Planning and Organizing a Car-Camping Trip

North Rim Campground, Grand Canyon — June, 2011.

The idea of putting together a multi-day car-camping trip involving a large number of people can certainly be a little daunting and intimidating, especially for someone doing it the very first time. Where do you start? Who should you talk to? To avoid becoming overwhelmed by all the details and different steps involved, you have to first break the process down into its smaller components just as you would with any large task.

Obviously, the first thing you need to determine is where you want to go. Once you’ve decided on your destination, check the Arizona Trailblazers’ Trip Reports archives to see if the hiking club has done this trip before. If so, the archives can provide you with a wealth of information and help make your job a bit easier. The Trip Planning Guide is another excellent source of information to help guide you through the entire process.

If not, you will have to do some research and may even need to determine if there is enough interest before proceeding further. The best way to do this is to ask , our website manager, to send out your brief trip description to everyone on the club’s email distribution list to see how many people would be interested in this new trip.

If you receive enough positive response, the next step is to decide on the exact dates of your trip and then make the necessary campground reservations. But first check the Calendar of Events section on our website to make sure the dates you have in mind are still open. However, even if the dates you want are currently taken, as long as your trip is in a different geographical area than the trip or hike posted then you are good to go.

To make a campground reservation in any National Forest, National Park, or National Monument in the country, go to this website:

For general information about National Parks throughout the American Southwest, go to:

Since most of our National Parks and National Monuments have seen a considerable increase in visitors over the past few years, you need to make campground reservations as soon as possible. We can no longer wait until a few months prior to the trip to reserve campsites as we once did. For individual campsites, you should make your reservations a full six months in advance on the first possible day, which is exactly six months prior to your camping date. For group sites, you should make your reservation a full twelve months in advance on the first day possible, which is exactly twelve months prior to your camping date. To ensure the best possible chance of acquiring your desired individual sites or group site, you actually need to be at your computer with the website pulled up at 8:00 AM, local time, on the morning of the date in question, ready to make your reservation. Sites go very fast.

For example, if you want to reserve ten individual campsites at Watchman Campground in Zion National Park for September 10 thru September 16 of 2018, you should already have ten people with Senior Passes lined up to be at their computers at 8:00 AM on the morning of March 10, 2018. If you want to reserve a group campsite at Watchman Campground in Zion National Park for September 10 thru September 16 of 2018, you need to be at your computer and ready to make your reservation at 8:00 AM on the morning of September 10, 2017. The demand for camping sites is now so high, these sites can go literally in a matter of seconds if you don’t make your reservations at 8:00 AM, local time. Every second counts.

You can reserve individual campsites in most National Park, National Monument, or National Forest campgrounds for half-price with a Senior Pass. But typically you can only reserve a single campsite at that rate. So if other individuals in your group have a Senior Pass, they can each reserve one individual campsite which can result in considerable savings for the group. So you need to line up the number of people required to make the necessary number of reservations. Unfortunately, this does not apply to group campsites.

It varies from campground to campground, but typically most charge a flat fee per night, for example $10-$20 per night, for individual campsites. And they typically allow a maximum of 6-8 people per site, with 2-3 tents and one or two vehicles per site.

For the larger group sites, some campgrounds charge a flat fee of say $40-$50 per night for the group site, while others charge a per person fee, for example $8 per person per night. Because of their larger size, the group sites also accommodate more people, more tents, and additional vehicles. So the deciding factor in determining whether to use individual campsites or group campsites will be the total number of people on the trip.

After making the campground reservations, the next step is to expand on that earlier mentioned brief trip description, changing it to an informative car-camping announcement including any planned hikes. If unsure of this step, check the club’s website section Calendar of Events for examples or ask Ted for the specific information you will need to include in the trip announcement. Once he has all of this information, he will post the trip on the club’s Calendar of Events for all to see.

The trip announcement can be posted to the club’s website months in advance so people will have plenty of time to think about it and respond if interested. It’s up to the leader to decide how far in advance he/she will start collecting names for a sign-up list. But an official trip announcement should be sent out to everyone on the club’s email distribution list at least 60 days prior to the trip start date. Ted will take care of this as well.

Put a cutoff date in your announcement to let people know the last day they can sign up for the trip, but at the same time be a little flexible. Some people will sign up and some will cancel all the way up to the cutoff date and beyond, so you may find yourself with extra slots to accommodate additional participants after the cutoff date. The trip leader also needs to decide in advance whether to collect money for campground reservations or any other activities requiring deposits right up front or later at the campground.

It is usually best to collect all money in advance for several reasons. If too many people who signed up for the trip cancel after you have already made your reservation, then you may be forced to collect extra money from each camping participant to cover the losses. This may not amount to much for only one or two cancellations, but can be a significant amount if up to half your group cancels, which has happened in the past. In that case you have to collect double the amount from each individual in order to cover the loss.

Also, most group campsites require a minimum number of campers in order to reserve and hold the campsite. For example, you have 25 people signed up for your trip and 7 drop out in the last days prior to the trip. If the minimum number to keep the group site is 20 people and you cannot get any additional campers, then you have a problem. You will likely lose the group site and have to scramble at the last minute to reserve several individual campsites. As long as the trip is at least a week off, you should get refunded for the full cost of the group site minus any deposit fees, typically $10-$20.

So when your trip announcement is sent out, make sure to mention that anyone who signs up for the trip will have to make a deposit up front to ensure their place on the sign-up roster for the trip. The amount of this deposit will largely be determined by two factors: (1) the number of people on the trip, and (2) the reservation fee you had to pay for the campsite. In the event they later decide to cancel, they will have to find a replacement in order to get their money back. Once people have a vested interest in the trip by putting their money on the line, they are much less likely to cancel on you.

