Want to make the transition from “car camper” to backpacker? Let my adventures as an accidental off-the-grid camper teach you to plan your next expedition to BC’s camping treasures.
It was a turning point in our relationship. Perched on a cooler at the trailhead, my boyfriend of two years checked out the terrain ahead. “We can do this,” he proclaimed with trademark positivity. “We’ll just hike all this stuff in.”
Surrounded by baskets, a guitar, our Hibachi, and a mammoth Coleman cooler, we were at the crossroads. And it was entirely my fault.
Hastily planning the getaway, I’d made a terrible blunder. In rushed internet searches I’d confused “Beaumont Marine Park” (now part of Gulf Islands National Park Reserve) with “Beaumont Provincial Park” in the Nechako Plateau. I’d used one website to read up on the marine park (our intended destination), and another to reserve a car-friendly site at the provincial park (actually hundreds of kilometres away in Northern BC).
Now at the trail entrance to the park on Pender Island, we’d had to leave our car on a gravel access road, and were contemplating the only ways in: by sea, or by foot.
We were fresh out of yachts – it was either hike in, or go home.
Reluctantly, we chose to hike in. We scoffed at the warning sign (“for experienced hikers only”) and lugged the Coleman cooler between us like a broken capital “H”. A few bruises and two hours later, we reached the spot. And what a spot! We found graded sites, picnic benches, spotless outhouses, and tracks snaking down to a pristine pebbled cove. It was virtually empty.
Matt doubled back for the guitar and our water jugs while I hastily cobbled together our flimsy pop tent and tarps. Sweaty, hungry, and exhausted, we crashed after a dinner of trail mix.
It could have been a disaster. But we had fallen in love; with each other, and the spot. It was quiet, relatively isolated, and only a day’s ferry ride from home.
The next year we vowed to learn from our mistakes. We bought a few things that transformed us from car campers to a more mobile breed (list at bottom). Donning new equipment and sportier clothing, we set off for a beautiful hike-in, and were richly rewarded.
Going the extra distance yielded private coves and quiet campsites, romance and fresh air. Our relationship had endured that rocky first adventure; we could learn from our mistakes, and stick together through it all.
We got married the next summer. Next came the house and the baby carriage.
But our daughter’s second birthday brought sure-footedness and a thirst for family-friendly adventure. Having decided to plan a trip somewhere new, I set off to do some proper research.
I started with Parks Canada: their Beaumont Marine Park had sparked our love affair with remote sites. I spoke with Francine Burnett from the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve who confirmed what we’d experienced our first time out – pre-trip research and planning is critical.
She also explained that unlike BC Parks, Parks Canada sites are not distinct campgrounds but pieces of a larger parks reserve system.
“There’s a different experience for every type of camper,” she explained, “and many of our sites are remote. Some parcels, such as Beaumont, could be daunting for car campers but are perfect for hikers and boaters. It’s critical to look at the access map and confirm you’ll be able to reach the sites.”
“For instance,” she elaborated, “Gulf Islands National Park Reserve actually does offer car camping on Pender Island – at Prior Centennial Campground.”
I took a spin through the Gulf Islands Reserve online at www.parkscanada.gc.ca/gulf . Clicking on “visitor information” I found hours of operation, travel info, tips on wildlife viewing, and brochures with detailed camping and hiking information. The interactive flash map (www.pc.gc.ca/eng/pn-np/bc/gulf/carte-map-fl.aspx) added an element of fun to the planning experience.
But with over 36 square kilometres of protected lands and waterways on 15 islands, where should we go next?
Francine recommended Sidney Spit as “a favourite with families; the intertidal areas create a natural waterpark and it’s accessible by a foot passenger ferry.” She added that more adventurous visitors may want to travel by bike directly from BC Ferries to Mayne Island or Saturna Island –trips easily planned using the website.
