Camping on Vancouver Island – Everything You Need to Know Before You Go

Find out where to camp and get tips for making your trip amazing

blog image with text overlay camping on vancouver island

Camping on Vancouver Island is spectacular! No matter how you choose to go — with an RV, car camping, bicycle touring, or by foot — you’ll find tons of options to suit you. Read this guide for everything you need to know to plan a camping trip to Vancouver Island.

What’s in our guide to camping on Vancouver Island?

We LOVE Vancouver Island! Though we’ve travelled the world, there’s nowhere as beautiful or as welcoming. It’s really true that there’s no place like home.

Though the island’s towns and cities are fun, the best way to experience the full wonders of Vancouver Island is by immersing yourself in nature on a camping trip!

We spent 6 weeks this summer exploring the highways, byways, and backroads of Vancouver Island by bicycle, getting to experience it in a whole new way. Even though Vancouver Island is like home to us, we discovered many places that we’d never heard of before, and learned so much about the culture and history.

Because we camped almost every night, we have a ton to share when it comes to finding your perfect Vancouver Island campground and having an amazing time on your trip.

So read on for your complete guide to…

Camping on Vancouver Island – Everything You Need to Know Before You Go

Also don’t miss these posts:

11 things to do on Vancouver Island →
7 free things to do in Vancouver →
3 amazing Vancouver bike routes

Types of Campgrounds on Vancouver Island

sunset over muchalat lake
This view, at Muchalat Lake, is what you can routinely expect when you’re camping on Vancouver Island.

Most people are only aware of a small subset of campgrounds available on Vancouver Island — provincial park campgrounds. It wasn’t until we were on the road, talking to locals, that we discovered there are lots of other types of camping available, too.

In this section, we cover your options for camping on Vancouver Island and share a few tips and tricks to secure the best spots!

BC Provincial Campgrounds in Provincial Parks

man at a picnic table and tent
Most provincial campsites look a lot like this one. Picnic table, trees, and a flat place to put your tent.

When you start your search for camping on Vancouver Island, provincial park campgrounds are likely to be the first ones you find. Vancouver Island has plenty of provincial parks to choose from, though be aware that not all provincial parks have campgrounds — many are for day use only.

The island’s provincial campgrounds are usually well organized and provide large, tidy camping spaces. The spaces tend to be fairly private too, set apart from the neighbours by trees and underbrush. Most parks offer vehicle-accessible camping, some have a few walk-in or bicycle camping spots, and others are only available to boaters or hikers.

See our Marine Campgrounds and Backcountry Camping sections below for details on hike-in and boat-in camping in BC.

There are a handful of regional and national park campgrounds on Vancouver Island too, but we’re lumping them in with the provincial parks because they are usually pretty much the same.

Cost for camping in BC Provincial Parks

Provincial campgrounds on Vancouver Island are budget friendly.

In low season, which runs from around November to March, provincial campsites can be free or cost around $10–15 per party. In high season, costs usually double, and campsites run from $15–30 depending on location and amenities.

Pro tip: Most provincial parks campgrounds are cash-only, so stop at the ATM before you head into the wilderness.

Facilities at BC provincial campgrounds (and national and regional campgrounds)

Most Vancouver Island provincial park campgrounds have:

  • One picnic table per site
  • Flat, hard packed dirt and gravel surface for camping
  • Pit toilets or flush toilets
  • Fresh water source, from well or tap
  • Dumping station for RVs
  • Fire pits (no fires allowed during campfire bans)
  • A few have free, hot showers

In high season, you also might find:

  • On-site host or staff that visit twice per day
  • Naturalist programs for kids (not common any more but there are still a few)

Water and power hookups for RVs are not available in most provincial campgrounds.

Provincial Parks campgrounds are best for

BC’s Provincial Park seem to be designed for RVers who don’t mind not being connected to water or power. The large, flat campsites are usually easy to pull into with an RV or trailer and the gravel surfaces are perfect for big vehicles.

Car campers with tents will also enjoy these campsites. However, the groomed gravel sites are not ideal for tents, and we wish the provincial parks would invest in some grass or dirt sites! You’ll want to bring a mallet for your tent stakes or be prepared to hammer them in with a rock, since the surfaces are very hard packed.

Do you need reservations to camp at Vancouver Island provincial parks?

Before we set out on our summer Vancouver Island bike trip, we had heard that getting a campsite in BC during summer was next to impossible without booking ahead.

We were relieved to find that, generally, these warnings were exaggerated.

