No, bots (probably) didn't take your campsite
Here & There - 02.21.23
As the outdoors and camping have grown in popularity, so too has the challenge of securing coveted campsite reservations. Many frustrated outdoorists blame their poor luck on "bots" snatching up reservations as soon as they become available. But is this really happening? Is rec.gov overrun with an army of bots buying up all the campsites? In short, no, probably not. Let’s dig in.
There are “bots” on rec.gov
Let me clarify.
There are “bots” and services that use the Recreation.gov API, or simpler means, to check for open spots and cancelations. However these services do not make bookings and are not snatching up campsite reservations on the day they become available.
Websites like Campsite Notifier, Campflare, Campnab, and others allow you set specific dates and locations, and pay to get notified when (or if) cancelations on those dates occur. Basically, if you’re paying for a specific campground and date (or date range), a “bot” will refresh the page every so often and let you know when something changes. Then, you can go to rec.gov and make the reservation yourself. These services do not and can not make the reservation for you.
There aren’t bots making mass bookings
It is extremely unlikely that there are bots snatching up all the spots when reservations open. There is no bot boogeyman that buys up hundreds of reservations and resells them like a ticket scalper.
Where are all the re-sellers?
Say there was someone who cracked the nut on how to snag dozens/hundreds of campsites. The whole operation is pointless unless there’s a way to sell these spots. I have never come across or heard of anyone buying a campsite from a re-seller. Is there really a black market out there of people selling campsites at a profit (that is so secret no one has ever used or heard of it)?
Additionally, many (most?) reservations are non-transferrable, meaning that you can’t just change the name on the campsite or transfer it to another recreation.gov account. You’d have to completely cancel the reservation before, leaving it open for anyone to claim and not necessarily your intended buyer.
It’s unlikely at the individual level
While it’s possible to code a bot like this on an individual level, it’s unlikely to work at the scale some people seem to think. Unless every campground is filled to capacity with extremely motivated and talented software engineers 100% of the time, this sure seems unlikely. I know a lot of talented engineers that love the outdoors, and not a single one of them has tried this or knows anyone who has.
Granted, this is the weakest part of my argument. Someone is bound to say “I KNOW that there’s a ton of people doing this” And maybe they’re right, but I’ve been unable to find much evidence for this being a widely spread behavior.Some people point to an abundance of Github repositories that mention rec.gov on github as evidence people building “bots”. However, they’re not booking bots, they’re just home-brewed versions of what Campnab and others have product-ized for general consumers (checking availability and cancelations).
Despite what some people would have you believe, Recreation.gov is actually a pretty well-built and managed website (regardless of opinions about fees). There are measures in place to prevent people from doing these kinds of things. Because accounts are required, it would be pretty easy to identify and prevent people from making mass reservations or somehow clicking multiple things at once. Using a million different accounts is harder, and also would make it more difficult to re-sell.
So what is happening?
It’s pretty simple. There are a lot of people interested in camping and limited availability. I don’t know why this is so hard for people to believe. Folks spend all year complaining about how crowded the outdoors have become, reading articles about the massive growth in RV sales, and blaming social media for sending floods of people to “their” spots. But when the camping reservation/river lottery time of year comes around, “bots” are suddenly in the equation.
Let’s run through an example: There are 74 campsites at Lower Pines Campground in Yosemite. That’s 74 spots × 90 nights (~high season) = 6660 “spot/nights” available.
The max number of nights you can reserve is 7, so assuming a perfect bell curve distribution, it would only take ~1,600 individual reservations to fully book the campground for those three months.
In the grand scheme of things, that is not a lot of people. 3.2 million people visited Yosemite in 2021. As recently as 202, Rec.gov had a YOY increase of 45% in registered users, and processed over 4.25 million camping reservations last year. There is plenty of interest in camping, especially in the more popular areas like National Parks, to create the “instantly gone” effect that people continue to attribute to bots.
There are also some complications around rolling releases. When campsites are release on a monthly basis, there is a UX/campground policy issue also at play. If spots for June were just released, and the max campground stay is 7 days, that means I could get a June 30th reservation for the next 7 days (or whatever the max # of nights is), meaning that when folks log on next month to snag July reservations, they can appear already gone.
That one is a complicated issue, and I’m honestly not sure how to solve it policy-wise or design/UX-wise.
Is there anything that could change?
There are a lot of folks who think there are “simple” solutions to this issue. And maybe there are, but it’s more likely a complicated relationship between campgrounds, their policies, and rec.gov.
Less online booking
Many people want to return to more ‘first-come first-served’ style solutions. This is mostly a policy issue at the campground level — rec.gov does not *set* the policies of individual campgrounds, it just implements them. And some campgrounds do reserve blocks of campsites for day-of reservations. But I’m not sure if this really solves anything, and could just lead to more frustrated people and/or lines of cars in the morning.
Decrease the max number of days you can reserve a campsite.
This is another policy issue, but you could decrease the max number of days at popular campgrounds.
Penalties for no-shows
Many campers have reported a high rate of “no shows” in the past few years – even when campgrounds a shown as fully booked. In California a bill was recently proposed that would tighten up cancelation policies. The current cancelation policy for individual campsites is a $10 cancelation fee and forfeiture of the first nights recreation fee.
Perhaps a more hotel-style system would make sense, in which you’d forfeit the entire cost of your reservation and any subsequent nights if you’re a no-show on night one. Or even a more flexible version that takes into account how close you’re canceling to the reservation date and the popularity of the campground. However, that still doesn’t really solve the “no initial availability” problem.
It seems obvious but…build more campgrounds?
What is the average age of a Forest Service/NPS campground? 40 years? 50? 80? This is an infrastructure that was built decades ago, when the US population and the popularity of camping was vastly different. Is it any wonder that we’re running out of options? Obviously, this is an incredibly cost-intensive and complex endeavor — especially since the prevailing opinion from many environmentalists is to build less and allow less people.
In the meantime it’s probably hard to overstate the affect that platforms like Hipcamp, Harvest Hosts, Glamping Hub, and others are having in adding new inventory to camping and “camping-adjacent” inventory in the outdoors.
Anyways. Long story short: probably not bots. Definitely not big, mass-coordinated, buy up everything bots. Lots of people. Limited inventory.