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Abandoned campsites are a big problem for campers: Here’s how to cope

What no shows at campgrounds mean for your trip

An empty campsite with a picnic table and firepit
Rick Obst / Flickr

Whenever it’s time to book a campsite, I groan at the thought. As I hesitantly log into the reservation platform, I settle for whatever spot I can find, knowing the good ones get booked fast. But here’s the kicker – by the time I arrive at the grounds, I’m surrounded by empty sites with the “reserved” tag displayed, unavailable for use, yet unoccupied.

Why does this happen? Well, it’s not just bad luck. A recent study reveals that over half of campers don’t show up for their reserved sites, booking them “just in case” they plan on going.

What can you do about it the next time you go to book a camping trip? Here’s some helpful info that may illuminate what’s happening and make the process less daunting.

The growing trend of no-shows in the camping world

In 2023, less than half (42.7%) of campers actually made it to their camping destinations. This was further strained by the fact that booking a campsite was over four times more competitive in 2023 than it was in 2019.

87.3% of campers who didn’t make it to their campsites in 2023 canceled at least two days in advance. 32.2% canceled in even less time. Younger generations, such as Millennials and Gen X-ers, were 52.6% more likely to abandon their campsite, and higher earners were more likely to let their camping spot go last minute.

However, this issue affects all demographics; just under 15% of campers abandon a reservation each year.

This trend may be the result of the recent boom in camping reservations. Between 2021 and 2023, 20 million first-time campers ventured into the great outdoors, adding to the booking competition.

It can also be tricky to find availability with the ever-fluctuating national park reservation requirements and changes, leading to hasty bookings without clear plans in place.

The impact of no-shows on campgrounds and fellow campers

A camping sign stating that the camp site is full
Florida-Guidebook.com / Unsplash

Abandoned campsites can cause headaches for both campers and the campgrounds themselves. On the camper’s side, booking a less-than-ideal spot and showing up to find their first choice sitting empty can breed resentment, making a camper less likely to return to the location.

It can also be a challenge for campers trying to book multiple sites. Say you need three sites for a family reunion, and there aren’t any options directly next to each other. If a no-show prevents one of the group from being able to book together, it can be a major inconvenience.

For the campground staff, no-shows have a different set of consequences. Firstly, depending on cancellation policies, it can be a financial loss. Site maintenance also gets tricky as campsite owners and facilitators can’t know if a camper will actually arrive.

No-shows impact both camping enthusiasts and hosts by making campgrounds seem vacant. This can diminish the robust, lively camping experience that many crave. While no one likes an overcrowded experience, a nearly empty campground can feel lackluster.

Strategies to avoid the no-show dilemma

Tents on a field on a sunny day
Li Yang / Unsplash

It can feel pretty helpless when campground availability is limited by other people’s booking habits. However, you can do a few things to lessen the offense of the no-show dilemma.

  • Most importantly, plan well in advance. While plenty of first-come, first-served sites are available, they’re not worth betting on, especially for beginner campers seeking amenities.
  • Look up exactly when reservations go live, and make sure to log in and book on that exact day. Official state and national park websites are the most reliable places to find the opening days for new bookings.
  • If you don’t like the idea of sitting on the edge of your seat waiting to book, you can also use programs that can automatically find cancellations at fully booked sites. CampNab and Dyrt Alerts allow you to scan campsites and receive text alerts when a space is released.
  • If you don’t want to deal with reservations at all, embracing dispersed camping may be the right option for you. Dispersed camping is completely free, doesn’t require reservations, and allows you to enjoy public areas such as national forests and BLM lands.

You won’t find maintained sites at these locations, so they won’t have amenities such as showers and washrooms, but if you’re comfortable with primitive camping, this option bypasses all of the pesky reservation issues.

Overall, be considerate and plan ahead

A man sitting on a bench outside while typing on a laptop
Lucian Novosel / Unsplash

Unfortunately, as demand for camping increases, we may not see a decrease in no-shows anytime soon. We may have to deal with this reality, but there’s still plenty we can do to help lessen the impact.

Stricter cancellation policies are being put in place by parks to help create accountability.

At the beginning of 2024, the State of California passed new legislation requiring campers to cancel seven days in advance. The California State Parks Service also reserves the right to ban any campers who abandon their reservations three or more times.

What can you do as a camper seeking solutions? I suggest helping the issue by being a fair camp-goer yourself.

Go ahead and grab that campsite that you may need to cancel if your boss won’t give you the time off. But, as soon as you know for sure that you can’t make it, log in and cancel or rebook that reservation.

It’s a small step, but it can make a big difference if we make a bit of room for others to enjoy a night under the stars.

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Rachel Dennis
Artist & writer with a flair for the outdoors, sustainability & travel. Off-duty chef, bookworm, and conversation lover.
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