Building on the online backcountry reservation system unveiled for Jasper two years ago, Parks Canada is expanding the system to include Banff, Yoho and Kootenay in 2018. The system will become fully operational at 8:00 am MST on March 1st, providing an online means of reserving all backcountry campsites in the three parks, as well as Jasper, for the duration of the year.
The new system launches at a good time. Overnight backcountry use has increased about 50 percent in the last two years, and more backcountry campsites are full more often than ever before – and not just in popular areas like Egypt Lake and Skoki. Trying to handle the demand for backcountry reservations has taxed the capacity of Parks Canada information centre staff as well as the patience of hikers trying to make the reservations.
According to Parks, the service “shows you what is available, and allows you to reserve your planned itinerary.” As such, it will be a boon for experienced hikers with knowledge of the parks’ trails. With a few exceptions, it means you’ll be able to reserve the backcountry sites you want from the comfort of your living room with no need to visit the park information centres or swap phone calls with their staff. That said, the system “is not intended for detailed trip planning” and will thus be of limited use to backpackers unfamiliar with the parks. For such visitors, a call or in-person visit to the info centres remains highly recommended. A good trail guide, of course, can help bridge the gap!
In point form, here is what you should know about the system. Although you can’t use it to book any sites before the official launch date, the system is already “live” online and you can play with it to your heart’s content as you wait for the day it begins taking reservations.
The first thing to know is that the old, offline reservation system will continue to operate, meaning you will be able to make backcountry reservations as you have in the past, either in person at the information centres or by calling them. For Banff backcountry reservations, call 403.762-1556 or, for Lake Louise, 403.552-1264; for Yoho, call 250.343-6783; and for Kootenay, 250.347-9505. Note, though, that the information centre in Kootenay doesn’t open until mid-May.
The new system has been incorporated as an add-on to Parks Canada’s frontcountry reservation system, accessed at https://reservation.pc.gc.ca/ParksCanada. Once at the site, click Reservation Type on the left hand side of the page and select Backcountry Camping from the menu. By filling in the rest of the backcountry camping fields – arrival date, park to be hiked in, site requirements, and access point – you’ll soon open a well-designed map of trails and campsites. By further clicking on a campsite icon, you’ll open a separate page with information about the campsite, its availability, and options to reserve it. With a little practice, the site becomes easy to navigate and use. The one caveat is that you’ll need to know the name of the trailhead your trip begins from. For example, to start a trip to Skoki from Lake Louise, you’ll need to know that Fish Creek is the name of the trailhead. Again, a good trail guide or some online information will help.
One advantage of the new system is that you’ll be able to use it to book backcountry campsites on any dates for the rest of the year. With the old system, you could only book campsites three months prior to the start of your trip. That three-month rolling window restriction ends on March 1st.
One disadvantage of the new system is that it can’t handle random camping, horse-grazing, or overnight use of the Alpine Club of Canada (ACC) huts. If you are planning a trip that involves random camping or horse travel, you’ll have to register old school – in person or by phone. If you’re booking an ACC hut, we recommend you get your backcountry permit directly from the Alpine Club. Otherwise, you’ll wind up paying the Park’s reservation fee as well as the ACC’s.
One irritation of the new system is that all the names of all the hikers have to be included in the reservation. The old system required only the name of the permit holder. There is, though, a good public safety reason for including all the names: If a hiking party splits up for the day and an emergency evacuation is called (as it was with the 2017 Verdant Creek fire) the warden service will be able to check for specific individuals, not just “six hikers.”
The maximum number of hikers allowed to book under one permit remains at ten, with no more than five tent sites. The number of consecutive days a backcountry campsite can be reserved remains at three.
The backcountry fees charged under the new system will be much the same as those charged under the old system. On top of the price of the national park passes that all park visitors require, backpackers will pay $9.80 per person per night for their backcountry campsite. As well, the hiking party will be charged a non-refundable reservation fee of $11.00, which covers the entire party for the entire trip. Hikers wanting to overnight at the Bryant Creek and Egypt Lake shelters will pay an additional $6.80 per night per user.
Further to the above, young hikers will continue to get a break. Backountry campsite fees are waived for backpackers younger than 17. As to the shelters, youth between 6 and 17 will pay the same $6.80 fee as adults, but kids under 6 will bunk for free.
While not directly related to the new reservation system, backpackers should be pleased to hear that all backcountry fees collected in the parks stay in the parks, where they help fund the maintenance of trails and backcountry campgrounds. Unfortunately, given the present rocketing increase in backcountry use, the fees are not now covering the costs of the much needed backcountry upkeep. Even more to the point, the Annual Wilderness Pass (AWP) fees of $65 a year in particular are not carrying their weight and, accordingly, the AWP system is being phased out. Annual Wilderness Passes sold before February 28, 2018, will be honoured for the following 12 months; after that the system will cease to exist.