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British Columbia Trip Planning: Essential Travel Tips to Know

British Columbia is renowned for its spectacular natural beauty. Like most travel destinations, however, a bit of careful planning is sure to make your trip a lot easier. After all, you don’t know what you don’t know!

This post includes all of the tips and tricks that I would love to include in each of our BC road trip and travel guides.

With those posts already being so detailed, most of these suggestions and hints would just get lost.

Here’s what to expect:

I primarily wrote this post to help international visitors plan trips to British Columbia. While I have lived in BC for 12+ years now, I am originally from the UK and have a good idea of what foreign travellers may find difficult to understand.

That being said, Canada is a big country and visitors from other provinces may also find certain aspects of this article helpful. There are a surprising amount of discrepancies between Canadian provinces!

Published February 2024. This post includes affiliate links. If you make a purchase or booking through one of these links, we may receive a small percentage of the sale.

Coastal view of Juan de Fuca with layers of forested headlands next to ocean rushing in
Juan de Fuca coastline, Vancouver Island

National parks and provincial parks

British Columbia is host to the third largest park system in North America, with over 600 provincial parks, 10,000 vehicle-accessible campsites and 2000 walk-in/backcountry campsites.

There are seven national parks located within the province as well:

  • Pacific Rim National Park Reserve (Vancouver Island)
  • Gulf Islands National Park Reserve (located between Vancouver Island and the mainland)
  • Mount Revelstoke National Park (Revelstoke)
  • Glacier National Park (located between Revelstoke and Golden)
  • Yoho National Park (near Golden)
  • Kootenay National Park (near Radium)
  • Gwaii Haanas National Park Reserve (southern part of Haida Gwaii)

BC’s national and provincial parks are administered by two different bodies – BC Parks and Parks Canada.

One of the biggest differences between the park systems is that a national park pass is required to visit any of BC’s national parks. Think of it as a daily admission fee.

If you spend more than seven days visiting Canada’s national parks, it is usually worth buying an annual Discovery Pass instead as it offers unlimited entry.

Entry to BC’s provincial parks is free. There is fee for camping, however.

Another significant difference between BC Parks and Parks Canada is that they use totally different campsite reservation systems.

On water view of Emerald Lake, surrounded by snow capped mountains and bordered by forest. The lake colour is bright blue
Emerald Lake, Yoho National Park

Camping and campgrounds

Camping is one of the most popular pastimes in BC.

To be clear, ‘camping’ in Canada refers to both tent camping and recreational vehicle camping (van/bus/truck/trailer).

For that reason, camping can be as simple as sleeping in a tent next to a remote mountain lake or as luxurious as sleeping in a large bus-like vehicle that has running water and electricity.

Frontcountry refers to vehicle-accessible campsites, while backcountry campsites are located in wilderness areas and are only accessible by foot, boat or horse

There are four types of campgrounds in British Columbia, as explained below.

Back view of JR gazing up at tall old growth trees in light dappled forest
Exploring the Upper Sowaqua Valley near Hope

Private RV and tent campgrounds

Private campgrounds vary massively when it comes to size, style, management, location, price and facilities.

Some private campgrounds are heavily RV-focused and resemble a large parking lot. Others have a mix of grass and paving and welcome tent users.

In vacation hot spots (such as the Okanagan Valley), there are private campgrounds that feel more like resorts, with swimming pools, private beaches and playgrounds.

Since private campgrounds often provide water, electrical and/or sewage hook-ups, spots are usually more expensive than provincial or national park campgrounds.

Frontcountry provincial and national park campgrounds

Provincial/national park campgrounds provide defined, usually fairly private campsites in areas of natural beauty

Typically, each campsite will have a fire pit and picnic table. Washrooms are outhouse style and/or flush toilets. The larger provincial and national park campgrounds will have showers as well. A water tap will be available.

Most, but not all, provincial and national park campgrounds are reservable. Please note that BC Parks and Parks Canada have totally different reservation systems:

For more details, read our dedicated BC camping reservations guide.

White van parked up next to stone picnic bench and firepit at campsite in Illecillewaet Campground, surrounded by trees
Typical vehicle accessible provincial/national park campsite

Frontcountry Recreation Site campgrounds

There are hundreds of free or low-cost ($20 or less) vehicle-accessible campgrounds all over British Columbia in the form of Recreational Sites.

