Selecting a safe and comfortable campground
is the most important key to having a fun camping trip.
Tent camping should be a fun and enjoyable experience for both adults and children - but not all campgrounds are safe and comfortable. To identify safe, comfortable, fun, and family-friendly campgrounds, look for the ten features discussed below. You can assess these features by reading the park or campground home page, reading reviews posted by previous visitors and looking at images of the park posted by previous visitors. The popularity of a campground can be determined by looking at the number of sites that are still available for an upcoming weekend. Weekday campsites may be relatively easy to find but weekend campsites in the most popular campgrounds will be very difficult to find unless you reserve them several weeks or months in advance. As a general rule large, popular state and federal campgrounds with at least 35 campsites that cost at least $20 per night will offer all of these safety protections, comfort amenities, and recreational opportunities. And campgrounds with more than 75 sites will offer the highest levels of safety, comfort, and recreational opportunities. While small, remote and low-priced campgrounds with less than 35 sites may offer more private campsites, they should be avoided because they typically do not have flush toilets, showers, and security. And they regularly attract drunks, drug dealers, thieves, perverts, and other undesirable people.
Features of Good Tent Camping Destinations
Every state offers state parks with nice campgrounds and may also offer other properties such as state forests, fish and wildlife areas, forest preserves, and state historical parks with nice campgrounds. Several Federal agencies also manage properties with nice campgrounds. For example, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) within the U.S. Department of Agriculture manages hundreds of nice campgrounds in National Forests, National Recreation Areas, and other properties. In fact, I would argue that large USFS campgrounds with at least 50 sites are the best tent camping destinations in the eastern states - especially if you are over 65 years old. They are economical, safe, comfortable, and fun. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) offers very nice campgrounds on rivers and lakes that attract large numbers of retired couples driving RVs but some of their campsites are also great tent camping sites. The National Park Service (NPS) within the U.S. Department of the Interior manages National Parks, National Seashores, and National Lakeshores with nice campgrounds but some of these campgrounds may have limited amenities such as hot water and showers. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) built over 50 nice campgrounds along the Tennessee River back in the 1940s but these campgrounds were poorly maintained for several years. Fortunately, several of these campgrounds have been recently leased to private firms and these privately managed campgrounds are very nice tent camping destinations. In the western states, The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) offers many popular camping areas. In addition to state and Federal agencies, many county and municipal governments also offer campgrounds but the quality of these campgrounds vary considerably. A few are nice, family-friendly camping destinations but many are not. We avoid them all unless recommended by a trusted source. And finally, many private campgrounds are listed on the web and in campground directories but most are just crowded RV parks. Only a few are suited for decent tent camping families. For example, some KOA campgrounds have nice tent camping areas, swimming pools, and showers. But, investigate carefully before staying in one.
Campgrounds located near popular vacation/tourist attractions make great base camp destinations - but these campgrounds fill quickly. You must reserve these sites several months ahead. Campgrounds located near major highway routes offer economical places to spend the night enroute to your final destination - if you travel on weekdays. But they may be filled or require a minimum two-night stay on weekends. If your final destination is more than 400 miles from your home, use maps and internet sites to find large popular campgrounds located 300 to 400 miles along your travel route. Just set up the few essentials needed for a comfortable night's sleep so you can pack quickly the next morning and get an early start.
To assure safety, select large (more than 35 campsites) and popular state and federal campgrounds. Look for entrance control station, locked gate at night, at least one host or resident manager for every 50 campsites, at least 20 other families in the campground, frequent security patrols, clean campsites, drivers obeying the 10 MPH speed limit, dogs on leashes at all times, a minimum of noise after 10 P.M., posted after hours emergency phone numbers, and strong cell phone signal strength or a pay phone in the campground. Don’t be misled by disgruntled reviewers who complain that park rangers hassled them because those campers were probably making a lot of noise or doing something that could have possibly hurt other campers. Also look for well-maintained buildings and well-trimmed grounds. Most state and large Federal campgrounds are safe but many county, municipal, and private campgrounds are not. Investigate carefully before spending the night in them. Small, remote walk-up campgrounds that do not accept reservations, free campgrounds, campgrounds with no entrance station or gate, and campgrounds that have few reserved campsites frequently have problems.
