Free Complete Guide to Planning a Camping Trip

Free Complete Guide to Planning a Camping Trip

Planning a National Park Camping Trip

Written by Beth Dunlap with over 10 years tent camping with small children at state parks and over 10 National park trips during the summer months in several RV Parks, this blog is your trip planner guide with recommended timelines to help you plan your next camping trip. This blog includes considerations for RV camping and tent camping. February 4, 2024

Whether you are a new camper, tent camping, or RV camping, it's a great idea to create a camping plan for a successful camping trip to enjoy the great outdoors. For the best experiences, planning ahead will help provide opportunities for your ideal camp site, finding a great place for you and your family members in the best campground. 

 

When to start planning

A good idea is to start planning well in advance of your trip (about 1 to 1 1/2 years in advance) before the National Parks release their campground reservations. The campsite reservations can go within minutes of being released online so prep work before the release day is recommended.

If your trip is only a few months away, you may not be able to stay in the most popular campsites. On the other hand, you may be fortunate to find canceled reservations for some of the most popular campgrounds. Our friends did just that 3 months before their vacation they were able to secure reservations for the Watchman Campground in Zion & Trailer Village RV Park in Grand Canyon for their vacation in May. Keep checking the websites frequently for possible openings in reservations.

No matter when you are planning your trip, keep reading for step-by-step recommendations on planning your National Park vacation.

First Things in Planning

  • A great way to enjoy the National Park you are visiting is to stay at the campgrounds or lodge inside the National Park. Being in the heart of the National Park, provides for a wonderful camping experience. It also can make parking easier and you are not waiting in a long line to get into the park. . 
  • Whether this is your first camping trip or you are experienced, if you are staying in the great outdoors for many days, it may be helpful to plan a couple of days stay at a lodge. A nice bed and hot shower inside your own room may be a welcome change to the nightly walk to the community bathrooms.
  • Open a Recreation.gov account. You will use this account for any reservation needed for the parks. 
  • Visit the National Parks websites to determine when lodging/campground reservations are released. 
  • Write out your itinerary to help start the planning process for your trip. Start with the hardest to get reservation and build your vacation plan around that. We started with whatever date was available for the Yellowstone Old Faithful Inn and then looked for dates for Canyon Lodge either before or after the reservation for Old Faithful Inn.  
  • Create a file on your computer or start a new folder in places such as DropBox or Box to keep all your reservations organized for your trip. 
  • If you have multiple e-mail addresses, determine which e-mail address you will use when making reservations and write that on the top of your itinerary. 
  • Plan your must do parks for early in your trip especially if you plan on a lot of hiking. 
  • Frequently check nps.gov, park specific twitter account, and recreation.gov for any changes or updates. 
  • We recommend reservations at lodges or campgrounds inside the National Park for most of the parks as this keeps you steps away from all the activities inside the park and makes parking easier. 
  • Open a Recreation.gov account. You will use this account for any reservation needed for the parks. 
  • Visit the National Parks websites to determine when lodging/campground reservations are released. 
  • Write out your itinerary to help start the planning process for your trip. Start with the hardest to get reservation and build your vacation plan around that. We started with whatever date was available for the Yellowstone Old Faithful Inn and then looked for dates for Canyon Lodge either before or after the reservation for Old Faithful Inn.  
  • Create a file on your computer or start a new folder in places such as DropBox or Box to keep all your reservations organized for your trip. 
  • If you have multiple e-mail addresses, determine which e-mail address you will use when making reservations and write that on the top of your itinerary. 
  • Plan your must do parks for early in your trip especially if you plan on a lot of hiking. 
  • Frequently check nps.gov, park specific twitter account, and recreation.gov for any changes or updates. 
  • Important Safety Information: Call or visit the Park Ranger station for specific safety information for that park. An area of the park you are visiting may be prone to flooding with small amounts of rainfall such as The Narrows at Zion National Park. Knowing what to watch for and safety considerations will help in your planning to have a safe, enjoyable experience in the great outdoors!

Picking a Campsite

Many campgrounds will let you pick your campsite. Pull up their campground map from their website and look for sites you like. 

