How to Choose a Car Campsite

Trip Planning: How To Choose a Car Campsite 

If there’s one outdoor pursuit that unites Americans, it’s car camping. Who doesn’t like pulling right up to a campsite, unloading gear, and settling in? Instant outdoor bliss. Hikers, climbers, bikers, runners, anglers—everybody car camps. 

But not all campsites are created equal. To find the best ones for you, follow these steps. 

Think Payoff

Start with your priorities. Do you want to be by a lake or river? Near a trail to a summit? Is solitude your organizing principle? Let the payoff be your guide.

Consider Must-Have Amenities

Are you looking for a developed campground with drinking water, toilets, campfire rings, and picnic tables? Or are you comfortable with DIY (dispersed) camping with no amenities? The latter broadens your choices, but the former is better if you’re just starting out or simply like the ease of developed campgrounds. Want to go luxe? Some private campgrounds offer more services than government campsites, though they usually cost more.  

Plan Early

You’ll find camping options literally everywhere, on public land and private land, on the edges of town and on the most remote dirt roads. But in high season, many campgrounds fill up fast, so you’ll want to do your research well in advance. The most popular national park campsites are often reserved months ahead of time.

Don’t Plan Early 

Last-minute trips still work. Some campsites are always first-come, first-serve, and even some popular parks hold a certain number of sites in reserve for same-day arrivals. For the best success with no-reservation camping, arrive at your intended site early, and be willing to expand your search.   

Ask the Right Questions

You’ll find established campgrounds vary greatly in size and noise. If you don’t want to be next to an RV operating a generator, ask about tent-only sections. Some campgrounds have walk-in sites that are just a few hundred feet from the parking area and offer a quiet oasis. 

Search Online

The internet has changed many things, and one of our favorites is finding and reserving campsites. Start at and expand from there (there are plenty of private booking sites as well, such as Hipcamp and The Dyrt. 

Go Remote 

This is as simple as car camping gets: Find a reasonably flat piece of ground and call it home. This type of dispersed camping offers the best chance for solitude, but you need to be prepared with everything you need. The best places to find dispersed camping are lands managed by the USFS and BLM. Check with the appropriate agency for camping regulations before setting out.  

Campsite Tips

Wherever you end up pitching a tent, here are a few common guidelines to keep in mind. 

Photo Credit: Howard Newcomb/TandemStock; (top) Ian Shive/TandemStock

Durable Surface

In developed campgrounds, this will be a given. But in dispersed camping areas without established sites, be a good steward of the land and camp on durable surfaces. Look for rock, sand, dirt, and gravel that can withstand repeated use. Try to use an existing campsite to minimize impact. Watch where you walk and park your car to avoid trampling any fragile vegetation. 


The perfect campsite will have access to water, but avoid camping too close. Set up your campsite at least 200 feet, or 70 steps, from water sources to allow wildlife access and protect water sources from human contamination. 


If you are at a developed campground, proximity to toilets could be a good or bad thing. Bathrooms typically have outside lights that may disrupt the dark sky. Toilets also tend to have traffic and noise. But, if you expect to use the toilet at night, you might like being camped close to the facility. 

Level Sleeping Area

Duh, right? But small issues can turn into big ones during the night, so check your site carefully.  Look for a relatively level area without sharp rocks, pine cones, or other objects (move debris as needed). If a perfectly flat sight is not available, be sure to angle your head uphill. Before you pitch your tent, lay on the ground to find the best position and orientation.. 

Shelter and Shade

Since you'll be outdoors all day long, in most seasons you'll want sun protection. Select a campsite that has shade from trees when possible. Look for protection from wind as well. 

Cooking Area

If you are camped somewhere with picnic tables and fire pits, great. Your camp cooking area is ready to go. Otherwise, set up the camp kitchen on durable surfaces. Position stoves and barbecues a safe distance away from vegetation and anything flammable.


Like to sleep in? Select a camp with morning shade and protection from the rising sun. Or, if you want to enjoy a long evening, look for a site that is open to the west. 


Always check fire restrictions before heading out, and use existing fire rings if they exist. Never leave a fire unattended, and put it dead out with water, so it’s cool to the touch. Keep water and a shovel handy. 


Check for hazards before setting up camp. Stagnant water can be a breeding ground for insects like mosquitoes. Look at the surrounding forest and make sure there aren't any dead trees or broken or detached limbs that could fall and injure someone. Look for potential rockslide or avalanche terrain, and make sure you do not camp in a debris path.  The same goes for flash flooding. 

Be Considerate

In established car campgrounds, you’ll likely have neighbors. Quiet hours are often posted, but the basic idea should be pretty obvious: Be respectful of the experience everyone came here for.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.