In most cases, you’ll have to do a little more work than a “car campsite” – pack-in, pack-out (leave nothing behind); store food and garbage away from camp; observe posted fire safety and water safety guidelines. In learning this, I felt a blush of genuine embarrassment. On our first ill-planned trip, we’d ignored signs that said ‘no fires’ and started a fire in our hibachi (tank removed) in an attempt to stay warm.
Francine’s final recommendations? “Always bring your own drinking water, and when in doubt, call the parks office for advice or brochures.”
Inspired to explore the rest of the province, I let my fingers do the walking and discovered BC’s “backcountry playground” on Recreation Sites and Trails BC (sitesandtrailsbc.ca). They offer guides to site use, fire safety, co-existing with active logging, and off-roading.
Having learned that the internet is but one tool for trip planning, I placed a call to Charlie Cornfield, Recreation Officer, who started our chat with advice I’d learned the hard way: “too little research can be a dangerous thing”.
Maps are critical, says Charlie. “First you can use tools like Google Earth to get an overview, then layer in more detail through interactive maps like the one on sitesandtrailsbc.ca. To complete the picture, try Mapbooks, or search and rescue maps from different regional groups.”
The next step, according to Charlie, is to make phone calls, especially when it comes to using resource (logging and mining) roads. “There’s nothing like talking to someone who’s been there,” he says. “GPS is good for showing where you are on the face of the earth but resource roads shift constantly. Call the local district office and ask what’s open, and the classification. Is it 2-wheel drive, rough 2-wheel, or 4-wheel? Don’t get stuck driving a 4-wheel drive road in the family sedan!”
As with many campsites in BC, it pays to check on campfire bans and burning notices (which dictate the size of fires in the wild). You can visit www.bcwildfire.ca for up-to-date wildfires of note, restrictions, and tips on wildfire prevention.
Then, before you pack, check the Environment Canada Weather Office (weatheroffice.gc.ca) so your gear is the right match for the conditions. And use the local Visitor Centre to round out the picture.
Just as Francine noted Sidney Spit works better for families than remote sites, Charlie has stories of travellers caught unawares. “I was at the local visitor centre speaking with a French couple with two small children and a stroller. They were used to hiking in Europe, with paved trails, rest stops – it’s a different experience. They’d heard about a beach route and were looking at a map, thinking they could tackle it in an afternoon, stroller in tow.”
“What you couldn’t tell from that map is it’s really a six-day wilderness hike and totally remote, so I dissuaded them and recommended a family-friendly day hike. If we hadn’t spoken, they’d have been stuck with no supplies, lugging a stroller and two little ones through the bush.”
I could relate.
Thoroughly convinced of the importance of research, I set off to spend some time online. In addition to all the great information on Parks Canada and BC’s Recreation Sites and trails I visited a tried-and-true: BC Parks, which celebrated their 100th birthday in 2011.
A visit to www.bcparks.ca yielded over 1000 park listings with extensive off-the-grid, walk-in, marine, and family-friendly experiences. I also enjoyed insider information in the form of videos from real park rangers. Given my mission to introduce my daughter to camping, I was thrilled to learn about the free BC Parks Passport. Not only is this a great guide to camping in BC, families can collect stamps and stickers in exchange for prizes.
With maps, web addresses, and even a passport in hand, I was certainly feeling more prepared than ever. But before I finalized our trip I remembered a fun final step that both Charlie and Francine had mentioned: connecting with other like-minded campers. I jumped on www.facebook.com/bccampingrvcoalition and was able to read up on other people’s experiences – and share mine.
This summer we can’t wait to introduce our daughter to the beautiful playground of a province we call home. But we’ll do our homework first.
Because if I’ve learned one thing through my blunders and research, it’s that a trip well planned is a trip enjoyed. It may seem paradoxical that something as carefree as striking out for wilderness requires meticulous planning. But as the Scandinavians say, there’s no bad weather, just bad clothing.
“People seek out remote sites for a peaceful, relaxing time away from it all,” concludes Charlie. “The whole point is to eliminate the stress ahead of time. And the best way to do this is to plan, plan, plan.”
