Bots Might be Beating You to Those Hard to Get Campsites

It might not be a human that’s getting to those campsite reservations before you.


In Northern California, at least within a couple hour’s drive of the Bay Area, booking campsites can be maddening. There are a handful of first come, first serve sites in these parts, but the best campgrounds are typically booked through websites like Reserve America. And booked they usually are, often months in advance. Last-minute camping, even if given a week to plan, is often off-the-table. Popular campgrounds from Big Sur to Santa Cruz, rustic state park-owned cabins on the Marin County coast, backcountry sites in Point Reyes National Seashore—all nearly impossible to reserve unless you’re booking several seasons ahead of time, or can watch for cancellations like it’s your full-time job.

Or, unless you’re using a bot.

Some software engineers in the Bay Area, a job description that appears to describe about 75 percent of the population at this point, have taken to developing bots—computer programs used to rapidly execute monotonous tasks, like refreshing camping reservation websites—to secure last-minute or otherwise hard to get reservations.

Is this usage widespread? It’s hard to say.

KQED, a Bay Area NPR affiliate, prepared a report on the issue of bots and campground reservations last year. They found bots for booking popular campsites in Yosemite and interviewed computer engineers who describe how easy it is to program a computer to constantly monitor reservation websites for cancellations.

A writer on Medium posted his own experience trying to book a campsite in coastal California. Using multiple tabs searching for availability at multiple sites, the writer nevertheless reported all campsites he searched for were booked within one second of being made available.

Some websites, like Campnab, can use software to monitor campground reservation sites and alert you to cancellations. Searching Reddit provides similar coding and software options.

Likely then, you’re competing with bots when trying to book difficult sites.

You’re also competing, at least in California, with millions of people all trying to reserve roughly 15,000 campsites. Even if people were still making the reservations by phone, competition would be fierce at popular spots.

Is there anything unethical about using bots to mine reservations websites for cancellations, or to book impacted sites as soon as they’re made available? Or are they a smart use of technology to gain a little competitive edge?

Well, using them requires either writing your own bot or paying for a service that uses bots to monitor cancellations for you, neither of which are options for lots of people who just want to sleep outdoors once in a while and aren’t software engineers or flush with disposable income.

Technically, the bots aren’t exactly illegal, but it can be disheartening knowing that trying to book a popular site can mean competing with software devoted entirely to watching a site for cancellations, as opposed to a fellow human being with the same odds as you for nabbing that site.

A little irony there that, in some popular camping zones, getting outside and away from the world of ceaseless technological advancement and demands on our time can mean navigating a world of bots and internet traffic just to book a campsite.

 

Showing 16 comments
  • jack
    Reply

    pretty easy to foil bots if enough people complain. I didn’t realize this was happening but it doesn’t surprise me.

  • jack
    Reply

    See why wild camping is coming back? Drop the app and runaway to the woods.

  • The Woodsman
    Reply

    Two thoughts: 1. Reserve America will email you when a reservation becomes available, no need to code a bot for that. 2. Many of these reservations go un-used. Public land managers need to release them to the public if the campsite isn’t occupied by say, 8pm. Win-win for them, as they get paid twice for the campsite.

    • Million Dollar Duck
      Reply

      The challenge with releasing sites at a specified time is that people like me reserve because we know we’re going to be rolling in late (e.g. leaving San Francisco after work on a Friday to get to the Sierras).

      • The Woodsman
        Reply

        Ok, then 9pm. If you roll in later than that and you’re wrecking my “Alpine Start” for the next day 😉

  • Patrick
    Reply

    I experienced this when trying to book sites six months in advance at Great Sand Dunes. I tried for three days straight with multiple pages open and even got other friend to do the same. As stated above, every day, every single campsite was booked within two seconds. I got lucky when one of these timed out and dropped out of the checkout cue. I honestly cant understand why rec.gov can deploy measures to counter this.

    • CC
      Reply

      Budget.

