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? – All About Walk-Up Campgrounds
- How Do These Walk-Up Campgrounds Work? – All About Walk-Up Campgrounds
- Walk-Up vs Walk-In: What’s The Difference? – All About Walk-Up Campgrounds
- 12 Walk-Up Camping Tips: Making Sure You Get a Spot – All About Walk-Up Campgrounds
- 3 Precautions to Take – All About Walk-Up Campgrounds
- Alternatives to Walk-Up Camping – All About Walk-Up Campgrounds
- Conclusion – All About Walk-Up Campgrounds
- Frequently Asked Questions – All About Walk-Up Campgrounds
What Is a Walk-Up Campground? – All About Walk-Up Campgrounds
Walk campgrounds are exactly what they sound like. You walk up, and then you go camping—if a spot is 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, have an unpredictable schedule, or decide to go camping on a whim, 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. Yellowstone is one of those.
Possible reasons that campgrounds set these spots for walk-ups:
- 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? – All About Walk-Up Campgrounds
If you’re looking for a regular campground, 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? – All About Walk-Up Campgrounds
You might hear the terms “walk-up” and “walk-in” regarding campgrounds.
You arrive at a walk-up campground and get a camp spot, if any is available. No advance booking is needed. You have to walk 100 to 1,000 feet from your car to get to a walk-in campground.
This means that a walk-in is a regular campground that you must 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.
Ensure you don’t confuse the two terms; it’s far too easy to misread walk-in as a walk-up, so always double-check when you come across one of these terms.
Check out our detailed article on “30 Types of Campgrounds” to get your terminology dialed in.
12 Walk-Up Camping Tips: Making Sure You Get a Spot – All About Walk-Up Campgrounds
Knowing whether you’ll get into a walk-up campground is impossible, so you need to plan ahead just a little.
#1. Call Ahead – 12 Walk-Up Camping Tips
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 you want to visit, then make calls until you find somewhere to go.
#2. Use a Tent – 12 Walk-Up Camping Tips
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 – 12 Walk-Up Camping Tips
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, try going 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 – 12 Walk-Up Camping Tips
You can’t afford to be too picky when 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 elsewhere.
It’s best to avoid looking for perfection. Instead, focus on having a fun trip.
#5. Have Options – 12 Walk-Up Camping Tips
Don’t pick one campground and set your heart on it. Have a list of options nearby if your first pick is full.
This ties into the point above of not being a perfectionist: which matters more, the specific campground you visit or having fun?
#6. Be Early – 12 Walk-Up Camping Tips
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 to inquire.
#7. Don’t Shy Away From Travel – 12 Walk-Up Camping Tips
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 with that idea.
Many people in the city will 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 campground’s city, the less crowded it’s likely to be.
#8. Ask – 12 Walk-Up Camping Tips
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 they accommodate walk-up camping.
#9. Split Up If You Have To – 12 Walk-Up Camping Tips
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, 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 – 12 Walk-Up Camping Tips
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 the campground has available will be hundreds of feet from where you parked.
#11. Pick The Right Season – 12 Walk-Up Camping Tips
Camping is more popular in late spring and summer due to the wonderful weather. So, if you want to take a pleasant camping trip, consider going in early spring or 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 – 12 Walk-Up Camping Tips
Federal lands are often first-come-first-serve campgrounds. They may be called backcountry campgrounds, too. The camping spots are usually along multi-day backpacking trails in National Parks and National Forests.
These campgrounds usually lack signs, but they still have designated camping spots. They may be marked on a map provided to you when you arrive.
Camping on federal lands is great if you want to get adventurous; there’s no electricity or bathroom access most of the time. However, you have to be very careful. You can’t damage or disturb the land and must dispose of your waste appropriately, too.
3 Precautions to Take – All About Walk-Up Campgrounds
As well as following the tips above, it would be a good idea to take these three precautions when attempting walk-up camping.
