Thursday, August 9, 2007

Thursday Tips: Camping Reference Books

Every Thursday is tip day.

Updated 30 December 2009: Forest Service maps are now available online, so I've added the links into this post.

Reader Rick asked, “What do you use for reference material when you are planning your next stop?” I thought I would tackle this as my first Thursday Tips post. Warning! This is looooong.

As you may have figured out by now, we are Internet Junkies and Technology Nerds. We have mapping software, GPS, PDF files and websites galore. But we usually don’t decide where to stop for the night until about 3:00PM and while still driving. Until high speed, on the fly internet access is available even on dirt roads in Montana, there is no substitute for good old paper printed books. I have a whole shelf of them in the cockpit of Odyssey, and I use them every day to help us find the evening’s resting place.

I’ve included links below to buy your own copy of these books from, if they carry it. Their prices are pretty reasonable and the pages I’ve linked have a good description of each title. In addition, they carry a bunch of other RV titles, so you might try just browsing through them to see what grabs your attention. I’ve also seen many of these titles for sale in Camping World, at campgrounds, and on

Most of these references live in the bookcase in the cockpit:

Maps and Atlases

My single most important reference for finding good places to spend the night is my trusty AAA state map. While we use our Garmin GPS for much of our routing, having the whole state in front of me is great for planning purposes. I can see at a glance whether our route takes us through National Forests, past state parks, near lakes or river, and the names of upcoming towns big and small. Knowing what kind of terrain lies ahead helps me pick which book(s) I’ll need.

Rand McNally Motor Carriers' Road Atlas, published by Rand McNally

Not a camping book, but an important road reference. Sometimes called just The Trucker’s Atlas, this book contains a listing, by state and route number, of all the truck routes that have low clearances. On the map pages, the truck routes are clearly marked. In most states, many of the state and county roads are truck routes, so it is easy to stay off the interstates and yet be on a road that can handle a long, heavy, tall vehicle. I know of no reference that lists low clearances on NON truck routes, so if we venture onto really obscure roads, I have to keep a sharp lookout for low bridges.

We use this atlas primarily to plan routes east of the Mississippi River, where roads tend to be older and bridges lower.

You can order this book here or buy it at most truck stops.

(State) Atlas and Gazetteer, published by DeLorme

Individual atlases available for most western states. These are very detailed maps, with 1 inch equalling 4 miles. They cover an entire state, but aren’t cheap (about $20 each), so we buy them one at a time as needed. They are also huge (11” x 15.5”) and difficult to store. They show public lands, campgrounds, boat ramps, historic sites, ski areas, and lots of other fun stuff. More importantly, they show the minor roads and how (or if) they are paved. Excellent resource for figuring out what land is, say, BLM and which road might take us to a good boondocking spot near a creek or at the top of a hill.

You can order the Alaska version here, although they don’t seem to carry any other states. We bought ours all over the place: truck stops, book stores, gift shops.

FMCA's North American Road Atlas & Travel Guide

Also known as the WalMart atlas, this book looks like a standard Rand McNally-type atlas with extra symbols showing towns with WalMarts, Sam’s Clubs, Flying Js, Cracker Barrels, and campgrounds. It does not indicate whether overnight parking is allowed at any given WalMart or Sam’s club. Available only to FMCA members.

We have also seen a similar atlas sold at WalMart, but without the Flying J and Cracker Barrel symbols. It’s been a while since we last saw one of those, though, so I don’t know if it is still available. If is, then it could obviously be purchased by anyone.

(Every six months or so, I print out a list of “No Overnight Parking WalMart Stores” from this website and keep that in a folder for reference while driving.)

If you are an FMCA member, you can order this book here.

Individual National Forest Maps. Before we hit the road, I ordered as many of the Forest Service maps as I could. I was so excited about the prospect of full-timing, and I needed a project to keep me busy and pass the time. At the time, each map had to be ordered individually from a different Forest Service ranger office,so it was extremely time-consuming. There are hundreds of maps. In hindsight, it would have made more sense to buy them as we passed through each forest, but I'm glad I have them. They provide the most detail of forest roads, campgrounds, topography (often), geological features, and more.

Forest Service maps can now be purchased online, through two websites. One is the National Forest Store, and the other is the USGS Store. I haven't used either of these sites to purchase maps, but at a glance it appears that the National Forest Store has better prices.

These maps are wonderfully detailed, but be forewarned: they take up lots of space. I have one file drawer dedicated solely to them:

Campground Guides

Guide to Free Campgrounds, West, by Don Wright

Also, Guide to Free Campgrounds, East. This is the definitive book on cheap camping. While the title implies all the camping is free, many of the listings are for sites that charge around $5 per night. Organized alphabetically by state, there is a locator map at the beginning of the state listing. A glance at the map shows if there are any sites near our route and the numbered markers make it easy to look up those sites. Lists many good boondocking spots on public lands such as BLM, State and National Forests, wildlife management areas, Corps of Engineers sites, public access fishing, etc. Lists most of the designated campgrounds on public land with brief descriptions and directions. Also included are inexpensive private campgrounds, county and municipal campgrounds, and a few other oddball types.

