Reader letter: Days of RVing without reservations are gone

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Dear Chuck,
Your editorial in issue 925 really hit home.

“SORRY, SIR. WE DON’T HAVE ANY SPACES AVAILABLE FOR THOSE DATES. YOU SHOULD HAVE CALLED FIVE OR SIX WEEKS AGO.”


These were the words we heard over and over on our three-month trip to Alaska this past summer. It did not happen everywhere we wanted to stay but it did happen enough that it caused continuous changes to our travel plans.

For years I’ve told anyone who would listen how wonderful traveling in an RV was, but NO MORE! The days of driving ’til you decide to stop are gone. Now we need to call days or even weeks ahead when traveling during prime vacation time or in popular areas.

This was our third trip to Alaska in the past 14 years, and what a difference this trip was when it came to finding a place to camp. We decided to leave in early July with the idea that we might be behind the early northbound travelers.

And we were, but not enough to make a huge difference. Often the commercial campgrounds told us that they were swamped in June and still busy in July, but if we could dry camp they could find us a spot to overnight. So we did a lot of dry camping.

The provincial and state parks were better, but with so many now taking reservations it was still a challenge.

On our way southbound, back to the lower 48, we left Alaska for the last time on September 18. Though the weather was still nice, a number of the commercial campgrounds were already closed for the season, as were some of the state and federal campgrounds in both Alaska and Canada.

Thinking that by late September we would be long past the throngs of summer tourists in the Canadian Rockies, we traveled southbound via the Cassiar Highway headed toward Jasper and the heart of the Canadian Rockies. The plan was to spend 10 days in Jasper and Banff National Parks. This time we called 14 days ahead of our arrival, yet there was nothing available in Jasper (to be fair the park’s largest campground was closed for remodeling), but we did find campsites in Banff NP on the 23rd of September for a week. This was in the middle of September and we already had seen snow! In fact, it snowed on us while we were in Jasper at the Icefields.

So we dry camped at the Icefields and on the morning of the 23rd we headed to Banff. In the paved parking lot with us were 36 RVs dry camped. What was interesting, of those 36 rigs of every shape and size, only 7 were not rentals.

We had seen a lot of rental RVs on our trip north and on our return back south from Alaska, but nothing like we were seeing in the Canadian National Parks.

On the morning we left Jasper headed to Banff we decided to keep track of the rental RVs we saw on the 120-mile drive southbound. The drive took us about 2 hours and 45 minutes. We counted 143 RVs. We could definitely identify 102 as rentals plus another 41 that had no signs or indication if they were a rental or not. So more than 71% of the RVs we counted were rentals.

You know, it’s really great the rental RVs are allowing more people to experience how neat it is to travel and experience North America in an RV. But if the proliferation of rental RVs in the U.S. becomes like what we saw in Canada, U.S. RVers are in for a real surprise — and not one they will like!

I’m not sure there is any real answer to all of this, but I am kind of glad I didn’t go out and buy a new quarter-million-dollar coach like we almost did four years ago. Instead, we opted to refurbish our 19-year-old, trouble-free diesel pusher, adding two additional slideouts and pretty much redoing the whole interior. That’s a whole other story. —Jim Anderson

##RVT928

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Gene Cheatham

Chuck and Jim: First off, Happy New Year and decade! On our 6th RV and approaching retirement, we have planned for years on full timing and realize carefree “pop in and camp” seems to be dying rapidly. I guess in the 5 ish years from now before we can go it will have to be a masterful work of scheduled destinations months in advance to avoid being a parking lot squatter. I hope I am wrong, but concerned none the less.

We thoroughly investigated opening a brand new 100 site + spacious cg 16 years ago and got crushed out of opportunity by home builders competing for similar properties. There’s opportunity for entrepreneurs to get involved, however the increasing complexities of doing so aren’t making a tough job any easier.

Mike Whelan

Dear Chuck,
We are also experiencing the “no place at the inn” camping challenge. Since our retirement 5 years ago our snow bird adventures have gone from never worry about a reservation to reservation is a must. The only places we find that we can count on walk up availability are the Corps of Engineers operated campgrounds. Not sure the reason as these are always in beautiful locations, very well designed with level pads (most concrete) power, water and sometimes sewer. We almost always get water front and either a sunrise or sunset view. Price is excellent. This is especially true when you have the Golden Pass which gets you 50% off. This week we did a walk up (no reservation) waterfront site with power, electric concrete pad and stone picnic area to collect the sand from the beach for $10.00 per night! Maybe I shouldn’t be telling you this as people will discover this great resource 🙂
Soon on to the gulf coast where we have reservations made months ago….

Daniel Terry

I’m hep, try and find camp sites in AZ this this time of year or Oregon in the summertime.

