New Analysis Shows Popularity of Camping on Public Lands Skyrocketed Over Last Decade and Spiked During Pandemic

Oct 21, 2021

Explosion of camping reservations demonstrates need to expand funding and protections for national public lands

New interactive map allows outdoor enthusiasts to search for less crowded public land camping opportunities

DENVER—A new report, The Camping Crunch, released by the Center for Western Priorities, shows the popularity of camping on national public lands has skyrocketed over the past decade, with a notable spike during the pandemic.

The report analyzed public lands camping data in the lower 48 states between 2014 and 2020. During that time, the analysis revealed summer use of reservable national public lands camping facilities increased by an estimated 39 percent.

The increase in camping on public lands outpaced other types of public lands visitations during a similar period. In comparison, from 2013 to 2019, national park visitation grew by 20 percent. Similarly, visits to Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sites, such as national monuments and national conservation areas, rose by 20 percent from 2009 to 2019.

The Camping Crunch analysis found the COVID-19 pandemic helped drive a large bump in reservable campsite occupancy between 2019 and 2020. Growth in national park visitation was particularly well documented during the summer of 2021 as numerous national parks smashed records, bringing attention to the incredible popularity of these special landscapes. And the analysis shows that reservable campgrounds in national parks are indeed some of the most crowded across the country.

However, the report also shows that reservable campsites in protected areas—even excluding national parks and their immediate surroundings—are more occupied during the peak season than other public lands, demonstrating the popularity of all protected lands, not just national parks. The report also reveals a rapid increase in popularity of campgrounds outside of the National Park Service, suggesting that other types of national public lands have entered into the public consciousness in a new way.

“More people visiting, camping on, and enjoying our treasured national public lands is certainly a good thing. However, the increase in visitation can lead to serious overcrowding and strains the infrastructure and resources on public lands during the peak summer season,” said Jennifer Rokala, Executive Director of the Center for Western Priorities. “The popularity of public lands—and especially protected areas—should urge leaders to keep a good thing going by funding our land management systems and designating more protected areas to distribute visitation across different sites and seasons.”

In 2014, an estimated 39 percent of reservable lower 48 public lands campsites were filled during the summer months, which increased to an estimated 54 percent by 2020. More than 95 percent of reservable campsites on some public lands were filled on peak season weeks of 2019 and 2020. Simultaneously, summer weekdays saw a higher estimated growth in occupancy than summer weekends due to starting at lower occupancies, suggesting that peak-season users may be seeking to avoid crowded campgrounds during the weekend more than they have in the past.

Compared to other regions, the Western United States saw the biggest increase in reservable camping activity, although the trend of increasingly full campgrounds was consistent. From 2014 to 2020, there was a 47 percent increase in estimated peak season reservable campsite occupancy in the West, compared to 39 percent nationally. Indeed, 31 percent of Westerners say that one of the top five issues that limit how often they visit national public lands is that those lands are too crowded.

Additionally, Western reservable campgrounds in or near non-national-park protected areas were more popular than other public lands—which tracks with a massive 84 percent of Westerners who support creating new protected areas.

Learn More About Public Lands Camping Trends

Outdoor enthusiasts can explore The Camping Crunch to learn more about public lands camping trends nationally and in regions and states across the country. Interactive maps in the report allow users to view the most—and least—occupied reservable campgrounds in each state during 2019 and 2020, with the ability to use filters such as year, season, day type, and more.