If you’re drawn to a challenge, and are somewhat survival savvy, you might consider winter camping in BC. Many campgrounds in BC are open year round. Rates are cheaper and crowds are thinner.
Be warned that winter camping isn’t easy despite what you have heard about BC’s “mild” climate. Weather in BC is unpredictable, there are avalanches and snow tires or chains are required on most highways. If you’re renting a vehicle you might want to ask about four-wheel drive and snow tires. Generally rental car agencies will not put snow tires on their vehicles even if they know you are going to access a highway. If you’re not camping in an area with winter snow, that means you’re in an area with winter rain.
Every year people get lost in the backcountry and have to be rescued at great expense by volunteer rescuers. Stay out of the news by recognizing the limits of your knowledge, gear, and abilities. Days are short. At the darkest point of the year you can expect daylight from around 8 am to 4:30 pm. Let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return and don’t rely on your phone, because it probably will not work.
However, winter camping can be a tranquil experience. Imagine watching the storms on the west coast’s vast ocean beaches, snowshoeing through untouched trails or looking up and seeing the Milky Way far from the city lights.
Camping is available in national parks, provincial parks, designated Crown land recreation sites and private campgrounds. Sites can be either backcountry or “front country” (meaning close to roads and accessible by vehicle). You can stay in a cabin, take over a backcountry trail hut, rent an RV or trailer or, for true campers, pitch a tent.
If you are planning on camping in the backcountry you should be experienced and prepared. If you aren’t, find clubs, courses and groups you can join and learn the skills gradually. You might be able to arrange a trip with an experienced group or person.
BC Parks are managed by the province and are very popular with visitors and residents alike. It can be very difficult to reserve a place in the summer. In the winter, some parks remain open. These include front country spots and backcountry spots. Backcountry can be accessed by snowshoe or ski if you are in a snowy area. Some parks have backcountry cabins that are open for trekkers in the winter.
BC Parks are located on some of the most environmentally significant areas such as lakes and rivers, ocean shores and unique wildlife habitats. If you go, make sure to leave the area the way you found it.
Even if the parks are open, you likely won’t find a lot of services available. Generally they do not offer sani-stations, firewood, concessions, rentals, or programming in the winter. Fees are usually reduced to reflect this fact.
Temperatures are mild with a low around zero degrees, but you can expect plenty of rain in the winter. Higher elevations receive snow. If you are travelling outside of the Victoria area, you may want to be prepared. Winds can be strong near the shore, so try to pick a spot further inland and protected by trees. In the winter, people go to Tofino and Ucluelet for storm watching.
If you want to go into town during the day, Goldstream Provincial Park is a perfect distance for visiting the capital, Victoria. It’s only 16 kilometres from the city centre. The campground is open, but services are limited.
Backcountry camping is allowed in Strathcona Provincial Park, a rugged and mountainous park located in the island interior. The park has designated backcountry sites, or you can camp as long as you are farther than one kilometre from the road.
The Thompson Okanagan is highly accessible with an international airport located in Kelowna and major highways providing access from Vancouver. In the summer, it’s dry and even desert-like in areas. In the winter there is cold, ice and snow. Bring your skis and snowshoes on this winter adventure. There are plenty of mountains and ski resorts in this area.
South Coast and Coastal Mountains
The South Coast has mild temperatures and rain with snow in the higher elevations. E.C. Manning Provincial Park is a nearby option with heavy snowfall during the winter. Tent winter camping is available at the Lone Duck 1 campground. RVs can use the Lightning Lake Day-use parking lot. Warm up during the day with skiing or snowshoeing.
Garibaldi Provincial Park is a popular alpine destination. Camping is in designated areas only and you will need a backcountry permit to camp in the offseason. Also, roads are not plowed in the winter. There is a hut with heat and electricity at Elfin Lakes that is open year round and requires reservations. There are also huts at Wedgemount Lake and Russet Lake that do not require reservations.
If you want to have a fire, check the policies of the area you are camping in before you go. Generally, BC Parks does not sell firewood in the winter. If you are camping in the backcountry, fires may be prohibited in the area you plan to camp even in the winter. If you can have a fire, they may require that you use designated rings or pits. Check before you go. A portable stove for cooking is a good idea in any case.
Never leave your fire unattended and make sure it is completely out before you go to bed or leave the site.
Cold happens – even in the summer. Southern British Columbia has some of the mildest weather in the country, but that doesn’t mean it has the hottest temperatures. In fact, southern BC is cooler in the summer than central Canada, especially if you venture along the coast or into the mountains. Even in the Interior there can be a 10 degree difference between afternoon and nighttime temperatures. Having the right gear will make a huge difference.
Jump up and down or go for a brisk walk to create some heat before jumping into your sleeping bag. Don’t exert yourself to the point of sweat, because this will just turn cold. Avoid having to use the washroom after you’re snuggled safely in your sleeping bag.
Sleeping pads can keep you off the frozen or wet ground. A liner or two in your sleeping bag will help. Use synthetic or wool fabrics. Avoid cotton. Don’t hide your nose under the sleeping bag as this will create cold condensation. Wrap your face separately if necessary.
Try to anticipate how the morning sun will fall. If you can set your tent up to catch a few rays in the morning, it might help you get out of bed comfortably.
What to bring
When you are buying or renting gear, tell the staff about your plans so they can recommend the right tents and sleeping bags.
Bring extra pairs of gloves and socks. Your gloves will likely get wet while you are shoveling out a spot for your tent or putting it together. Similarly, bring dry clothes so you can change out of wet gear before bed.
Don’t forget a shovel, even if it hasn’t snowed where you are going. A shovel can also be helpful for highway emergencies. You might want something you can use to signal for help if necessary, especially in the backcountry. Otherwise, bring all the usual stuff, such as pocketknife, maps and a first aid kit.
Winters are long in British Columbia. Don’t let darkness and cold dampen your spirit for adventure.
Download the free ebook “BC Backpackers Winter Camping Destinations” for more information about where to go to enjoy winter camping. By submitting your email address, you may receive emails containing articles and special offers from BC Backpackers. You can unsubscribe at anytime.