As freeing as it is, camping requires a lot of prior planning. Namely, you have to reserve your spot and show up on time. But it’s a different matter with walk up campgrounds.
Walk up campgrounds let you camp without making a reservation. They operate on a first-come-first-served basis. Because of this, they are fantastic for last-minute trips.
Walk up camping works well for people who love spontaneity. Let’s explore this practice in a little more detail.
What Is a Walk Up Campground?
Walk campgrounds are exactly what they sound like. You walk up, and then you go camping—if there’s a spot available. As I said above, it’s first-come-first-served.
Much of the time, though, you’ll be able to find a spot at walk up campgrounds, so they’re useful if:
- You like last-minute trips
- You can’t find somewhere to make a reservation
- You need a break from your RV for a few nights and you have a tent
- You always forget to book stuff in advance
- Your schedule is too unpredictable to make a reservation
If you dislike planning, you have an unpredictable schedule, or you decide to go camping on a whim, then walk-up campgrounds will be your best friend.
However, you don’t always have to find a campground exclusively designated for walk up camping. Many regular campgrounds set aside a few spots to be used on a first-come-first-served basis, too. Yellowstone is one of those.
Possible reasons that campgrounds set these spots for walk-up:
- They’re the least popular sites
- For just-in-case use by campers who made reservations and have extra-large rigs
- The sites are smaller/less desirable
- Spots don’t have flush toilets/great amenities
Several of the points above apply to first-come-first-served campgrounds in Yellowstone. However, reasons for setting spots aside vary depending on the campground.
If your favorite campground is fully booked, then it’d be a good idea to ask if they have any sites set aside for walk ups.
How Do These Walk Up Campgrounds Work?
If you’re looking for a regular campground, then you might check out Recreation.gov. It lets you book spots at most of the National Forests and Parks.
A walk up campground will show up as FF or W on Recreation.gov. When you see this, you don’t need to call ahead to let them know you’re coming. Just show up!
You might see something like this on the website:
Here’s what you might see on a chart like the one above:
- FF or W: first-come-first-served or walk up
- A: Available to reserve
- R: Reserved
- X: Not accepting reservations/walk ups
- Line/no letter: Not yet released/will become available to book closer to the date
Walk Up vs Walk-In: What’s The Difference?
You might hear the terms “walk up” and “walk-in” regarding campgrounds.
A walk up campground is where you arrive and get a spot to camp if there’s any available. No advance booking is needed. A walk-in campground is a campground that you have to walk 100 to 1,000 feet from your car to get to.
This means that a walk in is a regular campground that you have to book in advance, but you’ll have to walk a while before you get to your camping spot.
So, ensure you don’t visit a walk-in campground with heavy gear.
Some walk up campgrounds are also walk-in campgrounds, so they operate on a first-come-first-served basis, but you’ll have to walk a while before arriving at your camping spot.
Make sure you don’t get the two terms confused; it’s far too easy to misread walk-in as walk up, so always double-check when you come across one of these terms.
Check out our detailed article on “30 Types of Campgrounds” if you want to get you want to get your terminology dialed in.
12 Walk Up Camping Tips: Making Sure You Get a Spot
It’s impossible to know whether you’ll get into a walk up campground or not, so you need to plan ahead just a little.
#1. Call Ahead
You can’t reserve a spot, but you can always call a walk up campground ahead to see if they have any room available.
Calling ahead will ensure you don’t spend hours driving from campground to campground, hunting for somewhere to spend the night.
Make a list of potential campgrounds that you want to visit, then start making calls until you find somewhere to go.
#2. Use a Tent
You often have a higher chance of getting into a walk up campground if you use a tent.
Large sites for RVs and huge cabin tents are highly in demand, so they’re most likely all booked or have already been taken by fellow walk up campers.
If you’re driving an RV when you decide to go camping, then be willing to leave it in a nearby parking lot so you can camp in a tent once you’re at the campground.
#3. Camp On a Weekday
With no work and no school to hold people back, campgrounds fill up fast on weekends. So, if you want to go to a walk up campground, then try to go on a weekday.
Walk up campgrounds will be far less busy on weekdays, so try to secure your spot on a Wednesday or Thursday. You can stay through the weekend if you’d like.
#4. Don’t Look For Perfection
You can’t afford to be too picky when you’re doing walk up camping. Campgrounds may have spots left for you to camp, but they may not have the best views, or maybe they’re not close to the campground’s amenities.
You can say no to taking one of the spots, but you may not find anything better anywhere else.
It’s best to avoid looking for perfection. Instead, focus on having a fun trip.
#5. Have Options
Don’t pick one campground and set your heart on it. Have a list of options nearby in case your first pick is full up.
This ties into the point above of not being a perfectionist: which matters more, the specific campground that you visit or having fun?
#6. Be Early
Show up before the kiosk opens, and you’ll beat the rush. That way you can walk up as soon as it opens and ask about available spots to camp. You’ll be more likely to get a spot if you’re the first one that inquires.
#7. Don’t Shy Away From Travel
This point is particularly prevalent for city-dwellers. If you live in the city and would like to escape to a nearby campground for a break, then you’re probably not the only city dweller who’s had that idea.
