Opinion: Campsites in Canada Are Way Too Difficult to Book

Camping Tent in the Iconic Mt Assiniboine Provincial Park near Banff, Alberta, Canada. Canadian Mountain Landscape in Background. Sunset Sky. Concept: Adventure, Hiking, Backpacking, Freedom

No Reservations: Inside The Struggle for Camping Spots in Canada’s National Parks

If you’ve tried to go camping in Canada in the last few years, you’ve likely had to track opening dates for reservations, scope out an ideal booking window (as well as a backup booking window and a backup-to-the-backup booking window) and wait in nervous anticipation—hovering one trembling finger over the refresh button—when the exact second to book finally arrives.

The pre-pandemic battle it once was to book campsites in Canada’s most popular national parks has officially devolved into a full-on war post-pandemic. Whether it’s the crushing disappointment of having the website crash, your payment timing out—and subsequently your cart being emptied—or being relegated to 21,345 in line while watching your dates (as well as your backup dates, and the backup-to-the-backup dates) disappear into the void, attempting to plan the perfect Canadian camping trip can be a lesson in frustration.

For Stephanie Bailey, a teacher in Calgary, that frustration led her to not even try for reservations this year. After spending years attempting to book the Rockwall thru-hike in Kootenay National Park, she was finally able to land reservations in the fall of 2023, but only because she was able to be fully flexible with her dates and was lucky enough to land one thousandth in line when reservations opened. However, even with this advantage, Floe Lake—what Bailey calls “the crux of securing the thru-hike,” thanks to its popularity with influencers on social media—was fully booked in July and August when she was granted access to the site, with September filling up fast.   

When Parks reopened reservations in 2020, they also introduced a waiting room and a queue system to ease traffic on the site and create a more equitable booking process. As people know, however, when you end up in a lineup that literally has tens of thousands of people ahead of you, it’s hard not to feel defeated by the process.

“I had so many unsuccessful attempts,” explains Bailey. “I would wait in this gigantic queue already knowing that when I logged in everything I wanted would be unavailable. It feels like millions of people are vying for so few spots.” Bailey and her partner also miss the joy of flexibility when it comes to summer hiking and camping plans: “Planning so far in advance doesn’t really work for us anymore; we’re craving some spontaneity.”

This fight to reserve camping spots months ahead of the season, in a climate that is becoming increasingly unpredictable, also means that cancellations, or lack of them, are becoming an issue. When Bailey was camping at Floe last September, she noted that a large group, which was supposed to spend three nights at the campground, decided to pack up and go after one night, leaving several sites vacant—when someone else likely would have loved to enjoy them.

In my own backpacking experience, I’ve hiked in to campsites like Surprise Point in the Tonquin Valley that were fully booked online prior to leaving for my trip, only to arrive and find that I am the only one there for the night. As Parks Canada does not currently have a notification system for last-minute cancellations, as well as considering the difficulty for people to take advantage of these coveted reservations on short notice, they simply encourage visitors to try and cancel as early as possible. Something that Jasper resident and small business owner, Silvie Walsh, feels is not good enough.

“The downfall that I see is not incentivizing cancellations,” she says. “We paddle on Maligne Lake quite a lot, and often could have stayed the night [at one of the backcountry campsites] last-minute as we see or hear that there are empty spots, but because of how cancellations work, we are not able to use them.”

Hiking in Lake O’Hara

The way Parks Canada handles cancellations is that a no-show reservation is held until 11 a.m. the next day. While I have personally taken advantage of this (when I have been unable to get out to my reservation the night before but am able to arrive the next morning), it does leave these prime spots unused, which can be frustrating for locals like Walsh, who could otherwise take advantage of these last-minute, single-night openings.

Because of this, Walsh still fights for reservations on Maligne Lake every summer when bookings open for the season, and she manages to consistently snag a few dates each time. Her process can be likened to that of well-oiled reservation machine, as this year she accessed the site on three separate screens: “I was ready to play the game, but you have to be in the right mindset and have the luxury and privilege of time and flexibility.”

Despite the ongoing difficulty of securing reservations, Walsh doesn’t believe that locals should be gatekeeping these beautiful and wild spaces either. She recalls a camping trip last summer where a trio from the United States had managed to book a spot at Hidden Cove, and their sheer joy at simply being there was infectious. “We have these really special, pristine places that we should all be able to access.”