The most popular campgrounds become fully booked on the busiest weekends almost as soon as reservations open in the spring. However, if you’re travelling during the week or to less busy areas, you can usually get a space on the day you arrive.

Pro tip: If you’re worried about getting a spot and don’t have a reservation, show up before 11am, which is check-out time.

You should definitely book ahead if:

  • You’re planning on camping at a popular campground — usually the ones closest to cities, on the South Island, or with spectacular beach access — on a summer weekend
  • You need more than one campsite and you want them to be together
  • You are travelling with kids and don’t want to risk not getting a campsite

Make reservations for BC provincial parks here

You don’t need to reserve a campground if:

  • You’re travelling in winter or shoulder season (May, June, September, October)
  • You don’t mind making alternative plans at the last minute
  • You are camping off the beaten track

Other things you should know about BC provincial parks

Note that no two parks are alike. Rules, facilities, opening dates, and almost everything else vary from park to park. To find out what you’re getting, check the BC Parks website for all the details.

Private Campgrounds & RV Parks

view over the ocean on Vancouver Island
If you’re looking for ocean views like this, you’ll have the most luck at private campgrounds on Vancouver Island. This is at Lighthouse RV Park in Fanny Bay.

In addition to the provincial campgrounds on Vancouver Island, there are plenty of privately owned campgrounds and RV parks. These are usually geared towards RV campers who want hookups.

Many private campgrounds will not accept tent campers because they can make more money from RV camping or they don’t have tent sites. However, if you find a privately owned campground that does accept tents, it can make a nice change of pace as they offer more services and sometimes more convenient locations.

Cost for camping in private campgrounds in BC

For RVs, with hookups, the high season cost in private RV parks is $50–100/night. Sites on the South Island and near cities usually cost more, though you’ll also pay a premium for ocean-front sites on most of the island. Many private campgrounds offer low season rates which can be up to 50% off the summer rate.

Some private campgrounds offer a reduced rate for tent campers, which can range from $20–50 depending on the location.

Facilities at Vancouver Island private campgrounds

Most private campgrounds have:

  • Flat, gravel-lined surface for camping / RV
  • Indoor flush toilets
  • Hot showers, usually paid
  • Free WiFi
  • Laundry, usually paid
  • Water and power hookups for RVs
  • Dumping station for RVs

Private campgrounds are best for

Vancouver Island’s private campgrounds are definitely geared towards RVers and many people rent a space by the month so they can spend the whole summer or visit every weekend. For tent campers, they can be useful if you really want a shower and WiFi for a night.

Do you need reservations at private campgrounds on Vancouver Island?

In high season, it’s always best to call ahead to private campgrounds, since they might be fully booked. In low season, it’s worth calling before you arrive so the owners know you are coming — or there’s a chance they might not be open when you get there.

Forestry Campsites / Recreation Sites

forestry campground on Vancouver Island
This campsite, not far from Campbell River had enough space for 2 camping parties and was absolutely free!

Recreation sites (known in local parlance as ‘rec sites’) are our favourite types of campground on Vancouver Island — and amazingly, they’re still a well-kept secret. Many locals don’t even know they exist!

Rec sites are organized campsites on land usually owned by forestry companies, but… most of them don’t charge any fees! Yup, you read that right. Most rec sites offer camping facilities for free. Hooray!

The recreation sites on Vancouver Island are usually off the beaten track and almost always next to a pretty (and totally swimmable) lake.

They are usually maintained by employees of the forestry company who leases the land or directly by BC Parks.

Cost for camping at forestry sites

Usually completely free, but a few have started charging $10–15/night per party.

Facilities at BC forestry campgrounds

Most forestry campgrounds have:

  • Designated spaces for tent camping, car camping or camper vans
  • Picnic tables at each campsite (not always available)
  • Pit toilets with toilet paper (but it sometimes runs out)
  • Gorgeous lakeside locations for boating and swimming

You will NOT find:

  • Cell service: none of the sites we stayed in had it, so prepare for a digital detox.
  • Drinking water: Bring lots of drinking water from home or the nearest town. If you run out, visit a nearby provincial campground to fill up your water containers.
  • Nearby services: Rec sites are usually far from towns and cities, so you’ll have to schlep a good distance for groceries and other supplies. If you’re biking, bring enough food to last for your entire stay.

Pro tip: If you run out of water or some other necessity, ask your fellow campers for a hand. Canadians are extremely generous! We were given water refills from other campers and someone even loaned us their pick-up truck (yes, really!) so we could go get groceries during a massive rainstorm.

