It was five weeks before Memorial Day weekend and in casual conversation with my family the question was asked, “What are we going to do for Memorial Day?” Both my parents and I agreed that it was too late to get a camping spot on the lake. With a little further discussion, we all agreed to a cookout at the house was perfectly fine and what we all wanted to do.
“Let’s just check and see if there’s anything left up at the lake,” my dad said. We did, and there were a few camping spots left, but they were going quickly. And all the sudden we were in a race to book a spot on Lake Ouachita on Recreation.gov. In the furry of trying to snatch up such a hot commodity, we soon forgot our wants for a cookout at the house and were sure camping on the lake was what we were called to do on that particular holiday weekend.
Limited supply and time-sensitive sales is an old marketing technic. And I work in marketing, so I know this, but it still didn’t change my deep desire to camp out on the lake when I realized I only had a small chance to get in.
Unfortunately, the more popular public lands become the more competition there will be for premium camping reservations. Some people blame this on social media, in
What I do know is the more people finding enjoyment from the wilderness, the more people there are who want to protect it.
And the more people loving and protecting public lands, means I have to play the reservation race game to score camping reservations.
But if you know how to play it, you can win at it. I’ve compiled five ways to help you win at scoring top-notch camping reservations and backcountry spots.
1. Make your camping reservations early
Most places that are extremely popular fill up quickly. So if you know you want to visit a place like, say the Glacier National Park, you’ll want to make your reservations as soon as you have your plans finalized.
This is also good motivation for those who are like me and like to procrastinate.
2. Have a backup plan
I’ve filled out several backcountry permit reservation forms and many of them require you to create a second or even third option. They do this in case your first option is already taken, then they can go ahead and get you signed up for your second or third choice.
This is good practice whether you are mailing in a backcountry reservation, booking it online, or requesting one in person. It is also good to have a second car camping destination in mind when attempting to make a reservation for car camping at a popular destination.
3. Research your area and know how the system works
One of the best places to find out if you even need to play the camping reservations game is on the park’s website. Most national parks will tell you in the description of the campground if they typically fill up quickly.
While traveling to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, I noticed their website stated the park’s campgrounds were first-come-first-serve and filled up quickly. I knew I’d be getting there late, so I went ahead and booked a motel close to the park for the night of my arrival so I could be sure to get to the campgrounds by mid-morning.
4. Be ready to stand in line, and/or a digital line
Some places are worth standing in line for. My friend Lagena and I planned an impromptu trip to the Grand Canyon. When we finalized our plans, about a month from our trip date, I fervently began researching. I was disappointed to discover the only way to see the bottom of the Grand Canyon was via backpack or mule ride. And we were way past the deadline to mail off for backcountry permits.
But the park’s website gave details on how to score them in person. We had to stand in line about an hour for two days in a row, but we were able to obtain them.
I had thought about visiting Zion National Park, but like the Grand Canyon, came to my decision a little late. I thought I won’t even be able to get a backcountry permit at Zion. Zion is a super popular park and some day hikes even require permits. But I checked the website and learned they hadn’t yet opened the permit applications for when I wanted to go.
I checked for car camping spots and found one left, so I scooped it up. They opened up for backcountry permits at 10 a.m. Mountain Time on June 5 for August trips (when I will be there). I almost skipped a meeting at work, but I was ready to go when the backcountry permits became available for my online reservation.
5. Be considerate, cancel if you can’t make it
Because camping is the cheaper way to travel, sometimes when people’s plans change instead of canceling the reservation and trying to get their money back, they simply don’t show up. But if this happens to you, especially if you know it’s a popular place, the courteous thing to do is to cancel your reservation so someone else can enjoy the camping spot.
Don’t hate the player, just hate the game for camping reservations
I am not competitive. I hate competition. So when I’m sitting on the edge of my seat hoping to score top-notch camping reservations, I do not enjoy it. But I also know that I am part of the problem. Public lands do not exclusively belong to me, and if we want them to be accessible to all, sometimes we have to put up with playing the game to score camping reservations for places in the middle of nowhere. Yes, it takes more planning and preparation, but visiting these special places is worth it.