Didn’t get the reservations you wanted? Here’s what to do instead:

1. Seek out under-the-radar national parks instead

According to Parks Canada, there are nearly 11,000 campsites available within 48 national parks and reserves. In order to avoid that feeling of despair each year when it comes to jockeying for the most popular campgrounds, instead consider visiting lesser-travelled national parks instead.

Parks Canada provides a detailed breakdown on their website about which parks would-be campers could contemplate if the busier campgrounds are booked out. Are you desperate to journey to Jasper? Glacier National Park and Kluane National Park and Reserve offer comparable hiking and camping experiences. Do you love Banff? Consider visiting Mount Revelstoke or Yoho. Were you unable to snag reservations on the West Coast Trail? The Gulf Islands National Park Reserve and Cape Breton Highlands National Park are equally as beautiful and wild as the Pacific Rim.

2. Schnerp it!

Not everyone has the means to battle for reservations on opening day, and this website helps alleviate the stress that can accompany the process. Schnerp (meaning to acquire a scarce resource, usually by a thin margin), developed by Daniel Thareja, tracks cancellations across Parks Canada, Alberta Parks, BC Parks, Ontario Parks and the Alpine Club of Canada. For a small fee, create a campsite request, add in the dates you would like to visit and let the site do scanning of cancellations for you. This website has honestly been a game changer for me. I’ve mostly given up trying to book the campgrounds I love the most on opening day (as it usually ends in tears for me), but by using Schnerp over the past couple of years, I’ve managed to snag last-minute reservations at Lake O’Hara backcountry and Two Jack Lakeside, two of my favourite places to camp.

3. Camp (respectfully) on Crown land

When I couldn’t get the reservations I wanted one summer, I ended up accompanying my dad on a backcountry camping adventure on Crown land. He had spent a considerable amount of time perusing maps and Google Earth and had a rough idea of where to go to access two pristine alpine lakes, ringed by rugged peaks, in the wilds of the BC backcountry. A couple of hours of four-wheeling up an active logging road (bring a radio!), bushwhacking through dense forest and scrambling around the side of a mountain, and we were there: in one the most spectacular places I have ever had the privilege of visiting. What followed were three nights of secluded camping and climbing that even the sheer amount of horseflies couldn’t ruin.

The moral of this story is: there are beautiful places to access that aren’t located in the national parks; however, be sure to have the right equipment for a successful journey, be confident in the outdoor skills you have (or work to build these skills) and familiarize yourself with Leave No Trace principles.

Have you experienced frustration trying to book a camping trip in Canada?

Share your story! Comment below.



4 thoughts on “Opinion: Campsites in Canada Are Way Too Difficult to Book

  1. I have never had any trouble using the National Parks system, even if I’m 12,000 in line it’s usually an 8 minute or so wait and I haven’t had trouble getting the sites I want either. I think it’s a really efficient system to be honest. And I’m a senior who doesn’t have a ton of computer experience.

  2. It isn’t just national parks that are problematic. Ontario Parks have so few backcountry hiking spots that it’s insane. I managed to snag a last minute reservation, only to get there and find 3 out of 5 sites empty, on one lake, and 3 out of 4 empty on a second lake in Frontenac Provincial Park. So frustrating. And really inconsiderate of campers who book and don’t show up. And there is no incentive for the Park because they are getting their fees.

  3. Didn’t even bother tying for sites this year after last years frustration. I have the luxury of going mid week so look for cancellations and use Schnerp.
    Parks Canada really needs a system for last minute cancellations. Seeing empty spots is doubly frustrating especially at really popular sites like Two Kack.

  4. We camp for 2 weeks at Kootenay Redstreak every year, and every year we see tons of empty spots and it makes us so angry. The system is like a lottery. We always have multiple computers in our household trying to get a site. This year, I was the first one on the computer 20 minutes before reservations opened, got put into their “queue” and when it opened up, I was the last one in our household, being over 20,000th in line. This isn’t the first time that has happened. It is supposed to be random, but what a joke! This stupid system is frustrating and stressful. In the past, campers already at the park could go to the office and request another site if there was a problem with the current site. They should incorporate some sort of system whereby the park office could allocate empty sites for no shows, especially when the sites stay empty for days. Bad system, bad management, bad customer service! The Parks Canada reservation systems sucks!!!