Look for paved roads and parking pads near each campsite, clean and spacious bathrooms with hot water, sinks with adjacent countertops, flush toilets, showers, potable water spigots located near each campsite, electrical outlets for recharging cell phones and other electronic devises, grey water disposal stations, clean garbage disposal/ recycle area, Laundromat, WiFi reception area, and TV viewing room.
Bathrooms and other buildings should be painted, in good repair, and cleaned at least daily; grass should be cut every week; understory buffer vegetation should be trimmed at least 3 feet back from campsites, roads & trails to reduce habitat for rodents, animal scavengers & snakes; leaves and other debris should be raked or blown away from campsites, trails & public use areas; procedures should be used to control mosquitoes, ticks, spiders, wasps & other insects; garbage area should be clean and large enough to handle weekend garbage, and should be picked up every week; procedures should be used to reduce problems caused by potentially destructive or dangerous animal scavengers (squirrels, raccoons, coyotes, bears).
Individual sites should be large, level, dispersed, and shady with at least 900 square feet of usable grass, dirt, or crushed stone surface. Ideally, each campsite should have an elevated crushed-stone tent pad to avoid flooding in rainy weather. Campsites should also have at least 20-foot vegetated buffer zones between adjacent campsites and several trees for providing afternoon shade and hanging hammocks, tarps, and clotheslines. In addition, a good campsite should have a sturdy picnic table that could be moved, a pedestal grill for cooking, and a fire ring. If there is no pedestal grill, the fire ring should have an adjustable height cooking grate. The site should have potable water nearby. Electrical outlets and Wi-Fi would be extra nice to have.
Campground employees should greet you when you enter the contact area and efficiently work to help you; hosts and park employees should be visible in the campground, speak to you often, and offer to assist you as needed; social events such as morning coffee, book exchanges, board games, and evening marshmallow roasts should be offered; programs for children should be offered frequently; other campers frequently stroll around the campground and are friendly and helpful.
Consider opportunities inside and just outside the park. A swimming area (pool or beach) is important in the hot summer months. Other desirable recreational opportunities include a nice fishing area, boat/canoe rentals, dirt or gravel trails for hiking and mountain biking, smooth surface trails for biking, large recreation fields, volleyball courts, horse shoe pits, playgrounds for children, nature centers, interpretative programs, children's activities, fishing piers, disc golf courses, zip lines, amusement parks, museums, concerts, festivals, sporting venues, charter fishing guides, golf courses, live theater, antique stores, shopping areas, and restaurants.
In addition to the basic features discussed above, personal interests play an important role in determining the best camping destinations for each family. Some families look for campgrounds with flat terrain, paved roads, and smooth bike trails so they can ride their bikes around the park. Families with power boats want to find campgrounds that are located on large lakes where they can ski, swim, and fish. Other families look for small lakes and rivers where they can canoe or kayak. Golfing families prefer campgrounds located near good golf courses. Yet other families look for campgrounds located near good mountain bike, ATV, or equestrian trails. Eva especially likes campgrounds located near good fishing areas. And I prefer family-focused campgrounds that offer a variety of children’s activities, including a good place to swim, and attract families with small children that our grandson can play with.
The final feature to consider is the availability of gasoline (for vehicles), ice, good firewood, groceries, propane, charcoal, and other camp supplies. This feature is more important for multi-day base camps than for overnight camps. A few large campgrounds have good camp stores that sell all of these these items, but many campgrounds do not. So when planning a trip, investigate the availability of supplies. If the campground web site mentions a camp store, call and ask what supplies are available there. If few supplies are available ask about local Dollar General, Walmart, grocery, and convenient stores. Also search the internet for nearby stores. Good firewood may be especially difficult to find. so if you want to have a campfire, look for local firewood vendors. Some grocery, convenience and home improvement stores have very good firewood.
Some of the best family-centered tent camping destinations in the eastern United States are listed in the link below. And each campground on the list is linked with its homepage so you can easily learn more about any campground that sounds interesting. These are safe and secure campgrounds that offer lots of comfortable amenities and recreational opportunities. They are also some of the most popular camping destinations in the eastern states and so advance reservations are strongly recommended for summer weekends. I have personally visited most of these campgrounds but the few that I have not visited are very popular, highly praised by other family campers, and high on my list of campgrounds to visit in the future. To learn more about these destinations, click on the link below.