When it comes to camping, conventional wisdom says to plan ahead. Last-minute camping trips can be difficult to pull off. Many national parks and state parks allow campers to make reservations several months—even a year—in advance or have reservation windows that operate on a rolling basis. (And many campgrounds not only allow advance reservations, they require them.)
This means that at some campgrounds, summer weekends are often booked six months in advance. Campsite reservation systems have their benefits, but they can also make it difficult for people who can’t commit to a campsite months in advance. If you’re hoping to camp this summer but can’t make reservations or plan far ahead, here’s how to plan a camping trip last-minute.
How to Find a Campsite
The first and most important step in prepping for a last-minute camping trip is to find a campsite. This will also be the biggest challenge, especially if your trip is taking place on a holiday weekend or any weekend during peak camping season.
You’ll have a much easier time if you need only one site so be sure to check the capacity limits at your chosen campground. Some places will allow up to six adults and two vehicles at a single site. With that in mind, here are some of your options for finding a campsite:
Try a Walk-Up Site
Despite having reservable sites, many public and private campgrounds also have designated sites that are available on a first-come, first-served basis. (These are sometimes called “walk-up” sites.) In order to get one of these sites on a weekend, it helps to arrive early. Try to arrive at the campground as early as possible on a Friday. Even better, plan for long weekend and arrive on Thursday.
Before you pack up and leave home, you may want to call the campground to ask about the likelihood of getting a site. Park rangers and campground staff often have a good sense of when you’ll need to arrive in order to snag a site.
Go to a Private Campground
Campgrounds at national parks and state parks can fill up fast, but if you’re headed to a popular destination, there are often privately owned campgrounds in the area that may have vacancy. Camping at a spot that’s a short drive from your ultimate destination can be better than not camping at all!
Phone a Friend
Sometimes getting a weekend campsite is as simple as asking a friend. Do you know anyone with private land or a vacation property? They may allow you to camp on their land. (Keep in mind that if you do this, you likely won’t have typical amenities so be prepared for backcountry camping or boondocking.)
Consider Airbnb or Vrbo
Most people head to vacation rental sites like Airbnb and Vrbo for cabins, homes, and condos. But depending on your destination, you can book a campsite and bring your own equipment or book a private campsite that comes with an RV already set up for you.
Start by searching for a specific destination (such as a state or region) on Airbnb or Vrbo, then look for “campsite,” “camper,” or “RV” under the search options or filters.
Go Off the Grid
Last-minute camping trips often require a bit of flexibility. While it’s nice to stay at a campground that has restrooms, drinking water, and electrical hook-ups, you’ll have a lot more camping options if you’re willing to go without these things.
Public lands like national forests or state forests often have dispersed camping areas in addition to (or in place of) standard campgrounds. This means there are designated areas where camping is allowed but there are no actual sites or amenities. You can find out more about this type of camping by contacting staff at national and state forests, and by reading our comprehensive guide to free camping.
Camp During the Week
If you’re retired, work remotely, or have a lot of banked vacation time, consider camping during the week. Weekdays are less busy than weekends and you may even be able to get a last-minute reservation. There also tend to be more walk-up sites during the week.
How to Get Camping Gear
Once you’ve figured out your plan for getting a campsite, make sure you have all the camping gear you need. Camping equipment can be hard to come by right now with many big-ticket items like tents on back-order. If you’re missing key pieces of camping gear for your trip, here are some ways to get what you need in time:
Borrow From Friends
If you have friends or family who camp, ask if you can borrow their equipment. If you’re new to camping, this can also be a good way to test out the experience before investing in expensive gear.
Shop Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace
Local sites like Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace can be great places to find used (and sometimes new) camping gear. And since the sellers are local, you won’t have to worry about shipping times or costs.
If you live near an REI store, you may be able to take advantage of their gear rental. Depending on the location, REI stores rent everything from tents and sleeping bags to camp stoves and trekking poles. They also rent climbing, cycling, and paddling gear. Locally owned sporting goods stores may also offer equipment rentals.
Another rental option is the up-and-coming website Arrive Outdoors. Order the rental gear you want and they’ll ship it to wherever you are!
Need a place to sleep but can’t get a tent or camper for your trip? Plenty of people have figured out ways to camp in their vehicles. Consider removing seats and bringing along an air mattress or sleeping pads. Or give hammock camping a try!
How to Meal Plan
For last-minute camping trips, there’s usually not much time to meal plan or prepare food in advance so it’s easiest to pack no-fuss items that require minimal prep. For some simple meal ideas, check out our list of 22 camping food ideas that don’t require refrigeration and our 15 no-cook camping meals.