How to Find the Perfect Campsite
Nothing is more important while camping than when you find the perfect campsite to fit all of your needs. I mean, it’s kind of the whole point, right?
When you go camping, you are investing your evening activities, your daytime adventures, and even relying your rest upon the site you choose. Even for those camping in multiple locations for a trip, your decision can shape the direction that your outdoor getaway goes.
So, when you choose your next site, you will need to make sure that you keep important key notes in mind. A perfect campsite can really make or break your next adventure.
Where do you begin?
The first thing you want to keep in mine is the style of camping you are going for.
There are different ways to camp that can encompass a whole range of pros and cons that you may have not have thought of prior to your trip. One thing I try to ask myself before setting out on my travels is what is the purpose of this camping trip?
It might sound silly at first, but it really can determine what kind of location you are going for.
Are you trying to get out to the middle of nowhere? Do you really want to explore a national or state park? Will you be up late and partying or early up to get that sunrise hike in? Do you have children? Are you willing to sacrifice amenities? Are you leaving late on a weekend without a reservation? How patient are you about searching for a site if the first ones are full?
All of these questions can determine where you should search because we all know, camping should be fun, not stressful. Finding that perfect campsite can eliminate this stress so you can fully enjoy the outdoors in the way that you choose.
Now that you see why it is important to seek out the perfect campsite, check out my guide to find the right place for you.
I’ve broken out different types of camping below to show you the different options that you have and the pros and cons of each so you can find that perfect campsite. Throughout my life, I have been to all sorts of styles of camping and each are pretty fun.
I will say, some of these options are more difficult to reach depending on where you live. For instance, Southern Utah is filled with amazing BLM land where you can camp for free in stunning and secluded areas whereas Los Angeles is a bit more limited.
However, I will show you the tools I like to use when searching for new sites, even in places I’ve never been before.
Here are the different styles of camping that you can choose from.
Glamping / KOA
These resorts are definitely the least removed from modern civilization out there. Basically, many of these sites act more like a hotel than and actual campsite.
This is not to say that they are not very fun, because they can be awesome, especially for those who don’t camp often. As a girl scout back in the day, I went to a really sweet surf camp glamping extravaganza right on the beach and it was AMAZING. I’ve even been to a wedding that had a bit of a glamping theme where you can sleep in a yurt and hang out by the camp fire but fed high level restaurant food.
RELATED: Glamping: The Ultimate Guide to Glam up your Campsite
I put KOAs in this category as well because they can often be equipped with great amenities that feel more like an inn. I went to one near Mt Rushmore as a kid with a pool!
Just to be clear, when I mention amenities throughout this post, I am referring to bathrooms and possible running water. They differ from site to site but the places I claim to have amenities usually at least have a bathroom.
While this is not really fully outdoor adventure, it’s still a great chance to change your scenery for those who don’t get outside as often as they would like. I’m an advocate of travel at all levels of luxury, especially when it comes to the outdoors.
Best for: Romantic getaways, summer camps, families, city dwellers, events
How to get there:
Glamping resorts are basically like a hotel. You can easily search them by location and book through their staff. Because they run much like a hotel, you can make normal reservations and bookings like you would do on any normal vacation.
KOA are similar and can be searched here.
- Great amenities
- Possible organized activities
- May have food included
- Fire pit and tables could be included
- Possible indoor housing
- Not very secluded
- Not as immersed in nature
- Might not feel like real camping
- Possibly other guests
- Could be booked
National Parks / State Parks
Here is what I think about when I think of National or State Parks. The world is beautiful and a whole region can have great natural resources. However, the places in these parks are so above and beyond that nations and states take it upon themselves to preserve the land for future generations.
When I was younger, I didn’t appreciate this but after exploring some of Utah’s best parks, I’m sold.
So, it is probably safe to say that camping within the park is pretty cool. One of the biggest downfalls though is that it can be fully booked months in advance.
I’ve generally stayed mostly in State Parks because many of the most popular National Park campsites have no vacancy (and because I usually want to be far from others while camping but we will get to that later). State Parks however can be a nice way to camp in cities with very little dispersed options such as near Los Angeles.
I’ve done everything from beaches, inner city, desert, whatever. These spots usually have really nice amenities, RV hookups, fire pits, tables, and places to put tents. These are great for families since it is generally safe, hygienic and close to the activities you will do throughout the day. I’ve even opted for a less popular state park site when we were starting out really late after my fiancé Robb got off of work since the cool free options near Denver are basically full by that time.
