High demand for campsites means Albertans might need to consider options

The province began accepting campsite reservations on Thursday and like many camping trips, it didn’t go as smoothly as hoped. 

On the opening morning, the province’s booking site was as sluggish as a 1975 Winnebago navigating the Highwood Pass.

In an email to CBC News, Alberta Environment and Parks said the site was slower than usual due to extremely high traffic. 

“There were more than 17,000 active user sessions on Reserve.albertaparks.ca when reservations began [Thursday] morning, between 9 and 10 a.m., which is more than four times higher than the same time period on opening day of last year.” 

By 4 p.m. Thursday, 21,398 reservations had been made on opening day, more than double the number last year.

“Everybody is on there, I think, trying to mostly get the May long weekend,” said Karen Ung, an Alberta Parks ambassador who runs the blog Play Outside Guide.

She expects overwhelming demand for spots again this year due to limited travel options caused by the pandemic. 

“Last year we broke records in Alberta Parks; it was the busiest camping year ever,” Ung said. “I think this year will be the same; everybody wants to get out of town.

“They haven’t been travelling internationally; they’re not travelling to other provinces; we’re being good people playing in our own backyard.” 

Ung says the booking process will be easier now the initial surge is over, but Albertans might have to look at non-peak times like mid-week if they want a spot.

Competition for prime camping sites has some considering options outside the box.

Alberta Parks opened the online campsite reservation system on Thursday. (CBC)

Ung recommends walk-in campsites or backcountry camping for those who are able-bodied and don’t mind roughing it.

“And of course you have free camping on Crown land which is super budget friendly,” she said. “If you have a good reliable vehicle and you’re self-sufficient you could try that.”

Still, don’t be surprised if you encounter crowds on public land, even in the middle of nowhere, said Ryan Epp, who runs the Crown Land Camping Alberta Facebook page.

He has seen a staggering increase in new members over the past year. That was reflected in the growing number of people using Crown land in 2020.

“It went up 500 or 600 per cent over the last year,” Epp told CBC News. “A regular weekend looked like a long weekend in previous years.”

With travel restrictions still in place, Epp expects that number to continue to grow.

“It’s going to be really busy,” he said. “There’s spots for everybody, but you get places like Abraham Lake that has sort of got overrun just because it’s a nice lake.”

Epp advises Crown land campers to plan ahead.

“Go out and scout out some spots first,” he said. “Take a nice drive out a week or two ahead of time and see if you can find two or three different spots, because a lot of the time you get out there and somebody’s in the spot you planned ahead for.”

Ryan Epp advises public land campers to take a day trip to scout out a few spots before taking a multi-day trip. (Ryan Epp)

Some of the advantages of Crown land camping include more privacy and a wide range of locations to set up camp.

“You can find spots right along the river, or a little pond, or up in the mountains,” Epp said. “It has such diverse spots unlike a campground.”

That freedom comes with some challenges you don’t typically have to deal with in a campground though.

“No power, no washrooms, no services at all; there’s very little cell coverage in any of the Crown land areas,” Epp said. “The big one is usually just water. Most of the campsites have potable water on site; there’s nothing on Crown land.”

If that’s too rustic, there are other ways to get a campsite with a few additional comforts, but they will cost more. Many privately-run campgrounds offer seasonal sites that you can rent for a month or the entire summer.

If all else fails, Albertans may have to settle for pitching a tent in their own backyards.

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