Here are a few things to consider…

  • Do you want the campground inside the park or outside the park? What campgrounds inside National Parks lack in amenities, they more than make up for in their location. Just like in real estate, it’s all about location, location, location. If you only have your rental RV (no rental car too), it is nice to leave the RV parked at the campground while walking or using the park shuttle for your transportation. Parking can be limited in National Parks and may be difficult in your RV. 
  • Pull through sites are a wonderful site to behold when you are pulling into a campsite late at night or if this is the first time camping with a RV. It saves you the anxiety of backing up your camper. 
  • Full hook-ups, partial hook-ups, or no hook-ups?
    • Full hook-ups typically indicate you will have electric, water, and sewage.
    • Partial hook-ups typically indicate you will have electric and water but no sewage but clarify with the campground for what is provided with partial hook-ups.You will need to drive to their dumping station for your gray water (example, water from dish washing) and your black water (example, waste from your toilet). 
    • No hook-ups typically indicate you will be using your generator in your RV, using your fresh water stored supply, and will need to drive to their dumping station for your gray water and your black water. 
    • Verify with the campground what is included with the hook-ups that are available as they can vary.
  • Bathroom proximity. Even though your RV has a bathroom, we often limit the toilet use so we are not having to clear it when unhooking our RV for the next site. As you can imagine, it could be a nasty, dirty job. Best to use the campground bathrooms for most toilet needs. Also, the shower in the RV is small. You may enjoy using a larger shower in the campground for a little more elbow room.
  • Is there a river that borders some of the campsites? This will be a nice quiet location to possibly put up a hammock and enjoy the peacefulness of the outdoors.
  • Know the size of your RV as that is often a question to answer when making reservations. 
    • If renting from Cruise America, their RVs are Class C and the sizes are as follows:Cruise America Standard RV is 25 ft, Large RV is 30ft, and Small is 19ft. 
  • How hilly is the campground? If you are unfamiliar with the campground, you can call ahead and ask how hilly the campsites are. The information provided by Cruise America RV indicate that the refrigerator does not work properly if it is not on level ground. There are blocks you can purchase to help level your RV but if this is the first time camping in a RV, you may want to avoid this if possible. 

1 Year in Advance

  • Make reservations for campgrounds or hotels. Mark your calendar & set an alarm to be at your computer the moment the reservations are released. Pick multiple campsites that you would like. Have several tabs open on your computer to easily move from one campsite to another if the first one you selected is already reserved.
  • Learn about the National Parks and the activities at the park by visiting nps.gov for your specific park. 
  • A very helpful app is the Guide Along (formerly known as Gypsy Guide) Apps. These apps are designed to play when you are visiting various sites inside the National Park but you can click on the app to listen ahead of time to help give you an idea of the park and there are some good tips that may help you in the planning. It is well worth the cost of the app. When you are in the park, the Gypsy Guide will automatically start playing when you pass certain points in the park. It is like you have a personal tour guide with you and makes driving around the park more enjoyable. 
  • Determine what extras you would like to do such as ...
    • Yellowstone wildlife tours and covered wagon meals 
    • Mule Rides at the Grand Canyon 
    • Whitewater rafting
    • ATV rental
    • Narrows rental gear in Zion
    • Tours 
    • Horseback rides
    • Reservations for meals such as at the Yellowstone Lodge
  • Budget out your trip to save throughout the year. Expenses: gas for the RV, groceries, campground reservations, airline flight, any extras you want to do, souvenirs. 
  • Reserve the RV. Look for discount codes. They may have specials such as reduced rates on miles. 
  • Airline tickets and/or rent your car
  • Does the park have a Lottery system for some of their more popular parts? For example, there is a lottery for obtaining a permit to hike Half Dome in Yosemite.
  • When you have made your campground reservations, number your reservations in your saved folder in the order that you will be using them so you can easily access it as you move through the days of your vacation. 

3-6 Months in Advance

  • Order your National Park Pass at usparkpass.com. Each National Park has an entrance fee. This will save you money if visiting multiple parks. 
    • Do you have a 4th grader? If so, you are eligible for a free pass. For more information, visit https://www.nationalparks.org/our-work/campaigns-initiatives/every-kid-outdoors. Keep in mind that you will need your 4th grader with you to use it. That includes if you are staying in the park and leave it to run errands. Make sure your 4th grade comes with you to use the pass to get back into the park. 
  • Plan out meals and your grocery list. If you are renting a RV, you can plan for breakfast and dinner inside the RV with lunches being more picnic style or something you can easily pack in your backpack while hiking.
  • If you are renting a RV from Cruise America close to your home, take a tour of a similar RV that you have rented. If you do not have a Cruise America close to your home, visit their website for a virtual tour. This will help give you an idea of how to organize and plan how you’ll use your RV. 
  • Order camping supplies and items to help you organize your RV. Items you may need...
    • Backpacks and Camel packs for hiking
    • Hiking Boots / Water shoes
    • Organizational items for your RV:
      • Trunk Organizers for clothes
      • Hanging 3 shelf organizer for closet
      • Pop-up laundry hamper for your trash can
      • Hanging laundry bag
      • Paper towel holder
      • Collapsible dish drying rack
      • Command Hooks
      • Portable phone charger
      • Phone mount for RV
      • Waterproof phone case 
      • Does your planned activities require any specific items? Example: Mule rides in the Grand Canyon require broad brim hats.

