The mountains in Idaho are still buried in snow and summer is three months away, yet it’s not too early to start planning a camping trip.
It may, in fact, be too late to reserve some of the more popular campsites the West has to offer, the Twin Falls Times-News reported.
“A camping spot at Redfish Lake is probably out of the question,” said Julie Thomas, a spokesperson for the Sawtooth National Forest.
Campers can reserve their favorite spots months in advance, and many savvy sojourners do just that.
The federal government starts taking online camping reservations Jan. 1, and by 2 p.m. that day many of the most popular sites have been snapped up, Thomas said.
“People come back to the same places every year,” she said. “They have gotten used to the way the system works and do their best to get them.”
Don’t despair. Plenty of campsites are still available, although you may have to settle for a more remote spot that lacks amenities like flush toilets, showers, or a nearby lodge.
Consider Alturus Lake Inlet campground, for example. It’s 17 miles south of Redfish in the Sawtooth range. Nearly half its campsites are designated as first-come, first-served.
It has vault toilets, drinking water and some of the best hiking, fishing and canoeing opportunities you’re likely to find.
Veteran campers Gale and Sue Chapman of Twin Falls actually prefer more rustic sites. It helps them avoid the crowds. They have a self-contained recreational vehicle, so they don’t need a fully developed campground with restrooms and potable water.
Sometimes their campsite is nothing more than a fire pit formerly used by hunters.
“We look for something more out of the way, something that doesn’t required reservations,” Sue Chapman said. “We like to be where we can use our ATVs and don’t have to pay a fee. That’s what we are going to be doing this summer.”
Chapman said they’ve found no-frills/no-fee campsites in the Stanley Basin and some may be available in the South Hills and other areas.
Campers who head into the backcountry need to be responsible.
“You have to take everything with you, and you have to take everything back out,” Chapman said.
For families looking for developed campgrounds, there are basically two options: Reserve a spot as early as possible or take your chances at the last minute.
Idaho has 17 state parks that allow camping. Folks can reserve sites up to nine months in advance.
“For those who don’t plan in advance, many of our parks will still have a few sites available even on busy weekends,” said Jennifer Okerlund, communications manager for the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation (IDPR).
The IDPR processed about 8,600 camping reservations in 2003, the first year that it offered online reservations. It now processes about 38,000 reservations annually.
“At some of our most popular parks, the spaces are reserved well in advance,” Okerlund said.
People sometimes cancel reservations, so it’s worth checking the state website occasionally to see if something has opened up. Be flexible.
“I would encourage folks to not limit themselves to the most popular campgrounds, but to explore some of those in more remote locations,” Okerlund said.
Camping fees have increased a couple bucks per night for some of the most popular sites, but it’s still inexpensive compared with some other forms of entertainment, she said.
“It’s still cheaper for a family of four to go on an overnight camping trip than to go to the movies,” Okerlund said.
It’s likely to be a lot more fun too.