Finding and Setting Up a Campsite

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Before you go, find out about the campground's facilities and regulations. Is there potable water available? Are campfires allowed, and where? What is the maximum group size for a site? Are there showers or flushing toilets? Do you need to store your food in a particular way? Do I need to make a reservation?

Site Selection & Registration

Every campground is a little bit different, but the process is generally the same. Campgrounds have designated sites that correspond to a number or letter (or some combination of letters and numbers). In frontcountry campgrounds (campgrounds you drive to), typically a small card or piece of paper is clipped to a post to indicate the check-out date for the current occupants. Backcountry (campgrounds you hike to) permits are usually a tag you display on your backpack while hiking, and on your tent while camping. Some sites may be reservable, either by calling the campground or through online reservation systems including Recreation.gov, while other sites within a campground may be available by a first-come, first-served system.
A campsite with a site marker, picnic table, fire ring, firewood and an orange tent
Frontcountry campsites have a site number and tag identifying if the site is occupied, and for how long it's occupied. Photo location: Yellowstone National Park

NPS Photo

Which Campsite is the Best?

Because most national park camping is done in established campgrounds, picking the right site for you depends on your taste, but there are a few factors to consider whether you're frontcountry or backcountry camping.
  • Be aware of potential hazards like flash flooding, lightning, wind and dead trees/branches around your campsite.
  • In the backcountry, avoid staying on ledges or high peaks where wind and lightning could become a hazard.
  • Look up; if you see dead branches overhead, you should not camp under them.
  • Do you want to be near the bathroom or shower house for convenience, or farther away, where it's quieter and darker?
  • Do you need to park an RV? Do you need electrical hook-ups?
A test is pitched din the desert next to a pile of wood, a fire ring and a picnic table
Every park and campground is different. Photo location: Joshua Tree National Park

NPS Photo

How to Lay Out a Campsite

Most frontcountry campgrounds are well defined. A frontcountry site will usually have a parking space, a fire ring or grill, and a picnic table. You may be able to move the picnic table around a bit, but for the most part, the first big decision upon arriving at your campsite is where to put your tent and your cooking station.
First, walk the boundaries of your campsite to identify the best locations for your tent, cooking station, and eating station. Maintaining a safe distance between these three parts of your campsite will keep your area safer and more comfortable. Keep all food stored away from rodents and other wildlife.
Some parks have designated backcountry camping sites, but some do not. When there are no designated sites, it is up to you to find a spot within the camping area a park has defined. Here are things to consider when picking a spot:
  • Sheltered and away from the middle of a field if there is a lightning storm and from the edge of cliffs.
  • Away from dead trees that might fall.
  • Away from ravines that might flood.
When camping in bear country:
  • Keep 200 feet between a cooking space and sleeping space.
  • Always store food at least 200 feet from your sleeping space.
  • Do not sleep in clothes used during cooking.
  • Check park regulations for proper food storage; many parks require a bear box or bag.
An ideal location for your tent is on level ground, but not a low place, and a safe distance from your fire ring and cooking area. Sparks from your fire could melt holes in your tent (or ignite it altogether), and the stakes and lines coming off your tent could become tripping hazards if they're near a high-traffic area.
Make camp before dark. Learn the terrain during daylight. If you have to leave camp after dark, stay in areas you have seen in daylight, go with a companion, and use a headlamp.
A gray tent is set up in the tundra with snow mountains behind it
Most campgrounds are well defined, but some parks with backcountry camping do not have designated sites. Photo location: Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve

NPS Photo

Set Up A Tent

  • Find a large, flat place to put your tent, and remove any sticks, rocks, pinecones, or other debris from the area. These objects are not only uncomfortable to sleep on, they may puncture your tent.
  • Avoid low and sunken areas on the ground ground -- they can become extremely wet when it rains.
  • Orient the tent so that your head will be on the uphill side while you are sleeping.
  • Some tents come with a groundcloth or "footprint" upon which you will set up the tent. If your tent does not have one included, a waterproof tarp will also work - just be sure to fold any excess tarp under, or else it will collect water rather than repel it. Lay down the groundcloth, then set up your tent according to your manufacturer's instructions.
A man and a woman set up a white tent
Setting up a tent is easier than you think. Practice at home so you are a pro when you visit a park. Photo location: Denali National Park and Preserve

NPS Photo / Kent Miller

RVs and Campers

RV and towed campers are more than welcome at national parks that can accommodate them. RV and towed camper sites vary from park to park (i.e., pull-through campsites, back-in campsites), and there could be space issues with slide-outs. Always check with the park you are visiting for size restrictions and the number of sites that can accommodate RVs and towed campers. Visitors should be responsible for understanding how to drive and operate a RV or camper. If you are renting a RV or camper to bring to a park, be sure you are familiar with how to drive and operate it.
A towed camper is parked in a campsite next to a joshua tree
Always check with the park you are visiting for information regarding site accommodations and size limitations for RVs and campers. Photo location: Joshua Tree National Park.

NPS Photo

Last updated: May 29, 2018

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