Kenneth Fuller

Campgrounds that are 100% reservable have ruined the exploration of our country. If you become ill, have mechanical breakdowns, or simply enjoy an area you are visiting, having reservations causes everything to go of wack so you to skip something to get back on track. It would be nice if campgrounds were combined with a certain percent of “walk-ins” and reservable sites.

Douglas Moss

I was thinking on the over load of camp sites. I traveled from Utah to Virginia towing my trailer and it was a challenge to find an over night spot other than wall mart. If our motel change would use their lots for over night RVers by having pay power.
And a parking fee this might help us over nighters

Fred

I think this whole discussion of inaccessibility of campsites over the last few years needs to be clarified a bit. If you need to have full hookups every night, & if your travels are done mostly during the peak tourist seasons & you focus on the most popular tourist sites, then yes, they are getting more crowded & require earlier reservations. But, if you are properly equipped for dry camping (boondocking) & enjoy doing it, then your camping options are wide open, even during peak seasons & near the most popular tourist destinations, especially in the West & the South Central US. Boondocking options exist in the Eastern US, but just require a little more effort to find them. We have been true fulltime for over 10 years in our 34ft fifth wheel. We have solar, generator, & large water/waste capacities & enjoy boondocking. Some of our best experiences have been while boondocking. We spend $600 – $2,000 per year in campground fees, but rarely make advance reservations. The rare advanced reservations we make are only 1-2 weeks out. We’ve been to every state at least once & Alaska twice, the last time in 2018 for most of the summer & traveled every major road in the state. In the last 10 years, we’ve only had 2 occasions when we wanted a campground & couldn’t find one for that night, so we dry camped in the area.
So, for rvers who are a little flexible, camping options haven’t really changed much in the last 10 years. I will admit, I don’t like visiting the most popular tourist sites during peak season, because of the crowds, noise, etc.. So we sometimes choose to visit our favorite National Parks & tourist spots during the shoulder seasons, not because of camping limitations, but rather to avoid the crowds & have a more pleasant, memorable experience.
My advice to new, or wannabe rvers, would be to set up your rv for boondocking & then “go forth” confidently.

Drew

I have’nt been on the road in the U.S. for over a year but I’d guess the ratio of rentals to non is much smaller here. That’s a very interesting observation about Canada and Alaska.

Michael A

I thought that was just the situation in California where you better have a reservation or you are stuck.

Hoss Smith

“…we opted to refurbish our 19-year-old, trouble-free diesel pusher…”
In my never humble opinion you made a really good decision to use what you have that not only works well for you and is trouble free but does it without putting you through all the hassles of dealing with the expensive, time consuming and aggravating exhaust issues. Just think about it; no DEF and no DPF to keep clean, no driving an extra X miles to clean the DPF, no fuel wasted to clean the DPF and no added expenses for maintaining those systems. If you were driving a commercial vehicle that was supposed to make money you would not be supporting all that profit robbing, government mandated, high maintenance, relocated pollution generating equipment.

Michael Butts

We have been RV-ing for over 15 years with our kids. It took a lot of planning to cram in the travel to the available timeslots and we always booked months in advance.

In summer 2019, we had, for the first time in 25 years, no kids in school, college, at home, etc. The two of us decided to drive from Detroit to Grand Tetons without reservations. We had zero problems doing this. I was completely convinced that CHUCK WAS WRONG!! THERE ARE TONS OF CAMPING SPOTS AVAILABLE!!

Then in the fall of 2019, we tried to do our first empty nester shoulder season after Labor Day in Michigan. All the kids are back in school. There won’t be anyone in the campgrounds!

OMG. Chuck was right. Every state park within five hours of us (thousands of campsites) was booked solid through the end of October. That is typically when it’s well below freezing every night so no camping.

Mea culpa, Chuck, mea culpa.

Ann

It’s *much* easier if you want to dry camp and/or boondock, and if you’re small. We prefer dry camping to save money, and we have a 25 foot motorhome. The only places we had problems this summer were the more popular national parks. We made reservations a couple of weeks in advance in Jasper and Banff, but the rest of the Canadian Rockies and Glacier were no problem. Yellowstone, however, we had to abort because we couldn’t find anything at all (and the weather was terrible).

Tommy Molnar

Living in Nevada, we still find no problems boondocking in a lot of places. Headed into Oregon, Utah, Idaho, Montana, we generally still can find boondocking sites. But, as much as we’d like to head east of this area, reading these horror stories (that’s what I call the experiences of those seeking reservations and getting none!) I’m thinking our spoiled boondock lifestyle just won’t work once we hit what’s referred to as the ‘midwest’. Not much BLM land, wildlife refuges, or any of the other areas usually open to “dispersed camping”. I have trouble having to ‘know’ where we’re going to be days ahead, let alone weeks or months. I just can’t do it. So I guess there’s stuff we’re not going to see unless we just drive a car and stay at hotels/motels, And then we’re back to finding the “no room at the inn” predicament. Too many people with too much time on their hands (like us!).

