A guide to dodging competitive park reservations and stressy situations.
In Making The Nature Scene, Tone Madison explores the splendor of the outdoors in the Madison area (and beyond), and encourages Madisonians to think more deeply about their natural and built surroundings.
At 12:07 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2021, I stepped away from dancing with my two-person Covid bubble and opened my laptop. Digital destination: Recreation.gov. Physical destination: Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in northern Michigan.
I wasn’t visiting the UP until late May, but I wanted to be there the week before Memorial Day—before the crowds and bugs. The year before, I’d waited too long and there were no spots to be found.
I vowed never to let it happen again! And now, I’m pining for a few days in the fresh air and under a canopy of trees. The dead of winter is the perfect time to stave off your nature vacay cravings by planning them now. That way, your trip will happen when and where you want—and you won’t be super stressed from trying to cram all the planning in right before you leave.
Here are a few pointers on how to make your outdoors trip occur smoothly.
1. Get the physical map and/or the book. Having a physical copy of your destination makes a trip to a far-off place seem real. And some park websites are still excruciatingly 2.0.
Lots of destinations and trails have maps and books that describe every foot of the trail in minute detail. They also typically include valuable charts of the distances between campgrounds, the length of trails, and shuttle info. Plus you should have it in your backpack in case the digital gods betray you.
Still speculating on your destination? Alltrails.com, with up-to-date trail conditions and reviews, is a free resource for hikers to poke around.
2. Join the Facebook group and/or email list. Outdoors folks love to share their experiences. Social media makes it super easy to search or ask for recommendations. Veteran hikers have freely given me entire itineraries in FB groups like it was nothing, saving me hours of computer time.
Facebook groups and email lists are also prime places to get info on trail conditions like bridges, landslides, fires, and water availability. Can’t find the exact info you need? Call the ranger station. They live for it.
3. Make the reservations. After you’ve done the work of deciding where and when, lock in those sweet nature dates! It’s easy as pie through various government websites like Reserve America and Recreation.gov. Play it safe by checking Google reviews of campgrounds—and sometimes even specific sites—before you pick your spot. Book early or risk having to settle for the dreaded campsite by the outhouse! (Which is still better than no campsite.)
Many parks allow backcountry or dispersed camping. You make your own site in specific areas. But you may still need a permit. It’s fantastic for alone time—and for hearing real and imagined wolves and bears in the distance.
If you’re going to chance it and rely on a walk-in site, make sure to get there as early as possible or risk having to get a hotel (the ultimate bummer). Some places, like the Superior Hiking Trail that winds across northern Minnesota, don’t even take reservations. You just show up and make do.
For world-famous destinations, booking your own travel can be tough or impossible. National Parks like the Grand Canyon usually allow you to book up to 6 months in advance—and the spots go lightning fast. To hike Peru’s Inka Trail to Machu Picchu, you’re required to go with an outfitter. Make sure you know the lay of the land before you get into extensive planning.
4. Book your transportation. Aside from reservations, backpackers and bikepackers often need shuttles to carry them to the remote nature they crave. In hot spots like Isle Royale National Park, reachable only by ferry, boat spots can fill up months in advance. Nature areas like the Superior Hiking Trail and Pictured Rocks have just one or two shuttle services. In fact, some might not even have staff on hand if there aren’t enough reservations, potentially leaving you stranded and sobbing 42 miles from where you should be. (I hitchhiked with a nice newlywed couple, it worked out.)
5. Check your gear. It’s list time! A few months ahead of your trip, it’s smart to rummage through your backpack and camping gear. Does your tent have a hole that needs to be repaired? Is your sleeping bag musky? Do you need fuel for your stove, a bug net, or firestarters? Beginning early lets you gradually grab these goods instead of having a bonkers shopping trip the day before you leave town. Or at least a less-bonkers shopping trip.
And don’t forget to give new gear a test run. Otherwise, you could get stuck on the trail with too-small boots, a backpack that digs into your shoulders, or two pounds of gross trail mix.
6. Consider the season. If you’re planning a nature vacay on holidays like the Fourth of July, it’s imperative to get your reservation in asap. I want to commune completely with nature, so I usually schedule trips for a week before or after holidays to avoid crowds. But there can be drawbacks. Some parks don’t turn on their water spigots or have restrooms or trash cans open before Memorial Day or after Labor Day.
The almighty weather is at least 50% of camping. Keep an eye on the forecast for the few weeks ahead of your trip to keep safe from scary heat, dangerous downpours, and the like. Summer has bugs—be super aware of tick, black fly, and mosquito seasons. Plan on toting the gear, sprays, and tools you’ll need for a trip that’s as dry and unbite-y as possible.
This year, I’m definitely headed back to Southern Illinois’ Shawnee National Forest in mid-May. It’s generally 10 to 15 degrees warmer there and a chance to visit my sister. Planning now is distracting me from the 5 p.m. sunsets as I imagine the sounds of birds and bullfrogs echoing off mossy bluffs. Just the thought of it melts away my stress—as much as having a gameplan ready for when it’s time to hit the road.
Happy trails and bon voyage to you in 2023!