Many RVers here in the Northwest feel the freedom of going where you want, when you want is a thing of the past. I will agree that setting off on an extended RV trek without locking yourself into a rigid schedule via advanced overnight reservations is not what it once was when there were fewer RVs roaming the highways and byways competing for campsites. However, I have developed some strategies that allow my wife and I to continue living the carefree RV lifestyle of hitting the road with no reservations or a set daily itinerary while still visiting popular sites and attractions along our route.

Following are four strategies I employ and you can too:

First: Look up the definition of campsite.

Campsite noun: a place suitable for or used as the site of a camp.” This definition will provide you with many more options than just campgrounds and RV parks listed in a campground directory.

Second: Learn to be a better dry camper.

The majority of RVers feel they must stay in a campground that offers electrical service. The truth is, most any RV is capable of spending a day or two without hookups, especially here in the Pacific Northwest and our temperate climate. Since many RVers discount staying at campsites without utilities, many suitable and scenic campsites remain empty each night even in the busiest season. So brush up on your dry camping skills and be prepared to dry camp when all the utility sites are full for the night. Another way dry camping can help get you into the desired RV park or campground is to take a non-utility site for the first night and be first in line for an open utility site the next morning as other RVs depart.

Third: Be flexible in your schedule and location when visiting popular areas to visit and camp.

Here are some tips to help you get started:

  • Plan to arrive on weekdays when there is less demand for campsites

  • Many popular National Parks and Monuments have designated overflow areas where you can often camp for free. Two examples are: Joshua Tree National Park and Natural Bridges National Monument. Overflow areas are typically listed on the parks websites.


Joshua Tree National Park Overflow Area

  • We camp on the outskirts of the area we wish to visit where there are likely more camping options, leaving the RV there as we make a day trip to popular attractions.

  • Arrive at public campgrounds early, if there are no camping spaces, pull into the day use area and partake of the same activities and attractions those in the campground enjoy then pull out in the evening heading to a nearby less popular camping area.

  • When there is a city with several major attractions we want to visit, but no available campground spaces, we will camp as close as possible the night before and pull into town early finding a safe legal place (schools, churches, city parks, etc) to drop the RV for the day. We will then use our tow vehicle to explore town and visit the attractions using the RV as a base camp for meals and breaks. In the evening, we will then hitch up and travel a short distance out of town to a predetermined campsite. Tip: Use Google Earth to determine where to drop the RV in advance. Google Earth shows parking lots, public facilities, etc and you can determine how level the space is to keep your RV’s refrigerator happily operating by using the elevation feature.


Churches are a Great Spot to Drop Your RV for the Day or Ask if You Can Stay the Night

  • Maybe we can only get a reservation for one night and the area has two days worth of activities we would like to enjoy. Stay close by in an alternate campsite the night before then arrive at the RV park way before check in time (many RVers hit the road early vacating spaces and I have never been turned away arriving at 9AM or so). The next day before check out, ask if there is somewhere you can leave your RV until later in the day or take it to one of the places mentioned above (church, school, etc) and finish visiting the places you wanted. Hitch up that evening and head out of town to a predetermined campsite.

  • Places that don’t take reservations and are first come first served. We arrive early before check out time which gives us the best chance to obtain a space. When we arrive in the morning, I always ignore the Campground Full sign (especially on Sunday mornings) as the camp host / manager most likely hasn’t had time to take the sign down from the night before.

Fourth: Search for campsites beyond what are typically listed in the conventional campground directory.

Commercial campground directories are driven by advertising. Small public campgrounds are often not listed as they have no budget to buy advertising. In addition, the person working for the directory selling advertising has little incentive to locate and visit these smaller campgrounds as there is no potential of earning a commission.

Websites and apps that have much more comprehensive listings of places to camp than the standard directory include:

  • All Stays lists over 30,000 campgrounds, from private RV parks, State Parks, Public Lands, Army Corps, National Park, Military, and lesser known County and City Parks.

  • Campendium is a web app that helps RVers search, review and even preview campsites all across the country from free boondocking sites of federal land to luxury RV parks.

  • Ultimate Campgrounds focuses on providing the most comprehensive and most accurate information of PUBLIC campgrounds of ALL types (County, State, Forest Service, BLM, National Parks, Military, Fish & Wildlife etc). Currently the site lists over 38,000 U.S. and Canadian campsites.

  • RVparky.com RV Parky is an RV Park directory built by a full time RV'er with the help of the RV community to help fellow RV'ers on the road. Here you can find information, images, and reviews for the most complete collection of RV Parks and campgrounds in the United States and Canada.

  • Freecampsites.net lists free lesser known campgrounds and other free places to camp across the country.

Consider these alternatives to conventional campgrounds:


Casinos


Fairgrounds

  • ORV Areas (Off Road Vehicle) - Busy on the weekends, but nearly empty weekdays


ORV Areas

  • Fish & Wildlife lands also known as Wildlife Management Areas (WMA)


Federal Wildlife Campground


Corps of Engineers

  • TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority)
  • Roadside Attractions


Roadside Attractions

  • Tribal lands: Most tribes sell a pass allowing you to camp on tribal land/campgrounds.


Tribal Lands

  • When visiting an attraction late in the afternoon ask if you can spend the night.
  • Ski area parking lots during the summer. Some offer electrical hookups.


Ski Areas

  • Forest Service Boondocking: The forest service has recognized the need for more places to camp with many districts listing approved boondocking (dispersed camping) areas on their websites. To locate these areas do an online search using the name of the forest district and the words “dispersed camping”. Example: “Coconino National Forest Dispersed Camping”


Forest Service Website Booking

Consider a membership with one of the following:

Harvest Hosts allows its members free overnight stays at wineries, farms & other quiet, scenic places. Membership is currently $79/year which allows RVers to stay the night at more than 600 wineries, farms, breweries and other attractions. 

Boondockers Welcome (boondockerswelcome.com) For $30/year, Boondockers Welcome connects RVers with local private property owners (hosts) across the country that allow members to park on their property for free. Some host sites even offer water and electric.

By applying these strategies you too can become a free spirited RVer and experience the true freedom of the RV lifestyle going where you want, when you want, either here in the beautiful Pacific Northwest or across the country.

Dave Helgeson
Author: Dave Helgeson
Dave Helgeson is the MHRV Show Director. He and his wife love to travel across the west in their RV. Dave writes about all things RVing but loves to share destinations and boondocking advice.

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