Rocky Road Realities: My Top 10 Missteps While Camping in the Canadian Rockies

Rocky Road Realities: My Top 10 Missteps While Camping in the Canadian Rockies

    As a born-and-bred Canadian, I went on my first camping trip at the ripe age of 3 months old. Since then, I have slept under the stars more times than I can count. Does this make me experienced? Yeah, sure. But it also means that I’ve made a mistake or two (or ten) when it comes to camping in the Canadian Rockies. Some made me laugh, but others ruined the entire trip. 

    So, without further ado, here are some of my biggest mistakes. Learn from them. Laugh at them. Just don’t repeat them! You can thank me later :-)

    Mistake #1: If You Fail to Plan Ahead, Your Trip Will Fail

    Remember the hype around scoring Taylor Swift tickets? It’s got nothing on Parks Canada.

    Last year, I waltzed into my favorite campground during Canada Day weekend (without prebooking my site online). I knew I wouldn’t get one of the top-shelf spots, but I assumed there would be a walk-in site somewhere. I mean, it’s just a forest, right?

    Wrong. Instead, I was laughed out of the campground, the entire park and the EIGHT closest campgrounds before I gave up and drove home. An eight-hour drive for half an hour in the mountains? A lovely day trip.

    The reservation page I should've checked months earlier

    What you should do instead:

    Reserve your site early—waaaay earlier than you think you need to! 

    • Parks Canada will begin to open 2024 bookings on January 8th with different dates for different parks. Banff opens on January 26th at 8am MST (be on the website no later than 7:58 MST)
    • Alberta Parks open 90 days before the first day of your trip.  For example: if you want to camp starting on July 1st, reservations open on April 2nd.
    • BC Parks open 4 months before the first day of your trip.
    • Moraine Lake/Lake Louise shuttle reservations open on April 18th. Is it crazy to book a ride to see a lake MONTHS in advance? Yes. Do you still need to estimate your date and book it anyway? Why, yes, you do. Especially if you want a chance to be there in the morning or anywhere near sunrise—the most popular time to see the lake.

    Hot tip: You should be on the site BEFORE bookings open to make your reservations. Know your dates, the specific site you’re hoping to book, and enlist friends/family to help.

    Mistake #2: Renting a Luxury RV and Regretting It: The Tent vs. RV Debate

    I am firmly in Team Tent. It’s practical, economical, and easy to pack. You are one with nature (you’ll feel especially intimate with the occasional underfoot root or the owl in the tree above you). 

    But, one summer, I decided to save up and rent a luxury RV to see the Icefields Parkway. I was so proud of my gorgeous RV, wondering why I’d resisted so strongly in the past. After finally locating our site in a remote campground, we happily started to pull in. And… it didn’t fit. Tried maneuvering it from another angle. Still didn’t fit. 

    Aaaaaand, of course, since sites had been sold out since January, it was impossible to find another. There are walk-in sites occasionally available, but guess what? Mostly tenting-only…

    I ended up driving to the nearest Walmart and camped for a week in various parking lots. Ahhhh, the beauty of nature.

    • Most campgrounds have sites for both tents and RVs. That being said, always make sure you know the length of your RV and book the correct site. Your vehicle has to completely fit inside the pad or else Parks Canada WILL kick you out.
    • Tents: there are many places to buy or rent in any of the major cities surrounding the Rockies. Canadian Tire or Mountain Equipment Coop are great places to pick one up. Check out universities nearby (University of Calgary, University of Alberta, etc.) for more economical options to rent.
    • RVs: there are rental agencies in every major city. Companies like CanaDream are always a reliable choice, or check out RVezy and Outdoorsy to rent directly from the owner. Most RVs come fully stocked with equipment—but make sure to verify in advance. 
    • Usually “equipment” doesn’t include things like matches or a lighter, so pick one up from any gas station.

      Mistake #3: Being Less Prepared Than Your Average Boy Scout

      So, you now know where to get the equipment. But without a list, I guarantee you will walk into the wonderful emporium of MEC and suddenly decide that you neeeeeeed a magical pot system that will boil your water in under 60 seconds. 

      Hm, at that price, you can’t have that and your sleeping bag. But your sleeping bag won’t boil water for your whole family, so surely it’s not as important…? See, these intrusive thoughts are precisely why you need a list. 

      Parks Canada has compiled a nice list of the basics you should bring camping. It doesn’t matter if you buy new or second-hand (try, an online marketplace popular in western Canada), but make sure you have the absolute essentials:

      • Tent
      • Sleeping bag
      • Air mattress/sleeping pad*
      • Axe
      • Matches
      • More water than you think you’ll need

      I would also make a strong case for a hammock or camping chair because I forgot once, and I don’t think my tailbone has ever recovered from the stump I subjected it to. 

      *Do not skimp on your air mattress. Everything else can fall apart, but you need a solid air mattress. I recommend the MEC Reactor pad for a sleeping option that is as comfortable as your spare bed (not sponsored, just comfy).

