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It seems that in the backcountry of Canadian parks, one may only camp on campgrounds, and reservations are required. For example, in Jasper National Park, one must camp on campgrounds to be reserved in advance, and from the Algonquin Provincial Park regulations, point 6 states that you must not camp at other lakes (...) not specified in your permit (emphasis theirs). Even the very remote Tombstone Territorial Park requires early reservations. It amazes me that this is the case in a country as vast as Canada, but it seems this rule is universal in (popular) Canadian parks.

I understand the rationale behind the rules, but I don't understand how it can possibly work. Maybe I can somewhat plan where I sleep on a one-night 40 km trip in Algonquin, but if I'm going to hike for 200 km in Jasper National Park, I don't see how it's possible to know where I will sleep 12 days in advance, as this strongly depends on weather and trail conditions, that vary day to day. If the weather is very bad for a day I might be a day behind, and I would be violating this rule every single day.

What are the consequences of doing so? Of course, campgrounds may be full, and those who are there on the specified day are going to be annoyed. But it will surely work out in practice (perhaps by illegally camping outside the campground). The question is: how do rangers handle the situation? Are they flexible in enforcing the rules, or may I end up with high fines and be blacklisted for any more backpacking permits in Canada?

(Perhaps the easiest solution is to avoid parks on backpacking trips, but that means avoiding the most scenic areas that have developed trails!)

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    I like your question very much and I think it is valid not only for Canada but for all national parks (national park and park are synonym?). It's very difficult to safe/preserve/restore nature and at the same time make it available to visitors. By the way, free camping outside of national parks is generally allowed in Canada, isn't it? – Wills May 24 '14 at 6:51
  • @bashophil It appears so, although details may depend on residency. For example, in northern Ontario crown lands, non-residents need a permit. – gerrit May 24 '14 at 13:52
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Two parts to your question, and two parts to my answer.

First, how can you plan your route lake by lake when you don't know the weather etc? You plan for somewhat shorter days, and deal with delays by having longer days. We typically plan for 6 hours of paddling - push off at 10 after breakfast, land at 4. On a crappy day we might not land until 6 or 7. We might have planned to camp at the far end of a lake, and end up running out of light (or muscle power) at the near end, then we'll have to push off early the next day to make up lost ground. Don't make yourself a plan with no slack in it. (This is actually a bigger problem for canoers, who can be completely windbound - we have been, but that was in Temagami which is Crown Land so you can camp where you like - than for hikers, but anyone can be slowed by a minor injury or an upset stomach.) Schedule a stay-put day every three or four days for morale reasons and in a pinch, use that day to make up your lost time. Schedule less walking or canoeing in a day than you can actually do. If a stretch of terrain is either much harder (portages for canoers, hills for hikers) than the rest, or much more attractive (let's hang out at this lookout or waterfall for a few hours) then plan less distance for that day.

It's important you guess right, because there is something worse than running out of light and muscle power a little short of where you wanted to be, and that's getting where you wanted to be and finding no empty campsites because other people didn't stick to their plans. It's an awful feeling. I've camped at the portage takeout a few times, and it sucks.

Now, to the second part, enforcement. The parks are full of rangers. In Quetico, they're the only people we ever meet. Killarney and Algonquin are more crowded - we run into people at portages, and see other canoes across the lake - but we still meet rangers there. They check the state of the trails and, for parks that have them, the sites and the signs. They look at your permit to confirm you're where you're supposed to be and you've paid. They make a note of your name in case you don't turn up later, so everyone will know how far you got before getting into trouble and where to look for you. And if you've already run into trouble, they'll help you. It's pretty simple, really.

