One reason for the variety of RV lifestyles I've already described is
the almost-unlimited variety of places you can park or camp in a
That's the subject of this entry. I'll describe some of those
options, outline Jim's and my general game plan for our "summer" and "winter"
trips, give you some suggestions for setting priorities re: where
to stay and for how long, and explain why I contend "there is no free
Hint: it's kinda like the concept "there is no free
ENDLESS CAMPING OPTIONS
Where to stay for one night or many can be a dilemma for full-time and extended-travel RVers,
even seasoned folks like us who've tried most of the options over the
years. There are just so many choices!
That's generally a good thing, but sometimes making decisions can get
a bit overwhelming.
This no-fee boondocking site on National Forest
Service land near Silverton, CO has a pit toilet.
The time limit is 14 days but it's not enforced
when the campground isn't busy. (July, 2009)
Options range from "free" parking overnight at a Walmart store or
longer-term on national forest or BLM land . . . to exclusive RV
resorts with golf courses, Olympic-sized swimming pools, and other
amenities for the well-heeled traveler.
And within every price range there are endless variations of
public, private, and military campgrounds.
Military and public campgrounds (local, regional,
state, and national parks, National Forest Service land, BLM land, etc.)
are usually less expensive but weekly, monthly, and seasonal rates at
some private campgrounds can also be cost-effective. (Military
campgrounds are for active duty military personnel, their families, and
Services vary widely, too, from "boondocking" (dry camping without
any hookups) to full hookups that include water, electricity, sewer
connections, and possibly even WiFi or cable connections at a site. The
fewer the hookups, usually the lower the cost.
An inexpensive National Forest Service campsite in
Teton Canyon, WY (August, 2010)
Next add to the mix all the different discount cards available
(national parks passes, senior passes, state park passes, etc.) and
camping clubs (Good Sam, AAA, Escapees, Thousand Trails, etc.). Some of
the cards and memberships might save you a lot of money. Depending on
your personality, using them can either simplify or complicate your
decisions of where to stay!
We've had Good Sam and AAA memberships but haven't used either for
private campgrounds in a while because we much prefer to stay in
public and military campgrounds.
We save a lot of money at national park
and forest campgrounds now with Jim's senior pass; I'll also get
one after I turn 62 at the end of March. It's a steal at $10 each for our lifetime.
(We both need a card so we can leave a park independently and get back
in without having to pay the normal entrance fee. I almost learned that
the hard way at Rocky Mountain NP last fall.)
Caprock Canyon SP in the Texas
Panhandle has lots of spacious campsites. (May, 2010)
And the annual Texas State Park pass is a real bargain for us since
we spend so much time there each year. Between the discount camping
coupons and the money we save on $4-5 per person daily entry fees, we've
usually got that $60 recouped in less than a week.
[Note that some states that are in dire financial straits are still
closing or threatening to close some of their state parks, including
California, Arizona, and Florida. Texas is not one of them even though
they also have a serious budget deficit for 2012-2013. Their park
expenses are in some other fund that is doing just fine, apparently.
I'll have more to say about several Texas state parks we're visiting
this winter when I get this lifestyle series done.]
HERE'S OUR GENERAL GAME PLAN:
A. For one-nighters in transit from Point A to Point B, we usually park
"free" at a Walmart or Sam's Club parking lot near the freeway.
Most of them allow RVers to stay overnight, especially if you ask
nicely and spend some money in the store. We joke that those "free" nights sometimes cost $50 or $100 when we're
loading up on groceries and supplies!
We've occasionally parked at Flying Js and rest areas that allow
overnight parking but not in the last few years. One time we got
permission from a Cabella's to stay in their huge lot. Although we've
never parked overnight at a
Cracker Barrel store, I've read that they are RV-friendly, too. Some
small towns also allow RVers to park free or for a low fee in their city
Parking overnight in transit in
the lot of a Sam's Club or Walmart isn't so bad
if you have your own flowering
spring tree and a little patch of grass! (March, 2010)
You really gotta be careful if you pick a boondocking spot after
dark. Invariably we discover we're very close to a railroad track --
or worse. One time we parked overnight on an isolated dirt road near
Crater Lake and discovered, about 4 AM, that it was a busy logging road!
The trucks barely missed our camper before we hurriedly got dressed and
moved to a safer location.
For more information about boondocking, check Bob Difley's
blog periodically. Click on the
archives link for previous entries he's written about no-fee camping.
B. At our destinations we prefer these options for several days to
1) Dispersed campgrounds on national forest or BLM land
(low-cost or "free," usually without anything more than a nearby pit
toilet, if that)
Part of a large National Forest
Service dispersed campground at Clear Lake Reservoir south of
Leadville, CO; in 2007 we
$4 for a permit that was good for up to 14 days.
2) National forest campgrounds that have a table, grill, etc. but no
or minimal hookups; these usually run about $10-$15 per night, or
half off with a senior pass from the national parks system.
We've used this NFS campground at
Kenosha Pass, CO several times.
½-price per night ($6) with our
National Parks Senior Pass. There are no hook-ups
but water is available. There
are also free sites nearby without water. (July, 2010)
3) FamCamps at military
posts/bases -- Jim's retired Army National Guard. These usually have full
hookups + WiFi and are $10-$20/night. Some have less expensive weekly or monthly rates.
The Organ Mountain Range at dusk
forms a jagged backdrop to the campground at
White Sands Missile Range, a military installation
in New Mexico. (January, 2008)
Local, regional, state, and national park campgrounds. Most offer sites
with partial or full hookups.