  • Ed
    Reply

    Easy solution, eliminate the reservation system. Make all campsites first-come, first-served. If a tech millionaire wants the site I’m on already, cash will be fine.

    • Patrick
      Reply

      Ed, first-come first-served certainly has its perks. But on the other hand, making a long road trip only to discover (hundreds of miles from home) that every single campsite is occupied for miles and miles, is one of my least favorite experiences.

      Reservations provide the certainty of a campsite that can be critical when planning a long trip that passes through very popular areas.

      The simple compromise that seems to work out OK is a mix of both. Locals can nab first-come first-served sites. Travelers can be assured they have somewhere to stay.

  • Mark Walter
    Reply

    Most sites have that annoying “are you human?” full in with the scrambled up letters…

  • Pduvoe
    Reply

    I just experienced this issue this week. All grounds claimed to be full. But looked far from it. It’s a shame and waste not allowing people a great experience that our great state has to offer..

  • James Allen
    Reply

    Doesn’t surprise me in the least and, no; it’s not ethical, nor in the realm of polite, socially responsible behavior. It is greed at the hands of people that have skills over and above the average person to manipulate technology to their advantage. These bots, search enhancers, and exploitation of code are all tools unavailable to the average person just wishing to make a simple reservation.

    This is ESPECIALLY troubling for vacationers that are likely to be completely unaware of such underhanded and egregious abuse of reservation websites. If I’m planning a MTB vacation in CA, I’d like to be confident that I have the same opportunity as anyone that is searching for the same campsite. I should not have to worry myself that I’ll never be able to secure a campsite because someone abused their skillset to gain an unfair advantage.

  • Eric Karjaluoto
    Reply

    Hi All,

    My name’s Eric. I’m one of the people working on Campnab.

    I appreciate your frustration about sold-out campgrounds—and the idea that some have an unfair advantage over these openings. In fact, that’s why we made Campnab.

    My friend was searching for campsites in B.C. last summer, and nothing was available. Along the way, he noticed that lots of spots were being cancelled by those who overbooked, early in the year. This is a drag, because some essentially hoard spots, only to drop them at the last moment.

    So, he built a script to help notify him when one of those gets cancelled. It helped him find a spot, and that led us to share it with others.

    Admittedly, we don’t offer it for free. That said, it’s not free to run it, either. We’ve put in a pile of time to make it work, and allow it to scan multiple campgrounds. On top of that, there are technology and support costs.

    That said, we think we’ve priced it fairly. The lowest price membership is $5 a month. This works out to ~$1.67 a scan, which can run for you for months. Additionally, you can cancel a monthly plan at any time.

    Don’t get me wrong—I’d love to see better availability at campsites. We love camping, and hate that you need to plan 6 months in advance to have any hope of finding a decent spot.

    That said, the real problem is with people booking more spots than they intend to use, and cancelling those at the last moment. I don’t think folks are going to stop doing that. So, Campnab is a way to make use of spaces that otherwise might go unused.

    Eric

  • Justin Maxwell
    Reply

    Hi, while I appreciate the piece, there’s good news— you are citing outdated information. CalParks fixed this by introducing a CAPTCHA in March 2018, after I alerted Assemblymember Marc Berman’s team to the problem in late 2017. So, bots are not reserving campsites in the California system anymore, only the National Park system. While it would be nice to see this on ReserveAmerica (well it would be nice to see an entire system replacement), it is already working on ReserveCalifornia effectively

  • Sean
    Reply

    Is there a problem with booked-unused sites?

    I was camping at a state campground in the Berkshires a month or so ago, we got the last site available, and it was a kinda crappy corner gravel affair usually used by the ranger staff apparently.

    The whole three days I was there i never saw more than maybe 6 or 7 other parties. The three sites to the right and left were empty the entire duration.

    what gives?

  • KillTheBots
    Reply

    Oh great, now Bots have moved into Campsite reservations!? They’ve been buying up all the concert tickets for years! F these unscrupulous “businessmen”

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