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Campers Beware – The Bots Are Back

Campers Beware – The Bots Are Back

Remember back in the good old days when you looked forward to getting up early to try and reserve a campsite?  Or how about way back in the day when all you could do was call the reservation agency to reserve your camping vacation for the summer?  More often than not, you were able to get a campsite reservation, but not anymore.

Campers Beware - The Bots Are Back_Camping

As we all have learned, the good old days are a thing of the past. Reserving a campsite on ReserveCalifornia.com and other reservation systems has become very difficult. We’ve even had many campers contact us over the last several months saying they’ve given up trying to get a reservation at popular parks in California, Florida and other areas of the country.

Campers Beware – The Bots Are Back

For sure there are way more people wanting to camp and demand far exceeds the supply of campsites. However, online camping reservation systems are also susceptible to bots grabbing campsite reservations.  These bots are super-fast and can reserve a campsite before you even lift a finger to click on the ‘book now’ button.

“A bot — short for “robot” and also called an internet bot — is a computer program that operates as an agent for a user or other program, or to simulate a human activity. Bots are normally used to automate certain tasks, meaning they can run without specific instructions from humans.”    (Whatis.com)

Campers Beware - The Bots Are Back_Evil Bot

The staff at CampsitePhotos.com knows of a least 2 entities using bots to reserve campsites (for a fee), and several other individuals that have developed bot programs to get their friends and family campsite reservations. You can bet there are many more out there doing the same.  We forwarded the information about the bots we know of along to ReserveCalifornia.com and California State Parks, but have not heard back.

Gone in an Instant

Typically reservation systems (like ReserveCalifornia.com) will open up reservations 6-months prior to your planned arrival date (i.e. on Feb 10 you can try to reserve for an Aug 10 arrival).  In the old days, the reservation window would open on the 1st of the month, for an any-day arrival during an entire month (6 months later).  For example, on January 1, people could try and reserve a site any day during the month of July. Campers seemed to have better luck getting a campsite under this scenario.

Today, savvy campers know to check out which campsites are available before the reservation window opens. Then on the designated day and time (8am PT for ReserveCalifornia.com), they refresh their screen and attempt to click on an available site. Unfortunately those nasty bots are all dialed in to snap up the available campsites before you (the average human) has a chance.  If by chance there is a campsite or two not taken by a bot, there are hundreds, if not thousands of other campers trying to get a campsite.

Campers Beware - The Bots Are Back_Camping_Calendar


ReserveCalifornia.com is aware of the bot issue and has been modifying and updating their system to try and stop the bots:

Bots: Security features were installed to reduce the opportunities for ‘bots’ to access reservations and negatively impact the availability of campsites and tour ticket opportunities.

Third Party Vendors: Reservations are for personal use only. Any resale, transfer, use, for profit activity, or memberships that are not approved in advance by California State Parks are strictly prohibited and will be subject to immediate cancellation without notice, refund or reimbursement. You may also not be allowed to make any reservations or open new accounts. There are currently no approved vendors to operate as third party partners.

It’s an uphill battle though and using the current online reservation system (with the bots in play) isn’t making it easier to reserve a campsite.

It seems a bit antiquated, but what about having a percentage of the campsites available only for phone reservations? Would going back to the ‘reserve 6 months in advance for any day in the month’ option be better?

What do you think?  Any ideas? Please leave us your thoughts in the comments below.

In the meantime, you can always use our Campsite Assist tool. It will send you text & email alerts when a campsite becomes available through cancellation. Alerts include links to the reservation system so you can try and reserve the site. You can purchase specific scans, matrix scans (date range) and scan packs.

You can also contact ReserveCalifornia or California State Parks and let them know what you think:

Contact Page: ReserveCalifornia.com
Phone: 800-444-7275

California State Parks
P.O. Box 942896
Sacramento, CA 94296
Phone: 916-654-7538
Email: Newsroom@parks.ca.gov, info@parks.ca.gov
Gloria Sandoval – Deputy Director Public Affairs
Armando Quintero, Director, California State Parks

Thanks for your input. Let’s hope for happy camping in the future!