  • Good answers, this one and the linked one. I'll try to stick to your ideas when planning a longer trip in the future :) – Wills May 24 '14 at 21:31
  • In my experience on the east coast of Canada you will seldom encounter rangers on backcountry trails. – ppl May 24 '14 at 22:58
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    I suppose it depends on how full the park is and how prevalent camping at the wrong site or without a permit has been found to be. A park that's 100% booked every night needs more enforcement than one that's less than 20% full where it won't hurt if you camp in the wrong spot. – Kate Gregory May 25 '14 at 0:04
  • Hmm, I'm used to make much longer days, I rarely if ever stop before 18:00 and usually continue until 20:00-ish, but then again I could do that /because/ I could camp anywhere (and because there was midnight Sun — once I made a 15 hour / 45 km day where I did start to feel my feet in the end, and once I continued hiking until 01:30). I usually don't really know what to do with my time once I have my camp set up and finished eating etc. – gerrit May 25 '14 at 16:02
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    In an Ontario summer I generally find it is light enough to set up a tent and cook dinner until 9pm. So don't plan to get up at 7am and go to 9pm each day. Plan for leaving at 9am and stopping at 7pm. Then if you run into trouble you have 4 hours of slack. It's not the absolute length that matters: it's the difference between your planned length and the most you could do before carrying on was physically impossible. As for what to do with your time in camp, that sounds like another question, one I'd be happy to answer. – Kate Gregory May 25 '14 at 16:16
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This is in fact an annoying feature of Provincial and Federal parks in Canada. I do not know of any which do not have those rules. In fact, even if you are hiking the IAT, a 3000km hike, you must reserve in advance for the Gaspesie National Park in Quebec.

I believe it is fair to assume that the New-Brunswick IAT portion traverses crown lands. In which case, I would be quite surprised that any crown land restrictions would be applied; even to a non-resident hiker.

I've never encountered a ranger far out in the trails in Canada. In the past, at Cape Chignecto, I walked to the coast to get a better cell phone reception in order to reschedule my campground as I had arrived much earlier than anticipated to my mosquito infested campground. In practice, if it is not a holiday, I could had just walked to the next campground and take a gamble.

A fellow hiker camped in the middle of the trail while doing the Fundy Circuit as he was losing track of the trail when night hiking. Not surprisingly, nothing happened. This hiker would also call ahead, multiple time, to change his campsite reservation depending on his hiking pace. It is quite an inconvenient policy for long distance backpackers.

There are a lot of nice places to visit and footpaths outside of the national parks. For many of them, stealth camping is quite acceptable. If you get sick or behind schedule, I believe it is a quite reasonable explanation and I would not worry about it.

I would not expect a harsh consequence from the rangers if you otherwise behave civil, polite and reasonable. I would also have no qualm asking them in person their opinion on the subject the next time you visit to get their point of view prior to your trip.

I believe that the rangers are more concerned with overused areas and individuals cutting down trees or leaving trash behind. If you cannot hit your timeline, camp at dusk, leave at dawn, leave no trace.

  • as I mentioned in an answer to the other question, Quetico, which is a provincial park, lets you camp where you like, so now you know one :-). It has to do with how popular and full the park is. outdoors.stackexchange.com/a/5739/163 – Kate Gregory May 25 '14 at 0:06
  • Aha, good to know. I would guess that it also depends on the governing body and the size of the park. :) – ppl May 25 '14 at 14:01
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The national parks, such as Jasper are pretty sticky about trail use, especially on popular trails. (Jasper's skyline trail has a party every 15 minutes both ways when I did it. Never again.) At the time, the regulations allowed non-campsite camping but had a minimum requirement (500 m?) that you had to be off the trail.

Jasper has a different permitting process for lesser used parts of the park. E.g. the North Boundary Trail.

Provincial parks: In Alberta we have two provincial parks, Willmore, and Kakwa that do not have a permitting process at all.

In addition there are Recreation Areas -- mostly regions that are too rough to log economically, and not pretty enough to be parks -- that don't have a permit process except at some improved campsites.

In Canada forests are provincial -- no national forests -- so regulations vary by province, but generally crown land is open access, but you need to have due regard for forestry, oil, and mining operations there too.

On the very rare occasions where I have run into a warden or wildlife officer they have been polite and understanding.

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