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. I also have some of my own tips and tricks, learned after 150+ nights of free camping across this spectacular province.
Here’s all the info you need for learning how to camp for free in British Columbia, Canada.
Updated June 2020. This post includes affiliate links. If you purchase an item through these links, I may receive a small percentage of the sale at no extra cost to you.
- Always bring the 10 Essentials
- Know how to stay safe in the backcountry
- Understand how to avoid negative bear encounters
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How to Leave No Trace
Before getting into this post, I need to emphasize to you how important it is to Leave No Trace when camping in British Columbia.
Following Leave No Trace principles ensures that beautiful BC remains clean, beautiful and accessible for everyone (wildlife too!)
Here are some of the most significant things you can do to help:
- 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!)
For more info and tips, check out our full Leave No Trace guide.
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 organisations
- Local governments
- Forestry companies.
Most Recreational Sites are suitable for RV, van and tent camping. A small minority of British Columbia’s forestry campsites are only suitable for tents due to their small size and/or difficult access.
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!
- 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 ($10-20 per party)
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 are planning to rent a vehicle, you will need to choose a company like FarOut Wilderness who allow their vehicles to be driven on unpaved roads.
In addition to allowing more freedom to explore beyond the beaten path, their fully kitted out 4X4 trucks also have sweet rooftop tents for the most hassle free camping possible! If you tell them I sent you (with the code FOW-OTT-5), they’ll give you a 5% booking discount.
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:
- Using the Recreational Sites and Trails BC website
- With the help of the excellent Backroad Mapbooks series
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 British Columbia. We have them all an use them often for planning and navigation.
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.
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 backcountry 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.
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 –
- 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.
- 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 (the basics of Leave No Trace, as as previously mentioned!)
- 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. Use existing fire rings, keep campfires small and completely extinguish after using
- Be prepared to have zero phone signal while in BC’s backcountry. Be sure to tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to be back
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 or shade. 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 how to use it, keep it handy and also learn how to be bear aware (more info above)
- Portable air compressor – We once blew a tire on a logging road and with our spare tire being flat, we wouldn’t have got very far without our air compressor!
- Camping stove – Never solely rely on campfires for cooking food. Campfire bans can come in at any time or the wood may be too wet to light properly
- Lighting – Always bring a separate source of light, be it a headlamp (hands free!) or lantern. The latter is great for long evenings playing cards or hanging out by the fire
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 decade and over 200+ nights of free camping so far.
Read these other posts about camping in Canada next:
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One half of the Canadian/British couple behind Off Track Travel, Gemma is happiest when hiking on the trail or planning the next big travel adventure. JR and Gemma are currently based in the beautiful Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada