The camping experience has looked a bit different during the pandemic for the Ung family. Karen Ung and her daughters, 10-year-old Emi and 12-year-old Miya, usually venture out from their Calgary home to campgrounds across Alberta and into British Columbia, and even over the U.S. border into Montana.
But when the pandemic hit and parks reopened, the Ungs stayed within provincial borders and explored Alberta instead.
“We did some hiking near the border of Banff and Jasper,” Ms. Ung says. They’ve also camped along the Icefields Parkway and in Cypress Hills Provincial Park, near Medicine Hat.
In the last year, Ms. Ung has noticed an increase in novice campers.
“Sometimes you’ll see their tent hasn’t been pegged out,” she says. “If you get any rain, that’ll go straight into your tent.”
She’s also spotted another big camping faux-pas – coolers left outside unattended.
“It’s really dangerous for the other campers and for the bears [attracted to the left-out food], which might get put down,” she says.
With the pandemic limiting international travel, new campers have flocked to provincial parks as replacement getaways. That’s resulted in increased competition for campsites, too.
“Camping reservations in parks reached an all-time high in 2020, with 199,393 bookings,” said Greg Part, communications adviser for Alberta Environment and Parks in an e-mail.
“There were 114,145 reservations in 2019, by comparison. We’ve already exceeded last year’s numbers with 264,968 bookings [by mid-July], so far, in 2021.”
After its website was overwhelmed with traffic in 2020, Alberta Environment and Parks implemented a queue system for bookings in 2021 to prevent the website from crashing.
B.C. Parks has also seen a similar rise in bookings, especially of people logging on right when reservations open. In 2020, when they opened camping reservations on May 25, the website received a record of 50,749 reservations in one day – all before 10 a.m. In comparison, 2016 saw 7,800 reservations by 12:30 p.m. on opening day.
With the online booking frenzy, Ms. Ung has noticed that members of online camping groups on platforms such as Facebook have “given up” trying to book.
“Some people just said, ‘You know what, I tried to get online. I give up. What are some good private campgrounds?’ ”
Campgrounds located on private property, advertised through websites such as Airbnb, the Canadian Camping and RV Council and Hipcamp can be a good alternative for those that weren’t able to jostle for an early spot. But Ms. Ung says that there are a few other ways to make a camping trip happen this summer.
Checking for cancellations is her first line of defence. Parks Canada and Alberta Parks offer full refunds for cancellations up to 72 hours in advance, so check two or three days before an anticipated trip to see if you can snag a last-minute cancellation.
Ms. Ung also encourages those who cannot use their reservation, or decide not to go due to poor weather, to cancel. She believes that people not cancelling sites is contributing to the lower numbers she’s seeing out on campgrounds.
“We were at a very desirable campground on the Icefields Parkway [in early July], and I get that it was raining the first day. But even on the second day, when it was beautiful out, the campground was half empty. When I booked it, it said it was full.”
First-come, first-served spots are also an option for last-minute campers. In B.C. Parks about 55 per cent of campsites are reservable while 45 per cent remain available on a first-come, first-served basis.
“It can be a little scary,” Ms. Ung says. “You don’t want to drive too far and get nothing.”
But driving a little farther away from city centres can actually be a good way to increase the chances of getting a first-come, first-served spot, especially if you go mid-week when demand is lower.
Another option Ms. Ung recommends is reserving a walk-in campsite. These locations are something in between backcountry camping (which requires a hike or canoe from a parking lot to reach your campsite) and car camping (when you can drive up to your site and park your car next to it).
“They are a little bit more work because you have to haul everything back and forth to your car,” says Ms. Ung. “But you get more secluded sites, usually right by a lake which is a real treat.”