Most group campsites also have a maximum number of people allowed on the site. So mention this in the trip announcement. Or you may decide for yourself the maximum number of people you want to have on your camping trip and as trip leader you certainly have that option just as you do on a day hike. If that’s the case, then make sure you mention that in the trip announcement as well.

Once the number of people who sign up for the trip reaches the maximum, all others will have to be placed on a waiting list in the order they sign up. When someone cancels, move the person on the top of your waiting list onto the active list. As soon as you receive a deposit from that person, you can then refund the individual who cancelled.

Once you have your sign-up list more or less finalized, find out who wants to caravan together to the campground, decide on the time and a meeting location, and start thinking about setting up the carpooling arrangements. Some people will invariably want to leave on their own schedule for a variety of reasons and cannot travel with the group, but usually the majority will prefer caravanning together in several vehicles to the campground. And since there is limited parking at most campgrounds, including the larger group sites, the objective is to keep the number of vehicles to a minimum. Saving on fuel expenses is another major incentive for minimizing the number of vehicles.

Getting all of the carpooling arrangements finalized can often be the most time-consuming and frustrating part of preparing for a camping trip since things always seem to change literally up to the last minute. So you should start this process at least three weeks before your trip begins. Once you have a list of everyone who wants to caravan together and can leave at the same time, you then need to determine how many vehicles you need and who is willing to drive. After you’ve identified the drivers, you need to determine who their passengers will be. Sometimes a couple will be driving and may or may not have room for a passenger. Some people will travel with the group, but may want to return on a different day so they won’t be able to take additional passengers. These are things you should find out ahead of time before getting too far committed.

Most vehicles, even some of the larger SUVs, typically have space to accommodate only three or four people total, counting the driver and including everyone’s camping and hiking gear and perhaps even some firewood. Identifying what part of the valley all caravan drivers and passengers live in will help you in organizing the carpools. From this point on though it’s largely a matter of coordinating things and putting trip participants in contact with one another via email or phone to determine who can carpool with whom. Whenever possible, let the trip participants decide who they would like to carpool with rather than arbitrarily assigning all carpooling arrangements yourself.

For safety reasons, you should also collect the following information for all vehicles and all campers driving to the campground:

•  Vehicle year, make, model, color, and license plate #.
An emergency contact name and phone number for all trip participants.
Cell phone numbers for yourself as the trip leader and for all drivers.
Expected time of departure from the valley and expected time of arrival at the campground for all vehicles not in the main caravan group.
Compile a list showing each vehicle, the vehicle driver, and all of its passengers.

Provide a list of the cell phone numbers to all other drivers so everyone in the group can stay in contact whenever traveling within a cell coverage area. Make a spreadsheet for all of this information. Keep one copy for yourself and provide a second copy to at least one other driver in the caravan group. Shred and dispose this information on your return.

Explain to the trip participants that this information is collected for safety purposes only and is something the club always does on a multi-day road trip. In the event that one of the vehicles fails to arrive at the campground and you cannot contact the driver or any passengers and have to notify the proper authorities, this information could prove very timely and invaluable in helping to locate the missing vehicle and individuals in question.

After all carpooling arrangements have been made, think about sending out a sign-up list for the potluck dinner. This has been a traditional part of our car-camping trips for many years and something most people look forward to. Send a list out with the names of everyone signed up for the trip and ask people to put a dish next to their name and then forward the list on to everyone else so all campers are aware of who is bringing what. This will avoid duplication of effort so you won’t wind up with too many of one thing like a dozen desert items.

This is strictly voluntary and no one is required to provide any potluck food for the group although most, if not all, trip participants usually do.

Saturday night potluck on the North Rim.

The week before your trip, collect the club backpack with Trip Release forms and the TalkAbout radios. Send out one final email to all trip participants summarizing what they need to bring, the planned travel route, general campground information, and the latest weather forecast. While at the campground and sometime before the first scheduled hike, have everyone sign the Trip Release form. Although you may have several hikes and events scheduled, people only need to sign this form once for the entire trip. And if you haven’t already collected money for the campground reservations, this may be a good time to do that before you forget. Some campgrounds also charge additional fees for extra vehicles, and this will have to be paid at the campground as well. These fees are not normally included in the standard campground reservation payment.

After returning home from your camping trip, contact the individual leading the next hike and make arrangements to transfer the club backpack and radios. Keep all cash collected from voluntary contributions and mail a check (made out to The Arizona Trailblazers Hiking Club) for that exact amount to the club Treasurer (shown in the club notebook). Try to write your trip report and send, with pictures, to webmaster Ted Tenny within a couple of weeks after the trip while events are still fresh in your mind. The information you include in your report will be invaluable to the next person planning the same trip. It will also add to the wealth of information we have within the trip report archives.

As a final note, if you have any questions or concerns not covered in this document, please don’t hesitate to ask the club webmaster or any of the leaders of past camping trips. They will all be glad to help you in any way they can. And the best of luck to you in planning and organizing your own car-camping trip for the Arizona Trailblazers Hiking Club. The Trailblazers’ annual car-camping trips have traditionally been eagerly anticipated as highlights of the club’s annual hiking schedule.

See also: Pre-Payment of Camping Trip Fees.

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updated November 4, 2017 © Copyright 2017 Arizona Trailblazers.  All rights reserved.