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Campground Crowding: “We hate crowds; that’s why we RV!” Is that a quote of the past?

By Nanci Dixon
More people than ever are taking up RVing. These newbies have determined that RVing is the safest way to travel in our pandemic times. The result is campground crowding like never before. In this weekly blog, RV Travel readers discuss their experiences. Maybe we can make some sense of this and find ways to work around the problem.

Here are a few observations from our readers.

Holiday weekends are booked up!

It is Memorial Day weekend, the kickoff to summer, and the campgrounds are buzzing. Did you get your reservation in early enough or do you sit out the holiday camping frenzy? Trying to get a spot is starting to remind me of Black Friday shopping. We are full-time RVers and we HAVE to have a spot on the holidays. 8:59 AM on March 9th, I was online punching computer keys, credit card in hand and although I didn’t get the 1st choice campsite, I got a close second. Minutes later, everything was booked up. I felt as much satisfaction as I did when scoring the big screen TV on Black Friday!

Are “bots” the problem?

Phil R. is wondering if “bots” are the problem. He writes, “So I wanted to stay in Big Bend National Park in October and stay at the Rio Grande Village Campground. I think they have about 100 sites. I was online at 8 AM in the morning six months to the day, the booking window and I could not get a site for five days! Everything was booked, only an occasional day here and there. I really do not see how that’s possible but I recently read an article probably on this newsletter (yup, it was this one) about this computer “bot” service, it automatically booked a site for people. I guess this is the way of the future? I finally found a private RV site outside the park, but I really wanted to be in the park. This campground is right on the Rio Grande River and very convenient to seeing everything because of its central location.”

Campground etiquette, a thing of the past?

It is a common theme: The newbies just don’t know the rules. They don’t follow them or they don’t know them. Previously pristine boondocking sites are overrun with trash.

Karen M. had this to say about crowding and the state of boondocking sites: “Well, the coast of Oregon is full and will stay that way through the end of October. We used to be in a handful of campers from mid-September to Thanksgiving. Now our favorite parks with utility sites are filled immediately. Many times I can find a canceled reservation but difficult to get more than a day or two. Our boondocking sites are being left full of trash or just destroyed, ruining it for us as we have to clean before we camp, or in some cases, the area has been closed off. This process started several years ago when the major timber companies gated the forest access roads due to vandalism and damage. I worked for a major power supplier in the NW. Our access roads seem to just be there for some people to destroy anything standing and leave their alcohol bottles behind as proof. Many new campers have a different way of thinking about their use of natural areas.”

Boondocking boom!

Steve E. is concerned about boondocking sites being overcrowded too. “I prefer boondocking, or as close to it as possible, but this Easter weekend we even had a hard time finding a spot in the huge desert SW of Salt Lake City, such is the popularity of camping and side by sides. I worry that even remote areas like these are becoming overcrowded. I like to get AWAY from it all and not hear RZRs all day long. It’s virtually impossible nowadays.”

Try the off-season

As more and more campers are having difficulty getting reservations at their favorite or the more popular spots, the off-season and shoulder season is looking better.

Michael T. is frustrated too and may go off-season or sell the trailer. “Tried to book a site for a month in August in New Mexico last January. I wasn’t able to get the full month, had to settle for three weeks. Hopefully, all the ‘COVID campers’ will shake out and leave the sites to us RV enthusiasts. We hate crowds; that’s why we RV. It will require we go off-season mostly. Since we’re retired we can go during the week to a local Nat’l Park and avoid the weekend crowds. It very well may limit us going in the future where we may sell the trailer.”

Still hope for the unreserved

People who aren’t reserving ahead of time are still traveling and being able to find a site. We had no problem when traveling, except on Friday and Saturday, but the camping sites were not “destination camping.”

Henry S. had no problems either. “In general we have had no problems with getting a campsite. On weekends on occasion it has been a problem. Just made a trip and FL / RI roads, traffic and construction were the only issue.”

