I stayed at a campground for the first time in a camper van during the off-season, and I didn't think it was worth the price

Frank Olito
·9 min read
frank olito camper van
My camper van at the campground. Frank Olito/ Insider
  • In January, I rented a camper van and stayed at a campground for the first time.

  • The campground, which cost $60 a night, was largely empty and some amenities were unavailable.

  • After sleepless nights, the experience just didn't seem worth the steep cost to me.

  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

I'm the first to admit that I'm a city person through and through, so when I booked a stay at a campground for the first time, I was immediately apprehensive.

I decided to rent a luxury camper van back in January and looked into campgrounds around New York City. I was surprised by how few campgrounds were open during the off-season, but, eventually, I booked the Philadelphia South/ Clarksboro KOA campground in Clarksboro, New Jersey, which was just outside of Philadelphia.

When the weekend came, I left my city apartment and ventured into the unknown world of campgrounds. Here's how it went.

The night before I arrived at the campground, I slept in a Cracker Barrel parking lot, so I was looking forward to a more RV-friendly atmosphere.

Frank Olito camper van
My rented camper van in the Cracker Barrel parking lot. Frank Olito/ Insider

My friend and I slept in the Cracker Barrel parking lot to get the full van-life experience since most vanlifers sleep in the parking lots of big brands like Walmart.

During our one-night stay at the Cracker Barrel in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania, we parked in one of the designated RV spots but were woken up by a dumpster truck in the middle of the night.

The next morning, I was ready to leave the parking lot and head to a campground that promised better infrastructure for RVs.

When I arrived, I checked in at the office and learned my campsite was all the way in the back of the grounds.

frank olito camper van
The welcome center with houses next door. Frank Olito/ Insider

I was immediately surprised to see the campground was located in the middle of a suburban neighborhood — even though I didn't check the location beforehand. While this one was well-located for my visit to Philadelphia, in my mind, campgrounds are located in the middle of nowhere and tucked away in dense woods. Pulling up to the campground, I instantly knew all my preconceived notions were about to be proved wrong.

Inside the welcome center I found a gift shop of sorts where RVers could buy products and firewood for their campsites. A woman working at the front desk, who unfortunately didn't have a mask on, gave me a map of the grounds and pointed to my parking spot at the far end of the grounds.

Andrea Gardea, the regional marketing manager for KOA, said all staff and guests must wear masks when inside the store and at other communal locations on the campground. She said I should have brought the maskless front desk person to the manager's attention immediately.

"During future stays please don't hesitate to share any concerns with us so we can address them in a timely manner," Gardea said. "We always want to ensure our guests are comfortable at all points of their stay with us."

The campsite had a gravel driveway for parking, a patch of cement, a picnic table, and a fire pit.

Frank Olito camper van
The campsite. Frank Olito/ Insider

When booking the campsite, I had to do a bit of research to understand the different types of parking models. I learned that a back-in required the driver to back into the spot and started at $68 per night. A pull-through was easier to manage for beginners, so ultimately, I opted for the simpler option, which cost $60 per night.

At first, the price surprised me. I always thought that campsites were an inexpensive way to travel on the road, but in my opinion, $60 was a bit steep. If I planned on staying at the campsite for a month — like some vanlifers do — it would have cost me around $1,800, which is more than my New York City rent.

On average, a typical campsite near national parks could cost anywhere from $25 to $60 per night, but the price varies greatly across the US. Gardea said the campsite I stayed at was appropriately priced.

"In our research of the local market, we have found our pricing to be well-aligned and competitive with campgrounds that have similar offerings in terms of site types, amenities, and services in our area," Gardea said. "One of the beautiful things about camping is that there are lots of ways and places to camp to fit all kinds of travelers."

The campsite also had a hookup stand that would come to haunt me later in the night.

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The amp set up. Frank Olito/ Insider

There was a 30 and 50 amp setup, which is what most vanlifers use for electricity.

When I first rented the van, the owner quickly walked me through the process of plugging the van into a campsite's amp, but in practice, I couldn't figure it out. I ignorantly figured that the amp setup was just an optional choice since the van already had solar panels, so I decided to forgo plugging in the vehicle.

Later, I learned just how wrong I was.

