Summer camping season is officially here. All across the country families, couples, and rugged single guys armed with their trusty hammocks are gearing up for long weekends and extended vacations in the great outdoors.
Seasoned campers know how crazy campgrounds can get at the height of summer vacation. From Memorial Day to Labor Day the most popular spots are jam-packed with people all clamoring for the best site with a view.
Don’t let the masses get you down. Outsmart the crowds with these simple tips for the best summer camping season ever!
The first tip for beating the crowds is to make a campground reservation. Securing a reservation takes the stress out of summer camping. Knowing that you have a place to sleep after spending all day driving often means the difference between a stressful or relaxed first day of vacation. Most campgrounds (both private and public) take reservations up to a year in advance.
There are a few things to keep in mind before you make a campground reservation.
- What is the the cancellation policy? Most campgrounds charge a cancellation fee ranging from a few bucks to a half of the total (or more). The cancellation fee usually increases the closer you get to your reservation time, and some private campgrounds don’t offer refunds at all, so knowing the policy is a must before you make a reservation.
- Are you reserving a specific site or just a spot in the campground? Reservation systems vary from campground to campground. Sometimes you can choose from available sites while reserving, and sometimes you simply reserve a spot in the campground and are either assigned a site or choose one upon arrival. If you are not reserving a specific spot make sure the campground knows the size of your RV and any preferences you have in regards to utilities.
- Is your site suitable for your needs? If you are making an online reservation for a campground where you can choose a site, be sure to fill out the fields for RV length and utility options. If you reserve a 20’ long site and show up with your 45’ motorhome, changing sites might not be possible.
- No spots available? Check back frequently for cancellations. Since many people make reservations early, they also cancel those reservations frequently. While cancellations are not always easy to snap up, checking the reservation system often can result in a lucky find, and sometimes campgrounds have a waiting list that will notify you when a cancellation appears.
Don’t like to plan ahead? Try for a first -come, first-served site
Not everyone likes to make reservations. I get it. Planning ahead is not always practical, nor does it lend well to spontaneous vacations. I personally prefer not to make reservations and only do so when I know it to be a necessity (like that time we wanted to spend Labor Day weekend at Glacier National Park).
Luckily, for those of us who prefer to live and camp on a less rigid schedule, many campgrounds offer first-come, first-served options. This basically means that some or all sites are not reservable and only available to those who show up in person. The majority of state and national park campgrounds have at least a few sites set aside that cannot be reserved. And many national forest campgrounds do not take reservations at all, instead of keeping all sites as first-come, first-served.
Of course, the risk to trying to snag a first-come, first-served site is that you might show up and find that all the sites are already taken. Avoid this problem by following these simple tips.
- Show up early—before 10 am if possible. Pro tip: Find a close campground or parking lot to spend the previous night so you can zip over first thing to claim a spot.
- Most people go home on Sunday. Use this to your advantage. Plan to arrive on a Sunday or Monday morning for the best chance of getting a site.
- Call the campground in the morning to see if any sites are available. They won’t usually hold a site for you, but at least you’ll know it it’s worth driving over to check it out.
- Have an alternate plan. First-come, first-served sites at some popular campgrounds can be very hard to get. The campgrounds at places like Zion and Yellowstone National Park usually fill up everyday before noon. Always assume you won’t get a site, have an alternate place to stay, and be very happy if you do get a site.
Seek out alternatives to the most popular campgrounds
The most popular campgrounds tend to be those near a beach or national park. These coveted locations often turn into mad houses during the busy summer camping season. Beat the crowds by seeking out more remote campgrounds a short distance from these popular locations.
Instead of a beachside campground, how about one that is a 20-minute drive away? Or instead of staying inside a national park, why not find a campground in a nearby town or national forest?
Finally, if you really want to avoid the crowds, the hassle of making reservations, or competing for a few coveted sites, consider camping without the campground. It’s a practice commonly called boondocking, and if you don’t mind foregoing a few luxuries (because you know the pool will be overflowing with kids everyday anyway), this is the perfect solution to busy campgrounds.
There’s a lot to know about boondocking, and it’s not practical for everyone or in every place, but when the summer camping crowds get out of control this is a sure-fire way to find some peace and quiet in out of the way, scenic locations.