Most Recreational Sites are suitable for RV, van and tent camping and offer a rustic camping experience (outhouses, fit pits and picnic tables only).

Some campgrounds are maintained daily while others are checked only a few times a year. Users must practice Leave No Trace. The majority of Recreational Sites operate with a first come, first serve system.

Sites are typically found in the middle of nowhere but are often located near a water feature such as a lake, river, stream or even the ocean.

To find them, use the Recreation Sites and Trails BC website or the Backroad Mapbook series.

Backcountry/wilderness campgrounds

If you have the skills and equipment, consider going on a camping trip in a backcountry wilderness area.

Only the most popular backcountry camping areas within BC’s provincial park system require reservations.

All other provincial park backcountry campgrounds operate on a first-come, first-serve basis.

On the other hand, most backcountry campsites in BC’s national parks require a reservation. For all the details and important dates, head to this BC backcountry camping guide.


  • British Columbia has a network of ocean ferries, all run by the publicly owned (but subsidised) BC Ferries company.
  • Most ferry routes have multiple daily crossings. Some of the longer routes (such as those to Haida Gwaii) operate a few times a week with fewer sailings in winter.
  • Some BC Ferries’ routes operate with a first come, first serve system, while others have spots available for reservation.
  • In recent years, ferry traffic has soared but cancellations and delays have also increased.
  • For the above reasons, I would highly recommend international visitors with scheduled itineraries to reserve specific ferry crossings.
  • Be sure to arrive at the terminal within the time stated on your ferry reservation confirmation (usually 60 to 30 minutes before departure)
  • If you are exploring BC for a longer period and have more flexibility, a reservation is less important for the shorter routes.
  • There is less urgency for foot passengers to reserve but if travelling on a weekend (especially a holiday weekend), I would suggest it
  • British Columbia also has a small number of short inland ferry routes, providing transport across large lakes. These are free for both vehicles and foot passengers.
Back view of JR walking on wooden bridge, looking up at huge cascading waterfall
Takakkaw Falls, Yoho National Park


For most travellers, the best time to visit British Columbia is June to September. These are the warmest and driest months.

Pleasant weather can be experienced in the shoulder season months too, but there are fewer attractions, activities and trails open at this time.

The above is a huge generalisation as weather conditions can vary across the province quite a lot.

  • For example, Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland (Vancouver and surrounding cities) have pretty mild year-round temperatures. November to May can be very wet, however.
  • The Okanagan Valley region, where we live, is almost desert-like and is usually very dry and hot from late April to early October.
  • Winter lingers longer in the mountainous regions, especially in BC’s north. It is not unusual to have snow at higher elevations during any month of the year.
  • Beautiful alpine lakes like Emerald Lake and Garibaldi Lake are usually frozen until June.
  • Some of the most popular mountain hiking trails, such as the Rockwall or Iceline Trail, are still snowy until early/mid-July (sometimes even later).
  • It is important to note that wildfires are a significant safety and health hazard in BC. Wildfire season usually runs May to October, but August is often the smokiest month.
  • Visiting BC to ski? Most ski resorts are open from December to April, with the best conditions usually seen from late December to mid/late March (weather dependent).
Drone photo of wildfire in distance, behind forested plateau
Wildfire in the distance


This is the number one most popular topic I get asked about by international travellers. Yes, there are bears in British Columbia. Yes, we do see them occasionally! But no, it isn’t a big deal.

  • British Columbia is home to both black and grizzly bears. Black bears can be spotted across the province while grizzlies are much less widespread.
  • Visitors are much more likely to see a bear from their vehicle than on a hiking trail or in an urban area.
  • If you do see a bear (or any other large animal), stay in your vehicle. Pulling over in a safe place is generally OK for a short time but remain aware of other vehicles and ensure animals have a safe escape route
  • Take some time before your visit to understand what to do if you see a bear outside of your vehicle and how to avoid encounters in general.
  • If you plan to hike a lot in BC, buy some bear spray for ‘last resort’ protection. It’s very unlikely that you’d need to use it. Please note that it is not possible to fly with bear spray.
  • Elk, moose and deer roam BC and can also sometimes be seen around highways. Stay alert for large wildlife while driving, especially around dusk.
  • Wolves and cougars also live in the province but are rarely seen
  • For whale watching (including orcas and humpbacks), head to Tofino, Campbell River, Telegraph Cove, Port Hardy, Victoria or Nanaimo.
  • Bear-watching tours are available in Tofino, Campbell River and Bella Coola. There are several high-end resorts located in Toba Inlet, Knight Inlet and the Great Bear Rainforest.
Two grizzly bears eating grass next to the highway in Kootenay National Park with truck visible on road ahead
Grizzly bears next to the highway in Kootenay National Park

