One of the best ways to truly experience the magnificence of Canada’s seemingly endless wilderness is to go camping.
There is nothing quite like sitting next to a crackling campfire under the stars, seeing the moonlight reflect on a lake and listening to the haunting call of a loon.
Whether you use a van, RV or tent, there are so many opportunities to find free camping in Canada.
With seven years of camping across Canada behind us, I thought it was about time I shared how exactly we find so many free places to camp.
Travelling in a van as often as we do, our camp finding method is getting quite refined now. This article will feature both traditional camping options as well as overnight ‘convenient’ camping, useful when travelling from point A to B within Canada.
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How to Leave No Trace
If you’re planning to camp outside of organised campsites, it’s more important than ever to Leave No Trace while doing so. The basics are:
- No toilet in your vehicle? Use the cathole method for proper waste disposal
- Pack out everything you bring in with you, including ‘natural’ items like banana peels and apple cores
- Camp on durable surfaces only, preferably areas that have previously been used for camping
- Build campfires in existing fire rings, keep fires small and extinguish them properly (or consider not having one!)
Following these simple steps ensures that Canada’s most beautiful areas remain clean, beautiful and accessible for everyone (wildlife too!)
Where to find free camping in Canada
There are many ways to try the authentic Canadian camping experience for free. Check out the different options we’ve discovered below.
As for the stargazing, canoeing, wildlife watching, hiking, fishing and campfires – that is all up to you!
Almost 90% of land in Canada is actually owned by the Canadian monarch and is designated ‘crown land.’
The usage of crown land varies between provinces and territories, but the crux of it is that crown land is technically public land. Crown land offers great potential for free camping in Canada.
- Canadian residents can camp on crown land for up to 21 days in any one place in a calendar year.
Campers who are not Canadian residents need to buy a camping permit. This is regulated provincially and so costs and rules do vary. Ontario, for example, charges $9.35 + tax, per person, per night.
- The most legal and appropriate way to find crown land is to use an official provincial or territorial map.
In Ontario, this is called the Crown Land Use Policy Atlas and can be viewed for free on the government website. The equivalent for British Columbia (the FrontCounter BC Discovery Tool) can be found here. Alberta has information on Public Land Use Zones (PLUZ) here.
- Another way to find free camping on crown land is to buy the relevant Backroad Mapbook for the area you wish to explore.
Established camp spots are clearly marked on the map. The closest alternative for Yukon Territory (not covered by Backroads) is the Milepost.
Recreational Sites in British Columbia
Simply put, the best place for free camping in Canada is British Columbia. This province is home to a network of mostly free Recreational Sites with rustic camping facilities.
These ‘Rec Sites’ are located by water features (lakes, rivers, waterfalls etc) and are usually accessed via unpaved logging roads.
- Recreational Sites range in size from tiny one party campsites to large, organised campgrounds with dozens of allocated sites
- A minority of BC’s Rec Sites have a nightly fee, around $10-15
- Most are completely free to use, for stays of up to 14 days
The easiest way to find free camping in BC is to use the Trails and Sites website or a regional Backroad Mapbook. The latter is helpful for logging road navigation as well as detailed descriptions of every Rec Site.
Provincial/Territorial Parks and other protected areas
Canada’s backcountry is expansive. The provincial and national park system protects great swathes of it, in conjunction with other governmental agencies and non-profits. These wilderness areas offer fantastic camping opportunities.
Vehicle accessible camping is only allowed in designated areas in National Parks and Provincial Parks. The designated campgrounds are, as a general rule, not free.
There is usually a nightly fee that is typically in the $10-40 range per camping group, dependent on the province or territory. Some provincial parks, such as those in Ontario, also charge a daily admission fee.
The biggest free camping potential lies in the backcountry areas, meaning those only accessible via foot or boat. Of course, this means you’ll need a tent and hiking/padding equipment.
The most popular hiking trails and paddling areas have a nightly fee and reservation system for camping (Bowron Lakes, West Coast Trail in BC), but there are some that do not.
Visiting out of the main season is another way for well prepared campers to save money on fees.
Some examples include:
Valhalla Provincial Park in British Columbia
Tombstone Territorial Park in Yukon (excluding the Grizzly Lake Trail)
The 100 Wild Islands in Nova Scotia
This category is a rarity but it does exist. Free camping in Canada is possible at some municipal campgrounds. We have stayed at one of these in Vulcan, Alberta.
There are ten free spots available at the municipal campground in this small town. Campers are allowed to stay three nights maximum for free ($10/night thereafter).
The campground has washrooms, tap water, waste disposal and a picnic shelter. It is open May to September.
Where to find overnight free camping in Canada
The following free camping options are those we only use for brief, overnight stays. Think of this as convenience camping, often used when travelling from point A to point B.
We wouldn’t purposely go on a camping trip to stay at any of these places. These free camping options are only for adapted cars, vans and RVs, not tent users.
Canada has a multitude of rest stops along main highways across the country. Rest stops are usually well signed, sometimes hundreds of kilometres in advance.
Rest stops vary in facilities and size. Some feature full service gas stations with flush washrooms, restaurants and visitor information. Others will simply be a pull-out or layby with a trash bin or perhaps an outhouse.
Rest stops usually feature clear signage stating how long drivers can stay.
