Beginners Guide to State Park Camping in Your State

Last Updated on January 27, 2021 by Jody

State park camping is a great hassle-free way to spend time outdoors. State parks have scenic campsites suitable for both those experienced with national park camping and people trying glamping for the first time.

Chances are, no matter where you live, there’s a state park nearby. There are well over 10,000 state parks in the United States!

Plan Your Camping Trip with a Reservation

Yurts in Pammel State Park, Winterset, Iowa
Try yurt camping at Pammel Park near Winterset, Iowa
Read our review of Pammel State Park!

Reservation? For a campground? It’s true, not just hotels require reservations.

Contact the state park via their online reservation system, or by phone to their reservation call center. You’ll pay a reservation fee which varies based on the site’s type and the time of year.

Be sure to mention if you require specific services or amenities. Since some state parks are better suited for persons with disabilities, specify when you call if you need wheelchair accessibility for your campsite.

TIP: The National Association of State Park Directors has a site to help you search for the perfect park for your trip. During summer, campground reservations fill up fast. At very popular state parks you can reserve campsites up to a year in advance. The earlier you plan your arrival date, the more options you’ll have.

camping_Peninsula State Park_Door County_Wisconsin
Lakeside camping at Peninsula State Park in Door County, Wisconsin
Get Door County travel tips here!

Most state parks have four kinds of campsites:

  • Drive-up: For car camping. Some of these have electrical hookups and most will have basic amenities like a fire ring and picnic table.
  • RV: With hookups for electricity and possibly water and dump stations.
  • Cabins and yurts: For glamping. These are usually equipped with electricity and some may have plumbing. 
  • Wilderness sites: For backcountry camping, without amenities.

Plus, many state parks offer special accommodations for group camping trips. From vacation lodges to extra large campsites for multiple tents. They’re perfect for groups of friends, family trips, and even work groups. They sometimes come with toilet facilities along with the extra-large site.

group of people around campfire_Gull Point State Park_Milford_Iowa
Group camping at Gull Point State Park in Milford, IA.
Visit Okoboji, Iowa and camp at Gull Point State Park & Beach!

No matter the site you choose, it’s important to prepare for first aid while outdoors. You won’t have immediate access to your medicine cabinet and pharmacy. Review our safety tips, and pack a well-stocked up-to-date first aid kit.

Planning Your State Park Camping Trip

Palo Duro Canyon State Park. Photo by Jody Halsted, Halsted Enterprises, Inc.
Palo Duro Canyon is the second largest canyon in the US.
RV, tent & backcountry camping are available in this state park near Amarillo, TX.

There are a few planning steps you can’t skip, no matter how last-minute the trip. For example, buying the best tent for your needs. Good outdoor equipment is vital for successful camping. With a little research, you won’t have to spend a fortune for the right tools for comfortable cooking, sleeping, and recreation.

These are our must-pack items for any camping trip:

  • Tent: If you don’t yet own a tent, consider borrowing from friends and family to test-drive different features. It’s worth spending money on a high quality tent, but you don’t want to overpay for features you don’t need, or might dislike.
  • Rain gear and layers: No matter the weather forecast, always bring rain gear including raincoats and a rainfly for the tent. Nights outdoors may be colder than you expect. Bring thick socks and a beanie for sleeping, and a puffer coat packs small. 
  • Sleeping pads and sleeping bags: When you’re active outdoors all day, getting high-quality rest is essential. Comfort is even more important when you’re exhausted. A good sleeping pad and bag are must-haves for getting good sleep.
  • Lighting: Don’t rely on your cell phone flashlight while camping. Handheld flashlights are great, but headlamps and lanterns provide more light without occupying your hands. Imagine searching for the bathroom in the dark, wouldn’t it be a lot easier if you didn’t have to hold a flashlight at the same time? 
  • First aid: You will be away from your medicine cabinet, and the first aid kit is one thing you can’t forget. There are plenty of situations where a first aid kid is the difference between ending the camping trip early or not. Prepare your kit for bug bites, sunburns, sprains, nausea, heartburn, and shock.

See the 8 Items You Should Always Take Camping!

Also, take a moment to review our article on proper campground etiquette. How to be a good neighbor in the state parks may not be intuitive, and these tips can help you have a stress-free stay and maybe make a few new friends.  

  • Respect other campsites: don’t let kids or dogs run into other sites. Don’t cut through someone else’s site to get to a trail or the bathroom.
  • Observe quiet hours: most sites have posted quiet hours from 10pm to 6am. Keep noise levels low for early risers.
  • Curb your dog: keep pets leashed, clean up after them, and don’t leave them unattended.
  • Turn off lights: Whether you’re in an RV or tent, turn off awning lights and lanterns at night. People camp to experience nature and see the sky without noise pollution.

While camping, as in life, follow the golden rule of treating others as you want to be treated.

campsite_Dinosaur Valley State Park_Glen Rose_Texas
RV campsite at Dinosaur Valley State Park in Texas

Last Minute State Park Camping Tips

Don’t panic if you’re without an existing reservation and want to camp for the weekend. Many state parks set aside walk-up campsites for just such occasions and don’t take reservations at all during the off-season.

You might be wondering…

What are ‘walk up only’ campsites?

These are campsites held back from reservations and designated as first come-first serve. By arriving at the state park early you have the first pick of sites set aside for last-minute campers. However, make a reservation if you’re able, so you’re not left without a place to pitch your tent.

State wilderness areas are similar to state parks, but have less regulation and may have fewer amenities. They allow hunting, but still prohibit motorized vehicles, and logging and mining.

The campsites at wilderness areas are always walk-up, so if you can’t get a reservation at your preferred state park, consider a wilderness area instead. It’s risky since there’s no guarantee of a site, but it is an option for those weekends when you have to see the big night sky.  

Also try lesser-known and smaller state parks rather than the most popular and favorite sites. The point of camping is spending time with your companions and enjoying nature, and every state park has something valuable to offer. Do a little extra research, or contact your state park department and ask for tips to find a campsite for the weekend.

Have you ever scored a great last-minute campsite? Tell us about your best state park experience in the comments.

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Thanks to Our Guest Author

Ryan Cunningham is a passionate camper and publisher of Beyond the Tent, a website dedicated to encouraging people to get outdoors! Ryan, his wife Kelly, and their 7 children love loading into their camper and visiting Minnesota State Parks!

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