First Come First Serve Camping Tips To Always Get A Spot

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Many people plan months in advance, even years, to visit a popular National Park or State Park. But maybe you’re not that type of person. If so, you’re going to love first-come first-serve camping.

Perhaps your planning consists of only knowing the state you want to see. Or perhaps you are that type of person, and your plans completely went awry.

Either way, you now need a place to camp so that your experience doesn’t go the same way as your plans.

Check out these first-come first-serve camping tips to always get a spot regardless of your planning style!

What Is First Come First Serve Camping? 

First-come first-serve sites are non-reservable sites, and you must be there in person to get one. Simply put, you get there first, you get the spot. While first-come first-serve sounds similar to boondocking or free camping, this phrase is generally referring to campgrounds.

It applies to campgrounds that book up quickly due to high demand and people who are on top of making reservations. However, these in-demand campgrounds typically hold a few spots to be used on a first-come first-served basis.

Additionally, most first-come first-serve camping only offers dry camping sites. Meaning they don’t offer water, electric, or sewer hookups.

You’ll want to be sure your RV is set up for this type of camping. Don’t fret though, these campgrounds almost always offer flush toilets (or vault toilets), showers, and a central location to get drinking water. Some even offer fire rings and picnic tables!

Pro Tip: Read our article on Everything You Need to Know About Dry Camping Sites before attempting to snag a first-come first-serve site!

A fifth wheel backing up into a first come first serve camping spot in Virginia

Where Are First-Come First-Serve Campsites Found? 

First come first serve campsites can be found all over the country, but the most sought-after sites like this are in National Forests, State Parks, and National Parks. For example, Olympic National Park has four campgrounds that accept reservations, while the other 11 are all first come first serve campgrounds.

Because a good deal of people are planners when it comes to visiting State and National Parks, it’s hard to even get a reservation, let alone a spot on a whim.

But it is quite possible just to show up and score the best camping spot in the entire park, all because you didn’t make that reservation in time. It can be risky, but the risk is what makes life worth living!

Tips For Getting in First Come First Serve Campgrounds

Here’s the kicker, though. Because you decided to wing it, you now have to develop a plan to have a chance at a first-come first-serve spot.

Meaning, that you’ll have to choose where you want to camp and then get there early enough to be one of the first people in line to get those popular spots.

You’ll also have to remember to carry cash, be flexible and start with the right attitude. We hope these tips will help you gain access to your very own first come first serve camping spot.

Let’s dive in!

1. Arrive Early

Arriving by 11:00 AM for a camping spot that opens up at noon might sound like a smart idea; however, everyone else thought the same thing. And now you’re the 10th person in line for only five spots.

If you want a shot at that campsite, arrive earlier than you think necessary. This also means that you need to know the campground you plan on staying at.

Another tip is to call the campground or Ranger Station to ask what time they recommend showing up to snag a first-come, first-serve site. Ask them if they have any additional tips for snagging an open site as well!

Find out when check-in and check-out are, and be prepared to wait a few hours. Feel free to make an adventure of it.

Plan some games or get some work done while waiting.  Prepare some snacks so you won’t be hungry. And when others start showing up behind you in line, you’ll know you got there in time!

People waiting in line in a open field to see if they can get a first come first serve camping site.

2. Weekdays Are Easier than Weekends To Snag a First-Come First- Serve Camping Site

Since most people are packing up and heading out on Sunday, this makes it a great day to start your camping trip. 

Mondays and Tuesdays are also good days to consider trying to snag a first-come, first-serve site. The beginning of the week makes for a great chance at getting into your ideal spot.

3. Have 2 People At 2 Different Campgrounds

While some people camp alone, most go with family or a group of friends. This is a benefit when it comes to snagging that perfect camping spot.

Again, performing a bit of research ahead of time to know the campground(s) will help you decide where to set up your family or friends to wait in line.

While there may only be one choice for camping at State Parks, this is a suitable method for National Parks that fill up fast.

However, be sure to have walkie-talkies or another form of communication on hand to attempt this strategy. Cell signals are almost always nonexistent in National Parks.

This method is a great option because even if one of you fails the mission, the other might likely get a spot. With two or more people trying to get a spot, your odds increase.

A fifth wheel parked in a first come first serve camping spot in upstate New York with lots of trees

4. Plan Your Visit During the Off-Season

We live for the summertime and our holiday weekends. If you love vying for limited spots with hundreds of others doing the same, peak season is where it’s at.

But if you’d rather spend your precious time exploring the trails or boating or watching wildlife, then visit during the off-season.

You’ll have less competition, more quiet, and increased joy from the beauty of the fall colors and snow-capped mountains.

Woman sitting in her van sipping out of a mug looking out a rainy window. She's waiting in line to snag a first come first serve camping site.

5. Bring Cash

Most campgrounds that work on a first come first serve basis only accept cash—some, no larger than $20 bills. Come prepared, so you don’t have to go to the ATM and lose your spot in line!

6. Be Flexible and Adaptable

I’ve mentioned finding your perfect spot, but perfect doesn’t mean scoring the best site in the park. Perfect means you got a camping spot at the park you wanted to explore. 

It may not have that big beautiful tree or back up to the mountain stream. But it does get you exactly where you want to be. So, you may not get the “perfect” spot, but you at least got a site!

A fifth wheel parked in a rural camping spot in New Hampshire

7. Always Have a Backup Plan When Trying First-Come First-Serve Camping

Having a backup plan goes along with being flexible and adaptable. It is quite possible that you won’t get a spot in the park. So, what will you do? 

A back up plan could be spending one night in a Walmart parking lot and heading back to the park for another go-around at waiting for the first-come, first-serve camping spot the next day.  

It could also mean finding a nearby RV park or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land close enough to allow you to drive in for the day and camp at night somewhere else.

Man cooking breakfast at a portable grill in his campsite that he found using first come first serve camping tips

Not All First Come First Serve Campsites Are Hard To Get

We want you to be prepared for the possibility of a long wait or not getting a spot at all, but not all first-come first-serve campgrounds are hard to get. 

In fact, some are relatively easy. You just pull up to the campground, choose your site, pay, and you’re in!

But the more prepared you are, the better it is for your mindset, your vibe, and even your pocketbook. 

National Parks are harder to find a spot, either reservable or first-come camping spots. State parks are generally much more manageable.

Typically only trendy places like large, well-known National Parks are hard to get into. It’s also harder finding a site anytime you’re trying to camp during a weekend or holiday weekend, so head out during the off-times, and you’ll be good to go.

Plan Ahead and Snag A First Serve Spot!

Even if you’re not much of a planner, by taking the time to plan just a bit, arriving early, and being flexible, you’ll probably snag that “perfect” first come first serve camping spot.

But if you don’t, take advantage of being out and about with people you love while exploring new places. Maybe you’re thinking that making those reservations a year ago would have been a good idea, but where’s the adventure in that?

Once you have snagged your perfect site, settle in with your friends or family for some camping games you need to try!

1 comment
  1. Last month July 2021, my husband and I did tent camping for a month in New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado. We found that there were a lot of sites reserved, but were no shows. Unfortunately, those sites could not be released to anyone. We did not have any problems, but it was sad to see families turned away.

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