Growing up as a child, my parents would plan our trips months in advance. It felt as every detail was thought out and we were prepared for anything that could occur. My husband, on the contrary, grew up having his dad come home from work and on a whim saying “Kids let’s get in the car! We’re going on a road trip”! As the two of us started camping together, we’d compromise. Some of our itinerary was pre-determined, knowing when and where we were going, yet certain portions with in-betweens would be spontaneous excursions. Once we added kids into our equation and we had to coordinate our travels with their school and sport schedules, we never knew with certainty what dates would work for our trip. When we’d search online for reservations, it was too late, nothing was available! Talk about DISAPPOINTING! Needless to say, we turned to first come first served camping and have been quite pleased!
Many of us have no idea what our camping plans will be half a year in advance or we just procrastinate to point that all the desirable sites and dates are gone. Most campgrounds open their reservations 6 months before the date of availability, which means knowing in the winter exactly the dates you will be camping that summer. Based on all the various schedules being juggled, our family usually doesn’t know until a few weeks before that we’ll definitely be able to camp – crazy I know! It took quite a few years for me to be convinced but our family has become pretty comfortable (and fortunate!) with finding some AMAZING First Come First Served campgrounds and they are EVERYWHERE! You just need to know where to look!
Here is a list of 7 key tips for first come first served camping without reservations based on our experiences over the years.
1. Start with an online search
Search online for “first come first served campground” or “camping with no reservations” and add your target area to the search string. For example, search for “first come first served campground Yosemite”.
There are so many really good campgrounds that have been slated as First Come First Served (FCFS) in the National Parks system, in various State Parks systems, Bureau of Land Management (BLM) or National Forest lands. For instance, if you’re searching for first come first served camping in the California State Park system, they have a webpage specifically on that topic.
If your desired campground is within a National Park and you can’t obtain a site there, there are often adjacent National Forest lands that have many FCFS campgrounds available just beyond the Park boundaries.
Have a general idea of the region where you’d like to camp and compile a list. Rank campgrounds in your order of preference. Expect that order to change once you see some of the campgrounds in person.
2. Try for a Sunday, Monday or Tuesday arrival.
Many last minute campers go for the weekend and most leave by Sunday checkout to get back home. Thursday and Fridays are the most competitive days for sites. If your plans can accommodate it, plan to arrive mid-day Sunday when sites are clearing. If not, Monday and Tuesday are still good options for the busiest campgrounds. This is one of the most important first come first served camping tips to observe.
3. Be flexible
Be prepared to adjust your preferences. The highly sought after campgrounds with flush toilets, showers and nearby activities tend to go quickly. You may need to consider campgrounds that have vault/pit toilets, no showers, or no potable water at all. It will be OK, you are camping after all!
Depending on how many days you’re staying, you can easily go without a shower. Vault toilets are often pretty clean at most parks and don’t smell too bad. Keep the toilet lid closed, it helps keep the smell at a minimum.
How to decipher the amenity terminology:
- Flush toilet – indoor plumbing
- Vault toilet – Pit toilet, no plumbing. Usually in a built structure. Easily gets the job done.
- Potable water – water that is safe to drink and can be used to wash dishes
- No water – you must bring your own water for drinking and washing. Depending on how many people there are in your group, bring one or more large jugs of water (2.5 gal) for your cooking, drinking and additional needs. If there’s no potable water, you can just wipe your dishes clean.
- Primitive site – no hook ups, no water, often no facilities of any sort.
- Fire ring – mandatory place for your campfire. Make sure to check for any local fire restrictions.
On our most recent camping trip, we knew it would be tough to find a spot, it was August (last few weeks before school started) near Yosemite NP, one of the most popular National Parks. I literally sat online searching maps, park websites and national forest sites to compile a list of possible campgrounds. We knew when driving in the ranking of our campgrounds, because turning home wasn’t going to be an option. Our first choice in the Park wasn’t available, it had flush toilets, showers and easy access to a general store. As we were turned away from Yosemite, we checked our backup options and to our surprise found that our 4th choice was far superior to the campground we initially wanted in Yosemite!! It didn’t matter that it was on National Forest land with vault toilets, the quaint campground with only 12 sites, perched lakeside with potable water was better than anything we could’ve reserved!
4. Avoid holiday weekends (Memorial Day, 4th of July, Labor Day)
EVERYONE has the same idea and it becomes very competitive and very stressful. Camping should be fun and relaxing. One year our family made the mistake of trying to grab a site for 4th of July weekend. We packed and loaded our car with all our gear, drove 5 hours to Kings Canyon National Park, sat in traffic to get in just to find out that all the FCFS sites were already full. Even the National Forest sites outside the park filled up quickly. We admitted defeat and headed back home. That was the only time that ever happened but we learned a good lesson from that experience. We went back the following week on a Thursday morning and had our choice of sites! In contrast to what we saw on that holiday weekend, the campground was relatively empty and very peaceful. This is another important first come first served camping tips to make special note of.
5. Selecting a site once at the campground
Most FCFS sites will have a billboard at the campground entry where you’ll find the rules, a map of the campground and the ‘Iron Ranger’. The Iron Ranger is a steel tube about 4 feet tall where you deposit your fees to reserve a site. There are usually envelopes provided where you fill out your personal information and specify how long you intend to stay. Some of these envelopes will allow you to pay with a credit card by simply writing in your information, others will require cash. Always be sure to bring cash!
Grab a few envelopes and drive through the campground searching for the best available sites. Sometimes you’ll see two that you’re interested in but can’t decide without heading back to the first to see which you prefer. Hang your yellow tags and circle around to confirm which fits your needs the best. Be sure to remove your tag from the site you don’t choose.
Did we mention that you should have cash on you? Actually we did, just a couple paragraphs ago! You may find that some campgrounds only accept cash or you may need it to purchase firewood from your camphost. Try to have small bills on-hand to make exact payments. You’ll find campsites fees are odd amounts like $18 or $22 per night and firewood might be $7 per bundle and if your site has a camphost, they don’t always have the ability to provide change.
7. Length of your stay
Make a note of the maximum number of consecutive days you can stay. You’ll often find a 14-day limit at many campgrounds although this limit may be a bit loose. Talk to your camp host if you have one and you’ll likely be able to re-new if you’d like more time.
So, with minimal planning you can take that last minute camping trip. Do your homework and have backup options ready, even if it means finding a hotel for one night while you wait for a campsite to open up. We’ve done that before too! We’ve always found a great experience waiting for us and have never regretted setting out without firm plans in place. Well, maybe except for that one 4th of July weekend…..
Let us know in the comments if you have any other great ideas for last minute, first come first served camping without reservations!