Traveling can be so much fun and so much work! While we love exploring somewhere new, the process to find the right campground and then get familiar with the new surroundings can make it feel more like work ! We have developed a process using travel tools that make planning easier and more fun.
Step One: Decide where you want to go
Sometimes easier said than done, right? When your house is on wheels, you have so many choices. Even if you just want to get out for weekend or longer trips, there are just so many great places in the US. We usually start with a few tent posts – places we need to be. This gives us destinations to start our routing. For instance, we knew we want to be in California in May to visit Yosemite, Ouray in October for our event, Camp Carpe Diem, and in Texas for the holidays.
Then we break out our travel tools to start plotting a course and experiences along the route.
Step Two: Decide your basic route
Once we know the general direction, there are many choices in how to get there. This often gets determined if one of us has a burning desire to see something or to visit a particular area. It can also be determined just because we need to add a sticker to our map and haven’t been to a state yet. We start looking at the routes knowing we had a lot of unvisited states to add on our sticker map. This year, we knew friends were starting the year in Arizona, so decided to head that direction before making our way to the Northwest to escape the heat.
While we rarely make reservations for months in advance, we have a general idea by month of where we intend to go, allowing for the opportunity to make changes. For instance, our original plan to visit Southern California changed as Covid rules stayed in place. We hadn’t planned to stay in Nevada but decided March was a good time to visit Death Valley before it got too hot! Later, when we were able to get into California and visit Yosemite, we were caught in a heat wave and decided to scoot north as fast as possible.
Sometimes you make “detours” to see friends or to check out an area that you hear is great. And sometimes, you change plans because of weather or pandemics. It is important to be flexible.
That said, we do recommend making plans for the holiday weekends, especially Memorial Day, July 4th and Labor Day. These are popular times for everyone to get out and camp. These make good “tent posts” to set early and build your itinerary around, especially if you prefer staying in campgrounds which fill quickly at those times. Also take into consideration where you will be and what you might need. You might decide electrical hookups are more needed to stay cool.
Step Three: Great travel tool to finalize route
Once you have the general direction, one of our favorite travel tools is RV Trip Wizard which makes it easy to plot your course. It gives you the direct route to take from location A to B then allows you to set how long you want to drive per day. Since you can see all the towns falling along the route, you can determine where you might want to stop. For instance, once we decided to visit Yosemite, it gave us the most direct route from Zion. I really wanted to see Sequoia National Park so we added a stop there and RV Trip Wizard adjusted the route. This allows us to see how much time an excursion will add to the drive time and decide if expediency is more important than adventure.
RV Trip Wizard also shows us the campgrounds, gas stations and parking areas where we might want to stop along the way as well. By clicking on a campground and setting the number of nights we plan to stay, we get a sense of where we will be on which day and can make adjustments easily.
Step Four: Choosing the right campgrounds
While we use Trip Wizard to give the route and outline of our trip, we typically do not use it alone for campsites. Since we like to boondock when possible and need good cell and internet coverage for work, we check reviews and information on Campendium.com and FreeCampsites.net. The feedback from other campers on cell coverage, conditions, and more are great insights and so helpful. (Note: please always leave reviews when you stay somewhere, you will be helping all of us!)
The reviews give input on the various amenities that might be important to you. We don’t usually worry about the campground showers, laundry or swimming pools, so we focus on site size and connectivity. Decide what is important to you in a campground and use the reviews of others to get what you need. Many folks also use Google Maps to see aerial views of campgrounds to pick the best site. We don’t usually go to that trouble, but do love it when we get shade!
A couple of notes on booking campgrounds: Usually this requires a lot of telephone calls and internet surfing on websites to find out if they have room when you are planning to be there. I enjoy online booking and the ability to see a campsite map. If the campground requires that you give all your information including your credit card before they tell you if they have room, I move on to the next campground. I have learned the hard way that this can end up costing me. They don’t always respond right away and at least once, I never saw a response email that they said was delivered. They refused to refund me and we had already booked another campground. The lesson is to always call if that is really the campground that you want.
Step Five: Memberships help along the way
We like to stay in an area for a few weeks and don’t like to travel much on weekdays. However, sometimes it is easier when going from City A to City B to drive a few hours a day and stay overnight along the route. In these cases, we usually use two travel tools or memberships: Harvest Hosts when we need an overnight or Boondockers Welcome if we want to spend a few nights. Both these options provide interesting experiences to enliven your journey.
For instance, on our way to Montana from Olympic National Park, we overnighted in Cle Elum, WA at Dru Bru Brewery, a fantastic Harvest Host! We had a great time in an air-conditioned brewery (important with the heat wave) watching a hockey final with great beer and pizza. All within a short walk across the parking lot which was very level and large. Another time, we stayed for five nights between a vineyard and a pistachio farm. We have gotten to stay at memorable spots through these two memberships.
Step Six: Planning your time there
This is where the fun begins. Once I know that we are staying somewhere, I do research to maximize our stay. For National Parks, we have a few books that we like to use. Print books might be old-fashioned, but seem easier to peruse for ideas for me. My favorite is 100 Parks 5000 Ideas. It gives you a strong summary with key highlights of the known parks, but also points out nearby less known areas. We also use Secrets of the National Parks for a few extra hints and ideas and love reviewing National Geographic’s Scenic Byways to find pretty drives to take. The great thing about these books is that they also give you great ideas. There are hundreds of parks and sites run by the National Park Service, many more than the 10 or so most popular Parks. These can give you great destinations that you didn’t even know you wanted to visit!
When we are not visiting a National Park, my travel tool of choice is the internet to find the key destinations for the area. The key to refining your search is to know what is important to you to visit. You can easily search the most popular sites on Yelp or TripAdvisor. I like going to the local visitor’s center website to get an overview of what they consider the highlights and then to find one or two bloggers who share my interests to see what they say. I always search out the area bookstores and coffee shops which are often first stops. There we usually get into a great conversation with locals to discover what they think we should see.
Another fun website to check out (and you can track your visits) is Atlas Obscura. They share well-known spots but also those quirkier spots like the world’s largest ball of twine or the Hobbit House in Port Orchard to build into your itinerary.
Step Seven: More travel tools for onsite
Of course in today’s world, you can almost always find an app for that! And there are plenty of apps to take along with your travels. My favorite right now is Just Ahead. With more than 18 (and adding) of the National Parks in its library, this app uses GPS (so it works without cell coverage) to guide you through the various parks and give detail on what you are seeing. It does use a lot of battery, but only works on the roads when you are in the car, so it’s not too much of an issue.
As we drive, we often see mountains in the distance that we cannot identify. The app, PeakVisor, gives you the names when you hold it up to the range. It works for mountains the way that NightSky works for the stars, another app we we use a lot! You’ll need cell coverage so it can download the mountain range or you can pre-download an area that you know you’ll be visiting.
We are playing with a couple of apps to help us name the fauna that we find. As we see the gorgeous trees and flowers of the various states, it is fascinating to learn what they are and how they bloom. Right now, I am trying the free version of PictureThis. And use Merlin Bird ID for birds. It isn’t always easy or accurate, but gives me a general idea.
What are your top apps and tools that you use to plan your trip and enjoy it more? Please share in the comments what you use. We would also love for you to leave hints on great places to visit and campgrounds you enjoyed in our Forums. We have set up regions where we hope folks will share their top travel tools and destinations.
We also chatted about this topic and gave demos on many of the travel tools mentioned on this episode of Live at The Virtual Campground.