Choosing the Right RV Campsite
A How To Guide For Beginners
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Until fairly recently, Jon and I really couldn’t imagine why anyone would ever want to go camping. Who wants to sleep on the floor, skip showers, and cozy up with mosquitoes?
But all that changed when we discovered RV camping. It turns out it’s possible to enjoy the outdoors along with some creature comforts.
It also turns out RVs allow you to get to places that aren’t as hot, humid, or buggy as we were used to. The “outdoors” is wildly varied. Some places don’t have bugs, others have beautiful alpine lakes, or mild temperatures begging you to read a book in a hammock to the sounds of the leaves rustling in the wind.
And the more time we’ve spent RVing, the easier it’s become to imagine trying something like tent camping––something you couldn’t have paid us to consider before.
RV camping has opened up a whole new world for us. And, maybe, it can do the same for you.
We want to make sure to help you have a positive first experience. So, if you’re thinking about RVing, have a new RV, or are renting an RV here is our guide to doing one very basic thing that can make or break camping for you: Choosing a campsite.
Where To Look for A Campsite
You basically have three options when choosing a campsite.
The first option is to search online. Many campgrounds will have a map online showing you all of their sites. Once you’re on the map, be sure to look at the section for RVs. Remember that some campgrounds accommodate both tent campers and RV campers. When you’re in an RV, a tent site won’t do.
Your second option is to go in person. Some campgrounds won’t have an attendant at the front, or you may have missed them if it’s after hours. If that’s the case, you’ll be making your choice at a Bulletin Board at the front showing campsite availability. Again, look for RV sites, and be sure to look only at the ones marked as available.
Last, you can go in person, register, and ask to drive through the campground to pick the campsite you want. Keep in mind that if the campground is part of a park that charges a daily entrance fee and you’re not registered, you’ll be charged to go look.
If you’re camping during a holiday or long weekend, it’s best to book online ahead of time.
You need to know 3 things in order to choose the right campsite for you. First, you’ll need to know what size campsite you need. Next, you should know the type of hookups you want. Finally, make sure you know what type of parking you prefer your site to have.
Campsites at a campground are usually different in length. For example, a 28 ft RV may fit in some sites, but not all sites. If all sites fitting 28-foot RVs are taken, you’re out of luck, even if there are other sites remaining.
Some campgrounds have size restrictions. On the low end, we’ve run into campgrounds that don’t accommodate RVs any longer than 25 feet. The restriction on the high end we’ve most often run into is 35 feet.
In general if your rig is longer than 35 feet, you’ll have less options. Both because less campgrounds will accommodate you, and because when you do fit, it might only be at select sites.
Based off of our experience, if you need big-rig-friendly sites, you may feel a bit limited trying to camp at National Parks (including National Monuments) and USFS sites in the Pacific Northwest. A trip through the pacific northwest and Yellowstone National Park made us seek out a smaller rig. And though we still change our minds about what RV set up is right for us, we continue to want to fit in 24-foot sites.
Every once in a while you may come across size restrictions that include your tow vehicle in the total length. You’ll always want to be sure to check if the listed length includes the tow vehicle. For the most part one campsite will accommodate 1 vehicle and 1 RV. The length more often than not refers to the maximum the RV can be, not the max your RV + Vehicle can be.
For your first RV camping trip you might want to try renting an RV. Jon and I had a fantastic experience renting an RV for Jon’s parents on Outdoorsy.
What kind of hook-ups are you looking for: Partial or Full Hookups? Would no hookups be okay? Do you need 50 amp service?
This all becomes second nature before you know it.
When you have a site with full hook-ups, you’ll have sewer in addition to water and electric hookups. This means that as long as your sewer hose is connected to the sewer hook-up––very important!––all waste from your RV will flow out through that hook-up rather than accumulate in your black and grey tanks.