You can order this book here.

Coleman National Forest Campground and Recreation Directory , published by Watershed Communications

Ooh, one of my favorites. This book lists every single developed campground in the National Forests and National Grasslands. There are over 4000! Organized by state and then by forest name, the locator maps are unfortunately pretty cheesy and small. In the larger forests you might have to wade through a number of irrelevant listings to find what you want. But Forest Service campgrounds are so inexpensive and lovely that it is worth it. Each listing gives elevation, price, amenities, dates when open, number of sites, a brief description such as “Fir and pine forest setting” and maximum spur length.

This last one is a rough idea of how long the campsites are and can give you a sense of whether your rig will fit. We’ve learned, however, that 22 feet is the default length, so when we see a 22 we know that no one bothered to ever update the information. Therefore, the sites might be that short, but usually are much longer. Anything over 30 feet will fit Odyssey because (1) there is almost always room to hang the back bumper over the end of the camp space, (2) there is usually a built in fudge factor for an extra car and we don’t tow a car so more length for the rig, and (3) there is almost always a few spaces that are longer than the listing.

We’ve stayed in dozens of National Forest service campgrounds and have always found at least one space that fit 39-foot Odyssey.

You can order this book here; also available at Camping World, REI, WalMart and others.

RV Camping in State Parks, by D.J. Davin

I use this book to check if that intriguing green rectangle on my map has camping suitable for our rig. Lists whether the sites have any hookups and for some (not all) states, lists any length restrictions.
You can order this book here.

National Park Service Camping Guide, by William C. Herow

Like the State Park guide, but for National Parks. Because there are fewer National Parks, each listing contains much more detail about both the park and the individual campgrounds. For instance, the park description often includes entrance fees, hours of operation, and detailed directions.

You can order this book here.

RVer's Guide to Corps of Engineers Campgrounds, by Jane Kenny

Like the State Park guide, but for Corps of Engineers facilities. COE facilities are almost always associated with rivers and lakes and obviously feature water activities. We like COE campgrounds because they are usually less crowded and better maintained. Unfortunately, there are only a few in each state. Each listing in this book contains quite a bit of detail about the area and the individual campgrounds. For instance, the description often includes local attractions, size of lake/shoreline, fishing information and good directions.

You can order this book here.

Bureau of Reclamation: Lakes Guide, published by Roundabout Publications

Similar to the Corps of Engineers camping guide. Covers western states only. I’ve never seen an eastern edition.

You can order this book here.

Woodall's North American Campground Directory, published by Woodalls Publishing Corp.

While we rarely stay in private commercial campgrounds, when we need one, this is how I find it. Woodall’s listings are fairly comprehensive, although really small parks are often not listed. Since the missing parks are the ones with really short spaces (usually), low trees (often), or run-down conditions (sometimes), we don’t mind the absence.

You can order this book here, although Camping World often has them on sale.

AAA Tour Books and Camp Books, published by AAA

Like AAA maps, you have to be a member of AAA to get the Tour Books and Camp Books. That’s the bad news. The good news is that they are free to members. The Tour Books list and rate hotels and restaurants and usually has a good description of local attractions, especially in larger cities or popular tourist areas. The Camp Books are campground listings, which I use to cross-reference Woodall’s. I like the AAA books because they often list elevation, they include public campgrounds more often, and I trust the AAA ratings more than Woodall’s.

We keep our AAA membership primarily for the great maps, the Camp Books and the Tour Books. (AAA does not offer a towing service for RVs or motorcycles, but will bring fuel if you run out. And since the membership is linked to a person rather than a vehicle, if one of us is going out to dinner in a friend’s car, AAA’s roadside service would be available for that car in an emergency. Pretty good stuff for about $70 a year.)

Boondocking/Dry Camping Guides

Casino Camping: Guide to RV-Friendly Casinos, by Jane Kenny

A state by state listing of many of the casinos that allow overnight RV parking. While not every casino is listed (we’ve found some additional ones at, this is a good reference. It lists details such as which parking lot is for RVs, whether there is an associated campground with hookups, how many restaurants are in the casino, and the size of the gaming facility. Since we don’t gamble, the last is only important to us in trying to determine the quality of the dining options (bigger casinos tend to have nicer restaurants.) We like casinos because they actively encourage Rvers to stay and often offer dining discounts or even a cash bonus.

You can order this book here.

Elkdom Travel Guides, published by the Carmichael Elks Lodge

State by state listings of Elks lodges that allow overnight RV parking. Available only to Elks members in good standing, this guide saved our bacon while traveling through Florida in high season. State, national and commercial parks were full and required reservations weeks in advance. Many of the tourist areas along the coast banned any sort of dry camping in WalMarts or other businesses. Having access to Elks lodges allowed us to continue to travel spontaneously. Plus, most lodges offer a free drink to visiting Elk, a welcome treat after fighting Florida traffic all day.

