Camping in California can be difficult at times. I’m not talking about the challenges of roughing it, but the problem of finding an available space during the summer season. Many, if not most, California state park public campsites use an online booking system, owned by Reserve America. Now Reserve America is just the sort of online platform intermediary that delivers an unnecessary service at a greater cost and often increased inconvenience, as compared to direct contact with California state parks. Sometimes you want to go camping on the spur of the moment. It used to be that you could show up to a campground at morning checkout time and hope to secure a vacated space. This first-come, first-served policy works pretty efficiently and few campgrounds have empty spaces by the end of the day during the summer season. But some years ago, most California state campgrounds switched to the aforementioned online system, which meant, and means, that now you can never get a campsite unless you reserve often up to a half a year in advance. Instead, campsites sit empty as people change plans, or fail to arrive on time, or at all. Once people have paid there is no cut off time, say midnight, when the space becomes available. Because online reservations are now the norm, there are limited walk-ins, nor can you wait around for no shows. Which, contrary to what online platforms promise, means a less efficient system.
During my recent spontaneous camping trip, I arrived to find everything booked out, or more specifically a sign reading Campsite Full. Now those of us who camp frequently know that the Campsite Full sign isn’t always true; sometimes a space is available or will become available. But campground hosts and rangers like to put out the sign and leave it there for the season. Indeed, in some places it is actually screwed to the entrance sign, because they don’t plan on taking it down until after the season. It doesn’t matter to them if the campsite is really full of not; they just don’t want to deal with putting up and taking down the sign.
So I drove into the campsite regardless and checked the spaces and found one that was empty with no reservation sign. The camp host wasn’t there, of course; they seldom are when you need them, so I couldn’t occupy the space. On the signboard, it reiterated that the campsite was full, and listed the occupied spaces and last names of the campers. The space in question wasn’t listed. So I thought, I’ll just pay and take the space, just like the good old days. Not quite. In this case, the information board also said the only way to reserve a space was by calling Reserve America. So I called and found out that even though the space was empty, I couldn’t reserve it. The reason: you had to reserve at least two days in advance. So it turns out that if you did want to book ahead the night before, according the Reserve America, it wasn’t possible. When I told them this didn’t make any sense, they had nothing more to say. That was the policy. Their policy. So the space would have sat empty, if I hadn’t gone and occupied it anyway. In the end it worked out, because no one else showed up, again because it wasn’t reserved.
An additional problem with the online system is that they charge you $8 to make a reservation, and $7 for a cancellation. That's how they make their money. This is on top of the already high camping fee, which in California can range from $25 for a campsite with no running water or flush toilets, to $45 for some amenities including showers, which you have to pay for, if you want hot water. In Southern California, most campsites cost $45, while the farther north and more remote you get, the cheaper they seem to be. One wonders where all this money is going, because the infrastructure in many, if not most, campsites has not been noticeably improved in fifty years. It is important to note that as taxpayers we pay for our park system. If we use it and are residents, we pay again for occupying a site. And finally we pay a third time to an national online intermediary from out of state, that primarily uses an algorithm and employs few people to do the ranger's job we have already paid for. That in a nutshell is the modern internet economy.
What is the take home message here? First, all campsites should include a number of walk-in spaces, at a minimum 25% but ideally up to 50%. I get that people who like to plan ahead and who are coming from other states or countries want to be sure they have a place to camp, but not at the expense of locals who might want to spontaneously camp for a night or two. Second, the State of California should manage its own campsites, using its existing staff. It can certainly keep track of reservations using technology, but not by using a third party online platform. Staff have to sit in the gate house regardless for the their full shift, and they know best what is going on in their own campsite, so why can’t they do they booking themselves? It would be much more accurate and efficient and would mean that no space is left empty if there is demand. Third, if campers don’t show up by midnight, then they forfeit their campsite if a walk-in wants it. Fourth, campsites should provide some extra emergency spaces, and allow campers to double up on larger sites, during peak demand. Finally, the State of California should lower its camping fees and charge per person. For a basic site with latrines and with or without water, it should be $10 a night per person. For a site with more facilities, $15 a person. Per person pricing solves two problems: one, it eliminates the subsidy given to large groups who can divided up the price between them; and two, it represents accurate pricing based on level of use. One person has a lesser environmental impact than a family of four, for example.
Camping is a way to connect people with nature. Evidence shows that when people interact more with the natural environment, they value it more and tend to want to protect it. Therefore, camping should be encouraged and be accessible to people of all income levels. At the current prices mentioned above, camping costs the equivalent of between $750 and $1,350 a month. This is comparable to what someone would pay to rent a room or a one bedroom, at least before housing prices skyrocketed to becoming unaffordable. In other words, $25 to $45 a night to camp is expensive, considering you are sleeping on dirt. That is the price of a hotel room in a developing country with its own nearby natural wonders. In sum, camping is great, and more people should do it. But the regimented system of online reservations we have today, the high cost, and the general inflexibility of rangers in regard to finding spaces for overflow campers, needs to change.