How To Go Camping Without A Reservation

How to go camping without a reservation

When you think of camping you might typically think of national parks with their well kept campgrounds and beautiful iconic scenery. There’s no denying that camping in national parks is a great experience. One that’s been increasing in popularity over the last 10 years with a 1.5 billion increase in the last five years in fact.

This increase is due to a lot of factors, social media being the hot button topic. But a growing population, increased focus on outdoor education, and a more mobile world population have all contributed to the growing visitor count.

The thing is, to get a campsite in some of the most popular campgrounds in these national parks and even the state parks can feel like a digital race akin to trying to get Coachella tickets. You have to be online and ready to book as soon as the reservation system opens up for the season. One year I tried to reserve a campsite in Yosemite and I was all set to go, hit refresh as soon as the reservations went live and by the time the page reloaded everything was booked!

That was the last time I ever tried to reserve a campsite. Since then I’ve become a big fan of first-come-first-served campgrounds and dispersed camping on BLM and National Forest land.

Hidden Valley Joshua Tree

If you are planning a last minute camping trip or simply do not have the time or energy to figure out recreation.gov or reserveamerica.com then no reservation camping is a great option. It doesn’t require any more effort or planning that any other camping trip.

There are a lot of different ways to go camping without making a reservation weeks or months in advance. Here I’ll outline how to do so from dispersed camping to first-come first served sites in national parks.

Dispersed camping on BLM and National Forest Land

Finding a campsite on BLM
Alabama Hills

The Bureau of Land Management currently manages 32 million acres of land and there are 154 National Forests managed by the Forest Service across 43 states Puerto Rico. That means there is a lot of space out there to camp on.

What is dispersed camping?

Dispersed Camping in Alabama Hills

Dispersed camping is when you camp on public land away from any recreation facilities, so generally no fire rings, picnic tables, bathrooms or any other services like trash pick up. These campsites are usually down dirt service roads and aways away from developed recreation areas like maintained campgrounds, trailheads, and picnic areas.

One of the best parts of dispersed camping is that it’s free! You can just show up, find a good spot and camp, no fee, no reservations, nothing!

What to know for dispersed camping

Camping in the National Forest

The best way to find good spots for dispersed camping is through the BLM and Forest Service websites. They each have functions to search by state or area and by activity to find the public land space that will be right for you and your trip.

Campsites are usually along dirt roads and don’t have any markings. The easiest way to tell if something is a campsite is if the brush is cleared, the land is relatively flat, and it looks like it’s been camped on before. Campsites a usually pretty primitive, some will have nothing but a cleared area, while others may have rock fire rings, but that’s usually about it. So make sure you bring all your own supplies like water, light, and trashbags.

Remember Leave No Trace principles, like not camping too close to water sources, pack out all trash, and fire safety.

Make sure to check fire regulations in the area you will be camping, some areas and times of year campfires are not allowed. If you are in California you need a fire permit to have a campfire, its easy to get at preventwildfireCA.org.

Sometimes it can take some searching around to find a good campsite, but that’s part of the fun and adventure.

More on Leave No Trace principles

Alabama Hills
Camping in the National Forest

Some of my favorite dispersed camping areas are Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, Sierra National Forest in between Yosemite and Kings Canyon, and Hope Valley near Tahoe.

National and State Parks

White Wolf - Yosemite
How to go camping without a reservation

A guide to Joshua Tree National Park campgrounds

Both national and state parks have campgrounds that are first-come-first-served, meaning these spots cannot be reserved ahead of time and to get a spot you have to physically be there to claim it. These campgrounds range from being just as developed as regular reservation campgrounds with bathrooms and fire pits to primitive sites without any kind of amenities depending on the park and the campground. 

Campsite fees will vary but are usually between $10-20 per night along with the entrance fee for the park.

Competition for first-come-first-served site can be tough, especially in the popular parks during peak season, but it’s totally do-able if you have a flexible schedule and are willing to put in the time.

Hidden Valley Joshua Tree

The best way to get a first-come-first-served campsite:

  1. Research which campground you want to be in
  2. Get there in the morning
  3. Weekdays or Sundays are the best days to get a site 
  4. Scope out sites – check tags to see when people are leaving, but be polite and respectful if people are still in the site
  5. Get a tag from the front of the campground
  6. Grab your spot, fill out your tag and pay at the box
White Wolf - Yosemite

Some of my favorite first-come first served campgrounds are Hidden Valley in Joshua Tree, White Wolf in Yosemite, and Azalea in Sequoia Kings Canyon.

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How to go camping without a reservation

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