What is Walk Up Camping?

This is a single tent in a foggy forest scenery during sunrise.

Walk up camping offers a fun sense of adventure. Instead of making a reservation, you show up at a campground and hope to get a campsite. These sites are given on a first come first serve basis. Most campgrounds only offer them for primitive campsites or backcountry camping. It’s great for an impromptu camping trip or avoiding reservation fees. Researching the campground and arriving early can help you find a great walk up campsite. 

I recently went camping. I reserved the campsite a week in advance, and it seemed to drag on forever. I had already scouted my site and loved it. I couldn’t wait to camp there. Honestly, I felt a bit like a kid waiting for Christmas.

The site happened to be at the bottom of a very large hill. It was a wonderful spot, until it happened to rain very hard all night long. A wet tent isn’t the most pleasant way to spend the night, but I survived.

My campsite, so carefully considered, turned out not to be a great spot given the weather. I wonder if I had chosen walk up camping instead, would chance have put me in a better position?

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Walk up camping is simply camping without making a reservation at a campsite. Similar to a walk-in hair appointment, they are given on a first come first serve basis.

Some people are planners. Me, I’m a planner. The thought of just walking up willy-nilly and hoping for a spot makes my soul shudder. However, if you are flexible and adventurous, unpredictability can be fun. It’s a bit like gambling, with a tent.

Finding Walk Up Camping

Not all campsites offer walk up camping. You can usually find walk up camping at a state park. Some private campsites offer it as well.

You can also find walk up camping at a national park. When it comes to national and state park campgrounds, walk up camping is usually only available for primitive campsites.

Primitive campsites are designated camping sites with few or no amenities. They often have a fire ring or grill and picnic table, and may have bathroom facilities nearby. Primitive camping is also known as tent camping, because you camp in a tent.

Another way to find walk up camping in a state or national park is backcountry camping. This is also known as dispersed camping.

Most parks allow backcountry camping as long as the area isn’t restricted. This means that you can walk into the wilderness and camp nearly anywhere you choose. When choosing a primitive campsite, keep in mind that most parks do have a few restrictions. These typically state you can’t camp within a certain distance of a walking trail, roadway, or water source.

Walk in Camping

This is a nighttime view of a group of friends surrounding the bright campfire.

Walk in camping is different than walk up camping. Walk in camping means that you have to walk to your campsite. It’s also known as a backcountry campsite.

A frontcountry campsite is one that you drive to. You’ll park right by your campsite at the campground. This is more convenient, but it usually requires a reservation.

Walk Up Camping vs. Reservation

Both walk up camping and having a camping reservation have their advantages.

Camping Fee

A walk up campsite is often free, and nearly always less expensive than a reservation fee. If you want to save money on your camping trip, a walk up campsite will allow you to do so.

Planning

When you make a camping reservation, you are guaranteed to have a spot at the campground. There’s no stress over finding a camping site.

The downside is that if your plans change, you may still be charged for the reservation. The other downside is that some campgrounds will be booked months in advance. If you want to go on a spur-of-the-moment camping trip, camping reservations can be hard to come by.

The reservation process itself can also be unnerving. Reserving a campsite should be easy, with online reservation being popular. However, national parks use a universal system which can be confusing.

Of course, you can always reserve a campsite by phone. If you are one of those people that prefer to do things the old-fashioned way, you can simply go the campground to make a reservation.

Amenities

This is a view of multiple colorful tents at a forest camp site.

If you need an electric site, plan to camp in a camper or RV, or must have flush toilets, a walk up campsite isn’t a good choice. Most walk up sites don’t have these amenities. It’s difficult to find frontcountry campgrounds that allow walk up camping. You’ll need to be prepared to walk in to a primitive or backcountry camping site.

If you don’t mind packing little more than a tent and a sleeping bag and finding your own firewood, you’ll do fine with a walk up site.

Tips For Securing a Walk Up Campsite

Perhaps you like the adventure of walk up camping. Maybe you decided to go on a camping trip spontaneously. Whatever your reason, these tips will help you secure a walk up campsite.

Consider the Season

This is an illuminated tent during nighttime at a snowy winter camp site.

You are much more likely to find walk up sites in the off-season. If a campground is open, but doesn’t have a lot of campers, they will often offer any unreserved sites as walk up sites.

Call Your Local Campground

Some campgrounds will list walk up camping on their website, but some don’t. If you want to know for sure if a campground allows camping without a reservation, calling them is the best way to find out. You can also ask them about check-out times and which days you are most likely to find a campsite.

Get There Early

The best way to secure a site is to get there before check-out time. As campers leave, sites will become available. This gives you a chance to snag one.

If a campground is only open on certain days, be there when they open. Sites are first come first serve, so get there first.

Be Flexible and Prepared

A group of friends hiking through the forest trail carrying backpacks.

Flexibility is one of the perks of walk up camping. This means you’ll need to be prepared to take what you can get. Expect to get a primitive campsite and walk in camp.

If there’s no places open, you may have to travel to another campground or change your plans.

Walk Up Camping FAQs

How do you get a walk up campsite at Yosemite?

Unfortunately, you can’t get a walk up campsite at Yosemite in 2021. According to Yosemite, this is due to Covid-19 restrictions. You can make a reservation at Recreation.gov. For next-day reservations, you can enter the Camp 4 lottery. A few campers are selected for these spots each day. Camp 4 only allows tent camping. 

What is the difference between a camp site and a tent site?

A campsite refers to any type of designated camping area, including RV camping and tent camping. A tent site only allows tent camping. Tent sites may also allow you to camp with only a hammock or a sleeping bag. 

What does drive up campsite mean?

A drive up campsite is a campsite that allows you to park your vehicle at your campsite. This is also known as frontcountry camping. 

Can you set up a tent anywhere?

Rules vary depending on where you are camping. Many state and national parks allow dispersed camping. This means you can pitch a tent nearly anywhere. Generally, you can’t camp near a designated campsite, a water source, roadway, or hiking trail. Local parks and private campgrounds may have rules other than rules, and not all allow backcountry camping. Bureau of Land Management areas (BLM) typically allow dispersed camping as well. 

Most backcountry campsites don’t require a reservation, but some do. Do your research ahead of time. 

Camping Permits

Some parks require you to get a camping permit to camp. In fact, a camping permit is required for overnight camping in a national park and most other federally owned lands as well. Some other activities, like rock climbing or building a campfire, can require a permit as well. You can learn whether your campground requires a permit and get one if needed at Recreation.gov

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