The Camping Crunch: Data & Methodology

Jan 25, 2022

The Camping Crunch

What’s Behind the Findings

Data for The Camping Crunch was obtained from the Recreation Information Database (RIDB). These data represent reservation orders made on the well-known website, in addition to reservations made in the field or via call center. is the primary online system for users to make, change, and cancel reservations at federal campgrounds, but does not contain information on first-come-first-serve campsites. Dataset entries include reservations made for campgrounds, hiking permits, and other reservations on public lands. For this analysis, nearly 24 million order entries were analyzed, over 16 million of which were distinct orders at camping facilities and locations. Additional utilization data for 2019 and 2020 were also obtained and analyzed, representing the best data available at this time. This utilization data was used to assess accuracy of long-term estimates, as well as for presenting accurate information at a facility-scale on interactive maps. There is, of course, the possibility of incomplete information for some facilities, in addition to user or data manager error.

A short math lesson: Why percentages are weird

Alaska and Hawaii were excluded from the analysis in order to focus on trends on public lands in the lower 48. The data analyzed only represents reservations made for federal public land campsites, and only for campsites that are reservable. However, this subset of the full story still represents the vast majority of the camping that happens in these facilities (not-inclusive of dispersed camping locations). In 2019 and 2020, reservable campsites made up 85% and 88% of all national public lands campsites respectively. This percentage is even higher in the summers of 2019 and 2020, with 97% and 93% respectively of all campsites in the system reservable. This suggests that the data analyzed presents a robust estimation of camping trends across all established public lands facilities. It is worth noting that that not every campground on public lands is represented, as some areas manage reservations through separate systems (e.g. in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks), while other campgrounds (not represented spatially) do not have geographic locations, or have incorrect locations, in the RIDB system.

Certain data caveats and limitations make long-term reported numbers general estimates rather than exact calculations. Importantly, cancellations are unaccounted for in the long-term dataset, as are campsite closures (such as during the off-season or when switched to a first-come-first-serve basis). In order to assess estimate accuracy, the best utilization data available (including cancellations and closures) from 2019 and 2020 were compared to estimates acquired from the long-term dataset. Analysis demonstrates that overarching reported estimates are relatively robust (within 20% of actual utilization) for all summer temporal subsets, but not for full-year analysis (likely due to extensive site closures during the off-season). Therefore, long-term data results are only displayed for high-season subsets, defined as the most popular camping months of June, July, and August.

Analysis also reveals that 2019 (a far more normal year than 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic changing both user behavior and government agency systems) estimates are 10-15% over-estimates, suggesting that the long-term dataset slightly over-estimates occupancy rates. However, 2020 estimations are shown to be reliably under-estimates. The likely overall outcome of this phenomenon is that long-term occupancy changes were actually GREATER than demonstrated by the long-term estimated dataset, making overall percent difference calculations under-estimates.

Spatial analysis was performed using datasets from the Protected Area Database of the United States (PADUS), and “protected areas” were defined as PADUS categories 1 and 2.

The Center for Western Priorities would like to thank government and Sehlke Consulting staff, particularly Eric Levine, Jason Smurthwaite, and Stuart Gregory, for their assistance in providing data and clarifying data caveats and limitations.

For a more detailed description of report methodology and data please view the Detailed Methodology Document.

Analysis, Report, and Design by Tyler McIntosh, Center for Western Priorities