Monday, April 03, 2017

How to Choose a Good Campsite (Family Camping Made Easy)

The May long weekend is fast approaching and some campgrounds across Canada have been accepting reservations for months already. Fortunately, the 90 day reservation window for provincial park bookings still puts us at the beginning of July so there is plenty of time to book sites for the prime summer months.

Knowing "when" to reserve a campsite is only half the battle though. One of the biggest challenges arises once you go to the reservation website and have to choose "which campsite" is going to be a GOOD campsite.

Choosing a GOOD campsite takes practice

A recent conversation in an outdoor group got me thinking about how to choose a campsite when a mom posted the following question:

"I am having a bit of anxiety here. I didn't realize that booking a campsite was a blood sport. And I'm feeling overwhelmed by looking at random campsites and random maps that give me no sense of privacy of sites."

While I struggle as much as the rest of you when I go to book a site at a new campground, I have discovered a few tips that do make a big difference.

Learn how to choose an Awesome Campsite this Summer

Eight Tips for Choosing a Good Campsite 


One: On Line Maps are your Friend

Most reservation websites have maps where you can click on sites that you might be interested in. Once you click on a site, you'll find photos and sometimes even a 360 degree view of the site.

A great private site in Bow Valley Provincial Park

Key things to look for when you view a site on a campground map:

Does the site have a fire pit? (national park campgrounds have designated loops with fire pits so if you book into the wrong loop by mistake, you won't be allowed to get a fire permit.)

How close is the site to the bathrooms? You want to be close enough that you aren't forced to hop on your bike to reach the nearest pit toilet (a problem at Bow Valley Provincial Park) but you don't want to be camped right beside a large bathroom building either. (think, loud hand driers at midnight and people tromping through your site all day and night!)

Is the site near any double sites? Some campgrounds have double sites which can accommodate multiple families on one large site. (we once fit 8 families on two double sites.) You do not want to be near double sites. They are noisier and are guaranteed to have multiple vehicles parked all over the place. Technical rules state that a double site is intended for two families. Unfortunately, that rule is seldom enforced. (Of course if you're camping with friends, double sites are awesome and we love booking them.)

A typical double camp site with several families squeezed on to one large space

Is the site next to a playground, a beach, or a pathway? These are "mixed blessings" and I consider them to be a double edged sword. While I love camping beside a playground, I also have to accept that my site will have less privacy and will be noisier. I love camping beside a beach but I again have to accept that people will walk through my site all day/night long. And while I love having a pathway right beside my site, I also have to accept that people will be watching us every time they walk by.

How close is the site to major roads, train tracks, a neighboring hotel or hostel, communal fire pits, or even a public day use area? These will all make your site noisier.

I love camping next to playgrounds but it definitely makes your site less "private"

What does the website say about the site's privacy, size, shade, view, or location? You can tell a lot about a site by reading the details carefully. The Parks Canada reservation website is especially helpful in telling you how private or shaded your site will be. The Alberta Provincial Park website is unfortunately, less helpful.

"Hammock City" at the Tunnel Mountain Campground in Banff

Two: Camp in a Power Loop if you don't like Generators

I always book a site in a power loop (even if I don't need power.) I can't stand camping next to somebody running a generator and I never have to deal with this if my neighbors can happily run their coffee makers and air conditioners while plugged in. And don't worry if you are just tent-camping because you can still book a power site if you're willing to pay a little bit more money. And, you can bring your own coffee maker. :)

Tenting in a power loop = no generators!

Three: Choose a Walk-in Tenting Site if you don't like Large RVs

Many campgrounds have walk-in tenting areas for those who want a more "natural" camping experience. This guarantees separation from large RVs and hopefully a quieter experience at camp. Just know that a lot of young singles will also be choosing these sites, adding the potential for late night drinking or partying.

No RVs in site for tenters wanting a bit of solitude

Four: Do your Research before Making a Reservation

Talk to friends and find out what their favourite campgrounds are, read reviews, and ask around.  One great website to check out is the Alberta Wow site with in-depth descriptions and photos of many of Alberta’s campgrounds.

Other tips:

  • Look for blog reviews and contact the author for suggestions on their favourite campsites (I often give out that information when asked)

  •  Join on line camping groups and ask members for suggestions. One that I recommend on Facebook is the Happy Campers, Family Camping group.The group is primarily aimed at families living in Southern Alberta with discussions centered around camping in Alberta and British Columbia. Another great group is the Calgary Outdoor Playgroup Community.

Camping in British Columbia at Surveyors Lake

Five:  Master the Art of Reconnaissance

Scout out future campgrounds you’d like to stay at when travelling.  Drive around campgrounds, write down the sites you’d like to stay in, or even get a map from the campground office and circle the best sites.  I keep all my maps from previous camping trips in a big envelope. Each map has my favourite sites marked down so I remember for next time.

My ideal campsite has plenty of views and sunshine

Six: Always Camp on the Outside of a Loop

By camping on the outside of a loop you will usually back on to forest or trees.  Camp in the middle of a loop and you'll back on to other campsites or bathrooms. We always find the outside sites much  more private.

Outside sites give you a more natural campsite backed on to forest or trees

Seven:  Choose Group Campgrounds if you have at least 5 Families

If you have a group of families you want to go camping with, book a group site in a provincial campground and you'll have a private campground!! Know that the sites are usually open though, that you might be camping in a big field with no privacy from one another, and that there will be no power for RVs and trailers. Other than those factors though, group camping is awesome!!

You can read more about group camping here:

Summer Planning: Group Camping in Alberta 

Group Camping Guide - RV and Resort Magazine

Our private campground at Twin Lakes, Crimson Lake Provincial Park

Eight: Sun Vs. Shade - Know what you Want

I personally like morning sunshine and don't really care how "private" my site is. I like wide open sites next to fields and playgrounds. I like full on sunshine all day long. I like being able to sit beside an open area where I can watch my son run around with friends. But that's me.

Know what you like and choose the best site for your preferences. If you like privacy and are ok with a more "shaded site," most mountain campgrounds have plenty of sites with trees surrounding 90% of their sites.

My favourite sites in Dinosaur Provincial Park are open but great when camping with friends

Other Useful Resources and Recommended Reading

Campsite Reservation Tips - What To Do When You’ve Dropped The Ball On Reservations 

Comfort Camping in Alberta, Mount Engadine Lodge Yurt, Kananasksis

Lakeside camping at Two Jack Lake, Banff National Park

Group Camping at Beauvais Lake, Southern Alberta


  1. Good post, Tanya.

    We adopt the powered loop strategy to avoid generators as well. It seems to me that parks is shooting themselves in the foot by allowing generators in non powered loops. I have filled out the Alberta parks survey every year imploring them to bring peacefulness back to camping by banning generators.

    Jonathan (Calgary)