Finding That Perfect Campsite

Finding That Perfect Campsite

by Stephan Edwards

Tracking down a really great campsite can sometimes be a headache. Ideally, you want a level spot with solitude, a stunning view, and proximity to trails or maybe even a primo fishing spot. Whether you're on the road long term or just heading out for a weekendwilderness get-away, planning ahead but staying flexible will help you nab that perfect overnight stopover.

Information Overload

Even as little as a decade ago, the biggest challenge a would-be adventurer would have in scoring a nice place to set up camp was actually finding a campsite. While private campgrounds and established campgrounds on public lands were well documented on traditional maps and some websites, more off-the-grid camps still remained hidden. You could stumble on a great one serendipitously or spend hours in a futile search down dead-end roads and driving in circles in the dark. Most of the better wild camps were closely guarded secrets of locals. 

In addition, older map data and the often confusing patchwork of public and private lands - especially in the American west - presented another challenge. "Am I trespassing on someone's property?", was a common worry. Regulations on public land were sometimes unclear. Is camping allowed on this particular stretch of National Forest? How about campfires? Can I get a reservation? Only a limited range of maps were available, and campsite details were sparse or out of date, even for established campgrounds. You might have had to *gasp* talk to an actual human being to get the information you needed before heading out into the woods. 


We can safely say now that many of those issues have been put to rest in the modern age. Online and GPS-based data have taken a lot of the mystery out of tracking down a place to lay your head for the night. All you need anymore is a smart phone and a clear view of the sky - the satellites will guide you. With the recent boom in overland and long-term travel dozens of offline apps and web-based sources have built a veritable mountain of camping data, all available at your fingertips. Even government agencies have worked hard to update their online presence, both in terms of specifics about specific campsites, and online systems for reservations. From remote wild camps to massive, full-service RV parks and everything in between, all those details can seem overwhelming. In some ways, it's the opposite problem - almost information overload or paralysis.

How do you sort through the noise?

Thinking About Camping Strategically 

The first filter to apply actually goes back to the old technology. The way the human eye works means that a paper map still does things an app on your phone or tablet can't. Apps can't simultaneously render fine grained local detail and large scale perspective. Only a paper map allows you to see the big picture and the local specifics at the same time, especially when it comes to topography. Garmin's Delorme range of atlases and gazeteers are a great tool for this, including their robust resource sections that detail hiking trails, geologic features, scenic drives, and, of course, campsites.

Once you have the lay of the land geographically, then you can dive into that big sea of information. The available types of campsites out there have changed significantly from the old days, and so has both what and how we know about them. In North America, the general types of campsites we can put into four categories: (1) privately owned developed campgrounds, lodges, and RV parks, (2) developed campgrounds on public land, (3) undeveloped campgrounds on public land, and (4) wild camp sites (sometimes called "dispersed camping") on public land. A relatively recent subset of privately owned campgrounds are "Airbnb"-style campsites: basically a plot of land on someone's property that they've turned into a campsite for rent. Offered with a wide range of services, from nothing at all, to high speed internet, laundry facilities, and sewer connections, it adds another option.


Knowing what kind of campsite you're after will help you start sifting through the available information. So which tools do you need? When it comes to online and offline GPS-based apps and resources, there are three distinctions: crowd-sourced apps, professionally developed apps, or, increasingly, a combination of the two. 

Crowd-sourced apps like iOverlander and Overland Bound One rely primarily on data and reviews submitted by users in the online community. Some have embedded social engagement tools that let you connect with your fellow campers in the app on the fly. Professionally developed apps like Tracks4Africa, onX, and Gaia build their core database of information from within the app, some of which is proprietary, but increasingly are integrating crowd-sourced data in parallel. There are highly camping-focused apps as well, such as Campendium, FreeRoam, Hipcamp, and The Dyrt. Many stand-alone navigation devices (rather than an app on your phone), like Garmin's Overlander, follow the same path, with both proprietary data as well as socially-derived information and reviews. There are, of course, also the standard navigation apps, like MapsMe, OsmAndMaps, Apple Maps, and Google Maps. 

Some features in these apps require an active internet connection. Most of them also offer offline functionality using GPS signals as long as you download the data you need before you find yourself out of range of a cell signal. As always, your mileage may vary on the quality of information in crowd-sourced apps. And, hunting down campsites that are popular with lots of folks in the app may mean that... well, lots of folks might be hunting down the same campsite. Not a great solution for solitude.


Seek The Undiscovered

If solitude is what you seek, then you may need to strike out on your own. Remember that the campsite information you're accessing on any of these apps or online resources is open to anyone. Some of it you need to pay for, some is completely free, but it's all available. If you're feeling bold, tracking down that campsite that's completely offline and undiscovered is particularly rewarding. This brings us back to that age-old method of communication - talking to other humans. Many of the best campsites I have had both at home and abroad I've landed because I asked a friendly local, or called a public lands agency office. Don't let the big world of data narrow your view. There are plenty of wonderful spots left to discover for your own that aren't found on any app.

Whether or not you share those campsites is up to you. As we've discussed in previous posts, adding geotags or submitting location data to these platforms is a double-edged sword. Wherever you end up resting your head, remember to practice Tread Lightly! principles so campsites for all of us will be there for generations to come.

How do you find your ideal campsites?


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