There are literally thousands of places that you can camp in your RV— some are free and some cost money. There are even a few places where the cost is almost as much as if you were staying in a well appointed motel. The choice is always yours.
The different places to camp can be roughly categorized as follows:
There are thousands of privately owned campgrounds and RV parks throughout the United States. As most of you know, you can buy a directory of all these campgrounds and RV parks—telling you how many spaces they have, what utilities and other amenities they have, what activities they have, local attractions near the park, the elevation of the park and a telephone contact number and whether they require or do not accept reservations. Many of the listings even tell you how to find the park from nearby major roads. For some RV parks, the listing also provides you with a rating of various factors (such as restroom facilities) so that you can choose the right place for you.
There are three major camping directories that you can buy at your favorite RV supply store. Opinion is divided as to which one is the best. Look through all of them and then make your own decision.
For those of you not in the know, these camping directories are about the size of the yellow pages in a major metropolitan area—large books crammed with tons of information.
I find that I can get along very nicely by purchasing the “new, updated edition” only every other year or so.
Many private RV parks are associated with Good Sam, and provide you with a discount if you are a Good Sam member. You can also get a directory of all the KOA campgrounds throughout the country, and you can get a discount if you have purchased a KOA Value Kard.
There are thousands of Forest Service and National Park campgrounds throughout the United States. Many of these sights, however, were built many years ago and cannot accommodate the newer, longer, wider RVs that so many people have today, especially those with slides.
If you have a smaller Class C motorhome that is less than 30 feet in length, you can go just about anywhere and be able to get a good camp site. Yes, it is true that the Forest Service usually states that the maximum RV length is 27 or 28 feet. However, I have found many places where my former 32-foot motorhome fit very nicely —and I have not been hassled about its length. But there are also many places where there is “no way” that my coach would fit.
If you have a newer motorhome with slides on both sides and is longer than 32 feet, you will not have too many choices of places to camp in Forest Service campgrounds, but many of the National Parks can accommodate your rig without too much difficulty.
While I am talking about National Parks, let me share with you of one of the advantages of having some gray hair and wrinkles. If you are age 62 or over, please take the time to stop by a National Forest office or a National Park and get a Golden Age Passport. This little card costs only $10 but it is good for your lifetime. With this card in your possession, you (and your partner) get free admission into any of our National parks, and you also get a 50 percent discount on camping fees in the parks. For a one-time $10 investment, the Golden Age Passport is a wonderful bargain.
There are hundreds of local county parks all over the United States that have RV camping facilities at their parks. Some of these parks allow you to park (and sometimes hook up) for free, while others have a nominal daily charge to camp at the park. Sometimes these parks are listed in the campground directories, but sometimes you just have to ask around or already know.
The federal government has thousands and thousands of acres of land all across our country where you can camp, often without paying a fee (and sometimes a nominal fee for two weeks).
Quartzsite, AZ quickly comes to mind as probably the most known and most inhabited BLM land in the country. In January and February, there are literally tens of thousands of RVers from all over the country who come to Quartzsite to enjoy the gem and mineral show, the RV show, and all the flea markets. Many RVers just drive out in the desert, find a place to camp, and park their rigs—some of them for the entire Winter. Closer in to Quartzsite are several “semi-developed” BLM camping areas for which you pay a nominal fee (about $30 for a two week period). You park wherever you choose in a designated area (usually 20-40 acres or so), but you have the privilege of using their developed dump sight and can also get fresh water.
For those who wish to camp for an extended period and not move their motorhome or 5ers, there are local vendors who come around several times a week to pump out your tanks or to supply you with fresh water (all for a fee, of course).
The Corps. Of Engineers also has locations all over the country where you can camp.
Your favorite RV supply store sells books that list all sorts of places where you can camp for free (or very inexpensively). Browse through these books sometime and see what is available in your area.
Membership camping is a popular way among RVers, especially full-timers, to be able to camp for a week at a time for as little as $7 or $8 per day. There are many different membership camping organizations that cater to RVers.
Some of the names that you might have heard are, in no special order:
To enjoy the low daily rates for camping, you first have to join a park, known as your home park, where you pay a one-time membership fee of anywhere from $500 (for a used membership) to as much as $5,000 or more for a new membership. You can usually stay at your home park for up to two weeks at a time and not pay anything for your camping. You are also usually restricted from camping in another affiliated park that is within 125 air miles of your home park. After you join your home park, you will also be hit with a yearly maintenance fee of between $99 and $299, that must be paid every year to keep your membership in good standing.
Once you have joined a park that is affiliated with one of the camping organizations mentioned above, then you also pay that organization about $60 a year to keep current and receive their yearly directory. Then you are allowed to stay, sometimes for two weeks, at an affiliated campground for only $7 or $8 a night. Be aware, however, that at that low rate, you may not get the choice spots in the park and you may be asked to pay extra for electricity.
All of these camping organizations put out nice directories, most of them about the size of a folded map, telling you the location of their affiliated parks, describing the amenities, and showing a small map of how to get there.
