With the province re-opening in the midst of a COVID pandemic as we post this, the urge to go camping (and to K-Country in general) has never been stronger. Many campgrounds initially opened with restrictions, but most of those have been relaxed. Folks are eager to get out, and the result of this has been difficulty getting camping spots, especially on weekends.
Front Country Camping
As we note here, Kananaskis is a rather complex patchwork of different land uses and designations from Provincial Parks to Public Lands and all points in-between. There are a LOT of front-country (drive up) campgrounds in K-Country, some reservable, some first come-first serve, and some seasonal. This link will show you where they all are. There are a lot of designated backcountry campsites, too, though all must be reserved; see this link for details on that.
Can you roadside random camp in K-Country?
What if all the front country campgrounds are full? Is there anywhere you can just drive up and set up your camp?
Well, if you’re pulling a trailer, the answer is NO, and in fact if you’re based exclusively out of your car, the answer is NO. The nearest place you can just pull off the side of the road and park your RV or van and camp legally is up in the Ghost – specifically in a dozen or so designated nodes along a 16 km stretch of Stud Creek Road way up in the northeast of the Ghost Public Land Use Zone (“PLUZ”), which is nowhere near Kananaskis.
So where CAN you random camp?
If you are backpacking on foot, on bike, on horseback (or in an off-road vehicle in the McLean Creek PLUZ) and are willing to go a MINIMUM of 1 km, K-Country has lots of space for you — and all of it is FREE to use (once you have paid the newly announced Kananaskis Conservation Pass), and never requires reservations.
Random camping is permitted in K-Country on 2 types of land:
- Wildland Provincial Parks (K-Country has 4 of those);
- Public Land, whether the Public land is in a PLUZ or not. K-Country has 4 PLUZs and other Public Land, too.
Random camping is NOT permitted in a Provincial Park (like Peter Lougheed, Spray Valley, Bow Valley, or the Canmore Nordic Centre PPs), or in a Provincial Recreation Area.
In all cases, no matter the land base, you must be:
- more than 1 km from a road or other infrastructure, such as a Provincial Recreation Area, designated backcountry campground or fire lookout;
- more than 1 km from the boundary of a Provincial Park;
- away from anywhere that “No Camping” is signposted.
In the case of Elbow-Sheep Wildland Provincial Park (“ESWPP”), there are “No Camping” (and no fires) signs in the Tombstone Lakes area. There are designated backcountry campgrounds like Tombstone and Romulus that you have to stay 1 km away from as well.
In the case of Bow Valley Wildland Provincial Park (“BVWPP”), there are additional restrictions preventing random camping anywhere in the Bow Valley, and more restrictions on random camping in the vicinity of Mt. Lougheed. There are even special spots in BVWPP where a free permit is required to random camp. We go into more detail on that here, and it is VERY much worth a read if you are interested in random camping in BVWPP.
Sounds complicated. Show me the map!
So where can you random camp in K-Country? The map to the right is the only one we know of that shows ALL of the areas where random camping in K-Country is permitted (we made it, because to the best of our searching, there isn’t another one).
We created it by confirming the 1 km exclusion zones from the motorized Public Land Use Zones official map you can download here, and merged it with exclusion information for the Kananaskis PLUZ and Wildland Parks. It’s approximate (our 1 km set back is not perfect, and we may be off on some fire tower locations). It’s not detailed enough to do justice to the complexities of the camping rules in the BVWPP area (again, see the link above). But it will sure give you an idea where to start looking. All the White holes are something designated in the backcountry (at the time this map was created) that you have to stay 1 km from, or somewhere (like Plateau Mountain or the Burns property) you can’t camp. The Blue shaded areas have some kind of seasonal or other restriction; the Red shaded areas have no restictions. Only the land within K-Country is shaded.
Where do people random camp in K-Country?
Obviously, people can random camp anywhere that’s permitted. However, as we write this, there are indeed “popular” places to random camp. Here are just some of them:
- Picklejar Lakes, Rae Lake, Running Rain Lake, up Evan-Thomas Creek, Junction Lake & Waterfalls, & Mist Ridge in Elbow-Sheep Wildland Park;
- Loomis Lake, Carnarvon Lake and Lake Of The Horns in Don Getty Wildland Park. All three are especially popular with equestrians, bike campers, and those hikers who don’t mind getting their feet wet fording the Highwood River;
- Memorial Lake in Bow Valley Wildland Park (free permit required here);
- The Wildhorse & Quirk Valley area in the Kananaskis PLUZ (pictured, though there has been logging since that photo was taken);
- Along the Great Divide Trail in many spots through the Kananaskis PLUZ, Cataract Snow Vehicle PLUZ and Don Getty Wildland Provincial Park.
What about fires?
For a while between 2020 and 2023, fires were only permitted in certain designated back country campgrounds in K-Country. No fires have ever been permitted at Aster Lake or Three Isle Lake. Firewood is once gain being supplied to the campgrounds that lost it in that window, so fires are now once again permitted – in designated fire pits only (in a Provincial Park, no having fires anywhere but a designated ring). Burning deadfall in back or front country campgrounds (or anywhere else) in a Provincial Park isn’t permitted. Even if you carry your wood in, having a fire in a Provincial Park can occasionally be… problematic.
Those restrictions don’t exist in random camping; wherever you can random camp, the regulations permit the collection and burning of deadfall (not standing dead; no cutting trees down, no matter how dead they are).
Random Camping must be Leave No Trace
It is essential you practice Leave No Trace in random camping. You can read all about how the Leave No Trace principles of campsite selection, fire management and location, waste management and others apply in K-Country here. Leave No Trace includes:
- knowing how to use a Cathole as a latrine;
- knowing how to set up a proper eat/sleep/food storage triangle to keep wildlife away from you;
- camping at least 60 m away from water and 50 m from any trail. That includes not camping on the shoreline of Picklejar Lakes, Carnarvon Lake or any other lake, as many are doing. Just because others have done it, doesn’t mean you should;
- ensuring any fire is set on an appropriate surface, completely extinguished when done, and the ashes and fire pit scattered (and its essential to get rid of any fire rings you create. You are NOT helping others by leaving it, and you shouldn’t be using rock rings, anyway);
- taking out 100% of what you brought in;
- leaving no sign you camped there.
Since the explosion of random camping in 2020, there have been numerous reports that some of these practices are being ignored, especially in some of the popular places like Picklejar and Carnarvon. Live trees are being cut, random bathrooms are appearing, there are rock fire rings everywhere, damage left on fragile shorelines from improperly located campsites is rampant, garbage piles (which are, of course, bear attractants) are being left, and there has even been graffiti. Please don’t do any of that. Again, read the links above on Leave No Trace principles. If you can’t or won’t follow them, stick to designated backcountry campgrounds.
How about water?
Access to water can be an issue in random camping. Water quality in many sections of Public Land or Wildland Parks can be suspect due to the presence of free-range cattle or other human activity, including logging. So carry and use your SteriPen (see this page for info on that and other water safety options).
If all that is being supplied at designated backcountry sites in K-Country is a tent pad, an outhouse and secure bear-proof food storage – and you’re having trouble getting a site – why not brush up on your Leave No Trace skills and consider random camping?