#1. Don’t Risk Waiting – 3 Precautions to Take
A campground may only have an unappealing spot available, and you might think that if you stay, 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 – 3 Precautions to Take
Pack ahead of time and arrive ready. If a spot is 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 – 3 Precautions to Take
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, asking staff about what the campground offers is always best. Even if a friend tells you the campground offers walk-up camping, you should still double-check.
Alternatives to Walk-Up Camping – All About Walk-Up Campgrounds
If you miss out on the spot at a walk-up campground, you can still do a few things to have a good time.
#1. Wilderness Camping – Alternatives to Walk-Up 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 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.
#2. Backpacking – Alternatives to Walk-Up Camping
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 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 – Alternatives to Walk-Up 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. Attempting truck camping at a rest stop is also unwise, 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 – Alternatives to Walk-Up 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’ll have a fantastic time.
Conclusion – All About Walk-Up Campgrounds
Walk-up campgrounds are incredible, but you must keep the 12 tips in mind when trying to secure a spot in one. As I’ve said many times, there’s no guarantee that you will get in.
There’s almost always a way to satisfy your desire for a spontaneous camping trip, so keep the alternatives in mind. Always apply best practices when doing walk-up camping or one of the alternatives, and you’re sure to have a great time.
Frequently Asked Questions – All About Walk-Up Campgrounds
1. What is a Walk-Up Campground, and How Does it Differ From a Reservation-Based Campground? – FAQs
A walk-up campground is a campground that does not accept reservations in advance and instead operates on a first-come, first-served basis. This means campers must physically walk up to the campground and claim an available spot rather than reserving a spot online or over the phone. Walk-up campgrounds are typically more common at smaller, less developed campsites, although some larger campgrounds may also have a section set aside for walk-up campers.
2. What are Some Advantages and Disadvantages of Using a Walk-Up Campground Instead of Making a Reservation? – FAQs
The main advantage of using a walk-up campground is that it allows for greater flexibility and spontaneity, as campers can decide to go camping on a whim without planning in advance. Walk-up campgrounds also tend to be less crowded than reservation-based campgrounds, as some campers may be deterred by the uncertainty of finding a spot. However, walk-up campgrounds may have fewer amenities and fewer available spots than reservation-based campgrounds, and arriving late may mean all the spots have already been taken.
3. How Early Do I Need to Arrive at a Walk-Up Campground to Secure a Spot, and What Happens if All the Spots Are Already Taken? – FAQs
The exact time you need to arrive at a walk-up campground to secure a spot will vary depending on the popularity of the campground and the time of year. However, arriving early in the day is generally a good idea, especially on weekends or during peak camping season. If all the spots at a walk-up campground are already taken, you may need to find another campground or try again the next day. Some walk-up campgrounds may also have a waiting list or overflow area where campers can park and wait for a spot to open up.
4. What Amenities Can I Expect to Find at a Walk-Up Campground, and Are They Typically More or Less Developed Than Reservation-Based Campgrounds? – FAQs
The amenities at a walk-up campground can vary widely depending on the location and level of development. Some walk-up campgrounds may have basic amenities like pit toilets and fire rings, while others may have more developed facilities like showers, electrical hookups, and picnic tables. Walking-up campgrounds tend to be less developed than reservation-based campgrounds, as they are often located in more remote or wilderness areas.
5. Are There Any Special Tips or Tricks I Should Know About Using Walk-Up Campgrounds to Make My Camping Experience More Enjoyable? – FAQs
Some tips for using walk-up campgrounds include arriving early in the day, bringing cash to pay for your spot (as some walk-up campgrounds that charge may not accept credit cards), and being flexible with your camping plans in case all the spots are already taken. It’s also a good idea to research the campground beforehand to learn about any special regulations or restrictions and to bring all the necessary gear and supplies for a successful camping trip. Finally, practicing Leave No Trace principles and respecting other campers and the natural environment while using a walk-up campground is important.