Forestry campgrounds are best for

These campgrounds are usually off in wilder areas of Vancouver Island. You won’t find many down south, but north of Campbell River, rec sites are more common than provincial parks or private campgrounds. Because of that, they’re best if you want to get away from it all and spend some time in true nature.

Only one of the rec sites we went to was suitable for RVs — and that one had a $15/night fee. Most are perfect for cyclists, car campers, or small camper vans.

Do you need reservations to camp at BC forestry campgrounds?

No. In fact, reservations are not possible at BC rec sites. On our summer trip, we rarely found them to be full, even on weekend nights. Also, the set-up is relatively casual, so even if the official spots are all full, you can probably find a place to park and set up your tent.

woman on a swing overlooking a lake on Vancouver Island
The area around Campbell Lakes has plenty of rec sites — this one even came with its own swing!

Other things you should know about BC forestry campgrounds

Since these rec sites are owned and operated by a variety of different organizations, it’s hard to find a comprehensive list or map of their locations.

The best source of information is in the Vancouver Island Backroads Mapbook. You can buy it online or find it at general stores and gas stations, especially on the north island. We’ve heard a rumour that this book might not be in print anymore but for the time being there seems to be plenty of copies available.

Since we were cycling and didn’t want to carry a big book, we relied on two other sources for information about rec sites:

  • The Recreation Sites and Trails BC website has an interactive map which shows a fairly comprehensive view of the available sites.
  • The Maps.me app shows some sites that are missing from the official websites and can be used offline.

Marine Campgrounds

man swimming in a lake on vancouver island
One night we wild camped alongside this lake in Strathcona, with no one else around for miles. Perfect chance to go skinny dipping!

If you’re a kayaker, sailor, or travelling by any kind of boat, Vancouver Island’s marine campgrounds are perfect for you. Most are accessible only by boat, meaning that you’ll often have the place to yourself, even in summer. Usually, the only facilities are a pit toilet, and sometimes there’s nothing but a place to put up your tent on the shoreline.

Most are free, though some have a pay box where you need to insert $10 or so for your camping fee. Bring small bills!

You can also register online before you go for some of the more popular marine sites.

Backcountry Camping

Like marine campsites, backcountry camping is perfect for those who want a truly immersive nature experience. These campgrounds are only accessible on foot, usually requiring a day’s hike or more.

Facilities are limited, though you might find tent pads, picnic tables and pit toilets. Backcountry sites are often free or cost $5–10 depending on season and location.

You can also register online before you go for some of the more popular backcountry sites.

You will definitely need the equipment and knowledge to purify water as you’ll be drinking from natural fresh water sources along the trail.

Don’t set off on a backcountry trip in Canada unless you know what you’re doing! You need the right supplies, equipment, and knowledge to survive in the Canadian wilderness — this isn’t anything like a country walk in Europe!

Wild Camping or Free Camping

woman looking out over a lake
We never got tired of the beautiful places to camp!

Wild Camping for RVs

On Vancouver Island, if you’re just looking for a place to pull over for the night, you’ll have no problem finding one.

Many roadside rest-stops, which come equipped with picnic tables, pit toilets, and often gorgeous views, allow you to park for up to 8 hours over night.

If you’re away from Vancouver Island’s main roads, you can park almost anywhere you find a pullout (that’s not on private property) and no one will bother you for the night. While not strictly “allowed”, it’s unlikely you’ll face any worse punishment than a polite Canadian request to move along.

Wild Camping for Tent Campers

While RVers can easily pull over at rest stops and sometimes even regional parks for the night, tent campers are not as welcome. On our bike trip around BC, we saw many perfect-looking spots, then discovered that big “no tents” sign!

On the central and north island, where there are fewer people, you’ll find better opportunities for wild camping in your tent.

The rule in BC is that you are welcome to camp on crown land (land owned by the province) unless it is a park or reserve, or it is leased by someone else (often forestry companies). You cannot camp on private land, so keep an eye out for “Private Property” signs.

There’s no master map of where these crown lands might start and end, so it’s best just to use your wits and your instinct. Don’t camp near homes or other buildings, don’t camp if you see a private property sign, and don’t try to sneakily camp in a provincial or regional park.

There is so much empty space on Vancouver Island that you’ll find plenty of opportunity for wild camping.