Campers Beware - The Bots Are Back_Happy Camper

14 Replies to “Campers Beware – The Bots Are Back”

  1. Tracey Bruckner says:

    I’ve heard there is legislation to try and stop them. I know they are grabbing up sites. Why would anyone book one night on an oceanfront site on a weekend- yet this happens all the time! So frustrating..tell me who is booking them? If you can’t beat em join em?! How else are we able to get premium sites

    • Hi Tracey,
      Additional legislation may help. I know some is in place already. I’ve also seen those premium campsites just get reserved for a Friday or Saturday night (one night). I would not be surprised that some bots may be programmed just to get one night for one “customer”. The BOTheads would make more money that way on the resell or their ‘service’ charge.

  2. Richard Emerson says:

    It’s one thing to have bots that report that a site has become available. It’s not too hard to wait out 8AM and click immediately (there’s a countdown timer above the site list). Get the “site 22’s open” message and dash off to click is most likely “good luck”. IMHO

    Getting through Captcha images with scripts, etc., can be done. Move to two-stage verification (send you an email or text with a confirmation number, respond with same), and things get complicated in a hurry. There’s always “if they make better traps, there will be smarter crooks (sic)”. Legislation much too slow to react in time, let alone assuming whatever laws, code amendments, whatever will even get through. Give the parks people authorization to adapt, and the playing field is level. At least for a while. Whack-a-mole! 😀

    We just nailed down a site by watching the clock and clicking. All we did was to be timely in our response to the opening. Everything was manual, no bots, no scripts, no mass clicking. I don’t see that cheating.

    Folks who’re computer illiterate, or simple don’t have access to a computer at 8AM? Sadly, they’re left out.

    • Hi Richard,
      Really like your idea of the 2nd-stage verification (sending an email and text with confirmation, etc.). This would make it a little more difficult for the ‘bot operators’ to actually reserve a campsite (for their customers). As you mentioned, they could probably figure out a way to process quickly though. Phone call confirmations (live rep) would probably never fly as the reservation companies wouldn’t want to ramp up and hire people.

      • Richard Mitchell says:

        I tried to reserve a campsite at 7 AM PDT this morning, using typical advice about having multiple windows open, ready to click reserve on several campsite opportunities. I refreshed right at the correct time by the countdown timer…and BAM! all sites were reserved…it could not have been more than 1 or 2 seconds after 7:00 AM when I saw that there was no availability.

        Frankly, I’m afraid that now at age 67, I’m just plain done visiting National Parks and State Parks ever again. I’m so disgusted that we haven’t supported our park systems sufficiently, we don’t have sufficient resources to meet our citizen’s needs, and we’re fine wasting the time of 1000s of people trying to secure reservations only to be turned down. It is a hopeless chase for a campsite any more. I’m so done with it. Now that website bots and notifications sites (requiring a paid subscription) are snapping up reservations and those not snapped up by bots are snapped up by the 1000s who are faster with their mouse than I am, what is the purpose of wasting time to try to visit a park ever again.

        Sad…truly sad about this.

    • And glad you hear you’ve been able to ‘whack-a-mole’ and get some campsites!

  3. Elaine Wilkins says:

    The old system and the old way of being able to book for the entire month, 6 months out was a way better way of booking in my opinion. Also, there have been many open spots in the past year and they stay open the entire time that we are there but we are told that you have to go through the online system, why can’t they be booked through the rangers?

  4. David Baker says:

    How frustrating for the rest of us? how do these bots grab reservations now? reCapcha was supposed to stop bots from getting through image checks to book sites. Which bots did you find that could that so we can report them also?

  5. I don’t understand why there ARE bots? What are the people who program these bots gaining? Is there profit here somehow? They are campsites, not football tickets.

    • Hi Andrea,

      A good question! As we all know, getting a campsite is next to impossible. I think the tech savvy people that know how to develop bots do it to get a campsite for themselves and friends. Others will charge a fee, usually a very high fee, for the service. In the latter scenario they will ask their ‘customers’ to provide credit card info, account login info (for the reservation system), phone number, etc.

  6. What about lotteries? Some parks, especially those in Alaska, would do that regularly. We did a lottery for national forest cabin in Kenai in 1995 and got it. But it was May and the US population was 45 million fewer people. Don’t hear much about lotteries anymore though.

  7. Perhaps another thought would be to return to a small percentage of sites to “first come, first served”. Until Covid, that was a very good option for us. I realize it’s not a great one for local folks who want a weekend getaway after a rough week at work, but couple that with phone only reservations, and it might give locals and full-timers a chance.

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