Over the last few years while we’ve been dealing with janky websites showing availability at state and national campgrounds in two browser windows, while in another we’re monitoring vacancies at private campgrounds, a group called Access Land has been working quietly behind the scenes trying to make that process a whole lot less of a headache for everybody. They’re a nonprofit advocacy group that wants to make it easier for people to get outside, especially if that means using data to figure out which campsites might be available. And this week, they’ve made a really big step forward, which maybe, just maybe, will take a bit of the frustration out of booking campsites.

On Monday the for-profit service Hipcamp, which looks something like an Airbnb for camping, announced they’d finally developed the ability to list all federal campground availability on their website. This is a big deal because, in the past, that data was only available on the extremely frustrating and awkward to use recreation.gov (which functions and looks much better after a recent refresh). Now, however, the contractor that handles the data for recreation.gov, a company called Booz Allen Hamilton, has agreed to share campground data with all comers. Hipcamp, yes, but any third-party booking service is also free to start displaying real-time campsite availability on federal lands.

That instantly makes Hipcamp more useful because they already list the availability of thousands of public and private campgrounds, and now get to add some 100,000 federal campsites. Probably helps private campground owners too as it puts their offerings out there to people who wander their way to booking sites like Hipcamp looking for campsites in national parks, but see the options available on private land just off the park boundaries. Either way, it’s more eyeballs looking at more campsites. Camping-based revenue generation across the board.

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Private campground find thanks to the internets. Photo: Housman

I’ve long perused Hipcamp looking for campground options I don’t already know about here in camping-crazy Northern California because booking campsites at public campgrounds is often maddeningly difficult unless you’re looking months in advance. If I can see all the options in one place, especially an easy-to-use website, whether that’s Hipcamp or Lamecamp or Ted’s Campground Triangulator (I made those last two up), well, that’s only going to make it easier for me to find a way to sleep outside somewhere.

And that’s the whole point of Access Land. Use the mountains of data floating around out there to make it easier for people to get outside.

“[With the new data] Hipcamp can build new resources that connect more people with their public land, generate more interest, and revenue for federal parks, and expand overall access to the outdoors,” said Hipcamp CEO Alyssa Ravasio.

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While there has always been something weirdly charming, at least to me, about poorly functioning government websites with ancient animation depicting campsite availability that never seemed updated in real time—it’s camping after all, I don’t need it to be high tech—fast, easy booking options on a smartphone, tablet, computer, whatever,  will ultimately make it easier to find a campsite when all you want to do is get out of town for a couple nights.

Plus, one of the coolest places I’ve ever camped was a little plot of private land in Northern California, along the banks of a stream with honest to god trout, (a rarity in these parts), owned by a pleasant couple from New Zealand who sold eggs from their farm in a little on-your-honor stand on the road leading down to the stream. I’d never have found it without a modern website, and they’d have struggled to find enough campers to book it.

For now, you can only search for availability of federal campsites on Hipcamp and other third-party apps, not book them. But once they iron out the data security procedure for booking through third-party apps, there will be many more one-stop shops for finding campgrounds. And even better—more people getting outside.


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