However, with all the forestry rec sites around, it’s hardly necessary. On our 7-week bike trip, we only wild camped two nights and both of those were within easy reach of free rec sites — we just wanted to get away from people for a bit.

tent in the forest on Vancouver Island
This was one of our wild camping spots, near Strathcona Provincial Park, right in the centre of Vancouver Island.

Wild Camping for Hikers and Boaters

If you’re doing a long-distance hike or kayak trip, then you’ll have ample opportunities for wild camping. You can pull up on any beach or camp alongside the trail — and there won’t be any people around to see or care that you are there.

Pro tip: No matter where you wild camp, please follow the guidelines for leaving no trace and avoiding nasty experiences with wildlife!

Glamping on Vancouver Island

The Happy Bell Tent in Nanaimo offers a luxe glamping experience. Photo via Booking.com.

If you can’t be doing with pit toilets and shower-free weeks, you can still get a taste of camping on Vancouver Island by glamping. It might be a horrible word but I do like to stay in a fancy tent with soft comfy sheets!

Glamping sites offer ‘camping’ in tent cabins, yurts, or small wooden cabins, and include all the amenities, like hot showers, running water, and WiFi. You’ll probably also get a picnic table and a propane barbecue to use. Some of the more glam sites even let you have your own private bathroom.

The downside is that glamping on Vancouver Island can easily cost as much (or more) than a nice hotel or B&B. Expect to pay anywhere from $125–$250/night for your glamorous camping experience.

What to Bring for a BC Camping Trip

This isn’t a comprehensive camping gear list — I think you’re smart enough to know if you need a tent and a sleeping bag — but the list below includes the essentials that are specific to camping in BC.

Note for cyclists: This is my car camping list. For cycling, you’ll want to leave the heavier stuff at home!

Tarp and ropes: It rains an awful lot in BC, so most tent campers string up a tarp over their tent or their picnic table to provide an extra layer of shelter.

Mallet: If you’ll be camping in provincial parks a lot, where the sites are hard-packed dirt and gravel, a camping mallet is very useful to help you get those tent pegs into the ground.

Camp stove: During the summer months, there is often a campfire ban in place, because of excessive forest fire risk. That means that you shouldn’t plan to cook over an open fire — instead, bring your camp stove to create your gourmet camp meals. We love our Trangia alcohol stove and pot set!

Bathing suit and towel: You will be camping alongside rivers, lakes, and the ocean if you’re on Vancouver Island, and most of these are perfect for an early morning dip or an afternoon swim.

Earplugs: We have been ear-witness to everything you can imagine in Vancouver Island campgrounds — from late-night brawls to early morning baby squalls, to crows feasting on neighbouring campers poorly stowed food. Earplugs will help you get a good night’s sleep.

Headlamp or flashlight: Vancouver Island’s campgrounds tend to be very dark at night, with few / no lights. So to guide you on your late-night trip to the outhouse, you’re going to need a headlamp or flashlight.

Bug spray: Compared to most of Canada, Vancouver Island has very few bothersome insects. We only encountered a few mosquitos and biting flies during our 6-week trip. However, when you do find them, they come in droves, so it’s nice to have a little repellent on hand.

First-aid kit: It’s easy to get scrapes, bumps, and cuts while camping — not to mention bad burns, sprains, and breaks. Bring a camping first-aid kit and know how to use it.

Rain gear: Did we mention it rains a lot in BC? Bringing a good rain jacket and water resistant pants will make your camping trip immeasurably better!

Growler: Vancouver Island has an amazing selection of craft breweries and cideries — bring your growler so you can experience some of the world’s best beer around the campfire.

Camping Etiquette on Vancouver Island

no smoking sign in BC campground
The rules in provincial campgrounds are pretty clear… please follow them!

Campgrounds on Vancouver Island (and all across Canada) are designed for families to get out of the city and into nature. Because of that, there is some etiquette you should follow so you don’t get angry glares from your fellow campers.

(Yeah, we Canadians are nice, but if you contravene our social rules, you’ll get the stink-eye!)

Amplified music: Unless you are camping in a group campsite away from other people, don’t play amplified music. Even quietly. Even during the day. No one (and I mean no one) wants to hear Hotel California from your tinny portable speakers while they’re trying to enjoy a bit of peace and quiet in nature.

Quiet times: Most campgrounds have posted times when you need to be quiet, but the best rule of thumb is to be quiet once it gets dark and before 8am. People tend to go to bed early while camping, so quiet means silent — your voice carries a long way through a campground at night.

