This March, campers in Canada have reason to get online before they get outside: a new reservation system is designed to make it easier to book campsites at the country’s most popular destinations.
Outdoor adventures offer an antidote to our technology-stressed world, but securing accommodations has been historically harrowing for travelers hoping to camp in beloved locations like Banff National Park.
Demand for campsites increased dramatically during the pandemic, overwhelming the online camping reservation platform used by Parks Canada, the government agency that manages the country's national parks.
As a result, website glitches and crashes became commonplace, dashing the dreams of some al fresco explorers. But there's hope that this is about to change. On March 3, Parks Canada will unveil an improved reservation system, which is designed to alleviate the site's old issues.
The new platform will retain some similar features and functions, with a few notable differences: the interface is better suited for mobile devices, and there's a cap on the number of campsites one can book – a change aimed at making sure reservations are more equitably distributed among would-be campers.
Here's what else you need to know about using the service.
Everyone will need a new Parks Canada account
On March 3, all campers can create an account on the new system by visiting parks.canada.ca. (A new account is necessary to reserve a national park campsite, even if you used the system before.) After creating the account, explore the website so you can navigate quickly while making a reservation.
Return users have until February 26 to log into existing accounts and make note of favorite campsites or activities from previous trips. After that, old accounts — including log-in information — will disappear.
Reservations open on March 13
Parks Canada will launch campsite reservations on dates staggered between March 13 and March 31 — an attempt to prevent the portal from crashing. Visit the website's reservation page for a complete list of launch dates and times.
A virtual queue makes the process as equitable as possible
Thirty minutes before each reservation launch, visitors on the Parks Canada website will be directed to a waiting page. Once reservations begin, they'll be randomly assigned a spot in a virtual queue — the best way to ensure equitable access for all.
When it's your turn to make a reservation, check your preferred campsite's availability and act fast. One person can only add up to five campsites to their virtual cart — a new rule preventing bots and people from buying campsites in bulk. (In 2020, six tour companies made 2,300 reservations in a few hours.)
For anyone attempting to book more than one site for the same date, each site's "primary camper" must have a different name.
Sign up for an alerts service if you don't get your dream site
Failure to secure the ideal date or location doesn't mean you're out of luck. Campnab — a third-party website — monitors campgrounds for cancellations and notifies users when comparable alternatives appear. The service starts at $10 per month.
If a campsite does become available, hop on it. Reservations for popular sites will often get rebooked within minutes.
Mark your calendar to reserve a spot at these must-see parks
You can't go wrong visiting any of Canada's national parks. Their topographical and biological diversity is immense, covering verdant coastlines, snow-capped mountains, and arctic wilds galore. But some parks are more popular than others, and nabbing one of their campsites can be competitive. Here are a few destinations where you should book accommodations as soon as reservations launch.
Banff National Park
Banff is Canada’s crown jewel of outdoor offerings, with turquoise lakes and wildflower fields perched high in the Canadian Rockies. Thousands of campers regularly rush the reservation system as soon as bookings begin. Set your alarm for March 23 at 8 am MT to secure a campsite.
Jasper National Park
Jasper, Banff's rugged next-door neighbor, delights with over 600 miles of hiking trails leading to glaciers, alpine meadows, and forested peaks. Most campsite reservations open on March 16 at 8 am MT.
Yoho National Park
At British Columbia's Yoho National Park, the Lake O'Hara campsite sits in a fragile alpine environment with sky-blue lakes and postcard-perfect vistas. Reservations open on March 28 at 8 am MT. There's also a popular day-use shuttle that brings visitors to the Lake O'Hara area for hiking, which must be booked in advance. Shuttle reservations launch on April 12 at 8 am MT.
Pacific Rim National Park Reserve
Pacific Rim National Park Reserve is British Columbia’s preferred coastal playground for surfing, kayaking, and hiking. Thanks to its unspoiled shores and emerald forests, campsites here go fast. Reservations open on March 13 at 8 am PT.
But plenty of parks don't require reservations
No time for early planning or digital queues? No problem. Many places in the national park system offer first-come, first-serve campsites — including a limited number at all the parks listed here. But don't assume these spots are easy to get. Double-check that the park you're visiting offers last-minute accommodations and always arrive early to secure a site. Parks Canada has plenty of information about camping across the country.