I have to start this blog post with an apology, because, despite the title, I'm not going to let you in on a list of my all-time favorite campgrounds and National Parks. You can find recommendations all over the Internet—there's no need to add mine to the pile.
Instead, I'm going to tell you why certain spots are my favorites. This is so you can figure out which places, in the vast lands of North America, will become your favorites.
And that, I hope, is a bigger gift. I don't want to give you a fish so you can eat for a day, as the saying goes, I want to teach you to fish ... for camping spots.
So what makes a great place to camp? Here are a few of my principles:
Think outside the (campsite) box
Most of my favorite stays have been in places that aren't actually campgrounds. (If full hookups are your prime directive, then you can ignore this paragraph and move on to the next principle.)
For those who have some boondocking skills and even a nascent sense of adventure, there's a whole lot more out there than the 35x20 foot gravel site you'll get in most campgrounds.
For starters, consider moochdocking (also known as driveway camping). Find a friend or acquaintance who lives in or near an interesting area, and stay there. I've done this dozens of times all over the USA, and each time it was a unique experience.
For example, we spent a long weekend touring historic Lititz, PA by staying in the driveway of Airstreamer friends who have installed a 50amp plug for such visits. We also spent a week in the side yard of some college friends who live blocks away from the charming little downtown of Douglas, Michigan, on the Kalamazoo River.
Most recently, we parked in front of our friends' ranch house in Patagonia, AZ.
You'll often find moochdocking to be at the perfect intersection of cheap, fun, and easy, especially if your host is willing to act as tour guide to local points of interest.
If you're looking for a bit more detail about planning to stay in places that aren't really designed for an RV, we did a short video about courtesy parking secrets to success a while back. Most important is to consider whether you can get in—and of course, out—of the neighborhood, driveway, or other parking spot.
You will need to consider tree branches, landscaping, and brick/concrete walls, among other things. Make sure you research the location using Google Street View, and ask questions of your host in advance.
Boondocking opens up even more opportunities. You can read more about that in our boondocking blog. I've lost track of all the wonderful experiences I've had boondocking, and every one of them has been unique.
Camping at events is another great way to mix things up a little. I've traveled in the Airstream to two major balloon fiestas, two major air shows, a music festival, and the Rose Parade Rally. Although this meant no-hookup camping, I was near the center of the action each time—and so these became some of my favorite "campgrounds".
If you want to know more about these non-traditional camping opportunities, read the blog "Sleeping Around In An Airstream."
Mood and moment matter
One of the things that makes a stay especially memorable or fun is how you're feeling when you are there. I have had wonderful times in some pretty ordinary places, just because there was a background mood that made everything seem great.
For example, I remember camping high up in the Rocky Mountains on a muddy campsite with the threat of thunderstorms, hail, and freezing weather—and having a great time because it was so exciting.
In the early 2000s I used to love camping on the Sunshine Skyway Fishing Pier (no longer possible for trailers). It was magical despite constant road noise and the stink of gutted fish. That's because I was geeking out on the uniqueness of sleeping on a pier 20 feet above Tampa Bay with manta rays swimming beneath in the moonlight.
Many times I've loved spending a night or two in remote desert spots, just for the feeling of being utterly alone. On the other hand, many times I've been thrilled to be parked on a grass field among hundreds of other Airstreams at a major rally.
None of these camping spots were "great" by themselves, but they became great by virtue of how I felt about being there.
Know your personal vibeThe most important thing is to know what makes you happy in a campground.
- People or privacy?
- Hookups or self-sufficiency?
- Planned events or lack of schedule?
- Peace and quiet or stimulation?
- Proximity to things or distance from them?
- Hosting or retiring?
- Extravagant glamping or lightweight simplicity?
- Natural beauty or urban sophistication?
- Eating your own food or going out to restaurants?
- Fearless or safety-minded?
Think also about what you like to do, or want to avoid. The favorite spots of a fly fisherman will be very different from mine, since I prefer spots far away from mosquitoes and humidity. And I'd always choose being too hot over being too cold.
Take a chance
Having said all that, my final tip is to not take your prejudices too seriously. Take a chance and just point at a spot on the map and see what's there. Try something different, or way off the beaten trail. Those times I've let my guard down and wandered far from the popular campsites have often been surprisingly rewarding. (And if they turned out to be duds, at least I might have a good story to tell later.)
I'm pretty sure that if I listed my absolute favorite spots most of you would be shaking your heads. You can see that what makes a great place to camp for me—or any of us—is not universal. The thing we have in common is that we like to travel with our Airstreams. The rest is very much up to you.