in Camping / by Roofnest Team

This post has been updated on Feb 1, 2022 to include up-to-date information on finding and reserving campsite.

Camping with a Roofnest on your car is like regular camping…but way better.

You don’t have to set up a tent, it’s more comfortable, more convenient, better protected from weather, and you wake up with a heck of a panoramic view.

A hard shell roof top tent automatically turns any car into a camper. That means that finding a spot where you can stay overnight with your Roofnest is really no different than looking for a camping spot for a normal tent — except with the added benefit of being able to stay in places that exclusively allow vans, campers, and RVs.

When you’re looking for a place to camp in your Roofnest, you’re essentially looking for a place where you can car camp. Before you plan your next great adventure with your hard shell roof top tent, take a few minutes to check out this guide on how to find car camping spots.

How to Find Places to Camp With a Roof Top Tent

There are four main types of places where you sleep in your Roofnest overnight:

  • Public, designated camp spots
  • Private camp spots
  • Public, dispersed camping
  • Alternative options such as Walmarts, rest areas, and more

Let’s take a look at how to find each type of camp spot so you’ll know all your options before you hit the open road.

How to Find Public Designated Camp Spots

Public designated camp spots include campgrounds/campsites in national parks, state parks, and national forest land.

Most of these sites are designed for tent campers, but they work perfectly with a rooftop tent. Some areas also have RV/camper specific sites. With a roof top tent, unlike a regular tent, you can access these sites, which can be helpful during busy times.

National parks and state parks are full of designated camp spots, usually for a small fee. While these spots are typically setup with regular tents in mind, there’s no reason you can’t skip the hassle of the tent and get right to relaxing in your Roofnest.

Some of these spots are first-come, first-serve, while others can be reserved in advance online.

You can find more info and make reservations for camp spots in national parks on the National Park Service website. Just search for the park you’re interested in and go to the camping section.

To find campgrounds/campsites in national forest land (and other public land management designations), visit recreation.gov and type your destination in the search bar. 

To find campgrounds/campsites in state parks, visit the website of the specific state park. 

Many parks have spots intended for camper vans and RVs, which you can use as well. Those are typically more expensive though, and offer amenities you probably don’t need, like power and sewage hook-ups.

If you’d rather take to the open road and see where your wheels take you, then we recommend the website Allstays.com. It has guides on where you can camp across the country, including national and state parks, KOAs, and more.

How to get a first-come, first-serve spot

Do your research 

Research the area and see how many first-come, first-serve sites there are. Doing this will give you an idea of how hard it will be to get a campsite. Additionally, call the nearest ranger station or visitor center. They likely won’t know about site availability, but they will give you an idea of how busy you can expect it to be. 

Show up early

It is in the name; these sites go to the early bird. If your research indicates that it might be hard to get a campsite, make sure you show up early. 

Check site tags 

National park and national forest campgrounds make users attach a confirmation tag to their site number (you will find these as pink slips pinned to a wood stand at the front of a campsite). These slips have dates and will indicate how long someone is staying. 

Talk to people 

Strike up a conversation with people in the campground. Other campers will often go out of their way to help you out. I’ve had people let me park at their campsite, so it is reserved when they leave, or tell me the time they are planning on leaving. Starting conversations is especially useful if you read a slip and see people are leaving that same day. 

Have a backup plan 

Make sure you always have a backup plan. Even if you follow all the tips above, there is always a chance you can’t get a spot. 

How to reserve a spot

Reserve online

Visit the sites mentioned above: 

nps.gov
recreation.gov

And your local state park’s website. 

Reserve early

In popular areas, like Yellowstone or the White Rim in Canyonlands, reservations often sell out the same day as they open up. Figure out when site reservations open and try to reserve that same day. But don’t worry, this is only the case in the most popular areas. 

Keep Checking

If a campground is full, keep checking. People will often cancel their reservations, especially right before their date. 

Private Camp Spots

Private camp spots include your mom-and-pop campgrounds and KOAs. These are for-profit campgrounds on private land. 

Private camp spots are less coveted, therefore, easier to reserve. If you can’t get the site you want in a national park, a private camp spot outside is not a bad second option.

The quality of these camp spots varies. Some will have better privacy and amenities than public designated camp spots others will be just the opposite. Do a little research beforehand to see the quality of your intended camp spot. 

First come, first serve?

Almost all private camp spots are reservation-based. While it’s likely you will be able to get a spot day of, book in advance to be safe.

How to make a reservation

Unlike public designated camp spots, private spots are not all managed by the same entity, making reservations more challenging. 

The best way to manage private reservations is to turn to a website like hipcamp.com. Hipcamp consolidates camping options into one search engine to make things easy. Just search for the destination you are going to, and hipcamp will provide dozens of camping options in the area. 

Finding a specific campground and reaching out directly is also effective. 

Remember, in a pinch, RV/Camper campgrounds work with your Roofnest.

Benefits of using hipcamp:

Privacy

Designated spots in a national or state park or a KOA are often surrounded by lots of other camp spots, so a busy night can feel more like an amusement park than a getaway with Mother Nature.

Easy-to-reserve in advance

Popular national parks have huge demand and limited camping spots, so you often have to plan your trip months in advance or try your luck with a first-come, first-serve spot.

On the Hipcamp app, there’s likely to be lots of options even on the day you want to camp.

Search by your current location

Whether you’re in the middle of a road trip or at home planning your next outing, Hipcamp allows you to quickly find camp spots near your current location.

Filter by amenities

Hipcamp allows you to filter your search by amenities such as proximity to a lake, whether the spot if pet-friendly, if fires are allowed, and more.

