Prime camping season arrives in Florida when the humidity dissipates, but don’t wait until the last minute to make a reservation because the snowbirds will soon sweep into the state in their RVs
This year will be especially challenging because many campgrounds in Florida’s Panhandle will likely be closed for months in the wake of Hurricane Michael.
Recovery from last year’s Hurricane Irma in the Florida Keys is almost complete, although Long Key State Park’s campground remains closed until further notice.
5 realities about reserving a campsite in Florida:
January-March are the toughest months to find a campsite south of Orlando;
- Cost of camping can be high in private campgrounds, especially in the Florida Keys;
- The best months for campsite availability are October-November and April-May;
- Summer in the Florida Keys is almost as tough to book as winter;
- Summer, not winter, is prime season for camping in Florida’s Panhandle.
Florida State Parks has a new search engine that helps campers find sites at the last minute. Check it out by going to this link.
Basic reservation policies you need to know
Florida State Parks — Reservations are accepted up to 11 months in advance, and experienced campers are online the first day sites become available. On that first day, you can book up to two weeks. For campground reservations, call (800) 326-3521 (8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Eastern) or TDD (888) 433-0287, or online at Florida State Parks.
Federal Campgrounds — Reservations are accepted up to 6 months in advance, except the Long Pine Key Campground in Everglades National Park (walk-ins only). Book your site at Florida’s national parks, forests and preserve through Recreation.gov. Primitive camping is permitted in some federal preserves at little or no cost, although the rules vary and permits are rarely issued more than 24 hours in advance.
County Campgrounds — Most Florida counties manage their own campgrounds, and the rules vary from county to county. Generally, residents of those counties get first dibs on sites, as much as a month in advance of sites being opened to non-residents. The public reservation window also varies, from 45 days in Orange County (Orlando) up to 7 months in Pinellas County (Tampa Bay)
Private Campgrounds — Reservation policies at private campgrounds vary widely, but one of the more common policies gives priority to returning campers, who often rebook the same sites and dates for the following year. If the camper leaves without rebooking, the site is offered to the general public.
Strategies for your itinerary
Identify your preferred destinations, but be flexible on dates. January, February and March can be a real challenge finding a vacant campsite south of Orlando, especially in the Florida Keys.
Build your itinerary on the path of least resistance:
- Target the Florida Keys in October-December and April-May (perfect weather);
- Target Central and North Florida in January, February and March (sometimes chilly but rarely cold);
- Book state parks first (11 months in advance), followed by national parks and forests (6 months in advance);
- Fill in the gaps with county, private campgrounds and one-night stands in WalMart parking lots.
Review campground rules where you wish to camp well ahead of the booking window, and reconnoiter Florida State Parks Reservations and Recreation.gov before you need it so you don’t waste time on booking day.
If you don’t find a vacancy for your dates at a state or federal campground, don’t surrender! If your dates are flexible, keep trying until you find something.
Snowbirds often overbook, then cancel reservations no longer fitting their itinerary. Cancellations go back into inventory the next day, so you need to be nimble to rescue orphaned dates.
Booking a campsite in the Florida Keys
State park campsites in the Florida Keys are in high demand year around. They are snapped up on the first day 11 months in advance — usually before 8:15 the morning they become available.
Florida State Parks can only be booked by phone, 1-800-326-3521, or online. Go online and research the steps in advance so you don’t waste time on the day sites become available. Yes, it is that competitive.
State park sites in the Keys are $36 per night. You’ll easily pay triple that for a private campground in the Keys.
National parks and forests
There are also three well-maintained U.S. Army Corps of Engineers campgrounds along the Okeechobee Waterway that can be booked in advance: Ortona South, St. Lucie South and the WP Franklin campgrounds. Find more details here: Camping with the Corps
Golden Passports for seniors 65 and older cost $10 and entitle you to free admission to any national park, forest or wildlife refuge — and you get a 50% discount on already low camping fees. Don’t leave home without it.
There are 27 federal campgrounds in Florida that can be booked on www.recreation.gov.
State wilderness areas, forests and wildlife refuges
The Florida Department of Agriculture manages state wilderness areas, and the campsites are often primitive (no hookups), but you can drive up without hiking deep into the woods. Large RVs need to plan carefully because of tree limbs, unpaved roads and lack of amenities, such as electric and water.
You are often required to have camping permits, the campgrounds are often primitive, and you will be surrounded by hunters during hunting seasons. Sites are first come-first serve, and you must have your permit before setting up camp.
Visit Florida State Forest Service online: State Forest Recreation at a Glance.
County park campgrounds
County campgrounds are well-maintained, inexpensive and located in prime locations.
But restrictions on advance bookings, such as priority booking windows for local residents, require a little navigation through their rules. The rules for each county are different, so pick your spot, do your homework and plan ahead.
Fort DeSoto Park in Pinellas County is particularly difficult to book.
Many counties in Florida host campers, including:
- Broward County (Fort Lauderdale)
- Palm Beach County
- Brevard County (Cocoa Beach and Melbourne)
- Orange County (Orlando)
- Hillsborough County (Tampa)
- Pinellas County (St. Petersburg)
Decide where you want to go and research where you plan to camp.
Explore Florida Rambler for natural campgrounds and use that as a jumping point to build your itinerary around the activities you enjoy the most.
Other guides to consider:
- Moon Florida Camping, includes most public and private campgrounds in the state.
- Camping Florida (A Falcon Guide)
- Good Sam Campground Guide, national directory focuses on Good Sam member campgrounds.
- Narrow down coastal destinations with Beach and Coastal Camping in Florida
- If you shun RV parks, check out The Best in Tent Camping: Florida: A Guide for Car Campers Who Hate RVs, Concrete Slabs, and Loud Portable Stereos
AAA also publishes a very good campground guide for Florida that you can pick up at your local AAA Travel office.
Don’t give up!
We live in Florida, and we love camping in February. To secure camping reservations at the busiest times of the year, we employ the same tactics as we describe here. We watch for cancellations and often succeed after fewer than a half-dozen attempts. Trust me, it’s worth the effort.
Cancellations occur frequently as RVers fine-tune itineraries to eliminate overlaps and weed out unneeded bookings. Snowbirds are motivated to pin things down as soon as possible and get out of commitments they don’t need.
Need something this weekend or next week?
Florida State Parks has created a weekend campsite finder that displays immediate availability, if any, for the upcoming weekend and next week at all Florida state park and other state recreation areas.
Just click on this link — Florida State Parks Weekends — and pick your favorite park.