How and Where to Go Camping in British Columbia: A Beginner’s Guide

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If camping is new to you, getting started can be a bit daunting. You need to figure out what to pack, how to prepare, and—hardest of all—where to go. In British Columbia, we are fortunate to have more than 1,000 provincial parks and recreation sites, seven national parks, and hundreds of private campgrounds and RV sites. That alone can feel overwhelming, but camping is one of the most Canadian experiences you can have. There is even a Canadian Camping Week dedicated to it. If you’ve never been, or if you’re just starting to explore what camping is all about, here are a few helpful tips to get your stakes in the ground.

What You Need to Go Camping

A woman prepares dinner at a campsite on the water with views of the mountains.

Pack all the right items (including a stroller if you need it) and make a trip to Kinaskan Lake Provincial Park. Photo: @wildnorthphotos

Being prepared to live outdoors, even if it’s only for a few days, means gathering the essential items. Many of these can be purchased from local outdoor retailers like Mountain Equipment Co-operative (MEC), Escape Route, Valhalla Pure Outfitters, and Mt. Waddington’s Outdoors. The alternative is to rent or borrow the gear you need. Local Vancouver companies like ShareShed, Rent-a-Tent Canada, and Rent Outdoors offer rental and sharing services, as do many of the outdoor retail stores mentioned above.

Gear to borrow, rent, or purchase:

  • Tent
  • Sleeping bag
  • Sleeping pad or mattress
  • Cooking stove and fuel (gas)

Bring from home or borrow (and sometimes available for rent):

  • Tarp and rope (to create rain or sun cover)
  • Folding chair
  • Flashlight, headlamp, or table torch
  • Cooler
  • Cooking items: utensils, sharp knife, bowls and/or plates, pot and pan (buying them used from a second hand store is a great idea), container for water, washing bin (or use your pot), and biodegradable soap
  • Clothing essentials: warm layers, rain gear, swimsuit, towel, sun hat, hiking shoes, and camp shoes (flip-flops)
  • Basic first aid kit

Other camp needs:

  • Firewood (usually sold on-site at campgrounds or at nearby gas stations)
  • Axe or hatchet to chop firewood
  • Safe way to secure food, garbage, and gear. In BC, you are always in bear country, so make sure you read the about proper safety measures for camping here
  • Lighter or matches

Here is a comprehensive camping checklist—including what to bring if you are camping with pets—from Parks Canada.

How to Prepare for a Camping Trip

A woman relaxed in a hammock on a beach surrounded by mountains.

If you prepare yourself well, then you can do more of this on your next camping trip. Relaxing in Kitsumkalum Provincial Park. Photo: Grant Harder

A little research and preparation goes a long way to ensure your camping experience a good one. Parks Canada runs a Learn to Camp program in partnership with MEC. Participants learn about recreation safety, get camp-cooking tips, and learn how to pitch a tent and build a fire. These programs are offered at Fort Langley National Historic Site in June and at Fort Rodd Hill and Fisgard Lighthouse National Historic Site in July. Parks Canada also offers a comprehensive resource for online learning if you are unable to make it to an in-person event. Some other great resources include Go Camping BC, Go RVing, Camping & RV in BC, Adventure Smart, The Get Bear Smart Society, the BC Parks Blog, and the MEC Blog. Get information on camping experiences in BC, safety tips, and inspiration for planning, and be sure to read the “Know Before You Go” section on the BC Parks website.

Where to Go and How to Book a Campsite

A truck is parked in a campsite with a reserved sign on it.

Reserved campsite in Nairn Falls Provincial Park. Photo: Jessica Quinn

Choosing your destination is part of the fun, and in BC we have lots of options. BC Parks and Parks Canada offer facilities that are regularly maintained by park operators, Recreation Sites are a little more rustic, and privately run campsites and RV parks can range from basic to boutique, depending on the operator. No matter where you go, reserve your camping area well in advance as popular camping spots can book up several months ahead.

The BC Parks reservation service is facilitated through the Discover Camping website, where you can make reservations for frontcounty (accessible by vehicle) and group camping. User fees range from $13 to $120 (for group campsites) per night. Parks Canada reservations for BC’s seven national parks—Gwaii Haanas, Pacific Rim, Gulf Islands, Kootenay, Glacier, Mount Revelstoke, and Yoho—book up fast, but these iconic destinations are worth the extra planning. You might even want to consider going on weekdays, when it can be easier to get into the most popular places. Parks Canada and BC Parks also offer cabins, yurts, and other options for those wanting to overnight outdoors with a little less preparation. Some of these sites are located in unique settings like Fort Langley National Historic Siteand Fort Rodd Hill and Fisgard Lighthouse National Historic Sites.

The interior of an oTENTik tent with bunk beds and light touches of wood.

You can stay in a Gold Rush themed oTENTik tent at Fort Langley National Historic Site. Photo: Parks Canada/Curtis Hildebrand

If you’re feeling spontaneous, a certain number of sites in provincial and national parks are set aside for campers on a first-come, first-served basis, but have a backup plan. BC’s Recreation Sites are located in more remote areas and have basic facilities, and virtually all are first-come, first-served. Fees range from free to $15 per night.

Privately run campgrounds and RV sites are another great option, and they often come with perks. Think swimming pools, communal cooking areas, family-friendly activities, playgrounds, and other amenities. The Camping & RV in BC map is a good resource to help you find options across the province. Private camping fees vary depending on location and amenities.

Understand the Camping Lingo

A beige camper van with a white awning and a Canadian flag.

This is what you call camper van camping. Photo: @travelling_mom

frontcountry camping (a.k.a. car camping): Camping in a park or recreation area close to a road or highway. These campsites are generally accessible by vehicle and have basic facilities and recreational opportunities.

RV (camper van) camping: Camping with an RV (recreational vehicle) or camper van in a frontcountry area.

group camping: Areas set aside in provincial or national parks for large groups to camp together.

walk-in/cycle-in camping: Designated sites that do not allow vehicle parking (some frontcountry areas have walk-in/cycle-in sites).

A man and woman pitch their tent in a small clearing in the forest.

Walk-in and cycle-in camping takes a little bit more planning. Photo: Julian Apse

backcountry camping: Camping in an area that is not frontcountry. This involves wilderness hiking and backpacking where limited facilities are available.cabin camping: Backcountry areas that offer cabin accommodation. Many require hiking and backpacking to reach them, and some can be booked in advance.

pack in/pack out (a.k.a. no trace camping): In areas where no garbage facilities exist (primarily in the backcountry), you must take with you everything you bring into the area.

bear cache: A storage container designed to protect your food from bears and other animals. This may be a metal box, canister, wooden structure, or a hanging system. Always be prepared to create your own if nothing is available.  

potable water: Water available in camp areas that is safe to drink or use for food prep.

outhouse: A pit toilet often found in backcountry or wilderness camping areas.

spork: A handy utensil that is a combination fork and spoon.

s’more: A delicacy made from graham crackers, marshmallows, and chocolate. A camping must.

Now that you have a few tips and tricks, it’s time to go camping. Remember to have fun out there in the wilderness, it’s a pretty neat place.