A slightly different form of membership camping can be found at Thousand Trails. This organization (and there are others like it throughout the US) have some 30 or 40 campgrounds throughout the United States). Once you buy a membership you have no “home park” per se, and you can stay at any of the parks for up to two weeks at a time. You have your choice of paying a low yearly fee and then paying about $12 per night to camp, or you can pay a much higher yearly fee and camp (without a fee) at any of the parks. For full timers or extended timers, paying the larger yearly fee and being able to camp “for free” usually makes for more cost effective camping—but you should “crunch the numbers” for your style of camping and then do what is best for your particular situation.
Membership camping is not financially sound for all RVers. For the occasional RV traveler, who only gets out a few weekends a year, membership camping is not a financially wise way to go. However, for a full-timer who is essentially camping out 365 day a year, membership camping can be a very sound financial investment to reduce the overall daily cost of camping.
And here is another tip. If you can, buy a “used” membership instead of a “new” membership. There are many firms out there that are in the business of selling “used” camping memberships. As folks get older or decide that the RV lifestyle is not for them, they no longer need their membership camping privileges or can no longer afford the yearly dues, and these firms step in to “resell” those memberships. Quite often you can find a used membership for as little as $500 initial buy-in and with “frozen” dues of as little as $99 per year. In most cases, you get all the benefits as if you had bought the membership new— but you saved thousands of dollars.
I also want you to be aware of what those “free camping” flyers really mean. If you have done much traveling, you have seen or been given a flyer for “free camping”, usually three days and two nights. But, of course there is a catch. To get the free camping, usually with full hookups, you are required to attend a 90-minute sales presentation and a tour of the camp amenities. The idea is to sell you a full-priced camping membership to that particular park. Sometimes the sales people are calm, descent, and civil—but beware of the many, many sales people who get very indignant, rude, pushy, and often insulting if you have the gall to refuse their “super sale deal.” If you accept one of these free camping offers, be very aware of what might be in store for you.
Yes, I have done that a few times to try out an especially tempting campground, but usually with no intent to buy into the park. But one time I was pleasantly surprised—a lovely sales person, no pressure, very informative, and wanting to know where and how I liked to camp. My lady and I had agreed ahead of time that we were not going to be interested. But at the end of the presentation and some chat about other affiliated camping organizations, we were pleasantly surprised to find out that we could get a very inexpensive membership to another organization that we indeed were interested in pursuing. In the end, we unexpectedly surprised ourselves and bought the package—and we have been very well satisfied with our purchase.
Keep an open mind, and sometimes you can be pleasantly surprised.
If you have been in your favorite RV supply store lately, you have probably seen advertisements for Passport America and/or Camp Club USA, that offer a different form of camping that I call Discounted Camping.
With these organizations, you buy a yearly membership for around $50 or so and receive a book showing all of the affiliated RV parks where you can camp for “half-price”. If the regular rate is $22 per night, you can camp for only $11 per night.
However, before you buy one of these yearly memberships, check out their book of affiliated campgrounds, first, and determine if there are any (or many) affiliated RV parks in the area that you intend to visit. You can usually get on the Internet and look at the directory of camp sites throughout the United States, usually segregated by state.
The disadvantage to this type of camping is that there are usually only several hundred different RV parks across the entire US that are associated with the membership. Many of them may be clustered in the same popular area, and many areas of the US have no affiliated campgrounds at all. Do your homework first, so that you don’t buy what turns to be a “useless” membership.
You also need to be aware that many of these parks have "blackout dates"— periods of time when you may not use your half-price membership. One of the most obvious areas to the snowbirds is Yuma, AZ during the Winter months. With thousands and thousands of cold-weary snowbirds descending on Yuma for the Winter, all of the parks are usually at capacity, and they have no room for the casual traveler.
Some of these parks also charge you "extra" for electricity, city tax, etc. So be aware that the cost may well be several dollars more than what you think of as "half price."
Many of you probably already belong to a fraternal organization, such as the Lions or the Elks. There are many RVers who join a local Elks chapter primarily to gain access to the Elks lodges throughout the country. Many of the Elk’s lodges have several RV spots where a fellow Elk can camp for a reasonable fee— usually about $10 per night. Some lodges provide full hookups, and some provide only water and electric. One membership benefit that is pleasing to RVers is getting a booklet that shows all of the Elk’s lodges where overnight camping is allowed.
There are many places where you can camp, without a fee, but that are intended as “one-night while-enroute” stop-overs. Such places can be found at Flying J fuel stops, some large shopping centers, and, of course, Wal-Mart.
You are usually safe and not hassled at Flying J fuel stops, but you have to tolerate the noise of idling diesel trucks all night long. If you stop over in a shopping center parking lot, however, you may very well be awakened in the night by the local police telling you to please move on—sometimes in a most unfriendly manner.
Most Wal-Marts, if not posted otherwise, will allow an overnight rest stop in their parking lot. Ask the manager first, since he/she may be restricted on the number of RVs allowed for an overnight stay.
But, please remember that these places are for one-night overnight stops only!