then use KOAs as backup. That's what we did on our long trips, and were able to find something every night, without making any rewervations.
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:33 AM on May 30, 2006

I'll ditto everything the MC said:
KOAs are indeed geared more towards trailers these days - I stayed at one in Ohio (?) last year around this time and we were the only two tents in the park. While they did have their only somewhat grimy showers, it was noisy and didn't feel right.

Go with state (or National) parks, IMO, preferably larger. I had a bad experience at Devil's Hopyard in CT, probably in large part because there was only one ranger for the entire park. One of my friends is very good at asking locals for their recommendations when we stopped for gas, which might work during the week. (Eg in CT I'd tell you to avoid the Hopyard and just try to get a space at Hammonasset.) Thurs-Sat are likely to require advance reservations at many more popular campgrounds.

As for equipment, how new are you to tent camping? What other sorts of camping do you know, if any? If you're really new to camping, my #1 odd suggestion outside of sleeping arrangements is aluminum foil.

Not only do you need a quality tent, (which doesn't have to be that expensive), you need at least one tarp that will fit under your tent, and another if the tent doesn't have an over-tent fly...thingy.
posted by cobaltnine at 9:37 AM on May 30, 2006

Get a set of Delorme Atlas & Gazeteers for the states you want to see. They not only have very detailed maps and lists of campgrounds, but lists of all kinds of attractions. The one for my home state led me to some neat stuff I didn't know about. Well worth the money.

Some areas are very popular, and NPS campgrounds are likely to be fully booked before you get there. Acadia comes to mind. My experience with KOA is very old, so I won't comment beyond saying that back then, the ones I saw were definitely geared more toward RVs.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:44 AM on May 30, 2006

I also suggest state and national parks.

Be sure to stay overnight in the badlands if you haven't already been there.

Also, on your way down from yellowstone, drive through wind river canyon. Both times I was there, when I got to the end, I turned so I could drive through it again.
posted by milarepa at 10:02 AM on May 30, 2006

If you'll be car camping, try the "The Best in Tent Camping" series for finding campgrounds -- and specific sites within those campgrounds. I used one of the books to plan a trip in New England, and all its advice was spot on.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:04 AM on May 30, 2006

Take a look at the site. they list private and State/ Federal campsites. You can use it to determine availability even if you don't make reservations. Aside from making reservations you can look at maps of individual campgrounds and get a feel for overall conditions.
posted by Gungho at 10:05 AM on May 30, 2006 [1 favorite]

National Forest Service campgrounds are way nicer than National Park Service campgrounds for tent camping and usually cheaper as well. Forest Service primitive campgrounds, usually up some dirt logging road in the mountains, can be sublime. Huge variations in private campgrounds, including KOAs, call and ask about tent camping. Plan your route so you hit the more popular places during the week and are out in the boonies on the weekends. Sometimes you can phone ahead to reserve a space, or at least to ask what time you need to get there to find one. You can buy a shower at some truck stops.

As for gear, the secret to happiness is keeping dry. Whatever tent you buy, get a much larger tarp and some rope and learn to pitch it over your tent. Have a good ground cloth under your tent. Keep it simple, on a road trip you want to be able to make and break camp quickly. You can always pick up another frying pan or a wool shirt at a thrift store if need be.

You are going to have such a wonderful time.
posted by LarryC at 10:41 AM on May 30, 2006 [1 favorite]

If you possibly can, make the drive up from Yellowstone to Glacier, and spend a day on the west side of the park at Kintla Lake. As for driving a Honda: if they don't say "four wheel drive and high clearance needed", you can drive the road.

If you find that you can rearrange gear and sleep in the car, most Wal-marts encourage car-campers to stay in their lots - keeps out the vagrants. As for sleeping in the car, scoot the seat forward, knock the seat back, fold one foot under the other knee, and sleep on your side. I swear, Honda seats are designed for laying down on first, sitting in second.

