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Last year, I made a big mistake.
We were making the transition from camping in a small pop-up to RV camping. Previously, we’d gone to little “in the middle of nowhere” campgrounds that were just numbered pads of gravel in the middle of a state forest with a hand pump for water and a pit toilet. With our new trailer, though, we felt the need to try out all the amenities, like water, electric, and dump stations. However, we still wanted to feel like we were really camping, so we steered away from any campground with the word “resort” in the title.
Here in Michigan, we have some of the most amazing state parks, so those seemed like the best option to meet our new camping wish list. With that decided, I sat down at my computer when the weather started getting nice in May to make reservations for our summer camping.
In case you’re wondering, the big mistake wasn’t sitting at my computer or trying to make reservations. The big mistake was thinking I’d still be able to find available sites at the popular campgrounds in May. Whichever state campground I tried, I found no availability—or only sites that didn’t meet my search criteria. To say I was disappointed and frustrated would be putting it mildly.
Since camping is such a popular activity in Michigan—and perhaps because summer is so short—campgrounds fill very quickly. I’ve learned my lesson, though, and this year things are different. Here are my plans to ensure we get the camping reservations we want this summer.
Research Campgrounds Ahead of Time
Many people know exactly where they want to camp. Maybe they’re camping with friends who always go to the same place, or they want to camp near a specific place (like Sleeping Bear Dunes or the Mackinac Bridge). What’s harder to know is the specific site within the campgrounds in which we want to stay. For example, we’ve unfortunately ended up with the campsite closest to the dump station and sites closest to the main road with cars rushing in and out. To avoid this problem:
- Do a drive through: The best option is to see the campground yourself—if that’s an option. My family has been known to stop at campgrounds we’re not staying at to ask if we can drive through. Most places are more than happy to allow us to take a look. We like to get a map of the campground, if they’ll give one to non-paying guests, so we can mark down sites we like. Then, when it’s time to make reservations, we pull those maps out of the glove compartment (where they always end up) and know which sites are the best.
- Check out reviews: In the 21st century, it seems everyone writes reviews. While I’m not always sure that’s a good phenomenon, it can help you determine if a campground is the one for you and your family. From reading reviews on Trip Advisor, for example, I’ve found out valuable information like which loop is the busier one and which campground bathrooms need upgrading.
- Check out photos: These days, many campgrounds are posting photos of each site on their websites. Typing the name of the campground into Google Images will produce photos that others have taken of the campground (and often surrounding attractions). Further, if you’d like a bird’s eye view of the place—maybe to see how close the sites are to one another or how much undergrowth separates each site, use Google Earth to get a look at the place.
Doing your research ahead of time can make all the difference in how successful you camping trip will be.
Find Out When Campgrounds Begin Taking Reservations
I never expected that I’d need to make my camping reservations when there’s still snow on the ground, but that’s the case in the most popular campgrounds here in Michigan. Another part of the research you should be doing is to find out when the online reservation systems will begin accepting reservations for the year to come:
- Michigan State Park Campgrounds: According to the Michigan DNR, reservations for state park campsites can be made six months in advance—not a day before. If you want a prime site at one of the popular state parks like the Porcupine Mountains SP, Ludington SP, or P. J. Hoffmaster SP, you’ll need to book pretty close to six months out of your intended reservation.
- Private Campgrounds: Reservation systems can vary wildly for these locations, so it’s good to call ahead. One popular private campground my family likes to visit in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula has beautiful Lake Superior overlook sites—but only if you book when reservations open in October of the year before.
- Recreation.gov Campgrounds (National Parks): According to their website, reservations are available six months in advance , with notable exceptions like Yosemite National Park. Group facilities are available 12 months in advance.
- Reserve America Campgrounds: Acknowledging how tough it can be to get “the good sites” at popular campgrounds, this website includes a list of the Top 5 On Sale Secrets, including synchronizing your clock with the online reservation system to ensure you’re making your reservation at the soonest moment possible. They also suggest setting up your login and password ahead of time and even practicing the reservation procedure so you’re ready the instant the booking window opens. This is serious business!
Knowing when you can begin making reservations is key to getting the campsites you want.
If you’re like me and don’t get around to making all of your reservations way ahead of time, there’s still hope:
- Cancellations: There’s always a chance a campground may have a cancellation. Some campgrounds keep a waiting list, if you call to check their availability.
- Nearby Locations and Campgrounds: Often, there are county park campgrounds or private campgrounds in the vicinity that have openings.These locations may be less known so therefore have more availability.
- First Come First Served Campgrounds: If you arrive right at check-in (or even a bit before if check-out is earlier in the day), the odds of getting a prime site are good.
- Being Nice: I’ve had some luck with just calling the campground directly and being as polite as possible to the person on the phone; when campsite demand is high, politeness can go a long way to getting you an open site.
What are your secrets to ensuring you get the campsite your family wants each year?