Car camping is the gateway to outdoor family fun. While backpacking provides a pristine wilderness experience, it can be logistically daunting, especially for families with young kids.
Car camping, on the other hand, lets you load the family vehicle with your food and gear—with room for a cooler, that extra-thick sleeping pad, and your child’s stuffy, or three—and roll right up to a spot with a flat tent pad, fire ring, and grill. Developed campsites have camp hosts who sell firewood, bathrooms with toilet paper, and nature trails often start right there. Families with even the youngest kids can enjoy the great outdoors from such a home base.
That is, if you reserved a campsite.
In some parts of the country, you may be able to wait to book at least until the snow has started to melt. But in others, if you’re not booking summer campsites mid-winter, at least for weekend dates, you’ll be forced to either roll the dice on first-come, first-served sites or find undeveloped sites on public lands. (Both work, but can be challenging.) Skip the uncertainty by planning early.
Figure out where you want to go. Doing online searches for things like, “best campgrounds in YOUR-STATE-HERE” or “near YOUR-TOWN-HERE” will produce lists and ideas. Better yet, try searching, “best FAMILY campgrounds in YOUR-AREA-HERE.” Still, you’ll need to ask yourself a couple key questions: How far are you willing to drive—one hour, or five? Or is this a big road trip? What features/activities are you looking for in a campground—do you want one near a lake or stream for fishing or boating, and/or with trails leading directly out of the campsite? Do you want a paved area for kids to ride bikes, or an all-dirt campground for a more natural experience?
Go to booking websites like ReserveAmerica.com or Recreation.gov and enter your state (for instance, “Colorado”) when it asks “Where” or “Where to,” and then search by the Map function. Each option will have descriptions explaining if fishing and trails are available at that campsite, for instance, and most will have photos.
Determine your dates. In popular areas, weekdays are easier to book than weekends.
Research the booking window. Many campgrounds book-out six months—to the day—ahead of time. Some book-out four months to the day. For instance, if you’re looking to reserve a popular campsite with a six-month booking window for Friday, August 30th of Labor Day weekend, you’ll want to get online (likely at midnight, if it’s very popular) to reserve an ideal campsite in that campground on February 30th.
Put a reminder in your calendar, as some campgrounds fill up within minutes of the booking window opening. Be ready the moment the window opens, even if that means setting an alarm for just before midnight.
Double down on national parks. Unfortunately, some of the best family campgrounds have the most complicated reservation systems. Don’t get discouraged—they’re worth it. For instance, Yosemite’s seven reserveable campgrounds are booked under the following protocol: “…in blocks of one month at a time, up to five months in advance, on the 15th of each month at 7 a.m. Pacific time.” Go to specific national park websites for detailed reservation info. Alternative: Missed the window or you’re simply not a planner? You’re not out of luck. Most national parks set aside a good portion of campsites for first-come, first-served visitors.
Some good national park campground options for families include:
- Yellowstone—Madison. Convenient location near attractions like Old Faithful; Flat, paved roads good for small kids on bikes. Booking for each season starts May 1 each year.
- Yosemite—Upper Pines. Two hundred thirty eight sites available in the heart of Yosemite Valley, near many famous hiking trails. Booking opens five months in advance on the 15th of each month at 10:00 a.m. (ET).
- Grand Canyon—Mather. Located within Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim, this campsite has 327 available campsites. Booking opens five months in advance on the 15th of each month at 10:00 a.m. (ET).
- Great Smoky—Elkmont. Waterfront sites available along the Little Front River. Booking starts six months to the day in advance, 10 a.m. (ET).
- Shenandoah—Big Meadows. Over 200 sites among thick trees and near waterfall hikes. Booking starts six months to the day in advance, releasing at 10 a.m. (ET)/7 a.m. (PT).
- Acadia—Blackwoods. Wooded campsites with a 10-minute walk to the ocean, and five miles from Bar Harbor for easy resupplying. Booking starts six months to the day in advance, 10 a.m. (ET)/7 a.m. (PT).
Pick a site. In some campgrounds, you can reserve a specific campsite. With young kids, especially kids who are potty training, being close—but never too close—to the bathroom is usually a safe bet.
With kids of any age, it’s nice to have a site that has more privacy than not—both for you and for the sake of your neighbors. Look for tent or RV icons that aren’t butted right up against others on the map. And if photos are available, look for natural features like trees or rocky outcroppings that create natural boundaries. Natural features, like rocks and hillsides, also make for great “backyards” to individual campsites that kids can play on while remaining in sight.
Think tent versus RV. Campsites with RV icons have hook-ups for electricity and water. They’re perfectly fine for tent camping, but know that if you choose a campsite in the middle of a bunch of RVs, you might be listening to the sound of generators. If you’re tent camping, it’s ideal to find a tent site amidst other tent sites (most campgrounds separate tents and RVs). That said, if you’re camping in an RV or camper, you must camp in an RV site or be able to fit your camper in the parking spot of the tent site.
Don’t get discouraged. If any of the above doesn’t work in your favor—maybe you’ve missed the booking window for ideal sites this coming June or July—know that not all is lost. Even the most popular campgrounds tend to have openings midweek, and most campgrounds have at least a few first-come, first-served sites. Also, revisiting the booking site for your desired campground and weekend can reveal other people's cancellations, even right up to the desired day.
And remember that most, if not all national parks, have numerous first-come, first-serve campgrounds as well as reserveable ones.
Before summer, we’ll publish a guide for how to successfully grab first-come, first-served sites as an alternative, and for guidelines on what to pack for family car camping to make sure your kids (and you) have a positive experience in the great outdoors.
And once you’ve reserved a site, share this picture with your kids.