If you're lucky enough to win a permit to float either the Middle Fork or Main Salmon, one of your chores as trip leader is to obtain reservations for the campsites that you wish to stay at. Both these rivers have formal campsite reservation systems but the systems are different for each river. All the campsites on the Middle Fork are reservation sites so you must reserve a camp for each and every night that you'll be on the river. As of this writing, the Main Salmon has a partial campsite reservation system in which you can reserve campsites for some of your nights on the river. I have more to say specifically about the Main Salmon's system at the bottom of this page. Other rivers such as the Yampa, have their own reservation systems, but in my opinion, in those situations there is not much you can do to influence the campsites you get - you are simply assigned a site for each night of your river trip. So this discussion is focused on the Middle Fork and Main Salmon systems which require some understanding to get the best results.
When I first heard that I had to get campsite reservations on a rafting trip it didn't sound like such a good thing. After all, it's a wilderness, for crying out loud. Well, it's not 1805 anymore and we're not Lewis and Clark. The reality we're stuck with is that 10,000 people converge on each of these two rivers every year. I've come to really appreciate the campsite reservation systems as a way to lower the stress once we're on the river. These are good systems administered by good and caring people.
In administering the campsite reservation systems, the goals of the rangers at Boundary Creek and Corn Creek are to basically honor your requests, ensure campsites are not double-booked, and resolve conflicts when multiple parties request the same campsite. Most conflicts are resolved by flipping coins, and the rest by negotiation. The rangers don't have an agenda, other than moving groups through the process, applying some common-sense rules, and keeping everyone safe. They are not in cahoots with the commercial rafting companies. They're fair to all parties - it's simply that the people who know how the systems work have better outcomes than those who don't. The commercial guides know the system and so should you. If you just blunder into the situation, you'll probably be disappointed and frustrated with the results.
Each of these wonderful rivers has over 100 campsites to choose from. With the caveat that any campsite on either river is one of the better places you can possibly be, some campsites are simply nicer than others. Some are just OK, lots of them are good to very good, and a few are spectacular. It's natural that you should want to camp at the best sites on your rare rafting vacations. But it's not my goal here to give you a top-10 list of the greatest, or list the best sites for small groups, or the best campsites for groups who like to swim, or fish, or hike. I'll leave it to you to figure out the best campsites for your purposes. Once you have your list of ideal candidates, the quality of the sites you do receive reservations for can influence the enjoyment of your river trip. So let me tell you how I think you can stack the odds in your favor.
Those who plan ahead are rewarded. So, first of all, do your research. Talk to other boaters, ask questions on the Internet forums devoted to whitewater rafting, look at pictures and read the comments on Whitewater Rafting Campsites. Before each trip, I make a list of a few outstanding campsites that I want to try for. This little list of anchor sites, and the mileages between them, shapes the overall plan for our river trip.
Buy a copy of the USFS Floaters Guide for the river. Yes, if you're the trip leader, you'll receive a 'free' copy of the river guide when you check in. But that's way too late to help you plan the campsites and the daily mileages you'll need to travel. Call the Forest Service, and have them mail the latest edition to you well in advance of your trip. And read the published guides for your particular river to learn about hiking trails, historical features, and other attractions within the river corridor. But don't expect that any of the guide books will contain a list of the best campsites to stay at. You'll learn about the best ones only by exerting effort and gaining experience. It's sort of a built-in system of natural protection (but I'll give you a major tip later).
Make your list of those few ideal sites and the river features like hot springs that you want to be sure to stop at, or camp near. Then consider the pace you want to travel. An obvious first step is to divide the total river mileage by the days you plan to spend on the river to determine the average daily mileage required. Decide if and where you want to deviate from average. Should you go fast at the beginning and slow at the end? Or start slow and make up the miles toward the end of the trip? Or just stay balanced, trying to keep to the average each day? By necessity, your first and last days on the river will probably be half-days so factor them in as such.
In planning your travel pace, consider your group's experience and composition. Are they efficient at breaking down camp and packing the boats? Or do they need a couple days of practice before you can expect them to break camp early and make the big miles? And how many big-mileage days do you want to have? It's to be a rafting vacation, after all, so don't force it. Do you have a bunch of teenagers who need to be dragged out of bed every morning and who are basically non-functional until noon?