      I learned the water one the hard way… Once, I went on a multi-day backcountry hiking trip in Waterton Lakes National Park. I know the area well, so I didn’t do much research into our day hike. 

      Turns out, it wasn’t a two-hour outing, but a TWELVE-hour trek. Completely alone on the trail and without proper supplies, we could have run into trouble. We drank from snow patches that we thawed in our hands, and I have never been so thankful for Canada’s clean water (plus or minus a bit of beaver seasoning…). 

       Oh, and let me say this again: bring more water than you think you need before heading out.

      Mistake #4: Underestimating the Allure of Banff

      Well-kept secret? Forget it. When it comes to Banff, all bets are off.

      Don’t underestimate the popularity of camping in the Canadian Rockies. One weekend, we drove up to the town of Banff and the highway was blocked off by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Confused, I approached and was told, “Sorry, it’s closed.”

      What do you mean, “it’s closed?” It’s a town. You can’t close a town.

      Apparently, they can. The town was so packed that all hotels were at capacity. The restaurants were all fully booked. There were no parking spaces. So they blocked off all entrances/exits to the town and barred anyone from entering. They had closed an entire town because it was too popular. 

      I get it, Banff is really cool. The mountains are gorgeous, and the little town nestled within is picture-perfect. But I cannot stress enough the importance of booking on the day, nay, the minute that reservations open, especially if you are heading to Banff. 

      Here’s the run-down: 

      • Two Jack Lakeside is the best campground in the park. If you want to go camping in the Canadian Rockies, you’re probably thinking of Two Jack Lakeside. The campground is close enough to the town that you could go in for dinner, but far enough away to feel like the wilderness. 
        • Hot tip: Sites 28 and 32 are right on the lakeshore. You can launch your kayak directly from your campsite (or go in for a quick glacial swim if you prefer absolutely no feeling in your limbs). 
      • If you can’t book Lakeside, Two Jack Main is a decent backup with similar vibes.
      • Johnston Canyon Campground is another solid choice. Nestled deep in a forested canyon, it’s near the Johnston Canyon trail—helpful to get an early morning start before it gets busy. 

      Mistake #5: Neglecting the Rest of the Rockies

      Now that I’ve thoroughly ticked off Banff, I’ll get into the really good stuff: the parts of the Rockies that aren’t so polished. From here, everything gets a touch more wild and “Canadian”...though that wilderness does demand some extra attention. 

      I learned from a young age to use caution in the less-developed parks, and to always check my surroundings for wildlife. As a toddler, my parents sent me into an outhouse and I came out crying that there was “a monster mouse” in the toilet. Since monster mice don’t actually exist, my parents ignored me and sent me back in.

      They finally believed me when I started shrieking as the giant marmot climbed out of the toilet hole and was displeased to be stuck in a small space with a screaming child. To this day, I always inspect the toilets beforehand (a habit that has saved my backside more than once. Literally.)

      Where should you go instead?

      • Head straight to Waterton Lakes National Park. It’s about 2.5 hours south of Calgary, close to the US border. It’s significantly more unknown than Banff, but since it’s tiny, it still books up immediately. The little village has log-cabin vibes and a charming candy store, but the real showstopper is the hiking. Crypt Lake has you crossing four mountains, following a goat path along the edge of a cliff and scrambling through a hole blasted through a mountain. Jumping from the alpine cliffs into the glacier-fed lake at the summit is just the cherry on top.
      • Another gem is Waterfowl Lakes—and the rest of the Icefields Parkway. The drive alone is bucket-list-worthy, taking you past glaciers, Gatorade-blue alpine lakes and more dramatic waterfalls than you can count
      • Alberta and British Columbia have seven national parks in the Rockies, so it’s definitely worth delving deeper than Banff.

      Mistake #6: Being Clueless About ‘Crown Land Camping’

      I lived in the Rockies for 30 years before I learned exactly what Crown Land camping means. Then, last summer, I decided to attempt it myself. 

      Crown Land camping differs from frontcountry (AKA regular) camping because there are no campsites—or any infrastructure at all. It’s like the Wild West. Frontcountry sites often have bathrooms, picnic tables, an information booth, firewood, etc. When you go Crown Land camping, you just drive out into the middle of government-owned land, plant your tent in the middle of the wilderness and say “Mine.”

      So, how do you tell which kind of camping you’re doing? The easiest way to tell if you’re Crown Land vs. frontcountry camping is whether you have amenities or not. If you have to dig a hole/BYOB[athroom], it’s Crown Land…

      The first thing I needed to figure out was where exactly you can camp. There’s a lot of wilderness out there, and deciphering which is campable and which belongs to private ranchers is trickier than you’d expect. To find this mystical area, you need to overlay a Public Land Use Zone (PLUZ) map over a road map of the province—and then use old-world navigational skills to chart a course to the perfect site.

      My adventurous mom decided to try Crown Land camping with me. I was responsible for finding our site while she planned the rest. We were packing the car together when I saw she was loading bags of kitty litter. Thinking she might be losing her mind, I told her that there would be no cats attending this camping trip. She informed me that she had bought the litter to go in the portable (human) toilets for the trip. 

