Tuesday, May 16, 2017

5 Tips for Getting a Campsite without a Reservation

So, a long weekend is coming, the forecast actually calls for sun (and not snow,) but you have no reservation. What do you do??

I had to reserve this beauty of a campsite back in January!

Many of us likely remember simpler days where we’d pack up the truck on a Friday afternoon, drive out to the nearest campground and park the trailer without so much as a reservation. Fast forward ten years and you have to book sites online at least three months in advance if you hope to camp at all in the upcoming season. Many private RV resorts take reservations a full year in advance and it’s not uncommon for campgrounds to completely fill up within half an hour of an online reservation system going live for the season.

What do you do if you’ve dropped the ball though and you haven’t made a single reservation yet for the summer? Or what if you’re just not that kind of person who likes to plan ahead? Is there anything out there for the spontaneous individual who wants to play things by ear, watch the weather forecast, and pack up Thursday or Friday without a reservation made six months ago?

While it’s definitely challenging, there are always ways to get a last minute campsite if you use a bit of creativity and if you are willing to be flexible with your plans.

Find a campsite and get out there to enjoy some gorgeous spring camping!

5 Tips for Getting a Campsite without a Reservation 


One. Try Random Camping

Do a bit of research to find out where you can camp on crown land without a permit or reservation for your area. Many areas of Alberta allow free random camping in Public Land Use Zones where you are not in an official park or recreation area.

Chances are, the kids won't care where you camp as long as they have friends along


Two. Look for Non-Reservable Campgrounds or Campsites

Try to get a campsite at a non-reservable campground or at a first come-first served (FCFS) campsite. Visit the Alberta Parks website for a complete list of FCFS campsites in Alberta Parks, broken down by park and indicating how many sites are available without a reservation. The National Parks also maintain some non-reservable campgrounds and all of the campgrounds along the Icefields Parkway in Banff/Jasper National Parks are first come-first served.

Note, if you are going to get a site at one of these non-reservable campgrounds or you want to grab a first come-first served site, make sure you arrive either mid-week during the summer season (Thursday at the latest) or that you arrive early in the day as campers are checking out of their sites in the morning. Prospective campers are often asked to wait in line from 10:00am onward to grab sites as they vacate from the previous night.

It is also common for families to drive out to Kananaskis from Calgary on a Wednesday or Thursday night to grab a site for the weekend (a very popular option for long weekends.) You will have to pay for the nights that you don’t use if planning to drive back to the city until the weekend and you will be expected to set up your RV or a tent as a bare minimum to show your intent of camping on the site.(Note, I'm not saying I approve of this action - just stating that it is a very popular practice.)

There are lots of great first come - first serve campgrounds in Kananaskis (like Willow Rock in the Bow Valley)

Three. Book a Site in a Private Campground

Call around to private campgrounds or resorts and see if you can find a site. These campgrounds often have last minute spaces and it’s usually easier to find a site at a private campground than it is in a provincial or national park. You’ll pay more for your site but you’ll also get a serviced site at most private RV campgrounds.

Tip for finding a private campground: Be flexible with your plans and destination, and call around before you leave to see if you can find a site before leaving the city. There’s nothing worse than driving around for three hours in the Okanagan mid-summer trying to find a campground!

We always stay at a private campground outside of Waterton Lakes National Park and love the easy bookings


Four.  Networking!

Join a Facebook camping group, an outdoor meet up group, or a community group where you’ll receive first-hand information if a family has to cancel a campsite booking, wants to sell one, or is looking for others to join them on a trip. I’m a member of several groups and there are always people looking to transfer or sell camping permits with short notice. I’ve seen some amazing campsites become available for those who can jump last minute and grab them.

Don’t be shy about approaching friends who like to camp as well. You never know who’s going out this coming weekend and might have room for an extra trailer or tent in a group site.

One of our group campsites last summer (with lots of room for friends!)

Five. Be Flexible! 

There is usually something available to book last minute, even over a long weekend, if you are flexible with your plans. Northern Alberta has some beautiful campgrounds and there are lakes spread all over Central Alberta with campgrounds on them.

Worst Case Scenario, you can always camp somewhere "near" where you want to explore and then drive to your chosen park for day trips. (a popular option for places like Dinosaur Provincial Park or Waterton Lakes National Park)

There are gorgeous lakes like this all over Central and Northern Alberta - with beautiful campgrounds!

If there’s a bright side to booking frustrations, it’s that you learn for next year, you come up with a better plan, and you make sure you’re organized by mid-February for the booking season. If you didn’t get your site this year, make a note in your calendar for next year, aim to be on top of it and jump the second you are allowed to make reservations. Meanwhile this year, seize the opportunity to try something new, look for a new favourite campground or seek out that hidden gem you didn’t know about.

Disclaimer: This story "Five Tips to Finding a Campsite When You’ve Dropped the Ball on Reservations" has been edited and is being re-shared for a fresh camping season. It was originally published in a local magazine, no longer in print.

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