30 days in Advance

Grocery Shopping

  • The best way to prepare is to Meal plan prior to leaving for your trip. Look up grocery stores close to where you are picking up your RV. 
  • Consider ordering your groceries ahead of time so it will be a simple pick up. This also helps decrease the possibility you may overlook buying something since you can look over your list and add to it while before you schedule the grocery pick-up. Plan for perishable foods by ensuring there is enough refrigerator storage for items needing to be kept cold, plan
  • If you are driving a RV, look at the satellite pictures of the grocery store to determine if you can drive your RV in their parking lot. You don't want your first experience driving the RV to be through a tight, crowded Trader Joe's parking lot! 
  • Keep in mind your RV refrigerator is different from your home refrigerator. If your RV is not plugged in when you pick it up, it could take about 8 hours for the refrigerator to cool to the proper temperature. Consider buying dry ice for the freezer and ice for the refrigerator while your refrigerator is cooling down. If you are driving to your RV pick-up, you can freeze water bottles ahead of time at your home to place inside the refrigerator to help keep items cool.

National Park Wake Up Call

I am sure that the phrase "early bird gets the worm" came about after a national park visit! Prepare your family for early wake-up calls. Getting into parks after 8AM may increase your likelihood of long lines for shuttles, possibly no parking available, and the park may be closed for several hours due to max capacity reached such as at Arches National Park. Sometimes that is unavoidable if you are traveling to the park that day but aim at arriving at the parks between 6-7AM especially if you are there during the busy season. If you want a sleeping in day, plan that in your schedule to relax at the campsite or stroll around the nearby town for the day.

Write Out a Packing List & Camping Gear

  • Laundry Bag
  • Cooler
  • Hat
  • Swimsuit
  • Sunscreen
  • Towels
  • Toiletry Bag
  • Hammock
  • Ropes
  • Sanitizer
  • Backpack
  • Camelbak
  • Flashlights
  • Hiking Boots
  • Camping Chairs
  • Sleeping Bag
  • Blankets
  • Pillow
  • Water Bottles
  • Chargers
  • First Aid Kit
  • Camp stove
  • Bungee cords

Phone Storage

How is your phone storage? Clear your storage and get ready for many more pictures! The last thing you want is to miss an amazing image because you get the message that your phone storage is full.Clear your past photos from your phone by uploading them to accounts such as Google Photo. Remove apps that you no longer use to free space.

Insurance

Check with your car insurance for your coverage for rental cars and RV. You can also purchase insurance through Cruise America. Our insurance with Cruise America was $14 per day which was affordable RV coverage that provided peace of mind.

7 Days in Advance

  • Schedule for your mail to be on hold.
  • Preparing for Laundry 
    • Laundry facilities can be pretty basic at campgrounds with quarter slots used for payment for wash and dry cycle. They sometimes have laundry detergent/dryer sheets in the front office, a nearby store, or in vending machines to purchase but it is best to bring along your own detergent/dryer sheets or add that to your grocery list.
    • Stop by the bank for $20 roll of quarters for laundry. They sometimes have coin machines or a nearby store may be able to give you quarters but it is much easier to bring your own.
    • The wash is often $2-2.50 and dryer is often between $1.25 – 1.75. 
  • Prepare a binder. A brightly colored binder will help keep your reservations organized and easy to find while on vacation. 
  • Print off reservations and write out all addresses needed including RV pick-up location, campgrounds/hotels/lodges, and any additional reservations made for extra activities. 
  • Download maps and bring printed maps. Some of these areas are pretty remote so having printed maps is a nice back-up. 
  • If you have not done so already, we highly recommend purchasing the Gypsy Guide app.
  • Start Packing! 

Time to enjoy your camping trip! Enjoy the relaxing conversations at your camping spot after a full day around the fire pit! Happy camping!

Back to blog