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.
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.