When I looked around, I was surprised that the campground looked largely empty.

Frank Olito van life
The largely empty campground. Frank Olito/ Insider

The parking spots next to, in front of, and behind the camper van were vacant for my entire stay. There were a few RVs toward the back corner, but there didn't seem to be much activity.

Although RVing boomed last year during the pandemic, I had to remind myself that the campground was most likely empty because it was deep into the off-season.

I decided to walk around the campground to see what it had to offer.

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A skirted RV at the campground. Frank Olito/ Insider

Some RVs were skirted, which is when owners wrap the bottom of their motorhomes in insulation during the winter to keep the warm air in and the cold air out.

Since most of the RVs in the back of the campground were skirted, I figured a lot of them were parked there for longer-term stays.

A few parking spots down from my campsite, there was a bathroom and laundromat.

frank olito camper van
The bathrooms. Frank Olito/ Insider

The bathroom was pretty barebones, but it was also clean. I tried to avoid it at all costs because most people who went in and out of it weren't wearing masks or practicing social distancing —despite the signage that was all over the campground.

"All signs ask campers to adhere to social distancing guidelines along with wearing mask coverings," Gardea said.

I was also surprised to find a few cabins that people could rent for short-term stays.

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The cabins. Frank Olito/ Insider

According to the campground's website, these tiny houses cost between $80 to $130 per night, which is about the same price for a hotel room in the area.

Next to the cabins was a pond where people could fish.

frank olito camper van
The lake. Frank Olito/ Insider

There were a few geese at the pond, too. I couldn't help but imagine how beautiful this lake would be in the summertime, especially without all the mud that surrounded it in January.

There was also an empty children's playground.

frank olito camper van
The playground. Frank Olito/ Insider

The playground had a large inflatable jumping pillow. When I was there, however, it was deflated because people could not practice social distancing when using it, according to Gardea.

There were a few communal seating areas, which were also empty.

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The communal seating area. Frank Olito/ Insider

The seating areas had Adirondack chairs and tables, but they weren't being used.

At the front of the campground, there was a swimming pool, which was closed for the season.

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The pools. Frank Olito/ Insider

The campground also has a kiddie pool — both of which are open from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

After my tour of the campground, I went to explore the city of Philadelphia for the day and returned to a dark van at night.

Frank Olito camper van
Trying to sleep in a winter jacket. Frank Olito/ Insider

When I returned, I found that the camper van had no electricity. I instantly cursed myself for not having plugged the van into the amp earlier in the day. At that point, it was too dark in the van to find the cord and too dark outside to find the amp switch.

Instead, I walked around the camper van in complete darkness. Unfortunately, the heater in the van had broken the night before, so I also had to endure freezing cold temperatures.

This night at the campground was one of the worst night's sleep I've ever had. I shivered through the night, and I had to dress in multiple layers (including my winter jacket) to keep somewhat warm. I also couldn't check the time on my phone because it died, and I couldn't charge it without electricity.

I barely slept and instead stayed up all night long in the dark, waiting for the sun to rise.

Thankfully, the morning hours at the campground were the best part of my entire experience.

Frank Olito camper van
Morning in the camper van. Frank Olito/ Insider

Despite a horrific night's sleep, the morning was very serene. I opened the backdoors of the van, looked out onto the woods, and listened to the quiet that surrounded the park all morning.

Although I wasn't looking out on a beautiful beach or an epic seaside cliff like I always see on the van life hashtag on social media, this wasn't so bad either — if just I tried to ignore the fact that I was also staring directly into someone's backyard through the trees.

Although the campground was largely peaceful and clean, I don't recommend heading to one during the off-season.

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The campsite. Frank Olito/ Insider

My lack of enjoyment of the overall experience was partly down to my own inexperience and not being better prepared — but it was also due to the fact that the campground during the winter months was a strange and empty place because no one was outside or gathering in the communal areas.

Campgrounds are a great option for RVers and van lifers but perhaps only during the peak season. During the off-season at this specific campground, I ended up paying a lot of money but didn't have any access to the amenities, like the pools.

I can easily imagine the Philadelphia South/ Clarksboro KOA coming to life in the summer, making it feel less like a ghost town, and maybe, then I would think the price was worth it.

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