Public or Private Campgrounds: How to choose the right RV campground for you

When making RV campground reservations, you might be surprised by the number of choices you have to consider. There’s location, of course, but you likely also want to balance that with cost, site options and amenities. Understanding the differences between private and public campgrounds, like those operated by county, state or federal governments can help to narrow down your search, too.

What’s the difference between private and public campgrounds?

Private campgrounds are operated by independent hosts. They can be owned by local residents who live on site or by private businesses, like KOA or Jellystone RV parks. They typically have a number of RV camping options available including sites with full hookups.

State and national campgrounds (also known as public campgrounds) are owned by the governments and operated by state and federal employees. These campgrounds are typically located within designated parks and forests. Most offer an array of choices from RV campsites to rustic and backcountry camping opportunities.

A Class C RV is parked on a campsite at Desert View Campground within Grand Canyon National Park. This site features paved road and campsite pad.
A Class C RV parked on a public campsite at Grand Canyon Desert View Campground.
Photo courtesy of the National Park Service (NPS).

How to choose an RV campsite for your next trip

Both private and public RV campgrounds provide amazing experiences for campers. We are not ranking them here, but rather pointing out some of the basic differences and offering a few tips that can aid you in your quest for a campsite that’s just right for your family.

Location, location, location

There are many national parks in the United States. The vast majority of them are established around natural features specific to that region of the country. 

The purpose of these taxpayer-funded properties is often to preserve natural aspects of the environment. They also provide places for people to enjoy outdoor recreational activities like kayaking, canoeing, birdwatching, hiking and more.

It’s these scenic views, national monuments and natural landmarks that appeal to many families. After all, it’s pretty fabulous to wake up to sunrise on the beach in your camper or have a picnic in the mountains.

Public campgrounds also tend to take advantage of natural attributes, so campsites may be more spacious or be separated by trees for greater privacy.

Twelvemile Beach Campground site 16 - showing a small RV and two tents on camp pad. Two red anti-gravity chairs sit next to a fire pit on the campsite.
An RV campsite at the PICTURED ROCKS NATIONAL LAKESHORE, a public campground. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service (NPS).

With that said, private campgrounds may be a better option if you are new to RVing or have a larger RV, like a fifth wheel or motorhome. Private campgrounds are more likely to accommodate bigger vehicles and many have pull-through space for easier parking.

Private campgrounds are also incredibly convenient because for the most part they are situated off major highways that provide easy on/off access. Often, they are close to spots that are popular with tourists, too. They are good choices if you are looking for a convenient place to stay in a more populated area, like near an amusement park, concert venue or sports stadium.

Just because they are likely closer to cities and highways doesn’t mean private campgrounds aren’t beautiful. Many feature mature trees, pristine swimming areas and wooded trails. So you’ll still feel like you are far away from civilization.

A Class A RV travels on a road lined with palm trees against a city skyscape in the background.

Consider your camping style

Public campgrounds offer lots of outdoor recreation opportunities so you can get out and about in nature.

If your family enjoys hiking and observing nature, public campgrounds are a good bet. Since most publicly owned parks and campgrounds are interested in preserving these natural resources for future generations, they have invested in paths, boardwalks, boat launches and fishing piers. These allow campers to get as close to nature as possible without disturbing wetlands, sensitive plants and animal habitats.

Because they are funded with tax dollars, public campgrounds also focus on making camping an accessible activity for all. Public campgrounds feature paved paths, ramps, and more so who use wheelchairs or or require other accommodations can enjoy the sights and sounds of nature, too.

Public campgrounds are also likely to have a swimming area or beach for campers as well as organized recreation activities and events. This is great for families looking for a more traditional camping experience filled with hiking, biking, swimming, kayaking and chatting around the campfire.

Bright yellow and blue kayaks sit on the sand at Water Canyon Beach.
Beachcombing, birdwatching, swimming, snorkeling, fishing, windsurfing, and kayaking are all popular activities at Water Canyon Beach located within CHANNEL ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service (NPS).

If you the comforts of home are a priority, check out private RV campgrounds with plenty of amenities.

Amenities are an area where many private RV campgrounds excel. While they vary from campground to campground, you can often count on a private campground to have laundry facilities as well as an on-site convenience store stocked with camp necessities, treats for the kids and basic food items.

If you want everybody to unplug and spend quality time together, look for private campgrounds with family-friendly amenities like a mini golf course, pool, playground, recreation room or arcade. Some even have a splash pad or waterpark on site. Adults will appreciate a hot tub to soak in after driving and touring all day. Some of these are also good indoor activities in case your outdoor activities get canceled by rain.

Making your public or private RV campground reservations

Multiple RVs and vehicles are parked at the Willow Beach RV Park and campground. The campground is situated in the heart of this striking landscape of mountains and valleys.
Willow Beach RV Park and campground at the LAKE MEAD NATIONAL RECREATION AREA. Photo credit: Lake Mead National Recreation Area – Andrew Cattoir.

Face it, we’ve all been up late after the kids have gone to bed searching for the perfect RV campground. When you find the right one, you want to commit – right then.

While many public and private campgrounds have an online reservation system that is open 24/7, keep in mind that some, especially those in more remote areas, require you to call to make a reservation. That can be disappointing when you’ve found a great spot and discover you have to wait until morning to see if it is available for the dates you need. Also, you should know that some campgrounds don’t offer any reservations. They operate on a first come, first served self-registration basis.

If you are looking for a longer stay, private campgrounds may be the way to go. They tend to be more flexible with weekly or monthly reservations; some even allow you to set up a home away from home for the entire summer.

More tips for choosing a public or private campground for your family

Four friends relax around a campsite where two small RVs are parked in the background.
  • Start your search as soon as possible. This is especially important if you are traveling during a holiday like the Fourth of July. Popular campgrounds will fill up several months in advance on summer weekends, so as soon as you know your travel dates, make reservations. It also helps to be flexible with your travel dates.
  • Read reviews. These can offer valuable insight into other people’s experiences at the private or public campground you are considering.
  • Check out the campground’s website. Many post photos so you can get a good idea about what to expect when it comes to sites and the surrounding area. Websites are also ideal places to find out basic information such as pricing, rules for camping with pets, and cancellation policies.
  • Have a backup plan. Despite your best efforts, things happen. If the campground loses your reservation, you end up arriving late or your sunny weekend turns into three rainy days, plan a couple of alternatives.

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