How to camp for free in British Columbia

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on Feb 24, 13 • by • with 2 Comments

How to camp for free in British Columbia

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One of the main reasons we love British Columbia so much (we’ve been here five years and counting!) is because I know we can explore this huge province and stay in some of the most beautiful spots in the world for FREE. It’s a great feeling knowing that can head out for a weekend and set up camp in a beautiful spot a few hours or less away from home, spend a few days canoeing, hiking and enjoying camp life, and then leave, only paying for gas to get there and back. This province is amazing.

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 control of the Ministry of Forests and are usually accessible via dirt (logging) roads. Typically found in the middle of nowhere, Rec Sites are usually next to some kind of water feature such as a lake, river, stream or even the ocean.

Recreational Sites 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. Some of the larger Rec Sites have a caretaker living on site and usually charge a fee.

At a minimum, every Rec Site has a pit toilet, fire pit and a picnic table. The number of fire pits and tables depends on the size of the Rec Site. Some Recreational Sites provide open camping (with no distinction between camping pitches) while others have clearer dividers between spots, providing more privacy. There is a minority of Rec Sites that are only suitable for tents due to their small size.

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pye lake camp

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James Lake camp

Free Backcountry and Marine Campsites

Provincial Parks are probably the most popular option for car-accessible camping in BC. The cost to stay in these well-maintained campgrounds ranges from $12 to $35 per night. Many of BC’s Provincial Parks do offer completely free backcountry and/or marine camping. These sites are only accessible by foot or boat respectively.

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

Not all backcountry and marine sites are free; some have usage fees all year round while others just charge during the main summer season (e.g. 1st May to 30th September). Aside from prioritising the free backcountry sites, campers trying to save money 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.

quadra island main lakes camp canoe

Cape Scott Provincial Park hike Nels Bight camping

campfire christina lake camping kootenays canoe

How to Find Free Camping in BC

The bible for finding free campsites while on the road is the Backroad Mapbook; as well as being a pretty detailed roadmap, it’s an amazing resource for free places to camp in BC. There are seven Backroad Mapbooks covering the entirety of BC.

vancouver island backroad mapbook

Finding BC Rec Sites

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.

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You can also find campsites using the Recreational Sites and Trails BC website.

Sayward Forest Backroads Mapbook

Finding Backcountry and marine campsites

Backcountry and marine campsites are shown with a black tent symbol. To find out whether there is a fee to use these sites, I find it easiest to check the BC Parks website. Right at the bottom of each park’s description page, there is information on wilderness camping.

strathcona park backroad mapbook

Not just useful for navigation and finding campsites, Backroad Mapbooks provide a great introduction to the area as a whole. The second half of the book has detailed description of every attraction, provincial park and established trail in the area plus the best fishing, paddling and wildlife spotting opportunities.

We’ve had so many awesome adventures all thanks to the Mapbook; I wouldn’t be without it in BC now!

This post is not sponsored in any part by Backroad Mapbooks – I really do just love them a lot! 

READ NEXT: Pye Lake – one of our favourite Recreational Sites in BC

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2 Responses to: How to camp for free in British...

  1. Joe says:

    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: Might be worth a look. Joe

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