I Used to Hate First-Come-First-Served Campsites, But Tucker Park Campground Changed My Mind

When I see those “why my kid is crying” memes, I feel solidarity on two fronts: both with the frustrated parent and the crying child. I’ve held my sobbing daughter, distraught because I was about to take her to Oaks Park. I’ve also been the adult who says, “Wait, we’re ordering takeout? But I was planning to eat cheese and crackers!” I’m not naturally spontaneous; it’s a learned skill.

Counterintuitively, my rigidly structured approach to life means my family has more fun, not less. A lot of mental labor goes into planning activities, and I’m the spreadsheet behind the magical road trip, the reason we never miss the cherry blossoms on the waterfront, and the one who knows where to find all the birthday freebies.

Tucker Park Campground

That said, sometimes spontaneity wins the day, and that’s especially true with camping. Normally, my husband and I start booking campsites in January and February when our calendar reminds us that it’s time, but last year all our careful planning was foiled by wildfires and unexpected guests. Summer was coming to a close and we had only camped — gasp — once. Since most campsites are booked months in advance, we had one option: first-come-first-served sites.


Why First-Come-First-Served is Better

I used to hate FCFS sites. They seemed unnecessarily stressful. What if I pack all our gear and there are no spots? Just let me book online! Here’s what changed my mind:

They’re fair.

First-come-first-served campsites are truly egalitarian. Usually planners like me get all the good stuff, and free spirits who didn’t set an alarm in January to start booking summer campgrounds — or people who have limited access to the internet — are out of luck. For FCFS sites, it only matters who arrives first.

It’s easier to pick the site with the best view.

One of the great trials of booking online is guessing which site is the best. It may look close to the water on the map, but is there access to the water? Can you even see the river or are there trees blocking the view? How much privacy does the campsite have? And most importantly, which ones have hammock trees? All of these questions and more are easy to answer when you’re actually driving through the site.

Children move faster.

I’m sure my kids aren’t the only ones who drag their feet when it’s time to get out the door. As soon as it becomes a race, though, it’s actually fun to be on time.

The weather is predictable.

In January, I have no clue if the summer weekend I’m booking will be sunny or damp, and we’ve definitely camped in a downpour as a result. With FCFS, you generally know exactly what you’re getting, weather-wise.


How to Camp at First-Come-First-Served Sites Like a Pro

Tucker Park Campground

If you, like me, were born an oil tanker but would like to have the flexibility of a jet ski, here are some tips that made it easier for me.

  • Stay close to home. If you only drive 45 minutes, it is far less disappointing to find all the sites full than if you drive four hours.
  • Make a Plan B. Have a backup campground or two in mind.
  • Go as early as you can, ideally early morning. If you can’t leave until Friday after work, pack everything on Thursday so you only have to hop in the car and drive.
  • Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. If you keep circling the campground looking for perfection, you could miss out altogether. Stop at the first free spot that ticks most of your boxes.
  • Bring cash. You might be able to pay with card, but you don’t want a lack of cash to ruin your trip.
  • Avoid crowds. Pick a cloudy weekend, or go on a weekday. Try to avoid the most popular FCFS campgrounds. Holiday weekends will be busier.
  • Be willing to wait. If you arrive before checkout, stick around, and look for campers who seem to be packing up.

Why I Love Tucker Park Campground on Hood River

See our reel on Instagram!

Our inaugural first-come-first-served experience was at Tucker Park Campground on Hood River. It’s a short drive from Portland, and the campsite is great for bikes, has cell service, flush toilets, and running water.

This campground is definitely for people looking to relax. There are not easily accessible hikes, though you can walk a short trail along the river.

We camped at Maple 64, which was the best spot in the campground as far as I could tell. We had access to the water, plenty of shade, and the all-important hammock trees.

Even though we arrived on a Friday, there were plenty of spots available. Best of all, the website for the campground offers a live status update, letting you know how full the campground is. (You better believe I checked it every ten minutes of our drive.)

If you go, be sure to stop at Apple Valley Country Store — their pear dumplings are life changing, and they’re worth the drive alone.

See our reel on Instagram!

This summer, we’re venturing all the way up to Seattle to for a first-come-first-served campground. We’ll see if this free-spirited streak of mine holds.

Looking for more family-friendly campsites? Check out our favorites here.

Meg Asby
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