Just know that these are not the best if you want to get loud and rowdy at night or want it to be dead silent. They usually have quiet hours but not everyone follows them.
Another thing to note when it comes to National Parks is the dispersed camping within the park. These sites can be absolutely majestic, but you often need a permit. I’ve never done them myself but if you are interested in checking that out, visit your national park’s website.
For my favorite parks, I go to BLM right outside the park since it’s free and often don’t require permits. However, like I mentioned before, National and State parks are preserved over the surrounding land for a reason so if you want to camp within the park, I say you should go for it.
Best for: Families, people wanting to fully immerse themselves in a particular park, RVs, beginner campers
Costs: Moderate to pricey depending on the permit
How to get there:
National parks and State parks often have websites to easily guide you to their location. This is where you can find all the information for permits, reservations, restrictions, etc. Because these websites are ran by government, it usually has extensive information about activities offered and hikes that you can go on, including the skill level and elevation gain.
- Easy access to the park
- Often very beautiful
- Nice amenities
- Possible fire pit and picnic table included
- Possible RV accessibility
- Reservations could be hard to obtain
- Might need permits
- Possibly near other guests
- Costs money
So, say you want to have the nice amenities of a park site but don’t want to worry about reservations or permits. That is where general paid sites come in.
These sites could be privately owned or publicly owned but usually, the costs are pretty low and go directly into maintaining and staffing the site. These sites often include a spot to put your tent, picnic tables, firepits, and RV hookups.
Paid sites can often be first come first serve, so be prepared during the peak season during the weekends. I have had a time where there were no places left in the paid locations and well, it was a bummer. They also can be closed in off season which does get a bit frustrating. I know in Colorado, some of the sites don’t open until April, even if it’ a warm spring.
These locations also often have quiet hours but may not be as regulated as the park sites since there isn’t always a staff member on site.
RELATED: Skip the fees and find the best FREE Colorado campsite here
However, the nice thing about these sites are that they take the guest work out of legality. They are fully designated for camping, so you don’t have to worry about distance from rivers or a fun wake up call from a ranger. Speaking of rivers, these sites can often be the only legal place to camp along them due to risk of flash floods.
Best for: Families, RVs, beginner campers
How to get there:
These sites might be searchable online but are not as extensive as the national and state parks. I often just google an area and they will come up.
I’ve also used freecampsites.net to help me find locations. This site is a community-based page with locations and reviews offered by the public. It’s probably one of my favorite resources to find sites.
When driving on the road, these are also very easy to spot since they have a sign often right on the road. I mean, it is a business and they want customers to know where they are located.
- Amenities usually included
- Fire pit and table often included
- River access
- Staff possibly on site
- Possible RV hookups
- No need for reservations
- Possibly near guests
- Might be loud
- Could be full
- Could be closed
Paid dispersed sites are much like the general paid sites but with a bit more seclusion. This is perfect for the camper that wants to camp with some structure but don’t want to be near families or RVs.
I’ve been to one within a paid campsite that had a short 50- foot hike to get to it. While the distance was small, we were far enough to not hear a single person out there.
Other paid dispersed sites simply require a recreational fee to use the area and you drive to a location like you would with BLM camping. These sites are often marked with a number but often don’t include a metal fire pit, just ones made by previous campers with rocks.
When setting the fire, it is etiquette to reuse the pit, or at least remake it in the same location to reduce the amount of human interaction with the land.
Much like the other paid sites, these take away any guest work when it comes to legality. Just make sure you don’t camp where you are not allowed to camp in. Usually, the forest services will place no camping signs anywhere not allowed. Trust me, you don’t want that ticket for ignoring those signs.
These sites are also perfect for anyone trying to be loud or completely silent at night. Because you are far away from the next patron, you don’t have to worry about sound (within reason).
Just note that it may be more difficult to reach some of these spots without a 4-wheeler or high clearance. Even the paid dispersed could be up a treacherous road.
Best for: Campers that want seclusion, party camping, early hikers, people who want to feel far away from society
How to get there:
These sometimes take a bit more digging than the normal paid sites, but you can still find them at freecampsites.net or on a national forest website within the region you are looking for. I wish I can make these a bit easier to find but hey, that’s the beauty of it right?
