While many of of the adventures we describe are multi-night trips requiring months of research, planning and permits. One thing we’ve experimented with this summer is random backcountry camping and used it to take advantage of a couple of free Friday and Saturday nights to get out for a quick overnight with the kids. It’s something we’ve really enjoyed and plan to do more of next year.
WHAT IS RANDOM CAMPING?
Random backcountry camping is simply about hiking into the wilderness and finding a spot to set up a tent for the night. However before you strap on your pack and head out, there are a few things to consider.
FIRST, UNDERSTAND THE RULES
It’s important when going random camping to understand the rules the local land manager have put in place. You can’t just camp anywhere you want. For example, in Alberta Provincial Parks, random camping is not permitted, while in Alberta Wildland Parks and Public Land Use Zones (unless otherwise restricted) random camping is permitted 1km away from roads and other facilities (such as picnic areas and other backcountry campgrounds), in most cases a permit is not required to camp in these areas and generally low impact fires are allowed (check for details about Kananaksis). In Banff National Park, random camping is permitted in the remote east areas of the park. In this area, you may camp 5km away from a trailhead or campground. In Jasper National Park random camping is permitted in some areas but you’ll need to contact their trails office for specifics as it can vary year to year. In the case of both Banff and Jasper, a backcountry permit IS required, and fires are generally NOT allowed.
The rules for random camping can be complex, varied, and sometimes fickle. If it’s something you want to do, make sure to call your local land manager and get the details on what is permitted and where.
One of the staples found at most back county campgrounds is the outhouse. Some of the the one’s we’ve visited are composting cedar masterpieces with breathtaking views, others are rotting hovels barely more than a private spot with a hole and breathtaking smells.
None the less, when it comes to going number 2, you’re going to be on your own. That means you’ll have to put together a bathroom kit. Start with a large zip lock bag, add a number a small bags (a good rule of thumb is one small bag per day on the trail), a roll of toilet paper (grab a partially used one from home if you’re counting grams), a trowel (such as this one) and a small bottle of hand sanitizer.
For women we also recommend bringing a urination aid (my daughter prefers this one). Why all of this equipment? When pooping in the woods, you’ll need to dig a cat hole. Find a private spot at least 60 m from the nearest water (a strategically placed smooth log can make a nice seat) and dig a hole 15-20cm deep.
After you do your business, bury your waste and cover the area with normal native ground materials. DO NOT bury toilet paper (that’s what those small bags are for), you’ll need to pack out your paper and dispose of it when you get to the trailhead with the rest of your garbage.
When random camping, you arn’t as likely to find the nice, clear, flat spots that have been conveniently marked for you at a campground. Rather you’ll have to find your own, and this isn’t always as easy as it looks.
When hiking the West Coast Trail, there were many areas that were simply so dense with underbrush it would have been almost impossible to set up a tent. During a trip with my son to Trail Creek, we found so many dead and precariously balanced trees (from a many decade old forest fire) that it took us a while to find a spot where we didn’t have to risk a tree falling on us in the night.
In general, you’ll want to find a level or gently sloping spot, avoid depressions that might collect water. Sharp rocks and sticks can puncture the floor of your tent (I generally always bring a footprint when I go camping, but doubly so when random camping). Camp on durable surfaces where possible and be aware of possible hazards around (and above you).
Another thing you’ll miss when random camping are food lockers or hangers. While many folk fear bears getting into their food, it is often animals like squirrels, mice, porcupines and raccoons that can do the most damage. Be prepared to hang your food. You’ll want to find a tree 50-60m from camp, and hang it 3-5m above the ground and 1-2m away from the nearest trunk.
During our trip to the Tetons, we were required to take a bear canister or Ursack (a Kevlar bag designed to withstand bears and rodents) with us for food storage. We chose the Ursack for weight reasons and were very happy with the results. Using the Ursack and a scent proof bag, you avoid the need to hang your bag. You do however need to ensure that the bag is properly tied and secured (still 50-60m from camp). Also, check with your local park regulations as bear proof bags are not yet accepted in all jurisdictions.
In general, we’ve found random camping a great way to get away for a night when the opportunity arises and as a way to expand our backcountry camping skills. Now that we know the local rules and regulations, this is definitely something I can see us doing more often next summer
Canada & US
Our Backpacking Trail Reports are mainly from Western Canada and the United States.
Our 2020 & 2021 backpacking hiking on the Great Divide Trail. View our planning and trail reports for sections A-G.