How to Camp on the Fly

Leslie’s Note: This is Adam’s first post, hopefully of many.

Most of the national parks have both reservable and first come first served (FCFS) campsites available.  If you know the dates you will be staying it makes sense to try to book online ahead of time.  Some of the busier parks open reservations 6 months or so ahead of time and they tend to fill up quickly, so don’t wait if you know your dates.

Our favorite BLM campsite so far on the Colorado River in Moab, UT.
Our favorite BLM campsite so far on the Colorado River in Moab, UT.

This article is for those who, like us, are wandering around with a flexible schedule and aren’t sure when and where our next night might be.  I’ll go through an example using our experience at Arches to try and explain how this works.

Arches National Park has one large campground inside the park proper (Devil’s Garden) and all 50 spots are available for reservations.  If you check online you’ll see its completely booked months in advance.  This was the first time we arrived at a park and weren’t able to grab a camping spot, so we had to reroute.

Fortunately there are many other camping options available in the area and nearby town of Moab*.  Along the Colorado River that runs just outside Arches, there are many Bureau of Land Management (public land) camping areas that do not accept reservations and are consequently entirely first come first served.  They are spread out along the river and are progressively further from the park, but the first 7 are all within 10 miles of the Arches park entrance.  Goose Island Campground is the closest area but was full when we drove through, so we kept moving.  The next area had a ‘Campground Full’ sign at the entrance as well, but we decided to double check and were rewarded with the last open campsite in the lot.

So how do you know if a campsite is available?  The FCFS campgrounds that we have come across use a simple system that is only confusing if you haven’t used it yet.  Let me explain how it works because not all empty looking sites are actually available.

Unreserved Campsite Post (for site #106)
Unreserved Campsite Post (for site #106)

Individual campsites are usually marked with a post and a number.  To reserve a site, grab an envelope with attached receipt from the entrance of the campground.  Fill out your site number, date of stay, days paid for, license plate and car details on both the receipt and the envelope and place payment inside.  Tear off your copy, clip it to your site post, and deposit the payment envelope in a drop box at the entrance.  That site has now been marked as occupied.  Eventually the campground host will make his rounds and confirm your site by writing your exit date on the slip and reclipping it to the post.

Here’s the post with our receipt, showing we have reserved the campsite.

That’s a long description for a simple system but if you are looking for an open site, check for empty sites with today’s date on the slip (or no slip at all) and you’ve found a winner.  Some sites will look unoccupied, or just have a camping chair or water bottle on the picnic table but the post shows a date in the future.  This is pretty common as people show up early, grab a site and then head out to see the park, grocery shop, etc. before returning to set up camp. Keep in mind it is also possible that people will extend their stay rather than leaving when their slip suggests, so just ask if you see them.

That brings us to another important tip for finding a campsite, timing.  All first come first served campsites have an official check out time (usually 10 or 11 am) but most tent campers tend to be up with the sun and out of their campsite well before then.  You’ll increase your odds of finding a spot if you show up early.  Additionally, it of course helps a lot if you can maneuver your plans to show up Sunday-Thursday to avoid the weekend rush.

One other small thing worth mentioning is that you might want to dig out and dust off your old checkbook if you have one.  Personal checks are usually accepted and you will not receive change if you don’t have the exact amount needed to pay for your stay in cash.

In summary:

  • Show up early (9-11am)
  • If you see a Campground Full sign, check anyway.
  • Arrive Sunday-Thursday if possible
  • If you still have a checkbook, this is a convenient time for one

*Typically camping information is hard to find online, but the Moab area actually has a fantastic website consolidating the available camping opportunities in the area, and can be found right here:


One thought on “How to Camp on the Fly”

  1. Hi Leslie: I just checked in and was amzed at the postings. Hope you are having a good time, it sure looks like it. Our pet insurance business in Seatle might have ideas for your car. I will reach out to them to see if they have any thoughts on where you can stash your auto safely. Keep up the goos work Best regards, CIC

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