The rustic accommodations of national park campsites get us closer to nature than private campgrounds outside the park. But opting for that primitive experience often puts RVers in the middle of that classic Goldilocks conundrum.
Without good planning, you just don’t know if a campground can accommodate your home on wheels. If you can count the number of times you have spent an entire afternoon jumping from one site to another, trying to find one that fits, you’re not alone.
As the owner of a 38-foot motorhome, I’m somewhat envious of truck campers, camping vans, and small motorhomes able to tuck themselves in a cozy gem of a campsite that could never accommodate our rig. The truth is, bigger is not better when it comes to RVing in national parks. The smaller your rig, the more campsite choices you have, including some amazing backcountry campsites where large rigs could never tread.
Many owners of RVs larger than ours are successful at squeezing into the pint-sized campsites at national parks, but we prefer to avoid being the afternoon entertainment when we arrive somewhere.
The best RV type for national parks is a unit that’s 30-feet or less including the toad (or tow) vehicle. The short, narrow parking sites in most national park campgrounds make navigation difficult in anything larger. That’s not to say your 40-foot motorhome won’t ever be able to camp in national parks, it just means that you’ll need to work harder to find a suitable campsite.
How to find the best national park campsite for your RV
If you’re one of America’s nine million RV owners and desire a national park experience, reserve a spot as far in advance as possible at Recreation.gov. Wherever you roam in the national park system, the RV-friendly spots are always the first to go. Spontaneous travel offers some amazing benefits, but showing up at a national park’s campground without a reservation is a recipe for disappointment.
From Joshua Tree to Arches and beyond, planning pays off for national park RV camping and it’s easier when you know the answers to these questions:
Will the campground accommodate my needs?
If your RV is self-contained with holding tanks, toilet facilities, and perhaps solar panels, you can go just about anywhere. But if you’re in a more basic rig without them, a designated campground with water and bathroom facilities is pretty much a necessity. And if you rely on generator power, you’ll need a campground that allows their use. Not all do in the national park system, so always verify that the one you want to visit has generator hours and other creature comforts you desire.
What is the length of my RV?
Don’t rely on the RV manufacturer’s sticker to tell you the length of your rig. That number usually only factors in the interior length dimension of the RV rather than the exterior measurement from front to back bumper. Your toad, or tow vehicle, adds additional length that impacts where you can camp.
To find out your actual length, measure your RV. You want to know the total number of feet for your RV and secondary vehicle, if any. Measure from the front bumper of the first vehicle to the back bumper of the second one. If you have bicycles or a cargo box hitched to the rear, add those in too. Also measure the height from the highest point on your roof, and total width with slides extended, if applicable. Many campsites have thick tree canopies with limited clearance for high profile vehicles.
What is the maximum RV length for the campsite I want?
You’ll see that number for every campsite on Recreation.gov, but it only refers to the vehicle being parked at the site. You may or may not be able to fit a second vehicle on the parking site. Before reserving a spot, contact the park to get a better idea of the campground’s ease of use for an RV like yours.
Do parking hazards exist?
Even when site dimensions look acceptable, natural obstacles may prevent you from maneuvering into the site. If there’s any question about fitting into a site, look carefully at Recreation.gov photos or download a Google Earth map to confirm that you can navigate that space without scraping a tree or boulder.
If you’re already at the campground, observe and note if the rig’s back end will hang over the parking site or encroach on your neighbor’s landscaping.
Many RVers will say that a small rig is best for one location while super-sized RV owners may say they don’t have a problem accessing that same spot. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle.
Our wish to you is this: drive a little slower, take the backroads sometimes, and stay a little longer. Enjoy, learn, relax, and then…plan your next RV journey.