Over the last six years we have done a lot of camping. From the scorched salt flats of Botswana to the snow caped Olympics in Washington State. Usually, we make camping look easy. RVer's often crack jokes about how we pitch our tents faster than they can park and level their big rigs... Look at us go!
We don’t treat these as requirements, they are simply suggestions. Our needs change every time we go some place new. Choose wisely depending on your situation.
Plan ahead. How often have you heard this? It doesn’t matter if you’re camping in Timbuktu or the Yosemite Valley, use available resources to find information on possible campgrounds. Here are a few ideas:
Private campgrounds often have nice photo galleries on their website. You can make a visual assessment of the campground without having to go there in person.
Be careful, many websites are not updated frequently. You may find that listed prices, amenities and facility closures are out of date. State and national park websites are usually better maintained. In the US, most states have their own website that lists all of the their parks and campgrounds. Most countries also have a single website with information about national parks.
Larger campgrounds and state or nationally-operated campgrounds tend to offer more online services such as making reservations and checking availability. These sites also often have park and trail maps available, as well as updated information on road conditions and seasonal closures.
Travel guidebooks can be hit or miss when it comes to camping. Some include a lot of information, and others never mention camping. Your best bet is to see if the guide lists an email address or phone number and contact the campgrounds directly for up-to-date information.
If you are going to be traveling slowly it is worth buying the most detailed book possible. For example, Lonely Planet’s Baja California & Los Cabos guide is much more useful than the full Mexico guidebook.
Guidebooks can also be written to include information specific to the budget of the intended audience. For example, will not find many campground listings in Fodors or Rick Steves. Books geared towards backpackers generally have better listings. We’ve found the best information in Let’s Go, Rough Guide and Lonely Planet, especially the shoestring series.
It’s also wise to look for books specifically written for campers and RVers. We found the Camping in Mexico book by Mike & Terri Church to be invaluable during our 70 days in Mexico. A great majority of the sites in this book would have been impossible to find otherwise.
When in doubt, ask the locals. Visitor centers often have up-to-date information and can usually tailor recommendations to your needs. They are also very handy for insider information and seasonal activities in the area.
Be aware that in parts of the world, such as South East Asia, Mexico and Australia, tourist information booths may work on commission. Be careful that “information” doesn’t really mean "greasy timeshare salesman office."
Finding the perfect site may is not an exact science, but if you know what to look for you’ll have a better time than picking a spot at random.
Be sure to arrive before the afternoon rush so you can have the first pick of good spots. Just don’t be so early that the campers from last night haven’t had time to pack up and leave. Between noon and 2PM seems to work best for us, we do everything possible to not arrive after dark.
Do not be afraid to get out of the car and explore the area on foot, you’ll often find a better site that way and notice things you would miss from a car.
Roads, rivers and lakes are like magnets to the impatient camper. Avoid camping next to a trail head or in between the bathroom and the main road. Inconsiderate campers will walk through your site.
Water, restrooms, trash. Decide how close is close enough for convenience, but not so close that you will be bothered by other campers or scavenging animals. Being close to the bathroom might be nice in the middle of the night, but it could also mean extra noise in the morning.
Look out for signs of all three, they can be very noisy. Toys, bicycles and beer cans scattered around a camp site are signs of potentially noisy neighbors. Unless you want to be in a pet/family friendly area, or are partaking in a bit of partying yourself, avoid being close to these sites.
These are usually well marked and can be very noisy when occupied.
Bright lights above your tent don’t help you sleep, but a light that you can turn on while cooking dinner is handy. Make sure you check for street lights (the kind that turn on when it gets dark) before you setup camp - they are easy to miss during the daytime.
If it’s hot, you probably don’t want to find some shade. If it’s cold, especially in the morning, being surrounded by trees won’t help you warm up.
Avoid campsites that are on the bend of the road. When vehicles drive by you will be blinded by headlights.
Check to make sure there is a clean fire pit and a table if you require them. Many campsites have permanent tables, so if you want to move the table, check to make sure it isn’t bolted down.
If you have to have electricity, wifi or cellphone signal, make sure to test it out before setting up camp.
Always look out for signs of critters - things like ant hills, holes in the ground and pools of stagnant water should be avoided. Surprise guests are no fun.