Monday, December 4, 2023


Spontaneous RV road trip in the days of campground crowding

By Dave Helgeson
Nights spent in an RV these days can be in a crowded campground or somewhere less conventional. What is your preference? Read on…

I recently shared how my wife and I found ourselves with nearly a three-week opening in our schedule. Our “plans” were to spontaneously hit the road in our RV without an itinerary set in stone or any advanced reservations.

We ended up traveling just over 2,700 miles in our quest for sunshine and warm weather. Nights spent in the RV totaled 21. Total campground fees: $58.

Following is a brief breakdown on the types of places we camped, why we camped there and how we located the sites. My hopes in sharing this information is that newbies and experienced RVers alike might learn to think outside the box when it comes to finding places to camp without the need to reserve campsites months in advance.

Overnight Stays

2 nights spent on the shores of reservoirs
The convenient thing about reservoirs is they typically:

– Are located on public land that allows “dispersed camping”
– Are in valleys/drainages often paralleled by highways and byways, making for an easy overnight stop along the route
– Provide waterfront spaces with scenic views

Nights Spent
Reservoirs are Great For Camping. Scenic too!

2 nights spent in casino lots

A: The first was chosen for convenience, as it was:

– The end of the day when we needed a place to stop for the evening.
– Offered level RV-only paved spaces (the semis and their noisy refrigerated trailers had their own lot).
– It was less than a mile off our route on the freeway.
– The tribal casino also operates their own fuel station with discount fuel, allowing us to fuel up for the next day’s drive. While we could have boondocked up the freeway in the mountains of a national forest, the lower elevation of the casino meant the furnace wouldn’t have to run as much that night.

B : The second offered protection during a windstorm:

-The casino was in the center of town where there was less dry, loose soil to be kicked into the air.
-The large, paved parking lot provided additional protection from windblown dust.
-The spot we parked at was near a row of trees to provide some protection from the wind. Ironically, on the other side of the trees was a crowded RV park.

3 nights spent in campgrounds

– 2 nights spent in a pay campground operated by a concessionaire in a National Park. (Basically we paid to use the resort amenities [pool] and to camp under shade trees.)
– 1 night spent in a free campground operated by the Bureau of Land Management.
(The latter campground was so “unknown” there wasn’t even a sign along the highway directing you to turn and drive the mile to the campground).

Unknown Campground Just a Mile off the Highway

More out-of-the-ordinary places to stay

2 nights spent lakeside in an “abandoned” government campground
(Who can argue with free lakeside camping during warm, sunny weather?)

Abandoned Campground Along Walker Lake

1 night spent in a gravel lot along a county road that serves as a staging/gravel storage area
This spot was conveniently located where a dirt road departed to a ghost town we visited. It served as a great base camp for the travel trailer and a ride to the ghost town with my motorcycle and my wife’s ATV. Upon returning, I reloaded the machines while my wife cooked dinner, and then we spent the night. The site was level, graveled, and provided a great view of the mountains out our window.

Nice Level Gravel Lot Made a Great Camp

3 nights spent at our son’s house
We celebrated Easter going on the trip and our grandson’s 4th birthday on the return trip. These dates were the “bookends” defining our window of time on the road.

1 night spent in a sno-park
This was in my home state, where I have a valid sno-park permit that I use during the winter while snowmobiling. Many mountainous states and snowy northern states operate sno-parks, some allow camping off-season, too, without a permit.

Overnight Stop at a Sno-Park

1 night spent next to a cemetery in the remains of a 19th century boom town
The interred appreciated the visit. Watch for a future “Camping with the ghosts” entry.

6 nights spent in the boondocks
These served as base camps from which to launch our off-road vehicles to access remote points of interest.

Ready to Explore From Base Camp

Where we didn’t spend the night

0 nights spent at a Walmart or rest area
While those options were available to us, there were many more suitable options to choose from.

0 nights spent in RV parks
However, we drove by plenty, where, as expected, the RVs were packed in like sardines.

Note: About half the overnight stops were just that – stops. With COVID still a concern, we chose to keep the travel trailer in tow while we visited points of interest in the towns along our route, rather than drop the trailer at camp and drive just the tow vehicle. This way we had our own bathroom with us and could safely prepare and consume our own meals anywhere we went. When looking for a place to stop at the end of the day, we had no need for the amenities of a campground, just a quiet place to sleep, away from the highway, that was legal and safe. If it was beautiful and had a view, that was an added bonus!

Scenic Overnight Stop About 100ft off a Paved Road.

Nights spent – How did we find these spots to camp?

About half the spots we camped at can be found on apps/websites such as,,, etc. Our base camp sites near the places we wanted to visit were found via Google Earth. I search these out after verifying where public land is located and allow dispersed camping (aka boondocking).

Click here to see how I use Google Earth.

