Which is best — a public or private campground? Yes!
It depends on your budget, the location, amenities you want or don’t want, crowds you want or don’t want.
By public campground I mean a county, state or national park campground. They’re paid for by our tax dollars and run by government employees.
A private campground is run as a business and owned by private citizens.
There are advantages and disadvantages of each type. Here are the basic differences we’ve found based in camping we’ve done in various parts of the US:
ADVANTAGES — Public campgrounds tend to be cheaper than private ones. That’s because their costs are supplemented by our tax dollars. As of this writing (spring 2016) State Park campgrounds in Minnesota run between $15-23 a night.
Of course each state’s fees will vary. In Wyoming you’ll only pay $10 a night for a public campsite. In California you can pay up to $80 a night, depending on the location.
Speaking of location, public campgrounds also tend to command the prime locations within the parks themselves. If you want to camp right in Yellowstone, for example, or right in your favorite state park, chances are most or all of your choices will be public campgrounds.
DISADVANTAGES — Public campgrounds almost always have fewer amenities than privately owned ones. Many of the ones we’ve stayed in don’t have showers or electricity available.
If you want to stay in a public campground in one of the popular parks, be prepared for LOTS of people. There can easily be 200-300 campsites in one campground in the bigger parks. Reservations are accepted at some, but not all. You’ll be taking your chances if you don’t plan ahead—sometimes months ahead.
Because the public campgrounds rely on government funding, it’s not always possible for the staff to keep up with them as well as private ones. They’re at risk for budget cuts and even closing during government shut-downs.
ADVANTAGES — The biggest advantage is the level of amenities you get at a private campground. Showers, often clean and well-maintained bathrooms, electric hookups, campground store, playground, planned activities, etc. All are common at private campgrounds.
Some even rival resorts in their activity offerings: golf or mini-golf, swimming pools, hot tubs, volleyball, fishing guides, movies, and more.
Just like any other business, the level of professionalism, cleanliness and available activities depends on the owners.
Private campgrounds are smaller, if that’s important to you. Although both can have very nice sites.
DISADVANTAGES — For the obvious reason that the owners need to make a profit, private campgrounds are more expensive than public ones. It’s not unusual for their nightly fees to be twice or three times the rate of their neighboring public campgrounds.
And, as mentioned above, if you want to be smack in the middle of your favorite state or national park, you’re unlikely to find a private campground. But there are always private campgrounds nearby.
We’ve stayed in both public and private, depending on where we’re going, whether we need showers or not, what’s available and our budget.
We’re fortunate to live in a country with literally thousands of campgrounds to choose from. There are about 8,000 private campgrounds and another almost 25,000 public campgrounds ready to welcome you.
What are you waiting for?!
(PHOTO: Our site at a public campground in Rocky Mountain National Park)
Sharon is the founder and publisher of Active Outdoor Women. She loves getting outside in beautiful places to hike, paddle, camp, snowshoe, ski, ride—and encouraging others to come along! Besides maintaining AOW and her other website, Twin Cities Outdoors, Sharon writes and designs websites, newsletters, blogs, emails, books and other marketing tools for clients.