Don’t forget your sewer hose! You need it to take advantage of full-hookups and to dump your black and gray water tanks if you don’t have full hook-ups. Without one your tanks overflow and waste comes up through the toilet and shower pan so it’s SUPER important to remember!
This clear sewer hose fitting allows you to see when no more waste is coming out, which is easier than listening. Overall, we recommend not forgetting or skipping out on any RV sewer accessories!
Full hook-ups will cost more than partial and no hook-up sites. Do you need full hook-ups? Well, in 3 years Jon and I have stayed at a site with full-hookups about 4 times––but we didn’t use the sewer hook-ups. However, we can’t do laundry in our rig, and we just about never shower in our RV.
If you’re going to be setting down your RV for months or a full season at a time, you’ll want to look into full-hookups. For weekend camping trips and road trips, in most cases you’re moving around frequently enough to dump your black and grey tanks before they fill up. Anything in between will be a matter of preference.
Partial Hook-Ups most often mean you’ll have water and electric hook-ups. We have run into a few campgrounds where it can mean you have just water or just electric though.
When you have electric hook-ups, you can run your electric appliances without the need to run a generator. The main two are usually the A/C and the microwave (or convection oven/microwave combo). You can also plug in electronic devices and small appliances straight into your wall outlets and run them.
Some TVs may need electric power to run, and in what we feel are unfortunate cases, some refrigerators may need electric power to run. (Most campers will have fridges that can run off of battery and/or LP when there is no power)
With water hook-ups you can tap into city water. This means you won’t run out of water because instead of using water from your fresh water tank, you’re receiving your water as you do in a regular house.
Don’t forget your RV water filter when you hook-up to water. It reduces chlorine and ensures clean water!
Be sure to bring a water regulator! This ensures that when you hook up to water the water pressure is kept within an acceptable range. Without it, excessive water pressure can cause damage to fittings, water lines, and connections to your RV.
This inexpensive little elbow will reduce stress on your RV wall and strain on the plastic water connection on your RV wall. The strain is caused by the weight of the drinking water hose and RV water filter. Be sure to bring one along!
This is all exactly like full hook ups except for the sewer. In the case of partial hook-ups you will be filling up your grey and black water tanks with every flush of the toilet. Same goes for anytime something goes down the sink or shower drains. This means you’ll need to monitor your grey and black tanks, and dump them at a dump station when they’re close to full.
We hardly ever plug in, but we highly recommend partial hook-ups for your first time camping in your RV. It’s a very comfortable way to get to know your RV. From there you can begin experimenting with dry camping (no hookups, or “boondocking”) at a leisurely pace.
A “no hook-up” or “primitive” site means you won’t have any electricity or water, and certainly no sewer hook-up. You can camp with no hook ups. In fact, that’s what Jon and I do most of the time. This is called “boondocking” or “dry camping” or “free camping” or even “off-grid” camping!
When you have no hook-ups many things still work in your RV. Anything powered by LP, or propane, will run. Many refrigerators are 2 or 3-way refrigerators and they switch to propane automatically when not plugged into electricity (or you may need to switch manually). If your furnace and water heater are able to run off of propane, they’ll run too. Many stoves will run off of propane so you can cook.
Anything powered by battery or DC power will also run. This often includes your LED lights (would have been nice to know while we fumbled around in the dark on our first night!), some TVs, some refrigerators, and your USB outlets. Microwaves and A/C units are usually what you won’t be able to use without power (and washers and dryers, if you have those). You’ll need a generator if you want to use electric appliances and to charge your house batteries.
You will have water as long as you filled your fresh tank. But, if you run out of fresh water in your tank, you’re out of water.
You’ll need to carefully watch your tank levels. When your black and grey tanks are nearly full, you’ll need to dump at a dump station. When your fresh water tank is low, you’ll need to refill it. When your battery levels are low, you’ll need to charge them with the generator.
Inverters, lithium batteries, and solar power can all help you have nearly the same capabilities you do when you’re plugged in. And, more and more RVs are coming equipped with these items as opposed to being an aftermarket add-on you need to make.
