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RVing’s Dirty Little Secret: Filthy campgrounds

| Updated Mar 30, 2014

Nothing can spoil a trip more than filthy campgrounds…

People wonder why we prefer boondocking over campgrounds. Here's why: Too many campgrounds are dirty.

Not all. But way too many.

Jennifer and I have had too many bad experiences to count. Although, things do seem to be improving thanks to online reviews that keep campgrounds accountable.

Bathrooms: Critters, Grime, and Disrepair

In the bathrooms, there are almost always spiders, bugs, things in the toilets and stalls that disgust you. Broken windows, mold, rusty pipes, and grimy sinks.

In one of the too many filthy campgrounds we've stayed in, one of the showers I used had a cracked floor. When you stepped on it, black gunk seeped out around your feet.

Broken bathroom window at one of the filthy campgrounds we've stayed at before
A broken window in a campground restroom in Missouri

In Missouri, a long broken and unrepaired window had the restroom filled with moths, beetles, flies, and mosquitos.

In Nebraska, a campground where we stayed had clogged toilets. The dump station black water tank was overflowing.

Rusty shower with rusty water
Nice shower, huh? The water that came out was rust covered

Lots: Mud, Dead Grass, & Poo

Then there are the lots.  Too often they are worn and trampled dirt that turns to mud every time it rains, with no grass or concrete.

In Estes Park, CO, a supposedly top-rated campground put us in a gravel parking lot. Five minutes after we arrived, our coach was covered in dust and we had to shut all the windows.

I complained and the owner told me he makes an extra $20K a year putting people on the gravel when his other spots are filled and it's worth the complaints to get the extra cash. At least he was honest.

dusty parking lot that calls itself a campground
This Colorado campground puts you in a dusty parking lot

The utility hookups at many parks need to be checked as way too many deliver erratic power. Water faucets drip. Dog droppings are uncollected and litter the edges of the camping spaces.

How to Avoid Filthy Campgrounds

It's our experience that private campgrounds are generally the worse. Though we've noticed that budget cutbacks in state and county parks have fewer people doing maintenance and clean up in government-run parks, too.

So we boondock as much as possible. While on the way to a destination, a Walmart or Cracker Barrel parking lot is often preferable to a campground, we have found. Our RV has its own shower, its own bathroom, and provides its own electricity.

The campground guide books and apps are not much help. We've found some campgrounds rated by the guide books at four stars to be pig styes.

I have long suspected that the higher the rating, the more the campground spends on advertising. Maybe not. But the discrepancies between what we've experienced and what the guidebooks say are too often too far apart.

Reviews from other campers help.

But generally, we avoid most campgrounds. KOAs are okay most times. State and Federal Parks, too.

But a lot of private campgrounds have a long way to go in quality.

For campgrounds that we personally recommend across the country, check out our RV Adventure Guides…

Mike Wendland

Published on 2014-03-30

Mike Wendland is a multiple Emmy-award-winning Journalist, Podcaster, YouTuber, and Blogger, who has traveled with his wife, Jennifer, all over North America in an RV, sharing adventures and reviewing RV, Camping, Outdoor, Travel and Tech Gear for the past 12 years. They are leading industry experts in RV living and have written 18 travel books.

25 Responses to “RVing’s Dirty Little Secret: Filthy campgrounds”

February 18, 2016at3:54 pm, Chris said:

I was not surprised to see your comments, and kind of glad my experience was confirmed. I’ve only been on the road about 5 weeks. I’ve gone to two campgrounds (state land in FL) and many Walmarts. The first campground was ok, but a hassle to get a reservation, which comes with a combination to a padlock to get into the camping area. Its not supposed to change until you leave, but I ended up locked in and had to wait for park police to show up and let me out. This keeps unauthorized vehicles out, but not unauthorized people. This was definitely a problem at the second campsite. I was there four days and nights. The first night I had to listen to a couple screaming at each other-they were not campers because I was alone at that site except for another woman and her daughter, and the voices were aways off, but could definitely hear them from my vehicle. The screaming went on for about half an hour, with the woman yelling for help and the guy hollering expletives, etc. The last night there I was awakened by the sound of dogs and someone yelling at them. Again, it wasn’t a camper. Another couple had joined the campsite but they had no dogs or children. Someone decided to bring their dogs into the campsite around 2am, and apparently they were out of control or something. Eventually a dog slammed up against my RV, exactly where I was trying to sleep in my bed. Needless to say I was a little freaked out. The next day, sure enough there were muddy paw prints on the side of my vehicle. The campsites themselves were nice, but I found the night wanderers to be quite disturbing. The Walmarts, I have to say, made me feel safer than anything. Of course, there’s always the chance you’ll be asked to move, but I prefer that to violent couples and weird manic dogs. Of course I check to see the Walmart I stay at allows overnight parking. Some don’t. But having an open store, and most of them have security at night, too, keeps the craziness down. If I could park at Walmarts all the time I would, but I don’t want to take advantage. I keep a low profile there and always do my shopping there. So, so far my camping experiences leave me happier at a Walmart than a campsite!

