How to Reserve a Campsite, Even at the Last Minute

“If you want to find a place to camp and a way to get away from the crowds, there are millions of acres of B.L.M. and U.S. Forest Service...


“If you want to find a place to camp and a way to get away from the crowds, there are millions of acres of B.L.M. and U.S. Forest Service land with legal camping and minimal services,” said Michael Lanza, creator of the trip-planning website TheBigOutside and a former field editor for Backpacker magazine. “You won’t get a picnic table, but you’ll still get a beautiful spot, and it’s free.”

Bear in mind that toilets, picnic tables, fire pits, running water, trash services — amenities usually available at a campground — aren’t on offer in the middle of nowhere.

If none of those earlier options worked, you still have a few more last-ditch options: You can drive farther away or try your luck at a last-minute campsite cancellation. Case in point: While every campsite at Arches National Park in southern Utah may be booked, at Mesa Verde National Park, in southwest Colorado and about two hours from Arches, you can almost always find a spot.

“Our visitation numbers are a lot lower than a park like Arches. They get a few million visitors per year; we get 600,000,” said Spencer Burke, a park ranger at Mesa Verde National Park. “We have a big campground that always has last-minute availability. Working in the visitors’ center, people come in at the end of the day, and say, ‘Do you have any campsites available?’ It’s always nice to be able to say: ‘Yes. We have room for you.’”

Be willing to explore new, more obscure areas. The campgrounds inside Acadia National Park, in Maine, might be packed, but you can find an empty, remote camp spot within the 21,871 acres of Deboullie Public Land, five hours north. “Look for parks that are farther from population centers and airports,” Mr. Lanza said. “The farther away you are, the farther you are from other people.”

Cancellations happen, too. Often, campground websites don’t reflect real-time data on what’s actually available and, because cancellation policies differ, some campers don’t bother to cancel a reservation they no longer need. Even if the website shows no availability, you can always show up and ask the camp host if any sites are open. Better yet, give a call if a phone number is listed.

“I always recommend a phone call,” Mr. Query, from the Estes Park KOA, said. “Call the campground office to see if your luck might be working in your favor that day.”

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