I was talking with a family member recently about some of the campgrounds where we have stayed and was asked “how do you find these places?” It isn’t the first time I’ve been asked that question. I was thinking about this as we were headed to our next stop and thought that there are probably others, maybe newbies like us, that would like to know our process as well.
Probably the most important thing we have learned is to start planning early. Availability disappears quickly, especially during summer vacation and around holidays. Also, depending on the size of your rig, choices may be limited. We start planning about four to five weeks ahead of the time we want to be in a particular location – more if it revolves around a holiday or locations like national parks or popular attractions.
When we first started this adventure, we would drive around 400 miles (8 hours). We usually drive at 65mph but average around 50 mph with traffic, road construction and fuel or rest stops. At that time we would pull into our stop, eat a late dinner, sleep and get up and do it again until we got to our final destination. Well as you can imagine, doing that for more than a couple of days gets old and you are exhausted once you get to your campground! We learned after about a month of the ‘hurry-up-and-get-there’ driving that there had to be a better way. Outlined below is how we do it now and are both happier and have more energy to enjoy our surroundings.
We usually have a destination in mind and use that when searching Google Maps for our route from Point A (where we are now) to Point B (where we want to go next). If you haven’t used Google Maps, it is so simple. Open the app, type in where you want to go in the window, hit directions, then type in your present location. Google will route you the shortest driving distance. If you want you can use a filter to avoid highways, toll roads or ferries. Google maps will also show where there is road construction.
Once the route is mapped, I start looking for locations along the route with each stop being about 250 (+\-) miles each, depending on how quickly we want to reach our final destination. Also, we now drive two days and rest one.
On Day One, we drive our allotted 250 or so miles and stop for one night. This is usually a “boondocking” spot – meaning no services. Day Two we drive again and this time we check into a campground where we have made reservations for two nights. We repeat this pattern until we reach Point B. The exception would be if a campground requires more than two nights (usually around a holiday) or if you have a place you want to stay longer enroute. After that we are back on our schedule until we get there. Recently, we drove to Maine with a weeklong stop outside of Boston as a side trip. We were able to enjoy historical Boston and go whale watching!
CHOOSING WHERE TO STAY
Okay, now how do we decide where to stay? I use a number of apps, some requiring membership, some are free. I encourage you to try a few and figure out what works best for you. A good number of paid apps offer free 7-day trials. Try them out and find your favorites.
For our Day One stop, I start with the Harvest Hosts website (paid subscription). Harvest Hosts is a website where businesses offer free parking, usually no services or amenities are offered and most limit your stay to one night. Some have limitations on size of rig they can accommodate as well. It is suggested that you purchase something from the business (dinner, wine, gift, etc) as a way of saying “thank you” for the use of their parking space. Sometimes, the Host will be closed or will not be something you are interested in purchasing from, and while that is occasionally ok, should not be the rule. Purchases do not have to be large, but are a good way to return the host’s hospitality.
We have stayed at several Harvest Hosts sites from wineries, to a City Parking lot, to farms to a bowling alley. We felt safe and welcome in all. However, while Harvest Hosts is growing, they are not yet located everywhere.
If I can’t find a Harvest Hosts site, my next ‘go to’ is Cracker Barrel. There are a lot of Cracker Barrel Restaurants located along the highways in most cities of any size. If that fails, I look for truck stops such as Love’s or T/A to name a couple. We have stayed at a few Cracker Barrels with no issue, but to date have not stayed at a truck stop.
DO’s and DON’Ts
If you stay at a Cracker Barrel, it isn’t necessary to call first, BUT it is always a good idea, just in case overnight parking isn’t allowed for some reason. If you are like me, you want to know early on where you will rest for the night. At a truck stop or business it is necessary to call and ask if they allow overnight parking and if they do, where you should park so you will be out of the way of truckers or other traffic. ALWAYS ask if it is ok to put your slides out and use a generator if you have one.
As a last resort, SOME Walmarts and other businesses offer overnight parking as well as some rest stops, but these would be my last choice and if possible a call should be made to confirm that it is ok.
This one can require a little more research because there are so many of us traveling now and as mentioned above, campground can fill up rapidly.
My first app of choice is AllStays. We use the paid subscription, but they do offer a very handy free app as well. AllStays offers a lot more information than just campgrounds. AllStays lists campgrounds in all 50 states and 12 locations throughout Canada. To use the app (after downloading), it is as simple as clicking on “Camping” then the state where you intend to camp. Next, choose the town nearest your preferred location. A list of campgrounds will appear with links to websites, phone numbers and other information. If a N/A is on the name of a campground it is no longer valid information.
I always go to the campground’s website to read reviews, look at photos and read the rules and amenities. Like Harvest Hosts, some campgrounds only allow small rigs, tents, or have limited hookups. Most campgrounds will list how large of a rig they can accommodate, their fees, amenities, rules and some even offer calendars that show availability and campground maps..
If I cannot find anything with Allstays, I use another app called Free Camping (free). This app opens into a map and has icons that are color coded to show free or pay camping. It is a pretty good app, but for me Allstays is more user friendly. If all else fails, I go to Google Maps and pull up the closest town to where I want to camp, then search for “campgrounds or RV Parks near (name of town).”
Once a suitable campground has been located, I call and ask any questions that I might have that aren’t obvious on the website. If acceptable, I ask about availability and make the reservation or move on to the next campground in my search.
Something we recently learned is to look at Google Earth or Google Maps to see how near a specific campground is in relation to noisy highways, railroads, airports or anything that would keep you from enjoying your time while there. With Google Earth, you can even zoom in and take a look around the area if you wish.
There are many more places where you can boondock such as the Bureau of Land Management, Army Corp of Engineers, Boondocker’s Welcome and many more. Always check for time limitations and any other special rules or requirements.
Regardless if you boondock or always use a campground, we find it is best to call if possible, talk to a real person and take good notes. I use a planner and then transfer confirmations and other pertinent information to my Google calendar including who I spoke with and when. If there are any issues, I have information to present in my defense.
So that’s it. This is how we do it. It isn’t all inclusive as there are many more opportunities out there, it is simply our experiences thus far. Our way may not be perfect for everyone but it has allowed us to go where we want when we want.
If you have other ideas or tips, we would love to hear them.
Safe travels and Happy Camping!