June 03, 2014at10:28 pm, Judi Darin said:

Try to find a decent place in Santa Barbara to stay – there is one RV park, Sunrise RV Park. It should be condemned. It is extremely ugly and run down. The power poles are rusted. The water dribbles from the faucets. There is only a cinder block wall separating it from the freeway lanes. It is the only RV park in SB. I went to Ventura Beach RV Resort in Ventura, and I had to wear a wrist band! It kept falling off, and when it got wet I took it off since I was going to the hospital for the birth of a grandson and needed to wash my hands frequently. I got yelled at a few times for not wearing it. Do they tell you about the wrist bands before you pay? No. And there are no refunds. Then they had a few guys repairing sprinklers and they broke the water pipes. No water to rigs for 3 days. Again, NO REFUND! My neighbor’s sewer was literally 2′ from my picnic table. Grrrrr.

April 02, 2014at11:44 am, Michael Butts said:

After staying at a highly rated campground in Nebraska where our site was less than 60 yards from an eight lane freeway, we always use two resources when finding a campground: and Google Earth. Yes, we’ve had a few bad experiences in the past ten years, but no where near the majority of our stays at campgrounds.

April 02, 2014at10:42 am, John Campbell said:

I much prefer staying at Federally run parks, ie:Forest Service, Park Service, Corps of Engineers…Volunteers do a great job of keeping the parks clean, and the facilities in great shape, plus the staff is very supportive of the volunteers. I plan on hosting at a small lake run by the Forest Service this Spring, to get experience before I go full-timing, and using hosting gigs to reduce my costs.

April 02, 2014at1:31 am, Doofus said:

Like most everyone we have stayed at some marvelous campgrounds and some marvelously bad campgrounds, both public and private. When traveling we generally boondock for 2 or 3 consecutive nights and then seek a nice “full service” campground for one night where we dump, top off our water tanks, do laundry, use the wifi, charge up our batteries and ourselves. It took only a couple bad apples for us to figure out it is worth the effort to eyeball the sites and facilities before paying for the night. Unless we are planning a stay of more than one night, we never make a reservation or pay in advance of our arrival. If there’s no room at the inn or the place is a dump then we simply move on. This plan has served us well for many years. A lousy campground has no motivation to change if campers keep showing up and forking over cash.

March 31, 2014at7:04 pm, Bob Wilson said:

We will be starting our RVing in about two months. Just joined Good Sam. Can you trust the descriptions in Good Sam’s directory?

March 31, 2014at9:36 am, Liz'n'Bruce said:

We traveled throughout Florida for 2 months this winter and LOVED the State parks. Florida state parks have won “gold” for being the best in the country for 2 years now. It has been 30 years since we’ve stayed in KOAs and I must say they have gone down-hill in the last 30 years. The last one we stayed at (in Ohio) in February advertised “open”, but didn’t even have a washroom that was open! We paid $30 for that??? We’d have been better off boon-docking at the Flying J across the street.

March 30, 2014at3:18 pm, Roger said:

Thanks Mike. We’re looking for our first RV. This really opened my eyes. If this is typical of many campgrounds, it is very disappointing. Better to know now than after we’ve made that huge investment. Will probably keep looking but with much more focus on a boondocking ready unit now. And then… maybe Marty’s condo idea might be the way to go.

March 30, 2014at6:29 pm, Yan said:

It’s not typical of “many” campgrounds, but it is typical of a significant chunk. I’ve stayed in government owned (city, county, state, federal) that were great, and others that I would stay away from. I’ve stayed in awesome private campgrounds, and private dumps.

It all comes down to when you stay. On this last trip, we stayed at a state campground that had tent spaces the size of parking spaces – literally. Your “site” was spray painted on the road, and that’s where you parked. Your tent went in the gravel shoulder, about 12′ wide. Your neighbor was quite literally bumper to bumper with your car. Our Roadtrek, two tents, and clothesline took up 4 – yes, FOUR – RV spaces.

In the summer I’d avoid that place like the plague. But since we were the only people there, we had a blast.

Travel off-season, or boondock. Never stay at a campground on July 4th or Labor Day.

