The Best Camping Apps You Need to Make Your 2022 Road Trip Perfect
One of the top questions women new to van life ask me is, “How do I find safe places to camp?” I hear you. When I first hit the road, I was pretty clueless – and pretty nervous. That’s normal. But now, with multiple trips and 32 states under my belt, I’m 100% confident I’ll always have a safe place to overnight – especially with these 5 five apps on my phone.
How I combine camping types
My trips typically combine camping styles: boondocking (dry camping without hookups or amenities), mooch docking (staying in friends’ and family’s driveways), membership programs, established campgrounds in state and national parks, and off-grid spots in wilderness areas.
For example, when I want a “real” shower, I use my apps to find and make reservations at State Park campgrounds. Otherwise, I mostly dry camped on federal land or used my membership programs to stay at farms or homes. This variety created a mosaic of experiences that left me with unforgettable memories.
Also, I’m a part-time van lifer and mostly avoid overnighting in cities unless I’m mooch docking. While retired, I still pick up some part-time work so, like most of you out there, I usually want cell service. Established campgrounds and membership program hosts are more likely to have cell coverage than remote boondocking spots.
Finding the ideal scenic spots to land
This past summer, when I headed out on a multi-month trip, my plan initially was mostly boondocking on federal land.
But the best-laid plans often go awry.
A couple of weeks into my trip, I had a medical emergency that required multiple ER visits (fortunately, this happened when I was mooch docking at a friend’s in Idaho). When I got the all-clear and hit the road again, I felt much more comfortable staying places with people nearby (but not too close), just in case I had another emergency. Fortunately, I didn’t, but proximity to people eased my mind.
It’s crucial, especially as an older solo camper, to stay flexible and pick your camping style to match your needs. So as my plans changed, I chose more established sites to camp. If I boondocked, it was in places with cell service and not too far from a town. Finding perfect spots is, for sure, a lot easier with the help of these apps.
and now — The Five Best Apps
Best Camping App #1 – Ultimate Campgrounds
Ultimate CG is one of the oldest camping apps out there and deserves top billing on a list of the best camping apps. It covers more than 42,000 public campgrounds in the US and Canada with both Android and iOS versions available. The Android version combines both the US and Canadian sites, while iOS has separate US and Canadian versions. There’s also an app with military sites, in case you’re current or ex-US military.
The app costs $3.99 (plus $1.99 for the Canadian iOS app), which is a bargain for what you get. The military add-on is free.
Ultimate CG makes it easy to browse a map and zero in on the area you want to camp. Either enter a location by name or zip or just scroll around and zoom in. The photos below show screenshots of the app’s map search feature. I’m showing the area where I stayed last June as I traveled through Wyoming and Montana. I wanted to be close to the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Preserve, so first I looked at an overview level showing the nearby Bighorn National Recreation Area. The app color-codes campsites by type; the screenshot shows the State Park, National Park Service, Forest Service, and BLM spots to choose from in this area.
Ultimate Campgrounds Example
I zeroed in on a National Park Service-managed campground, Barry’s Landing. Tapping on the little box brings up a short description, and tapping on the “i” takes you to more detailed information. Just follow the supplied links directly to reservation sites.
Barry’s Landing and the Bighorn NRA is one of my favorite places for camping, hiking, and wildlife viewing, by far. It’s a bit off the beaten path which makes it even more special. I’ll return to this spot as often as I can.
Click here to read more about my trip through Wyoming and this bit of Montana, including my stay at Barry’s Landing.
Ultimate Campgrounds has limited offline capability within the iOS version (none with the Android version), but it requires downloading map regions ahead of time – so get this done before you’re out of cell range. Beware, though, that you’ll still need cell coverage to follow links to photos and reservation sites. Stop at a nearby town and sort out your destination options before you lose coverage. Or, in a pinch, look for a ranger station as they often have a wifi signal you can borrow for a bit.
Best Camping App #2 – Recreation.gov
Recreation.gov is a beautiful app. Just browsing through the photos is fun- they’re gorgeous. It’s also the app you’ll need to get entry tickets and reservations at National Parks. So it’s an essential app if this is part of your journey.
Unlike Ultimate Camprounds; however, Recreation.gov uses a search tool instead of a map, so you’ll need to enter a more specific destination (National Park, Recreation Area, etc.). The image below shows what comes up when entering Bighorn Canyon. The app actually takes you to the Bighorn Mountains, not Bighorn Canyon, and the top link a the very nice Porcupine Campground, where I stayed following my time at Barry’s Landing.
