By Tyler McIntosh | Published on October 21, 2021
Over recent years, visitors on national public lands around the country have noticed that things are getting crowded. And it’s true: the popularity of outdoor recreation and visitation on public lands has skyrocketed over the past decade. But the popularity of camping on national public lands has grown even more quickly. New analysis of public lands camping data reveals that summer use of reservable national public lands camping facilities has increased at least as rapidly as overall public lands visitation, with an estimated 39% increase in peak season reservable campsite occupancy in the lower 48 between 2014 and 2020. In comparison, from 2013 to 2019, national park visitation grew 20 percent, from roughly 273 million to 327 million guests; 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. Although more users of public lands is a good thing, the increase in visitation has led to serious overcrowding on some public lands, straining infrastructure such as campgrounds during the peak summer season.
While outdoor recreation has gotten progressively more popular for years, the COVID-19 pandemic has driven an even more rapid rise, reflected by a large bump in reservable campsite occupancy between 2019 and 2020. The Outdoor Industry Association found that 7.1 million more Americans participated in outdoor recreation in 2020 than in 2019. 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 national parks. However, our research 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 explosion of interest in the immersive experience of camping on public lands shows how much these lands are loved by the American people. However, there is a desperate need to protect the treasured areas that our communities depend on and ensure that they remain intact, especially during an ongoing pandemic and in the face of the accelerating climate and nature crises. Recent trends in protected area and national park usage further demonstrate the need to expand these popular designations in order to distribute campers across a larger area and drive visitation across different seasons. At the same time, increased funding and recreation management planning is needed to ensure the integrity of popular locations for camping.
Explore The Camping Crunch to learn more about trends in regions and states across the country, and check out the most—and least—occupied reservable campgrounds on our beloved national public lands. While each of us can help disperse The Camping Crunch, only action to protect these landscapes and properly manage them can help ensure that future generations enjoy the same high-quality experience of camping on national public lands.
Data for The Camping Crunch was filtered from 24 million reservation orders made on the website Recreation.gov, reservations made in the field or via call center, and additional data acquired from Recreation Information Database (RIDB) staff.
The Rise of Camping
In 2014, an estimated 39% of reservable lower 48 public lands campsites were filled during the summer months, which increased to an estimated 54% by 2020—an estimated increase of 39%. However, summer weekdays saw a higher estimated growth in occupancy than summer weekends due to starting much lower, and in 2020 had estimated occupancy rates higher than 2014 summer weekends. Summer weekends still had a higher percentage of campsites filled (up to an estimated 60% in 2020).
The increasing popularity of camping during summer weekdays—during the work week for many—points to the incredible popularity of national public lands. It suggests that peak-season users may be seeking to avoid crowded campgrounds during the weekend more than they have in the past, pointing to a potential decrease in visitor satisfaction as campgrounds and surrounding public lands become more crowded. This finding backs up concerns that visitor experiences on public lands may be diminished as users at popular destinations face lengthy waits at entrance stations, vehicle parking shortages, and congestion on trails.
It is obvious that camping on public lands is booming in popularity—the question, then, is what that means for the future of our public lands.
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Images: Utah Hiker, Bureau of Land Management, Bob Wick | Tent, Diana Robinson | Kaibab National Forest | Horseback Rider, Bureau of Land Management, Bob Wick | Arizona night skies, Bureau of Land Management, Bob Wick | Campground Full, Pacific Southwest Forest Service, Rebeca Franco, Flickr | Children on public lands, Bureau of Land Management, Bob Wick