Sunday, December 2, 2018

How to Find a Campsite at Any National Park - Frontcountry vs Backcountry and Reservable vs. Non-reservable

So, are you thinking of going camping in a U.S. National Park, but are confused about how to plan your awesome adventure and make a campsite reservation?

I'll try to explain some of the terminologies and policies in the following discussion. And I'll offer a special Troy Tip at the very end.

All of the U.S. National Parks have similar policies about camping, but there are often slight variations park to park. So, it is always a good idea to consult each park's website or call to speak with a Ranger.

In the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) there are typically Front Country (FC) campsites and Back Country (BC) campsites. Reservations may be made at

Frontcountry (FC) campsites are generally the sites where you drive-up in your vehicle (car, RV, etc), park in front of your campsite and camp in your tent or vehicle - often called car camping. Then you explore the nearby area. FC sites often have water, electricity and restrooms nearby, but not always. At FC sites you will almost always have neighbors (other campers) staying within plain sight (often only 50 feet away). Some people enjoy the community and amenities of FC campgrounds. Others seek more isolation from other campers and more rustic camping.

Backcountry (BC) campsites are generally the sites where you have to hike and carry all your gear, food and water to reach your campsite - often called backpacking. BC sites typically do not have any amenities except for a cleared piece of land and lots of wilderness. BC camping or backpacking requires a higher level of knowledge, skills and gear. For BC campsites there are sometimes specific campsites where you camp and sometimes there are just general areas where you camp - the wilderness. At BC sites you may not have any neighbors except the native animals and the stars at night. For BC camping you will almost always need to obtain a BC permit which you may obtain in person upon your arrival at the park at designated Ranger Stations. This BC permit is in addition to any campsite reservation that you may have made. The BC permit grants you temporary access to the wilderness and allows the NPS to manage access and resources. The Rangers will often speak with you for a short amount of time to inform you of current conditions such as weather, wildlife, water, resources, policies and Leave No Trace ethics. This is also an opportunity for you to ask questions and get some local knowledge. In many BC situations you may need to carry a "bear canister" to store your food and scented items. Bear canister policies help protect you and the animals (bears, pumas, coyotes, rodents, etc) from close encounters. You will likely need to carry in all of your supplies (food, water and gear) and carry out all your waste.

For FC and BC campsites there are often Reservable (R) and Non-reservable (NR) campsites. NR campsites are sometimes called "first-come-first-served" campsites.

For FC or BC sites, you should try to make reservations as soon as possible and up to 6 montes in advance. If you are able to make a reservation a campsite will be held for you up to 24 hours after the start of your reservation. If you do not show up with in 24 hours, your campsite may be given away. Sometimes a campground will hold your reservation for all the days that you reserve, but sometimes they will offer the site to other campers if you do not show up.

For Reservable (R) sites, when you arrive at the campground, you check into the Ranger station and will often be given a map and directions to your campsite. You will be given a receipt which you might need to place on your vehicle window or on a post at your campsite. If you arrive late or after office hours, there is typically an Information Kiosk (Announcement Board) where you will find your campsite reservation and location. You then find your campsite and set-up your equipment.

For Non-Reservable (NR) sites, when you arrive at the campground, you drive around the grounds and find an empty site. When you drive around you look for sites without tents and for posts without reservation signs or receipts. Then you either park your vehicle and/or set up your camp and/or have your camping partner stand at the site to temporarily hold it. Then you must find the Ranger station, Park Host or Information Kiosk where you fill out an envelop/form and pay with cash or check. Always bring cash in small denominations with you so that you have the ability to make change.  Once you fill out the proper form and pay you return to your campsite and place your receipt on a little post in front of your campsite.

For the Frontcountry NR sites you may stay at the site as long as you occupy the site or for the time period limit. Typically the time period limit is 2 weeks, but sometimes it is shorter. This is where the rules are sometimes different for different parks. If you are staying at a NR site you should leave your receipt on the campsite post. I sometimes leave my tent set-up or at least a camp chair at the site so that others may easily identify that the site is already occupied.

