Camping in September can be incredibly rewarding—fall colors, fewer bugs, the start of aurora season—but the changing of the seasons does bring with it a set of challenges that you may not run into in peak summer. Those challenges can be easily overcome, however, with a bit of flexibility and a big sense of adventure!
We’ve put together a few tips to help you navigate the shoulder season and all of the changes that come with it, in hopes that you’ll be better prepared and ready for anything.
While there are a few campgrounds that stay open all year, most campgrounds close for the winter. Most public campgrounds officially “close” in mid-September, usually somewhere around the second or third weekend. However, that closure simply means that the camp host goes home, the water gets shut off and the trash service ceases. It does not mean that the gates are closed or that camping is no longer allowed. In fact, most public campgrounds leave the gates open through the end of September, or until the snow falls. They’ll move to a “No Fee/No Services” model, which means that camping is free but there are no bathrooms, water, trash service, etc., and all camping is first come, first served. You’ll have to plan your trip accordingly—pack out all trash, fill up your water before you get there, etc. (Usually outhouses are left unlocked while bathrooms that use water are closed up. Bring your own toilet paper.)
Riley Creek Campground in Denali National Park and the Seward Waterfront Campground are two major public campgrounds that stay open all year. Some private campgrounds may also stay open year-round, but these will depend on the individual owners and operators, so it’s best to check websites and/or make some calls. Riley Creek follows the No Fee/No Services model after mid-Sept, and the Seward Waterfront (operated by Seward Parks & Rec) charges reduced rates for dry campsites starting October 1. For Alaska State Parks, the best way to see whether a campground is open or not is to check the Campground Open status page on their website. Note that most state parks campgrounds are first-come, first-served even during peak season. You can also check the status of most Chugach National Forest campgrounds. Note that if the campground has a green check mark but reservations are no longer available on recreation.gov, that means we’re into the No fee/No services period.
Freezing water pumps can become an issue at the end of the season, as temps start to drop at night. Once we start to get consistently freezing temperatures—most of the night, every night—then we drain the water from our vans’ water systems, and send the vans out with an external water jug. If you encounter freezing temperatures unexpectedly during your trip, you can run the water pump periodically through the night to keep water flowing through the system. If that freeeze-up hasn’t happened yet, even if we’re near the end of the September, then we’ll send you out with full water tank and you can continue to refill it as needed.
And here’s a tip for doing dishes in near-freezing weather: Wear gloves. Keeping your hands dry in near-freezing temps makes a huge difference—wet hands equal cold hands!
We provide down-alternative comforters throughout the season for all of our guests, but late in the season, sometimes a single comforter doesn’t cut it. In that case, we provide an extra one! This is pretty common for early and late season camping, and we keep extra sets at the ready. If you have your own cold-temperature sleeping bag you’d prefer to use instead, bring it along. We can even remove our own bedding so you have extra room in the van. You can also add-on a down or down-alternative throw blanket. We also recommend that you wear layers both during the day and while sleeping. Even though you’ve got a van with all of the amenities, you’re still camping. You may need to wear your long underwear to bed, just like you would if you were backpacking or car camping with a tent.
This is really the thing you will need the most. Weather is fickle and hard to predict, but a willingness to go where the good things are happening is going to be your most effective tool. Pack your layers, bring your rain gear, be willing to adventure no matter the weather, and you won’t miss anything. Heed the advice of locals—they can tell you where wildlife has been spotted, which areas to avoid, what gear you’ll need, and what’s open or closed. And give yourself room to experience serendipity—it only happens when you’re not worried about sticking too closely to a plan!
Keep these tips in mind, and your September camping trip will go smoothly and easily. Prepare but be flexible, ask a local if you get stuck on something, and don’t forget your sense of wonder! There’s still plenty to marvel at, even in the shoulder season.
Ready for a late season adventure? Book a van or SUV today!