15 Tips to Successfully Reserve Camping (RVs & Tents) in a National Park

By David Currier -


5th wheeler

15 Tips to Successfully Reserve Camping Sites (RVs or Tents) in a National Park

(Or Anywhere for that Matter)

bivi tent

Bivi Tent

Vacationers whose preferred ‘lodging’ consists of a simple bivi tent, a Tepui, a WWII army tent, a 20 foot camper trailer, or even 50 foot motor home (towing a trailer and a Smart Car or Jeep) are a unique breed. You possess an independence that I admire. Your carefree journeys with no en route reservations make me shudder. Personally, I need to know where I will spend my first night or the next few nights – before I leave home. I appreciate the unexpected events of travel except when it comes to lodging. I’m envious of your spirit of “que sera, sera.”

I was recently fortunate to work in a call center for camping reservations in one of our great national parks. It was a seasonal gig … little money, but an unparalleled opportunity to enjoy one of our national treasures.

My call-center experiences have provided me with information that campers of all genres may use to improve your chances of getting a camping site while on-the-run from home. Our call center (supported by online booking capabilities) was staffed by agents enthusiastically waiting for their next customer. We thrived on sharing our personal experiences of living in the park. And we wanted to ensure that each one of you enjoyed the area as much as we were enjoying it.

Unfortunately, I’m confident we occasionally failed.

I fear that many tent-ers and RV-ers (5th wheelers, etc. all included there) have been turned away from sites because your own independent zeal is working against you. I hope that my tips will help all readers be more successful in getting “the last site in the park.”


Visitors may surprise you!

David’s 15 Tips on Successful (Camping) Reservations:


  1. This may be anathema to you, but familiarize yourself with where you are going before you hit the road. Have some idea of alternate locations for spending a night in the event that your somewhat serendipitous destination is not available.
  2. We agents know you are having fun. The last thing you want to do is talk to us. But, the reservations agents are delighted to help you. Relax and slow down. Ask your questions and listen. Then let the agent ask the questions necessary to ensure your equipment can be accommodated.
  3. Discuss all the what-ifs with your travel companions before you call the reservations call center. Yes, you may need to get a vote on the final options offered to you, but have a group consensus of your needs before you call. It will save you lots of time.
  4. When you call, have a pen, note pad and calendar at hand. It will probably be useful to have a map of the park (and area) available, too. An exchange of information is about to occur. You may be given alternate campground choices if your preferred location is not available, or other phone numbers to call, internet site addresses to research, GPS coordinates to load in the smartphone that is currently attached to your ear, a confirmation number that may be useful if you do not receive your email confirmation before you arrive at your destination, etc.
  5. When calling from the road on your cell phone, ensure that you are calling from a quiet location. If the window of your car or RV is open or you are speaking from a windy mountain top, at the call center your voice sounds like a loud Darth Vader with a sore throat calling. The agent probably will misunderstand half of what you are saying, and be so irritated by the noise in their ear that serving you is not their first ambition. “Good bye” cannot come soon enough!
  6. In that same vein – stop multi-tasking when you call: no sorting your camper tools, feeding the crying baby, cleaning the glove box. Today’s modern cell phone technology has exacerbated the amount of extraneous sounds transmitted to the agent’s ear. Misunderstanding your request may result in a 50-foot unit being reserved in a 20-foot space. (And, while you are at it, turn off the radio, TV or DVD player.)
  7. If your vacation is during a holiday period when many campgrounds are already filled to near capacity, check the campground website availability before calling the reservations call center. If you see a spot that you think meets your needs, reserve it. Then call. If the call center is busy, and you did not reserve the space you saw online, it will likely have been sold to another customer by the time your call is answered from the queue. If you did not fully understand the internet’s description and restrictions, say so. A 30-foot site may or may not have space for the Hummer you brought along, and overflow parking may not be available.This is an area where campers often say “well, I had an overflow space last year.” In national parks, laws/rules change to protect the campers and the environment. An overflow parking lot from last summer may now be spaces for 15 motorhomes. Or, for a number of valid reasons, overnight/long-term parking in these lots may now be prohibited.
  8. WHEN you make advance reservations, ask the agent to put your name on the reservations AND add any names of traveling companions that may need to make changes to the reservations if you are not able to call. Corporate data security policy may limit discussion of, or changes in, a reservation to persons named in the reservation. If you make reservations for multiple sites at one campground, be prepared to provide a name associated with each site.
  9. The gas tanks and hitch add additional length.

    The gas tanks and hitch add additional length.

