We’ve all been there. You’re looking at a map and wondering, “Where do we go next?” Whether you are sitting at home or are in the middle of a truck camping adventure, planning where to go next can be overwhelming. Here’s what we do…
In general, we plan to go to an area and explore it for a given time of the year. We’ll say, “Next fall let’s explore southwest Colorado.” While we usually have some destinations, camping spots and friends in mind, that’s about the extent of our long distance trip planning.
Many times we’ll wander into an area without a specific idea of what to see and where to camp next. What’s there to see here? Where are we staying tonight? If that sounds at all familiar, this article is for you. Let’s get planning!
What Kind Of Traveler Are You?
Do you want your destinations and campsites planned ahead of time, or are you open to letting the trip take you and finding camping opportunities along the way? Put another way, how comfortable are you with it being 1:00pm and not having a set place to stay that night?
Knowing the answers to these questions will help you with your planning. If you’re someone who creates an Excel spreadsheet and plots your campsites months in advance, you are going to approach trip planning differently than people who let the trip take them and camp where they find camping.
Of course you might not fit into either camp. Gordon and I do a little bit of both. In fact, sometimes you need to plan way in advance or risk not having a campsite. Other times (and places) you can explore an area worry-free and you’ll find a good spot for the night. I will talk about both types of planning and camping situations in this article.
Planning Months In Advance
Above: We make reservations ahead for the more popular Florida State Parks
The only time we plan really far in advance is when we travel in Florida during the winter. Florida is admittedly a tough state to find good camping spots, especially in the peak winter months of January, February and March.
There are literally tens of thousands (or more) of RVing snowbirds that spend their winters in Florida. This results in crowded and expensive campgrounds throughout the Sunshine state. If you don’t make campground reservations far in advance, finding places to camp can be very challenging.
In our opinion, the only way to plan for Florida is to plan ahead. And not just a week or a month, but a full year! I’m sure there are people who go to Florida on the fly in the winter and make it work but, for us, we prefer not to be stressed looking for a place to camp that night. Plus, we need to focus on work.
Other destinations that often need camping reservations well in advance are the more popular National Parks during peak season. Arches, Yellowstone, Yosemite and Acadia National Parks immediately come to mind, but many other National Park sites also require reservations many months in advance.
Above: Camping in Sequoia National Park with truck camping friends, we reserved our campsites weeks ahead of time
Over the years we have heard numerous stories from fellow truck campers who have traveled to the popular snowbirding destinations or National Parks without reservations and could not find a campsite there for the night. It’s something to take seriously.
Above: Camping at Ocracoke Campground in Ocracoke, North Carolina. We just drove in and found a spot. No reservations were necessary.
I must say that Gordon and I have traveled all around the United States and Canada, and there are very few places that require much advance planning. Usually we can make campground reservations only a few days in advance. Unless you’re in a popular area during a busy time, you can usually drive in, pay for a campsite, and camp.
Finding Places To Camp On The Fly
When we travel in the midwest or west, or are just wandering, we do not have a firm plan. I may have a small list of must-see places, but nothing is set in stone. As friends of ours like to say, “The plan is no plan”.
We find being free as birds and going from place to place is both fun and easily done with a truck camper. We are small. We are nimble. We are truck campers!
“The night before I come up with Plan A, Plan B and Plan C for possible places to camp the next day.”
Above: Harley helping me with Plans A, B, and C
During our free roaming adventures, I look at the map and our intended destinations the night before. Then I come up with Plan A, Plan B and Plan C for possible places to camp the following night.
Above: Boondocking in Valley of the Gods, Utah
If we’re passing through Utah, Plan A might be Valley of the Gods BLM camping (free). Plans B and C could be Goosenecks State Park and Monument Valley Tribal Park (fee based). All three locations are beautiful places to camp but, if one is too busy or we decide not to go to Plan A, we have Plans B and/or C ready to go.
Many times we change our plan because of cell phone coverage. No cell phone coverage means we can’t work on Truck Camper Magazine. And not working on TCM means no fun articles for you! So, we sometimes arrive somewhere and have to leave five minutes later.
Our Go-To Camping Websites and Apps
Lately, I have started using iOverlander. The iOverlander spots seem to be a little more risky and vague; “…the spot at the end of the road near the tree”. But, sometimes iOverlander has yielded beautiful spots – like the ferry terminal by the water we recently camped at.
The National Park Service has websites for each of the National Parks, and state parks have their own websites. With national, state, provincial, county, and even some private RV parks be sure to read their guidelines ahead of time. We’ve had to do Operation Whisker Sneak a couple of times because places didn’t allow cats.
There have also been other restrictions like no truck campers or needing to be over 55 years of age to enter a park. Rarely have we had restrictions for campers, cats or age, but campground rules are something to be aware of.
As Gordon pointed out in his, “Free and Safe Places to Camp Overnight” article, we also love the AllStays app. We use that at least once a week. Bryan Appleby also wrote a, “Stealth Camping” article that we refer to for ideas.
My most valuable advice is to have a variety of resources for finding camping spots and to have the aforementioned Plans A, B, and C ready to go. That will give you the most choices should you not like your first camping destination.
Above: Camping with friends at Ocracoke Campground in Ocracoke, North Carolina
If you want to stay in campgrounds, there are a couple of good resources out there. Good Sam and Passport America are camping clubs that give discounts and provide maps of the campgrounds they represent. On the AllStays app you can sort by private campground, National, State, Provincial, Corp of Engineer park, etc.
When we are visiting a new National Park, Provincial Park, or State Park we almost always stay because they have fantastic campgrounds. By camping there we are close to the trails and get to experience more of the park.
