Random camping on the rise in Alberta, for better or worse, during pandemic

Camping traffic in central Alberta's foothills and Rocky Mountains has been on the rise, but so has the destruction of nature, especially in the Nordegg area, where some campers just aren't playing nice.

Campers bypass fees and campgrounds, but may be trespassing, destroying trees, leaving garbage and feces

The Alberta government wants to protect the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains near Nordegg. (Government of Alberta )

Something that normally happens off the grid has been in the spotlight this week, thanks to the few who do not follow the rules.

According to Marla Zapach, who runs an eco-tourism operation near Nordegg, problems with random camping boil down to one thing: "People don't know what they don't know."

Camping traffic in central Alberta's foothills and Rocky Mountains has been on the rise, in part, due to the pandemic removing other travel options.

Many random campers pack out their garbage, but those who do not are leaving massive problems behind for locals to clean up in the Bighorn area. The increase in general traffic has been "insane" — according to a recent report from Alberta Environment's Bighorn backcountry standing committee.

They're not quite sure how to camp in an area with very little to no infrastructure.- Marla Zapach, who operates Skadi Wilderness Adventures

"You have a lot more people coming out to the area, who are used to camping in areas that have services or they have toilets, or, you know, other things that make their camping experience simply easier," said Zapach, who is also a member of that committee.

"And when they come onto the Bighorn, they don't realize that those services just simply don't exist for them. And so they're not quite sure how to camp in an area with very little to no infrastructure."

Bighorn Country is a more than 5,000-square-kilometre wilderness area stretching east of the Banff and Jasper National Parks. It's a reasonable drive from both Calgary and Edmonton. It has mountain ranges, rolling foothills, alpine grasslands, rivers and lakes.

And random campers.

"We've generally seen a large influx of people into the area," Zapach told Alberta at Noon, which dedicated its Wednesday show to the topic of random camping.

"The highways are busier. There's more garbage. There's a lot of people parking on the highways to access some of the trailheads. It's noisier … and it's consistent, whereas before it would be on long weekends, we now see it happening throughout the week."

Zapach estimates that in the past, long weekend traffic would be about 10,000 people, but that has doubled this year.

"It's a large area, so there is room for everyone to be recreating and enjoying the space," said Zapach. "The problems only come about when the rules and the regulations in place aren't followed."

Zapach ran through a list of issues: trespassing on First Nations land, illegal discharging of firearms, garbage and food not being disposed of or stored properly, cutting down trees, cutting new trails, people not crossing streams appropriately with their ATVs, and everyone's favourite, leaving human waste.

There are also issues with parking on highways, and speeding, and sometimes "just generalized anti-social behavior," Zapach said.

In 2018, the NDP government proposed creating a new park system that would include a wildland park, three provincial parks and four recreation areas in Bighorn Country. Former premier Rachel Notley planned to spend $40 million on infrastructure in the controversial plan, which never came to fruition.

No commitment for new funding

As The Canadian Press reported Wednesday, Environment Minister Jason Nixon has not committed to any new funding for facilities or enforcement for the area, which is serviced by just two park rangers. 

"What is taking place in that location in the eastern slopes is exactly what we have taking place all across the province because of COVID. We'll continue to do our best to manage that," Nixon said.

Marla Zapach operates Skadi Wilderness Adventures near Nordegg, and sits on the Bighorn backcountry standing committee. Zapach says the Bighorn wilderness is there to be enjoyed by everyone but there have to be some rules in place. (Submitted by Marla Zapach)

For Zapach, it's not about making it a provincial park.

"It's not the question of designated a park or not, it's what do we want this land to be used for," Zapach said.

"We have competing values and pressures on the landscape and we definitely want all Albertans to be able to continue to enjoy this world-renowned beautiful area, while conserving these values that make it special for generations to come."

Almost 50,000 people have joined a Facebook group called Crown Land camping Alberta, run by Ryan Epp, who says his style of camping includes a 21-foot trailer, a quad and some target practice in an area where he won't be disturbing anyone.

