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How to Go Camping in BC Without a Reservation

For many people in British Columbia, going camping is one of the essential hallmarks of the summer season. But it also is a source of stress, with popular campgrounds being booked months in advance.

Reading about the most recent rush for BC Parks’ reservations on Discover Camping (late May 2020), I paused for a second and tried to remember the last time we had paid to reserve a vehicle accessible campground in British Columbia. The answer turned out to be four years ago, for a trip to sẁiẁs (Haynes Point) for JR’s birthday. It was actually the only time!

For someone who has spent hundreds of nights camping in British Columbia, that may seem a little surprising. In this post, I’m going to share the techniques I’ve been using to successfully (and repeatedly) go camping in BC without a reservation. This includes provincial park camping as well as other locations.

So if you’ve been unlucky not to secure a BC Parks camping reservation or simply just don’t want the stress of even trying, this post is for you!

Wooden camping sign with tent symbol
Camping can be easy to find in British Columbia if you know how and where to look

Disclaimer

Some of these tips and techniques will not be applicable for everyone. As a self employed person without children, I recognise that I have more flexibility than a lot of people. Despite this, I still believe that most hopeful campers will be able to find something helpful in the following article.

This post includes affiliate links. If you make a purchase via one of these links, I may receive a small percentage at no extra cost to you.

At the time of writing, the BC government recommends residents to stay local. The next stage of the BC restart program allows for travel throughout BC. Remember to social distance and always follow Leave No Trace practices to minimise your impact on nature and wildlife

JR sat a campfire with white van parked behind at a Recreation Site in BC
At a Recreation Site on Vancouver Island, one way to camp in BC without a reservation

Securing a provincial park campsite without a reservation

Provincial park campgrounds are a favourite camping destination for British Columbia residents as well as visitors. It’s easy to understand why.

BC’s provincial park campgrounds are usually set in beautiful and convenient locations and feature large, private campsites surrounded by nature. They are usually reasonably priced too, averaging at a fixed price of around $20-$30/night.

A tent next to a picnic table on a grassy slope in front of the ocean in Ruckle Provincial Park
Walk-in tent camping at Ruckle Provincial Park on Salt Spring Island – most of the campsites here are first come, first serve

But securing a provincial park camping reservation can be tough. The competition for spots in some parks is very high, with reservations for summer weekends in campgrounds like Rathtrevor and Miracle Beach being snapped up within minutes when the Discover Camping system opens for summer bookings (click here to read how the rolling reservation system works).

Read on for my top tips on how to secure a campsite in a BC Parks’ campground without a reservation:

Locate campgrounds with first come first serve campsites

Not all campsites in frontcountry BC Provincial Park campgrounds are reservable. Some campgrounds have a dozen or so first come, first serve (FCFS) campsites while some campgrounds do not allow reservations at all. Some examples of campgrounds with substantial numbers of FCFS campsites are:

To quickly check how many FCFS campsites a provincial park has, go to the park’s individual information page and select the ‘dates of operation’ section.

Check out time for provincial campsites is 11am. By that time, FCFS campsite occupants have to have paid for another night or vacated. If the latter, the site is now available to be claimed OR allocated as per the Park Facility Operator’s daily wait list. At the campground I worked at, the wait list was started at 7am each day.

A picnic table in front of a still lake with mountain peaks in the background at Schoen Lake Campground, a great place to go camping in BC without a reservation
Schoen Lake Campground is small but all of the sites are available on a first come, first serve basis

Consider a double site

Double sites at provincial parks (designed to allow two camping parties to camp in close proximity) must be reserved together and are usually sold last. If not reserved together, each half of the double site becomes available to book a week before the selected arrival date.

The double sites at the campground I worked at were even sometimes available on holiday weekends due to lack of interest.

*Unique to the 2020 camping season, the entire double site can only be booked by one party (comprising of 8 people, 4 of whom can be 16 years or older). The camping fee remains the same – single site fee x 2.*

Always check for cancellations

Campground availability may change more than you think. It’s worth occasionally checking Discover Camping to see whether any bookings have been cancelled. And even if provincial campgrounds appear to be completely booked, it’s still worth checking in person for no shows.

