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Detailed tips on how to plan for an RV trip when you’re not a planner

We often get suggestions, comments and requests from our readers. We received this email from one of those readers, Walter B., asking for help with trip planning.

Walter wrote, ”I so enjoy reading the various RVtravel.com articles but would greatly appreciate an article (or series) on trip planning for dummies. Maybe trip planning examples for part-time RVers, full-time RVers, boondockers, etc. In my case, I am married. We are both retired with a 38-year-old mentally disabled, but functioning, son at home with us and have aging parents living behind us who, though they are physically/mentally good and independent, need help every once in a while.

“Planning has never been a strength of mine; however, I would like to learn from those who are [planners]. A bucket list trip objective for us would be a month-long trip out West in our ’99 Foretravel Class A motorhome to show my wife and son the beauty of Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon.

“Has anyone planned memorable trips similar to this in the past that they could share in terms of places visited, time of year, duration per location, anything special to visit or see while there?”

Planning 101

Well, Walter, I am glad to go through some of the things that I do to plan our trips. RVtravel.com readers are all such a well-informed group of RVers that I think all of them could provide some great advice.

Planning steps

Being full-time RVers we always need a campsite. This season has been particularly difficult for us in terms of planning and traveling with two deaths in the family, crowded campgrounds and what seems a constant disruption of plans. Here are some of my suggestions:

  1. It seems obvious but, first, you need to be clear about where ALL of you want to go. No use planning a trip to the Great Smokey Mountains when your spouse is counting on finally seeing the Redwood National Forest.
  2. Plan early! Reserve campsites early! The earlier the better in this current season of camping frenzy.
  3. Most states have visitor and camping info available online or by mail. Request by mail or check the info out online (the quicker of the two options).
  4. Take out an atlas or map to get the overall idea of the trip, where you want to end up and the general route. It is at this point I sometimes realize that I am thinking about doing a two-month trip in two weeks and need to scale back.
  5. There are several websites that can plot routes between major destinations of a trip and show a rough route. When we did the “Big Five” in Utah – Zion, Capitol Reef, Canyon Land, Bryce and Arches National Parks – it was pretty easy to plan a loop stopping at each park and then locating camping areas in or around the destination. If can’t actually camp in one of the National Parks, consider finding a site within 50-60 miles of the attraction.
  6. Do the math and figure out the total days/weeks needed. Divide the number of miles of the trip by the number of miles you prefer to drive per day to get the total number of travel days. Add in the number of days staying at campgrounds and then add in a few “emergency” days. Those emergency days can cover breakdowns, minor repairs, weather days, or I-just-need-to-relax days. We have needed to wait out the wind in Oklahoma several times and having built in a few extra days meant still keeping reservations at major destinations.
  7. I use a distance app to figure out the approximate distances between stops. Some apps figure out the distance between campsites but I generally want to find out where 200 to 250 miles takes us and then look for campsites in that area.
  8. There are a variety of apps and websites to locate campgrounds both on the way and near the destination. Some are free and some have a nominal charge.These are a few of the apps I use to find sites:
    Allstays
    Pocket Ranger
    USFS and BLM Campgrounds
    Oh Ranger!
    Ultimate Campgrounds
    RV Life
    Campendium
    US Public Lands
    Campground Reviews
    and National Parks and some state park apps as well.
  9. Read the reviews but do so with a grain of salt. Someone’s negative review on the spa and pool may not be a factor when you are not going to step foot in a pool. Pull-through sites may be important for one- or two-night stops, but not as scenic for a week’s stay. Decide what is important when evaluating the campsites. The most important thing for me is usually the space between sites, working utilities, upkeep and the park owner’s attitude.
  10. Decide if you want to make sure a site is available while traveling or if you’re comfortable winging it. Winging it used to be much easier a few years ago than it is now, particularly on weekends and near urban or destination spots.
  11. If winging it, decide how far you plan to go for a few days and check out campsites near the area. Call a couple of days before to check availability. If they have lots of room, I don’t commit until I know how far we will be driving. In the past, though, that method has meant that there are no sites available when we really needed it.
  12. Warning! Weekends are crowded! Lots of retired folks book weekdays and let the weekend warriors have Friday and Saturday. If you need a weekend, book ahead.
  13. When looking for a site online and all the sites are booked for the week or two weeks, break up the days and see if you can find a site for a day or two. It will usually require moving sites but you may be able to get into the park you like.
  14. If arriving at a site early in the day and have some time, Google “Things to do near me now” and see what is available. We discovered the Buffalo Soldiers Museum, a butterfly house, art exhibits, and a restored Western jail.

Booking windows

National Parks, State Parks and some County and Corps of Engineers parks have a booking window. Check the websites to see when that window opens. The booking window could be taking reservations only three months or up to a year ahead of the desired camping date. I put those booking dates on my calendar.

These are some tips to snag that sought-after, popular spot when the booking time opens.