Lots of people in the city are going to want to escape on a camping break, so the campground closest to the city will fill up fast. However, if you don’t shy away from travel, then you may find a campground that’s not quite as full.
The rule is, the further away from the city the campground is, the less crowded it’s likely to be.
Is there a campground that you love but it’s fully booked? Call or email to see if they have any areas set aside for walk ups.
This can apply to any campground you try. Sometimes they don’t make it obvious that they allow walk ups, so it wouldn’t hurt to ask them if they have any spots available. You never know when one of them will say that they accommodate walk up camping.
#9. Split Up If You Have To
This is a tip for people who own multiple sizes of tents, or perhaps people in the group you’re camping with own various tent sizes.
Walk up campgrounds might have a spot available, but it could be a group spot. On the other hand, they may only have single spots when you’re with a group.
You need to be flexible. Ask about everything they have available to accommodate you.
If you’re in a group of five, then they may have an area for a 3-person tent and two spots for single campers. You can always set up in separate areas but meet up later.
#10. Get Ready to Walk
Securing yourself a spot at a walk up campground is all about being flexible, so don’t be afraid to walk for a while to get to your campsite.
Try to keep your gear as light as possible. Sometimes the only spot that campground has available will be hundreds of feet away from where you parked.
#11. Pick The Right Season
Camping is more popular in late spring and summer due to the wonderful weather. So, if you really want to take a pleasant camping trip, then consider going in early spring or in fall.
The campground will be less crowded, so there’s a higher chance of you securing yourself a spot.
#12. Don’t Be Afraid of Federal Lands
Federal lands are often first-come-first-serve campgrounds. They may be called backcountry campgrounds, too. The camping spots are usually located along multi-day backpacking trails in National Parks and National Forests.
These campgrounds usually lack signs, but there are still designated camping spots in them. They may be marked on a map that’s provided to you when you arrive.
Camping on federal lands is great if you want to get adventurous; there’s no electricity or no bathroom access most of the time. However, you have to be very careful. You can’t damage or disturb the land, and you need to dispose of your waste appropriately, too.
Walk Up Camping: 3 Precautions to Take
As well as following the tips above, it would be a good idea to take these three precautions when you’re attempting walk up camping.
#1. Don’t Risk Waiting
A campground may only have an unappealing spot available, and you might think that if you stay then something nicer will open up later.
You can’t take this risk, though. Someone else could swoop in and steal the last spot, and there’s no guarantee that something else will become available.
#2. Bring All Your Gear
Pack ahead of time and arrive ready. If there’s a spot open when you get there, someone else could take it while you’re rushing home to pack.
If needed, one person in your group (if applicable) could stay behind to save the spot while everyone else goes home to grab the gear.
#3. Always Do Your Research
It’s easy to assume that every campground will have something available on a walk up basis, but that’s not always the case.
Always research the campground. As I said earlier, it’s always best to ask staff about what the campground offers. Even if a friend tells you that the campground offers walk up camping, you should still double-check.
Alternatives to Walk Up Camping
If you miss out on a spot at a walk up campground, there are still a few things you can do to have a good time.
#1. Wilderness Camping
Wilderness camping is also referred to as primitive or dispersed camping. It’s different from camping on federal lands.
While camping on federal lands, you’re usually in some kind of frequently-visited National Park or National Forest. With wilderness camping, you’re most likely in the middle of nowhere in a state park or forest that’s not a tourist attraction.
There are some rules to follow with dispersed camping, and you’ll find many of them here, but other than that it’s an incredibly freeing experience.
With backpacking, you’ll go on a multi-day trip along a trail in a National Park or National Forest. There are designated camping spots approximately 200 feet from the trail, and you use these to spend the night while on this multi-day hike.
It’s not exactly the relaxing camping trip that you’ll have with regular walk up camping, but it’s usually free, and you don’t often have to book your trip in advance.
#3. Truck Bed Camping
Truck tents usually fit one or two people, but it’ll depend on the size of your truck.
With truck bed camping you can drive off and camp almost anywhere; along the road, in a parking lot, or on a trail made for off-road driving adventures.
Sleeping in your vehicle isn’t illegal in most places, although some cities prohibit it. It’s also unwise to attempt truck camping at a rest stop, as it’s often considered loitering.
Finding a secluded spot for truck bed camping is best, and research the laws in your city.
#4. Backyard Camping
Backyard camping isn’t the best option as you’re not away from home, but with the right attitude, it can be extremely fun, especially for kids.
Set up your tent in the backyard and make the house off limits except for electricity and bathroom breaks. Spend the weekend camping in your backyard, and you’re sure to have a fantastic time.
Walk up campgrounds are incredible, but you have to keep the 12 tips in mind when you’re trying to secure a spot in one. As I’ve said many times, there’s no guarantee that you’re going to get in.
There’s almost always a way to satisfy your desire for a spontaneous camping trip, though, so keep the alternatives in mind. Always apply best practices when you’re doing walk up camping or one of the alternatives, and you’re sure to have a great time.