Summer RVing Without Reservations

Ah, summer. The season of outdoor grilling, family bonding, and fun in the sun. It’s also the busy season for travel, when many tourist destinations experience their highest volume of visitors. With the increase of RVs on the road this time time of year, trip planning takes on a new urgency. Those who full-time RV tend to be adverse to making reservations in advance because we like to keep our options open, but can you really travel without camping reservations in the summer months?

Last summer I boondocked almost exclusively (primitive dry camping on public lands) and I was able to find great places to stay all summer and never once made a reservation. For those who dislike travel planning and want to keep their costs down this is a good way to go, but it isn’t for everyone.

There are also businesses that allow free overnight parking, usually also dry camping and usually just for one night. Walmart, Cabela’s, and Cracker Barrel are examples, and some truck stops allow RVs to park overnight for free too. If you like traveling fast this is an option, just be aware that some city ordinances prohibit overnight parking so you’ll want to research that ahead of time (for instance, most of Florida is a no-go for Walmart parking).

If you prefer the campground experience, it is still possible to travel during the summer without reservations, it just requires a different approach.You’ll be pretty safe camping in out of the way areas that don’t have a big tourism industry. One of my favorite travel methods is paying the monthly rate at an RV park (so much cheaper than nightly) and using that as a home base and visiting everything I can reach as a day trip in just my truck. This lets me see popular destinations without having to worry about finding camping nearby. Now, you will spend more in gas with this method and will be on the road longer. So what if you really do want to stay near popular places?

I’ve worked at three different national parks now, and can say that there wasn’t a day I worked that people didn’t show up without a reservation hoping to find a spot. At Badlands they usually had pretty good luck as that was not a very busy park, but the campgrounds in Zion and Yellowstone fill up pretty much every day during the busy season and I’ve had to tell a lot of people “Sorry, you’ll have to go elsewhere”. Over those three summers, I picked up some ideas on how to land a spot at a busy place like Yellowstone.

1. Research camping options ahead of time. There are popular options that everyone knows about and those fill first, and then there are smaller or lesser known campgrounds that tourists are less likely to flock to. Those campgrounds are the bread and butter of the reservation-adverse camper. Know which campgrounds your rig will fit in and where they’re at, sort them by preference, and have contact info for all of them so that when you arrive you aren’t wasting valuable time trying to sort out your options.

2. Check for cancellations. A lot of people make reservations months in advance and occasionally those plans fall through, sometimes with little notice. Go down your preference list and contact them one-by-one once you know what day you’re arriving and see if there have been any cancellations you can squeeze into. If that yields no fruit:

3. Arrive early, and making finding a camping spot your first priority. Many campgrounds have first-come-first-served sites that are not reservable in advance, and your best bet at snagging one of those is camping near the target destination overnight (like at a business or boondocking spot) and aiming to be at the campground early, I’m talking like 6 am for places like Yellowstone. This will put you first in line at the campground entrance to grab a spot that someone is vacating that day. The longer you wait to find camping the worse your chances in a popular place. If THAT yields no fruit:

4. Most tourist destinations are surrounded by private RV parks and campgrounds (and hotels too of course) meant to capture the overflow tourists. In my experience there will always, always be somewhere to camp, it just might be a rundown spot, or charge an arm and a leg, or be farther from the action.

So the answer is yes, absolutely you can travel during the summer without reservations.

But, if you want to stay in campgrounds in popular areas it will take more effort. Whether the stress of searching last minute will be worth it or not depends a lot on your outlook. If you’re able to set aside your expectations and settle for not always having the prettiest or most convenient spot, RV spots can be found any time of year.

Happy camping!

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  1. AZ_Kit on June 28, 2017 at 1:54 am

    Your discussion of overnight parking reminds me of one time a few years ago. I was working as an in-home caregiver, so I would work up to 5 shifts in one day, going from one house to another. I had a couple hours or so between shifts one hot summer afternoon, so I stopped at a Shell station to buy gas and cold drinks. I was evicted from the parking lot after 15 minutes while enjoying my cold drink in the shade and relaxing before my next shift. 15 minutes!!!! I will never, EVER stop at that Shell station again, and I generally avoid that company now.