Prices at public campgrounds are almost always cheaper than private
campgrounds, even if you don't have a discount pass. With some types of
passes you come out even better. The National Parks Senior Pass for
people over 62 allows free entry into any national park and half-price
camping at those parks and national forest campgrounds.
Our favorite state parks are in Texas. The state has a large park
system with RV camping at reasonable rates. The $60 annual pass gives
you free entry into all the parks (daily per person entry fees are
usually $4-5), four half-price coupons for camping, and other discounts.
Those are just two examples.
Palo Duro SP near Amarillo, TX
Many public campgrounds have a two-week limit but that suits our lifestyle
pretty well. We move around a lot to races. If the campgrounds aren't full, we
can usually extend our stay another week or two if we ask.
We've also done some "camping" on friends' and family members'
properties while visiting them. We have a convenient arrangement with a
friend in Leadville, CO, for example, where we park next to his business and hook
up to his water and electricity for 2-3 weeks around Leadville Trail 100 race time. We
reimburse him with generous gift certificates, so it's not
Our parking spot at our friend's
in Leadville comes with a great view of Mt. Massive. (Aug., 2010)
We seldom camp at a private campground. They are usually too expensive
for us, even with a Good Sam or AAA membership, and we don't use all
their amenities like pools, playgrounds, etc. We sometimes find good
weekly, two-week, or monthly rates at private campgrounds, however, so
we don't rule them out entirely. Some even offer attractive seasonal
When figuring out where to stay as you're traveling, first
prioritize what you need/want at each destination or
interim stop-over. What's most important -- cost? location?
hookups? space? campground amenities? nearby services? nice scenery? peace and quiet?
You also have to consider whether your rig is set up for boondocking
(dry camping with no utilities). Do you have a generator and gasoline to
run it? solar panels?
propane? adequate water in the tank? Or will you need water, electrical,
and/or sewer hookups?
East Lake SP in southwestern Ohio
has plenty of room for RVs in the fall.
Our priorities frequently change depending on the purpose of the
One night at a well-lit, noisy Walmart parking lot next to the
freeway is fine (for one night!) when we're in transit from one place to
another but it won't work for us any longer than that. Even if it did,
it's not kosher to "camp" at Walmart, only to park there
overnight. Ditto for Sam's Club, which is usually quieter at night when
the store is closed but just as bright.
Did I tell you about the time a street sweeper woke us up at 5 AM
when he was cleaning the parking lot right next to us??
Sam's managers have never turned us down but one had to see our RV
before giving permission to park overnight; she wanted to make
sure we weren't derelicts, I suppose.
After the storm: cloud drama at one of the
dispersed NFS campgrounds near Silverton. This place
has about everything we want in a boondocking site
except for the 4th of July crowds. (July, 2009)
If we're going to be somewhere for several weeks,
at minimum we'll want to have accessible potable water, a site large
enough to have some privacy, a grocery and other stores we need within a
certain distance, internet connectivity (and TV, if possible) --
all at a cost we deem reasonable. As long as we have some sun for
our solar panels and access to water, gasoline (generator), and propane
(oven, stove, refrigerator, furnace, portable heater), we're able to boondock for quite a while.
That brings me to the next concept:
"FREE" CAMPING ISN'T USUALLY FREE
I've put "free" camping in quotes a few times because
almost any arrangement for which we don't pay a fee to camp is rarely completely free
of any cost. Let me explain . . .
When we boondock in a national forest, on BLM land, at Walmart, etc., even though
we aren't paying a campground fee we still use
some or all of the following:
- propane to run the
range, oven, refrigerator, furnace, or our new propane space heater
(purchased that in the fall, and it puts out a lot of heat more
efficiently than the camper furnace),
- generator + gasoline to
power the lights, computers, fans, etc., or
- solar panels, inverter,
etc. that Jim installed; any additional equipment like this
that you add to your RV has initial and ongoing costs.
Part of our boondocking
equipment: Interstate deep-cycle batteries, Yamaha
inverter/charger (and unused charger that came with camper), charge
catastrophic fuse, battery
disconnect switch, lots of wires, and a vent hose; remote meter
on box is installed inside the
camper. Jim installed two solar panels on the roof, too.
- In addition, without a
sewer connection you may sometimes have to pay to dump grey and black
water properly (we hunt for free places at truck stops, interstate rest stops,
- Some places charge for
potable water or ask for a donation.
a friend or relative lets you
park on their property and hook up to their electricity and water at no
charge, it's only "free" if you're too cheap to give them something in
return! In those arrangements we've given gift certificates, money,
thank-you gifts, and/or bartered our time or expertise in exchange for
SO MANY PLACES, SO LITTLE TIME
Figuring out where to camp is both fun and a challenge to
extended-travel and full-time RVers. I recommend sampling many
different types of places all over the country or region where
you'll be traveling, as much for the experience as to learn which
sorts of campgrounds suit you best. You might be surprised by
finding a gem of a place.
We were happy to find this gem: the FamCamp
at the USAF Academy in Colorado Springs.
We camped there twice last summer and will
definitely be back again. (May, 2010)
About half the time Jim and I return to camping areas we've
enjoyed before. That's easiest, of course; we know what we're
getting. We also like the mystery surrounding new places we've
never seen, the joy of discovery. I can't see us settling into one campground or RV
park for an entire season until we've outgrown our more
inquisitive, restless phase of traveling.
No matter your intended RV lifestyle, you have lots of
interesting camping choices. Have fun!
Next topic in series: Home Base -- things to
consider re: selling your house and/or changing your legal domicile
to another state
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil,
and Cody the Ultra Lab
© 2011 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil