What to Expect at Your Campsite

This might seem like a silly topic, but you’re bound to come across a wide variety of campsite types and reservation options when you’re taking your DIY camper on the road. Our goal with this article is to help you understand the types of sites you might encounter along with their various amenities, or lack thereof, and how that relates to you and your adventure. We’ll be writing from the perspective of national and state parks, as we try to avoid more jam-packed and commercial offerings. Without further ado, let’s take a look at the scenarios we’ve come across…


This is the “bare-bones” campsite. When you camp at a primitive site, you may have a picnic bench and a fire ring. Other than that, you’re relying on what you’ve brought with you. Depending on the campground, there may be fresh water nearby, and you may have an opportunity to empty your waste tanks. If you can handle a site like this one, you’ll be fine in the rest of the scenarios I’m about to outline. You’ll be relying heavily on your off-grid power capabilities if you are looking to keep the lights on, keep your fridge running, etc. For a multi-day stay, you’ll definitely need solar in your setup. Keep an eye out for an upcoming article on calculating your off-grid power needs.

Electric Only

This is one step up from a primitive site, as you’ll have electricity available at your campsite. This means you’ll be able to keep all your appliances running and keep your batteries charged up. You can also run things like heat/AC and even an electric cooktop from these sites if you have the equipment. Depending on the site, you may have various options when it comes to amperage: 15/20, 30, and 50-amp service. We built our camper to run on 30-amp service (which is split into two 15-amp circuits inside the camper). The standard household plug is 15/20 amp, and you can plug anything from a hair dryer to an iPhone into these outlets. We have an adapter to make our setup work for this style as well. 50-amp service (the least common offering) is provided for the largest, “Class A” RVs that have everything from washer/dryer combos to fairly large water heater tanks. We’ve found that electrical hookups aren’t as common in U.S. national parks as they are in Canada’s national parks, but YMMV (your mileage may vary).

Full Hookups

These sites are the cream of the crop, but you don’t necessarily want them…… These are the sites that offer everything: electrical in all amperages, water connections right at your site, and even a sewage drain for long stays so you don’t end up filling your waste tank(s) while you are there. Some of the more “old-school” sites still have things like coaxial cable for TV and a phone jack for telephone service. This is where you’ll find a lot of “Class A” RVs, meaning giant bus-sized motorcoaches that will make your camper look like a toy. Some of them will even be towing trailers that are bigger than your camper. We’ve found that we don’t need this large of a site with this many amenities, and in fact we find it gets a little crowded/cramped. We tend to prefer primitive and electric-only sites for this reason.

Now that we’re on the topic of campsites, there are a few ways you can get a site, depending on the specific park. Namely:

First-Come, First-Served: Self-Pay

In this scenario, either the campground doesn’t allow reservations, or you weren’t able to get one in advance for some reason. Not to worry, there’s a good chance you can still get a site if you get there early enough. In the self-pay model, you simply drive into the campground and pull around until you find a site that’s empty (and not reserved). Once you’ve located one that you like, you can park there and make note of the site number. Then, return to the entrance (bring cash in exact change; they’ll also sometimes accept checks or your credit card #) where there’s likely a fee station. You can fill out an envelope and put your cash in there to pay for your site for one or several nights. Then you’ll clip your small “receipt” to your numbered campsite post. Job well done!

First-Come, First-Served: Staffed

In this (similar) scenario, there is a parks employee who is working the entrance booth. Stop by, and they’ll be able to check if there are any open sites for your desired length of stay. Typically, this person will pick a site for you and you’ll pay upfront, with the option to use a card if you prefer. You won’t have the option to look for “that perfect site” with lots of solar energy and equal amounts of privacy, but you also won’t have the headache of looping around the campground several times while looking. Again, may the luck be in your favor when it comes to getting a site. It really does help to get there as early as possible.

Reservation: This is the most ideal situation because you know you have a site, you can show up whenever is convenient, and you aren’t scrambling for backup plans if your preferred campground is completely full by 7:10 a.m. Using sites like ReserveAmerica.com (for national parks) you can pre-book your stay for a lot of places. Some will even provide photos of each site that’s available, with a description. The description may include the site’s length, whether you need to back your camper in or can pull through, and how much shade/sun it gets. As a note, some campgrounds will pre-book a percentage of their sites, while leaving the rest for walk-ins/first-come, first-served. So, if you can’t get a reservation, do not be discouraged!

This covers the majority of site options and most common payment/reservation options you’ll encounter. Start your trip confident that you can handle any/all of the above, and don’t stress if you have to get creative and find a small municipal park for one or two nights. You’ve got this!

Have you experienced something different? We want to hear about it!

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