One of the main reasons we love British Columbia so much (and the reason we stayed about five years longer than originally planned…) is because it is possible to explore this huge province and camp in some of the most beautiful spots in the world for FREE. 

This is easily achievable using the amazing BC Recreational Sites and Provincial Parks system. Here’s all the info you need for learning how to camp for free in British Columbia.

Updated March 2019

When camping anywhere (in BC or beyond), remember to always follow Leave No Trace principles to reduce your impact on the environment and preserve these places for future visitors. Those venturing into the backcountry should always bring the 10 essentials and be prepared for hazards and difficult weather. 

Free camping in British Columbia’s Recreational Sites

There are hundreds of free campgrounds all over British Columbia in the form of Recreational Sites.

These come under the umbrella of BC’s Ministry of Forests but are often managed by partnership agreements with recreation groups, private citizens, First Nations, community organizations local governments and forestry companies.

Most Recreational Sites are suitable for RV, van and tent camping. A small minority of BC forestry campsites are only suitable for tents due to their small size and/or difficult access.

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. I only recommend products I personally use or would use. 

How to Camp for Free in British Columbia - Pye Lake Beach Rec Site
Pye Lake Beach Rec Site, Vancouver Island, one of our favourite of the BC forestry campsites
Free Camping in BC - Tumbler Ridge Flatbed Creek Rec Site
Flatbed Creek Rec Site near Tumbler Ridge
Swalwell Lake free camping in BC, Canada
View from Swalwell Lake Rec Site near Kelowna

Recreational Sites in British Columbia: What you need to know

Before trying to find your first free BC forestry campsite, keep the following advice in mind:

  • Rec 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 are available on site. Bring your own toilet paper!
  • The campsites are typically reached via dirt (logging) roads. This does mean that rental car users will be unable to access a majority of Recreational Sites
  • Rec 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
  • 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
  • Some Rec Sites provide open camping with no distinction between camping pitches while others have clearer dividers between spots, providing more privacy
  • I would estimate that over 90% of BC’s forestry campsites are completely free to use. Some of the larger campsites do have a caretaker living on site and therefore have a nightly fee ($10-15 per party)
Nahmint Lake Recreational Site Vancouver Island offers free camping
An example of a private campsite at a BC forestry campsite (Nahmint Lake Recreational Site)
Example of free BC campsite outhouse
Example of outhouse at BC Recreational Site
How to Camp for Free in British Columbia - James Lake camp
James Lake Rec Site

How to find free Recreational Site camping in BC

Due to Recreational Sites usually being located away from the main highways, it is unlikely that the average BC visitor or resident 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 easier to use when it comes to actually finding BC forestry campsites.

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.

Using Backroad Mapbooks to find BC Recreational Sites

Recreational Sites are very easy to spot on in the Backroad Mapbooks (have a look below). 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.

How to Camp for Free in British Columbia - Sayward Forest
Example from Vancouver Island Backroad Mapbook – Rec Sites are shown with red logos

Free camping options in BC’s Provincial Parks

British Columbia’s Provincial Park system also offers camping opportunities. There are two different types of camping available in Provincial Parks:

  • Car-accessible campsites in well-maintained campgrounds for both tent, van and RV campers. The fee for one camping party ranges from $12 to $35 per night in these campgrounds. The more expensive campsites have showers, flush toilets and, sometimes, electricity. Many campsites are reserved in advance during the main summer camping season (late June to early September).
  • Wilderness camping at marine and backcountry campgrounds for tent campers. 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).

Out of season camping

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 (if the park is open and safe to visit).

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 but we were prepared to do so.

How to Camp for Free in British Columbia - Quadra Island Main Lakes
Main Lakes Provincial Park, Quadra Island
How to Camp for Free in British Columbia - Nels Bight, Cape Scott
Nels Bight, Cape Scott Provincial Park
How to Camp for Free in British Columbia - Christina Lake free camping
Christina Lake Provincial Park

Finding free wilderness campsites in BC’s Provincial Parks

My technique for 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. 

Essential tips when free camping in BC

  • Leave your campsite in the same, or better, condition than when you first found it. This means taking all of your trash home with you and not damaging the local environment
  • Bring a water filtration or purification system with you. Drinkable water is not usually provided at Recreational Sites and backcountry Provincial Park campgrounds. We love, and regularly use, the BeFree water filter when free camping in BC
  • Be prepared to meet loaded logging trucks on BC’s backroads. They tend to drive fast and have right of way. Adhere to all industrial signage on unpaved roads
  • Pay special attention when driving at dawn and dusk. Large animals are more likely to be on the road and a collision can be deadly for both you and the animal
  • Always be bear aware. Keep food and all smelly items (this includes toothpaste!) inside your vehicle when not in use. Remember, a fed bear is a dead bear
  • Check for fire bans and campfire restrictions before heading out on your camping trip. Keep campfires small and completely extinguish after using
  • Be prepared to have zero phone signal while in BC’s backcountry
The Della Falls hike offers free camping in BC
Della Falls hike, Vancouver Island

What to bring when camping in BC

The following are items we are always sure to bring whenever we head out camping in British Columbia. 

