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.
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.
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.
The internet has changed many things, and one of our favorites is finding and reserving campsites. Start at https://www.recreation.gov/ and expand from there (there are plenty of private booking sites as well, such as Hipcamp and The Dyrt.
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.
Wherever you end up pitching a tent, here are a few common guidelines to keep in mind.