Also consider the time of year and flow rate. Making 25 mile days is no problem in May and early June, but 25 miles on a 100-degree July day when the flow is low can be a real drag. A those times, you must get an early start on big mileage days. And stopping for a two-hour hot springs break or to visit an old homestead on a big mileage day can have you doing dishes in the dark. Carefully examine the river features to decide where to put the big mileage days. And be sure to factor in the afternoon upstream winds too.
River campsites change dramatically from year to year. Falling trees, forest fire damage, insect infestations, changes to beaches or debris piles due to high water, etc. etc.
Your pace plan will drive your selection of the rest of the campsites that fill out your itinerary. After picking your full campsite list, then choose at least 2 alternates for each night and pre-calculate the mileages for each alternate. I used to use an Excel spreadsheet which listed my ideal site and 6 alternates for each night and calculated all daily mileages for all combinations! My friends just rolled their eyes! Since then, I've gotten lazy and more experienced and now make my ideal list with a couple alternates for each night and use the approach described below with confidence that I'll get great sites.
The commercial rafting trips spend fewer nights on the river and tend to travel faster than private groups. If you travel at their speed, you will compete with them for campsites. If you start out slow and let the commercial parties and more aggressive private groups get out to a fast start, you may not even see them for the rest of the trip and won't have to compete against them for the campsites. These are two nice benefits of a slow start.
Also, launch day can be a real circus. Another advantage of a slow start is that the ramps at Boundary and Corn are much easier if you just sit back and let everyone else clear out ahead of you. Grab a cold beer, pick a nice log or rock in the shade, and enjoy the show. There's a certain satisfaction that comes with getting onto 'river time' earlier than the rest of the crazies! The downside of starting slow is that you may be the last group down the river that night. If you encounter any problems, no one will come along to help. So, again, consider your groups capabilities.
Pick campsites that are the appropriate size for your group. If you're a small group, don't fill your wish list with big sites. Big groups get preference over small groups for the large campsites and you'll get bumped. That's just the way it is, and that's the way it needs to be. If none of the big groups take one, you might, repeat might, be able to get it for that first night. But maybe not. River rangers will leave big sites open on your second night for big fast groups that will be launching a day after you. So, if you're a small group, don't go into the campsite selection process expecting to get a big site. If you really want to stay at that site, bring more friends next time! See your permit packet for campsite capacities.
Rangers at Boundary Creek, launch point for the Middle Fork, hold a 'round robin' at 3pm on the afternoon of the day before your launch date. A representative from all parties launching the next day (private and commercial) should attend. If you can't get there that early, have someone in your group represent you. It works like this: all groups present at 3pm get to pick campsites, and each take their turn getting to pick first. One group gets to pick their camp for the first night, the next group in order, picks, and around the circle they go. For the next night, the next group gets to pick first. If no one is there to represent you, you get to select from what's left whenever you do show up. Each group can pick no more than one hotspring camp. And you are not allowed to make an early-round selection of a later night camp, etc.
On the Main Salmon, rangers allow rafting parties to post their campsite 'wish-lists' on the bulletin board the night before launch. It's not first-come, first-served, but posting your choices early is a very good thing to do. You can learn a lot and avoid conflict and be better prepared to make the best of your second choices at the campsite assignment meeting in the morning. Other, less experienced leaders, or those who don't care so much about choices, or those who wish to avoid conflict, may see your list and just pick sites other than the ones you've posted. Watch the board until all the groups have posted their lists. You can then see where you stand and you may find that competition has disappeared! Or you'll know what you'll be up against in the meeting.
If the board doesn't look so good, you've got all evening to reconsider your alternates. You might even try to talk to other groups the night before launch. If you each want the same campsites, you can do a little give and take and leave less to chance at the meeting.
A second critical piece of information is also available to you the night before you launch. That is the list of campsites reserved by the parties that launched today, and yesterday, and the day before that. If some of those parties are moving slowly, and you are hoping to move fast, they may already have received reservations for the sites you were hoping to get. There's nothing you can do about those. Just move on to 'plan B'. Here's that tip: If you want to know which campsites are considered to be the very best, it is obvious from this posted list of 'taken' sites. The best sites are the ones occupied virtually every night, all summer long. Of course, small groups may take exception to this statement as there are some tiny un-noticed gems out there, too.
If you're the permit holder for your group and you can't get to Boundary or Corn Creek the afternoon before launch, give your list to someone else in your party who can be there. They can participate in the Round Robin, or post the list and analyze the situation as discussed above. On the Main Salmon, you'll need to be there for the meeting in the morning, but anyone can fill in for you in posting your list and gathering information about your competition.
