RV Shrink: Campground reservation rip-off


Dear RV Shrink:
We just stopped for the night in Red Bluff, CA, at a campground run by the National Forest Service. We drove around, found a site with a tag that said, “Open.” Once we were all set up, the host showed up and told us the site was already reserved and that we would have to move to a different site. I pointed out to him the “Open” tag and he said he forgot to change it. Then he went on to say we had to make a reservation and pay online; they don’t take money at an iron ranger anymore.

It’s the newest twist to rip campers off. Our half-price senior discount was still accepted, making our fee $8.00, but the reservation fee was $9.00. Even if you come in for a first-come, first-served site, you have to pay a reservation fee. We booked another site and moved.

A bit later the host showed up and said, “You need to put your tag on your post.” So not only is the government annoying me with their new voodoo economics, they expect me to haul a printer along to produce a post tag for them.

I want to start a “resistance” movement, but my wife just tells me to put up and shut up. Am I being unreasonable? —Cranky in California

Dear Cranky:
I’m with you, buddy. We had a similar situation. I told the host I would come over to his place and print it off on his computer printer. He had no printer, no power, and no answers.

If you read the propaganda the government puts out, about making camping easier by using reservation companies, it doesn’t mention all the inconveniences, continual cost escalation, and lack of travel spontaneity. It is only going to get worse.

This was the first paragraph in a recent news article about changes proposed for NPS campgrounds, and you can just assume it will be the same for National Forest campgrounds:

“A committee that reports to the National Park Service (NPS) is recommending privatizing campgrounds within national parks, limiting benefits for senior visitors and allowing food trucks as a way to bring more money into the system.”

To add insult to injury, the Park Service only retains about 80% of fees it collects and is continually underfunded from tax dollars and natural resource extraction royalties, thus leaving them with a backlog of approximately $12 billion in maintenance projects.

Collected fees do not always end up benefiting those that pay. A recent example I have experienced was in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Hiking a section of the Appalachian Trail, the park service established a $20 fee to thru-hikers, by way of an online permit. They also expect a backpacker to carry a printer as they demand a printed copy be in the hiker’s possession.

Doing a little math, I estimated the park service takes in about $60,000 per year from AT hikers. I would think that would translate into trail amenities. My first stop in the park was a shelter on a ridge. A sign pointed off one side of the ridge to “Water,” and the other side “Toilet.” Anticipating a pit toilet, I was shocked to find about two acres of dysentery landfill. The park service couldn’t even provide a two-holer and hikers didn’t bother to bury their deposits.

Add to this scenario the fact that the RV lifestyle is growing exponentially, as is the world population. So fasten your seat belt – there will be an assortment of change coming on a regular basis that will expect you to hone your high-tech skills and assemble an arsenal of new gadgets to “get away from it all.”  —Keep Smilin’, Richard Mallery a.k.a. Dr. R.V. Shrink

Can’t get enough of the Shrink? Read his e-books, including Book 2 in his two-book series: Dr. R.V. Shrink: Everything you ever wanted to know about the RV Lifestyle but were afraid to ask or check out his other e-books.


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I hate the reservation system for any public campground. County, State or National. There are so many times that someone will reserve the campsite and don’t show up. When we were at Pueblo Lake State Park, we were flying by the seat of our pants and arrived a day early. We were able to get a site with no hook ups, so that was o.k. When we moved to the hook up site where we did have a reservation, we were surprised at the empty stops. The campground host told us that it happens all the time. People won’t take the time to cancel and eat the cost of the campsite. We needed to stay a bit longer (working on some property we owned there) and our site was reserved so we had to move. We moved one site over and our old site was empty the whole time while still showing as reserved.

Something to be aware of on Reserve America is that while you are looking at a site on line it will “hold” it for you. If you don’t reserve it in a certain amount of time it goes back on the website as available. My husband cost us a couple of sites because we were unaware of this and we were both on looking on our cell phones.

With the NSF campgrounds if you look at the reserved sites it will have the dates it is being reserved on the post tag. You are allowed to camp in those sites but must move on the date stated on the post. Most NSF will have some first come, first serve sites.

When we are on the road, we are not in a hurry and most times don’t need to be someplace on a certain date or time. The reservation system is the result of technology. So we try to go to out of the way places and avoid areas with large populations (like around large cities) where people are getting away for the weekend. We also visit NP’s before or after peak season. We don’t have a problem with being out before the weekends. Then we can avoid the crazies.