Click here to learn how to determine where public land allowing dispersed camping is located. Note: U.S. Public Lands mentioned in the video no longer provide public land overlay maps on their website, only their app. I recommend using Outly for those that prefer viewing maps via a website on their computer.

A tip for finding campsites through apps/websites

Here’s a tip regarding finding campsites through the apps/websites mentioned above. Since they are listed publicly online, other RVers know about them and camp there. One listed site we passed was actually rather crowded with RVs. But sites literally “just up the road,” that I located via Google Earth, were much more open and inviting. Take a little extra time to find your own site – it’s worth the effort.

nights Spent
Found via Website / App – There Were Other RVs Camped in Area

Yes, I know public land becomes less available as you head east across the United States, but don’t let that stop you. Consider looking at land that is semi-public to locate campsites. Florida Water Management Districts and Ohio’s ReCreation Lands are two examples. The Midwest even has little known free campgrounds with hookups for those that seek them out.

Finally, as I pointed out in my last entry, Merriam Webster defines a campsite as “a place suitable for or used as the site of a camp.” While campgrounds and RV parks meet this definition, there are many other less conventional places that do, as well. Therefore, don’t let crowded campgrounds keep you from getting out and enjoying your RV.

Where will your “nights spent” be during your RV travels this summer?

I hope this overview of the spontaneous RV trip my wife and I enjoyed demonstrates that it is still possible to load up the RV and go without extensive planning or reserving campsites months in advance.

In hindsight: I enjoyed the trip and the freedom of going and stopping as we liked, but felt a bit out of sorts not having more of a fixed itinerary as we normally do.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions.

Note: Before you fill the comment box with remarks about not wanting to camp in the desert, heat, etc., I remind you that this trip was all about my choosing to go somewhere sunny and dry. I could have just as easily headed to the forest, gone high in the mountains or camped along scenic stretches of lush river valleys. All these are possibilities to those that spontaneously seek them out.


Dave Helgeson
Dave Helgeson
Dave Helgeson has been around travel trailers his entire life. His grandparents and father owned an RV dealership long before the term “RV” had been coined. He has served in every position of an RV dealership with the exception of bookkeeping. Dave served as President of a local chapter of the RVDA (Recreational Vehicle Dealers Association), was on the board of advisors for the RV Technician Program of a local technical college and was a board member of the Manufactured Home and RV Association. He and his wife Cheri operated their own RV dealership for many years and for the past 29 years have managed RV shows. Dave presents seminars at RV shows across the country and was referred to as "The foremost expert on boondocking" by the late Gary Bunzer, "The RV Doctor". Dave and his wife are currently on their fifth travel trailer with Dave doing all the service, repair and modifications on his own unit.



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Steve D (@guest_127617)
2 years ago

Good info, thanks

Diana808 (@guest_127456)
2 years ago

Very nice upbeat article. Thanks for all the photos.

Dennis (@guest_127268)
2 years ago

The problem with Google Earth is that it is at least 5 years outdated in our area. So it wouldn’t surprise me if that is the way it is all over.

Tommy Molnar (@guest_127265)
2 years ago

Living out west (we live in NV), camping availability is almost endless. I know we’re spoiled. I do think that once you get east of the Mississippi (maybe even east of the Rockies . . .) you just don’t have all this “availability”. I often wonder if we didn’t live where we do, if we’d have even gotten into RV’ing. Just a thought.

BadWolfe (@guest_127206)
2 years ago

Definitely going to bookmark this article. Thanks for the great tips and links.

Linda Wharton (@guest_127189)
2 years ago

Unfortunately, boondocking in the SE is hard to find and, during the summer months, pretty much unbearable. We did 2 years out west and there were always sites available at BLM’s, etc.; back home in Florida we are relegated to Sun through Thurs. 😞

John (@guest_127181)
2 years ago

You did well with this 3-week excursion. Additionally, located west of the Mississippi, you have an abundance of similar opportunities when compared to the relatively scarcity the closer you are to the east coast.

Tom (@guest_127165)
2 years ago

Sounds like a great adventure. most site types mentioned are in the West.

SaveSC (@guest_127163)
2 years ago

where oh where do you dump grey and black tanks and get water???????

Elaine Ashton (@guest_127442)
2 years ago
Reply to  SaveSC

Yeah — I’m asking the same question — where did you dump and where did you get more fresh water?

Dave Helgeson (@guest_127613)
2 years ago
Reply to  Elaine Ashton is my “go to” website for finding FREE dump stations and areas to obtain potable water.

Dave Helgeson (@guest_127612)
2 years ago
Reply to  SaveSC is my “go to” website for finding FREE dump stations and areas to obtain potable water.

Tim (@guest_127160)
2 years ago

Wow Dave! Great article. Appreciate all the links and tips!

Thank you!

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