Guide to Dispersed Camping in Canada
By Kilee LeBlanc
Finding an available campsite in British Columbia or Alberta in the summer for tent camping or your campervan can sometimes prove difficult, especially if it’s close to a major city centre or tourist hot spot. Camping is incredibly popular with Canadians looking to get out of the hustle and bustle of the city and into nature to spend time with friends and family. Some sites book up months and even years in advance, so naturally, you might be looking for an alternative to your standard campground, including dispersed camping in Canada.
What are these alternative options? For starters, about 89% of Canada is designated as “Crown Land” which is available to Canadians for public use. Not all Crown Land is created equal, however, as finding an area suitable for camping varies between the provinces and territories. It is also quite difficult to understand and navigate the waters of Crown Land but with the amount of Crown Land available it’s definitely worth looking into.
Focusing solely on the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta where some of the most popular campervan destinations are located, here are some options for legally dispersed camping in Canada.
What about dispersed camping in the US?
Visit Escape’s Dispersed Camping 101 guide which has all the info you need to find legal dispersed camping in the US, as well as how to do it sustainably. Escape also has a guide to dispersed camping on the East Coast US, which can be a bit more difficult to find than on the West Coast.
Dispersed Camping in British Columbia
British Columbia has an abundance of Recreation Sites on Crown Land that function like traditional campgrounds but with fewer amenities. Many of the rec sites can be accessed by a vehicle but some may require a hike in to reach them. Some are quite rustic but others may offer an outhouse (toilet paper not guaranteed), a fire ring, or a picnic table at your site.
Upon entering a rec site, be sure to read the board and rules (if posted) as some sites are manned by site hosts whereas some have a dropbox for payment. Fees are very nominal in rec sites (if any) making them an excellent option for travellers looking to get off the beaten path with the comfort of knowing you’re not trespassing on private property or camping illegally.
Where to find recreation sites in BC
- Backroads Mapbooks can be bought online or in-store (can often be found at gas stations) and is the country’s most trusted resource for outdoor adventures. There’s nothing like having a physical copy in your campervan at all times should technology fail! They also have an online paid app if you prefer to have something on your phone.
- Recreation Sites and Trails BC is the official government website for Recreation Sites in BC. It displays recreation sites and recreation trails for your camping and hiking needs.
Dispersed Camping in Alberta
Nearly all of Alberta’s western border consists of national and provincial parks – Jasper National Park, Banff National Park, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, and Waterton Lakes National Park. Crossing the border into British Columbia also is covered in provincial parks – Mount Robson, Yoho, Kootenay, and Height of the Rockies Provincial Parks. This leaves little room for dispersed camping in these areas, as there are many designated campgrounds to choose from and freedom camping is frowned upon.
Not all of the province is national and provincial parks and there are opportunities to stay in recreation sites or “random camp” in public land use zones. This frees up the option to be a bit more spontaneous in your campervan travels.
Where to find campsites in Alberta:
Dispersed Camping in National and Provincial Parks in Canada
Camping outside of designated campgrounds while in National and Provincial Parks is generally prohibited and well-patrolled by conservation officers and rangers. This is to keep parks in their pristine state and to prevent further damage to the area. Depending on which park you’re going to, you may be able to purchase backcountry camping permits which would allow you to camp in the wilderness, far from any road or town. It’s always best to check with a park ranger or at an information desk in the nearest town as to where you can camp.
Camping on Crown Land in Canada
If you’re not in a National or Provincial Park or have no rec site options nearby, driving off the main road onto a deactivated logging road and staying the night may be an option. This a grey area, since what may seem like Crown Land may actually be private property, on reserve lands, or within national or provincial park boundaries.
Obey all signage posted, stay self-contained, and always leave the spot as you found it (or better). These are good options if you just need a spot to stop and sleep then carry on the next day. There’s nothing worse than waking up to the sound of someone knocking on your window telling you to move along!
Resources for Finding Camping in Canada
FreeCampsites.net – a great resource for free and cheap camping. Simply type in your location and a list of options will appear from free wilderness sites to store parking lots. Always read and follow signs as rules may have changed since the time of publishing.
iOverlander.com – a user-generated site for finding wilderness campsites all over the world. Do note that overland vehicles are typically off-road of 4wd vehicles so keep that in mind when thinking to take your Escape Campervan down a heavily potholed gravel road!
DiscoverCamping.ca is the official website for BC Parks who are responsible for provincial parks and recreation areas. This site allows you to make reservations at provincial park campgrounds in BC. They are paid sites with many amenities such as hot showers, hook-ups, and running water.
Parks Canada is the government site for all national campgrounds and historic sites in Canada. Banff, Jasper, and Pacific Rim National Park reservations would be booked through this site. Backcountry camping permits can also be purchased at this site.
Things to Remember When Camping in Canada
- Try to plan ahead by searching for campsites before you leave on your road trip. If you’re traveling over a weekend in the summer to popular national parks like Banff and Jasper, reserving a site gives you the peace of mind that you’ll have somewhere to stay.
- Some rec sites can be off the beaten track on rough gravel roads – tread lightly and remember your campervan’s off-road policies!
- Expect rustic conditions in rec sites – no running water, flushing toilets, or showers here!
- Always LEAVE NO TRACE by leaving the sites as you found them (or better). Properly dispose of waste, camp at least 30 meters away from lakes or streams, and leave vegetation and live trees undisturbed.
- Keep food and scented items inside your campervan when you’re not around to avoid unnecessary wildlife encounters.
- Understand the current fire danger rating and always extinguish fires fully before leaving your site.
- Dispersed camping has been one of the safest and more popular camping options during COVID-19, so expect more crowds when traveling to camp sites. Remember to stay safe by following proper guidelines and not sharing spaces while on your trip.
Ready to Try Dispersed Camping in Canada?
If you’re ready to try dispersed camping, there’s no better way to do it than in a campervan. Once you have a general idea of where you want to travel, book your Escape campervan from our Calgary or Vancouver rental location to prepare for your next Canadian adventure.