Planning a camping trip can be a major source of anxiety for first-time campers. From picking a destination, to packing the right gear to stocking up on food supplies for the family – you may soon wonder why you didn’t choose that all-inclusive Mexican beach resort.
Campsite reservations are one of the necessary evils of camping. It’s not fun. It makes you want to rip out hair … but you have to do it. While online reservation may seem straightforward to experienced campers, first-timers may feel a slight sense of nausea at the thought of booking a campsite.
But … wait a second. I’ve looked online and it says the campground I want to stay at doesn’t accept reservations? Can I go camping without reservations? You ask.
This is where “Walk-Up” camping comes in. Let us explain.
What is Walk-Up Camping?
Walk-up camping or “first-come, first-serve” camping is where a campsite cannot be reserved ahead of the planned arrival date. Therefore, campers must physically show up at the campgrounds to get a site. At walk up campgrounds, sites are given to campers on a first-come, first serve basis.
Believe it or not, many campgrounds around the U.S. and Canada only offer walk up camping. Others require a reservation during the peak months of June, July, August and September, but offer walk-up camping during the non-peak camping seasons.
Now that we know the general answer to the question what is walk-up camping? let’s quickly get a better grasp on the details. If you want to dive right into the walk-up camping tips, you can jump to them RIGHT HERE.
Walk-Up Camping: What to Know
“Isn’t that cool! I can just drive up to a campground and easily grab a site,” you say. Well … as the great Lee Corso would say:
Historically, making a camping reservation was tedious at best – and impossible at worst. Online reservations have made things significantly easier over the years. You can go on official campground reservation sites like Recreation.gov and book a campground reservation for thousands of campgrounds online.
The great thing is that you can find out right on the website the day that the reservations open (typically 6 months in advance) so if you are diligent you can nab a site at one or more of your preferred campgrounds.
The flip side of this coin is that while it is easier than ever to make a campground reservation, the explosive popularity of camping and RVing have made harder than ever to actually score a reservation. If you don’t book your reservation at least 4 months in advance you can forget getting a spot at some of the more popular campgrounds.
This is where walk-up camping serves its unique purpose. If every campground from Miami to Milwaukee is booked for the summer, there are thousands of walk-up campsites all across the country that can accommodate campers.
The Bad News About Camping Without Reservations
First-come, first-serve camping may sound like an egalitarian paradise – but in reality walk-up camping is not all glitter and cupcakes. The stone cold truth is that walk-up campsites are no longer a secret in the camping world. Any experienced camper will have knowledge of these sites and with a little experience will able to outfox you for these coveted spots.
Remember, you will likely be traveling at least and hour or more to a campsite and the last thing you want to do is show up with a car packed full of gear, food and screaming children only to be turned away by the park ranger. Next thing you know you will be stuffing your faces with homemade potato salad at the I-95 rest stop.
16 Expert Tips to Secure a Walk-Up Camping Site
What can you do to put the odds in your favor of securing one of those coveted walk-up camping sites? Below are 16 expert tips to help put you on an even playing field with your competition:
- Call the Campground Ahead of Time: Most walk-up campers will drive 7 hours to camp, but won’t take 5 minutes to call the park in advance. A quick call to the park ranger can help you learn which days and times fill up the quickest. Park ranger’s tend to be extraordinarily friendly and they will typically give you sound advice as to the best times to show up. Walk-up camping availability will hinge on many factors including the park, the weather and the time of season – a simple call to gather information can tilt the odds in your favor of landing a prime spot.
- Show Up Early: If you want to guarantee yourself a spot at a walk-up campsite, check the website for the time the park opens … and then show up two hours earlier. We’ve heard stories where at top walk-up campgrounds like Yosemite National Park Camp 4, there have been lines of campers in sleeping bags waiting for the ranger’s kiosk to open. If you are serious about getting a walk-up camping site, pack all your gear the night before and get ready to hit the road early to get to your campsite. Sure, you may be tired, but you’ll probably have one of the best views in the entire park to rest your weary head.
- Arrive the Night Before: If you are very serious and don’t want to take any chances on being locked out of a site, show up the night before. Yes, this might sound a bit crazy, but most parks have car parks where you can show up and wait overnight. It’s the only way to truly guarantee yourself a campsite.
- Show Up at Checkout Time: A good, but certainly not foolproof, strategy is to show up an hour or two before the posted check out time. If the checkout time for the day is 4pm, show up at 3pm and wait and see if enough spots open up for you to get in. It’s a bit of a riskier strategy, but it could pay dividends if you don’t want to wake up at the crack of dawn to secure your campsite.
