One of the main reasons we loved living in British Columbia so much (and the reason we stayed about five years longer than originally planned…) is because we were able to explore this huge province and camp in some of the most beautiful spots in the world for FREE. The only thing we would pay was the gas to get there and back. British Columbia is amazing. Here’s all the info you need for learning how to camp for free in British Columbia.

Originally published 2013, rewritten and updated March 2018. 

Disclosure: This post includes affiliate links. If you purchase an item through these links, I receive a small percentage of the sale at no extra cost to you. This helps me continue to write free content like the article you are reading. I only recommend products I personally use or see a use for. 

Free camping in Recreational Sites

There are hundreds of free campgrounds all over British Columbia in the form of Recreational Sites. These come under the Ministry of Forests but are often managed by partnership agreements with recreation groups, private citizens, First Nations, community organizations local governments and forestry companies.

Recreational sites:

  • Offer a rustic camping experience. They usually have at least one pit toilet (outhouse), fire pit and picnic table at a minimum. No electricity or potable water available on site.
  • Are typically reached via dirt (logging) roads – this means that rental car users will be unable to access a number of them
  • Vary in size and style, ranging from large campgrounds (30+ spaces) that are maintained daily to the very small (space for just one camping party) that may only be checked a few times a year
  • Are usually found in the middle of nowhere but are often located near a water feature such as a lake, river, stream or even the ocean
  • Some provide open camping (with no distinction between camping pitches) while others have clearer dividers between spots, providing more privacy
  • A minority of Rec Sites that are only suitable for tents due to their small size and/or difficult access
  • Over 90% are completely free to use – some of the larger Rec Sites have a caretaker living on site and therefore have a nightly fee ($10-15 per party).

How to Camp for Free in British Columbia - Pye Lake Beach Rec Site

How to Camp for Free in British Columbia - Examples of Rec Sites

How to Camp for Free in British Columbia - James Lake camp

How to find free rec site camping in bc

Due to Recreational Sites usually being located away from the main highways, it is unlikely that the average BC visitor will accidentally stumble across one of these campgrounds. The two main ways of finding recreational sites are:

While the Recreational Sites and Trails BC website is useful, I find Backroad Mapbooks a lot handier when it comes to actually finding places to camp for free in British Columbia. As well as being detailed roadmaps, Backroad Mapbooks are also an amazing resource for finding campsites, trails and activities all over BC. There are seven Backroad Mapbooks covering the entirety of BC.

Recreational Sites are very easy to spot on in the Backroad Mapbooks. They are shown clearly in red, with a tent or RV/tent symbol showing what kind of Rec Site it is. The name of the Rec Site is listed next to this symbol. Towards the back of the Backroad Mapbook, there is an entire alphabetised section with a detailed description of each Rec Site. This usually includes details such as how many campsites there are, what attractions are close by (good fishing? a waterfall? paddling opportunities?) and the condition of the road leading to it. If there is a charge to camp, a large dollar symbol is shown.

Read next: 9 Awesome FREE Campsites in BC

How to Camp for Free in British Columbia - Sayward Forest

cheap or free camping options in bc’s provincial parks

BC’s Provincial Parks also offer camping opportunities. There are two different types of camping available in Provincial Parks:

  • Car-accessible campsites in well-maintained campgrounds. The fee for one camping party ranges from $12 to $35 per night in these campgrounds.
  • Wilderness camping at marine and backcountry campgrounds. Camping at these sites is free or costs $5-10 per night per person.

Backcountry and marine sites are usually quite rustic, with just a pit toilet at a minimum. These sites are only accessible by foot or boat respectively. Relatively common is the use of tent pads to preserve ground cover. Less common facilities include picnic tables, barrels for wastewater disposal and shelters.

Some Provincial Park wilderness camping sites are completely free all year round. Others always have a fee or only charge during the main summer season (e.g. 1st May to 30th September).

Aside from prioritising the free backcountry sites, people trying to camp for free in British Columbia should also consider visiting the paid sites out of season. We decided to hike into Cape Scott Provincial Park in late April to avoid paying the $10/per person/per day fee that is required during the main season. This did mean, however, that we had to travel an unmaintained trail.

How to Camp for Free in British Columbia - Quadra Island Main Lakes

How to Camp for Free in British Columbia - Nels Bight, Cape Scott

How to Camp for Free in British Columbia - Christina Lake

Finding free wilderness campsites in BC’s provincial parks

My technique to finding free campsites in BC’s Provincial Parks is a two-step system –

  1. First, I check the relevant Backroad Mapbook for the area I want to explore. Provincial Parks are shown in green on the maps. Backcountry and marine campsites are noted with a black tent symbol as in the photo below.
  2. To find out whether there is a fee to use these sites, I look up the name of the Provincial Park on the BC Parks website. Right at the bottom of each park’s description page, there is a section about the wilderness camping opportunities, including any applicable fees and season dates. 

How to Camp for Free in British Columbia - Strathcona Park Backroad Mapbook

How to camp for free in British Columbia

And there you have it, my full guide to finding free campsites in BC. These techniques have led us to some incredible adventures over the last few years and over 150+ nights of free camping.

When camping, remember to always follow Leave No Trace principles to reduce your impact on the environment and preserve these places for other people.Those venturing into the backcountry should always bring the 10 essentials and be prepared for all types of weather and hazards.

Read next: Journey into Valhalla, a paddling and hiking adventure (with completely free camping!)

How to Camp for Free in British Columbia - There are hundreds (thousands?!) of completely free campsites available to use all over British Columbia. Here's my guide to finding them! It's easy, trust me. - offtracktravel.ca

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Gemma
Author

One half of a Canadian/British couple currently based in New Brunswick, Canada. Gemma is happiest with a kayak/canoe paddle in her hand, on the trail or planning the next big adventure.

2 Comments

  1. Great tips! I’m sure those rec sites will make up a big portion of my sleeping arrangements for my trip too 🙂 I will have to invest in the backroad mapbook. I haven’t done too much research online for free campsites but I did bookmark this while researching something else: http://freecampsites.net/canada/ Might be worth a look. Joe

  2. Pingback: How We Travelled Canada for $45 a day | Off Track Travel

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