To all the people who plan for their camping trips months in advance, I applaud you. I, for one, have never been much of a planner, so reserving a campsite even a few weeks before will never be in the cards for me. Nonetheless, I have always been confident in my ability to pull together a last-minute trip of any kind, and camping trips are my specialty.
Don’t bother trying to find a campsite at your favorite park on ReserveAmerica right now, because unless you’re insanely lucky, they’re already filled. But that doesn’t mean you can’t spend your weekend outside! Here are six tips to help you plan a last-minute camping weekend:
Attempting to snag a first-come, first-served campsite is an admittedly risky move on a holiday weekend, but it’s not totally impossible! If you’re able to pull it off, scoring one of these spots can often be the most camp-worthy spots in the park.
Call your park stations before you leave and get the low-down on when the non-reservable sites usually fill up on busy weekends. They’ll probably give you some honest tough love, but you never know—maybe there will have even just been a cancellation! If you’re really keen on getting into a site, consider using up those vacay days and head out a day or two early for the weekend.
If you can’t play hooky the few days before the weekend, consider taking off a few days after. Not only will it be easier to secure a preferred campsite or even reserve one in advance, you’ll be rolling up to all the campgrounds just as the hoards of people are leaving on Monday. That means stress- and people-free camping (for the most part).
This may not be the weekend for Yosemite (which has said Memorial Day is their busiest weekend of the year by a long shot) or Yellowstone (it’s still snowing like crazy up in Wyoming, anyway). Avoid the crowds and explore the lesser traveled state parks, recreation areas and preserves near you. For example, Isle Royale in Michigan has half as many visitors all year as Yellowstone does on a typical high-peak day.
Luckily for all my fellow dirtbags, there are lots of ways you can camp for free that are also 100 percent legal. Large swaths of publicly owned land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management or the Forest Service are free to camp on for 14 days at a time. This rule sometimes varies from place to place, so it’s best to do some research before setting up your dispersed campsite for a few nights.
The best part about dispersed camping is that many of your favorite parks are actually neighboring BLM or Forest Service lands, so the chances are you can camp just outside a park for free and with considerably fewer people.
Even at the height of camping season, I have had extraordinary luck getting last-minute backcountry permits in some of my favorite parks, partly because most people don’t know they can ask for them. A few years ago I went to Zion, Canyonlands and Arches during Utah’s public school spring break. Everything I read said this would be one of the busiest times to visit Utah’s National Parks, but we managed to get backcountry permits at every single one just by showing up with a big smile and asking! Maybe we just got lucky, but there’s definitely no harm in calling up some ranger stations and seeing what’s available.
Last year I started working for a company called Hipcamp, which is pioneering the private sector for camping. Besides being the most comprehensive database for public camping in the country, they partner with private landowners that are generous enough to invite campers on their land. Hipcamps are unique for many reasons (like, have you ever camped with baby goats or by your own private waterfall?), but they are especially useful for big camping weekends like these when lots of publicly-owned campgrounds are full. Plus, at any given time a new person could be listing their land on Hipcamp. That means there’s always a chance you’ll find a last-minute campsite when everything else is booked. (The private camps featured in the photo slideshow above are all available to be booked this weekend.)
At Hipcamp, We don't think finding a campsite should be such a time-consuming, convoluted and confusing process. We are committed to making getting outside fun and easy, as simple as selecting what, when and where you want your camping experience to be.