How to Get Campsites Without a Reservation in Alberta

I love camping especially in the backcountry when I don’t have a cell signal – but scoring campsites – whether front country or backcountry – is getting harder with every passing year. Tourists are nothing new, but COVID showed the locals how much fun it was to be outdoors. Most recently Alberta has seen a surge in population growth. All of these factors combine to increase the pressure on the already limited number of campsites. Want to be spontaneous on a summer weekend with a great weather forecast? Read on for my tips on how to get campsites without a reservation in Alberta.

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One of the beautiful first come first served campsites at Interlakes Campground in Kananaskis Country

How to be a considerate camper

When you are visiting any campsites in Alberta – with or without a reservation – please be a considerate camper.

Practice the 7 Leave No Trace principles. That includes plan and prepare, travel on durable surfaces, dispose of waste properly, leave what you find, respect wildlife, minimize campfire impacts, and be considerate of others.

Camp at least 60 metres from water.

Minimize or avoid washing in streams and lakes. Be sure to take biodegradable soap with you as regular soap and toothpaste are harmful to fish and other aquatic life. 

When it comes to pooping, make a 20 cm deep cat-hole latrine and bury your waste. I recommend taking Ziploc bags for toilet paper. For hard core people, you can pack out your waste in heavy duty portable toilet bags.

Lots of women swear by the silver infused pee cloth.

Use camp stoves like the Jet Boil system or the MSR Whisper Lite stove. Be sure to check for fire bans before you leave home.

Fantastic views from Waterfowl Lakes Campground in Banff National Park is first come first served

How to get campsites without a reservation in Alberta

Check out some of the following ideas to score campsites without a reservation in Alberta. The trick is to be smart – aim for weekdays – and flexible. Have a Plan B if you don’t get the campsite you want.

1. Random backcountry camping in wildland provincial parks

You can random camp at backcountry campsites in Alberta’s 34 wildland provincial parks without a reservation or paying any kind of fee. There are a few rules in place you should know.

Random camping isn’t allowed within one kilometre of a designated camping facility.

Random camping is also not allowed within one kilometre of a road, provincial park or provincial recreation area boundary.

It is suggested that you camp at least 50 m from any trail.

Random camping in not permitted in any provincial parks or provincial recreation areas.

A list of Alberta’s Wildland Provincial Parks

BluerockBob CreekBow ValleyBrazeau CanyonCaribou MountainsCastleChinchagaDillon RiverDon GettyDunvegan WestElbow-SheepFidler-GreywillowFort Assiniboine SandhillsGipsy LakeGrand RapidsGrizzly RidgeHay-ZamaHubert LakeKakwaKazanKitaskino-NuwenënéLa Biche RiverLesser Slave LakeMarguerite RiverOtter-Orloff LakesPeace RiverRichardsonRock Lake – Solomon CreekStony MountainWhitehorse WildlandWhitemud FallsWinagami

2. Random camping in Public Land Use Zones (PLUZ) in Alberta where you don’t need campsite reservations

There are 18 Public Land Use Zones in Alberta – see the table below. Out of those 18 zones there are some that offer established campgrounds in Provincial Recreation Areas. These may have a mix of first come – first served and reservable campsites. If you pay a nightly fee, you don’t need to pay for a Public Lands Camping Pass.

You do need a Public Lands Camping Pass to random camp year round on the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains. That would include popular camping spots along the David Thompson Highway. Passes are not based on vehicles but people. It’s $30 per person for an annual pass and $20 per person for a 3-day pass. They are not refundable.

Google each zone to see its exact location. You should know that you can’t camp more than 14 days at one spot. And “individuals are responsible for knowing where they can camp on public land.”

NAME OF ZONELOCATIONAthabasca RanchEast of Jasper National Park, west of EdmontonBrule Lake East of Jasper National Park, west of EdmontonCoal BranchEast of Jasper National Park, southwest of EdmontonHolmes CrossingNorthwest of EdmontonWhitecourt SandhillsNorthwest of EdmontonBlackstone/WapaibiEast of Jasper National Park, west of Red DeerDormer/SheepEast of Banff National Park, southwest of Red DeerJob/ClineEast of Banff and Jasper National Parks, west of Red DeerKiska/WillsonEast of Banff National ParkPanther CornersEast of Banff National Park, southwest of Red DeerUpper Clearwater/RamEast of Banff National Park, west of Red DeerCataract Creek for snow Eastern Slopes of the Rocky Mountains, southwest of CalgaryGhostEast of Banff National Park, west of CalgaryKananaskisEast of Banff National Park, west of CalgaryLivingstoneEastern Slopes of the Rocky Mountains, west of LethbridgeMcLean Creek (for OHV’s)East of Banff National Park, West of CalgaryPorcupine HillsEastern Slopes of the Rocky Mountains, West of LethbridgeSibbald Snow VehicleEast of Banff National Park, west of Calgary

