By Nanci Dixon
No reservations, campground crowding, and our annual southern migration. We decided to live dangerously and follow our usual “no reservations policy” when traveling our snowbird route from the Midwest to the Southwest earlier this month. We wanted to see what it was like, and if it was even possible, in this time of massive RV sales, crowded campgrounds and COVID.
Below is our eight-day travel journey. Next year, hopefully non-COVID, we will stop longer, explore more, and make reservations early for destination campgrounds. Below that, you’ll find tips on how to find a place to stop for the night (all the things I learned along the way…).
Our travel journey
Day 1: Minnesota – Friday during MEA. All of Minnesota stops for the Minnesota Educational Academy meetings, which means no school, which translates to “vacation time!” This year with COVID, it is camping time. We left during a snowstorm. Wind gusts were at 38 mph, so we needed to stop. Saw that two spots were available online at a state park. Nobody at the office. Got a site… just barely got a site.
Day 2: Iowa – 40 mph gusts. Found a private campground online that was first-come, first-served. No problem finding open sites at that one, and now I see why. It was filthy, the office was deserted, the site availability was indecipherable, and the envelopes to put money in were non-existent. Judging from the packages and mail stacked up, the office was as little used as were the junky cars and trucks scattered across the area. It was bad. Pulled out and kept on driving. No way we were staying there.
The next park was full. Had to keep going. Found an RV casino park ahead and called. They said they had plenty of sites, but that was another 90 miles ahead in the wind. Arrived, checked in remotely, and never even saw a person.
Day 3: Kansas – I called a private campground ahead to check availability. They said they won’t fill up on a Sunday, no reservations needed, no need to call back. Got a call several hours later. They were full.
Luckily, we found a state park with a system of yellow tags that posted “One night only” on open sites. Just two sites out of hundreds were open. It was a great value, just $22. The camp host came by for payment. No masks anywhere to be found.
Day 4: Oklahoma – Called on the way, middle of the week, no problem. We got an amazing end site and it finally was warm enough to sit outside and watch the sunset. Masks on.
Day 5: New Mexico – Researched online and read reviews of a few different parks. The reviews at one enticing place said call early in order to get a site. We arrived at noon to an almost empty campground. By five o’clock, every single site was taken and most RVs didn’t unhook. Travelers’ wayside rest with great WiFi and full hookups. Few masks, even in the office. New Mexico is under a mandatory mask order.
Day 6: New Mexico – We wanted to stay two days so we could visit White Sand Dunes National Park. Yup, finding a campsite near a National Park is difficult. We found just one site available and for one night only (even though it was midweek). So, after driving 300 miles, we quickly set up at the campground and took a quick trip to White Sand Dunes. My husband, the driver, was exhausted. Everybody was wearing masks, even outside when hiking the boardwalks at the Dunes.
Day 7: Arizona – Called a park early in the day and was pleased to hear I could reserve a site on the end… yeah, the end of the campground. They didn’t mention it was up against a double-wide trailer. Masks on in the office and most folks walking in the campground.
Day 8: Arizona – Our hosting spot for the winter!
What I learned: Tips to snag a spot
1. Call ahead or go online, even if it is the same day. Pulling up to a campground and driving to an available site is a thing of the past. Some state and county parks now allow same-day reservations. Weekends are still almost impossible to get a same-day reservation, especially near big cities. Think about your estimated stopping time early in the day.
2. Use websites or apps to find campsites or alternative campsites. There are many great resources available. My all-around go-to is AllStays. I also use Campendium, Oh, Ranger! ParkFinder™, Campground Reviews, RV LIFE, and some of the individual state apps. I have liked RV Trip Wizard, although I do pay an annual fee for it. Add your reviews to whatever campground app you use. It is so very helpful for the next camper.
3. Many private, state and county ranger stations are closed due to COVID. Without anybody there to check you in, you must fill out the envelopes, drop in money and read the maps.
4. Speaking of maps, know how to read them! Take a photo of the wall map if no paper copies are available. Many times this season no one was at the check-in to draw a nice marker line from “You are here” to the campsite. If it is a back-in site we usually disconnect the car and I find the site first and note any issues: parked cars, poles, sharp curves or trees in the way? Extremely less frustrating than looping the motorhome around a campground a few times.
5. Don’t be too picky. I had to remember the campsites were stopovers, not a destination. I could pull the shades down if I found myself too close to my neighbor.
6. As always, make room for the wind and inclement weather. Slow down, and stop when needed.
7. Overnight parking at Walmarts, Cabela’s, Cracker Barrels, some rest stops and truck stops are all options. In a pinch, ask the manager of a store with a large parking area if you can park for the night. Sometimes they say yes, sometimes they don’t.
8. Destination camping? Make those reservations well ahead of time: weeks, months or even a year.
Read our weekly column, Campground crowding, here.