Summer's hottest travel trend is camping. But with campgrounds rolling out No Vacancy signs across Washington state, scoring an available plot of wilderness takes advance planning.
The Internet, Of Course
Plan to drive up on a popular campground—like Mount Rainier's Cougar Rock—at 6pm on a sunny Friday? Ha, good luck. Check availability at Recreation.gov, a site that tracks campgrounds on federal land; think Mount Rainier and Olympic national parks, plus forest service biggies like Kachess Campground just off I-90. Reserve sites in advance, and remember that anything labeled "first-come, first-served" is likely to be snapped up well in advance of a summer weekend.
The Dirt Less Traveled
Washington boasts so many official campgrounds beyond the big blockbusters. Peruse the many humble spots in our national forests (like those in Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, or the 150+ in Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest); any smaller campground that doesn't use advance bookings is more likely to have open spots. And don't sleep on Washington's state park campgrounds, reservable online.
All Hail the Private Sector
Now may not be the time to cross your fingers and pray to find an empty campsite. Private landowners rent acreage on services like Hipcamp, a kind of Airbnb for campsites. Harvest Hosts specializes in farm and vineyard spots for the RV crowd, and Tentrr includes fully equipped sites that come with everything from a canvas shelter to alpacas. Remember to investigate RV hookups and bathroom situations before booking—amenities can be scarce (but fortunately, so are neighbors).
Into the Great Wide Somewhere
Ever heard of dispersed camping? It doesn't mean spreading out as much as possible within your campsite (though that's not a bad idea during pandemic times). It's the practice of camping on any random bit of public land that isn't a campground, and it's super legal. Of course there are limits: No plopping down near trails, and no picnic tables, fire rings, running water, or bathrooms. National forest and Bureau of Land Management land only; don't try it in a national park.
Upsides: Dispersed camping is totally free, and previously cleared spots are tucked into almost every unpaved forest road. Try calling a ranger station for ideas of where to search for spots within a particular area, and remember that campfires, even in built-up rock rings, are subject to more restrictions than those in the metal pits of established campgrounds. Rangers will issue tickets for rogue blazes during burn bans.