PeterD

The spontaneous adventure is a thing of the past unless I live long enough for the next big recession. My son bought some acreage in a rural area and has developed several campsites for family and friends tucked back in the woods. We have deer, turkeys, coyotes, bobcats and a bunch of other critters walking by our site throughout the day. It is quiet and peaceful. We only hear the breeze rustling in the trees and birdsong. This is the way to go now as far as I’m concerned.

Joe

Jim Anderson: you added “two additional slide outs” to your MH? Would be very interested to see how that was done.
Thanks.

Alvin

Chuck, I felt the pain of you and Gail weaving your way through the mess Jasper and Banff have become. I lived nearby my entire adult life, watching slowly at first then rapidly in recent times as rentals, with reservations in hand, made a year in advance filled campgrounds at no cost to them but the rental and the cost of occupancy. We who pay for it all through taxation got bumped to the curb. I don’t blame vacationing foreigners, (of which I’m one when I visit the USA) most are simply responding to rabid promotion by money grubbing operators on our side of the pond, thus they arrive by the plane and bus load each year in the thousands, 24/7/365.

Personally I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone has any desire whatsoever to “camp” awning to awning elbow to elbow. I guess that’s why so many folks love their electronics, big screens and so on, they lose themselves inside their rigs. That’s OK, but it is not us. We derive absolutely zero pleasure listening to someone’s cranked exterior entertainment center, their incessantly yappy fur pal, or chatter on their I-phone at decibel levels drowning out the guy on the other side running his diesel behemoth for half an hour before he decides to depart. We leave town to actually get away from all that crap, the noise, and hubbub. Like similar minded folks we’re finding it getting tougher to achieve harmony with nature and peace with the natural environment with each passing year.

Today the CEO and I seek out roads and venues less travelled – attractions you will not find in tour guides at every summit. We seek, small town friendliness, long ago lost in places with a cash machine at the end of every block, lined with tour busses, packed to the gills with people looking for a unique experience – unique, only in that the experiences will continue to provide fodder for forums like this.

Jim Prideaux

I always make reservations. Peace of mind knowing no matter how late I arrive I got a spot. Also I like checking out campground maps online to pick what I think is the best available spot. Almost always go to government operated parks. At times this payed off as the campground was full. Other times we were practically the only ones there. (Still remember when a Ranger stumbled across our rig at Organ Pipe Cactus NM. He shook his head and said ‘nobody in Arizona camps in August’). Of course weekends are more crowed than week days. Also we avoid water sport areas and prefer to camp near historical and cultural attractions.

robert

We live in Florida in a sticks and brick but like to camp with mh ,Summers are on road for two months and then home again. We like to go out for a few nights or longer thru out the year but once Dec. starts until May it is almost impossible to find any place to camp. Last year I called 8 before I could find 3 nights and that was looking a month ahead

Tim Pittman

I toured Canada & Alaska with a caravan this last summer. Many of the campgrounds we used were full or nearly so, many taken by caravans. Some of the Canadian provincial parks in the Yukon were also full but usually only on the weekends. These were no hookups and no reservations.
We also did Jasper and stayed at a private campground north of Jasper near Hinton. Reservations for this campground were made 4 months prior as was the reservation at Tunnel Mountain 2 a provincial park in Banff. From Banff we went to Glacier National Park where we had reservations at a KOA made also 4 months in advance.
I don’t find it unusual that reservations are required at these popular places. No one would think of dropping it at the last minute at any of the above places and expect to get a hotel room. This is just a reflection of the times we live in. Sales of RV’s has skyrocketed, but not the availability of RV campsites. Plan accordingly if you want the comfort of knowing you’ll have a spot at a popular site, especially if you have a large RV.

Nanci

Yes, can be hard to nearly impossible to get a site anywhere without a reservation now. In regards to Alaska, I have met a number of people that have high-end motorhomes and opt to leave them at home and rent a unit to travel to Alaska. That may account for some of the rental units.

Sue

My husband and I did extended and full-time RVing in fifth-wheels from 2004-2017. We finally sold our last coach in early 2019 because the thrill was gone. We weren’t able to be nearly as spontaneous as we could before and during the recession. Even though we did a lot of boon-docking in the earlier years, we preferred partial and full hookups as we got older. Reservations at or near national parks became almost impossible to get, regional, state, and local parks became more crowded, even our favorite military campgrounds/RV parks got booked as soon as reservation windows opened. We’ll probably get another RV someday but for now, it’s just too crowded out there. (Re: Alaska — we enjoyed our summer there in 2012 more than in 2015. In just those 3 years we could see a big difference in how difficult it became to find or reserve campsites through Canada and in Alaska. Can only imagine what it’s like now.)