Campgrounds will fall into two basic categories: public or private. Public campgrounds are usually run by a government agency and include those found in national parks and forests, Bureau of Land Management areas, Army Corps of Engineer projects, and in state parks and forests. Private campgrounds are typically RV parks and campground resorts owned by private citizens or businesses. Both public and private campgrounds are well represented on the Internet.
Public campgrounds offer the largest choice of campground destinations available to us. These campgrounds, which are mostly funded by tax dollars, are typically found in scenic areas or on lands set aside to preserve some aspect of the natural environment for present and future enjoyment of outdoor recreation. The public campgrounds usually offer the same quality of service and amenities nationwide. If you've ever camped at one national park, you can likely expect the experience to be the same at other national parks. The same can be said of campgrounds in the national forests, Army Corps of Engineer Projects, Bureau of Land Management Areas, and the state parks. Although the state park systems vary from state to state, the other public facilities remain somewhat consistent nationwide.
Unfortunately there is no one Web site that has all the information about every campground available in the US.
But there are Web sites that may be considered the definitive source for details about particular types of campgrounds. For the national parks there's Park Net. For USDA Forest Service and the Army Corps of Engineers (ACE) there's Reserve USA. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has their state directory.
For state parks there's L.L.Bean and my own directory of state camping destinations, which includes links to every state park homepage.
National Parks (NPS)
Within the National Park System there are hundreds of parks, recreation areas, and other facilities; and within these parks are over one hundred campgrounds open to the public. Campsites are usually available on a first come, first serve basis. A few of the campgrounds offer reservations, which can be made online. National Park campgrounds aren't expensive, typically costing $10-20 a night, with a maximum stay of 14 days. Amenities aren't many, but you came here to enjoy the park, not the campground. The campgrounds have clean restrooms and hot showers, some have laundry facilities, and campsites will have picnic tables and fire rings. But remember, the national parks are very popular and tend to get very busy on holidays and during the summer months...read more
National Forests (USFS)
Campers have available ten's of thousands of campsites at over 1,700 locations managed by the USDA Forest Service, Army Corps of Engineers, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Reclamation. Details of individual campgrounds are available online from ReserveUSA, a great service provided by the National Recreation Reservation Service (NRRS).
Finding a campground at ReserveUSA is easy. From their Web site, click on the map of the US or from the list of states. Clicking on the map or on a state name displays a localized map, below which is a list of campgrounds in the area. At this point you can either choose a campground from the list or click the map for a smaller map and campground list.
Each campground page will tell you a little bit about the area and show a detailed map of that campground's layout. You can then choose the area of the campground that interests you and read specifics about each campsite to find one that meets your needs. Information about special events, services, and amenities is also provided. Once you have found a campsite you like, just a click of your mouse and you can make a secure online reservation...read more
Army Corps of Engineers (ACE)
The Army Corps of Engineers are familiar to most of us from their involvement in dam construction to control river flows, build lake reservoirs, and produce hydroelectric power. Part of their charter is to also open up these river and lakeside areas to the public and provide recreation opportunities for fishing, boating, and camping.
With over 4,300 recreation areas at 450+ lakes managed by ACE, there certainly are many choices. As with the campgrounds provided by the US Forest Service, all your searching is simplified by ReserveUSA.
The campgrounds at ACE facilities are clean and well maintained and offer the basic amenities: showers, restrooms, water, picnic tables, and fire rings. The areas are otherwise somewhat primitive, but will usually offer services for boaters and fishermen, like marinas, boat launches, and tackle shops...read more
Camping Lesson Index
The Bureau of Land Management is responsible for land, mineral, and wildlife management on millions of acres of US land. With over one-eighth of the US land mass under their control, the BLM also has plenty of outdoor recreation opportunities to offer.
The Bureau of Land Management areas include 34 National Wild and Scenic Rivers, 136 National Wilderness Areas, 9 National Historic Trails, 43 National Landmarks, 23 National Recreation Trails, and more.
What does that mean for campers? Well, you can enjoy these natural wonders from 17 thousand campsites at over 400 different campgrounds, mostly in the western states.
Most campgrounds managed by the BLM are primitive, although you won't have to hike into the backcountry to get to them. The campsites will typically be a small clearing with a picnic table, fire ring, and may or may not offer some type of restroom or potable water source, so be sure to bring your own water.
BLM campgrounds are usually small with not many campsites and are available on a first come, first serve basis. You may not find a campground attendant, but rather an iron ranger, which is a collection box where you can deposit your camping fees, usually only $5-10 per night. Many of the campgrounds charge no fees.
The easiest way to find BLM campgrounds is at Recreation.Gov, which allows you to search for outdoor activities on public lands, including the national parks, national forests, and army corps of engineer projects.
From the results page, BLM campgrounds are listed with a link to area descriptions and campground details...read more
State Parks and Forests
The state park systems offer opportunities for everyone to get outdoors and enjoy the wonders of nature. No matter where you live, there's usually a state park within a short distance from your home.
Although state parks make great camping destinations during the week, when they are less crowded, even in the summer months, nevertheless, they are quite busy on most any weekend.
The easiest way to plan a camping trip to a state park is to first narrow your selections down to a particular state. To make that task simpler, there are two resources to help you. Park Search, from L.L.Bean, lets you search by park name or by location and activity. Other parks are included in the search results besides the state parks, but all have excellent descriptions and photos.
The second resource is my state-by-state directory of camping destinations, which provides links to all the state park home pages. Park Search is a great tool, but to find out all the latest details, availabilities, and reservation information, you need to visit the individual state park Web sites.
State parks provide wonderful facilities for family camping. The parks are well maintained (tax dollars at work again) and offer many amenities to make your stay more comfortable: clean restrooms, hot showers, stores, marinas, boat launches, tackle shops, planned activities, weekend movies, playgrounds, hiking trails, and more. Prices will vary but are seldom more than $15-$20 a night.
Many state park campgrounds also offer RV sites with electric, water, and/or dump station...read more
Check with family and friends to get opinions on places to go camping in your area, or read campground reviews to get other ideas.
If you're making summer reservations, try to make them as far in advance as possible. Popular campgrounds tend to get booked early for weekends and holidays. Make sure you understand the cancellation policy. Before getting off the phone, finalize a rate, and confirm what that rate includes. If you will be arriving late, ask if they have any late arrival arrangements. When making online reservations, make sure to print a copy of any conformation page or save any confirmation email. Take a copy of this with you when checking in.
Some public campgrounds use a feature called an "iron ranger," which is a fee collection box used when there is no full time attendant.
Upon entrance to the campground, you deposit your nightly fee(s) in an envelope with your name and site number and drop this in the collection box. Sometime during the day a park ranger will make rounds of the campgrounds and collect the fees. You will often see these in National Park and National Forest campgrounds.
Camping Lesson Index