Go Outside: The Crown land camping (in Alberta & B.C.) edition
Questions and answers about the true wild west of camping season
Campers dot the landscape on Crown land in Southern Alberta.
Happy August! We hope this summer is treating you well and full of camping trips, epic hikes and safe outdoor adventures (amid all the heat and smoke.) We promised in our June entry on first-come first-served camping sites in Alberta that we’d do a future summer post on Crown Land camping and here we are!
Unlike designated campgrounds that have a long list of rules, numbered spots for your tent or trailer, outhouses, water pumps, and usually must be booked far in advance, Crown land is a free-for-all. As Annalise detailed in a summer Alberta Views feature, Crown land camping is a real experience. The sounds, smells and sites are often quite different from the relative law and order of designated campgrounds.
That being said, some people love it! Annalise included. As someone who likes adventure, wide-open/people-free spaces, the unknown, and enjoys making last-minute plans based on weather and conditions (rather than booking sites months in advance when there’s still snow on the ground) Annalise has spent a lot of time in recent years exploring public lands in both B.C. and Alberta. Read on for some tips, tricks and information.
The tent window view from a special Crown land spot in B.C.
What is Crown land camping?
Also known as random camping, public land camping, PLUZ (Public Land Use Zone) camping in Alberta, no-service camping, rustic or dispersed camping, Crown land camping basically means spending the night outside of a designated campground. In Alberta, these areas typically have minimal or no services, including outhouses.
In B.C., in addition to Crown land, there is a network of more than 1,200 (often remote) Recreation Sites located across the province’s vast wilderness where camping is allowed, often for free with no reservations required. These sites often have fire-pit rings and pit toilets, though amenities can range widely from site to site. There are also rules to be aware of in Recreation Sites. All that said, many of the smaller, more remote sites have a you’re-on-your-own/Crown land kind of feel to them.
How long can you stay?
In Alberta and B.C., you can camp on provincial Crown land for 14 consecutive days.
A backcountry trip on public land in Alberta.
Is it free?
Crown land camping used to be free in Alberta! But then Jason Kenney’s UCP government changed the rule. As of June 1, 2021, you need a Public Lands Camping Pass to random camp on public land along the Eastern Slopes of the Rocky Mountains from Grande Prairie to Waterton Lakes National Park. The pass costs $20 per person for three days or $30 per person for an annual pass.
As mentioned above, fees are charged at some recreation sites and trails in B.C., but many are free.
Rock fire pits, like the one pictured above, are a common feature of Crown land camping. (And yes, that’s snow on the ground. Annalise really loves camping and the Boler makes shoulder season camping very warm/cozy.)
Should I camp on Crown Land?
We wouldn’t recommend Crown Land camping until you’re extremely comfortable with regular camping. Public land typically has no cell service and no amenities, so ease into it by getting comfortable with camping, in general, first. Depending on where you go, a vehicle that can handle rough roads is highly recommended. Even some of the B.C. recreation sites with minimal amenities are accessible only by forestry service roads, which can be very rough and also see heavy logging-truck traffic. Road conditions can also change a lot from season to season and can become very, very gnarly at times.
Crown land camping is a great option for large groups, like this setup in B.C. several Julys ago.
If there’s no outhouses, where do you go to the bathroom?
Please, please practice leave no trace camping! Annalise has been at her fair share of Crown land sites in recent years that are littered with human feces. It’s disgusting. When there are no outhouses, select a spot away from trails, campsites and water, dig a hole about 12 to 16 centimetres across, poop in the hole, and fill it back in with soil. Pack out any paper products.
Annalise and her dog found this lawn chair with a hole in the seat, and toilet paper nearby, while camping on public land in the Ghost PLUZ. This is an example of where not to go to the bathroom. Dig a hole far away from water instead.
What else should I know?
Be respectful! Take bear spray and be bear aware. Pack out everything you pack in. Cook your food far from your sleeping area. Store your food and cooking equipment either in your vehicle or properly hang it from a tree, out of reach of animals. Use minimal soap when washing dishes and dispose of the greywater away from your campsite and far away from any water sources. The Alberta government has more Crown land details and guides here. Also, given the wildfires and smoke this summer, please check fire restrictions before you head out.
Where should I go?
Part of the fun of camping on public land is the adventure of finding a site, both with research beforehand and then exploring when you get to an area. Most frequent Crown land campers have go-to favourite spots they’re reluctant to share with others, Annalise included. Google has lots of lists and public land camping details and this articles has a good starting list of places to explore in Alberta. There’s also this Explore Magazine list of 50 free campsites in B.C. and 34 in Alberta. Facebook groups and internet forums where avid Crown land campers share tips and locations are also great sources of information.
Keep in mind camping on Crown land isn’t like many designated sites where you can plug a location into Google Maps and be guided directly to your destination. The journey is part of the adventure, and often involves rough roads or going farther than you anticipated if your chosen location is already occupied.
Camping at a recreation site in B.C.
This all sounds like a lot of work. Why is camping on public land so great?
It’s not for everyone and, as Annalise details in the Alberta Views feature, the diversity of Alberta’s system of parks and public land is a key part of it’s charm! Alberta offers something for everyone, from flush toilets and comfort cabins to huge swaths of remote, amenity-free wilderness. No worries if Crown land camping isn’t your thing!
Annalise loves the remoteness and adventure of Crown land camping. You feel free when camping on public land. Not having to book sites in advance is another big benefit, as is not hearing your neighbours or having to line up for an outhouse. The lack of crowds can be a real treat. The only times in recent memory that Annalise has had entire mountain hikes to herself is on public land.
Happy Crown land campers/hikers soaking in the views in Southern Alberta.