How to Choose the Perfect Campsite

photo from inside yellow tent with door open looking at trees

Over the years we have chosen good campsites, bad campsites, and mediocre campsites with no rhyme or reason. We used to only choose the perfect campsite completely by accident. However, as we became more experienced with camping and reading those online maps to campgrounds, we have come up with our list of criteria for choosing the perfect campsite for us. Here is how we go about it.

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Choosing the Campground

Before you can select the perfect campsite, you must choose the correct campground. Choosing the best campground for you depends on what you are looking for in a campsite. Some people want to camp in the middle of nowhere and prefer to boondock or disperse camping. That is not us. We prefer campgrounds with plenty of amenities.

Some of our favorite campgrounds are the ones at our state parks. We have also enjoyed camping at parks run by the Corp of Engineers. And we can’t neglect mentioning private run campgrounds such as KOA and Jellystone. In fact, we started off camping at the KOA in Townsend and have gone back several times because we enjoy the location.

Some other types of campgrounds are what I would call AirB&B or VRBO style. These are run by groups such as Harvest Hosts in which you can stay wineries, farms, golf courses, or museums, Hipcamp where property owners rent out their own land, or even Boondockers Welcome now owned by Harvest Hosts.

Before you fall in love with a particular campground don’t forget to make sure you can book a site of the type you want. Does it take only RVs? Only tents? Or both?

Selecting your site

Once you have found your campground it is time to start narrowing down what site you want to book. Luckily many traditional campgrounds offer maps with great details about each site. We love the ones that show actual photos of the site. And for those that don’t, you might luck out at CampsitePhotos. They claim to be the most comprehensive online resource of campsite and campground photos with photos of each campsite in over 2,000 public campgrounds. I will say they have been hit or miss when we’ve used them but they add more every month so you might get lucky.

Level ground

We love a level site but that isn’t always an option. If the site isn’t level, if it isn’t more than a slight incline, we might still select it. In the RV we can use our levelers to help. As for tent camping, we have a decision to make. Allergies drain better when the head is higher than the feet. However, hikers might want their feet elevated to help with swelling.

Drainage

This is typically not a huge problem in established campgrounds but is still worth mentioning. If you happen to be camping during some rainy weather and you happen to notice some sites look like they have a river or a lake forming, you might notate that site as a bad site for future trips.

Site orientation

While we love to meet new people while camping, we don’t necessarily want to see them as we walk out the door on our way to the bath houses. This means we try to find sites in which it makes sense to park the RV or face the tent away from our neighbors.

Shade

boy climbing tree in which branches help shade rv

Our choices here are the same whether we are in a tent or the RV. We prefer sites that are likely to have afternoon shade. We try to park the RV so that our door is in the shade during the afternoon. And, in the tent, we hope to angle the tent opening that way as well. This is because most of us set up our sitting area on that side. And there is nothing enjoyable about sweltering in the sun while camping, especially in the heat of the summer. Having shade from some trees can help keep everything cooler. If there are no trees available, we will utilize the RV’s awning or some strategically placed tarps to create our own shade.

A caveat about trees around your site. While they are great with shade and aiding in keeping the interior temperatures down, they can also be a hazard. Low hanging branches can scape the roof of your RV. If they are too close to your parking spot and you have an RV with slides, they might hit the tree.

Sun

I will say that if we are tent camping during the shoulder seasons, we will look for sites that get early morning sun. Our aim here is to orient ourselves to get that early morning sun to help warm up the tent. It can be hard for me to crawl out of bed in the morning when it is cold. But some early morning sun, a husband who gets up to make a fire and coffee, and some tasty breakfast can help.

Bath houses and high traffic areas

The bath house is going to be a high traffic area and will probably be well lit at night. We like to be somewhat close for middle of the night needs but not so close that the lights and noise will wake us up (or keep us up) at night.

Playground and/or activity areas

We love to set up close enough we can see the playground, but we don’t feel the need to be close enough to hear all the noise. This is because we use walkie-talkies to stay in communication with our child and he is old enough to enjoy some independence. If you don’t have kids we recommend booking away from the playground as it will be quieter.