  • Lightweight tarp – Whether you’re in BC’s mountains or temperate rainforest, you can’t go wrong with carrying a lightweight tarp for shelter. Rain is possible at any time of year
  • Mosquito repellent – The mosquitoes in some areas of British Columbia can be brutal, especially in spring (May/June). Some kind of repellent is a must (I find the ‘Deep Woods’ kind most effective), and perhaps consider an appliance such as the ThermaCell
  • Bear spray – I hope you never have to use it (and most people never do), but having bear spray is a good idea when exploring the wilderness of BC. Be sure to understand to use it, keep it handy and also learn how to be bear aware (more info above)
  • Portable air compressor – Those planning to spend a lot of time looking for campsites accessible via BC’s huge network of gravel roads should be sure to bring an air compressor along. We once blew a tire and with our spare tire being flat, we wouldn’t have got very far without our air compressor!
  • Water filter – To avoid picking up anything nasty from water sources, bring plenty enough water with you on your BC camping trip or be sure to have a water filter with you. We love how fast and easy the BeFree system is to use – just fill up and squeeze out. Consider also a base camping system and water purification tablets. We always have the latter as a back up. 

How to camp for free in British Columbia, Canada

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 so far. 

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 Did you know that British Columbia is home to hundreds of completely free and legal campsites? Click here to learn everything you need to know to find them! offtracktravel.ca

Love camping but hate big, impersonal campgrounds that come with a high nightly fee? You need to head to British Columbia, Canada, and discover the hundreds of completely free campsites to stay in! Click here to learn everything you need to know about finding these awesome campsites. offtracktravel.ca

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Gemma
Author

One half of a Canadian/British couple currently based in British Columbia, Canada. Gemma is happiest when hiking on the trail or planning the next big travel adventure.

18 Comments

  1. Avatar

    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

  3. Avatar
    Fernanda Reis Reply

    Hi I’ve never camped before, so I was wondering if sleeping in the car is ok in BC?

    • Gemma
      Gemma Reply

      Yes, it is. We have slept over 100+ nights at BC Recreational Sites and Provincial Parks in our various vehicles.

  4. Avatar

    For the walk-in campsites , are there (relatively) safe places to leave your vehicle??

    • Gemma
      Gemma Reply

      Hi Nat, I did reply to this a week or so ago but it was deleted in a website upgrade! We have never had any issues with leaving our vehicle at a trailhead. Always take regular precautions to prevent theft (e.g. taking valuables with you)

  5. Avatar

    Hey there any recommendations for a place closer to the WA/BC border? Looking to go next weekend and love FREE (: bringing the dog and my hiking gear.. Thank you!

    • Gemma
      Gemma Reply

      Hi Spencer! I haven’t explored this area too much myself – only a little in the North Cascades. I know there are some cheap (not free) Forest campgrounds in the Okanagon Forest area on the Washington side.

  6. Avatar

    Hi would you mind posting the location names of each of the photos? Very beautiful locations! Thanks

    • Gemma
      Gemma Reply

      Hi Andrea,

      I have just updated the post with captions and some new photos!

  7. Avatar
    Imran R Khan Reply

    Hi, it looks like all of the campgrounds are filled on the BC website. Wondering if you have some thoughts about which of the free campsites would be best when it is crowded in August

    • Gemma
      Gemma Reply

      Hi Imran,

      I imagine you are referring to the BC Parks website. Some BC Parks campgrounds have first come, first serve sites so you can try that. Otherwise, I would head to Recreational Sites that are further away from the highway.

  8. Avatar

    Thanks for this awesome info! I think going off on what Spencer commented, I’m wondering if you could recommend any camping sites in BC that are closer to the BC/WA border…perhaps around Whistler? I live in Seattle, so I want to make the most out of a 4-day weekend camping trip to BC without having to waste two entire days driving! Thanks!

    • Gemma
      Gemma Reply

      Hi Angela,

      If you’re looking for vehicle accessible sites, there are a few Recreational Sites around Squamish and then a couple before Joffre Lakes. This is a very popular area, however, so if you’re visiting on a weekend I would recommend getting there early. For backpacking sites, there are lots of wilderness camping opportunities around Whistler but again, they do get very busy on the weekend!

  9. Avatar

    I am planning a trip to Vancouver Island next summer and was wondering if camping in areas other than designated camp sites is allowed if you are not on “park” land. Obviously in a park you need to be in a designated spot, but if we are on a back road and see a suitable spot for a tent next to a lake or stream, is it legal to make camp there or is it a must to find a camp ground near by? Thanks – Klancy

    • Gemma
      Gemma Reply

      Hi Klancy,

      In most places, it is legal to camp temporarily on crown land i.e. land owned by the government (there are some provincial exceptions). In practice, it can be difficult for visitors to find out what is actually crown land without the proper maps. JR and I do sometimes park our van overnight outside of Rec Sites and Provincial Parks but we pick the spots very carefully – away from private land & houses, one night only, late arrival, early departure, and follow leave no trace principles. Having said this, since you are visiting Vancouver Island specifically, I would urge you to go to the Rec Sites since there are SO many on the Island, located in many beautiful places. And over 90% of them are completely free.

  10. Avatar

    Hi guys,
    Very useful post. Just wondering if these campgrounds require reservations in summer – I’m planning a cycle trip through BC this summer and I want to know if I can expect the campgrounds to be full or if we will just be able to cycle up and get a spot?

    Thanks, J

    • Gemma
      Gemma Reply

      Hi Jane! Recreational Sites work on a first come, first serve system so no, there are no reservations. If you arrive on a summer weekend, you may find some Rec Sites full due to popularity. My general rule is – the more accessible, the more popular so those that are reached by paved roads and/or a short easy drive on flat gravel roads will fill up in the summer.

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