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Home > Close-Ups > Camping in the U.S.



Camping in the U.S.



Camping is my favorite pastime.  I've loved camping ever since I was a kid when my whole family would hit the road for month-long camping roadtrips across the U.S.  I love the solitude, the peacefulness, and the reconnecting with nature that camping provides.  I've camped in hundreds of places and in almost every state and Canadian province during all seasons and have never gotten tired of it.  This is a brief description of how and where to camp in America.


Campers can stay in the following locations, generally in descending order of facilities provided and descending nightly fee:

  • Private campgrounds

  • State-operated campgrounds (State Parks)

  • Federally-operated campgrounds (run by the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, etc.)

  • Primitive camping

I avoid private campgrounds, including chains like KOA and Good Sam Parks, because they're geared towards recreational vehicles (RVs) and travel trailers, not generally to tent campers.  I also don't like paying the relatively high fees, the gravel camping pads, lack of vegetation, uninspired layout, etc.  However, if I'm on a long roadtrip and haven't had a shower in a while, I'll sometimes stop at at KOA during the day and pay for a shower, which usually costs around $3.


State Park campgrounds are usually pretty nice and are geared more towards the tent camper.  They always have drinking water in the campgrounds, usually have showers and flush toilets, and sometimes have electrical hook-ups at each campsite.  Camping fees here range from about $10 to $18 or so, depending on the level of facilities provided.  I enjoy staying in State Parks because I like the facilities (especially the showers), though State Park campgrounds are usually more manicured and less wild or primitive than federally-operated campgrounds.  (See a href="../favorites/favorite_state_parks.htm">My 10 Favorite State Parks in the U.S.).


Federal campgrounds almost always have drinking water and sometimes have flush toilets but sometimes pit toilets.  National Park campgrounds, which usually cost $8 to $15 per night, are almost always crowded in the summer months so I tend to avoid them, especially on summer weekends.  The U.S. Forest Service operates hundreds of campgrounds, mostly in the West, usually charging $5 to $10 per night.  National Forest campgrounds usually have drinking water and each site will have a table, fire ring, but not much else.  Federal campgrounds, especially the smaller ones, rarely have showers or other amenities, like coin-operated laundry. 


How do you find campgrounds?  I use AAA (American Automobile Association) Camp Books.  These are regional guides that list all public and private campgrounds in the U.S. and are free to AAA members.  It costs about $40 per year to join AAA and I think it's a terrific investment, not just because of the free maps and Camp Books, but also because of their emergency road services.  AAA has reciprocal agreements with similar auto agencies in other countries, as well.


Camping:  East vs. West

In general, there are a lot more places to camp in the West than in the East because there's a lot more public land in the West.  There just aren't that many places to camp in the Eastern U.S.  In the West, though, public land agencies operate hundreds of campgrounds and you're rarely more than an hour from a public campground.


The three main public land agencies in the U.S. include the:

  • National Park Service (which manage the National Parks and Monuments)

  • U.S. Forest Service (which manages National Forests), and

  • Bureau of Land Management (or BLM, which manages much of what's left, sometimes called the public domain or National Resource Lands.  They're still trying to come up with a catchy title for their lands).

These agencies manage huge areas of land, especially in the West.  There are several National Parks in the East, but most of them are pretty small.  The U.S. Forest Service manages some land in East but their largest holdings are in the West, and the BLM, which is the caretaker for "the lands no one wanted," as the saying goes, has virtually no land east of the Mississippi River.


Many folks, especially those in the East, have never heard of the BLM, but the BLM is actually the largest land agency in the U.S., managing almost as much public land as the National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service put together.  Think of rural Nevada or southern Idaho and you get an idea of what most BLM land is like.  However, they also have a lot of jewels, like the sandstone canyons of southern Utah and the snow-capped San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado, where I worked as a BLM ranger for six years during college.  These three agencies manage huge tracts of land all throughout the West.  About 70% of Utah, 80% of Nevada and over half of Oregon and Idaho are publicly owned and managed by these agencies, as are large percentages of the remaining Western states.


If you want to camp in a State Park, National Park or National Monument, you have to stay in the designated campgrounds.  On National Forest or BLM land, though, you have your choice of either staying in one of their established campgrounds and paying a fee or going "primitive camping," which involves finding a flat spot of land and setting up your camp.  Of course, before you do this you need to make sure that you're in a National Forest or on BLM land and not on private land.  National Forests are pretty well marked with signs but not so with BLM land.  When I was a BLM ranger in Colorado, I used to tell folks that when traveling through rural areas of the West, especially in states like Nevada and Utah with large tracts of public land, you can generally assume that it's BLM land (i.e., public land) unless there are "No Trespassing" signs posted.


While I like the facilities in State Parks, such as toilets, showers, and drinking water, overall I much prefer primitive camping.  As I drive down the highway late in the day, I'll look for a scenic area (such as a sandstone canyon) and a side-road leading to it, then head up the road to see if I can find a nice campsite.  During my many trips across the West, I've found dozens of really nice primitive campsites that few people know about and that are almost always empty.  In fact, there's often no one with several miles.  To me, staying in a place like that is much enjoyable than camping in a noisy, crowded campground, but to each their own.


1-1868_Looking_For_Campsite_Wrong_Road.jpg (56423 bytes)    1-1771_Clay_Canyon.jpg (47932 bytes)

Above left:  Looking for a primitive campsite, late in the day.  If you're on public land, don't worry about entering gates like this.  Gates on public land are designed to keep the livestock in and not the visitors out.  Unsure if it's public land?  If there's no "No Trespassing" sign, you can assume it's public land.

Above right:  One of my favorite primitive campsites, overlooking Clay Canyon near Bullfrog Marina in southern Utah.  There aren't any facilities here but there's no fee... and it's beautiful.