I know it’s only the second week of January and for the majority of the country, it is cold, snowy, and icy outside … and summer seems really, REALLY, far away. But the best way to beat those winter blues is to start planning your 2017 camping trips. And to help you get started I’ve put together a five-step guide for how to plan a camping trip. By the time you finish reading, you’ll have all the tools and ideas you need to go from no plans to a fully developed itinerary. So let’s start working on your camping calendar!
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Gather the family together and start dreaming and brainstorming about the kinds of places you would like to explore. Is there a particular region you want to visit? Or is there a theme you want to plan your trip around, such as visiting Civil War battlefields or Little House home sites? If you need help generating ideas, here are some places to go for inspiration:
- Visit your library and check out road trip books. I like to start with this book by Reader’s Digest because I love driving scenic routes and exploring off the beaten path. Amazon also sells a variety of books highlighting noteworthy U.S. road trips.
- Talk with friends and family who travel for their suggestions on must-see destinations.
- Search Pinterest for travel inspiration, and when you do, be sure to follow our Pinterest page where we are always pinning camping and touring ideas.
- Here at The Touring Camper we also have extensive archives full of travel ideas. You can check out our Family Fun guides by clicking here. We also have posts for Walt Disney World, traveling out West, and touring Pennsylvania
Once you know where you want to go, it is time to start researching campgrounds. If you are headed to a destination where we’ve already visited, this process may be a bit easier by visiting our ever-growing list of campground reviews, which can be found here.
Whenever we visit a new location, selecting a campground is typically the longest and most difficult process for me since I am pretty selective about where we stay. I usually start with Google searching to find campgrounds within about 30 minutes from the attractions that we are planning to visit. If we are going on an extended, multiple destination trip I like to use the Good Sam Trip Planner to assist with this process. (My full tutorial on how to use this awesome tool can be found here.)
When selecting a campground, I usually will first look for state parks, Army Corps of Engineers campgrounds, and national park websites to determine if there are any public campgrounds in the area. One of the most extensive websites to search for these types of campgrounds is Reserve America.
If there are no public campgrounds in the area, or if we need something closer to a highway, I will then explore private campgrounds. We have found that KOAs or Good Sam Campgrounds are frequently located with easy access to highways.
Once I have an idea of the available campgrounds, I then check campground forums to find out information about each campgrounds. Some of my go-to websites are the following:
You have to take other reviewers’ opinions with a grain of salt, since everyone has different standards, and therefore different opinions about different campgrounds. Watch the date of reviews, since many campgrounds can change—for good or for bad—as time passes. Reading through other people’s observations, though, can be helpful to get a better feel for the campground. (Which is especially important when you have a wife with high bathroom standards!) With the information from these forums I begin to narrow my campground choices and I base my final selection upon which one has the best reviews with the best location for our touring plans.
Once I pick the campground, then the debate becomes which site to reserve—if the campground allows you to choose your own site. This usually means a pad of paper and lots of mouse clicking (more on this in a minute). I sometimes call the campground and ask a few questions to guide the search. Sometimes this is a helpful move, other times it is a total waste of my time—it all depends upon who answers the phone. The questions that I typically ask include:
- Which site is the most private?
- Which sites have afternoon shade (for the hot summer months) or full sun (for cooler fall/spring months)?
- Which sites are close to water (if it is not a full hook-up)?
- Which sites are on higher ground and not in a dip (so if it rains you are not in a pool)?
- Which sites are the most reserved (i.e. most popular)?
If I am solely using the internet for reserving sites, here is the method to my madness:
- I use campground maps to determine where bathrooms are—because of young kiddos, Kristin likes to be somewhat near to them when we do not have full hook-up.
- I read site descriptions for length of pad and whether it has shade or sun.
- Our camper is 31 feet long, so if I can, I pick sites that are at least 40 feet long so that the van will fit on the pad too.
- I take note of the ability to have slide outs, or any other limitations of the site.
- I note the distance to other campsites and if the campsite is on the inside or outside of loops. We typically like to be outside of loops as you are more likely to not be backed up to another site.
- If available, I will look at pictures of the campsites—this is very helpful to determine slope and distance to the next site.
- If a website does not have pictures I will bring up Google Maps and BING Maps to determine some of the features of the site. If the campground is heavily wooded this may not be possible unless the map photos were taken in the fall or winter.
- Once I have all this written down, I rank my site choices and, with Kristin’s input, I settle on a site to reserve.
Of course, there will be times that the site you really want will already be reserved, so ranking the sites in order or preference is beneficial when you get to the reservation step.
Keep in mind that some campgrounds will not let you select a specific site. Instead you will have to reserve a type of site and then you select a specific site when you arrive (or the campground assigns you a site upon arrival). Campgrounds do this to maximize site usage. The good news is it allows you to have a definite reservation without having to commit to a specific site until you see it in person. The down side is that when you arrive at the campground if there are only a few of those types of sites left, they might not be the sites you would typically pick if you had the option.
Now it’s time to start making your reservations and building the itinerary! When we are planning a long trip with multiple stops, such as our current three-week Texas adventure, I use a series of documents to keep our trips organized:
Spreadsheet: When I start the planning process I create a spreadsheet that has the days in the first column on the left side. As we hone in on where we want to go and what we want to see on the trip, I list in the second column what we are doing for each day–whether driving, touring, or taking the day off. The third column lists the drive time and miles for any driving days. The last column lists the campground that we were staying each night. The final product looks something like this
|Miles & Drive Time
|Home to A
|A to B
|B to C
|C to home
Calendar: In addition to planning our itinerary, sight-seeing stops, and campground stays, I also have to consider Kristin’s day job. This means that on certain dates she needs to be able to remotely log in and do work. The only way we can both visualize this and make a trip work with Kristin’s work calendar is to create a trip calendar. So I use a blank calendar template and include only two pieces of information: the day’s schedule and the name of the campground where we are staying that night. Here’s an example of what the calendar looks like:
Details Document: This additional document compiles a whole bunch of important details into one place rather than having a bunch of random notes scrawled in a notebook. I do not do this for every trip but any time we are taking an extensive trip I have found this level of organization is extremely helpful. For each stop, I look up the following information:
- Dates staying at this campground:
- Physical Address
- Mailing Address (in case we need to have supplies or medications shipped to us)
- Phone number
- Name of person I talked to for the reservation
- Reservation Confirmation #
- Cancellation Policy
- Deposit amount
- Major parks in the area
- Hospital/Urgent Care (name, distance, level of care)
- Things to do (if different from major parks)
- Shopping (mainly grocery stores and Walmarts)
- RV repair locations
This level of planning does take extra work, but by being prepared and organized we can anticipate a much smoother experience on long-term camping and touring trips.
At the beginning of this process you plotted your trip by determining what you wanted to do. Now that your reservations are made and your itinerary is set, I find it’s a good time to go back and look again at the “things to do in the area.” This is the time to add in any restaurants you might want to visit, or any roadside Americana pit stops you want to visit along your drive (even just to stretch our legs and enjoy a picnic lunch). To round out our plans we often use the following resources:
- The Good Sam Trip Planner
- Websites for visitors bureaus and chamber of commerce sites. You can also call or email to request printed materials be mailed to you ahead of time.
- National Park Service websites
Well, there you have it. Now that you have the tools you are ready to go plan your own amazing camping adventure! And once you made your plans, be sure to come back and share where you will be headed this year. Happy camping!