British Columbia

Campers rush to book B.C. campsites as online reservations open

The website to book a provincial campsite in B.C. was experiencing high volume almost immediately after it opened Monday, with would-be campers losing their progress halfway through a booking or being unable to get through at all.

Provincial campgrounds in high demand at the best of times, let alone pandemic year

Campers are pictured at Garibaldi Provincial Park on Aug. 15. The reservation system for provincial parks in B.C. opened Monday, crashing quickly due to high volume. (Shutterstock / CDeWeger)

It was barely half an hour after sunrise on Monday morning and Greg Garner was already staring at a screen, trying in vain to book a provincial campsite on Vancouver Island.

Garner, who lives in Victoria, was aiming for French Beach Provincial Park — somewhere he hasn't been since he was a teenager — or Juan De Fuca Provincial Park's China Beach campground. Both parks are close to home, so he wouldn't be driving "through five different health authorities" to get a vacation this year, he said.

"It took me a few attempts to get into the system to begin with … even at 7:10, the sites at the two parks I was looking to book were completely booked," he said.

"I got my hopes up when I got through, but then to hit a brick wall ... it took the wind out of my sails for sure."

A number of B.C. residents like Garner ran into trouble trying to book a provincial campsite spot when reservations opened on Monday. The website was experiencing a high volume of visitors almost immediately after it opened, with some would-be campers losing their progress halfway through a booking or being unable to get through at all.

The website to book a campsite at one of B.C.'s provincial parks saw a rush of visitors within a few minutes of launching on Monday. (Screenshot)

The frustration was short lived, according to the Ministry of the Environment. A spokesperson said in an email 100 per cent of people were able to get through "within a few minutes" if they kept trying.

Roughly 6,000 reservations were made by noon — about 1,200 bookings for every hour the site was live.

"We know that British Columbians have been through a really hard year and, particularly, a really hard winter," said Environment Minister George Heyman. "Everyone with B.C. Parks has really been looking forward to today."

Clearwater, B.C., Mayor Merlin Blackwell, who was a former operator for Wells Gray Provincial Park, says he hopes the online booking system has improved after the B.C. government changed the contractor taking care of the system.

"I don't think it [technical issues of the reservation system] will lead to them [British Columbians] abandoning the system, but it will lead to them complaining about it endlessly. And that's not the kind of thing that the B.C. government needs right now." 

The province warned several weeks ago that campgrounds were expected to be extremely busy this year as residents who have been cooped up all winter look forward to a summer vacation. Opening day for B.C. Parks reservations is already notorious for website issues, as provincial parks are extremely popular even in a normal summer season.

Last year was the busiest in recent memory, with more than 50,000 people trying to book at once on opening day.

Blackwell says he expects reservations this year will be even higher than last year. 

Easter weekend booked up

Campers this year were recommended to prepare backup options for preferred campsites and dates, in case their first choice booked up fast. Popular sites like Golden Ears Provincial Park quickly sold out, while all of the 340 sites available during the Easter long weekend were booked almost immediately.

A new rule around booking likely helped stem the initial rush. Campers are only be able to book two months ahead of their arrival date this year — meaning, for example, a person who booked on opening day was only be able to book up to May 8.

Spots along overnight trails like the Bowron Lakes Canoe Circuit and Berg Lake Trail, which are often snapped up by international travellers, were booking up quickly for the summer after reservations opened last week.

Some people did have quick success, managing to book their spot after a few hiccups. One independent campsite capitalized on the moment, luring frustrated people on Twitter to book with their "little heritage site" if they'd given up on provincial sites.

People enjoy the first day of the reopening of Golden Ears Provincial Park in Maple Ridge, B.C., on May 14, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

A previous statement from the ministry said people living in B.C. will have "priority access" to provincial campgrounds all summer, but campers are being asked to choose a site close to home where possible, as Garner did, to avoid long road trips during the pandemic.

Despite current public health orders to avoid non-essential travel out of one's own community, the province is opening reservations to people living in other provinces on July 8.

Minister Heyman said the ministry will revisit that decision if public health restrictions aren't eased.

"We are hopeful with news we've heard about vaccines and experience of warmer summer weather making viruses less transmissible, that we can open up for travel and reservations by people from other places … but again, we will assess this on an ongoing basis and if we have to change direction because of public health, we'll certainly do so," he said.