  2. Jim on June 11, 2017 at 1:26 pm

    Here’s my thoughts on this subject for anyone that might find it useful.

    For me, it’s about minimizing the potential of getting a crappy site or no site AND still (mostly) not get reservations.

    The biggest enemy here are parks with reservations. I hate them. Even if you snag a canceled spot in a booked reservable campground, you might have to leave much sooner than you want to because the next reservation is due in. This drives me nuts.

    My strategy is to plan around weekends and holidays so that I have a nice (secluded if possible) spot by the time the crowds flock that I don’t have to give up. Arriving a day or two before the busy period, arriving early, and avoiding reservable campgrounds (so once I get a spot, I won’t lose it to a future reservation) greatly improves the odds of finding not only a spot, but a decent one during busy periods.

    Another strategy is to re-position during holidays and weekends. I’m already driving. Already tired. So if I have to book one or two nights in an expensive private campground during re-positioning over a weekend, big deal. I’d rather not be driving (if possible) during campground slow periods because that’s when I’d rather be in a campground enjoying the experience. Drive when it’s busy and enjoy the campground when it’s not. And if despite my best efforts I’m stuck in a busy campground after all of this, that’s when I plan big long day trips so I’m out of the zoo, er I mean the campground, most of the day.

    Sometimes strategically getting brief reservations here and there makes sense. For example if you know where you will be over a holiday weekend and you know the ideal spot to shield yourself from the masses and you can get that ideal reservation, grab it. Reservations over busy weekends to bridge periods of fly by the seat of one’s pants during the rest of the week helps maintain a reliable supply of great campsites and a minimum of crappy ones. 🙂

    Last point, Americans love full or partial hookups. If you can do without all that and camp in National Forest campgrounds (my favorite) or boondock with the BLM (haven’t done that yet myself but want to someday) then you will significantly increase the odds of landing a great spot. While primitive camping is popular too, many many fewer people want those spots vs. those of campgrounds with electric, etc.

    Otherwise, I second everything Becky said! 🙂

  3. Cindy M on June 10, 2017 at 5:15 pm

    As a newbie to RV’ing – leaving mid July, this advice is very helpful and am printing it off to keep in my RV Information Binder. I appreciate you and so many others, sharing your knowledge!!

    • Becky on June 10, 2017 at 6:27 pm

      So glad you found this helpful Cindy! Congrats on your upcoming departure, you must be very excited. 🙂

  4. Jimmy on June 10, 2017 at 2:06 pm

    “…..One of my favorite travel methods is paying the monthly rate at an RV park (so much cheaper than nightly) and using that as a home base and visiting everything I can reach as a day trip in just my truck……”

    And that is why I am still leaning to a TT/Pick up rig. One relationship I’ve observed in my now 3-4 week old “crash course” in RVing (LOL) is that a MONTHLY rate can be had for roughly 10-12 times the DAILY rate. (These are “posted” numbers, obviously in-season demand and what-not can bend the ratio, but this is what I’ve gathered so far. If I’m wildly off-base on this, pls. advise., but I think I’m fairly close. Volume pricing works.

    Anyway….I’m in no hurry. Spending a month in one place and immersing myself in everything that spot has to offer sounds appealing, when interspersed with more active travelling. I don’t need to be on the road constantly, evading Pinkertons like the Hole-In-The-Wall Gang…..=)

    • Becky on June 10, 2017 at 6:17 pm

      I prefer slow travel for just that reason Jimmy, I like to have time to breathe in a place and really get a feel for it, and you just can’t get that moving every couple days. A TT + tow vehicle is one way to go, a motorhome with a toad is another (but then you have two engines to maintain).