If you are staying at a Backcountry NR site the time limit is often 1 to 3 days. These time limit policies are designed to help manage the park resources and prevent long-term camping which often creates higher impact on the natural resources.

If you are new to "camping" I would suggest that you start with Frontcountry camping to learn and obtain some of the necessary skills and gear needed for Backcountry camping. Once you have more experience and the appropriate gear I definitely recommend trying Backcountry camping. I've always felt the best campsites, scenic views and natural beauty can be found in the backcountry.

You may also try a combination of FC and BC camping in which you stay a couple of days in the FC, then spend a few days in the BC.

If you are not able to obtain reservations at a National Park, consider staying at nearby facilities like private campgrounds, lodges, National Forests or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) properties and just visit the National Park during the day. Finally, if you expect to visit three or more parks during a calendar year you might consider buying an Annual National Park Pass for $80.

I hope that this information is helpful. Don't let a lack of a reservation prevent you from making plans. Get outside!

If you have read this far, thanks for your interest, you deserve a reward.

This is my Troy Tip...

If I am unable to obtain a campsite reservation at a National Park, this is the technique that I use to find a campsite. It has worked for me every time.

1. I travel light. Traveling light for me means that I travel solo or with one other person. This also means that I travel with "backpacking" gear - a backpack, small 2 person tent (or hammock), stove, food and water.

2. Show up early. National Park offices typically open at 8am. Show up early and be the first person in line to inquire if there are any last minute reservation cancelations that you can take over. If the office opens at 8am, I like to show up at least by 7am and wait in line. Also, Non-Reservable campsites are typically vacated at 10am or 11am. If you are not able to obtain a canceled reservation, you can drive around the campground and see which campers are packing up their sites. You may also look at the reservation receipts that are posted at each site to determine if a campsite is scheduled to be vacated. If you find a site that is to be vacated you can ask the current campers if they would mind if you leave a camp chair to reserve the site. Make sure that the campsite is a Non-Reservable campsite and not a Reservable campsite. Otherwise, the campers that have reserved the site may show up later and kick you off the site. Once you are certain that the campsite will be available, follow the proper procedure of filling out an envelope/form and pay for the campsite.

3. Show up late. Sometimes life happens and people do not show up for their reservation. Some parks maintain the reservation and the campsite will remain vacant. But sometimes the park host will know which sites will be vacant and make these sites available just prior to when the office closes (often 4pm or 5pm). Also, some campgrounds maintain one "special" campsite for people with disabilities, late arriving backpackers or emergencies. If you ask the park host nicely, they may offer you this special campsite.

4. Ask a dumb question. If I am not able to get a Reservable or Non-Reservable campsite I like to ask a dumb question. I will drive around a campground until I see a campsite with a single (solo camper) or a couple camping with a small tent. I park my car and slowly approach the campers with a smile on my face. I say something to the effect of, "Hello, can I ask you a dumb questions?" I wait for their response. Most people like to answer a dumb question because pychologically they feel that they will be able to answer it and most people like to help people. When they respond, "Sure!", I follow up with, "I've been driving a long distance and just arrived. I was hoping to find a campsite, but it appears that all of the campsites are taken. Would you consider sharing your campsite with me if I pay for your campsite fee for tonight? I just have a small two person tent that I could set up in a far corner." Be prepared and have cash. Most of the time the other camper will size me up and then respond, "Sure!". If they respond negatively, I just say, "thanks anyways" and continue to another campsite. If they respond positively I always show my gratitude with a big "thank you so much" and an expression of relief. Often helpful campers offer to share their site and decline any monetary compensation. After I've parked my car and set up my camp, I like to walk over to the kind campers and offer them a six pack of beers. And taa-dah I have a campsite and perhaps some new camping friends. Remember, this typically only works if you are traveling light and are friendly. Also, this does require that I am prepared with a six-pack of beer.

Best of luck and see you down the trail.

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Thanks for visiting my website and for leaving a comment. - Troy

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