These are sometimes marked, but not as well. Sometimes, there is just a road with the camping allowed sign and something telling you to pay a recreational fee.
- Feels like you are in nature
- No need for reservations
- Can be loud or quiet as you like
- Possibly no amenities
- Might need better vehicle to reach
- Cost money
- Often no fire pit or table
- Could be hard to find
BLM / National Forest Dispersed Camping
Ok, here is my favorite way to camp! BLM dispersed camping! This is why I am a huge advocate of public lands. It’s just awesome.
BLM is basically public lands that allow you to use recreationally within national forest guidelines. Many of the sites can be accessed for up to 14 days, free of charge.
Do note that many national forests have guidelines, many regarding the distance between you and a river. This is really for safety reasons and there are many other places to camp so why risk it? To check this, just look up the national forest you are planning to stay in a search dispersed camping on their page.
Now these sites are usually best for more of an experienced camper since there are no amenities, but hey I took some new campers out to my favorite Utah site and they did just fine. Just know that you will need to use the bathroom in nature. It’s not that bad, I swear.
RELATED: Learn about my favorite campsite here.
The great thing about these sites are that you can really get out in the middle of nowhere, even by car. Some areas could require 4-wheel drive or high clearance simply because the road requires it. However, there are often many sites that you can reach without it, just keep searching.
Being in the middle of nowhere, you can be as loud as you want. I’ve basically thrown what felt like a music festival in the middle of the Utah deserts and no one was around!
On the contrast, you can be as quiet as you want. It’s eerie to hear absolute silence in some of these locations as well.
Just make sure you follow any signs to find these spots. Forest rangers will give you a ticket for camping somewhere you aren’t supposed to.
Best for: Experienced campers, people wanting to feel far away from civilization, party campers
How to find them:
These are found on national forest and BLM websites. When searching, just make sure you watch proper signage so you don’t camp somewhere you aren’t supposed to. Use good etiquette when finding site by searching for one that has a fire ring already made. We want to limit our footprint when camping in these areas.
Also, make sure you follow any of the rules of BLM dispersed camping and use good judgement. You want a site that is level, safe, and that will have minimal impact on the surrounding areas. Learn the specifics of your site on the national forest website of your destination.
- Feels like in the middle of nowhere
- You can be loud as you want
- You can be as quiet as you want
- Feel fully within nature
- Must make sure it is a legal location
- No amenities
- Might need specialized vehicle
- Could be far from city
- No fire pit or table
- Could be hard to find
Lastly, there is backpacking. Backpacking is when you pack in your entire camp within your backpack. You basically take what you need in and hike for a bit of a way until you find a site.
This takes research and knowledge to find a good site, so I do not recommend this for any new campers. Besides the sheer athletic ability to hike while carrying a lot of gear, it is important to find the correct spot to camp or it can get dangerous. I certainly don’t want anyone getting hurt when exploring the outdoors as a beginner.
Things to keep in mind are gear weight, water supply, flash floods, weather, and containing food supply from wildlife like bears. Also note that backpacking gear can get pricey due to maximizing functionality without any added weight.
That being said, backpacking can get you to some of the most secluded and majestic locations out there. Think about it. It’s only you and nature at that point. If this is something you want to experience, I highly recommend you do the research and start investing in gear. Start with small treks to really get the hang of it before going all in.
I personally am not much of a backpacker myself but many of my good friends live for it. After looking at some of the photos, I can totally see why.
Best for: Experienced hikers and campers
Cost: Camping is free, but gear is expensive
How to find them:
These sites are found while on hiking trails. Much like BLM/Forest Camping, respect nature while you are out there. Since I am not much of a backpacker, I don’t want to go over all the things you look for when selecting your site but I recommend you do some research. Please be safe my friends.
- Truly unforgettable experiences out in the wild
- No other patrons
- Beautiful landscapes no one ever seen
- Feel like a real survivalist
- Get to locations cars can’t get to
- Could be dangerous
- Gear is expensive
- Requires skill and knowledge of outdoors
- Can’t bring as much food or drink
Well there you have it! I hope that this helps you choose your perfect campsite for your next outdoor adventure. Are you planning a trip any time soon? Where are your favorite places to go? Let me know about your perfect campsite in the comments.