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.