Reserved sites are held until 11 AM the day after the scheduled arrival date. So if someone doesn’t notify the campground host of a late arrival, their entire reservation will automatically be cancelled the next day.

Working at the campground, I was always surprised by the amount of people who would book a long stay (up to two weeks) and then leave early.

Forested walk-in campground with picnic tables
Sproat Lake Provincial Park has 5 walk-in tent sites, close to the lake

Bring a tent

Alongside double sites, walk-in sites are often the last ones to be sold. A walk-in site can only be used by a camping party with tents, since there is no driveway access. This means that anyone sleeping in a vehicle (such as an RV or van) cannot use the site.

Walk-in sites do not feature in every BC Parks provincial campground. If you’re interested in camping at a park that does have these type of sites, be sure to bring a tent along. Campers who have the flexibility to use walk-ins are more likely to be able to score a last minute campsite.

Don’t hesitate

If there are only a few sites available on arrival at a provincial campground, be sure to claim one quickly. Hesitation may cost you the possibility of having a camping site at the more popular campgrounds. Of course, you an usually move to a different site later if neccesscary.

I couldn’t tell you the amount of times I had prospective campers tell me they wanted to look around and ended up spending over an hour choosing between sites before committing. By the time they made their final decision, there would be no sites left.

Campsite at China Beach Campground with picnic table surrounded by tall trees
One of the campsites at China Beach Campground, Juan de Fuca Provincial Park

Camp in September

I know, I know, it’s not summer but September can offer some truly lovely weather in British Columbia.

Not only that, but frontcountry provincial campgrounds start operating on a first come, first serve system after the Labour Day holiday in September. Of course, it is important to also note operating dates as some campgrounds close after the first or second week of September.

Head into the backcountry

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

Only a few backcountry camping areas within BC’s provincial park system require reservations – they are Garibaldi, Joffre, Assiniboine, Bowron Lakes and Mount Robson. All other backcountry campgrounds operate on a first come, first serve basis.

When venturing into BC Parks’ backcountry areas, be sure to –

  • Bring the 10 essentials and now how to use them
  • Pack out everything you packed in
  • When not using an established campground, camp on durable surfaces only
  • Allow plenty of time to reach your desired camping area
  • Leave everything you find except trash (if you can, pick that up and dispose at home)
  • Store food, food containers and scented items securely to avoid attracting wildlife

Purchase a BC Parks Backcountry Permit permit online or use the self-serve registration facilities at designated trail heads and access points. Note that paying for a Backcountry Permit does not guarantee a camping spot.

MSR Tent and picnic table at campsite next to lake backdropped by hills and mountains
Camping next to Slocan Lake in Valhalla Provincial Park – one of my favourite places in BC to camp without a reservation

Other places to go camping in British Columbia without a reservation

While provincial park campgrounds are wonderful, there are other places to go camping in British Columbia.

Recreation Sites

There are hundreds (in fact, probably thousands) of free or low cost campsites located around British Columbia in the form of rustic Recreation Sites. Working on a first come, first serve system, Recreation Sites are my top recommendation for anyone who doesn’t want to (or didn’t manage to) make a campground reservation.

Click to read more about Recreation Sites and how to find them across British Columbia

One of the most important things to keep in mind regarding Rec Sites is that they are typically reached via gravel roads, primarily built for industrial use (logging, mining etc). If you don’t have a suitable vehicle of your own, you’ll need to rent one that can be driven on such roads.

FarOut Wilderness offer fully kitted out 4X4 trucks with roof-top tents, ideal for finding reservation free campsites in BC. They also rent roof-top tents to use on your own vehicle. Enjoy a 5% booking discount if you tell them I sent you (with the code FOW-OTT-5)

White van with orange kayak parked next to a picnic table and fire pit at a free Recreation Site in British Columbia
An example of a free Recreation Site near Golden – all of the campsites are first come, first serve

Crown land

About 94% of British Columbia is designated as ‘Crown Land’ which is available to Canadians for public use. Backroad Mapbooks are a good place to start when trying to locate crown land for camping purposes (and especially when travelling), followed by iMapBC (or ParcelMap) for more in depth research.