Another spot to try not to miss is Utah Highway 12, from Bryce Canyon to Capitol Reef. At night, the stars are so bright they'll blind you.
posted by notsnot at 11:14 AM on May 30, 2006

I second LarryC.

In this order, try:
National Forests are always half the price, less crowded, and sometimes more beautiful than well-trodden national park counterparts.

National park campsites are usually the most scenic, but can fill up early. In my experience, it's better to try a NP campground when you arrive without reserving, and it nothing is available, just keep going to the next national forest or state park campsite.

BLM land is cheap or free but requires some free will and camping know-how (no toilets or fire rings).

State park campgrounds are also cheaper, and can be cooler too, especially in states with environmentally friendly governments.

Private campgrounds are hit or miss. You can only tell when you get there whether the stay is worth the usual increase in price.

I once drove 15,000 miles in 53 days, camping the entire time. Lots of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and tang in a nalgene. Sometimes, if the environs are barren enough, you can even just sleep on the side of the highway without being bothered, although this is probably more illegal than not.

Finally, if you are going to drive all the way to yellowstone, why not go to Utah? Highway 12 really is that cool.
posted by billtron at 12:03 PM on May 30, 2006 [1 favorite]

cobaltnine: I used to tent camp about 2 1/2 weeks cumulative each year, and I never had any want for aluminium foil. Now I was doing the kind of camping where there were bathrooms and showers available, and we could drive to a diner or a supermarket, but I'm still curious what the foil's for.

If you will be spending most of the time NOT backpacking your tent around, you may want to find a larger bag to pack the tent into. The bags that come with tents are designed to be as small as possible, but it makes it a huge pain in the ass to wedge everything in there. If you have a cloth bag twice the size (girth, length isn't the hard part), you can easily pack the tent up, and if you're just carrying it a short distance to the parking lot, it doesn't matter that it's bigger. If you're going to be hiking ten miles to the campsite, then you'll want the small bag that came with the tent.

Get an air mattress, and a pump you can run off your car power or batteries.

Nothing beats beers (Yuengling or JW Dundee's Honey Brown are good camping beers for the parts of the trip you can get those) around the campfire, but beer is probably going to be technically forbidden and even campfires might in a lot of places. Don't make a mess with your empty cases, bottles, and caps, though, as that is very uncouth.

Carry garbage bags for the ground tarp which will be wet and dirty, and for the times the tent and other tarp get wet and dirty.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 12:27 PM on May 30, 2006

Equipment -- you can't spend too much on a good quality tent.

On the other hand, if you're never using the tent again, a less expensive tent may fit the bill. I'm basically a camping novice, having camped as an adult leader with my sons' scout packs and troops. I found that the Coleman tents on sale at sporting goods big box places (such as Academy) worked pretty well and lasted fine. You can get away with spending less than $100 and end up with a decent tent.

And since you'll be in a car, if the tent does fail you, you can pick up a better one, but then you'll have some practical experience to help guide your purchase of a more expensive tent.

And, yeah, check out state park camp grounds; some of them are just awesome. A little hint, though: Avoid "primitive" campsites. They will not have amenities such as restrooms/outhouses and the like. But the normal tent camping areas should have running-water rest rooms and probably showers.

If you are planning on doing your own food, make sure you know what you are allowed to do with respect to stoves and fires at each site. Summertime often brings a ban on campfires and maybe even camp stoves.
posted by Doohickie at 12:40 PM on May 30, 2006

Oh... and for a mattress, I found that a self-inflating pad works great.
posted by Doohickie at 12:46 PM on May 30, 2006

If there are only two of you, this or this tent may work fine. I've had good experience with a Coleman very much like the one shown.
posted by Doohickie at 12:50 PM on May 30, 2006

Air mattress. Very important for camping+driving. There's nothing worse than walking up stiff only to get into a car for an eight mile ride.
An air mattress is not insulating, however, so I have a wool army blanket to put on top of the mattress, then bedding (sleeping bags,
or my preference, flannel sheets with a sleeping bag on top). Good camp chairs are also really nice for keeping your body happy and uncomplaining.