Complain to to your Congress critter, often, and loudly. Every time something happens, even on good days…

Donna Gibson

Been to the same Campground years ago, we made our reservation online. When we showed up they had over booked their sites and we were placed in the over flow area. The neighboring campers were loud and parted all night. We tried to find an employee to complain, but could not fine one. We even tried calling their phone number but only got a recording. We will never stay at that campground again.


The reservation fee of $8.00 for each reervation is a rip-off. The company writes a computer program once, puts it online and collects the $8.00 thousands of times a day for years. The return has to be far more than the cost. A buck or two would be much fairer.


I agree that rates are getting to the point that we may not be RVing in the next year or so. We have volunteered for several summers, and that has allowed us to do more exploring than if we had to “pay all the way.” However, it has also allowed us to see the national campgrounds from a different perspective. Doesn’t change things, but it does give some perspective.

1. Our first observation is that those who “run” the campgrounds have never had any training in campground management and most have never been inside an RV. However, budget cuts at a higher level have pushed them from being environmental caretakers to being ill-trained campground managers…a job add-on that they neither wanted nor were prepared for.

2. Rules and regulations abound in any government facility and they often tie the hands of not only the management but the volunteers. Add to that the budget cuts that means keeping equipment running that should have been trashed years ago, and employees have their hands full…and are often as frustrated as the volunteers and campers at the lack of resources.

3. More and more “volunteers” want to be paid for their time. Few national parks pay — most are site for time. Thus, fewer volunteers. Those who are okay with the tit-for-tat arrangement are often newbies who don’t as yet have experience for paid positions, short-term vols who just want to stay in the area long enough to see the sites and then move on (which is what we do — but are told that even a month is better than nothing). And there are the year-after-year regulars who are stuck in the way things used to be done, but they are at least out there, doing something! Don’t get me wrong, there are hundreds of great volunteers who just want to give back…but there aren’t nearly enough of them to meet increasing needs.

4. National resources are not meant to be Disneyland! Compare the NFS budget to Disney’s revenue projections…see a difference?

5. It costs more to maintain any facility when users don’t respect themselves or their host. We read frequently about the messes left behind by campers; about the disregard for property. There’s an old adage about rental property — folks don’t maintain rentals as they would their own homes. Well, folks, if you don’t think your rising taxes have anything to do with the extra cost of cleaning up your messes, you are wrong.

5. Federal agencies are tasked with protecting the environment — forest service, national parks, wildlife, etc. Their mission does not include making money; in fact, many are restricted from doing so, thus visitor centers, gift shops, etc. are run by non-profits who return the money as a donation, not as revenue.

6. The only agency that is even close to being focused on lodging/camping and similar guest facilities is the NPS, and even they are going to contracted services. So why not give the the USFS, Wildlife, and other national campgrounds to them…at least those with RV facilities? Leave tent sites to the preservation agencies where users usually leave the least footprint and demand minimal services? (Even that is changing…but that’s another story for another time).

THEN there is the other side…those of us who also are users of these facilities.

The topic has been covered often enough in this newsletter and all of us are feeling the pain of rising prices. I hate the added online fees. I hate the first-come, first-served policies. I despise when fellow campers trash their site, don’t pick up after themselves or their pets. I hate that many parks simply don’t have the staff of volunteers to maintain them. But what can I do about it?

For starters. I can volunteer (and do). Admittedly, both my husband and I have been saddened and maddened by the accommodations for volunteers in some parks; but we have been so welcomed and appreciated in others. In one small district alone, we were told that their volunteers added the equivalent of 16 FTEs to their budget! We have a minute impact, but we try to give back a little of what we have been given…some of the most beautiful forests, seashores, parks, historic sits, and monuments and in the world. How much is that gift worth to you?

Douglas C Rutz

The reservation company is making more than the campground. I personally believe that concessionaires are ruining our national forests. Put the operations of the forests back in the hands of the rangers where it belongs. Raise rates if necessary. I believe that with the correct rate structure and proper management that the NFS and State parks could operate with a profit.

I am a senior and I think paying $8 for a campsite is not near enough to maintain our parks. Now if you paid $17 and eliminated the reservation company, it might help.