Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The Art of Travel by Truck and Tent

Campsite at Castle Mountain Campground in Banff National Park, Canada.

Many people have gasped almost speechless, “You mean you camped nearly your entire trip IN A TENT?”

When we weren't visiting friends or family (yellow houses), or recuperating in a motel (red beds), we stayed in over thirty different campgrounds on our trip across country, in a 2 or 4 person tent.

We get that. Travel by truck and tent worked very well for us, but it is not for everyone. We were not on a mission to see how much roughing it we could handle - our aim was to keep things simple. We learned some practical lessons, particularly about adding more stuff.  More stuff demands more attention. More stuff distracts you from enjoying the travel. More stuff has to be packed and more stuff has to be fixed. Remember our beautiful sailboat, Layla, has a lot of stuff and travel on her taught us important lessons. Also, recall last year we traveled to the Canadian Maritime Provinces in our old pickup, and months before that we camped out of the back of our Mini Cooper! Fortunately, we paid attention and learned a few things that guided us on this road trip.

That said we still took a lot of stuff. We packed tents (old tent and new tent), ground tarp, spare large tarp, sleeping bags, pillows, blankets, propane camp stove, pots and pans, utensils, dishes, coffee pot, spices and dry goods, crates, BBQ grill to fit fire rings, ice chest (with some perishables), truck box (to hold gear), air mattresses, water jugs, tools, hatchet, flashlights, clothes and cameras. It was a good idea that we bought a bigger truck.  We used everything we brought. 

Crates, boxes, and coolers helped us pack a lot of stuff efficiently in our truck.
Campgrounds.  We traveled at the peak tourist season and did not reserve a single campsite, but we always found a place to sleep. (Yellowstone hit an all-time record of 3.8 million visitors by September this year.) You have a lot more choices for camping than you might think ranging from commercial campgrounds to the federal, state and county parks, forests, and recreational areas. You should also know that nearly all campgrounds set aside some unreserved campsites on a first-come, first-take basis.  

You are probably asking, “With the uncertainty of just showing up and hoping to find a campsite, wouldn’t it be better to get a reservation?”

Reserved sites cost a bit more for the privilege of a reservation (~ $5-$10 more) compared to unreserved sites. A reservation ties you to a schedule and your pre-paid fee is non-refundable. We benefited from this on several occasions when the camp hosts offered us the reserved sites of campers that did not arrive. Sites may be reserved many days, weeks, or even months ahead of time, which may limit the available dates. If you are reserving a campsite online, it can be difficult to evaluate suitability without actually seeing it. You may not have the option of choosing an alternative site if you find your camping neighbors are behaving badly. Reserved sites are not necessarily the best sites in the campground. You may find an unreserved site is comparable or better. However, if you want to stay in one of the most popular campgrounds during the peak times, want a site with amenities and have a tight schedule, it is probably a good idea to make a reservation, although we never did.

Primitive campsites or those with amenities?  In addition to whether to reserve or not to reserve is the decision of the type of campsite you want. There are two types of campsites - primitive and those with amenities (“hookups”). Primitive sites typically have water nearby or at the site, a fire pit, a table, and an area for a tent. Campsites with amenities cater primarily to RV’s. These campsites are often distinguished by their expanded paved or hardened areas for parking larger vehicles or by the driveways to allow the bigger RVs to set up and leave without having to back up. Surrounding trees may be trimmed or removed from RV sites to reduce damage to the big rigs which in turn can transform these areas into exposed parking lots. At a minimum, amenities typically consist of an electrical outlet to plug in standard extension cords and/or 30-50 amp power cords and a water faucet to attach a hose. Campgrounds may have a sewage hook-up on each campsite or access to a disposal area nearby, as well as internet, cable TV, swimming pools, laundry, recreational rooms and more.

Primitive campsite in Dorst Creek campground in Sequoia National Park.  In addition to the tent pad, fire ring, and picnic table, this campsite had a bear-proof food locker to store food and keep hungry bears from ripping into your vehicle.

