Saturday, November 9, 2013

Camping in the USA and Canada

On the various forums both the Canadians and Americans will vigorously argue that camping with a tent in their country is very common. It's not. Not by European or Australian standards anyway. Camping in Northern America means you come rocking-up with a massive RV, park it on a gravel patch and hookup everything from power to the sewerage hose. Sure you can put your tent on the same gravel patch, so in theory you can camp everywhere an RV can. Or can you?

Pitching a tent on gravel is not a good idea, especially the sharp gravel variety. Good quality tents are expensive and having to put them on gravel just because the owner of the campsite can't be bothered to maintain his or her grass is a rather arrogant approach on the campsite owner's part. He wants you to pay for a tent spot after all so you may in return expect a spot that is suitable for a tent. Gravel is sharp and damages the floor of your tent and thus can not been seen as a suitable tent spot. A campsite owner I spoke to said that we have to take an extra groundsheet with us, when I politely asked him to explain why I would have to take an extra groundsheet because he can't be bothered to create a suitable spot he shrugged and left. So did we.
Quite a few RV parks and camping grounds in northern America are in fact not campgrounds at all but gravel parking lots. They are not setup for camping in a tent, have no grass to pitch a tent, have no table, no place to do your dishes etc. Some don't even have toilets or showers and are purely setup for the typical massively oversized US style RV. Maybe it's me but 'camping' in massive vehicles and trailers with names like 'Travel light', 'Adventure' or 'Fox' makes me laugh and cry at the same time. It's pathetic to give something that's huge and heavy a name suggesting it's light or agile.

Alternatives to RV park campgrounds
There are luckily quite a few State and National Parks where you can camp. The State Parks are usually quite good. Most of them still require you pitch your tent on gravel but it's mostly not the sharp variety. State Parks range from simple basic spots to fully equipped with showers. Some even have power.
We found the National Parks in the USA completely useless for camping, unless you belong to the boring variety of humanoids that leave no room for the unexpected and plan everything in detail and then book each and every campspot months in advance. National Parks like Arches for instance requires you to book 8 weeks in advance, even in the off-season. During the 5 months we were in the USA and Canada we have been able to find 2 spots in a National Park in the USA, and in both cases because someone who had booked unexpectedly left. For the rest we heard the same thing over and over: Fully booked, call the 1-800 number… I don't have a cell phone, 1-800 numbers don't work when overseas and I don't know where I am in 8 weeks time.

Legally you can camp on BLM land, which stands for Bureau of Land Management. Some have designated campsites, with pit toilets and sometimes water, others require you to be fully self sufficient… In a tent that can be a bit problematic. I have yet to see a motorcyclist that carries a PortaLoo on a bike… although I wonder sometimes what's in those big trailers that Harley Davidson owners drag all over the place… We have been told that you can dig a hole on BLM land and simply dunk your recycled spaghetti in there… 

Kampgrounds of America are found in quite a few bigger towns. For some reason they tend to be near highways and railway shunting yards or both. Most of them are also mainly setup for RVs. Some have small tent areas, just big enough for midget-tents, made from gravel or sand. Sand is nice stuff too; it get's in everywhere including zippers, and when it gets wet it becomes sticky mud… 
KOA usually offers WiFi internet as well, sometimes free. Don't expect much from the Wifi though; it's very unreliable and slow to the point of dropping out completely. Starbucks is a much better option for free Wifi, and they have good coffee and hot chocolate too.

Campgrounds worth mentioning:

All the State Parks in the Yukon Canada
They are modestly priced, supply free firewood and are generally good spots for tenting. After the rocky rubbish we found in British Columbia, the Yukon was a pleasant surprise. We stayed on the one just west of Whitehorse for a few days. Next to a river and a beauty of a spot. Quite a few state parks in Canada and the USA should have a look at what the Yukon Government has done to make visitors feel welcome! The only thing we missed there is a shower. Pit toilets and water.

DeHart Ranch
The owner is a 70+ year old lady who runs the place by herself. Don't be fooled though, she's quite capable of looking after herself! She has to be as she survived quite a few Alaskan winters by herself too. She has camp spots for tents and the toilets and bathroom… yes: a bathroom(!), are nothing short of spectacular. They wouldn't be out of place in a 5-star hotel. There is free Wifi, which is quite fast too. Flush toilets, showers, water.