Unfortunately, the app does not show any of the campgrounds in Bighorn Canyon. The second photo below shows a comparable map view of the identical region shown above for Ultimate Campground.
While Recreation.gov covers over 4,200 facilities and activities (i.e., rafting, canoeing, hiking), it is NOT at all as comprehensive as Ultimate Campgrounds.
The app is, though, straightforward to use (if you have internet connectivity), and it’s only a few taps to get to sites taking reservations.
While I love this app, I always go to Ultimate Campgrounds first. If I want more detail about local activities, images, or reservations, I’ll supplement with Recreation.gov.
Best Camping App # 3 – Harvest Hosts/Boondockers Welcome
Harvest Hosts (HH) and Boondockers Welcome (BW) are membership programs. This means you pay an annual fee to get access to the campsites offered. HH’s annual membership, at the time I wrote this, is $99.00 (more if you want access to the add-on golf club sites); BW’s membership costs $50.00/year.
Boondockers used to be an independent program, but in 2021 Harvest Hosts acquired them. If you have memberships to both, the BW sites will show up on HH’s app.
Think of Boondockers Welcome as mooch docking at a stranger’s home. BW has about 2,900 hosts across the US and Canada, allowing members to stay for 1-3 nights. Many hosts (~70%) offer electric and water hookups and can often accommodate larger RV’s. If you use electricity or water, some hosts may ask for a nominal payment. Each host lists the details of their site.
I never had a bad experience with Bonndockers Welcome and met some wonderful people along the way. Many hosts gave suggestions for good hikes nearby as well as other things to do and places to visit. Occasionally hosts even gifted me their eggs or garden bounty. As a solo traveler, meeting new people along the way keeps your journey alive and vibrant; and Boondocker’s makes it easy to meet people.
If you can serve as a host (not required to be a member), you receive a discounted membership.
BW is an especially good program for finding spots to stay in or near cities. You can get an idea of their range by clicking here to see the host map. The apps cover both the USA and Canada.
Harvest Hosts, in contrast to Boondockers, is a consortium of commercial enterprises that allow RV/Van guests to stay overnight on their property. Hosts include vineyards, breweries, farms, museums, restaurants, and more.
As with Bonndockers Welcome, I never had a poor experience with Harvest Hosts. By far my favorite spots to stay were farms. The vineyards and other locations were cool, but I LOVED the farms. Every single one had gorgeous, private places to set up, and also delicious one-of-a-kind farm products to sell. HH’s asks that you try and purchase about $20.00 worth of products from your host’s business, which is super easy on a farm.
Above, is a photo showing where I camped at a community farm near Little Rock, Arkansas. There are not a lot of boondocking spots around here (or anywhere east of the Mississippi River), and campgrounds were not conveniently located for my plans to do some city exploring. Harvest Hosts came to my rescue and helped me find a perfect spot. Not only did I have a bucolic setting where I could walk around and explore gardens and say hi to curious sheep and cattle, but I also had safe, off-street parking where I could keep my doors open – cuz trust me, in Little Rock in summer you want a breeze.
Farms are fantastic places to stay
Last summer I stayed on ranches, dairy farms, maple farms, nonprofit community farms, small heirloom farms, eco-farms, and even an emu ranch. The hosts were wonderful, often gave tours, and had delectable products to sell. I bought almost all my produce and most of my meat and eggs from HH farms. Seriously – look at the provisions I stocked up on in Arkansas!
Click this button for a 15% discount on a Harvest Host membership.
I strongly suggest getting these memberships if you’re traveling east of the Mississippi River, where federal land boondocking spots are rare. Plus, there are often hosts in city and suburban areas, making this a good option if you’re traveling through a densely populated area. Basically, it’s a fantastic program no matter where you are in the USA or Canada.
Both programs; however, require that your van be self-contained, as they define:
“Your RV must have an interior toilet and built-in holding tanks or bladders for wastewater. Porta-potties that remain inside the vehicle at all times are acceptable but must be dumped off-site at an appropriate facility. The dumping of gray water on Host properties is prohibited.”
Unfortunately, these programs do not allow tent camping, minivans, cars, or pick-up trucks.
Best Camping App # 4 – iOverlander
iOverlander is an entirely free, crowdsourced app used to locate spots to park overnight. It has a global reach – check the website to see the countries.