March 30, 2014at3:17 pm, Pam Nichols said:

One question that I honestly don’t know the answer to: if you boondock for more than a few days, how do you dump? Especially the black water tank? Do these areas have dump stations? We’ve obviously never boondocked. We agree that state and national parks are better than many private ones and national chains like KOA are generally well maintained. So curious about boondocking.

March 30, 2014at3:52 pm, Dorothy Inglis said:

Pam, I am a backpacker and Outward Bounder, so my Roadtrek represents very fancy camping for me. When I’m way out in the wilderness on BLM land, I use my “leave no trace” skills, so tanks don’t get filled. There are no services on BLM land; you learn to live without all the conveniences.

March 30, 2014at3:07 pm, Bev Baccelli said:

We just returned today from a month long trip south feom New England. Spent 10 nights at friends’ homes; the rest at campgrounds. Enjoyed Low Key Hideaway in Cedar Key, FL and Bay Bayou in Tampa, FL. Huntington State Park in SC is right on a beautiful Atlantic beach , as is Jekyll Island campground in Georgia – both are great! All these places were very clean and well kept. We’ve found that checking several review sites pats off.
We also boondocked twice for the first time while on this trip and will do more if that as well.

March 30, 2014at1:32 pm, Dorothy Inglis said:

Mike, I totally agree; RV parks/campgrounds are not my cup of tea either. I prefer boon docking on BLM land, and my rig is set up to be self-sufficient. There’s something not civil about civilization; the wilderness always feels like a more harmonious place to be. I belong to LA Fitness all over the country, so take my showers there. Life is simple, and I love it!

March 30, 2014at12:03 pm, Maureen said:

Starting to sound as if there are some real health issues in some of these parks. I wonder if this would change if there were complaints to the local health departments… this a worthwhile effort?

March 30, 2014at11:31 am, Marty said:

Let’s also blame our fellow campers for being slobs and not taking care of their kids and dogs. But ultimately, it comes down to the campground owner. If they charge us $30 a night for a spot, we have every reason to expect it to be clean. To be truthful, we’ve been burned by lousy campgrounds so many times after reading glowing reviews in the guidebooks that we are considering selling our coach and getting a condo somewhere.

March 30, 2014at11:28 am, Kim said:

I know there are good campground out there. But they are hard to find. And I don’t trust many of the reviews. A lot of them are fake. I’m glad you got this out in the open. This is really a scandalous problem. Thanks for telling it like it is.

March 30, 2014at11:01 am, Salina said:

We use to check out places. Woodalls ratings are always way off from what a campground is really like. Lately we’ve been seeing more rest stop areas with dump stations for free which is really helpful. I’ll keep the estes park place in mind, we plan on traveling around colorado this year!

March 30, 2014at10:49 am, Addie said:

Reminds me of the trek we took in Mississippi looking for the campground with the largest swimming pool. The listing from the Woodall book had a glowing description. What we found was a mostly empty big black/green swamp pool with almost all the campsites filled with people living in school buses.

March 30, 2014at10:19 am, Lil said:

Just a note for those who may be eligible and not know. If you are active duty military, retired military or DOD you are eligible to camp at military RV parks. You have to have a valid military ID. This is not guarantee of a perfect experience but military campgrounds are our favored spots to stay if we are not boondocking. This website is a good place to find military campgrounds

Happy trails. 😉

March 31, 2014at5:54 am, Roger said:

Thanks Lil! I’m retired Air Force. Have to admit I’d completely forgotten about the military RV parks. Will definitely check out that web site.

March 31, 2014at10:06 am, Sherry Hooker said:

Thank, Lil. We didn’t even know of their existence. You’d think the VA facilities would list these.

April 02, 2014at1:15 am, Doofus said:

VA isn’t DoD so it probably isn’t reasonable to expect them to maintain a list of DoD campgrounds. A few VA medical centers have hookups for RVing vets who travel to attend appointments, receive treatment, etc. Where available, it’s usually managed by VA Police.

April 02, 2014at12:11 pm, Yan Seiner said:

And the base gym is almost always open and provides hot showers. You may be able to park overnight in the parking lot as well.

March 30, 2014at8:25 am, Rich said:

Google’s campground reviews are pretty helpful. Usually the first thing people discuss is bathroom cleanliness. We also find that campgrounds that are part of a camping network (RPI, Thousand Trails, KOA, Good Sam) tend to do a better job – but yeah, lots of campgrounds aren’t maintained very well unfortunately.

March 30, 2014at8:02 am, Campskunk said:

amen. as long as you can’t live without hookups, you will be at the mercy of people who rent them to you. the extra money you put into your unit to get boondocking functionality is an investment in your peace of mind. also, the scenery’s a lot better out in the boonies.

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