      As for for how much the monthly rate saves over the daily rate – that’ll vary from location to location. 10-12 times the daily rate is pretty standard, but I’ve been to a few locations were the savings weren’t quite that good.

      Have fun researching!

  5. Reine in Plano (when not camping) on June 10, 2017 at 1:32 pm

    We don’t full time and usually plan a trip in July/August. I was planning for us to go without reservations until I started checking the areas where I want to be and since planning is half the fun for me I kinda mapped out the trip and found places to camp where we could find the stuff we wanted to do or places we specifically wanted to see. HOWEVER, I made many reservations in Forest Service or National Park places where the cancellation fee is really low. For a $10 cancellation fee we can change our mind if we want to. We’ve done that before if one of us got sick or occasionally we just didn’t want to stay in a place.

    • Becky on June 10, 2017 at 6:11 pm

      I’m kind of the opposite Reine, I’ve never found planning far in advance to be much fun. But making reservations at places with low cancellation fees, that’s a great tactic for people who do like having some structure to their travels but want to be able to change it up. Thanks for sharing. I hope you two have a great time, where are you headed?

    • SDW on June 11, 2017 at 12:29 pm

      Hey Reine, We live in Frisco, and I use to plan our trips.
      They have an app also. It shows all the National forest cg, BLM cg, National park cg, State parks, COE, City pk, Counties pk, and many more. The only ones it doesn’t show is RV PK.

      Just zoom in on the area of the map your interested in staying and all these little icons will pop up. Click on an icon and you’ll get all the info about that campground.

  6. Jeff on June 10, 2017 at 11:35 am

    Very well said, Becky! Since I do not travel with a toad, I do find reservations are helpful when I know I’ll be in a high traffic area during the prime time of summer. But no schedule should be so tight as it takes the serendipity out of the journey.

    • Becky on June 10, 2017 at 6:03 pm

      It can be hard to find that perfect balance between serendipity and being caught without a place to stay Jeff. I’m glad you’ve found a method that works well for you.

  7. Carlene and Corky from south central Nebraska on June 10, 2017 at 10:41 am

    Great blog topic… I spent 2 days out on BLM land in Moab the week before Memorial Day weekend but I was determined to be on the river and finally after talking with other campers as to when they were leaving I got a great spot, and it’s first come first serve in on the Colorado.
    Now I’m traversing the mid west, in a very bad heat wave, wanting electricity I’m finding the state parks in Nebraska are really pretty nice and will probably use your idea of staying longer in one park and driving my toad for day trips. I’m in a class c with a dog so I’ve got other issue to deal with too. Thanks for your blog it’s has a lot of great information.

    • Becky on June 10, 2017 at 5:59 pm

      You’re welcome Carlene and I’m glad you found this article helpful. Being proactive about finding when others were leaving the spots you desired really paid off, thanks for sharing.

      Yes, it’s very hot in Wisconsin today too, next few days look quite warm. Stay cool out there and enjoy Nebraska!

  8. Bonnie Belza on June 9, 2017 at 10:41 pm

    We went to Denali NP last June. We had reservations. However, the park had cancellations also but they were not giving out the cancelled spaces…we ended up in the 2nd campground in the park and there were several empty spaces! People were lined up but their policy is NOT to re-sell cancellations. Stupid.

    • Becky on June 10, 2017 at 5:54 pm

      Interesting Bonnie, the ones I’ve worked at have all allowed it. This is why I say research should always be step 1, to catch oddities like this. Glad you had reservations and hope you enjoyed your trip.

  9. Ron on June 9, 2017 at 9:40 pm

    Very true, we did the Oregon Coast late Summer twice without reservations. Everyone said it was impossible. Spent about five weeks Washington to California and found an electric hookup site every night. Seldom got ocean front but usually only a short walk. Try city parks with camping. They are not publicized much and are often reasonable.

    • Becky on June 10, 2017 at 5:51 pm

      Yes, city parks are a great resources Ron and one I’ve utilized frequently. Thanks for sharing your experience.

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