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by Chuck Woodbury

When it comes to finding a campground, RVers have many choices, from elegant RV parks with swimming pools, saunas, libraries and entertainment halls, to barebones "boondocking" sites where a level plot of dirt is about all you'll get. Campsites can cost $50 night or they can be free. Generally, most are in the $10 to $40 range.

Here are the major types of U.S. campgrounds:

National Parks: There are more than 300 national parks, many of which have campgrounds. The famous ones, like those in Yellowstone and Yosemite fill up fast in the summer season, but others - in lesser known parks - are great places to get away from it all in a beautiful setting. Most National Park campgrounds are primitive, meaning there are no utility hookups for RVs. They are generally reasonably priced and often have flush toilets, showers and evening nature programs. National Forests: The U.S. Forest Service maintains 156 forests covering more than 190 million acres of land, 100,000 million miles of trails, 70,000 miles of streams and rivers, and about 4,500 developed campgrounds. RVers looking for solitude enjoy these campgrounds, which are most often in beautiful forests. They typically do not fill except in rare cases, and then only in popular tourist areas, and they are among the least expensive public campgrounds with a night's stay generally running $5 to $15. Many are very basic, with only pit toilets. But those in more popular areas may have flush toilets, but seldom showers.

National Wildlife Refuges contain limited campgrounds, where they do not interfere with wildlife preservation. Usually, there are private campgrounds nearby.

Bureau of Land Management campgrounds: This federal agency oversees 280 million acres of scenic outdoor recreation sites in the western U.S., including Canada, with many camping sites. Until recently, many BLM campgrounds were free, but now cost a few dollars. BLM campgrounds are often found in the desert and scrub lands. For star gazing, these campgrounds are very often the cats meow. And cheap, too.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers maintains 53,000 campsites on projects near lakes, rivers and oceans, and are reasonably priced.

State Parks: These are among the most popular camping areas in America. Many state parks have campgrounds, which range from primitive to more sophisticated ones with full or limited utility hookups. Prices may range from a few dollars to $20 or more. Local parks: There are thousands of these campgrounds, sponsored by counties or even small towns. They range from very nice to very crummy. Prices are usually reasonable, often by donation, and sometimes even free.

Commercial Campgrounds: America's nearly 8,000 private campgrounds -- perhaps better known as RV parks -- vary from the very basic to luxury resorts with golf courses, swimming pools and other amenities. Prices typically range from about $15 to $40 a night. The best guides to commercial campgrounds are published by Trailer Life and Woodalls and are available in most large bookstores.

The most popular commercial parks

KOA KAMPGROUNDS, with hundreds of locations, are the most popular commercial campgrounds, and consistently offer clean, easy-to-locate sites. They are popular with all types of campers from those in tents to those with luxury coaches. And no membership fee is required. In the summer months, KOA campgrounds will be heavily populated with families, who will often find plenty of activities, from ice cream socials, to free evening movies and even mini golfing (and swimming in the park pool, of course).

YOGI BEAR JELLYSTONE PARK campgrounds are similar to KOA in that they provide a clean, safe and fun camping experience. The company was founded in 1969, utilizing cartoon character Yogi Bear and his buddies in its advertising and signage. By the end of 1971 there were ten franchised Jellystone Park Camp-Resorts in operation. Growth has been steady ever since, and today there are more than 70 locations in 24 states and Canada. The parks are especially popular with families, with many social and recreational activities. No membership is required, just a nightly fee for a campsite.

GOOD SAM PARKS are not owned by the Good Sam Club, but rather are most often independently owned RV campgrounds that receive a stamp of approval from the million-member club. Good Sam endorses these campgrounds much the same as AAA endorses motels, only accepting businesses that meet certain standards. Generally speaking, Good Sam campgrounds are among the most desirable independently owned RV parks. Members of the Good Sam Club receive a 10% discount on campsites - one of biggest benefits of membership. Membership campgrounds: Membership campgrounds are for members only. Members pay a fee to join, which may be in the hundreds of dollars or even the thousands. After that, they pay annual dues and sometimes a very small to fee to stay in some of the organization's parks. Coast-to-Coast (800-790-2267) and Thousand Trails (800-328-6226) are the best known membership campgrounds. The advantages to a owning campground membership is that the parks are almost always attractive and secure with plenty of activities and member interaction. Members almost never have a problem getting a campsite; some RVers literally travel from one park to another, spending a few days or even weeks in each. Memberships campgrounds typically only make sense if a member uses them a lot, to justify the cost of joining and annual dues. Membership campgrounds are not for everybody. Most RVers prefer to go it alone, camping at public campgrounds and private RV parks.

Boondocking: Boondockers are RVers who camp for free without the benefit of hookups, often in areas not officially designed as campgrounds. This can include Wal-mart parking lots, truck stops or highway rest areas. The deserts of the American Southwest are popular long-term boondocking areas, with the dusty town of Quartzsite, Arizona being Ground Zero. The advantage to boondocking is money saved on camping fees. The disadvantage is that the locations are most often not scenic, and in some instances not as safe as an official campground. More information about boondocking is available on the Web at FreeCampgrounds.com (http://www.FreeCampgrounds.com).

Chuck Woodbury is the editor of RV Traveler (RVtraveler.com), a free email newsletter about travel by RV in the United States and Canada, and the website Beginners Guide to RVing (NewRVer.com).


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