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Examining Our Campsite Shortage Problem, Which Is Actually a Reservation Problem

Across the country, hard-to-nab spots are sitting vacant. How do we make sure these coveted spaces aren’t going to waste?

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The sign at the front of Albee Creek Campground inside California’s Humboldt Redwoods State Park clearly reads: “Campground full.” It was a Friday in mid-August last summer, and although this stunning space is relatively remote—four hours north of San Francisco on Highway 101, near the coast—all the spots in the park were completely booked. Still, I thought I might have a chance of scoring one if I showed up in person.

“Do you mind if I just drive through?” I asked the park ranger in attendance. She shrugged, then said, “Go ahead. But we’re full.”

On my way along the loop, all the sites, as predicted, had reserved signs out front. But of the 40 spots, less than half were actually occupied. A majority were empty—not a single tent or Coleman stove in sight.

This is not a rare occurrence. In fact, no-shows, as they’re called, are happening at an alarming rate at campgrounds around the country. “It’s challenging to get a reservation, but then you show up at the park and there’s hardly anybody there,” says Robyne Stevenson, a retired college professor turned travel writer who now lives full-time in her RV. “For the person who didn’t show up, the penalties are low, so it’s not a big deal. But it is a big deal for those who are looking for a place and can’t find one. If you don’t cancel, you’re robbing others of the opportunity to spend time in this great park.”

Here’s what’s happening: months in advance, people are mass-booking sites in a frenzied hurry, fearing a shortage of availability during peak summer season. In a 2022 camping report from site-finding app the Dyrt, those surveyed reported that it felt three times more difficult to find openings in 2021 than in years prior, and 53 percent of users made reservations at least a few weeks in advance.

“There’s the psychological aspect working against us. Everyone’s looking at it from a scarcity mindset,” says Eric Karjaluoto, co-founder of Campnab, a site that alerts users about cancellations. “People freak out and grab more than they need. It’s like toilet paper at the beginning of the pandemic. People feel stressed and panicked about booking.”

They’re making these reservations so far in advance that when it comes time to pack up sleeping bags and marshmallows, many people either forget or life gets in the way and they don’t end up going. For some, eating the cost of a $30 fee isn’t a big deal. For others, the simple act of canceling itself feels cumbersome. “There are systemic issues in how camping works that’s causing this problem, and one of them is really confusing cancellation policies,” Karjaluoto says.

Every state park system has a different procedure, and most of the fine print is confusing at best. At New York State Parks campgrounds, the closer to your arrival date you cancel, the less money you get back. In Washington, the fee to end the reservation depends on how long ago you made the booking. In Maine, any changes must be made by the person who paid for it; no exceptions. In many states, taking action within a certain number of days results in a cancellation fee (usually $10 or so), plus the first night’s charge, which means if you were only staying one night, it actually costs more to notify the system than to not show up.

Wyoming State Parks, which has seen a major spike in visitor numbers throughout the pandemic, changed its policies in 2021 in an attempt to reduce the number of no-shows by eliminating the fee and allowing folks to make changes up to the day of arrival.

“Because of the way our system works with a yearly overnight camping pass, a lot of our in-state residents see no consequence to making reservations and not going,” says Nick Neylon, deputy director for Wyoming’s Division of State Parks and Outdoor Recreation Office. “It was creating a huge problem for us. We had people who really wanted to use those sites and weren’t able to do so. They were being locked out.”

The Wyoming State Parks system also implemented a four-strikes policy to penalize those who repeatedly no-showed, going as far as disabling future bookings if you’re a repeat offender. And if you don’t show up by 11 a.m. on day two of your reserved time, that site is put back into inventory for others. Wyoming also started changing its online messaging, reminding people to be a good neighbor. Emails go out now that read, “If you’re not going to use your site, let another family enjoy it.”

The same issue is happening at major national parks around the country, where reservations at places like Yosemite, Yellowstone, and Arches are nearly impossible to get during peak season, yet still sites are left vacant. One avid camper I spoke with said he spent weeks trying to score a place at Glacier in August, and when he got there, half the sites were empty. Recreation.gov, which manages bookings for national parks, charges a $10 service fee for cancellations and a $20 no-show fee at most sites in an attempt to discourage folks from wasting their spots.

Privately owned sites, ranging from RV parks to those hosted by rental companies like Hipcamp, have less of an issue with no-shows than state and national parks. That’s because overnight fees are significantly higher and refunds are easy to obtain. Also, most private destinations have on-the-ground staff who answer the phone and can handle last-minute changes or requests, unlike public sites.

But increasing the cost doesn’t seem like the solution to this no-show problem. That would alienate even more people who can’t afford to pay $50 a night to pitch a tent on public lands. The real solution? State parks need simpler, more flexible cancellation policies, and campers like you and me need to actually notify the system when we don’t need the site we booked. Then, the platform needs to reflect these openings in real time and let hosts know so that folks who show up without a reservation can nab a spot.

“We need to switch from a me to a we mindset. We all love nature, and we want to get out and do this,” Karjaluoto says. “Be kind, please cancel. If you look at canceling as an act of kindness, you could be giving your spot to a kid who’s going camping for the first time. Public resources shouldn’t be hoarded by anyone. It’s not a big ask. It’s clicking a button.”