  1. Be ready to book the minute that window opens.
  2. Know the site or sites you want and make sure your RV will fit. Parks will turn you away if your RV is over the limit.
  3. Sign up for an account ahead of time. Remember your password!
  4. Have your credit card available.
  5. Be signed in when the site opens.
  6. Be prepared to pick an alternative site or date.

Good luck!

Those are a few of the things we have learned over the years. I know our readers have lots more helpful info and tips. So, if you’re reading this, please leave your thoughts in the comments.

  • What are your steps when planning a trip?
  • What has worked for you, what hasn’t?
  • What advice do you have for a newbie?
  • What are some of your most memorable trips or sights?

Related:

Trip planning tools from Geeks on Tour

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Dave
2 months ago

Nice write up Nanci! I would add the tool RVTripwizard.com. I find that it combines the functionality of many of the tools listed above and works fantastic for planning. It includes ranges that you can set for reference on the map, plans routes for your RV specs, includes reviews with links to a great review website as well as the website for the campground. Lots of filters to make it super easy to find campgrounds that meet your needs. Who needs to look at 30A campgrounds if you need 50A, etc. It’s our go to planner for pretty much everything now with the exception of BLM sites. It will work with the RVLife app on your phone but we stopped using the RVLife app because we found the map flawed in so many ways for routing with an RV. Now we plan online with RVTripwizard.com and simply put the destination in our RV GPS. We don’t use places like Walmart or Cracker Barrel for quick overnights anymore unless there is absolutely no option. Instead we use Harvest Hosts.

James Ek
2 months ago

If you are traveling (between destinations), look for the campsites that are away from population centers. These little gems often have openings when the popular sites are busy. This is true along interstates and secondary roads. If there’s not a town within 20-50 miles, chances are there will be an opening. Also, look for parks or fairgrounds that have overnight camping. These are great places to stop for a night while getting from point A to point B.

James Dresser
2 months ago

Watch your routing. .Make sure clearances are OK. We.ve all seen the videos of a low clearance taking off an air conditioner. Make sure your rig is actually allowed on particular road. For example trailers and motor homes are not allowed on NY throughways. They will throw you off and might fine you.

Dave
2 months ago
Reply to  James Dresser

I’ve driven plenty of times on NY thruways with both a motorhome and travel trailer, no issue. You cannot travel on PARKWAYS though in NY or for that matter any Parkway in NY/New England that I’m aware of…

Drew
2 months ago

Our family is a little different from Walter’s but here are a few things I do:

Stay in private parks near your destinations. Their reservation system is much friendlier in general and you may not have to move as often.

Try to limit the number of activities you plan. You may enjoy the extra family time you’ll spend at the camp site.

I’ve never used a soft ware-based trip planning tool. I like planning our whole outing on state and local flat maps. I use a yellow hi liter for routing. We have a GPS as a guide but use it cautiously. I have an atlas but the detail is poor because of the map sizes.

Diane Mc
2 months ago

Time of year is important, especially with recent crowds. Summer time has always been an issue. If flexible do April/May or Sept/Oct, (May/Sept being best) when kids are in school. Traveling in the West need to be prepared for possible bad weather. We got snow at the beginning of June in Yellowstone. We had already parked in campground, so it was special. Check open dates for campgrounds & parks. All of Yellowstone wasn’t opened at the beginning of June. Some CG’s don’t open until mid May, close in Oct. Pick parks you want to visit and the order, then travel time between & search for campgrounds. If just trying to get to parks, don’t need a fancy campground, just site large enough so you don’t have to unhook tow vehicle. On our trip from CA to FL we only do electric (even w/full hook up). We pick one stop for full hook up to dump & take more than a military shower. We also add a day in case of weather. If no weather we enjoy an extra day to visit local sites.

Deborah Mason
2 months ago

A few things to keep in mind. Some of the older RV parks/campgrounds (common in national & state parks) have short limits on rig sizes. 30 feet is a common limit. It can be “hard” (nothing over 30 feet accepted) or “soft” (there are a few sites that will take a larger rig). Be prepared to work with/around those limits if your Class A is more than 30′ (we have a 32′ Class A), How important are hookups. Those older sites may not have them, or have a limited number of them. Use Google Earth to check out what the camps look like. Even if you can’t choose your site, you’ll know to expect forest, grass, gravel, concrete, etc. Finally, expect big crowds, but go see these magnificent places.

DEAN W BROWN
2 months ago

My suggestion is – DON’T! I downsized from a class A to a camper so I NEVER have to worry about where I can find a place to spend the night. If something is so “busy” that you have to plan a year in advance you won’t enjoy it anyway. Lastly, simplify – you really don’t need the majority of the gizmos like washers and dryers that tie you to RV parks. The “real” fun of RV camping is deriving the satisfaction of managing to improvise a way to enjoy the experience despite being faced with less than ideal circumstances.

Ron
2 months ago
Reply to  DEAN W BROWN

Good points,we would love to have the size of class A however the class B gives us more options.

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