Follow all the rules: Vancouver Island provincial parks have a LOT of rules and they are clearly posted for everyone to read. They are there to ensure everyone has a great time camping. So please read and respect the rules — they do mean YOU.

Stay on designated trails: Especially in parks, it’s crucial that you don’t go running off into the forest (and that means your kids and dogs, too) as these are sensitive eco-systems. Tearing up the fragile forest floor with your running shoes or your dirt bike is not OK.

Smoking: Smoke only where allowed — which usually means inside your designated campsite. Smoking can cause forest fires and, honestly, it just annoys most Canadians.

Pets: Keep dogs on a leash at all times. I’ll say it again — keep them on a leash, even if you see other dogs running free. Off-leash dogs disturb wildlife, poop in places where kids play, and bark a lot. I know you want Fido to run free and wild, but that’s what dog parks are for.

Fires: When there is a fire ban, do not light a campfire! You could be responsible for starting a forest fire that burns thousands of acres and risks local’s lives. Also, don’t burn wood from the beach or the forest — this wood is part of the ecosystem and living creatures rely on it. Finally, only light a fire in a designated fire pit.

Ask if you need something: The rumours are true, people in Canada are very helpful and friendly. If you forgot something or you need a hand, just ask — you’ll probably get more help than you know what to do with.

5 Tips for Being a Responsible Camper

campfire in a steel ring
If you have a campfire, make sure to do it in a designated fire pit to avoid starting a forest fire!

Before you go camping on Vancouver Island, please read these tips and commit to following them:

1. Leave no trace: Of course you’re going to pack out your garbage or put it in designated bins. You should also be prepared to take home your recyclables when possible, as BC’s campgrounds do not provide recycling facilities. But do you know the other Leave No Trace principles? Please read them before you camp!

2. Using nature’s toilet: Doing your business squatting in the forest is an experience I think everyone should try! However, if you use toilet paper, be prepared and pack it out. Do not leave your toilet paper sitting behind a tree or buried under a rock. It can take years to bio-degrade and spoils the forest for the next person who comes along. Also, if you do a number 2, you need to bury that crap! Bring along a small shovel on backcountry trips or dig a hole with a stick.

3. Responsible recreation: ATVs and dirt bikes are super popular on Vancouver Island but before you hop on, be aware of the damage they can do to the forest floor. Only ride on backroads or designated trails, please. One of our wild campsites was invaded by ATVers, and they left the forest floor in tatters, having torn up moss, mushrooms, and small plants all along their route.

4. Keep your food stored properly: We have seen way too many campsites ravaged by crows, raccoons and seagulls in our time. You cannot leave ANY food unattended on your picnic table, including food still inside its plastic wrapper. Not only will you attract small scavengers, but you could return to your campsite to find a hungry bear. Instead, keep food locked in the car or stowed away properly. In bear prone areas, you’ll need to use a bear container or hang your food out of reach.

5. Respect water sources: Avoid putting anything straight into the water, including food scraps, toothpaste, soap, or human waste. All of this stuff affects the fragile balance of the ecosystem. Plus, the water might be used as a drinking water source by local communities!

A Final Word About Camping on Vancouver Island

sunset on a vancouver island beach
Please camp responsibly to help preserve the beauty of Vancouver Island.

We’ve camped all around the world but we can’t think of a better place to go camping than Vancouver Island. There are hundreds of campgrounds to fit every camper’s style. Facilities are excellent and the nature here is unparalleled. Plus, when you get sick of being outside, there’s usually a speciality coffee shop or a craft brewery just a short drive away!

To make sure you have the best possible time camping on Vancouver Island, choose your site or style of campground carefully, pack the right gear, follow our etiquette tips above, and make sure you camp responsibly.

We hope our guide to camping on Vancouver Island is helpful when you plan your trip. If you have any questions for us that we didn’t answer above, feel free to send us an email or hit us up on social media!

♥  Happy mindful adventures, Jane & Stephen

We’re not going to lie, it takes a LOT of work to create travel guides like this. But it’s easy to help us out! If you book or buy something using one of our personal links in this post, we’ll earn a small fee at no extra cost to you. Of course, we would never recommend anything we didn’t 100% believe in! Huge thanks in advance! –S&J

Camping on Vancouver Island is unbeatable! If you want an incredible nature experience in one of the most beautiful places on earth, this is it! Click to discover our best tips and info for having a fabulous trip. #camping #britishcolumbia #vancouverisland #travel #myfiveacres #mindfultravel
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