Campsites with amenities also differ from primitive sites in cost. In our travel across the US and Canada we found primitive campsites ranged from $6 to $26 per night, with an average of about $15 a night. Campsites with amenities cost from $5-$25 more than the primitive sites.

Some campgrounds are self-serve, that is, there is no attendant to collect your money. You simply drive around the campground, find an available site (without a current or reserved receipt attached to the post next to the site), place your fee in a provided envelope and drop it in a lock-box at the campground entrance. Many campgrounds have volunteer camp hosts to oversee the campground, check on paid recent arrivals, and sell firewood (you are not allowed to bring in firewood from outside most parks). We met a diversity of hosts that were friendly, good humored, helpful, and obviously enjoying life.

Welcome station at Belly River campground in Glacier National Park, Montana.  Fee envelopes and pencils for filling out the envelope can be found here, along with a locked deposit box.  Most self-serve campgrounds take cash or check, but some also take credit cards.

Availability of campsites varies significantly among campgrounds, but some unreserved campsites are usually available every day, especially early in the day. We were often successful in getting a campsite if we stopped to select a primitive site between 2:00 to 4:00 pm. Campsites with amenities are in most demand and go quickly.

It is difficult to predict whether you will find the campsite that is just right. Even in the best campgrounds there are the prize campsites such as those with views, privacy, access to water and bathrooms, and those campsites to be avoided if possible. A campsite set back in the trees may seem ideal for solitude but it may also be dark, dank, and mosquito-ridden. Your choice of a campsite may ultimately be determined by when you arrive. Sometimes you just have to settle for whatever you find.

Primitive campers.  Upon first hearing a park agent answer our inquiry about the availability of a tent site by saying “Oh, you want a primitive site,” we imagined all sorts of horrors because primitive sounds, well, primitive. We immediately thought primitive sites might actually be set aside for Neanderthals or another ancestral species similar to Homo sapiens. We imagined primitives sitting around campfires fashioning stone tools and gnawing on bones. We thought we heard the friendly park person say, “Hey, we’ve got another couple of primitives. Should we put them up there on the hill away from the others? You know the trouble those primitives cause when they get too close to the other visitors.”

We are not sure why, because we certainly covered a lot of territory and stayed in a lot of parks, but we did not see a single Neanderthal or any other primitive in any of the campgrounds. We were disappointed. We were looking forward to sitting around the campfire with a primitive sharing our primitive campsite, exchanging jokes about humans, trading secrets about building fires and fashioning new tools, and probably arguing about the latest theories of early human evolution.

We were looking forward to sharing fire building techniques with some of the primitives in the campgrounds, but never got the chance.

Commercial campgrounds vary from excellent to poor, cater mostly to RV’s, often look more like parking lots, and usually cost more than other campgrounds. Most commercial campgrounds have all the amenities including electricity, pools, showers, laundry, internet, and in some places, cable TV. Many commercial campgrounds are located outside the park entrances to accommodate visitor overflow. When we discovered the campgrounds were full in Yellowstone, we found an exceptional alternative in Valley View Campground outside the town of Western Yellowstone with hot showers, laundromat (with free popcorn), internet, friendly and efficient staff, and a tent site in an open field all for $10/night!  We were so pleased that we stayed a couple of days and used this as our base camp to explore the park. Similarly, when we discovered no available campsites in Zion National Park, we found one outside the park in a commercial campground. Our tent campsite was merely a flat area tucked in the bushes beside a bumpy dirt road, the showers/bathrooms were atrocious, and record rainfall made the entire area a muddy mess. To add to the misery, we paid among the highest rates of the entire trip for the site ($30). The next day we learned of the tragedy of the 20 people killed by floods in Zion and in a nearby local community. We recognized that, despite the campground’s shortcomings, we were fortunate we found a place to pitch our tent and remained safe and dry.  

Campsite in Valley View campground might not have had the solitude we sought, but gave us a base camp for exploring Yellowstone National Park… 

...and great skies at sunset.