State park just past the Worthington Glacier, Alaska
Mostly because of the location, which is superb! We camped next to a frozen lake and surrounded by snow! Pit toilets and water.

Valdez statepark
Just outside Valdez on airport road. It's well past the airport and close to a glacier. A state park with showers in a beautiful setting and only a short drive from Valdez. Bald Eagles are nesting in the park as a bonus. Flush toilets, showers and water.

Sven's basecamp in Fairbanks
Not strictly a campsite but a hostel with camping option. He's not cheap but the atmosphere he creates plus a very good kitchen makes him a good one in my book. Ask if you can camp on the Volleyball field! Flush toilets, water, showers and kitchen.

Thompson's Bearclaw Motorcycle campground, Tok, Alaska
The weirdest campground I've ever been on. The lady who runs it loves motorcycles… well she loves Harley's but we won't hold that against her. It's a small campground but she won't turn you away when it's full, she'll simply create more spaces! You are allowed to work on your bike there, there is even a workshop you can use free of charge. The toilet is a simple wooden affair, made from planks with gaps big enough to see through. The doors close with the aid of an old cast iron frying pan… If you like camping in luxury and expect running water, go elsewhere. If you're up for rustic and amazement, do go there! Pit toilets and water (from jerry cans).

Statepark North of Dawson City
Along the mighty Yukon River, on the top of the world highway. Magic spot, views of the Yukon River. Pit toilets and water.

Whistler Campground, Jasper National Park
It's a National Park campground, but it's a Canadian National Park… which means it's not fully booked. It's also a massive campsite with something like 700 places, but as they split it up with lots of 'loops' it feels like lots of small campgrounds. They do have showers, which are included in the price, but whether they do or don't have hot water depends on the time of day and the number of people that went before you. Be aware that on long weekends the whole campground becomes bookable and might thus be booked-out. Flush toilets, showers, water.

The most north-eastern campground at Yellowstone National Park
Forget the central campgrounds in Yellowstone. They are overcrowded with noisy people, waaay overpriced for what they are and then try to charge you extra for showers as well. The little campground at the north-east entry of the park is where you want to be. There is a big herd of Bizons there that roam the campground and the scenery just out of the campground is amazing. Pit toilets and water.

Capitol Reef National Park
We could only stay there 2 nights as National Parks decided to close it when the Government shutdown hit. It's a beautiful spot, modestly priced, flush toilets and the area is stunning. As far as I'm aware it's not bookable, which means you can be lucky and find a spot (as we did). Flush toilets and water.

Corel Pink Sand Dunes
State park. Beautifully laid out. If you like motorbikes, 4-wheelers and anything else you can race through sand then this is a good place to be. We arrived there when every spot was taken but the managers didn't turn anyone away and went out of their way to create a spot for you. Flush toilets, showers and water.

Azalea campground, Kings Canyon National Park
Quite a different feel than the other National Parks, much friendlier. Don't be fooled by the map showing you there is petrol for sale there though, there isn't! Nice campground, lots of room and modestly priced. Flush toilets and water.

Potwisha campground, Sequoia National Park
Same feel as Kings Canyon. Friendly people and very service orientated. The rangers working there should train the rest of USA National Parks. Lovely campspot with lots of individual places. Hundreds of ground squirrels to entertain you. Modestly priced, flush toilets, good bakery nearby! Flush toilets and water.

The rest of the campgrounds we visited, or looked at and left, are hardly worth mentioning. After being on the road for so long and having visited some quite remote places, plus having lived in the Australian Outback for years, we are not fussy. We have no problem with pit or vault toilets, hand pumps for water and/or basic campgrounds. We have no problem with wild camping either. Unfortunately quite a few campgrounds in the US and British Columbia were disgusting. We've had an RV resort with showers so incredibly dirty that we decided to give them a miss. Seen toilets that hadn't been cleaned for year-ever. Rubbish bins and skips so overfull that rats were living in them; and had been for so long that they had started setting up a veggie garden.