The Do’s and Don’ts of Car Camping in British Columbia

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When we were searching for a vehicle to road trip cross Canada in, we knew we wanted something that we could sleep in if needed. I hadn’t looked into car camping in British Columbia much before we started and just kind of figured it out as we went along. We had a variety of experiences of where we parked to spend the night and often it was one of the more stressful decisions we’d make in a day. (That being said, our days were not at all stressful, so it didn’t take much to win that title). But seriously, we didn’t know the area, we didn’t want to cause any trouble; we just wanted to be safe while we slept.

Here’s a summary of where we car camped in various cities in while road tripping in British Columbia:

Victoria

The first night of our car camping adventure! After a few hiccups in our plans, we arrived in Victoria a few hours later than we’d originally anticipated. We drove around Victoria, watched some kite surfers at Beacon Hill Park, stocked up on some groceries and then looked for a place to park. As the sun was going down, we found a beautiful spot along the coast and watched a stunning sunset – and noticed a significant number of signs that stated “No overnight parking or sleeping in cars”. Didn’t get much clearer than that, we needed to find somewhere else. We hadn’t seen a Wal-mart, which was our back up.

We drove out of town, turned down a random road off the highway out of desperation, and came to another beach – another beach with “you will be ticketed or towed after 11pm” signs.

where to park when car camping in british columbia

As a last resort, we headed back to the rest stop we’d found when we first got off the ferry. It was safe, out of the way and dark. There were also a few other cars around. In the morning, we woke bright and early and rose with the sun. The Explorer offered no light protection at all and it was glaring in.  So we found a Starbucks washroom to borrow and explored the Sidney harbor in the after-sun-rise-glow.

North of Victoria

I was so excited that I got to visit one of my best highschool friends shortly after she delivered her first baby in Victoria. Thom and I stayed until about 9pm, and then hit the road as it started to get dark. We set off in the direction of Tofino, with no real plans.  We drove north along the highway, until we saw signs indicating an RV camping park. It was late, and we were willing to pay $20 to park up safely. Knocking on an old house, the man told me he didn’t have any tent sites open yet and we were better off to carry on 4 kilometers up the road, to Goldstream Provincial Park.

goldstream provincial park while car camping in british columbia

We followed his instructions, and arrived just before the gates were to be locked. We tucked into a little campsite, parked and piled all of our gear up the front.Nestled in amongst the trees allowed us to sleep in until 8am! Wahoo!

Tofino

I’d say we hit the jackpot (that might’ve helped me fall in love with Tofino, too). Before we got into the little town, the lady at the visitors’ center had advised us that to camp at the National Park (Pacific Rim) we’d need to buy park passes, as well as pay for a spot at a campground. We decided to try to find a room for the night in town. My gut instinct was to stay at Tofino Travelers Guesthouse, but Nick was full for that night. Instead he suggested we park across the street from the guesthouse, where the offstreet parking was free. Done!

Nanaimo

Turning up to a new city with the intention of spending the night was daunting. We arrived at about 5pm, plenty of daylight to find our spot. While driving around, we came to a baseball field, which was not being used. The signs on the fence said “Park at your own risk”, which we assumed was referring to during games and risk of the foul balls.

We were in the car the whole time, so if there was a problem, we’d be there to sort it out.

Whistler

It was the Thursday night before the May long weekend when we turned up to Whistler. We got in after 5pm (since we’d spent the afternoon hiking at Capilano Hatchery and Park). We paid for short-term parking and had a look around the village. Neither of us were thrilled with what we saw, and both were pretty hungry.

We drove north towards Pembrooke, unsure of what we were going to do or how far we’d go. Thom noticed a subdivision under construction on a road off to the right. He turned down, and we decided to spend the night parked at the end of the road, out of the way. We weren’t on anyone’s property as such and hoped it wouldn’t be a problem, as Thom built the portable gas barbeque and cooked us up some steaks for dinner. Mmmmm steak and chips with salsa for dinner.

whistler car camping in british columbia

In the morning, the construction crews were carrying on their business building the houses and didn’t even notice us. We made sure we left nothing behind and were off.

Kelowna

As we got into more urban areas, the challenge of where to stay increased as quickly as the population did. We were faced with more and more signs like this:

obstacles faced with car camping in british columbia

We bought groceries in Pentiction and immediately after, the skies opened up and drowned any plans of barbequing. We’d bought a hot chicken from the rotisserie, and ate it like the carnivores that we are; I was ripping greasy bits off the bird and passing them to Thom as we drove on in the darkness. It was nearly 11pm, when I got a text from my Uncle Bruce saying that we could park in his driveway.

Had it not been for him, I have a feeling we might have ended up in the Wal-Mart parking lot for the night.

Revelstoke

After 2 nights in Kelowna (and successfully completely our only mission in the Okanagan) we carried on to visit my cousin Scotty, who was camping with his wife and friends in Revelstoke. We stayed at Williams Lake Campground, so we didn’t have ‘risk’ or search of where to stay. It was certainly a beautiful spot, and we had a ball mini-golfing for the afternoon. I certainly DID NOT get any golf skills from Grandfather, that’s unfortunately for sure. But I did have a heck of a lot of fun.

IMG_9647

In New Zealand it is equally as common to buy a camper van and roadtrip the country, as it is to hire something and do the same. In Canada, there are plenty of RV and camper van style rentals roaming about, but purchasing your own wheels seems to be a less common approach. Car camping in British Columbia was somewhat of a challenge. Not impossible, but definitely different to my experiences in New Zealand.  Which is understandable, seeing as they are different countries and all.