Know What You Want To See and Do
To successfully plan a trip, you need to know what you want to see and do. For example, do you like driving scenic roads? Do you want to go kayaking or bike riding? Or maybe you want to photograph wildlife in a National Park.
Above: Hiking around Alabama Hills in Lone Pine, California
We want to see places we haven’t seen before, visit new and old friends, go on exciting hikes and take photographs, and find the unexpected amazing and free boondocking sites. Oh, and Gordon always looks for thrift stores, flea markets or yard sales to find more LP records. Whatever you want, knowing what you want to do ahead of time is essential for your planning.
Trip Planning Website Recommendations
There are many sources I look at when planning for a visit to a new area.
Above and below: Alabama Hills is one of our favorite camping locations of all time, and it’s free!
Another wonderful way to find beautiful places to visit is our calendar contest galleries. TCM readers are constantly sending in pictures with captions of beautiful places and where they are located. For example, calendar photos led us to Alabama Hills, California – easily one of our favorite truck camping locations.
Other places I look at are Yelp, Trip Advisor, and the tourist websites for a given area. Sometimes I’ll just type in, “things to do in XYZ” into a search engine. That can also bring up a bunch of things to do in a specific area.
Above: One of the craziest things we’ve seen on the road, Bishop Castle in Custer County, Colorado
What if you don’t want to go to the touristy places?
My best advice is to talk to people. Think about who you know who might have visited that area before. Or maybe you know someone who lives nearby your intended destination area. Email them and ask what they’ve done in that area.
Above: After you cross a state line, look for a welcome center with tourist information
When we get to an area, I ask people who live there what to do. I talk to the check out person at the grocery store. I ask the campground host for places he/she has visited nearby. I’ll even ask the attendant at the gas station.
Locals often know where to go. They are usually proud of the area in which they live and want to share the coolest thing to do in their area. I can’t tell you how many times I have asked where the best thrift stores are located.
“When we get to an area, I ask people who live there what to do. Locals often know where to go.”
Visiting the tourist information centers is something we always do. Yes, there will be brochures and pamphlets showing all the local tourist attractions. However, you can also talk to the ranger or tourism guide for off-menu, non-tourist ideas. The people at tourist centers have a wealth of knowledge.
I have asked tourism center folks where RVs can camp. I have asked them what the best hikes are in the area. I have asked them about road conditions. I have asked them about restaurant suggestions. Specifically, where do the locals like to go? We want to truly experience each area we visit.
Find Your Own Places On The Road
Last year we were traveling with our friends. We worked during the day in our camper on TCM, and they went off exploring. When they returned, they told us about a polo club down the road. One of our friends said, “I bet they have matches”.
I replied, “I’ve never been to a polo match. It would be so much fun to go”.
The next thing I know we were on the polo club’s website searching for the next match. And what do you know? It was two days later!
Above: We parked our rigs right next to the polo field. What an amazing experience!
So, we called the polo club and asked if we could attend the match and park our rigs on site. They enthusiastically welcomed us. They even let us park our rigs right next to the field. We stomped divots at half time, and had a blast.
So, when you pass something of interest, stop in. Ask if you can get a tour. Ask if you can observe their competition. Ask if you can park for the night. More often than not, the answer is, “Yes!”
Let The Road Magic Happen
If you are traveling on the road, road magic will happen! It might not happen every day or every week. But, it happens.
Road magic is when you meet someone new who tells you to go somewhere and it winds up being spectacular! Or maybe it happens when you meet someone who becomes a life-long friend.
“Be flexible to have situations present themselves, and then take advantage of them.”
Sometimes road magic is when you just happen upon a festival or event on the road. Right place. Right time. Next thing you know you’re stomping divots.
You have to be flexible and open minded for road magic to happen. Last summer I found this great National Forest area in Idaho that had free camping. On our way there we drove through this very high-end neighborhood, and then on to a dirt road that led us into this amazing valley between two very large hills.
On the other side of the neighborhood we found this little slice of heaven. It was really amazing because the people in these mansion homes are paying millions of dollars for this amazing view, and we drove past their neighborhood and we were immersed in its beauty for absolutely free. Road magic!
But, wait there’s more! We drove about a mile in, found the perfect camping spot and, “Baaa! Baaa!” We look over to the hill and there are thousands of grazing sheep. Thousands of them!
We saw this little camper hut when we drove in, but didn’t know that it belonged to a sheep herder who was looking after 2,400 sheep with his four dogs. We stayed in this beautiful valley, watching the sheep going up and down the hill for an entire week! It just so happened that we were in the right place at the right time.
Again, road magic! It happens. You just have to be on the road. Be flexible to have situations present themselves, and then take advantage of them.
Pin Your Master Plan With Google Maps
So now you have got this huge list of places you want to visit and camp. What do you do with it? This is where my wonderful Google Map comes into play.
Above: Our personal Google Map and all the places we have discovered while truck camping
As I find places to camp or visit, I put them on my Google Map. Once I’ve gone through all the different places I want to visit – from friends’ houses to reader recommendations to Yelp – I “pin” the best ones on my Google Map. Weirdly enough, a fun itinerary usually presents itself.
We have a great article on how to create your own Google Map for trip planning.
Planning is important. I look at maps, travel websites and apps every day. I have Plans A, B, and C ready to go. But, Gordon and I also have the mindset of letting the trip take us. We have been known to throw all three plans out the window and go in an entirely different direction. After all, it’s the journey, not the destination.
I would hate for you to miss that wonderful free boondocking spot with the amazing sheep herder. That’s the magic of the road!