Always always always have water with you.

ditto flashlights, plus rechargeable batteries and charger with car adapter.

Baby wipes (or less perfumey equivalent). Good for cleaning all kinds of things.

AAA membership.

I've had my sierra designs tent for over ten years, and it still kicks ass. They're even better now. Well worth the money, particularly if you run into inclement weather. Be sure to seam seal your tent and fly if your tent calls for it. Get the appropriate footprint (groundcloth) for whatever tent you get- if it sticks out, you may wake up in a puddle.
posted by oneirodynia at 1:07 PM on May 30, 2006 [1 favorite]

I travelled for most of two summers, mostly car camping, some hitching around. I was young and really broke, so this is the "gas money plus eight dollars a day" version of car camping.

Camping. I probably paid to camp maybe 10 times total. I did plenty of illegal camping, but a lot of it was actually legal. National Forest land is (or was) free for camping as long as you are a certain distance off the road. Most BLM land was free for camping. Other times, I just found a dirt road to drive up, probably a lumber or ranch road. I avoided "no trespassing" signs and so I was woken up and asked to move only twice -- once in a national park, once in a Native American reservation. In-depth topo map books are great for finding free camping, and so are young transient-looking hippie types you meet in health food stores. :)

Stuff / packing. Bring less than you want to -- I remember feeling like stuff was constantly in my way the first year. The second year, I brought only one backpack's worth, plus a milk crate of cooking supplies, and a little camping gear on the side. You'll quickly develop a really organized system for where all your stuff is (which pocket of the bag has the flashlight), but you could even start out that way.

Clothes. You can get by with very few clothes, washing stuff out in sinks. I had something like two or three T-shirts, two long sleeve fleece, a wool sweater, one pair of pants (that zipped off into shorts), another pair of shorts, three pairs of socks, a dress for going to church with my relatives, a wool hat, rain gear, Tevas, and hiking boots. Again, I had mostly synthetic things -- they dry quickly and stay warm when wet -- wool never dries, but you can get great sweaters really cheap at army-navy places sometimes.

Food. I took a camping stove and lived on couscous (cooks really fast) with canned beans (rice & beans is a whole protein, though uh, beans & couscous maybe less so), three types of canned soup mix from the bulk section, pancake mix, bananas, instant oatmeal, almonds, apples, and a spice kit (curry powder, garlic powder, red pepper, salt and pepper). PB & J and avocado make good sandwiches on pita bread (won't squash). If I went now, I'd bring some of those precooked Indian meals in foil that they sell at Trader Joes. The Tang idea is good -- I had powdered Gatorade mix. Oh, gas stations are good for getting ice and boiling water (for tea, oatmeal, or soup).

Hygiene. If you're camping for free, you will not get showers at your campsites, but you can pay for showers (~$3) at either a truck stop or hostels. You may want to get a roll of quarters since sometimes showers at state/national parks cost money. Dr. Bronners soap gets you in the car camping spirit and is easily portable. I'd invest in one of those compressible camping towels -- regular towels stay damp forever in cars. A small car means you may want baby powder or some other deodorizer for your shoes, especially rock climbing shoes or after a few days of hiking! :) If you might ever go #2 in the woods, you'll want to bring a trowel to dig with and some of that Purell hand sanitizer. Baby wipes are also good for washing up (though back then I would've thought them a waste of money). I also got in the habit of collecting napkins and matchbooks any time I went to a gas station and kept 'em in the glove compartment.