Day’s End Directory, by Guy Gipson

Available to Escapees members only. This great resource lists boondocking spots all over the country. They were submitted by members of the Escapees RV club and compiled by Mr. Gipson (formerly Bob Ed). Each entry lists the closest town, address or directions, a brief description (such as “Gravel parking lot” or “Quiet spot along river”), the name of the person who found it, and the latest date used. The date is useful for guessing whether the spot is still available. A site used 5 years ago near a fast-growing town may be a shopping center now.

Day’s End also lists “Good Guys,” local business where Escapees feel they were treated well. These include repair shops and chambers of commerce.

Update: Originally, Day's End was a printed publication. As of about 2009, the printing became too time consuming for the volunteers who compile the data, and it is now available only as a downloadable file from a special Yahoo group. You can print out sections as you need them, or refer to it strictly on your computer. I loved the old printed version, so I now take the file, convert it into a Word document, massage the font size and margins a bit, and have it printed and spiral bound at FedEX office. Last time I did this, it cost me about $15, well worth it for a good old-fashioned paper reference.

If you are a member of Escapees, you can order learn more about Day's End here.

Other references

Mountain Directory West, published by R&R Publishing

Also, Mountain Directory East. Like the Trucker’s Atlas, we use this book to give us some idea of what to expect from the road rather than to find a campsite. The Mountain Directories list high passes and steep grades on truck routes. Each listing gives details of how steep the grade is for how long; for instance, “The westbound descent is 8% for 1 mile, then 5% for another 3 miles, ending with a stop sign at the bottom of the hill.” Also listed are the elevation at the summit, any runaway truck ramps, separate truck lanes, and whether the grade is full of tight curves. If you’re a nervous driver, this book will either scare you to death or give you peace of mind as you avoid the really steep roads.

You can order this book here.

The Rver’s Friend, published by TR Information Publishers
This book lists all the truck stops in the US and Canada and is useful for finding diesel fuel. Each listing shows whether RVs are welcome to stay overnight, and if propane or a dump station are available on site. In the back are appendices listing state parks and rest areas with dump stations. While I rarely use it to choose an overnight stop, it is great to have on hand.

You can order this book here, or look for it at truck stops.

Road Trip USA: Cross-Country Adventures on America’s Two-Lane Highways, by Jamie Jensen

This book describes 11 routes, ranging from following the entire length of Route 66 to US 83: The Road to Nowhere. Along each trip, it gives funny, detailed descriptions of the towns and sights to see. While we have never followed a route from beginning to end, we overlap them often enough to pull this book out and read the listings. If an upcoming town sounds interesting enough, we just might decide to stop for the night. If nothing else, it is often good for a laugh.

You can order this book here.

Adventures on America's Public Lands, published by The Smithsonian Institute

This gorgeous book lists by state some of the most outstanding, yet little-known, areas administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). A glance at the locator map shows whether we are near one of the sites, and the detailed listing tells us whether there is camping available. We’ve used this book to find hard-to-locate petroglyphs and to learn about lighthouses and wild horse herds. Access to such a wide variety of public lands is a cherished right of Americans and this book is an inspiration.

You can order this book here.

Eat Your Way Across the USA, by Jane and Michael Stern

A guide to good food in not-fancy places. We like to try the local food (our addiction to Olive Garden notwithstanding) and try to find the kind of Mom and Pop restaurants this book specializes in. We’re pretty good at finding them ourselves, but this book is fun to browse through and we’ve used it about a dozen times to find dinner.

You can order this book here.

There, now you have a list of our most commonly used reference books for camping. I hope someone finds this useful.


  1. Holy Mackerel! What a terrific posting. You've answered a question I was just about to ask. Kudos. -- Jon

  2. Thank you very much. We have had our bus for 7 years now, and am finially going on our first trip that will last more than a week-end to 10 days. We have followed you guys since the days of your shell in Bob's barn up on lake taps. We will put this information to good use very soon.
    Rick Johnson

  3. Splendid post. You have listed a couple that I didn't know about. Sadly, we haven't quite found room for a camping library.

    I looked through the old coleman forestry book and would absolutely love to get my hands on a copy. It is my understanding that the new version doesn't include GPS coordinates. I know that the discontinued one does.

    Unfortunatly, the corps of engineers have raised the prices at most of their campgrounds. It is pretty hard to find any that are low enough to put on my site ( anymore.

    Next time you travel through Texas, stop at the visitors center and look for the free flyer type book of public campgrounds. It has a bunch of free/cheap campgrounds listed in it with contact information. We picked one up while there, but I haven't had a chance to add them all to my site yet.

  4. Ahhhh, wonderful post. Thank you.

    We have a 26 foot Class C, but will probably be towing motorcycles.

    Yes, you can still get the Wal-Mart Rand McNally atlas. However, they don't seem ubiquitous and I actually prefer the larger, non-Wal-Mart version.


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