Camping on crown land has a 14 day maximum in any one place. It is also crucial to be considerate of other crown land users as well as local residents and wildlife. If you don’t have a toilet in your vehicle, use the cathole method for proper waste disposal. Pack out everything you bring in with you.

Elevated view looking over endless valleys with layered light and trees from crown land campsite in British Columbia
One of my favourite crown land campsites has this view – no reservation needed!

Private, municipal and regional campgrounds

The vast majority of private and municipal campgrounds utilise reservations but there are the occasional instances of campgrounds having a small amount of first come first serve sites. The only real method for finding these exceptions is to research, research, research!

Jordan River Regional Campground on the Juan de Fuca coast on Vancouver Island is one example of a FCFS campground as is nearby Spring Salmon Place (KWL-UCHUN) Campground in Sooke Potholes Regional Park.

Large gravel campground next to the ocean with picnic tables and fire pits. A white van is parked next to the one of the sites
Jordan River Regional Campground operates on a first come, first serve system is right on the ocean

General tips and tricks to go camping in BC without a reservation

While keeping all of the above in mind, here are some more general tips for reservation-free camping in BC.

  • Weekdays are less busy than weekends, by far. If you can take holiday or change work shifts to be able to go camping during the week, do it!
  • Avoid long weekends. Yes, it may sound obvious but for the best chance of finding a campsite, do not go camping on long weekends
  • August, in general, is busier than July for camping in BC. It starts to tail off during the last week of August in readiness for schools reopening but then returns to peak levels for the Labour Day long weekend
  • Go further. The closer a campground is to population centres, the more crowded and in demand it will be. Isolation and distance are key to finding less used campgrounds

First time camping? Check out my Camping 101 guide for top first time tips!

Square ten tad in front of scenic lake view, backdropped by mountains
Tent pad at Gwillim Lakes in Valhalla Provincial Park – entering the backcountry is a great way to go camping in BC without a reservation, but you must have the skills, knowledge and equipment to do so

Essential items for camping in British Columbia

  • I say it often on this site, but a lightweight tarp is a must have when camping in BC. Great for both shade or rain, these tarps pack down conveniently small. We personally use a Rab Siltarp 2
  • We swear by the Backroad Mapbook series to find camping spots across the province. Sure websites are great too but many of the places we frequent do not have phone signal. The guides are also indispensable for navigation on logging roads
  • Most provincial park campgrounds have water taps with drinking water. Elsewhere, you’ll need to use some kind of purification system to make water safe to drink. Aquatabs work well for clean (not dirty) water but leave a taste. For car camping we use a Katadyn Base Camp Pro
  • If cooking on the fire is important to you, consider bringing your own grill. We find that many of the firepit grills at free Recreation Sites are in varying states of disrepair. Check out TrailGourmet for some camp cooking inspiration
  • Not an item, but be sure to view current campfire bans and restrictions before heading out to camp
  • OK, it’s not strictly essential but why not camp in complete comfort with a two person hammock? We use and love our bright ENO DoubleNest

Visit our Shop page to see more recommended items for camping and outdoor adventure

Campfire scene looking out to ocean on Vancouver Island
Camping by Johnstone Strait on Vancouver Island

Check out these other posts featuring camping in beautiful British Columbia:

25+ of the Best Vancouver Island Campgrounds

What To Do in Wells Gray Provincial Park, British Columbia

Hiking the Della Falls Trail, Vancouver Island, BC

Wallace Island: An Idyllic Kayaking Destination in British Columbia

A Complete Adventure Guide to Valhalla Provincial Park

Paddling the Bowron Lakes Canoe Circuit

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For many people in British Columbia, going camping is one of the essential hallmarks of the summer season. But it also is a source of stress, with popular campgrounds being booked months in advance. Click here to discover our tried and tested techniques to go camping in BC without a reservation! offtracktravel.ca

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