    Do your homework – before you leave home. As much as we’d like to have a site available for every camper coming to visit “our home”, campground lots are finite spaces – there are a limited number of sites of various sizes. We cannot stretch them. Know where you are headed, what you want (need); know you’re the sizes of equipment well.If you are arriving in a typical car, SUV or minivan and planning to erect a tent, your reservations               agent may need to know the exact (yes, exact) measurements of the base of your tent(s); that is, the part that sits on the ground – the length and width. If your tent is round, the diameter is needed. Typically, there is an individual fee charged for each tent site. If you have done this homework lesson, it is possible that the agent can help your budget and reserve you one tent site that is large enough to accommodate multiple tents. That could save you from $20 to $50 per night!Typically tent sites have a smaller area adequate to park the vehicle you are using for transportation. If you are tenting, but you’re arriving with an SUV towing a trailer transporting two motorcycles, know the length of the SUV and the trailer. The Agent may need to reserve an RV site which has extra space for a tent.

  10. No agent worth his salt will reserve a site based on the comment “well, I did it last year”. Site sizes and shapes do vary within each campground (even if they are categorized the same – placement of rocks and trees, you know), and some may have been modified since “last year.” We do not want happy guests arriving to discover that their “last-year’s site in the park” is just too small for the equipment they bring.
  11. HUGE TENTS deserve their own bullet point. Larger than 10’x10’; size matters. There are tents out there that rival the size of Beverly Hills mansions. You may be impressed by your multi-room, L-shaped canvas ‘mansion’ with every amenity except oriental carpets, but there are few campgrounds ready to install much more than a 16’x16’ tent. So don’t be surprised if the agent says “sorry, but we are full” – when they actually do have several sites for 8’x8’ or even 12’x12’ tents. If only two of you are tenting, leave the mega-tent at home and buy or borrow something for which you are more likely to find space. A 7’x6’ tent will fit in a 16’x16’ space, but not vice versa. We frequently “upgrade” you to a larger space if that’s all we have available.
  12. 5th-wheelers, motor home drivers, pop-up, travel trailer, and teardrop tow-ers – you have a different homework lesson to accomplish. It is essential that you have measured the length of every unit of equipment that you bring. (Pop-up users, that means the fully open/extended length.) That includes any devices you may have attached to the equipment to facilitate towing of another unit. We need to know the exact length of every piece. “Oh, it’s just a standard pick-up” or “I don’t know the length of my truck” do not compute in our calculation equation of 32’+15+”standard”=??As with tents, camper sites are strictly defined. And it’s not just “them” that you are fooling if you under (or even over) estimate the size of your equipment. If we have one 40 foot space left for July 4th weekend, and your trailer is 20’ long and your truck is really only 18’, you’ve got it made; but if your response to the agent’s question about the length of your truck is, “it’s about 21’, it’s a king-cab,” the response you will receive is “sorry, but the park is full.” Likewise, if you say “I don’t know the size of my truck”, the agent will apply the longest length of a vehicle of its class. Even an overly estimated inch above the site maximum may ruin your day. Again, know your equipment!
  13. HUGE MOTOR HOMES deserve their own bullet point, too. You folks that have the 50-foot Zeppelins on wheels … that may fit your lifestyle and even perceived needs, but I’ve seen campgrounds with a couple hundred sites each available for 20 and 30 foot units. But few are developed for 40-footers and often less than five for 50-footers. (Perhaps you have “outgrown” and out-aged the ability to be so carefree. You should make reservations (OMG!) for large motorhomes even a year in advance.)
  14. Last minute changes … Let’s assume that, out of character of course, you made some of your reservations weeks before you hit the road – for a 12’ x 12’ tent. Then your buddy-neighbor offered you his classy, new 11’ pop-up trailer. You hit the road and, three days later and 100 miles from ground zero, you contact your reservation’s call center to advise them about the change. Your bad! The pop-up has a smaller apparent footprint than your tent. Site design, however, may (very likely) inhibit the use of your tent site for the pop-up. Trees may restrict the opening of the pop-up. Campground construction may not permit pneumatic tires and the weight they support on a soft site designed for a tent. The campground and all campgrounds in the area are full – except for one 12’x12’ tent site. Where will you sleep?
  15. When the agent says “We have one site left that day that can accept your equipment,” you do not have time to hold a convention of the United-Nations-of-your-traveling-companions to discuss what you should do. There may be dozens of callers or hundreds of travelers online, each wanting one site on that same date. That site that the agent has offered has not been removed from inventory – that is, it’s still out there for sale – until the reservation is completed and you have a confirmation number. If you dally, as then the agent tries to sell your site, he likely will receive a response “LOCATION OVERBOOKED.” You are out of luck.

Keep in mind, your reservations agent is acting as your personal host, somewhat in loco parentis, but they need your help to ensure your comfort and great experience wherever you park your wheels or hammer your tent stakes into the ground. Know before you go, and they will help ensure that you have a memorable vacation.

Enjoy the Road! And sweet dreams!