Planning to make the transition from car camper to adventurer? Here’s what we bought:
- His-and-hers multi-day alpine backpacks (a ‘Camelpack’ is also a great idea).
- Comfortable, lightweight trail shoes.
- Soft-side water case (full) and water treatment tablets in case you run out. (Note: sites like Beaumont do not have freshwater on hand, so bringing sufficient drinking water is essential.)
- A trail stove (a metal ‘claw’ that screws onto a lightweight gas pack).
- Collapsible cookware (3 pans makes a meal – then just eat from the pan!).
- Mining lights (the flashlights you wear on your head).
- A small cooler bag and icepacks.
- Micro towels.
- Higher-quality, compact sleeping bags.
- Lighter-weight waterproof tarps.
- Ropes and bungee cords.
- Instant coffee (snobbery gives way to practicality – carrying beans and a grinder is too much work).
- Freezer bags (a great way to squish, compartmentalize, and waterproof your stuff).
If you’re already into camping, you probably have some of this gear already. And for some great tips on buying a tent and setting up camp, see www.campingrvbc.com/how/tenting/.
Here are some sites we’ve used to plan camping trips in BC.
Camping Planning and Information
BC Parks www.bcparks.ca
An online guide to BC’s over 1000 parks with a range of experiences from rustic to vehicle-friendly.
Camping and RVing in BC www.campingrvbc.com
This site offers an integrated search of all BC camping opportunities, be they through BC Parks (provincial campgrounds), Privately Operated Campgrounds and RV Parks (including municipal campgrounds), Parks Canada (national campgrounds), and Recreation Sites and Trails BC (operated by the provincial government).
Camping and RV Coalition on Facebook www.facebook.com/bccampingrvcoalition
Connect with like-minded campers exploring British Columbia.
Gulf Islands National Park Reserve of Canada www.parkscanada.gc.ca/gulf
A “Real. Inspiring” look at this small park reserve, which includes thirty-six square kilometres of land and marine area on fifteen islands, numerous islets, and reefs.
Recreation Sites and Trails BC www.sitesandtrailsbc.ca
Learn more about BC’s backcountry playground.
Recreation Sites and Trails on Facebook www.facebook.com/BCRecSitesandTrails
Like discovering new spots? “Like” this page!
General Info, Maps and Weather
Backroad Mapbooks www.backroadmapbooks.com
Order print or PDF maps of regions to add a level of detail to your planning process.
BC Maps – Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure www.th.gov.bc.ca/popular-topics/maps/bcmaps.htm
A list of BC map sources including regional and district boundary maps and contact info for each, Hello BC Maps (Tourism BC), a map gallery, and a simple map of all the numbered highways in BC.
BC Visitor Centres https://www.hellobc.com/plan-your-trip/visitor-information-services
Visitor Centres specialize in community information and provincial itinerary planning and their service is friendly and personalized.
Environment Canada Weather Office Online www.weatheroffice.gc.ca
A searchable map of current conditions and forecasts, with warnings, marine info, air quality, and other resources.
Google Earth earth.google.com
Lets you fly anywhere on Earth to view satellite imagery, maps, terrain, and 3D buildings.
BC Marine Trails Network www.bcmarinetrails.org
A BC-based registered society dedicated to the creation of a marine network of campsites and access points along the coastline of British Columbia. The site features an interactive map with numbered stop points.
Freshwater Fishing Society of BC www.gofishbc.com
Each year, the Freshwater Fisheries Society of BC (FFSBC) stocks about 800 lakes and streams throughout BC. Their site provides info on how to fish, where to fish, and a link to applying for a licence.
Images and Credits:
IMG_7195.jpg – “Sidney Spit”, credit: Christian J. Stewart/Parks Canada
BC-GI_071030_4079.JPG –“Beaumont Marine Park”, credit: Chris Cheadle/Parks Canada
Chilcotin River Camping, credit: Province of BC
Logging Truck Saftety, credit: Province of BC
BeaumontBeaware.jpg – credit (none needed, belongs to Morgan Westcott)