      Nope. Crown Land camping might be for some people, but I drew the line at litter boxes.

      Quick facts about Crown Land camping:

      Mistake #7: Downplaying the Unexpected Blizzard

      Ok, so most Canadians don’t live in igloos, and we aren’t chauffeured around by a dog sled—we usually aren’t experiencing Arctic temperatures year ‘round… but that doesn’t mean we won’t get a freak snowstorm in the dead of summer. 

      Late last summer, I decided I was going to do the epic Mist Mountain Hot Springs hike. I drove 100 miles to get to the trailhead in the middle of nowhere, hiked for hours up the side of the mountain…only to get caught in a surprise September blizzard about 100ft from the hot springs. It was just too dangerous to take the crossing across the icy scree slope to the warm pools. We had to turn back with the springs in sight, and I am still bitter about it. Always be prepared for the possibility of snow!

      So when is the best time to go?

      • Disregarding a flurry or two, summer is still the best season for hiking the Rockies. It can get hot, but you can beat the midday heat by cliff jumping into glacier lakes. Carthew-Alderson, in Waterton, takes you across the moonscape of Mars, and passes three lakes for a refreshing plunge. Heart Creek Bunker trail leads you into an abandoned Cold War bunker, the deep rock providing natural A/C.
      • In the fall, there is a two-week period where the mountainside is gilded with golden larches. This is prime season for bears, though, so remember to travel in groups! 
      • In the late spring, Meadows In the Sky Parkway—and basically all of Mt. Revelstoke—is carpeted with colorful spring wildflowers.

      Mistake #8: Canada Day Chaos, Sunrise Skirmishes and Other Mountain Madness…

      Like the rest of Instagram, I’ve wanted to catch a sunrise at Moraine Lake for years. I did my research and learned I needed to be there early, so I left at 3:30am to get a parking spot. I arrived an hour before sunrise and in the dark, the flashing “parking lot full” signs were brighter than the Las Vegas strip. Kicking myself, I “settled” for the views at Lake Louise, which is still beautiful, just not the pièce de résistance. To this day, I still have not made sunrise at Moraine Lake.

      Hot tip: There is a new shuttle to Lake Louise/Moraine Lake which needs to be booked through the Parks Canada website. Reservations open on April 18th and will sell out that day.

      • The entire country seems to think Canada Day is best spent in a national park… meaning you will be sharing the parks with the population of this country. Towns will reach max capacity and may close. 
      • On the other hand, park admission is free on Canada Day, and you can find fun Canadian-themed activities everywhere—so we’ll let you make this call for yourself.
      • In another Instagram vs. Reality moment, the internet is filled with photos of Cave and Basin Hot Springs. They’re drop-dead gorgeous, but despite what the internet thinks, you can’t actually soak in them. They’re a liiiiiittle less photogenic in real life, but you can rent period-piece bathing costumes, so that’s pretty neat.

      CC images courtesy of Teemu Paukamainen and Sara Slate on Flickr

      Mistake #9: Failing to Go ‘Full Canuck’

      Every morning across the Rockies, campers gather to get dressed in public bathrooms. The heated campground bathrooms are the literal hottest spot on the mountain, and not just because of the temperature. They’re the place to see and be seen. 

      You can always tell who is a Canadian and who isn’t. Plaid? Probably a local. Retro thick pile low-overnight-temp-fighting pullover? Definitely a local. Designer LV “hiking boots” (with heels!!)? They scream “tourist.” 

      CC images courtesy of Fash Ion and Ozark Paddler on Flickr

      To be fair, it is challenging to properly dress for camping in the Canadian Rockies. The nights are freezing, but the days get hot, especially while hiking. Your only option? Layers. You might start a hike wearing pants, a wool sweater, jacket, toque* and mitts, strip down to your t-shirt for the ascent, and then need to put everything back on again at the windy summit. 

      Even in the summer, you need to be prepared for the possibility of frost. Pack everything from hiking shorts to a thick fleece jacket to snuggle up around the campfire. Bonus points if it’s plaid. Double bonus points if it was purchased from MEC, Patagonia or Lululemon. 

      *Triple Bonus points: learn to speak Canadian and find out what a toque is. Make sure to include a bunnyhug and know when to use the phrase “could you make that a double-double?”

      Mistake #10: Don’t Ask

      In a coffee shop in Banff, I heard a customer ask the barista how often the “white parts” of the mountain needed to be touched up. After a bit of confusion, the barista worked out that they had assumed that the snow was fake, and we had a giggle at the poor customer’s expense.

       I have collected for you a few questions not to ask, to maintain your dignity in the eyes of a Canadian:

      •  “At what altitude does an elk become a moose?”
      • “Do they add dye to make Grassi Lakes so bright?”
      •  “Where can we feed the bears?”

      Be honest, my intrepid tent-trotters, how many of these mistakes surprised you? Any other tips for camping in the Canadian Rockies?

      Send ‘em over, and we’ll be sure to share them with our members!