When I was a kid, my family went camping all the time. We’d pack up the Ford Aerostar with sleeping bags, duffels, a tent, the kerosene stove, and a cooler full of food, and then hit the road.
Hours later, we’d pull into a campsite surrounded by pines so tall I couldn’t see their tops, or the mountains beyond. It was my job to set up the tent in the evening dusk while my mom made dinner. The next morning, groggy and a little sore from sleeping on a flimsy mat, I’d pull on an extra layer, unzip the tent, and adjust my eyes to the view.
Here’s the part I didn’t have to think about as a kid: the months of planning my mom invested into our trip, studying road maps and calling up campgrounds to make reservations.
Camping has always required some up-front legwork, but the method, timing, and steps involved have changed in recent years, thanks in large part to the internet. Where we used to reserve sites over the phone, highlight routes on paper maps, and mark destinations with an X, now planning a camping trip and reserving a site in a National Forest can be as simple as a web search.
Since launching in 2007, Recreation.gov has become a funnel for 12 federal agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service, to connect millions of campers with thousands of campgrounds. A one-stop shop for campsite reservations, hiking permits, and even trip planning, it is the best way to book a campsite on National Forest land in advance.
You can use the maps on Recreation.gov to book your favorite campground, or discover a new one with the trip planning function and recommendation features. Then you can browse through each campsite to see what’s available for the days you want to camp. In many ways, these tools make things easier. Digital photos uploaded for each site allow you to preview the picnic table, see how flat the tent site is, or whether the parking space is large enough for the trailer you’ll be towing. RVers can see whether the campground allows generators or has the right utility hook-ups. What’s more, with good cell service and the growing cultural acceptance for remote work, many campers have found a way to make roadtripping a way of life. You can go for a hike in the morning and be back at your laptop, hooked up to a signal amplified by your RV satellite, for that 11 a.m. meeting.
A one-stop shop for campsite reservations, hiking permits, and even trip planning, it is the best way to book a campsite on National Forest land in advance.
With surging public interest in camping, Recreation.gov saw 2 million new user accounts in the 2020 fiscal year, pushing the total number of accounts above 16 million. “That’s a significant jump,” said Kristi Bray, public affairs officer for Recreation.gov.
Camping’s growing popularity is also reflected in how frequently people are booking campsites. In fiscal year 2020, the sites’ sessions (a metric indicating a person visited the website) jumped to 67 million, up from 43 million the prior year.
Those numbers mean there’s a whole lot of demand for a limited number of campsites. While bots once took advantage of the system, their presence has been mitigated by recently implemented security features including CAPTCHA, the widely adopted check to make sure the user is a human and not a bot. The site’s engineering teams are also constantly monitoring for suspicious behavior, to make sure everyone has a fair chance.
“Demand is incredibly high,” Bray said, suggesting campers have more than one option for their upcoming summer vacations. “I think like last summer, things are going to be in high demand and busy, and we need to be prepared for trailhead parking to be full, and to have [a plan B] in place.”
In mid-February, my mind was already on August and where I wanted to be at the height of summer. I spent days on government websites, scrolling through campgrounds near Lake Tahoe, where I live and where booking a campsite can often feel like playing the lottery. With 16.9 million Recreation.gov sessions in California in 2020, Californians deal with more competition than any other state by a long shot. Colorado is second in line, with 2.2 million sessions. “That has been consistent for years,” Bray said. “California, by far, exceeds any of the other states.”
But Recreation.gov steered me toward a spot in a nearby Forest that was perfectly suited for my camping dreams and, crucially, had campsites available for the dates I wanted. I started with a broad search, by typing “Tahoe National Forest” into the site. Dozens of campgrounds came up, along with photos, descriptions, and the location of each on a topographic map. I scrolled until I found the one I was looking for: Sardine Lake.
About an hour north of Tahoe, Sardine Lake is nestled beneath a snow-capped, craggy, behemoth of a mountain called the Sierra Buttes. With swimming holes, tents, picnic tables, and fire pits, this little campground is the quintessential picture of summer.
The Forest Service rolls out reservations for many campsites on a six-month basis, which was the case for Sardine Lakes. I clicked the calendar to preview my fate and saw a glimmer of hope: an icon marking availability for six months ahead. I selected the days through the weekend, and then went through a menu of options, narrowing my search: Two cars, four people, two tents. You can further narrow the search if you have an RV or you’re looking for an ADA site. If you’re bringing a dog, make sure you click the “pets allowed” button.
I imagined myself staring up at the stars on a hot August evening, then chose a site. I made sure it wasn’t too far from the bathrooms (but not too close, either), and just far enough from the other sites and the road. The cost for three nights, including fees, came out to $80. The button said: “Book now.” But I read it as: “Click me and great things will come.” The next page confirmed my reservation. Easy as that. Now I just have to wait six months, which honestly might be the hardest part.
About the Author
Julie Brown is a freelance journalist based in Reno. She is a contributing editor at SFGATE and a former managing editor at Powder Magazine.