Wednesday, November 29, 2023


Research reveals how people choose their campsites

Those in love with the outdoors can spend their entire lives chasing that perfect campsite. New University of Montana research suggests what they are trying to find.

Will Rice, a UM assistant professor of outdoor recreation and wildland management, used big data to study the 179 extremely popular campsites of Watchman Campground in Utah’s Zion National Park. Campers use an online system to reserve a wide variety of sites with different amenities, and people book the sites an average of 51 to 142 days in advance, providing hard data about demand.

Along with colleague Soyoung Park of Florida Atlantic University, Rice sifted through nearly 23,000 reservations. The researchers found that price and availability of electricity were the largest drivers of demand. Proximity to the adjacent river and ease of access also affected demand. Other factors – such as views of canyon walls or number of nearby neighbors – seemed to have less impact.

The work was published in the Journal of Environmental Management.

“This study demonstrated the power of using the big data of outdoor recreationists’ revealed preferences to build models of decision-making, and did so in a setting that is incredibly relatable to many Americans,” Rice said. “For instance, anyone who has ever picked a campsite within a campground has certainly dealt with the dilemma of proximity to the restroom. I mean, we want to be close enough to make navigation easy in the middle of the night, but not so close that we’re smelling it and listening to the door open and close all night.”

Watchman Campground. NPS photo.

He said past studies on recreation decision-making have relied on surveying people about their stated preferences – basically asking them what they like. This study broke new ground by using revealed preferences – observations of people’s actual decision-making – made possible by the Recreation Information Database. That database contains facts about all bookings made through the federal site, which makes reservations for many national parks across America.

The researchers studied these site variables at the Watchman Campground: distance to the nearest dump station; distance to the nearest restroom, trash or recycling station, or water spigot; whether it was a walk-in site; price and electricity; number of neighboring campsites within a 40-meter radius; campsite shading; access to the nearby Virgin River; direct access to canyon walls; and views of canyon walls. These variables were broken into three setting categories: managerial, social and ecological.

Certain amenities at sites influenced how early they are reserved, on average. For instance, good views of the canyon walls increase the average booking window by three days. Price, access to electricity and ease of access also increase how early sites are reserved, demonstrating their popularity.

Rice said they were surprised that sites with access to the Virgin River were less popular. He suspects this might be because of known struggles with the river’s water quality, and Zion National Park has issued a press release urging visitors not to swim or submerge themselves in the river.

Rice said their work and new research model can help park managers make better decisions about campground design and recreation planning.

“Since the 1960s, park managers – in collaboration with researchers – have been trying to figure out how people make decisions when choosing campsites, trails or any number of recreation facilities,” he said. “This information is vital for recreation planning, not only for improving visitor experiences but also for ensuring the protection of ecological resources and fair allocation of recreation opportunities.”

It also demonstrates the usefulness of a big-data approach for measuring the demand on stretched recreational resources.

“Our findings specific to Zion’s Watchman Campground highlight the merit of using these methodologies elsewhere,” Rice said. “As campers, we’re always in search for the perfect campsite.”

Will Rice is a faculty member in UM’s W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation.



0 0 votes
Article Rating
Subscribe to comments
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

pursuits712 (@guest_136644)
2 years ago

What it isn’t able to tell us is how many folks wanted site XX that was already booked. If that was their first choice…and perhaps even their second or third choice…then the site they settled for certainly doesn’t predict their real preferences, i.e. their “ideal site.” Doesn’t even predict their choice of campground if prior choices also were booked!

Another variable is the type of trip. If you will be there for a month or three; if you are there for a night only; if you are using it as a central point for day trips, etc. Way too many variables that do not appear to have been considered.

Uncle Swags (@guest_131338)
2 years ago

Perfect example of crap research supporting common sense.

Al LeFeusch (@guest_131278)
2 years ago

I choose my campsite by looking around the immediate area when I get tired and taking whatever looks decent. Never had an issue in 7 years of full time rv’ing.

Last edited 2 years ago by Al LeFeusch
Tom (@guest_131275)
2 years ago

At most National Park campgrounds, it’s take what you can get. With so many campgrounds being booked solid, most likely you will not have much of a choice.

Al LeFeusch (@guest_131279)
2 years ago
Reply to  Tom

I never make reservations. The good news is that most National Parks are surrounded by public lands that are easy to find a campsite in, because most people only know about the National Parks.

Carson Axtell (@guest_131359)
2 years ago
Reply to  Al LeFeusch

Shhhhh… The only way to protect your favorite fishing hole is to keep quiet about it. As it is, the BLM and USFS are closing more boondocking areas every year due to the abuse these sites receive from ignorant and inconsiderate slobs. Congress keeps cutting their budgets every year, and in order to protect the lands they are entrusted with they are deciding to make them inaccessible…

Robert (@guest_131265)
2 years ago

Do you have a link to the research paper? I would to read the complete document.

RV Staff
2 years ago
Reply to  Robert

Hi, Robert. Here’s a link to part of the research paper. Apparently it’s copyrighted but you can purchase the PDF. Have a great day. 🙂 —Diane

Roger B (@guest_131262)
2 years ago

They have to interview the campers. Both newbies and seasoned must be included. Lazy college kid data driven studies are useless without including what campers want in a campsite. Studying a single campground is okay, but they then need to compare the data to other parks in various areas. I don’t see how any of this information is relevant.

Last edited 2 years ago by Roger B
Al LeFeusch (@guest_131286)
2 years ago
Reply to  Roger B

The article clearly states that this method provides insight beyond what able to be obtained through prior methods, such as interviewing the campers….

“He said past studies on recreation decision-making have relied on surveying people about their stated preferences – basically asking them what they like. This study broke new ground by using revealed preferences – observations of people’s actual decision-making – made possible by the Recreation Information Database.”

Tsippi (@guest_131190)
2 years ago

This article doesn’t make a lot of sense. Did researchers perform a statistical adjustment for site length? Or did they count site length as a variable? Only a few sites at Watchman can handle 30+ foot rigs; it seems like those would go first, regardless of location. Also, I thought all the RV sites at Watchman had 30 amp service? How could some people opt for non-electric sites? South Campground, next to Watchman, does not offer electricity. Did they include South Campground but forget to note that in this article? Finally, all Watchman campsites cost the same, so how could researchers have “compared price”?

Grant Graves (@guest_131330)
2 years ago
Reply to  Tsippi

Agreed, I thought of those flaws in the study as well as many others that really limit the value of the results. But, that does not mean management won’t go ahead and make silly decisions that will affect campers for decades based on faulty analysis. I did software system design and database design for most of 50 years for major corporations and I saw the same kind of thinking during most of my career. Big data can be very useful but just using large amounts of data does not make meaningful information unless the data contains enough variation.

Carson Axtell (@guest_131361)
2 years ago
Reply to  Grant Graves

Management at many corporations and government agencies hire consultants and studies so that they have something to back up their decisions if the need to pass the buck ever arises. It often seems they’re more interested in securing their retirements than they are in getting a real handle on a problem and solving it.

Diane Fox (@guest_131188)
2 years ago

My demographic certainly colors my campsite preference process! I am a SSFC or senior female solo camper. I like to be distant from the playground, reasonably close to the showers and it must be pet friendly.

Sign up for the

RVtravel Newsletter

Sign up and receive 3 FREE RV Checklists: Set-Up, Take-Down and Packing List.