From my experience, here are a few tips of what to do (and not do) if you’re planning a road trip and thinking about car camping in British Columbia

  • Do ask the locals if there’s anywhere they know of or recommend for free overnight parking.
  • Don’t park on private property.
  • Do make sure that you are parked safely off the road and in no ones way.
  • Don’t ignore posted signs. If it says no overnight parking, adhere to that.
  • Do utilize rest areas – that’s what they were designed for.
  • Don’t risk being ticketed or towed. If you’re looking to save money by not paying for a campsite, a ticket is guaranteed to be more expensive.
  • Do check out the local Wal-Mart parking lot if you’re stuck for options
  • Don’t leave any rubbish behind (that’s often a big part of why overnight parking is banned).
  • Do try to find your place to park before dark.
  • Don’t ignore your gut – if you get a bad feeling about a place, you probably shouldn’t be staying there.
  • Do look for less populated areas, where people are less likely to be bothered by you or notice you.

what our car looked like while car camping in british columbia

 

Have any car camping tips of your own? Share them in the comments below!

 

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{ 13 comments… add one }

  • Gaelyn June 21, 2013, 5:12 pm

    Great suggestions. I’ve been RVing for 20 years in the States and often find it difficult to park near towns without paying campground fees. WalMart is always my last resort. Maybe there should be a RVsurfers site for parking on private property.
    Gaelyn recently posted..Exchanging energy at Wild Spirit Backpackers Lodge South AfricaMy Profile

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    • Kate June 22, 2013, 12:48 am

      We also found it way easier/less stressful outside of towns too. I’m pretty sure the no overnight parking rule probably came from inconsiderate people who ruined it for the rest of us… and the fact that others just want to make a buck off anything they can. Just like with couchsurfing, I’m sure there are people who wouldn’t mind sharing. Have you tried couchsurfing and asked to park the RV instead? That might be cool too.

      Reply
  • Rika | Cubicle Throwdown June 21, 2013, 11:37 pm

    Definitely DON’T attempt this in a hatchback Toyota Echo. Just trust me on this one.
    Rika | Cubicle Throwdown recently posted..All Things Edible – My Guest Interview at 20 Years HenceMy Profile

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    • Kate June 22, 2013, 12:50 am

      Hahahaha! I should have thought of that Rika! One of the salesmen while we were shopping around for cars tried to sell us a Suzuki Swift. I told him we were looking for something to sleep in, and he proceeded to lay the drivers seat down 3/4 and said “well could you sleep like this??” *facepalm*

      Reply
  • Jess June 22, 2013, 3:08 am

    I’m planning on doing some car-camping on my roadtrip through the Yukon over the next couple weeks. Of course, it’s easier to find less populated areas there (It’s hard to find ANY populated areas in the Yukon, really) but I’m still a bit worried about finding good spots.
    Jess recently posted..Little Things I Love About: ChicagoMy Profile

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    • Kate June 25, 2013, 6:26 pm

      That’s awesome you’re going to car-camp Jess! I would love to see the Yukon! I’d just be aware of surprising animals, more than people… don’t leave anything around to attract them. We found in the less populated places, there were usually trucker stops, we’d park up beside the 18-wheelers and made the explorer look like an ant next to them!

      Can’t wait to hear about your trip!

      Reply
  • Andrea June 22, 2013, 5:56 am

    Awesome article! I love to get my car camping on as well, and as a BC girl I generally just drive up a logging road for a while and decide “yup, this looks good!” It’s definitely more difficult when you’re in a city or close to a town for sure. Just a note… the town just north of Whistler is called Pemberton FYI! (:
    Happy camping! I’m hoping to get out and explore more of BC this summer too!
    Andrea recently posted..Curious Traveler of the Week: The Dapper TravelerMy Profile

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    • Kate June 25, 2013, 6:34 pm

      Another great suggestion, thanks Andrea! We’ve still got a ways to go yet, so a logging road could very well be in our future. Thanks for pointing my brainfart – I corrected it above (and left in my slip up haha)!

      Will keep a look out to see where you get your car-camp on this summer – so many beautiful options on the west coast, that’s for sure!

      Reply
  • Andrea June 22, 2013, 5:58 am

    After reading the last comment I thought I should share my friends blog about driving across the states and sleeping in a VW Golf… they camperized it!
    Check it out…
    http://curioustogo.com/
    Andrea recently posted..Curious Traveler of the Week: The Dapper TravelerMy Profile

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    • Kate June 25, 2013, 6:36 pm

      WOW that’s pretty impressive! They went hard out! I will have to give a photo tour of our mobile home soon!

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  • Marcia June 25, 2013, 6:26 pm

    Great tips, Kate. I’ll keep the WalMart suggestion in mind the next time I’m on a road trip.
    I love this kind of travel — it’s exciting — though I can imagine you had a few anxious moments when you saw all the No Parking Overnight signs.
    Marcia recently posted..The Breadfruit, Bligh’s Gift to Jamaica and the Mutiny it CausedMy Profile

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    • Kate June 25, 2013, 7:25 pm

      It is very exciting, Marcia! Some probably wouldn’t enjoy the uncertainty of it all, but I have found for me, that it’s made me more willing to ‘go-with-the-flow’ and trust that everything will work out, rather than stress myself out about little things. But yes, I dread those No Overnight Parking signs..

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  • Fleur July 3, 2015, 6:57 pm

    I’d love to sleep in my new car with my girlfriend and we are hoping we might be able to find somewhere near a lake?! Maybe near whistler or pemberton or anywhere a few hours from Vancouver. Anyone have any tips or places they know of where we can just park up and sleep for free or cheap?? Thanks!

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