Whatever you do, don't be late to the Corn Creek campsite meeting! Launch morning is pretty stressful with all the boats to get rigged and gear packed. If you're the permit holder, you are the only person the rangers want to talk to, at least as far as the campsite reservation meeting goes. You can bring an experienced friend and you can appoint someone else to be your group's leader on the river, but as permit-holder, you're the key person in all matters related to the permit and campsite reservations. Delegate chores to others so that you can get to the meeting early and work your plan.
At campsite meetings, be flexible, do right by others, be opportunistic, and stay alert. Stories abound of leaders of white water rafting trips discovering at the last minute that they forgot some piece of required gear and having to trade away a prime campsite to another group in exchange for a bucket or a strainer!
Keep in mind that the meeting might turn out to be a 'non-event'. If all the groups posted the night before and managed to avoid conflicts with one another, there may be nothing more for the rangers to do about the campsite assignments. It's a done-deal. Everybody gets what they requested. Of course, if you're a small group and are trying to reserve big sites, you may not be able to dodge conflicts with big groups that are due to launch tomorrow. Its just the way it is. Big sites go to big groups.
If the campsite meeting evaporates, just go on about your preparations for launch and check back with the rangers from time to time to arrange the three other areas of ranger involvement with your group: inspection of required equipment, conducting the safety and citizenship lecture, and issuance of the actual permit.
Once you get your permit, you can be on your way with the comfort of knowing where you're going to camp each night. But be gracious - share your campsites with groups who have problems. Remember, doing a good turn has a way of coming back to you. They call it 'river karma'. I've got some great memories of nights made better by sharing our site with other groups who came into some bad luck with a torn boat.
Use a GPS to help navigate if you tend to have problems keeping precise track of your location. Yes, a GPS takes some of the mystery out of a wilderness river trip, but it also helps you locate the many hard-to-find features such as some of the lesser-known hot springs, and historical or geological features. Our GPS enhances our rafting trips.
The Main Salmon with its partial reservation system offers some unique challenges. Chances are, you'll need to spend at least one night in a non-reservation campsite and maybe several. On the Main Salmon, the better sites tend to be the reservation sites. Plan your trip pace to make sure that you'll have plenty of choices on the night or nights that you will not have a reserved site. You do so by arranging your campsite selections so that you're on a section of the river with a good number of non-reservable sites or, if in July or August, a section of the river that has lots of beaches to camp on. The Main Salmon has a number of wonderful beaches that are not on the formal campsite list. This is especially true if you're a small group.
As of this writing, small groups can reserve large sites upstream of the South Fork if no large group has chosen the site. Below the South Fork, small groups can only camp at small sites.
I strongly recommend that you reserve the sites for the first and last nights of your Main Salmon trip. Having a reserved site for the first night prevents additional stress on launch day. And you can run out of places to camp toward the end of the trip and find yourself on the ramp at Carey Creek, which is not a good campsite!
The penalty for messing up on this count is that your daily mileage plan can get really screwed up. It's a drag to hunt for a campsite for hour after hour and find you've nearly reached the site you've got reserved for tomorrow night! Breaking camp the next morning to move just a couple miles downstream and set up again tends to bring down the needle on the fun meter.
Another note is that layover days are not allowed on reservable sites. So you'll need to take that fact into consideration as you plan your Main Salmon rafting trip. And of course, if the weather forecast is not the best, you should consider the shelter and exposure to wind and sun offered by certain campsites. Another tip: When floating the Main Salmon in the heat of the summer, campsites on the left tend to get shade earlier and can be a welcome relief.
And if you choose, you can avoid the campsite reservation system altogether when floating the Main Salmon. This approach should only be attempted by small groups. Just expect to find the sites you need each afternoon. And you can take a reservation site if it is not occupied by 7pm. Be sure to confirm such loopholes with the ranger before you launch.
If using this opportunistic approach it's best to bring a GPS. Books like 'Idaho's Salmon River - A River Runner's Guide to the River of No Return' by Eric & Allison Newell has GPS coordinates for every feature on the river and can greatly aid in precisely finding certain beaches.
Finally, be sure to carefully read the information you receive from the USFS in your 'permit packet' for the latest revisions to the campsite reservation rules, campsite group size minimums and maximums, etc. And don't forget that required equipment - it could cost you a campsite!