In the past two years, Karen Weidert, a public health researcher from Berkeley, California, has managed to snag campsites at impossible-to-book spots around California, including the Steep Ravine Cabins in Mount Tamalpais State Park, one of the two hike-in sites at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, and Kirby Cove Campground in Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
To nab those state park campsites in peak season, it took Weidert hours of working the system before she was able to successfully book. She knew reservations opened up six months in advance at 8 a.m. Pacific Time, but even when she was ready to go on the dot, all the sites booked up instantly. “I realized I needed to understand how it worked in order to get a site,” Weidert says.
Look at the numbers and it’s easy to see why popular sites are hard to get. The 2021 North American Camping Report from KOA found that the number of U.S. households that engage in the activity grew by 3.9 million in 2020. More and more people are camping, especially since the pandemic started, yet there hasn’t been major growth in the number of spots available on public land, including state and national parks. Campgrounds within popular destinations, like Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, or Yosemite, book up literally the second they open.
There are, of course, still ways to go, like finding dispersed camping on BLM land, looking at private or less-busy public campgrounds, or booking a spot on private land via a site like Hipcamp. The good news is that websites like Hipcamp, Tentrr, and Harvest Hosts are working with landowners to add sites regularly to keep up with the growing demand, which makes them easier to get—though they’re also more expensive.
Or you can hold out for a cancellation. Sites like Campnab, Wandering Labs, and CampsitePhotos now have alert systems in place to notify you when a sold-out campground gets a cancellation. No-shows at first-come, first served sites used to be a way to score a last-minute spot, but during the pandemic, many campgrounds switched to advance reservations only, eliminating those walk-up opportunities.
What if I want to go camping in, say, Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay State Park? Do I really have to hover online months ahead of time like I’m buying tickets to a BTS concert? The answer is yes. So, I figured if I wanted to nab those sites, I better learn the system like Weidert did. That’s how I ended up calling around and asking experts how to book the most popular spots.
Step 1: Set a Calendar Reminder
Rebecca Friedland, a trip planning consultant and blogger at The Adventure Beckons, told me she would share her secrets because she thinks it’s important for people to get outside. “It’s a shame that it’s so hard, at least in this part of this country,” says Friedland, who lives in California. “If you don’t plan far ahead, summer will come up and you can’t camp where you want to camp.”
The first thing Friedland does is set calendar reminders for when the booking window opens up. If you’re trying to get a national park site, that’s usually five or six months to the day in advance. But be sure to check the site you’re booking on—or even call the campground or a park ranger—to confirm when the reservation window opens. For example, Yosemite has its own booking window and opens blocks one month at a time on the 15th of each month.
Step 2: Log in Ahead of the Booking Time
Six months ahead of the day she wants to book, Friedland often has two devices ready to go around five to ten minutes ahead of that 8 a.m. PT kickoff. Make sure you’re logged into Recreation.gov, the site the National Park System uses, or whatever state park system you’re trying to book through. (If you log in too early, the system may log you out after a certain amount of time, so aim for ten minutes ahead.)
Step 3: Select Your Sites, Then Click ‘Book Now’ at the Exact Time It Opens
Pick the campsite you want and select your preferred dates in advance of go-time. Click too soon or too late and you’ll miss it. “You literally have to click ‘book now’ on the exact second,” Friedland says. Her odds of scoring the site she wants this way? “I do this every month, and I’d say I get the sites every other month, so my odds are 50/50,” she says.
Eric Peterson, an RV camper from Spokane, Washington, who runs the website The Savvy Campers, says he’ll spend 15 days in a row in early winter, day after day, logging in to attempt to get a site at Montana’s Glacier National Park for midsummer. Usually by day 16 or 17, he’ll click the button at the right time and get a spot. Last summer, Peterson was able to book 14 days of camping at Glacier National Park in August.
“We were there, and 50 percent of people didn’t even show up. But they can’t sell the site to someone who’s there because whoever booked it might show up at midnight,” Peterson says. “People don’t cancel because [when] you’ve only booked one or two nights, the cancellation fee might be more expensive than what you paid for the sites.”
Peterson says there’s another trick, but it’s frowned upon by some because it’s basically cheating the system. “If you’re looking for a specific date, you can book out 14 days,” Peterson says. “Let’s say you want June 6 to 9. Book starting June 1 through June 14. Then cancel the days you don’t need.” If you wait until six months to the date before the specific dates you’re interested in, chances are the good sites will already be booked up. But if you go online six months to the date before, say, that Monday before (so five days earlier) and then book for the whole week, you stand a better chance of getting the dates that you want.
Peterson says he hopes the challenge of booking popular campsites doesn’t discourage people from wanting to go camping at bucket-list spots. There are alternative places to camp, he says, but if you’re set on going to somewhere like Grand Canyon or Yellowstone, you have to be on it.
“I’m sure this is frustrating for people who just bought a camper and now they can’t use it,” he says. “My advice is to plan out your year by January, know the booking windows, and book as soon as possible.”