10 (or more) Tips for Camping in National Parks

Saturday, June 15, 2013


Can you imagine giving up all your possessions and camping in a tent for two years? That's exactly what Richard and Laura Pawlowski did when they fell upon some hard times and were pushed from their home of 35 years. Along the way they learned some invaluable tips about camping that we are happy to share with you! Enjoy.

By Richard and Laura Pawlowski

Are you considering camping in one or more of our wonderful National Parks? If so, here are 10 tips from a pair of "seasoned" tent campers that can make your adventure much easier and enjoyable.

Tip 1

Tents are better in National Parks and you don't need an expensive RV to enjoy your National Parks. Tenting is so much cheaper and environmentally safer as well. In many ways, tenting with a regular car or mini-van is much better than going in an RV. As a matter of fact, some roads leading to some parks actually limit the length of RVs allowed because most parks were originally designed for and by tenters. Tent camping is MUCH cheaper for sure (site fees, gas, insurance and maintenance) and in many National Parks, the best campsites are for "tents only." 

Tip 2

Go for more than a just a few weeks - if you can - and go to more than one NP - they are all wonderful places (and our personal plan is to see them all). Regular or typical vacations are OK, but you'll miss so much if you don't stay as along as possible at each one. Most folks just go for two days on a week-end but see only the highlights and often miss the real essence of the place. Laura and I spent two full years of camping with our tent - and we got to 55 different campgrounds and 15 National Parks in 10 states. Some places we stayed for more than a month we paid only $3 a night. We also met a lot of other full-timers and made many new friends this way. In our book, we suggest you take a full year out of your life and give it as a grand gift to yourself. Just quit paying rent and go.

Tip 3

Choose the tent wisely not cheaply. Wind and rain will happen - count on it. Unpredictable weather requires you to consider the types of seams and zippers (very important) and how close to the ground the rain-fly goes. If it is above 8 inches, a strong wind event might shred it for you. Big metal zippers are better than small plastic zippers and metal poles are better (in some cases) than fiberglass poles. The type of connection of the poles - to each other and the ground - also matter.
The shape of the tent really matters too and the taller it is the more wind it will catch. We used a two-door, mini-yurt model (after going thru 3 others that failed) and the hexagon shape was best for us. We used a 11x11 footer and it was just tall enough to standup in and just the right size for two adults. BTW, we went thru a near hurricane in Padre Island National Seashore (Texas) and were the only tent standing after 60 mph winds. A very exciting night for sure. You should have heard it from inside our tent and the sky was incredible - wow! :-) 

Tip 4

Get get off the ground. We've been camping for over 40 years (we're in our 70s) and in our extended sojourns - we've come to appreciate the value of a good, foldable cot (about $55). For extended tenting, this is a must. Choose wisely here too because some cots have a very uncomfortable bar in the center. Test it at home first. 
And BTW, air mattresses are a total waste of time and money.

Tip 5

Showers - Go Solar. Most National Park campgrounds do NOT have showers. Some do but don't count on it. Some parks have pay showers that are operated by a concessionaire and they can soak you (pun intended) to use them. We bought a solar heated water bag (about $20) and a shower-tent (about $50) and it was one of the best things we used. Saved us a lot of money and when the sun didn't cooperate, we used our 2 burner propane stove to heat the water. 
As an aside, many campers had never seen tent-shower like ours and when they asked what it was, we told them we used it only when we wanted to sleep standing up. :-)

Tip 6

Connect some campground dots. Get your map out and try to connect as many campgrounds as you can on your way to your ultimate destination. Try to make them within a one-day, 6-8 hour driving range. This means if - for some reason - you can't get to your destination that day, you'l have another "fall-back" or alternate place to put up your tent. 

Tip 7

Also consider visiting our many National Monuments and National Forest System campgrounds. Only Congress can create National Parks but the President can create National Monuments. They are both managed by the National Park System. The National Forest Service (NFS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Army Corp of Engineers are also under federal jurisdiction and if you have the Access or Senior Pass you can get into them and the National Parks and National Monuments for free and 50% off camp fees as well. Best deal in the USA for the disabled and seniors.  

Tip 8

If no reservations - travel to arrive only on Mondays or Tuesdays. The rest of the week and Wednesdays can be "iffy." This way you'll arrive and get a better site without having to compete with "week-enders." 

Tip 9

If reservations are required - ask for a level site in the "tents only" area - if they have one. The reality is, you might have to take whatever they have available during busy season. Some campgrounds have a few "overflow" sites but you must be there in person to get them. Overflow sites are often left up to the camp host to issue and if you are friendly, you stand a better chance of getting one without a reservation. 

Tip 10

Take a good size ice chest and buy food and ample supplies before you get into the park. Inside the park normal things get expensive. For example, we priced a small bottle of propane (for the stove) at the only store in Death Valley National Park, and they outrageously priced it at $13. You can buy the same item at a regular store for less than $3. Go figure. 
And of course, take your camera, first-aid kit and don't forget the axe, hammer and tent stakes. 
And a final suggestion: Always remember and respect the people who came before you and built the roads and parks for all Americans to enjoy today. They were hard working people and realized the very best of American is within our National Parks and Monuments - not in the city. Go and enjoy the very best of America. 

Richard and Laura Pawlowski are the authors of 2 Years in a Tent ebook and can be downloaded on Amazon.com and the iTunes store. They also post on the TENTONOMICS.com blog and you can contact them thru www.2YearsinaTent.com.