Many hosts include other extras like grills, outdoor toilets, tables, etc.

Fits any budget

Hipcamp hosts a range of camp sites, but you can filter your search by price to stay within a budget that works for you.

See it before you book

Camp site profiles on Hipcamp include photos, descriptions, reviews from past campers, and more to help you find the right camp site for you and your Roofnest.

Public, Dispersed Camping Areas

If you really want to get out into the wild on your next trip, dispersed camping might be for you.

Dispersed camping is any camping not in designated, developed sites. That means no amenities like bathrooms, water, or trash cans.

The most widely available dispersed camping is in National Forests and BLM (Bureau of Land Management) lands.

In National Forests, you can drive and park on the side of a Forest Service road and car camp there. With a little searching, you might be able to find a spot with a beautiful view of a lake, mountains, a meadow, or a river or stream.

Just be sure to stay on the road so you don’t damage the forest with your vehicle (but also make sure that any other passing cars can get by).

Before you visit a National Forest to car camp, check their website for information about any necessary permits you’ll need, or other restrictions.

Most BLM lands are in the western US in desert climates. And like National Forests, they usually allow car camping at pullovers or on access roads.

A lot of these roads are just dirt or gravel and are pretty out of the way, so you can count on a fair amount of seclusion.

The best way to find National Forests and BLM lands where you can car camp is to use the site Recreation.gov. Search for “National Forests in colorado”, for example, or “blm lands in utah”. You can also try REI’s Camping Project on their website.

Remember, when you car camp in dispersed camping areas, you need to pack out what you bring in. Familiarize yourself with the Leave No Trace principles before you head out.

Privacy

The best part of dispersed camping sites is that if you are willing to do a little bit of searching you can often find magical places. Many of these areas are only accessible via dirt road and are out of the way, so you can count on a fair bit of seclusion. 

With a Roofnest, you don’t have to worry about the ground being suitable for a tent. Anywhere you park your car works. 

How to find a site?

The most reliable way to determine if you are on forest service or BLM land is to check out the interactive maps on their respective websites:

Usda.gov

Blm.gov

You can also head to Recreation.gov and search for “national forests in Colorado” or “BLM lands in Utah”, and land designation maps will show up. Other mapping apps, such as Gaia or OnX, also show land designations. 

It can also be helpful to use free camping resources such as Ioverlander and Freecampsites.net. These apps are crowd-sourced directories of places other users have camped. They have information about camping spots on forest service and BLM land that have been camped at by other users. 

How do you know if it is okay to camp? 

The unfortunate answer is it’s not always 100% clear. If you are on forest service or BLM land far away from recreational areas (picnic areas, trailheads, etc.) and there are no explicit signs saying otherwise, you are probably good to go. 

If you want to read more in-depth about this, check out the forest service and BLM’s write-ups 

Alternative Places to Car Camp

If you’re traveling cross country and just need to hit the hay asap, there are a number of options for car camping in a hard shell roof top tent that aren’t available to folks lugging around traditional tents. These include:

Walmart

Most locations allow car camping — just park out of the way in the far reaches of the lot.

Truck Stops

Look for truck stops that offer overnight spots for RVs, campers, trailers, vans, and the like.

You might have to pay a fee for the spot, so just go inside and ask before you settle in for the night. Allstays.com has an epic truck stop locator, available here »

Rest Areas

The rules for overnight parking in rest areas vary from state to state.Many don’t allow overnight parking, while some do — as long as you don’t stay longer than a certain time limit.

Here’s a guide to rest area car camping rules for each state »

Casinos

You may be surprised to learn that many casinos offer overnight parking for RVs, campers, and car camping.

CasinoCamper.com is a good resource for finding casinos where this is allowed, but we’d suggest calling ahead to make sure you can stay in a roof top tent at such a facility.

Tips for getting reservations

Getting campsite reservations has become increasingly challenging over the past few years. Covid-19 and growing interest in the outdoors, have led campgrounds and national parks to become flooded with people. Here are some tips that will improve your odds of getting a reservation. 

  • Book Early – once you know when and where you are going, book a site. Booking early is especially important if you are visiting a popular destination during peak season. 
  • Adjust your search area – Slightly adjusting your search area can increase your chances of finding a site. Look for less popular entrances into parks or spots a bit further outside of town. The past two summers I have witnessed competitive and overcrowded campgrounds inside of Yellowstone and just outside of the West and South Entrances. However, just a few miles outside Yellowstone’s quieter East Entrance, there were nearly deserted campgrounds. 
  • Check for cancellations – If you don’t succeed at first, keep trying. Other campers will often cancel their reservations shortly before a trip.
  • Flex your Roofnest – Take advantage of the fact that with a Roofnest, you can camp comfortably at tent-specific and RV-specific sites. If the campground you were looking at is completely booked, check the closest RV park. 
  • Use different resources – If you have no luck with an online platform like hipcamp, try contacting a campground directly and vis versa. 
  • What to do if you cannot get a reservation – Use the tips we covered above to try and get a first-come, first-serve spot. But remember, always have a backup plan.

Additionally, with a little bit of research, you can plan to sleep in a dispersed camping area. 

Find Your Next Roofnest Get-Away

With just a little bit of digging, you can find thousands of places to car camp in your Roofnest across the US. That includes on the slopes for backcountry skiing, at music festivals, and much, much more.

But if you don’t want do the digging yourself, let us do it for you. Our blog is always being updated with posts about the best car camping spots around the country.

Check out our guide on the best car camping spots for your Roofnest outside of San Diego »

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