Choosing a campground: Where will you camp tonight?

There are many types of campgrounds – from rustic getaways to luxury resorts!

By Garth W. Cane

At consumer RV shows, I often say that RV Lifestyle Magazine is written by Canadians who love to travel, for Canadians who like to travel.

As I updated our annual Campground Directory, I saw many campgrounds that list hundreds of sites, but only a few of these are overnight sites set aside for the RV’ers who are travelling across the country on their holiday trips. Many campgrounds have seasonal sites for campers who will use their RV as a cottage and not travel from one area to another. This method of operation provides the campground owner with a stable supply of income instead of depending on RV’ers travelling through the area, who may stay for just one night. RV’ers who leave their trailer in one spot and use it as a cottage – loading the family car up each Friday night, fighting the traffic and then after a weekend of enjoyable relaxation and camping returning home Sunday night to go back to work. This is destination camping. RV’ers who visit the same location each weekend, year after year, until the time comes for retirement, when they can spend more time in the great outdoors.

As Federal, State and Provincial sites have reduced their services because of increasing costs; there are fewer campsites for the travelling RV’ers. Will there come a time when there are no overnight spots available?

We have met many RV’ers who park in National Forests, Bureau of Land Management areas, truck stops, rest stops on the highway, farmer’s fields, and shopping market parking lots. Truck stops are only intended for use while you rest up on a trip (after buying fuel). Many rest areas on the highway have been closed recently as states tighten their budgets. One rule that we were told by state troopers is not to stay more than four hours at a rest area. Besides that, it is usually noisy from trucks idling.

Some of the most respected RV clubs have joined together to support your right to park on private businesses’ parking lots overnight under the following code of conduct. The code pertains to establishments that permit camping on their parking lots without the use of external hookups for electricity, water supply or waste disposal.

  1. Stay one night only!
  2. Obtain permission.
  3. Obey posted regulations.
  4. No awnings, chairs, or barbecue grills outside your RV.
  5. Do not use hydraulic jacks on soft surfaces (including asphalt).
  6. Always leave an area clean.
  7. Purchase gas, food, or supplies as a form of thank you, when feasible.
  8. Be safe! Always be aware of your surroundings and leave if you feel unsafe.

Many Canadians who travel use our Annual Campground Directory to assist them in finding a spot to camp for the night in private, county, provincial, and national facilities as they travel from town to town enjoying this great country. We list campground phone numbers and e-mail addresses to assist the travelling RV’ers to locate the perfect spot for their family to rest up after a day of driving. We list over 4000 campgrounds each year that offer overnight camping spots.

Some readers belong to camping clubs that have several rallies each year, when they park in fairgrounds with various types of services to hook up, many events to participate in, and good friends to meet – both old and new. My wife and I have belonged to several camping clubs over the years. For the last forty years, we have been members of one camping club that was originally sponsored by a Canadian RV manufacturer. This club organizes several Provincial rallies and many regional rallies. Another very popular series of rallies is sponsored by the Family Motor Coach Association. FMCA is principally based in the USA, but has many chapters including several in Canada. They typically have larger area rallies in county fairgrounds. Like many Canadian and US RV’ers, we also belong to the Good Sam Club, a club that offers many regional and national rallies, discounts at campgrounds, and member benefits such as Emergency Road Service. Some of the larger rallies have displays of RV’s and accessories, entertainment events, golf games, etc. Over the years, as RV club members, we have made many fine friends from all over the country and travelled to many different areas.

The Escapees (S.P.) Club is a group that caters to full-timers to provide a home base for mail forwarding, licenses, and voting. The organization has built several campgrounds for the members – Rainbow’s End in Livingston Texas was the first park created, followed by seven more Rainbow Parks, eleven S.P. Co-Op parks and two new Escapees Rainbow Parks Unlimited parks. Escapees offers a multitude of services, which include a mail forwarding service that caters to your personal needs, discount park system, as well as discounts on affiliated services. Cathie Carr, the daughter of the founders, is the president of Escapees. She tells me that Rainbow Drive is the longest street in the USA with 32000 mailboxes. The fee to join Escapees is $60 per year with an enrollment fee of $10. S.P. offers an RV Park, deeded lots, and leased lots.