Tom P. stays at RV parks and not traditional campgrounds. “In our experience, we usually stay at an ‘RV park,’ as distinguished from a ‘campground.’ We have had no problem finding a place to stay, sometimes only a few hours’ lead time.”

Bill F. says they’ve never had a problem and that doing a mix of type of campgrounds helped. “My wife and I just completed a month+, 5,100-mile round trip with our 35’ Montana fiver from Florida to Texas, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado and back to home. The only reservation we had made months ago was at Chatfield State Park on the south side of Denver. All other stays were reserved no more than a couple of days ahead, but most were made within a couple of hours. We stayed at some really nice places, a mix of state parks, private CGs, boondocked in the desert. We never really had a problem finding good places to stay.

I noticed when traveling that a number of RV parks said they had one site left and yet many were still open that night. Were they “no shows” or was it a way for the park to encourage reserving immediately?

Robert R. let us know that when the RV park said they just had “one or two” sites left many were still open that night. “We were on a 1-month trip and had very little problems getting a spot. Many places said 1 or 2 left. But in the evenings we noticed many open spaces. I think people reserve spots and then don’t show. That really messes it up for others. I think they need to cancel at least 3 days before or lose their full deposit. Not even sure that would work.”

Brenda O. had some questions for you. Please let us know your experiences. “Would be nice to know not only the locations of the ‘never had a problem finding campgrounds’ folks as well as when they stayed – weekday or weekend. Also, how much boondocking and Cracker Barrel parking was included which did not require traditional reservations? Also, how many folks who previously did not consider boondocking or Walmart parking have been forced to reconsider in order to travel? Bottom line: How many of those who had no problems finding a space were totally dependent on the traditional campground reservation system?”

Please leave your comments below.

Update from the editors: Each week in our Saturday newsletter, our podcast host, Scott Linden, will review a campground with current vacancies. Check out this week’s campground, near Yellowstone, here.

Now, some questions for you:

• Are you finding more and more campgrounds booked up? Or are you having no problem finding places to stay?

• If campgrounds continue to be crowded and RVing continues to become more popular, will it affect how or when you RV?

• Do you have any tips or secrets you’d like to share about finding campgrounds that aren’t as crowded?

Please use the form below to answer one or more of these questions, or tell us what you’ve experienced with campground crowding in general.

Click or drag a file to this area to upload.

Read last week’s Crowded Campgrounds column here

##RVT1002

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Lee Ann
4 months ago

I’d like to hear from folks traveling in the Mid-West and East Coast. We are full-timers and like to stay a week or more at a time to really explore an area. I have spent weeks now trying to plan the next six months with difficulty finding any public or private campgrounds that have more that a sporadic night or two here and there. I can periodically find four nights during the week but no weekends. One day I spent about six hours trying to book a seven day stay in OH/PA/or NY along the Great Lakes with no luck. I had to make a list of the campgrounds I contacted so I wouldn’t contact them again. In four years of fulltiming have never experienced the lack of campgrounds as I am this year. We have a 36 ft. Fifth Wheel pulled by a F350.

Bill Fisher
4 months ago

Since I was quoted in the article above (Bill F) and to answer Brenda O’s question: NONE of our 30+ nights were spent in Walmart, Cracker Barrel, Rest Area, truck stop, etc., parking lots. All nights were in traditional state park campgrounds, RV parks, etc., with the exception of four nights spent boondocking in the desert north of Moab, UT. Yes, it was easier to get campsites through the week than weekends, but we always managed to find somewhere acceptable (and usually very nice) on the weekends. I do believe we were lucky a few times. For examples, on our way out we managed to score a wonderful campsite in San Angelo State Park (San Angelo, TX) for two or three nights and during our way back home we managed to score a campsite for a couple of nights at Caprock Canyons State Park in Texas. These had previously shown as full, so we must have scored after someone else had canceled. I do want to stress that we are retired and had the flexibility to alter our routes.