By Staci Wilt of RideForFood for Law Tigers
It only takes one motorcycle camping trip to realize why every enthusiast raves about it. These two go together just like peas and carrots! Motorcycle camping is freedom in its purest form: it’s just you, your motorcycle, and the great outdoors enjoying a night under a starry sky. No frills, just simplicity, self-sufficiency, and solitude. And maybe a couple of empty beer cans if you and your friends tie one on for the evening. Finding a place to rest your head after a long days ride isn’t as easy as it is for people living the van life or traveling in a four wheeled vehicle. Your options are usually more limited. In this blog, I’ll take you through how I find campsites on my motorcycle trips. It’s much easier than you’d think!
Digital Resources for Finding a Campsite
While many are not motorcycle specific, there are plenty of apps and websites out there that will help in your search of finding the right campground. Here’s a list of resources I’ll often use for help. These are in order of most used to least used.
While some Apps do require a fee to use, such as Ultimate CG, they’re worth the small fee in exchange for finding great camping. Some of these free apps (ex. the Dyrt) offer Pro options, which allow for you to view the maps without cell service. Often, the best campsites are in areas with no signal.
Planning Ahead: Finding Campgrounds for a Motorcycle Trip
There’s nothing worse than watching a beautiful sunset as you frantically attempt to find a place to sleep, passing campground after campground with “FULL” signs at the entrance. After a long day’s ride, it’s nice to be able to relax and kick the boots off hassle free. Don’t assume that that cool campground you heard about is going to have a spot for you, especially on a weekend in the area’s busy season. Prior to my trips, I spend a lot of time on Google Maps planning my entire itinerary, including campsites. Google Maps is the first place I go to search for campgrounds, as Google provides such an integrated network of links and information all in one place. If you have a desktop computer or tablet, I suggest using those tools as it’s far easier to multitask on devices larger than a phone. If you’re stuck with a tablet or phone, Google Maps and Google Street View are great apps to have on hand, just not as user friendly. You’ll have to switch between the two apps to use all the options as Google Maps on a desktop. Why do I choose Google before the others? It simplifies the work for me. Most campgrounds have reviews and are directly linked to their respective reservation systems. Plus, I can map out my days route to see how far the campground is from my starting point. In situations where a campground allows you to choose your site during the reservation process, you can also look at the campsite from an aerial view to see what you’re reserving. For example: Are there trees for hammocks and/or tent shade? From here, I tend to broaden my horizons and check out some of the more specific categories below.
Choosing the Right Campsite for You or Your Riding Group
State and National Park Campgrounds
One of the best ways to experience a national or state park is by camping within the park boundaries. While these are not the most secluded campgrounds, I tend to enjoy them for the easy access they offer to the area I’m visiting. Usually, this requires more than a month’s notice, so plan and reserve your site online. Depending on the park you’re choosing as a destination, you may have first come, first serve (FCFS) options when you arrive. Larger parks, like Yellowstone, fill their FCFS sites before 7am most days in the peak season. Relying on FCFS sites in National Parks is my least favorite thing to do. Additionally, their online reservation systems show full campgrounds over 30 days in advance. In situations like this, I wouldn’t suggest showing up on a whim in hopes of finding a campground. I’d rely on one of the next options below. Typically, State and National Parks utilize recreation.gov, Reserve America, and Xanterra for making online camping reservations. In my experience, it’s easiest to visit the park website prior to moving on to one of these reservation systems. Having these apps on my phone is handy for last minute or on-the-go reservations.
National Forest Campgrounds
If you’d like a little less of a family-focused atmosphere while still enjoying the outdoors, National Forest Campgrounds would be more ideal for you or your riding group. While our National Forests are usually the best bet to finding free campsites, their established campgrounds usually require a reservation fee. When I say established, don’t expect showers and electric hookups. You’re usually fortunate to have a paved parking surface, food storage box, and a pit toilet nearby. Due to their lack of amenities, the camping fee is usually minimal. The seclusion and nearby scenery definitely makes up for the lack of “glamping” options. These campgrounds can also be found using Google maps, the Recreation.gov app or website, or the US National Forest App. Often, National Forest Campgrounds are in regions with no cell service, and reservations can’t be made online. If you want to reserve one of these sites in advance, you’ll need to call the phone number listed on the USNF website. Screenshot your reservations from your phone in case you need to know your site number upon arrival.