Trail heads

Having access to hiking trails from the campground is wonderful. Until you realize that everyone is walking through your site to get to the trail head. Which means we love an online map that shows us where the trail heads are located prior to selecting our site. We have a similar feeling about sites directly on the waterfront when the best fishing spot is right next to your sleeping area. Thank you, no thanks.

Site size and density

living area set up on side of RV with dog relaxing

We don’t need huge sites with plenty of space around, but we do want enough room for both the RV and our vehicle (or our vehicle and a tent) without poking out into the road. Other campers might have even more equipment than we do and if the sites aren’t well spaced out, they might creep onto our site. While we don’t mind sharing the space, it is easier for all of us to sleep when the dog isn’t constantly trying to alert us about the neighbors.

Don’t be that neighbor

Speaking of neighbors, don’t forget about campsite etiquette. While you are on vacation, you are not at home so here are a few reminders on how to be a good neighbor.

  1. Quiet time means be quiet
  2. Respect each other’s campsite space
  3. Keep your campsite clean; don’t leave food out
  4. Follow the Leave No Trace principles
  5. Don’t move firewood
  6. Help keep shared areas (especially bathrooms) clean and neat
  7. Practice campfire safety
  8. Be considerate if you must arrive late or leave early
  9. Keep it slow and obey speed limits
  10. If you are camping with pets
    1. Clean up after them
    2. Keep them quiet
    3. Don’t leave them alone
    4. Socialize only when invited

FAQs about choosing the perfect campsite

Q. What makes a great campground?

A. This is a highly subjective question. What are you looking for during your trip? If you want nature and solitude and independence, look at primitive campgrounds or boondocking experiences. On the other hand, if you are a family with children who want things to do and people to play with, look at traditional campgrounds that show lots of bookings. And, if you aren’t too sure about camping in general, maybe try one of the camping resorts which also offer modern conveniences.

Q. What should I look for in a campground?

A. Look for the amenities that are important to you and your family. For us, bathrooms and a playground are important. Activities with a ranger are fun. A laundry facility isn’t that important for our short trips.

Consider what their policies are in relation to campfires, pets, length of stay, etc. Do these align with your camping goals? We understand fire bans and we don’t stay longer than a week, but if we had to leave our pet at home that would be difficult.

We also want to know what local attractions and activities there are available before we make our final decision although we have been known to do absolutely nothing while we are there.

Q. Why is it important to choose a good campsite?

A. I don’t know about you, but if we don’t get a good night’s sleep, we are not going to have a lot of fun the next day. We are deliberate about selecting our campsites. We want to choose ones that are likely to ensure us a night of quality sleep. This goes a long way towards ensuring we have a good overall camping experience.

Q. What makes a perfect campsite?

A. For us a perfect campsite offers some shade. The ground surface is not rocky or spiky. There is enough room for some privacy. We are close enough to the bath house and the playground. The staff of the campground are readily available for questions or concerns.

Q. How do I choose a campsite at a campground?

A. Start with your list of needs and wants. We need electrical and water hookups. We want sewer hookups. We need level or almost level. We want to be close to some activities. Once you have these defined, pull up the map of the campground and see what’s available. Do any of these sites match your needs? If there are multiple, which ones also offer your wants? Are there photos to look at which will help make your decision? And, before you go home, make notes about both the site you stayed at as well as any other sites that caught your eye while camping.

man and boy hanging out in hammock while camping

To consider before booking:

  • Is there enough room for all your equipment and vehicles?
  • Where are the toilets?
  • How private is your location?
  • Where are the high traffic areas?

To check before leaving home:

  • Have you made your meal list?
  • Do you have the supplies for any activities you have planned?
  • Have you packed everything you need?

Look before setting up:

  • Are the trees around your site healthy?
  • Are there roots or rocks or spiky bits that need to be moved?
  • Where does the sun rise and set?

Review before leaving the campground:

  • Have you made notes on what you liked/disliked about this site?
  • What about notes on other sites at this campground?
  • How well does this campground align with your expectations?

We love it when we find the perfect campsite for our trip!

It used to be that this would only happen by accident but over the years we have refined our technique and are fairly confident that we know how to choose the right campsite for us. And, even if the site itself isn’t ideal, having the right attitude can make it so. Have you found your perfect campsite? Any suggestions on things we have missed? Tag us on Instagram @campinganswer and give us ideas on where we should visit next!

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