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How to Camp for Free in British Columbia, Canada

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. 

White van parked next to a picnic table with fire pit at a Recreation Site, with mountain view behind
Waitabit Creek Recreation Site near Golden, British Columbia

Backcountry necessities

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.

Lakeside campsite with picnic table and stone divider
Stella Lake Recreation Site, Vancouver Island. This area, north of Campbell River, has some of our favourite free campsites in BC
JR cooking on a fire in front of parked white van and picnic table
Making dinner at one of BC’s many Recreation Sites

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. 

White van parked next to picnic table at free camping site in British Columbia
An example of a private campsite at a BC forestry campsite
Example of free BC campsite outhouse
Example of outhouse at a free BC campsite
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 British Columbia. We have them all an use them often for planning and navigation.

White van parked up next to picnic table at free campsite in BC
Camping at Strathcona Dam, a free BC Hydro camping site on Vancouver Island
Looking out to a pale river backdropped by mountains from a van with bedsheets and blanket
Van views from a free campsite near Golden, British Columbia

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 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).

A set up tent next to Slocan Lake with a picnic table
Camping on the shore of Slocan Lake in Valhalla Provincial Park is completely free all year round

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 - Tent on Nels Bight beach, Cape Scott
Nels Bight, Cape Scott Provincial Park
JR setting up a tent on a wooden tent platform in Desolation Sound
Camping in Desolation Sound in mid September can be just as pretty as in the summer and there are no camping fees to pay

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.
  1. 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
  • 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
The Della Falls hike offers free camping in BC
Della Falls hike, Vancouver Island – another example of backcountry area with free camping

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:

Car Camping 101: A Beginner’s Guide

How to go Camping in British Columbia Without a Reservation

The Complete Guide to Camping for Free in Canada

3 of the Best Places to Camp on the Gaspé Peninsula, Quebec

25+ of the Best Campgrounds on Vancouver Island, British Columbia

11 of the Best Campgrounds in Nova Scotia

Everything You Need to Know About Camping in Gatineau Park, Quebec

9 Awesome Free Campsites in British Columbia

How to Camp for Free in British Columbia - There are hundreds (in fact, 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
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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