Unfortunately, Canadians have a difficult time trying to live full-time in their RV’s, as some Americans do. To be able to maintain their health insurance, Canadians must have a permanent address for at least six months in their home province. Canadian campground addresses do not constitute a permanent address. They cannot get a driver’s license or insurance on their RV or travel to the USA. When RV’ers cross the border into the USA, the immigration inspector normally asks where you live. If you answer, “in my RV”, they will ask you to turn around and return to Canada!

When we are on the road travelling across the country, we stay at many private campgrounds that offer overnight sites, and at national campground franchises like KOA. We have found KOAs to be some of the best managed campgrounds in the country. A few of the campgrounds in the chain are company owned, but individual owners and their families operate most of the KOA Campgrounds, and they cater to your enjoyment of the camping experience. They operate over 450 campgrounds with an instant on-line reservations system in big cities, small towns, and near many tourist attractions across the country.

The Happy Camper Club is a 50% discount club for RV’ers. Anne Pierson, the club president, tells us that as a member, you can stay at over 1,200 quality RV parks on a full hook-up site for half price; and unlike other memberships, it requires no contracts, no home parks, and no point systems. At just $49.95 per year, Happy Camper pays for itself on your first vacation.

Camp Club USA (a division of the Affinity Corp.) provides members with a discount off nightly rates at 1100 high quality campgrounds across the country. Another popular 50% discount club is Passport America, with 1500 campgrounds across the US, Canada, and Mexico. The club is currently participating in the Passport America Program, with new parks joining daily.

To belong to these clubs, you pay a yearly fee to receive a list of the campgrounds currently associated with the club. It is important to call ahead when using these services as the sites that these clubs reserve may be booked full on certain dates.

We know RV’ers who camp on US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) areas in the southwestern states. A yearly permit fee is charged and you must move your RV at least once a week so that you do not destroy the natural plants of the area. These are areas with literally no facilities. Water is available, but you cannot hook up to the tap permanently it is necessary for others to share the water. When staying at the BLM campsites a good set of batteries and a solar charging system is necessary for your RV.

There are many parks that sell memberships, often priced at $3000 or more, and this allows the RV’ers to use the facilities for a specified period of time.

Membership parks (often called resorts or preserves) began as exclusive chains of campgrounds. RV’ers can purchase memberships for as little as two years or a “Lifetime”. Usually, members are limited to two weeks in, and one week out in the peak rental periods. During the off-peak period, members can stay for three weeks, but they still have to leave for at least one week before returning. Most of these resorts have a reciprocal arrangement with other parks that the members can use. You buy a membership in a home park or preserve, and then pay a small amount extra for each night.

Previously, if you were a member of one park in the system, you could not stay in another one within a certain radius. Some members that we know from Ontario purchased a membership in Myrtle Beach South Carolina, and then were able to use space in parks close to their home. These parks offer a lifetime membership with a yearly maintenance fee. Typically, a park sells ten memberships for each site. When they have all been sold, the campground revenue is lower.

Ownership of the individual campgrounds is somewhat volatile, and the selection of campgrounds that are available to members tends to change throughout the term of the membership period. Friends of ours had to go to court when the owners of their campground in Florida declared bankruptcy. Some chains went out of business, or other campground chains bought them.

Many resorts have an upscale atmosphere with numerous amenities, such as: a member lodge/club house, convenience store, indoor/outdoor swimming pool and spa complex, beach and marina, boat launch facilities, fishing, golf courses, paid event coordinators, playground, horseshoes, basketball, miniature golf, ice skating, horse back riding, recreation rooms, member’s kitchen, restaurants, laundry facility, gated access, and much more! There really is too much to list!

Many memberships are offered for resale when members of the family cannot use the facilities any longer due to deteriorating health or the sale of their RV. Some of the membership campgrounds are operated by Thousand Trails, Western Horizon Resorts, NACO, Coast to Coast, Leisure Time Resorts, Holiday Trails Resorts, Parkbridge Lifestyle Properties, Killam Properties, and Resorts of Distinction.

Today, Thousand Trails offers premium outdoor destinations to more than 130,000 member families at over 80 preserves in 22 states and British Columbia. Properties are known as preserves because they strive to protect the nature and beauty of the natural environment. Members using the preserves bring their own recreational vehicles or campers to visit overnight. They may also book rental accommodations located at the campgrounds or just visit for the day. Thousand Trails is associated with membership campgrounds of Resort Parks International (R.I.) and Resorts of Distinction (ROD) groups. With more than 35 years of experience in family camping and recreation, the Thousand Trails staff and Equity Lifestyle Properties are committed to providing the highest quality private camping experience. Equity Lifestyle Properties also owns the Encore group of condo campgrounds where you purchase your site.

Since 1972, Coast to Coast Resorts has been the industry leader in bringing RV enthusiasts access to some of the finest “members-only” CampResorts in the country. In fact, Coast’s primary focus is to make it possible for people who purchase memberships at private CampResorts to maximize their destination and vacation choices. To fulfill this mission, Coast to Coast has created an internationally recognized network of hundreds of affiliated private CampResorts, enhanced with hundreds of Good Neighbor Parks/Best Parks in America, forming a network of beautiful properties where nearly any vacation experience can be found. Coast to Coast is a division of Affinity Corporation which is also is the parent company of Trailer Life, RV Business, Woodall’s Campground Management magazines and the Good Sam Club.

Western Horizon Resorts was founded in 1984 by Jim Loken and family, and was designed to provide RV’ers with an exceptional outdoor vacation experience. The parent company is NMC Holdings Inc., which also owns Coach-Net Emergency Road Service. Coach-Net provides road service to many RV’ers and automobile companies. Currently, the corporation operates 18 resorts, Vista Group RV Insurance and two affiliated camping networks: Sunbelt USA and Adventure Outdoor Resorts. Western Horizon is building a nationally branded company known for its superior RV resort properties and the widest array of services for camp/resort members in the industry. The Western Horizon system is located in eight states, with 3,000 RV sites and numerous rental trailers & cabins.

You must belong to a membership park that will offer, for an additional amount (usually less than $100 a year), the opportunity to join a “reciprocal” organization. For approximately $6 to $8 per night, members can stay in one of a network of membership parks throughout the country. Some of these parks that have a reciprocal agreement are Adventure Outdoor Resorts (AOR) and Adventure Camping Network (ACN) which has 162 resorts and 378 RV parks, and is affiliated with Sunbelt USA. They are owned by Western Horizon Resorts. Coast to Coast has more than 1000 resorts, and Resort Parks International (R.I.) has over 350 including some hotel resorts.

A number of companies resell memberships for the membership parks at reduced prices. Individuals often advertise their own re-sales. This can be a good deal, but check with the particular membership campground to see if they will honour the resale, and whether there is an additional processing fee. Check your contracts, Can you cancel? Can dues be raised? What happens if the park is sold or goes bankrupt?

Some of our friends have bought condo campsites at places like The Great Outdoors in Titusville, FL. They paid about $50,000 several years ago, but told us that the price has risen over the years. Their philosophy is that if they wanted to sell, they would make money on the deal. I hope the value has not dropped as a result of the recent real estate problems in the USA. It is not a membership RV park like other Florida RV resorts. Lifestyle choices range from RV sites to custom-built homes designed with RV’ers in mind. You may stay at our RV resort for one night, weeks, a month… or a lifetime! This is a major investment more suitable for RV’ers who want to stay up to six months in one place. Since the campsite is yours, you pay taxes and insurance on the lot, along with any upgrades to landscaping. When residents are not there with their RV, but travelling across the country, the company will rent out the site for them and share the income. Some condo type resorts limit RV’s to motorhomes only.

Outdoor Resorts’ locations were chosen for their natural beauty – often located in the midst of mountains, lakes, forests, and ocean views, yet designed exclusively for discriminating customers who appreciate an abundance of luxury amenities in a country club-like environment. Outdoor Resorts operates ten resorts in different areas of the country – Arkansas, California, Florida, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. RV’ers may rent or purchase a site. Founded in 1969, Outdoor Resorts is widely recognized as the foremost developer of luxury recreational vehicle resorts in the United States. Outdoor Resorts is not a membership or a timeshare organization.

Encore has some of the finest RV resorts and campgrounds in America. With over 100 resorts, they have locations close to your home and in great destination locations where you may wish to travel. Equity Lifestyle Properties, Inc. owns and operates the highest quality portfolio of resort communities in the United States and Canada. They have a controlling interest in over 300 quality resorts in 28 states and British Columbia with over 110,000 sites. Their goal is to create value for residents and investors by providing consistently high levels of services and amenities in attractive surroundings.

Whether you camp in a private or franchised campground, for the season or travel each day to a different area, become a member of a club or resort, lease or buy a site, there are many more years of enjoyment of the camping lifestyle in store for you. The choice is yours.

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