Renting a recreational vehicle (RV) or travelling through British Columbia with your own camping equipment is a very popular way to see the province. The expectations for camping vary around the world, so this article is intended to let you know what you can expect from campgrounds in British Columbia.
You do need to use established campgrounds in BC, although some of the designated camping spots can be very rustic and primitive. You shouldn't just pull over and camp anywhere because land jurisdiction isn't always apparent, and you could be on private or Indigenous land which can get you into trouble. Additionally, roadside pull-outs are often party destinations for locals, a situation you may not want to find yourself in after the local bars close. There are some locally recognized free camping sites, but they can be difficult identify and its unwise to rely on this option when planning an international trip.
There are two main categories of campgrounds: government-run and privately run. All levels of governments — federal parks, provincial parks, and some regional districts and municipalities — have public campgrounds in their jurisdictions. Finding out about some of the smaller ones, especially those run by regional districts and municipalities, can be tricky, but the national and provincial parks sites are usually pretty easy to find using the websites operated by those agencies. These agencies are not linked and you will need to be clear about whether you are looking at a national park or a provincial park, as the two systems are completely separate.
Privately run sites can be part of a chain system, like Holiday Trails or KOA, or they can be independently run. Many Wikivoyage articles list camping sites, you can use a search engine, or look up the tourism website for that town. There provincial tourism website is Hello BC, but most of the towns and regions also have their own tourism websites. There is usually an "Accommodations" section with a listing for camping.
In general, campgrounds expect you to be self-sufficient. They do not provide you with kitchen or cooking equipment. This means that there is not usually a sink for washing dishes (please do not use the bathroom sinks if there are any for dishes), nor a barbecue for cooking. There is often a fire ring, which may or may not have a grill to put over it to cook over the fire. As BC campgrounds are often the subject of fire bans in the summer, do not count on being able to cook over a fire. As such, you should have a stove and a plastic tub for dishes. There are increasing numbers of communal kitchen facilities in some places, but you should be prepared to camp without these things.
Campgrounds will all have, at a minimum, pit toilets and a potable water source. The water may be restricted to one or two common spigots around the campground and you will need to transport water from the spigot to your campsite for cooking and cleaning. A 25L jug is useful for this purpose, or a hose you can use to fill the water tank in your RV. The nicer campgrounds can have full washroom facilities with flush toilets, hot and cold running water, showers, laundry, and even a games room.
In general, government-run campgrounds do not have power, water and sewer hookups at each campsite, although again this varies and some are now offering power and water at the site. While there may be hot and cold running water and power in a common washroom block, you will have to run your RV on battery for the nights you are staying in a government campground.
Government campgrounds are usually, although not always, in more naturalistic wilderness-like settings with open space between you and your neighbour. Private campgrounds by contrast are usually fairly tightly packed in but with full services at each campsite and often a well serviced central block with showers, laundry and a games room. They are typically more expensive, but you get more amenities.
There are always exceptions, so check into each campground you are considering to see what each one offers, and contact the campground operator with your questions.
While most rentals come with the basics you need, a few extras are a good idea:
- folding camp chairs. These are useful to "claim" your campsite if you need to drive your RV away, as well as to just sit around the campfire.
- a plastic table cloth. The campground picnic tables usually need something to cover them up. Even though you can eat in your RV, its so much nicer to eat outside.
- a flashlight, so you can get to the washroom in the dark.
- a plastic tub for dirty dishes. Even if you have a sink in your RV, this can be very useful just to carry them in from the picnic table.
- a water jug with a spigot that you can fill and then use at your site. This can be redundant if you have water in your RV, but can still be useful for having water outside at your picnic table.
The best place to pick up these things inexpensively is WalMart or Canadian Tire.
The government campgrounds often have a percentage of sites that are not reservable, and some of the campgrounds in the national parks are entirely first come, first served. This does not mean that you can safely travel around BC in peak season without making any bookings. It will depend on the time of year and which days during the week, but you can expect that any campground within a four-hour drive of Vancouver will be fully booked every weekend. If you want to be assured of a space, it would be a good idea to pull in early on Friday morning and stay put or make reservations for the rest of the weekend.
Another indicator of availability is services. Sites that have only pit toilets are not going to be as popular as sites with full amenities and so are more likely to have empty spots.
By contrast, many of the private campgrounds have a minimum nights stay, especially on weekends. If you only want to stay for one night, they may not let you reserve in advance, but are unlikely to turn you away if they have empty spots when you pull in. But that can be a gamble. Popular campgrounds fill up months in advance and you need to have your reservations made early, or accept that you will be staying in the areas that aren't as nice or scenic.
To find campgrounds, you might start with some of these websites. Each one will have their own rules, costs and reservation dates, so its just a case of making yourself familiar with them.
- BC Parks — provincial parks
- Parks Canada (navigate to the park you are interested in for specific information about camping) — national parks
- Camping and RV in BC
- BC Forestry Camping Sites (often free, but also rough and remote with very limited services. Rental vehicles may not be insured for travel on gravel roads.)