How to Pick a Great Campsite

You can’t control the weather, but you do have a good bit of control over your campsite. First off, to be clear, we’re not talking backcountry camping. That’s a whole different category of camping. We’re talking about car camping and camping out of your van. Places where you can pull up and basically unload all of your gear. State parks, National Parks, Hipcamps … you get the deal, right?

In this post we talk about some of the best things you can do to ensure that you have a great experience instead of just a mediocre one. Included are our top tips on how to pick a great campsite.

What are the activities like at your campsite?

Chances are that if you like camping then you also enjoy spending time outside. For many of us, the activities in the area are the reason we’re even camping there. For us, one of our favorite activities is running. We spend several days a week logging miles. (Recently we’ve been in Florida. Read more about our favorite places to run in Florida by clicking here.) When picking a campsite, we give a look at the nearest trails and if they interest us, we book! We’re also really drawn to the water. When trying to pick a great campsite, think about what kinds of activities you’ll have access to. At some campsites you can literally hit the trail just a few feet away from your tent or van. At others, you can fish just feet from where you’re making a fire.

Trail running in Florida

Research and book online.

The internet has really leveled the playing field as far as access to information. Back in the day maybe you would have asked a friend who knew someone who knew someone about a great spot to camp in a particular state. Now, you just have to jump on Google and within seconds you’ve got a ton of information. Use it to your advantage. Many spots are still first-come, first-serve but some of them you can reserve online. We often don’t know ahead of time where we’ll be so more often than not we hope that a space is open but when we do have solid travel plans we almost always try to book ahead. If you’re using Hipcamp, it’s almost a sure bet when you visit a site that’s been previously visited by a Hipcamp Field Scout. There will be a little blue check next to the property as well as some photos that will help give you a sense of the place before you book.

Stay away from highly trafficked areas.

Places like the bathroom, the entrance to the campground, playgrounds, etc. will by default generate a lot of foot and vehicle traffic. Do your best to pick a spot away from these places. Otherwise your vacation might end up feeling more like rush hour and that probably is the last thing you want to experience while camping.

Van down by the water in Florida

Avoid being next to the dumpster.

Make that the dumpster AND dump station. Though it would seem convenient, the last thing you want to experience is the frequent odors of old trash and whatnot. Plus, your chances of running into camp critters goes up when you’re near the trash.

Look for water.

Water really impacts our experience at a campsite. For one, it’s something we’re almost always in search of. If your campsite has water, it’s a surefire way to improve your experience as you’ll be able to refill without much effort. If it’s a primitive campsite, bring jugs and be prepared.

What about electric?

In addition to water, we’re also almost always in search of power. We need it to charge our cameras, laptops and phones. It’s hard to admit but when you’re living out of your van you’re basically jumping from outlet to outlet. If you’re going to be camping for more  than 24 hours, consider putting electric as a priority. If you’re looking to go off the grid for a bit, forget about electric and enjoy your time away from the rest of the world. We can’t always do this because of work obligations but we love it when we can. We actually wrote a post about How to Unplug and Make the Most of Your Adventure.

Does it have a fire pit?

And when you finally turn your devices off and make yourself a drink or crack a beer, you’re going to want to make a fire. At least we do. It’s one of the things we look forward to the most when we’re camping. There’s something relaxing about it – doesn’t matter what time of year it is. In our eyes, the best campsites always have a fire pit or at least allow you to make a fire.

How to make a campfire

Consider the sun.

The sun can be both friend and foe. If it’s wintertime, you probably want to find a place that’s getting a lot of sun. If it’s summertime, lots of trees and shade are probably your best bet. When booking online, get as much information ahead of time. Most campsites have basic maps that will allow you to at least figure out where the sun will rise and set in relation to your spot. If you’re booking in person, do a quick drive-through of the park and see if you can’t find one with optimal sun.

Van life

How to Pick a Great Campsite Recap:

The next time you go to choose a campsite, keep all of the above in mind. In addition, be mindful of holidays, especially three day weekends. Campgrounds are typically super busy on those days and it can be a very “social” experience. This is great if this is what you’re looking for. It can be disastrous if you’re wanting some time in the outdoors. Be sure to book ahead on those weekends and be prepared for lots of people.

Wifi: Some campgrounds have wifi and some do not. If you’re needing a connection, it’s best to check ahead. We carry our own hotspot to avoid being completely dependent on others. To learn more about our hotspot read our piece on Van Life Essential Gear and The Best Van Life Gear Under $50.

What do you think about our post How to Pick a Great Campsite? Did we miss anything? We’d love to hear your thoughts as well as some of your top tips for having a great time in the outdoors. Oh and if you liked this, be sure to check out Campsite Do’s and Don’ts.

Published by Erin McGrady

Erin McGrady is a filmmaker, photographer, and writer exploring Asheville and beyond. My work focuses on sharing about LGBTQ safe spaces, camper van life, and the outdoors.

3 thoughts on “How to Pick a Great Campsite

  1. Great article. Campfires are important to me too, and one of the best investments I’ve ever made is in a folding campfire pit. Even in sites with existing pits, having your own can mean having your campfire where it’s convenient for you.

    When I had a motorhome with more room, I also carried a propane campfire, so I could still have my campfire even when they were banned. If you have the room, they can be a neat option.

    I have long been an advocate of sun in the winter and shade in the summer too. Water is also always a super nice bonus.

    1. Hey Marty! Thanks so much for the comments. Love a great campfire. To be honest, never heard of a propane campfire. Going to do some research on ’em! Thanks for the tip! Sounds like you like to move with the seasons and the weather like we do…where ya headed next?!

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