Public holidays

There is at least one public holiday almost every month in British Columbia.

Most are statutory holidays (‘stats’), which means that banks and government buildings are closed. Some private businesses also close on stats.

  • New Years Day – 1st January*
  • Family Day – Third Monday in February*
  • Good Friday – Friday before Easter (March or April)*
  • Easter Sunday – First Sunday after the ecclesiastical full moon 
  • Easter Monday – Monday after Easter (March or April)
  • Victoria Day – Third Monday in May*
  • Canada Day 1st July*
  • BC Day – First Monday in August*
  • Labour Day – First Monday in September*
  • National Day for Truth and Reconciliation – Last Monday in September*
  • Thanksgiving – Second Monday in October*
  • Remembrance Day11th November*
  • Christmas Day – 25th December*
  • Boxing Day – 26th December

Holidays marked with a * are stats. Those in italics have specific dates. If that date lands on a Saturday or Sunday, the following Monday will be the corresponding stat holiday, though the related events will still occur on the specific date.

To check the exact dates for the year you are reading this, head to the statutory holiday page on the BC government website.

Summer travellers to BC should be aware of the dates of the Victoria Day, Canada Day, BC Day and Labour day holidays.

All of these stats create three-day long weekends and are very busy times to travel.

There is significantly more traffic on the highways and the ferries. Hotel prices and competition for camping spots increase. Major events take place in most towns and cities across British Columbia.

If your travel dates correspond with one or more of these holidays, it is imperative to make a plan and reservations early.

Set up tent on left side of forested Snowforest campground site with firepit and wooden picnic table on right
The Victoria Day long weekend is considered the ‘kick off’ to BC’s camping season


  • Visitors to BC can drive legally on their home license for up to six months.
  • Due to the mountainous landscape, BC’s rural road system is relatively straightforward. There are not many routes to choose from when driving between towns.
  • While the limited number of driving routes makes travel planning easy, drivers are more likely to be significantly delayed by construction, collisions or weather.
  • DriveBC is the best website to check before embarking on a long driving trip.
  • Always travel with water, food, extra clothing, a good spare tire and emergency supplies (first aid kit, blanket). In winter, this is even more important.
  • Phone signal is not always available in BC, even on major highways. Tell someone where you’re going and where you plan to go back.
  • Download offline Google Maps before travelling so you don’t need data to view them.
  • Winter tires are required on most routes in BC from early October to late April.
  • BC’s rest areas are usually quite basic, with outhouses (drop toilets) or, occasionally, a proper toilet building. Please note that some rest areas near urban areas have become long-term places to stay for residents without housing.
Vehicle view of Highway 1 through Glacier National Park, backdropped by mountains with forested slopes
Driving through Glacier National Park

Phones, data and wi-fi

  • As mentioned in the driving section, phone signal is not always available on BC’s highways, even the major ones.
  • Although it is possible to buy a local sim card on arrival in Canada, I would recommend purchasing an e-sim instead. It is possible to have it set up and ready so you can use data soon after arriving. We use Airalo to buy e-sims when travelling.
  • Keep in mind that Canada is one of the most expensive places for cell phone plans in the world – you will likely pay more than you do at home.
  • Free wi-fi can be found at most major fast-food chains (McDonalds, A&W) and coffee shops (Starbucks, Tim Hortons) as well as many independent cafes and restaurants.
  • It is also possible to find free wi-fi at some rest areas, libraries, downtown centres, recreation centres, city council buildings and parks.
  • The vast majority of hotels, motels, vacation rentals and resorts will offer free wi-fi. Some private campgrounds have wi-fi but national and provincial park campgrounds do not.
Driftwood log on endless sandy beach in Pacific Rim National Reserve with ocean and island in background. The log's shadow stretches towards the camera
Long Beach, Pacific Rim National Park


