10 Elements that Make a Campsite a Winner

Willow Flat Campground Canyonlands National Park

On our 2 month, 8,500 mile America road trip, picking a campground was easy. We picked campgrounds in (or just outside) of the parks we were trying to explore with availability. Some campgrounds require reservations but lucky for us some campgrounds, or at least few sites within the campground, are exclusively “first come, first served.” This means these spots cannot be reserved in advanced by people who actually plan their vacation and become available daily to whomever claims the site first. National Parks will usually have a number to call to find out whether a campground has filled up for the day. Knowing that cell service is spotty, National Parks will usually post this information at the front gates to the park and/or at the visitor centers within the park. Once we’ve determined the campground isn’t full and we have a fighting chance, we drive to the campground and try our luck. With car camping, our routine is to check-in with the park ranger (or at the self check-in booth), pick up a map, and loop around the campground jotting down the numbers for the campsites that stick out to us. After a couple of loops, we lay claim to the one we like the most. Now we know what makes a campsite a winner. There are a couple elements that warrant bonus points at any campground – things we learned to look for when scoping out a site and things we learned to appreciate once they were gone. Here are a few:


We’ll forfeit the rest of the items on this list if there are incredible views.

Jenny Lake is exclusively a first come, first served campground, but views like this means there’s a ton of competition to snag a spot. Dan was second in line at the campground at 6 AM. The “CAMPGROUND FULL” sign was put up just minutes after sites became available at 8 AM. Luckily, we were able to snag this spot.
At the Grandstaff campground we had the river on one side and these views on the other. It didn’t matter that there was no running water and only one bug infested vault toilet. We stayed here for the views.

2. Showers

Going to bed with a day or two worth of filth on our bodies is doable thanks to our two bowl sponge bath system, but three or even four days of filth is another story. Taking a hot shower and climbing into a clean bed is one of the most satisfying feelings after being outdoors all day. If a campground has hot showers, it’s a HUGE bonus.

Most of the campgrounds we visited did not have showers. Sponge baths and our solar shower kept us clean in between.

3. A dish washing station

Bringing gallons of extra water to a campsite for washing dirty dishes is a pain. Capturing the dirty dish water and disposing of it in the toilet so that bears don’t come sniffing around our site turns a quick camp stove meal into a two hour affair. Having a designated dish washing station at the campground sped up the process which meant more time by the campfire.

This is what we do when the campsite doesn’t have a dish washing station. Once the tub below is full, it gets dumped in the toilet. I’m not sure why Dan is smiling. This part sucks. It’s probably the beer reward in the background.

4. Two trees that are close enough together for a hammock but far away enough for that perfect tautness

Maybe we’re a little too obsessed with our hammocks but for some reason, when we lie in them, our minds and body relax completely. They’re therapeutic in a way. If we can find a campsite with two perfectly spaced trees to hang up our hammock, we’re snagging it.

Extra bonus points to the campsites with two sets of the perfect hammock trees right next to each other so we can set up both hammocks.

5. Campsites close enough to a bathroom — but not too close

Being too close means you’re likely in a high traffic area and will hear people chatting and the bathroom doors swinging open and shut all night but being close enough means you’re not taking a mini hike just to take a piss. Finding something in the middle makes the experience more enjoyable.

6. Firewood left behind by previous campers

Finding free firewood sparks (get it!?) so much joy. I can’t explain it. Maybe it’s because it means we don’t have to buy it (at the over priced $7-10 a bundle) and we don’t have to go looking for it in the woods.

Here we found a free bundle of firewood in our bear box left over from previous campers AND some half burnt logs already in the campfire. Score!

7. Temperature controlled bathrooms

It’s already a pain in the ass to climb out of a sleeping bag, throw on a jacket, unzip the tent, find your shoes and make the walk through the cold to the campground bathroom. So when you walk through those doors and remember there’s a heater in there, it’s almost enough to make you want stay for a while – at least long enough to get mobility in your freezing cold fingers again.

8. Hot water

Washing your hands and face with cold water isn’t too bad while in the desert but is miserable when it’s freezing out. Finding a campground with hot running water is very rare, so when it does happen, we feel spoiled.

9. No neighbors

Staying inside the parks meant we had neighbors almost everywhere. Usually, we think nothing of it. It’s car camping next to our nation’s treasures. You’re almost always going to have neighbors. We were lucky – just once – to have no neighbors anywhere in the vicinity. This meant we didn’t need to climb into the tent to get dressed or turn the volume down on our music. We weren’t woken up by any trunk slamming or crying babies. We had an entire HEATED bathroom with hot water and flush toilets to ourselves. It felt like the resort of all camping.

Our closest neighbors were nine sites over.

10. Shade

We brought a pop up canopy which saved our asses many times from getting scorched by the sun at sites with no trees or shelters for shade. The downside was that we needed to set it up every time we arrived to the site and take it down every time we left (because they’re basically sails in the wind.) When driving around campgrounds trying to pick out a site, we always kept our eyes out for trees or a shaded picnic area to save us the hassle of dealing with the bulky canopy.

This shaded picnic table offered a little bit of relief from the wind and sun.

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