Sleeping. A headlamp is one of the pieces of fancy camping gear worth investing in -- good for setting up at night. Car camping, you could also get one of those enormous Maglites for checking out the terrain when you first pull in somewhere. I had a sleeping bag and groundpad (year 1, Ridgerest, -- easier but slightly less comfy than year 2, inflatable Thermarest). I also had a tarp and a wool blanket (from that same army-navy store) -- I usually skipped the tent, laid down the tarp (or another blanket) on the ground, put the groundpad on top of it (the tarp is so your sleeping bag stays clean if you roll off the groundpad), then folded the other blanket in half and put it on top of the groundpad -- extra comfy, if a bit of a waste of space). I had a cheap tent, literally $35 from Walmart, which lasted me the first year, the second year, I just brought tarps (lighter but less good for privacy or bugs).

Oh, and bug repellent! Find one you like that works. :)

These details are just what I did -- you'll be your own expert about 4 days into the trip. :)
posted by salvia at 2:51 PM on May 30, 2006 [3 favorites]

Seam sealer for tent seams is important. You don't have to pay$6 an ounce for the stuff, though. It's urethane, indistinguishable from what you'd buy to coat a hardwood floor. Buy a pint of Minwax urethane and a small paintbrush (or an acid brush, if you don't want to clean it after), and you're set for life.

For car camping, a butane stove is the easiest I have found. It is too heavy and bulky to backpack, but it sets up and lights almost instantly, and won't tip over. Fuel bottles (and the stoves) are available at Target and at Chinese grocery stores.

Also not backpackable, but good if you can drive up to the campsite, are roll-up tables. This type is very stable and rigid when set up, and folds to a pretty small package. I have seen them for less money than the linked site.

For bargains, keep an eye on Sportsman's Guide. They sell all sorts of stuff, and lots of it is cheap. Their "Guide Gear" products are pretty high-quality. I have a one-man bivy tent and a big, family-size dome from them, and both have held up well. the bivy was $30, and the big dome was under $100.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:40 PM on May 30, 2006

If you're camping in the mountains out west it can snow at any time. If you have one of those Coleman tents with the partial rainfly you will likely freeze your ass off. If it gets windy it will blow away. Go to REI and spent $150 on a teny, it'll be worth it and you can probably sell it afterwards. No matter what tent you buy it's important to immediately throw away the cheap stakes that came with it and buy good ones.

Don't buy a white gas/ multifuel stove or anything fancy- stick to the simple, screw-on cartridge kind, preferably a Coleman in the US. White gas is pretty hard to find in a lot of places, whereas you can presumably buy Coleman fuel on Mars. Also the more expensive stoves are annoying as hell and always break when you're really hungry.
posted by fshgrl at 9:31 PM on May 30, 2006

fshgrl: While Coleman makes propane and butane cartridge stoves, if you say "Coleman Fuel" to someone at a camping store, they'll assume you mean white gas. (I know this cause that's what I ask for when I buy fuel for my stoves.)

I agree that cartridges are easier for most people to deal with, especially with regards to spillage in a vehicle. I just prefer refillables to throwaways. Never have had a problem finding white gas, but I haven't traveled in the Midwest.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:32 PM on May 30, 2006

If you are touring (not staying one place for several nights) there are touring tents which are kind of like an indian tee pee with a single central pole. These are super fast to erect and make a huge difference to your quality of life, setting up dome tents in the dark when raining is probably the most dispiriting thing imaginable. I just googled for touring tents and it seems to be mainly Australian results, they may be called something else in the USA. The down side is they are heavy, canvas bruts. Tough though.
Its fairly important to step up hygiene, you want no part of the gastro bugs spread by your fellow campers. Soap and water every time you use the toilet. There are anti-septic wipes that will do in a pinch.
Do your best to find places that allow an open fire, some place don't like them, but they deliver 90% of the ambience of camping.
One last tip, get a plastic crate with a lid for cooking and dining stuff, otherwise stuff you wash up gets dirty agin by the time you want to use it.
posted by bystander at 11:28 PM on May 30, 2006

splash out and buy a khyam tent also take a couple of pillows tined food for back up etc
posted by baker dave at 9:49 AM on May 31, 2006

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