If you prefer stealth and other off-grid camping, particularly not on federal land where Ultimate Campgrounds works, this is the app you need. The app is easy to use, either by putting in a location or using the map to search for spots. I’ve found many lovely sites using the app.
iOverlander came to my rescue on my first night in my van; back when I was driving it home from the builder, it led me to a spot along the Pacific Coast Highway with an ocean view. Legit sites can be hard to find along this stretch, so the app is worth it for sure.
The downside of iOverlander
The risk with iOverlander, though, is the number of posted sites that once worked but are now closed or have new “no overnight parking.”. So it’s important (IMO) to have a backup plan. That said, it will be the best source for free boondocking spots in many areas.
Below is a screenshot of the same region as shown above for Ultimate Campgrounds. Barry’s Landing shows up as a little tent at the top of the map. Other markers with moons are places where iOverlander users had successful overnight stays. This app is by far the most comprehensive for finding boondocking spots.
That said, it seems to me like recent contributions are fewer compared to a couple of years ago. I think as boondocking and vanlife have gained popularity people are less inclined to share their favorite finds. Also, more and more boondocking sites are having issues with campers leaving trash and excrement behind leading to others not sharing where they’ve been.
If you boondock somewhere – clean up after yourself. Don’t leave a single thing behind – ever! Please don’t ruin it for the rest of us.
It also seems that many sights are just no longer open to overnight parking. Again, as van life has become more popular, some communities are cracking down on where you can overnight. Still, iOverlander is an essential resource if you are looking for free spots to overnight.
Eaxample – iOverlander in Mission Bay San Diego
Here’s an iOverlander example of a popular, urban area to visit – along the Pacific Coast in San Diego. The screenshot shows the Mission Bay neighborhood. It looks like there are lots of spots, yes? But not when you click for more information. Many, on close inspection, are listed as “closed.” So be aware.
If you end up stuck in a city with no place to stay, try the Vanly app. I haven’t used this app yet, so I can’t speak from personal experience, but I would try it in a pinch. For example, there are six listings for San Diego, where homeowners will provide off-street overnight parking for a nominal cost (~$25.00). Think of it as Airbnb for vans in an emergency.
Especially for women (even if you’re car or tent camping)
Best Camping App #5 – Road Trip Her
Road Trip Her is not an app, per se, but every solo woman camper/van lifer/RVer needs to know about it.
It’s a private Facebook group open only to female-identifying persons. All road trip fans are welcome here. Hosts allow cars, pickup trucks, SUVs, minivans, campers, etc…
Once moderators approve your membership request you’ll get free access to a community map board showing host sites. Just contact a host and request a stay. Members can also find meet-ups with other like-minded women, and use the forum to ask questions about routes and destinations. Of course, you can also volunteer to be a host.
Watch the rules – they’re strict in a good way
Road Trip Her’s rules are strict, and the community moderation is active, so it’s one of the safest bets, in my opinion, for solo women travelers. Moderators do not allow any links AT ALL or drama AT ALL, so if you join, be kind and follow the rules; that’s all they ask. Ignore the rules and get the boot. That’s what keeps this a safe community, and keeps the crazies and imposters away. Road Trip Her is growing into a pretty big community, so whether you’re on the road or just dream of travel, it’s a welcoming spot to land.
To join, click the link, Road Trip Her, and follow the directions.
And a couple of other things
I’ll be writing a post soon on my other favorite travel apps, but this one deserves mention here. Avenza is a map app – not a camping app. Get this app if you’re planning a lot of time in remote areas. It’s an excellent source to download detailed maps to use offline. You can then navigate to good boondocking sites and hiking trails without needing a cell signal.
For the newbies reading this: this country still has many cell service dead zones, especially in remote areas (as in the kinds of places you probably want to go) so be prepared.
A note on Hipcamp
I used Hipcamp several times on my trip last summer and, unfortunately, did not have good experiences. Many campers rave about Hipcamp, but I ended up having several hosts cancel on me (they can cancel whenever they want). The worst was over a holiday weekend near Charleston, SC. Because of last-minute cancelations, I had to resort to a hotel. Three bookings with Hipcamp fell through at the last minute. I also found the stays that did work were pretty pricey for what you get, especially compared to the options above. The app is still on my phone and I may use it in the future, but I preferred Harvest Hosts and Boondockers Welcome, hands down for comparable type places.
Do me a favor
There you have it. With these five camping apps, you’ll be all set to travel throughout the USA and Canada. Our community would love to hear your Camping App experiences and recommendations. Please leave a comment below and help a fellow camper out. Many thanks!
See you on the road!