Due to the growth in Canadian Rockies backcountry camping, with very few exceptions, you will be required to stay in designated campgrounds. Mostly, these campgrounds have quotas on the number of people who can overnight there. All parks on a camping permit system require that backpackers indicate the campgrounds where they will be overnighting and the dates of occupation.
Banff and Yoho are the only national parks were random camping is permitted, but only in specific areas where visitation is low. In selecting a campsite in a random camping zone, you must be five kilometres (3.1 miles) from a trailhead, at least 50 metres (160 feet) off the trail, and 70 metres (230 feet) from the nearest stream or lake.
Campfires are only permitted at certain campgrounds, and only where metal fireboxes and firewood are provided.
Park visitor centres are your primary outlet for camping permits and information about backcountry campgrounds.
To camp in the backcountry, mountain national park users will require: 1) a parks visitor entry pass; 2) a backcountry permit specific to the backcountry campsites at which they plan to stay; and 3) a one-time reservation fee that covers the cost of booking the backcountry trip.
Backcountry Permit. All hikers wanting to camp in the backcountry must purchase and carry a backcountry permit, which is issued when the hiker(s) reserve a campsite at a specific backcountry campground for a specific night. The permits are tailored for the trip, whether it is for a single night’s outing by a solo hiker, or for a multi-day epic by a group of hikers.
While random camping (non-campsite camping) is allowed in a few remote designated areas in Banff National Park, backcountry permits are still required and the same fees apply.
As of 2021, backountry permits will cost $10.02 per hiker per night.
Depending on the destination and the time of year, it is possible to purchase backcountry permits in person at the parks’ visitor centres just prior to a trip. However, because the permits are subject to campsite availability, and most of the parks’ campsites are in high demand during the prime summer hiking months, making an advance reservation is strongly recommended.
Reservations for backcountry campsites in Banff, Kootenay, Jasper and Yoho usually open in January for the duration of the year. When the system is open, reservations can be made at the Parks Canada Reservation System website or by phone at 1-877-RESERVE (1-877-737-3783). Permits can also be purchased by contacting staff at the Visitor Centres.
In Waterton National Park, permits and reservations are only available through the Visitor Centre, and only within the 90 days prior to the beginning of the hike. While the new Waterton Park Visitor Centre is under construction, a temporary Visitor Centre is located in the townsite Lions Hall on Fountain Avenue. The Visitor Centre can be contacted by phone at 403-859-5133 during business hours 7 days a week throughout the year.
When making a reservation online or by phone, hikers should have: a list of campgrounds where they want to stay; the dates of the nights they want to stay there; how many adults and children (age 17 and under) will be in the party; credit card information; a contact address and phone number; emergency contact details; and, if possible, the model and license plate of the vehicle that will be parked at the trailhead. Restrictions include a maximum group of ten hikers with five tents, and a maximum stay at any given site of three consecutive nights.
The reservation fee is in addition to the backcountry permit fees. It is a non-refundable fee – a one-off booking charge that covers all of the hikers and campsites for the duration of the trip.
As of 2021, the reservation fee is $11.50 for an online reservation and $13.50 for a phone reservation. Detailed descriptions of the fees are available in the fees section of the Parks Canada Reservation System website.
Itinerary Changes, Cancellations and Refunds. Backcountry permits can be changed and cancelled, and refunds are available for parts of the original payment. But hikers should know they will incur additional costs for changes and cancellations. Aside from losing the original non-refundable reservation fee, hikers changing or cancelling a trip will also incur a non-refundable change/cancellation fee of $11.50 for reservations originally made online or $13.50 for reservations made by phone. If the trip is cancelled less than 3 days prior to the start of the trip, hikers will also be charged the first night’s campsite fee.
Lake O’Hara. Lake O’Hara Campground in Yoho National Park is the most popular place for backcountry camping in the Canadian Rockies. For more information, check out the Lake O’Hara Travel Guide.
British Columbia Provincial Parks
The most popular backcountry campsites in B.C.’s Provincial Parks require permits based on per person/per night and reservations for sites during the peak season. Mount Robson, Mount Assiniboine, Elk Lakes and Akamina-Kishinena are the B.C. Provincial Parks featured in the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide.
Mount Robson. Campsites on Mount Robson’s Berg Lake trail are in high-demand. In 2021, British Columbia residents could place reservations for sites on the Berg Lake trail starting March 1 at 7am PST (all sites for the summer were reserved within minutes). Reservations for non-B.C. visitors open on July 8. Anyone who wishes to check on campsite availability (cancellations) can explore “Berg Lake Trail” on the discovercamping.ca reservation website or through the call centre (1-800-689-9025).
Permits are not required for wilderness campsites on the Moose River or Mount Fitzwilliam trails.
General information for Mount Robson Provincial Park is available at the Mount Robson Visitor Centre, which is open from May 15 until September 30 (250-566-4038).
Mount Assiniboine. Reservations are required for core campgrounds at Lake Magog and Og Lake from June 26 to September 30. Permits for these two campgrounds are required for the rest of the year, but there is no charge. Reservations can be made at “Mount Assiniboine” on the discovercamping.ca website or through the call centre (1-800-689-9025).
No permits are required for any other backcountry campgrounds in the park. Occupancy is on a first-come, first-served basis and there is no charge.
Elk Lakes. The campground at Lower Elk Lake is available throughout the year. Permits available at the campground. The Elk Lakes Cabin at the park entrance is operated by the Alpine Club of Canada and can be reserved through the club website www.alpineclubofcanada.ca .
Akamina-Kishinena. Permits available at the campground.
Alberta Provincial Parks
As of June 1, 2021, all vehicles parked at provincial park and public land sites in Kananaskis Country and the Bow Valley require a Conservation Pass. As of 2021, a day pass (one vehicle) costs $15; an annual pass (up to 2 vehicles) costs $90. Passes can be purchased online at the Kananaskis Conservation Pass web page.
Camping permits are required for all backcountry campgrounds in Alberta’s Peter Lougheed Provincial Park. As of 2021, permits for campers age 16 and over are $12 per person, per night (campers 15 and younger require a permit, but it is free). A non-refundable reservation fee costs $12 per booking transaction. Reservations can be made online at reserve.albertaparks.ca
Detailed information about camping permits and site reservations is available online at Backcountry Camping Permits on the albertaparks.ca website.