The best camping trips aren’t always planned. Sometimes schedules fall into place at the last minute. Or the weekend forecast looks amazing. Or after a long week, everyone just wants to get away for a while. If you find yourself in the midst of preparing for a spur-of-the-moment camping trip, you’ll probably need a walk-up campsite. What is a walk-up campsite? And how do you get one? Here’s everything you need to know.
What Is a Walk-Up Campsite?
Camping is more popular than ever and most campgrounds (public and private) not only accept reservations, those reservations fill up fast. For instance, national park campgrounds accept reservations six months in advance. So if you want to camp in July at the height of summer, you have to book your dates sometime in January. For state parks, the lead time is even longer. Many states allow campers to reserve sites up to 11 months in advance. Privately owned campgrounds vary.
Reserved sites are great for people who plan ahead or have predictable schedules. Fortunately—for spontaneous types—they’re not a camper’s only option.
A walk-up campsite is a site that’s first come first serve. No one is allowed to reserve it, so whoever is first to show up and pay for it, gets it. Most parks and campgrounds offer at least some walk-up sites and they’re usually available for both tents and RVs. (Note that a “walk-in” campsite is different from a “walk-up” campsite. The term “walk-in site” refers to a campsite where you have to park your vehicle and then walk your gear to the campsite. Sometimes this distance can be a few hundred feet or a few miles, depending on the site. Most walk-in sites require reservations or some sort of advance permit.)
How To Get a Walk-Up Campsite
In the camping off-season (late fall through early spring in most of the U.S.), getting a walk-up campsite is as simple as showing up with your gear (or RV), paying for the site, and setting up camp. If you’re camping during the summer months or busy seasons, however, there’s some strategy involved. On summer weekends and holidays, walk-up sites fill quickly. Here are some of our best tips for getting a site:
Start your camping weekend on Thursday. If you want to get a site for a summer weekend, your best bet is to go as early as possible. You may want to consider taking a long weekend and heading to the campground on Thursday afternoon or evening. This will help you beat the rush of other campers that might show up on Friday.
Or arrive early on Friday. If an extra night won’t work with your schedule, try to arrive at the campground as early as possible on Friday. Plan to arrive at the campground’s checkout time, if not a little before. Not only will this increase your chance of getting a site, you’ll also get first pick.
Camp during the week. One of best strategies for getting a walk-up site is to avoid weekends altogether. Campgrounds have greater availability when you camp during the week.
Call ahead. The best way to get the inside scoop on a particular campground is to call the staff or park rangers. Sometimes they can tell you how likely it is that sites will fill up or let you know when you should arrive in order to increase your chances of getting one.
Have a back-up plan. Trying your luck at a walk-up site works best if the campground isn’t too far from home or if there’s another nearby campground with potential sites.
Where to Camp
Here are some popular camping destinations that have walk-up campsites. Check with your own state parks and local campgrounds for their walk-up options. (Most state parks offer some first come first serve sites.)
Both campgrounds at Oregon’s national park offer walk-up sites.
Most of this park’s frontcountry campgrounds require reservations, but the following have walk-up sites. Be aware that Great Smoky Mountains is one of the country’s busiest national parks so call ahead before making the trip.
All four standard campgrounds in this park have at least some walk-up sites. (A couple campgrounds have walk-up sites only.)
A few of this park’s campgrounds require reservations but the following all have first come first serve campsites only:
- Indian Creek Campground
- Lewis Lake Campground
- Mammoth Campground
- Norris Campground
- Pebble Creek Campground
- Slough Creek Campground
- Tower Fall Campground
Utah’s first national park has three campgrounds and two offer first come first serve sites:
If last-minute camping weekends and spontaneous outdoor adventures are a frequent occurrence for you, it helps to have gear that’s easy to pack, set up, and use. Here are our gear recommendations:
- Pop Up Tent: Coleman makes a budget-friendly 2-person pop-up tent and a larger cabin-style pop-up tent. For even more options, read our post about the 10 best pop-up tents.
- Easy-to-Pack Sleeping Bag: This lightweight sleeping bag is an Amazon bestseller. It packs easily into a compression sack for easy storage and can be zipped to another Canway sleeping bag.
- On-the-Go Lantern: The inflatable solar-powered Luci light is great for the campsite or tent—just make sure you charge it in the sun.
- Lightweight Camp Chairs: This aluminum-and-mesh folds up into a handy carrying case. (And it’s sold as a 2-pack so you’ll have one for a friend!)
- Instant Coffee Maker: Make your morning coffee in a flash with Stanley's All-in-One Boil + Brewer Coffee Maker.
- Camp Cookware: This nesting, lightweight cookware set has 10 pieces, from a tea kettle to a frying pan.
- Kitchen Utensil Set: This set from Gatling has nearly every kitchen utensil you need to cook camp meals.