Not every one learned to camp as a kid, but every one should experience camping. Idaho is filled with great places to spend a weekend or longer, and camping is a fun, inexpensive way for families and friends to see amazing places and do lots of fun things.
If you’re not a camper and feel daunted heading out for your first trip, here are some answers to those questions you may have.
Where can I camp?
There are many campgrounds listed in this guide. Most are managed by the Forest Service, Idaho State Parks and Recreation, Bureau of Land Management, and a few other public agencies. Idaho Power also owns and operates several campgrounds.
State parks, Idaho Power campgrounds and private campgrounds tend to be the most developed, and you can typically find flush toilets, running water, showers, RV hookups, etc.
At some of those places, you may even find a cup of gourmet coffee and get Wi-Fi in your tent or RV.
Expect to pay about $20 to $30 per night depending on what services you use. Don’t expect solitude because they are popular. They are also closely monitored by campground managers or hosts.
Many state parks also have cabins and yurts, which makes it really easy to go camping if you don’t have all the gear, or if you want more weather protection than a tent offers.
Forest Service and BLM campgrounds tend to be less developed and cheaper.
Expect to pay $5 to $20 per night. They typically have centrally located outhouses and water pumps that campers share. Most also have fire rings and picnic tables. Some have campground hosts, but many do not.
Most Forest Service and BLM campgrounds do not have RV hookups, but many have paved RV pads.
What are other ways to find campgrounds?
The “Idaho Road and Recreation Atlas” is a good state-wide source for campgrounds and ways to access them. Forest Service maps are another option, but they cover a limited area. If you have maps for the Boise, Sawtooth and Payette national forests, you will find nearly a lifetime supply of campgrounds.
You can also go to parksandrecreation.idaho.gov to find state parks, as well as maps and details, as well as make reservations there.
Visitidaho.org has a good database of places to camp. Click on “places to stay.”
Do I need a reservation to camp?
Depends. If you camp between Memorial Day and Labor Day, especially weekends, it’s a good idea, but you will pay an extra fee.
You can make reservations for state parks at parksandrecreation.idaho.gov, and at Forest Service or BLM campgrounds at recreation.gov.
Not all campsites are reservable, and most campgrounds have first-come, first-served sites as well as reserved campsites. If a popular campground is booked, most popular camping areas have more nearby. So if you get a sudden urge to go camping, don’t let the lack of a reservation stop you.
But if you want peace of mind and don’t mind paying a few bucks for it, reservations are a good option.
Do I have to camp in a campground?
No. You can camp on most publicly owned federal and state lands. No fees or permits are required in most cases. You do need to be self-contained. You should know how to camp with minimal impact on the land, and be careful with fire, and during summer there may be fire restrictions when campfires are not allowed outside designated campgrounds. You should should also bring a portable toilet.
There’s a different etiquette for camping outside of a developed campground. Most people use these spots for solitude. A good rule of thumb is to stay out of sight and hearing distance from the next camp whenever possible.
Is camping safe? Are there bears?
Yes, and yes. Camping is by and large a safe activity as long as you safeguard against the hazards common to all outdoor activities, including bears, but we will get back to that.
Use common sense, have a first-aid kit, and be careful with fire, propane and bottled fuels, etc.
Remember the weather can change quickly, especially in the mountains, so always bring warm clothes and extras. Have a good, weatherproof tent and a warm sleeping bag. Nights are cool in the mountains, even in summer.
Don’t leave your camp unattended for long periods. Theft occasionally happens, but it’s rare. And despite campfire tales, encounters with scary people are rare.
Now about those bears. Most of Idaho is bear habitat. It’s unlikely you will see a bear, much less have one raid your camp. But it does occasionally happen when bears are attracted to campsites for easy meals.
Learn the basics of camping in bear country, which is essentially storing your food to keep it away from bears and keep a clean camp so you don’t attract them in the first place.
Bear attacks on humans are extremely rare in Idaho. You’re more likely to get injured by bees than bears.
Can I get Wi-Fi, and will my cellphone work?
Depends. Many state parks and private campgrounds offer Wi-Fi, and some campgrounds have cell service.
Idaho is a very mountainous state, and cellphones don’t work well because mountains block cell signals. There are large swaths of Idaho that do not get cell service, so if it’s important to you, plan to camp in a state park or near towns where you’re more likely to have it.
Can I get my RV to the campground?
That’s a tricky, but important question. Many campgrounds are easily accessible from paved roads, but others require driving on dirt and gravel roads, and some backcountry campgrounds are in steep, rugged country best accessed by vehicles with high ground clearance.
The type of RV you have also comes into play. Motorhomes and large trailers may not be well suited for some back roads, and some Forest Service or BLM campgrounds are not designed for large RVs. Nearly all state parks that offer camping are RV accessible.
If in doubt, call the Forest Service or BLM office near the campground you are interested in to get more details before you decide whether to take your RV there.
Should I take my dog camping?
Dogs and camping go together like campfires and s’mores, but beware, when you hear about a camping disaster story, a dog is often a main culprit.
If you’re in a campground, dogs must be on a leash. Your dog doesn’t recognize the boundaries between campsites, so obey that rule.
If you’re camping outside a campground, you must keep an eye on your dog.
Consider Murphy’s Law at play. Your dog will eat things it shouldn’t, roll in things you don’t want it to, get wet and muddy, and then find your tent or RV irresistible. That’s no exaggeration. But your dog is part of the family, so take it.
When is the best time to camp?
As mentioned before, Idaho is very mountainous, which means prime camping seasons vary at different elevations.
May is typically prime time for southern Idaho because it’s lower in elevation and has more of a desert climate.
Many campgrounds in the mountains don’t open until June or July. This is low snow year, so most campgrounds in the mountains will open sooner than usual, but campgrounds at higher elevations (about 6,500 feet and higher) may not open until mid-to-late June.
A good rule of thumb is to camp at lower elevations in the spring, then move into the mountains during summer.
What if there’s an emergency when I am camping?
If you have cell service, calling 911 will usually put you in contact with the nearest sheriff’s office dispatcher.
But beware it may take a while for help to arrive. It’s always best to be prepared to handle it yourself.