  • Tipping is fairly normalised in Canadian culture, though it is not required in British Columbia.
  • Until recently, restaurant servers and bar staff in BC were paid a slightly lower minimum wage than other workers (this was removed in 2021).
  • For that historical reason, it is pretty standard to tip sit-down restaurant and bar staff 15% on the pre-tax amount. Some people tip 10%, others 18% or 20%, depending on the service offered.
  • Other workers that are usually tipped in BC include taxi drivers, food delivery workers, hairdressers and barbers.
  • Most people tip when paying via handheld card payment terminals. In places where tips are customary, these payment terminals have an automated tip function, offering set tip amounts (usually 10-20%).
  • Since the pandemic, there has been a ‘tip creep,’ in which some payment machines suggest higher pre-set amounts (18-25%). There is always an option to change the percentage or tip a specific amount instead.


  • A credit card is typically required to hire a vehicle or check into a hotel (for the damage deposit).
  • Card payments are accepted widely, with only the occasional store accepting cash only
  • Some smaller places (such as food trucks) may accept only debit or cash only, due to the fees associated with credit cards.
  • Some stores refuse American Express credit cards due to the higher fees.
  • The price you see in British Columbia typically isn’t the price you pay. Prices are usually pre-tax, which means that 5% (federal GST) and/or 7% (provincial tax) will be added at the time of payment.
  • Most items are taxed at 12% but it depends on the type of item or service. Restaurant meals are taxed at 5% and alcohol is 15% while ‘basic’ groceries are zero rated.
  • Hotels are often subject to additional municipal taxes and marketing taxes.

Travel resources

BC Wildfire Service
Fire bans and restrictions
BC Parks
Parks Canada
BC Ferries
Environment Canada (weather forecasts)
Organic Maps App for basic trail navigation

Road trip routes

Coastal Circle Route (Vancouver Island/Sunshine Coast)
Coast and Rockies Route
Canadian Rockies Loop
2 Weeks Western Canada
Pacific Marine Circle Route
Nanaimo to Tofino
Nanaimo to Campbell River
Campbell River to Port Hardy
Campbell River to Gold River
Off the beaten path Vancouver Island
Vancouver to the Okanagan Valley
Vancouver to Calgary
Okanagan Valley

Responsible recreation

How to Leave No Trace
Outdoor safety
Bear safety
Wildfire season
Backpacking 101
Car camping 101

Trip inspiration

Where to Find Golden Larches
Where to Find Big Trees on Vancouver Island
Where to Find Hot Springs
Where to See the Salmon Run
25+ of the Best Campgrounds on Vancouver Island
32+ of the Best Beaches
15 of the Best Day Hikes
25 of the Best Overnight / First Time Backpacking Trips

Elevated view looking down on mountainous provincial park with scattered lakes. Some of the mountains are topped by snow
Strathcona Provincial Park, Vancouver Island

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Jim Bonini

Thursday 9th of May 2024

Hi Gemma, by total coincidence I have arranged an almost identical trip this summer in hired RV! Main difference is we are doing the itinerary in reverse. After picking up RV in Vancouver we are staying overnight in Merritt before travelling to Revelstoke for couple of nights. I had planned the Merritt to Revelstoke drive through Kamloops, however I note your route (slightly longer) goes through Kelowna and the Okanagan Valley. Would you recommend this route as more picturesque and worth the extra 40 min or so drive?


Thursday 16th of May 2024

Hi Jim,

The more straightforward route is certainly through Kamloops. The northern part (Highway 1 junction to Oyama) is very scenic, winding through farmland, rivers and several beautiful lakes. Kalamalka Lake is a highlight.

Around Oyama, however, the highway becomes very busy with both local and tourist traffic. Kelowna is a big city and driving through it in summer can take a long time. It's not the most pleasant driving experience either, especially as the highway is surrounded by strip malls. The detour would definitely take longer than 40 minutes.

As a day trip detour, I wouldn't recommend it unless there is something specific you want to see.