One of the least aesthetic and most expensive campgrounds of all our camps was at Zion Mountain Ranch on the east side of Zion National Park, Utah. Although most of the campground roads were flooded and muddy from rain all night long, we stayed dry in our tent.
National parks are popular and rightly so - they are the crown jewels. However, we were surprised to hear that only a small fraction of the millions of visitors actually stay in the national parks and most stay for a VERY short time. A ranger told us that the average stay of a visitor in Glacier National Park is 2 ½ hours! He explained it may take more time than that to drive through the entire park without stopping! The crowds in the campgrounds actually represent that small fraction of visitors who choose to enjoy the park up close and at a slower pace.

National park campgrounds are predictable and consistent with what they provide. Without exception we found the park personnel were helpful, talkative, cheerful, and apparently, as they said it often, quite pleased to see us. All national parks have an entrance fee of $20-$30 (unless you have purchased a lifetime senior pass, 62 and over) which gives you access for seven days (bad timing as I was not yet eligible). With a few exceptions, you must pay the entrance fee at each park. Also, the fee does NOT include the camping fee.

The iconic parks such as Yellowstone, Yosemite, Sequoia, and Glacier are very popular, fill early and can be very crowded. Campgrounds (many with flush toilets and showers) are usually well-managed and fairly clean. Depending upon the park, there may be several campgrounds within the park comprised of numerous but fairly small campsites placed close together. You can expect a lot of neighbors. (Have you ever observed how well sounds, especially voices, travel in the forest?) There are often a fair number of unreserved sites, but there is heavy demand, particularly for full-hookup sites. Primitive sites are usually more readily available.

A highly prized primitive campsite at Apgar campground in Glacier National Park, Montana (read below).  We had neighbors to our right, neighbors to our left, neighbors in front of us, and cars zooming by just beyond the trees.  Despite the close quarters and road noise, the campers kept their voices to a minimum.

You may find a list of the campgrounds and their status as full or open at the entrances to the park, although these signs may not be accurate especially if the campground is many miles from the entrance (which many are). Don’t count on availability of a campsite even after the helpful Ranger called to confirm with the campground host. In a park that sees over 3 million visitors a year, availability can change very quickly. Many prospective campers troll through the campground early in the morning to grab unreserved campsites as soon as they are vacated. In Glacier National Park campers arrived at our site at 8 am and waited while we packed to leave. These campers completed the registration for our site before we loaded the last of our gear in the truck.

Camping options at Yellowstone National Park were limited, even when we arrived around noon.  By the time we had driven to Indian Creek and Lewis Lake (shown as open), both campgrounds were full.

National parks are certainly not the only camping areas with this problem; the parks’ popularity inevitably means the crowds can be annoying. Considering the immensity of the national parks and that most visitors are concentrated in the most easily accessible areas, we learned from a ranger that 90% of the parks are unseen by 99% of the people! If you seek real solitude and want to experience more than drive-by vistas, consider obtaining a wilderness permit and hiking into one of these less traveled areas. Although this may be roughing it more than you might want, we were continually inspired by people we met on trails with wilderness-induced smiles that affirmed they were having the times of their lives and that the effort was worth it.

Primitive campsite at Tamarack Flat in Yosemite was down a three mile narrow newly paved road. We found uncommon solitude in a national park campground.  Potable water was available from the creek after boiling, bathrooms consisted of vault latrines, and of course there were no showers.  Living without the amenities for a couple of days was a worthwhile trade for the natural beauty and solitude.
In the peak travel months you may not find a vacant campsite in the national park, but don’t fret, you usually have other options nearby such as in the commercial campgrounds and national forests.

National forests are managed forests where logging, hunting, grazing, and other activities are not heavily restricted as in the preserved areas of national parks.  Some national forests have lower fees (usually self-serve), some have campgrounds with well-organized campsites whereas others have campsites with minimal or no amenities, or no designated campsites at all. In some forests you are allowed to camp wherever you find a suitable spot. National forest campgrounds are often adjacent to national parks which also make them a good alternative to the popular and crowded parks. We stayed in a number of national forests and generally liked them very much. We found a good campsite in the Coconino National Forest outside of Flagstaff, Arizona. The campsites were a little ragged and very basic consisting of simply a level area for the tent and a fire pit surrounded by boulders off a dirt logging road. It was just what we needed. 

