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Going camping? 10 tips to ensure it's fun and safe

Image of kids eating marshmallows while camping in B.C.
Camping is back at many campgrounds across B.C., and the kids are looking forward to toasted marshmallows and smores. Know COVID-19 restrictions and fire safety – including possible fire bans – before you head out.

What you should know, from COVID-19 rules, to swimming, to fire bans

Any question of whether British Columbians were aching to get away from home evaporated on May 25. A record 35,000 provincial campsites were booked in the first few hours after B.C.'s Discover Camping reservations website opened.

If you managed to book a spot, congratulations. B.C.'s great outdoors beckons, albeit with distancing and other restrictions around how to camp safely in the age of COVID-19. If you missed out, keep in mind that reservations, on a rolling two-month basis, open up each day. There are also a few other options, including first-come, first-served camping at various BC Hydro recreation sites that are part of a staged reopening. Parks Canada also started taking camping reservations at certain national parks in late June.

Thinking of just pulling off the road somewhere to create your own campsite? Think again. There's a lot of risk (and no help) if a fire gets out of control, no outhouses or toilets, and no option for garbage disposal except to pack it out (which doesn't always happen).

"I see it all the time, and it's not a good idea," says BC Hydro fire marshal Tara Fraser, noting that more than 50% of wildfires in B.C. are caused by people. "There's a real responsibility if you're out there all by yourself to make sure you're fully aware of campfire requirements and of anything that might start a fire from your activities. That's part of the general responsibility that applies to everyone in British Columbia."

Get the latest COVID-19 information on provincial campgrounds and on BC Hydro rec sites.

Here are 10 tips and things you need to know about camping in B.C. this summer.

1. At BC Hydro rec sites, the early bird gets to camp

Because no reservations are accepted for our rec sites, there's a chance that on weekends, all spots at popular sites such as Jones Lake and Strathcona Dam will be full by Friday morning. And the most popular places can be full mid-week when the weather's great. To avoid disappointment, get there early for summer weekends, have a backup plan, and consider timing your visits for after the Labour Day weekend.

The majority of BC Hydro's rec sites are for day use only, and they can be popular for the likes of swimming, hiking, and fishing. BC Hydro has reopened camping at the following sites so far in 2020: Alexander Mackenzie's Landing, Pend D'Oreille, Jones Lake, and Strathcona Dam.

2. Be prepared for a more rustic experience at BC Hydro sites

Keep in mind that camping at our rec sites is a much different experience than camping at BC Parks. You'll need to be better prepared: there's no drinking water at most sites, and if you want to build a campfire, you'll need to bring your own wood or collect shoreline debris. And the only places you'll find flush toilets are at our Hayward Lake and Buntzen Lake day-use areas.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, you'll see physical distancing signage, increased cleaning, limits to the numbers of visitors and parking allowed, and reduced hours of operation at some popular day-use sites. We're asking you to:

  • Try to only visit recreation sites in or near your community.
  • Follow physical distancing requirements outlined by B.C.'s public health office.
  • Bring hand sanitizer or sanitizing wipes to practice safe hygiene.
  • Stay home if you're sick.

3. Load up on food, groceries and water before you go

To help minimize the spread of the novel coronavirus, stock up on what you need at your local store rather than shopping at stores outside your community or near the campground. Wherever you shop, wear a mask, practice social distancing and safe hygiene. And don't forget to pack a first aid kit and lots of water.

4. Buy or freeze block ice, not cubes, for those coolers

Avoid the need to drive from the campground to a store or gas station to restock ice. Blocks aren't at all stores, but last much longer than cube ice.

Alternatively, freeze milk cartons or plastic bottles (leave lots of room for expansion) at home if your freezer is large enough. A full cooler also stays colder longer, especially if you take care to quickly get what you need and close the lid when camping. Once the ice melts in a clean container, you have drinking water.

5. If campfires are allowed, keep them small

A good fire that provides ambience and warmth on a chilly night doesn't have to be big. After a while, one or two larger pieces added will last a long time and offer lots of warmth, plus a platform for the stick you use to toast your marshmallow, wieners or smore, over coals.

How big should your fire be? The BC Wildfire Service limits campfires to a pile of material no higher, and no wider, than .5 metres. Bonfires may be spectacular, but they're a waste of fuel and are dangerous.

Always use the designated campfire ring, or create a small one with rocks if there isn't one. Have water nearby for emergencies, ensure your fire is out before you go to sleep or leave your site, and never leave a campfire unattended.

How to build a better, safer campfire

6. If there's a campfire ban, improvise

It's hard to beat gathering around the campfire, making smores, barbecuing a wiener, or better yet, a chunk of garlic sausage. But when there's a campfire ban, you'll need to get creative to recreate that fireside circle.

If you can't imagine camping without a fire, consider buying a portable gas-fuelled fire ring, but check the campground's regulations first to see if those are allowed. Another option is to gather around a dimmed camping lantern, solar lanterns or other models capable of emitting a soft light. Pre-cook your smores or sausage while prepping dinner on your gas stove, then quickly warm them up in a covered pan on the stove once it's dark.

Get the latest on campfire bans in B.C.

7. Get good flashlights, or better yet, a headlamp or two

Headlamps are a camper's best friend, especially when you're cleaning the dishes or trying to find that outhouse in the dark. Hands-free lighting almost always beats a flashlight.

8. Extend safe distancing to swimming, too

While most health experts suggest there's little or no chance of contracting COVID-19 through water, even in a pool, the two-metre distance rule still applies. And in windy conditions, where a cough may launch droplets beyond that two-metre distance, it's a good idea to stay even further apart.

Eight myths around water safety

9. Take care to keep bugs (and sunburn) at bay

Stock up on bug spray and sunblock from a local store before you head out. Making a spur-of-the-moment purchase at a gas station near the campground can be expensive and your options will be limited.

Consider grabbing a campsite away from standing water where mosquitoes can breed – lakes are fine, but ponds and marshes are like bug megacities. As bugs appear in greater numbers at dusk, gather around the campfire (smoke is a great deterrent) or try citronella candles. If the bugs are bad, don't just wear pants and long sleeves: Protect your ankles with socks. Quickly zip that tent whenever you go in and out.

Particularly in late summer, wasps can be an enormous nuisance. When eating outdoors, keep food and drinks covered and clear away scraps or dirty plates as soon as the meal is over. If the wasps persist, set up baited homemade yellow jacket traps around the edge of picnic areas or on the table. The traps drown wasps in soapy water.

10. Camping is about the great outdoors, not the great party

Just about every seasoned camper has a horror story about camping near a group intent on partying and drinking well into the night, music blaring. Quiet time restrictions are enforced, usually from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., but sometimes starting as early as 10 p.m.

If you want to listen to music, keep it at a low volume and use a Bluetooth speaker or other small device placed near where your sitting. Test to see if the music is carrying beyond your campsite by checking the sound level 10 or 20 metres away, and remember that if the music is loud at your site, your voices will ramp up to be heard over the music.

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