What Is a Walk Up Campsite and How Do You Get One?

walk up campsites

It may still seem a ways away, but early spring camping is just around the corner and we Explorer Chicks can’t roll out our spring and summer camping gear fast enough. It’s that time to hit your local campground and popular camping destinations for a seriously fun camping adventure to relax in the great outdoors.

However, with popular national park campgrounds going online, many popular campgrounds have online reservation systems that require booking months in advance and backcountry camping requires lots more preparation and research. All that scheduling can be great for locking in your dream camping trip, but if you’re the type to go for spontaneous camping trips whenever, you need to know about walk up campsites!

In this post, we’ll start from the top, defining what a walk up campsite actually is, explain how they work, and provide tips to help you snag the best last minute walk up campsites.

What Is a Walk Up Campsite?

camping in alaska
Camping in Alaska.

A walk up campsite is a type of first come, first serve availability where you don’t make a reservation for the campground and instead, show up in person to claim a camping spot. While some places, you may be able to reserve a camping spot up to a year in advance, there are some sites that don’t offer advance reservations, meaning that the only way to secure a place is on a first come, first serve basis. 

No two campsites are exactly the same and have different accommodations (reservations, campground host, toilets, showers, running water, views, etc.), so you’ll want to do your research on the walk up camping sites you’re considering. If you’re planning well ahead of time and going in peak season, you may also want to find a reservable site so you can be sure to get a spot. 

How Do Walk Up Campsites Work?

tent camping

With walk-up campsites, you show up at the campground ready to camp and find available sites when you get there. This could be local campgrounds that only offer walk-up sites specifically, or you may be taking a chance on last-minute cancellations at a site that offers both reservations and walk-ups. 

Generally, you’ll walk (or drive) up to the campground on the day you want to camp and either talk to the campground manager to see if there are any open sites or if there’s no one on-site, you’ll look for unclaimed sites and snag one!

Walk In vs. Walk Up Sites

Backpacking in the Grand Canyon.

A couple of small two letter words can make a BIG difference. Be sure you’re reading the campgrounds reservation policies correctly, because walk in and walk up are two distinctly different things. Walk in campsites mean that you have to carry your gear to the site. This could mean that the parking lot is located a short distance from the designated sites or it could mean a hike with your gear like with backpacking. Be sure you know the distance you’ll need to walk as it could impact what you decide to bring and what gear you carry with you.

Other sites may allow for parking right next to the campsite, which could be more convenient if you have heavy gear or if you’re camping for an extended period of time. If you need an easy-access campsite for any form of car camping, be sure you aren’t getting a walk in site instead!

A walk up site is when you arrive the day of and secure any available spot at the grounds. These are spots with no advanced reservations (what we’re talking about in this post). Doing some early research can help you sort out what type of campsite is at each location.

campfire games cta

Sites like Recreation.gov, which is where you can book most National Park and National Forest sites, have an easy to follow system for classifying what type of campground is available. For instance, an ‘FF’ or ‘W’ will mean first come first serve or walk up, respectively.   

Another thing to remember; that walk UP camping can also mean the site is walk IN!  

4 Walk Up Camping Tips to Get a Last Minute Walk Up Site 

camping tips

If you love camping, but don’t love the planning part and need a walk up site ASAP, keep reading for some expert tips on how to get a site you’ll love.

1. Timing: Show up early

The early bird gets the worm when it comes to getting the perfect walk up spot, so that means you have to arrive early at the site! When you show up early, not only do you have a better chance of snagging that coveted perfect lot, you’ll be less likely to show up and not have any availability because other campers got the first come first serve campsites before you. Be on site before 9am for the best chance to get a place for that night, or be sure to arrive before check out time so you can take spots as campers leave. 

This is especially essential during busy weekends or at popular sites.

For long weekends, if you can show up before the weekend (think Thursday or Friday) and camp a little longer, that’ll also give you a better chance to get a spot for the full weekend!

Also, don’t be afraid to email or call ahead of time to get a better idea of how quickly they fill up or any other tips from the staff.

2. Have a backup plan

Because walk up sites can be a bit of a gamble, you need a backup plan in case you’re walkup campsite doesn’t pan out the way you hoped.

Have a list of places you can check out in case your first choice is already full. When you’re being a little more on the adventurous side with unplanned reservations, you gotta be ready to go with the flow and change things up if you need. Ideally, your backup walk up campsites should be less popular than your top choice, so you can at least feel confident you’ll find somewhere to sleep for the night.

3. Last minute cancellations

This is a great way to score a place at a campground that offers both reservations and walk up sites. Spontaneity here can be key because you’re coming to the campground which may already be sold out with the hope that someone has made a last minute cancellation and you can now take their spot.

For last minute cancellations, having a back up plan in place is even more essential, just in case there aren’t any spaces available. 

4. Know your seasonal traffic

Most national parks and campgrounds have a peak season. During these times, the campgrounds may not offer walk up spots. You may have a better chance of getting a last minute spot at a campground or being guaranteed a place at a walk up campsite if you go in the park or region’s off-season (think shoulder-season in early spring or fall).

Also, for obvious reasons, holidays and weekend reservations may be harder to come by, so heading to a walk up site during the week may give you a better chance of getting the camp site you want.

Go Camping with the Girls

Explorer Chicks in Iceland.

Has all this info on walk up sites and camping planning got your head spinning? Would you rather let someone else do the logistical mumbo jumbo so all you have to do is show up and enjoy a camping trip with kick ass ladies?

Join one of the Explorer Chick camping adventures to get your outdoors fix without all the planning stress.

Meet the Writer


Abbie Synan

Abbie Synan is a freelance writer who focuses on sustainability initiatives within the tourism industry. Born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, she has been traveling full time since 2013, hopping the globe, visiting over 95 countries while exploring ways to be a more mindful global citizen. She is the sustainable travel expert for Wanderful, an international travel community, as well as the content co-lead for Impact Travel Alliance, a global organization educating and inspiring travelers.

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