An Alberta Public Lands Camping Pass is required for Window Mountain Lake (bear lockers now here) in the Crowsnest Pass area

3. How to get first come-first served campsites in Alberta Parks

Alberta Parks has a list and a map with all of the 148 first come – first served campsites. Have a good look at it and be smart about where you go and when. Any campsites near Calgary eg. the beautiful Interlakes Campground in Peter Lougheed, are going to be hard to get.

You’ll have the best luck scoring one of the first come – first served campsites in Alberta midweek in the summer, with Tuesdays and Wednesdays your best bet. If it’s a remote park my guess is that weekends aren’t even much of an issue.

Those that are vacating campsites must do so by 2 PM, but as you can imagine, many people leave first thing in the morning. Consider showing up by 10 AM to get one of the just vacated first come-first served campsites.

The Cataract Creek Campground ahead in the trees is first come first serve

4. First come first served campsites in the national parks

In Alberta’s Banff and Jasper National Parks there are also a surprising number of campsites where you don’t need reservations. There are numerous first come, first served campsites, along the Icefields Parkway.

For a full list of what is reservable and what isn’t check out my Complete Guide to Camping on the Icefields Parkway. You’ll have the best luck if you opt for tent-only campsites and those that aren’t on lakes like the Jonas Creek Campground.

You can only reserve the Paradise Valley campsite in Banff National Park 24 hours out via a phonecall, so it’s very easy to get. Go later in the season when the bugs have died back.

At Mosquito Creek Campground on the Icefields Parkway Campsite #1 is the best of the 32 sites – if you ask me
Walk in campsites are usually easy to get at the Jonas Creek Campground

Check out Hipcamp

Hipcamp is a great last-minute option though granted you need a reservation. Simply go onto the Hipcamp website, type in an area and you’ll find loads of camping all over Alberta. Some sites are tent only while others offer a mix of RV’s and tents. Many of the businesses offer rustic cabins too. There really is a little bit of everything. The prices are all over the map from $20/night to $229 a night but most I’ve seen are inexpensive.

There are also filters such as what’s available this weekend or next weekend. Can you bring a dog? Some have lots of facilities while others are very rustic. Go have some fun and discover a part of Alberta you’ve never visited before.

A few examples of no reservation needed campsites in Alberta

Castle Provincial Park

Open: May 17 – October 2, 2024

Cost: $23/night unserviced

There are 23 first come – first served campsites at the peaceful Lynx Creek Campground in Castle Provincial Park. Firewood is not available, and you must bring your own water – but the campsites themselves are quite nice and private with a few by a creek.

There are also free designated camping areas in Castle Provincial Park, but they don’t have any amenities including no washrooms. But some have great views. Check out this Castle summer map.

A large treed campsite at the Lynx Creek Campground – one of the easy campsites to get in Alberta without a reservation

Big Knife Provincial Park Campground

Open: May 12 – September 4, 2024

Cost: $30/night

Look for a mix of open and treed campsites on the banks of the Battle River. There are also a few walk-in tenting sites in the woods. It’s the perfect park to enjoy an easy paddle or hike. I recommend the Lowlands Trail.

While camping in Big Knife Provincial Park enjoy Badlands scenery

Police Outpost Provincial Park

Open: April 1 – October 10

Cost: $25 per night for an unserviced campsite

Well off the beaten track in sight of the border with Montana is Police Outpost Provincial Park. It’s a pretty place with great fishing, birding, and hiking. Campsites are private and easy to get. But take everything you need with you.

Easy campsites in Alberta to get without a reservation are those in Police Outpost Provincial Park

Sign up for campground cancellation notifications

If you’re keen to get a specific campsite that requires a reservation, then be sure to check out one of the following sites below.

More reading on camping and glamping

Best Campsites in Alberta with Mountain Views

A Complete Guide to Camping in Kananaskis

Camping for Beginners – What You Need to Know

10 Places You’ll Want to go Glamping in Alberta

Fabulous Camping on Georgian Bay near Killarney Park

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