A typical maximum length of visit is six or eight hours. Some rest stops will specify ‘no overnight parking,’ a few have no signs at all.
Most consumer goods and groceries are shipped by truck in Canada. A lot of truck drivers sleep in their vehicles overnight during their long journey across the country and therefore need somewhere convenient to stop.
Bigger than rest stops, truck stops are sometimes referred to as ‘travel centres’ or ‘travel plazas,’ depending on the company that owns it.
They will often include washrooms, a restaurant and at least one gas station. Shower facilities are relatively common, but are sometimes limited to truckers only.
Despite the large size of truck stops, space can sometimes be at a premium. Keep in mind that many drivers will keep the truck engines on all night so truck stops tend to be noisy too.
Parking overnight at Walmart is a well known free camping option in Canada.
There’s nothing fancy about it, but parking at Walmart can definitely be convenient on long road trips and while exploring urban areas. The catch is that not every Canadian Walmart allows it.
If it is not immediately obvious on arrival that parking overnight is allowed, simply head to the customer service desk and ask.
Some Walmarts will have clear signage in the parking lot forbidding overnight parking. One time, however, we doubled checked (it was 10pm and -30c) and management gave us the OK anyway.
Keep in mind that overnight parking rules are often enforced by a security company for the entire mall area, so the decision is not always in Walmart’s hands.
Be sure to park towards the back of the lot, out of the way of customers.
Walmart is not the only private business that allows free camping in Canada. We have parked overnight at Real Canadian Superstores in a few different towns across Canada (with permission).
Like Walmart, however, it varies on the local ownership and mall security. Look out for other RVs in the parking lot and always ask first.
In smaller towns without a Walmart or Superstore, we have asked to park outside private businesses overnight. The handful of times we have done this, it was at a restaurant where we ate the night before and the owner gave us permission.
Visitor Information Centres
Making a stop at one of Canada’s Visitor Information Centres is never a bad idea. They do vary in size and quality, but in general, you’re at least likely to find washrooms and free maps.
At the better Visitor Information Centres, you can get free water fill-ups and advice about where to find low cost (sometimes free) camping.
A few have even offered us a free stay in the parking lot of the Centre itself. One example is Kimberley in British Columbia – there was free wi-fi too!
How to find free camping in Canada
We use a variety of methods to find free camping in Canada. Besides word of mouth and generally being observant, most used resources are:
- Backroad Mapbooks – Mentioned already, we find these guides invaluable for navigation and sourcing free camping in Canada. They are also useful for locating hiking trails
- The Milepost – Primarily a travel planner and map for Alaska, the Milepost is also indispensable for travel in northern British Columbia and Yukon Territory. Every highway mile is described in detail, with camping suggestions
- Provincial/Territorial Park websites – The first stop for finding free camping in provincial or territorial parks should be the relevant websites to double check rules and regulations
- Freecampsites.net – This is a website with an user generated database of free campsites around the world. Free to use, we have found a mixture of excellent and less than good sites on here (some are overused, busy and noisy)
- iOverlander – Another helpful website, iOverlander features user suggested campsites plus water and shower locations. We find it especially helpful for the latter
- This website! In another article, I explain in detail how we find free campsites in British Columbia and have also shared a number of my favourite free campsites
Essential tips when free camping in Canada
When free camping in Canada, please keep the following advice in mind:
- Always be respectful of wildlife, other campers, the environment and local residents. Free camping is a privilege, not a right
- It only takes one person to ruin a free campsite for everyone else. Don’t be that person. If you are asked to move on, you should. Where there are signs stating ‘no camping’ or ‘no overnight vehicles,’ do not stay there
- Leave your campsite in the same, or better, condition than when you first found it. The easiest way to do this is to take all of your trash home with you and avoid damaging the local environment. Always follow Leave No Trace principles
- Buy the relevant fishing license if you plan to go fishing. Each province and territory has their own licensing system and regulations. Salt water areas are usually licensed differently than fresh water regions.
- When driving at dawn and dusk, pay special attention to hazards on the road. Large animals are more likely to be around at this time and a collision can be deadly for both you and the animal
Advice for camping in Canada’s backcountry
- When utilising crown land for free camping in Canada, be aware of hunting seasons and popular hunting areas. You may be required to wear a visibility vest for safety
- Bring enough drinking water or a water filtration/purification system with you. We love, and regularly use, the BeFree water filter when free camping in Canada
- Be prepared to meet loaded logging trucks on Canada’s backroads. They have right of way and tend to drive fast. Always obey industrial signage on unpaved roads
- Check for fire bans and campfire restrictions before heading out. Keep a bucket of water next to your campfire and completely extinguish when leaving or going to bed. Campfires should be kept small to save wood and reduce risk of wildfire
- Be bear aware and keep food and all smelly items (this includes toothpaste!) inside your vehicle when not in use. A fed bear is a dead bear – please don’t endanger Canada’s wildlife. If fishing, clean and dispose of fish away from camp
Essential camping items
Lightweight tarp – Whether you’re camping in the mountains or the prairie, you can’t go wrong with carrying a lightweight tarp for shelter or shade. Rain is possible at any time of year
Camping stove – Never solely rely on campfires for cooking food. Firewood can be difficult to light when wet or a campfire ban could be implemented. Bring a camping stove
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