How Important Is it to Reserve a Campsite?
To get a little R&R in the outdoors do you also need to get an RSVP, and, if so, how far in advance?
One of the best parts of camping is getting away from it all—sitting outside your camper, under a star-filled sky with your campfire roaring and a steak on the grill grate, beverage of choice in hand. And, nothing but the sound of tree frogs and crickets and cicadas and the occasional nocturnal bird calling to you. This is peace and quiet.
Except…well, campsites may not always be quite that peaceful.
That’s not to say it’s not fun or that camping isn’t a great alternative to just staying at home on the couch. But during the spring, summer, and fall months—and especially since the global pandemic has sparked a new interest in camping—a lot of these campgrounds can fill up quickly. That’s doubly true if we’re talking about national parks and popular state parks.
You may hear veteran campers talk about the “old days” when they could pull up to nearly any campground they wanted and get prime real estate under the trees or on the beach, without any reservation.
These days, how important is it to reserve a campsite?
Do I Have to Reserve a Campsite?
The short answer is no, you don’t have to reserve a campsite. But it’ll certainly cause fewer headaches and open up your opportunities if you do.
Many campsites in national parks these days do require reservations and don’t allow first-come-first-served arrivals. It helps the park better plan resources and prevent major traffic jams and other issues. If you’re not dead set on staying in one of these places, you can try your hand at other campgrounds.
Picture this scenario. You’ve just packed up your camper from Point A, and you jump in and head on your way to Point B. It’s a long day, with a couple of stops for sightseeing along the way. By the time you’re getting near Point B, you’ve been on the road for most of the day, you’re all hungry, and setting up camp might already sound like a chore.
Except when you pull up to the closest campground, you see a sign that says they’re full. And you move on to the next nearest campground, and—bad news, they’re full too. This could go on and on. Ultimately, you may end up boondocking in the parking lot of a big-box store (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but when you want to camp in the middle of nature, that parking lot is not it.
But, if pulling up to a campground and heading straight to the site that you know is waiting there for you sounds more like how you’d like to enjoy your trip, then making a reservation is a good idea. And not just making a reservation, but doing so as far in advance as you’re allowed wouldn’t hurt either, just so you don’t miss out.
Tips for Reserving a Campsite
If campsites tend to fill up fast, how difficult is it to book a spot? That depends on a lot of variables, like the time of year, location, and popularity of the spot. Some major national parks, like Yosemite or Yellowstone, fill up very fast. Other state parks may not be quite as popular—though, at the same time, they may not be as large or offer as many campsites, so they may fill up quickly too, especially on holidays.
There are plenty of tips for booking the spot you’re looking for, though. Follow these suggestions, and you may find you have an easier time booking.
Have a Plan
For really popular spots, flying by the seat of your pants just isn’t going to cut it. You have to know where you want to stay—not just down to the park but to the campground itself. Be ready to book it quickly. And on that note…
Know When Site Reservations Open
Do some research ahead of time. Some national parks will only open reservations up to six months in advance of the booking date. For some holidays, they may only open up to 90 days ahead of time. That can make for some compact planning, but if you know when reservations go live, you’re much more likely to get your site.
Look for Nearby Alternatives
Is your campground full? Don’t run out of hope just yet. Most major national parks and a fair number of smaller state parks all have loads of other campgrounds around them. Sure, they may not be inside the park gates, but they’re close enough and many offer amenities you may not find inside, like RV hookups and fun things to keep the kids busy like pools and bike rentals. Good Sam’s Find A Park tool makes this a breeze.
Start Months in Advance
This one’s not easy to hear, but your best bet for snagging the perfect camping spot is to start your planning months ahead of time. Book your route, have a time of arrival set and know where you want to go. Most campgrounds offer maps of their locations, and you can read reviews for specific sites within each campground to find the one that works for you, your family, your vacation, and your RV.
Know the Tools
Most campsites in the states use recreation.gov and Reserve America to make their bookings. Get used to these sites, their user interface, and get ready to click like a madman when the bookings go live.
Easy for me to say, but the more flexible you can be with your dates, the easier it will be to book yourself the perfect campsite. Try getting your reservations before you take time off work, or see if there’s a way to work remotely while you’re traveling. Shifting your dates by a couple of days may make all the difference—and ultimately, give you an even better, more peaceful experience on your trip.