- Take Whatever You Can Get: Walk-Up camping is not the time to be picky. So what if you get the campsite that is a mile and a half-away from the gorgeous lake you drove 9 hours to see? We have a saying for situations like this in our family: take what you get and don’t get upset.
- Go During Off-Peak Season: The summer months of Mid-May, June, July, August and mid-September tend to be peak season for camping. If you plan on walk-up camping, it may be a good idea to try a date during the off-peak seasons where competition will be much less fierce. Yes, you risk getting cold or rainy weather, but you can also get one of those crisp, chamber-of-commerce days where everything is just perfect.
- Avoid Holidays: This is pretty self explanatory. Labor Day. 4th of July. Fah-get about it. If you go during one of these holiday weekends, you get what is coming to you.
- Go On Weekdays Instead of Weekends: For obvious reasons, Friday night through Sunday night will be the most popular times for camping. If you can manage to get a few days off from work (cough, cough, sniffle) head out on a Monday or Tuesday and you probably won’t have much problem securing a great camping spot. That said, during the peak season, weekdays can be surprisingly crowded so it is definitely worth calling the park ahead of time to ask about the crowds.
- Have 3 Reasonable Alternatives: Preparing for a camping trip is a big undertaking and the last thing you want is to be turned away and have no Plan B. Before you leave for your walk-up camping trip, locate and have directions ready for at least 3 other campsites in a 50-mile radius (or larger depending on area) of your desired campground. If you spend just 30 minutes planning out your trip, you can locate campgrounds in a straight line on a map that you can access if your first choice is fully reserved. There might be 2, 3 or even 4 different campsites in larger national parks – sometimes with different entrances, so it might be worthwhile to check each entrance if they are separately manned.
- Try the First and/or Last Week of the Season: Most parks have a designated camping season. The first and last weeks of the camping season generally tend to be the least trafficked due to the unpredictable weather. If you want to put the odds in your favor at a popular national park, try out the first or last week.
- Go During Winter: Hear us out, camping during the wintertime is one of the most beautiful times to see the country. First, remember that there are States like Florida, California and Texas that have gorgeous temperatures during the winter and offer amazing hot weather camping. Secondly, the snowy peaks and valleys of mountain ranges during winter can give you a totally different perspective on your camping.
- Consider Off-The-Beaten Trail Campgrounds: Everyone is angling to get to parks like Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Zion, but there are literally thousands and thousands of parks and forests around the US and Canada. There is no limited supply of beauty in North America as each site has its own magic and beauty. There are plenty of off-the-beaten path walk-up campsites that will get little visitor traffic because of their location, weather or lack of a feature like a lake, mountain, canyon, etc. This doesn’t mean they are any less spectacular. Go ahead, and give these sites a try and you may stumble upon a place you fall in love with.
- Wait It Out: So you show up at the walk-up campgrounds only to find a huge line. Yikes. Should you pack it up and go? Maybe (especially if you have little one). However, if you are dead set on getting a campsite, patience is a virtue. If you are in no rush, there is nothing wrong with parking and speaking to the ranger to let him or her know you will be spending the day at the park. If you get a (very) nice ranger, you can give him or her your number and ask them to contact you if any cancellations or early check-outs occur. If not, you can wait for a few hours to see if anyone leaves – there is a decent chance somebody will leave early – you just need to be the first one in line to claim the spot.
- Utilize Social Media: There are tons of Facebook groups dedicated to RV’ing and camping. If you are looking for more information on a walk-up campground, put out a message to the group. Campers are not only some of the friendliest in real life, but also on the interwebs. You can source years of expert information from longtime campers who can give you some tips on how to secure a walk-up camping spot.
- Try BLM and National Forest Lands: Rather than National Parks, check out lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or Forest Lands. With 245 million acres of land in the United States, BLM lands offer fabulous, and often less crowded, camping spots. You can find a wide variety of BLM camping options online.
- Consider a Change in Camping Format: One thing to consider that is that most campgrounds generally have more tenting campsites than RV sites. Even more so, many campgrounds only have a limited number of “full hookup” (electric, water, sewer) for RVs. It’s a good idea to consider what camping format will give you the best chance at securing a walk-up campsite. If there are 100 tent sites, but only 10 RV sites at your desired campground, it can be an opportunity to try something new.
Final Word On Walk-Up Camping
While walk-up camping can come with quite a few headaches, it remains an equitable and fair way to gain access to some of North America’s best campgrounds. With just a bit of determination (and maybe one very early morning), you have the ability to enjoy a front row seat to some of the most beautiful locations on the planet.
If you have been walk-up camping and want to share any tips or advice, we encourage our loyal community of readers to leave comments or send us a message. We constantly are learning new and exciting ways to camp – many of which have just taken hold in the past few years.
Stay strong. Stay safe and as always …