Motorcycle-Friendly, Private Campgrounds
If you prefer more amenities, need a shower, or to charge your electronics overnight, privately owned campgrounds (and RV parks) come in a variety of types and sizes to fit your needs. Whether you wish to rough it with no electric hookups, ability to enjoy a hot shower, swimming pool, or “glamp” in a tipi or tiny cabin, there’s a campground out there that will fit your needs. Keep in mind, the more amenities available, the higher your fee will usually be. If you’re new to motorcycle camping and want to stay in a more comfortable environment, KOA campgrounds have plenty of amenities, (showers, Wi-Fi, swimming pools, etc.) and can be found nationwide. They’re motorcycle-friendly and usually near major interstates or attractions, making them easy to get to by motorcycle. Full transparency: I usually don’t stay at KOAs due to their pricing for a single campsite. If I was in a group, it would be more affordable and worth my while. Traveling alone, however, makes their campsites a little overpriced for my budget. If you’re ready for the next level of private camping, the world is truly your oyster. Motorcycle-specific, as well as “biker-friendly” campgrounds, are common near popular motorcycle destinations, like the winding roads of the Great Smoky Mountains. Some are so motorcycle friendly that they don’t allow four wheeled vehicles into the camping area, just bikes! One example of this is Two Wheels of Suches in Northern Georgia. If you’re new to an area and hope to enjoy a cold beer by a campfire with other riders and share stories and ride routes, I’d highly recommend this style of campground.
How to Find Free Campsites on a Motorcycle Trip
For the experienced camper, dispersed camping tends to provide the best motorcycle camping available. It is camping at it’s purest, most rugged form. With zero amenities available, including food storage for animal deterrent purposes, restrooms, or running water, you’ll need to be fully self-sufficient. Please read and understand the Leave No Trace Principles prior to diving into dispersed camping.
Forest Service Land (USFS)
Forest Service Land is my first searching area for free camping. Free (dispersed) camping is allowed in all National Forests and Grasslands across the United States, unless noted otherwise. A good rule of thumb with dispersed campsites is to to set up camp 100 feet from any water source and 150 feet from a roadway. Keep in mind, some areas don’t allow camping. Be sure to do your research on dispersed camping. On Google Maps, I’ll check satellite imagery of Forest Service Roads in the area I’m planning to stop for the night. You’ll be able to see RV’s or vehicles camped out in these remote areas from the aerial views, which will give you a decent idea of what’s available, and how far down the road you’ll need to travel. One thing Google’s Aerial View won’t show you, though, is road conditions. I use apps like the Dyrt, Ultimate Campgrounds, and Campendium to read reviews to help determine if my bike will make it to the campsite or not. Sometimes, the roads are extremely rough or impassable by a bike not equipped for rugged terrain. Then again, I’ve ridden some roads that reviewers say are “extremely rough” and I made it just fine. It doesn’t hurt to do your research, though.
Bureau of Land Management Land
BLM land, a division of the U.S. Department of Interior, is more commonly found in the western United States. These public lands offer dispersed (free) and developed (fee) camping options, like the USFS. I typically look at USFS areas first, because BLM Land is a bit trickier to navigate. Their website doesn’t have a user-friendly map showing free camping areas. Instead, I like using apps like Ultimate CG, the Dyrt, and onX Offroad for help. If you’re traveling to a popular area like Moab, Utah, chances are you’ll have pay a fee to use BLM land. You can always contact the local BLM office for information or ask a friend who knows the area well.
Truck Stops & Rest Areas
These are, without question, the last resort possible when looking for a free place to lay your head at a moment’s notice. No, they’re not a campsite, but worth a mention. Yes, I’ve napped in truck stop parking lots, but only while traveling in groups. As a female that primarily travels alone, I tend to not put myself in situations that create greater risks. If you are comfortable utilizing these areas, they do work well in a pinch. Be aware that most Rest Areas along major interstates don’t allow camping. If you set up a tent, you may be asked to leave.