If your first RV trip needs to be without hook-ups that’s okay! But, be sure to practice in your driveway, or tack on time to your trip to practice at a Walmart.
30 Amp or 50 Amp
When it comes to electric hook-ups keep in mind they’re not all the same. Electric hookups allow you to plug your RV to a power pedestal and power your electric RV appliances and components without using a generator, battery power, or solar power. Some pedestals come with 30 amp, 50 amp, and sometimes an extra household 15/20 amp connection.
Both RVs we’ve had require 30 amp hook-ups. Thirty amp hook-ups are the most commonly found hook-ups.
Many Class As and Fifth-Wheels require 50 amp hook-ups. Fifty amp hook-ups can be a little less common, found only at select sites in a campground, and sometimes more expensive. We’ve found that 50 amp sites can cost $5 to $10 more than a regular 30 amp site. Fifty amp sites can also power 30 amp RVs using a dogbone adapter that will allow a 30 amp RV to plug in. (Something we did our first time camping.)
This 50 to 30 amp dogbone adapter saved the day for us our first night! Since you’re going in much more informed, you won’t need it to reach your power pedestal (!) but rather to open up options if the amperage your RV needs isn’t available but another is. Your 30 amp RV can hook into a 50 amp pedestal with this.
If you have a fifty amp rig and can only find a 30 amp pedestal there’s an adapter for that too. Just be mindful that in either case you don’t want to overload the power system by running multiple high power appliances at once.
30 amp-only pedestals are more common than pedestals with all the power options. You can adapt your 50 amp RV with this and hook-up to a 30 amp connection.
Back-In vs. Pull-Through Parking
When it comes time to park your RV at the campground, you’ll either be parking at a back-in site or a pull-through site.
The easier one to park in for beginners is a pull-through site. Pull-through sites are like a circular driveway. On a campground map you’ll notice these sites can be entered and exited at two points.
The possible downside to pull-through sites is they may be in close proximity to neighbors. They also tend to be closer to the road. They tend to be more private if they’re laid next to one another end to end. The pull-throughs laid out parking lot style––they’ll look like diagonal stripes on a map––are generally less private.
Back-in sites mean you’ll be reversing into your site. For those of you towing your RV, this can be tricky the first few times you do this. You’ll want to avoid trying to back in for the first time at sites with trees, especially if you have to thread the RV through 2 trees. Definitely, don’t arrive in the dark!
Though they can be trickier to maneuver into and they can be trickier to level your RV in, back-in sites tend to be more private. Your RV is usually tucked away from the main road. This isn’t always the case though. As we write to you now, we’re in a back-in site that is both close to the road and rather close to the neighbors. There is good tree cover between us and the neighbors and the road though :)
If you’re caravanning or camping with friends be aware that some campgrounds have buddy sites. Book buddy sites to be next to each other. In some cases, you’ll even have awning sides that face one another.
Some campgrounds have many details on their website. We’ve found websites that rate the amount of shade and privacy for you. Some even tell you where the power pedestal is. Take advantage of websites like these to get the best campsite for you. In general, when it comes to the power pedestal, you want it on the drivers side (that’s where your RVs hook-ups are usually). Otherwise your cord may not reach, or your set-up may feel clunky.
Likewise, check to see that the awning side, or camp side, isn’t facing a road and has privacy. Our first ever site had it’s awning side on the road. (No wonder we were so confused!) You want to be able to have your chairs under your awning and facing the fire ring and natural scenery, not the road!
We’ve found that when you have limited information, it’s best to pick a campsite at the end of a row––especially if that row appears to end at a lake or some other natural feature.
You’re ready to go out and camp at a great campsite! Let us know how your first camping trip goes in the comments below. And, if you’ve already been camping for awhile, please share some of your tips in the comments below. What do you wish you had known your first time camping?