It was the sound of hiking boots crunching in gravel that caught my attention.
Just minutes before I’d finished setting up my tent along one bank of Minster Creek, a small native brook trout stream in Allegheny National Forest, in northwestern Pennsylvania.
On the way in I’d passed an older couple. They were sitting under the canopy of their small trailer, in the first campsite off the road, enjoying the late afternoon shade.
I’d crawled by in my truck, not wanting to kick up dust. We’d traded waves.
Now, the husband half of the duo approached.
“Howdy,” he said. “How’s it going?”
“Pretty good so far,” I replied, turning around from the open tailgate across which I’d been pulling gear. “Can’t complain out here anyway.”
He agreed with a smile and said they’d seen me setting up. He’d waited, not wanting to interrupt.
Now, though, he asked if I could use some firewood.
Tiny campgrounds can be found on lots of public land, especially national forests.
Bob Frye/Everybody Adventures
Truth be told, I had a bunch back home, cut, split and piled by our fence. But in these times, when you’re not supposed to move firewood around for fear of spreading invasive insects, I’d left it there.
My plan was to instead scrounge some on site or buy it nearby, and now here was this offer.
“We’re pulling out tomorrow morning. There’s no way we’ll be able to use all that we’ve got left, and I’d rather not have to pack it up,” he said. “It’s yours if you want it.”
I took it, and gladly. We walked back to his trailer, each filled our arms with logs, and carried it back to my site.
The chance for a mountain pie was all I could offer in return, but he declined, saying they were turning in soon so as to get an early start. So we simply shook hands before he turned and walked away.
It was a genuinely friendly gesture, albeit one he’d made to me in particular – at least in part – because I was about the only game in town.
And by design, too.
A small truck bed-style camper occupied another site in the campground. It was parked on the opposite side of the entrance road, halfway between me and the older couple.
I’d seen no one about. Presumably, they were out fishing or hiking, just as I planned to be the next few days.
Still, their presence brought the campground to half capacity.
Minister Creek contains just six sites.
But it’s all the more wonderful for it.
That’s why I was there, in fact. There were plenty of other campsites, public and private, nearby, all offering access to the same outdoors.
But tiny campgrounds – available on a surprising number of public lands around the country – offer just the right mix of minimal amenities and seclusion to make for perfect getaways.
The trick is finding them, and then being ready for what they offer and what they don’t.
Here are some tips for both.
First, search the web. Decide where you want to camp, generally, then look for parks and forests nearby. National forests in particular are a good bet for tiny campgrounds.
The Allegheny offers Minister Creek. George Washington and Jefferson national forests in Virginia has North River Campground, with nine sites, Monogahela National Forest in West Virginia has Bear Heaven Campground, with eight, while Wayne National Forest in Ohio has Hune Bridge and Lane Farm campgrounds, with four each.
There are similar examples all over.
Avoid reservations and bring cash. The tiniest campgrounds don’t generally accept advance reservations; it’s first come, first serve. There’s still a fee to stay the night, ranging from $5 a night on up.
Specific forest and parks websites will state prices.
In all cases, you pay by stuffing money in an envelope and putting it in a drop box.
Getting a spot on peak weekends difficult can be at times. But if you can go mid-week, or at least get there early, it’s a wonderful experience.
Think about tenting. Most tiny campgrounds are suitable for either tents or small campers. There are some public campgrounds, though – there are three in Pennsylvania state parks, for example – that only permit tent camping.
These campgrounds may be a little bigger than four or six sites. But they rarely offer more than 15 or 20 either.
And the tent-only rule often keeps the crowds down.
Get off the beaten path. Some parks and forests are extremely popular because of their attractions, be they manmade or natural. They’re always busy.
Sometimes, though, it’s possible to enjoy those special things during the day, then retreat to quieter environs at night.
Find where you want to visit, then look on the map for other nearby parks. In more than a few cases, there will be a smaller, less visited park nearby with its own, smaller campground.
You’ll drive a bit back and forth to enjoy the best of both worlds, but the tradeoff can be worth it.
Plan to be self sufficient. Tiny campgrounds don’t offer the amenities – think swimming pools, electric hookups, laundry facilities and showers – of more modern campgrounds. But nor is spending the night in one as primitive an experience as backpacking or dispersed camping, where you simply pull off at a wide spot in the road and set up shop.
You can expect a picnic table and a fire ring and, usually, a pit toilet. Maybe water, maybe not. And that’s it.
So bring what you’ll need, including a garbage bag for trash.
Take games or things to do. The main attraction at tiny campgrounds is the surrounding countryside, right? The hiking, the fishing, the paddling.
If you’re camping in a place like this for the first time, though, with children who are accustomed to constant entertainment, think of ways to keep them busy, especially after dark.
A checkerboard, cards or other game than can be played on a picnic table – the exact kind of activity no one would consent to at home – can be awfully fun while you eat s’mores and mountain pies.
So get on out there. I’ve got plans to use a few tiny campgrounds this summer and fall, as jumping off points for adventure.
Maybe you do, too. If so, perhaps we’ll share some firewood.