Campsite in the Coconino National Forest, Arizona off of Forest Road 535.  All the campgrounds in the very popular Oak Creek Canyon were full, but were told that we could camp anywhere in the forest.  Our site had no tent pad, no picnic table, no water, and no bathroom, but plenty of space.  

National Forest campgrounds provided great solitude.  Our campsite (one of about twelve in the campground) in the Bighorn National Forest in north-central Wyoming overlooked Leigh Creek.  We fell asleep to the sound of the bubbling creek.

State Parks/Forests are a mixed bag; some are among the best, whereas others are to be avoided. State parks typically have amenities such as flush toilets and showers. The majority of visitors appear to be locals. If you are not a resident of the state, you must pay a visitor fee in addition to the camping fee. Our two favorite State Park campgrounds were Center Lake Campground in South Dakota's Custer State Park and Hidden Springs Campground in California's Humboldt Redwoods State Park.  Center Lake Campground gave us good access to Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Monument and the Black Hills of South Dakota. Showers and water were available, and campsites were well proportioned. The campground was made more memorable by the friendly and interesting fellow campers we met, including the French family touring the US, a family moving newlyweds to start new lives in graduate school in Virginia, and the generous neighbor who brought a pot of coffee and lively conversation to start our day.  Hidden Springs Campground wound up and through a redwood forest, with each site carefully cut out amidst the large trees, providing unexpected privacy and natural beauty.

Campsite in the Humboldt Redwoods California State Park along the Avenue of the Giants scenic highway.

How often to you get to sleep amidst a redwood forest?

Recreational areas, whether federal, state or other, deserve a visit. They are typically found near a lake, reservoir, dune or other attraction, and as their name indicates, these have an emphasis on recreation. Locals flock to these areas, particularly on long weekends. Be aware that you may be sharing a very busy campground with scores of your newest best friends on all-terrain vehicles, dune buggies, motorcycles, jet skis and boats. Oregon Dunes Recreation Area is such an example. Another example of recreational area we visited is the Oahe Dam Recreation area located on the Missouri River outside Pierre, South Dakota (Bud’s birthplace). As both Bud’s father and grandfather had worked on this dam in the 1950’s, camping at the base of the dam and taking a swim (very short) in the very cold downstream waters added to the feeling of a pilgrimage. (In the first seconds of dipping into the water we understood the water flowing by the camp originated at the base of the deep reservoir). The downstream campground was well-organized with perhaps a 100 campsites nearly all occupied. It was a popular for good reason as it was pleasant choice to spend a warm summer weekend in South Dakota.

Campsite at the Oahe Dam Recreation Area was just a couple hundred yards from a swimming beach on the Missouri River, just beyond the cottonwood trees.

We fell asleep listening to the wind rustling the leaves of the cottonwood tree.

Traveling in Canada deserves a special note. Beyond the joys of traveling in a country that seems at first just like the states, but one that then surprises you with the charming, odd and interesting differences, a visit to Canada will do for you what travel should do - change your perspectives and increase your desire to explore further. The Canadians were friendly and welcoming, and the provincial and national parks we visited offered stunning and incomparable vistas, amazing critters, challenging trails, and dazzling discoveries every day.

Travel with truck and tent gave us the flexibility to take advantage of a diversity of campsites throughout the country and immersed us in the outdoors on the level we sought.  Quite simply, it met our needs.  You don’t have to travel by truck and tent.  Find what works for you, and go.  Just go and go soon.     


  1. You did it again! What a fantastic trip. I think I stayed at the same campsite in the Bighorns - maybe. I just remember the ranger brought us fish he'd caught and the creek was really cold when I stuck my head in to rinse out the beer from an overzealous friend who thought I needed cooling off from the 112 deg in the shade the previous day.

  2. You must have stayed at the same campground. It was in a gorgeous canyon that glowed orange in late afternoon. We spent the afternoon watching a fly fisherman in the creek. But no fish for us... Thanks for staying in touch.


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