"You're not reaching out and touching the trailer right next to you at arm's length away in the campground … generally, you're not even within eyesight of people around you," Epp told Alberta at Noon. "So it's peaceful and quiet and it's out there as well. You don't don't have somebody right next door to you."

Epp says he has faced accusations that his Facebook group is causing the surge in random camping.

"I mean, sure, we brought more attention to it, but we're trying to teach people the rules and a lot of people think there are no rules," he said. "That's the problem.… You've got to abide by basically common sense while you're out there. I mean, yeah, we got people thinking we're the cause of it, but we're trying to help anyway."

Ryan Epp, shown camping with his buddy Bosco, says unfortunately the few who cause trouble are bringing the wrong kind of attention to random campers. Epp runs a Facebook group called Crown Land Camping Alberta. (Submitted by Ryan Epp)

The appeal of random camping is undeniable, especially with the difficulty of booking online for most national and provincial parks. Epp says people want the freedom to make noise or enjoy peace and quiet.

For some, the lack of rules is part of the appeal or random camping.

"They want to be out there on their own," Epp said. "A lot of the people aren't for more enforcement. I'm all for it, to try to catch these people that are breaking the rules, because they are causing big problems, and they're the ones that are getting all the attention, unfortunately."

The amount of human waste around the random campsites is unbelievable, and hacking down green trees, and it really is almost a no-rules situation.- Cal Hill, from north of Cochrane

Caller Cal Hill, from north of Cochrane, says he's frustrated to see the lack of respect for one of his favourite places, around the Ghost Lake area.

"The amount of human waste around the random campsites is unbelievable, and hacking down green trees, and it really is almost a no-rules situation," he said.

"I think a lot of people just don't understand what's required and even how to use facilities when there are no facilities."

Another camper, Paul Hogan, called in to Alberta at Noon from his random campsite 30 kilometres west of Sundre. He was in a fully-equipped travel trailer, which he says he has everything he needs.

"These campgrounds are going to offer me nothing except to pay them money," he said.

Hogan, a member of the Mississaugii of Hiawatha First Nation in Ontario, suggested using the vast network of off-road enthusiasts to police the area.

'They have a quad society up there in the Bighorn … I think they should enlist these people, they're out there and I know up at Bighorn they're fixing trails and stuff," he said. "These people care, and like you're going to get all these police and fish and wildlife all these people involved, it just costs more money."

Hogan says he would never use the current reservation system for provincial and national parks, which requires people to book ahead — if they can grab a spot before they're all gone.

"I've never done that," he said. "Six years ago, I started random camping. I used to go to the sites. I leave home because I want to get away from stuff, and they put me in a lot with an RV right beside me. And I've got a fully contained unit. Unless you have water and sewage, you've got nothing really for me."

Infrastructure, enforcement and education

Zapach, who says she supports random camping, says the problems come down to three main issues: lack of infrastructure, lack of enforcement and lack of education.

"We just simply don't have enough conservation officers out there," she said. 'We really need a Kananaskis-level investment in conservation officers.'

We need to work together as a province to make sure that visitors from outside the province are respecting our natural habitat and our natural resources in the way that we do.- Wyanne Smallboy-Wesley

Wyanne Smallboy-Wesley says as a First Nation person from the Bighorn area, she agrees that education is needed, and funding for more officers to patrol the area.

"As Albertans I know that we have been in good practice, in good faith, camping along the Bighorn Reserve for many years now," she said. 

"But the other provinces … I see their licence plates coming into our area, they don't have that appreciation, and they don't have that stewardship the way that Albertans do. We need to work together as a province to make sure that visitors from outside the province are respecting our natural habitat and our natural resources in the way that we do."


Smallboy-Wesley added that random campers are trespassing, cutting new paths and disturbing wildlife.

"Hunting season is coming up," she said. "It's traditional territory in that area … so we're going to go hunting. They're disturbing our livelihood. They're disturbing our culture. That is disturbing our way of life."

Random camper Ian Cowles, from Edmonton, says he heads out camping at least once a month.

"I do a lot of backcountry camping, and I find that most of those spots are very well kept. There's not anyone taking down a lot of trees, and [campers are] just using deadfall if they are going to be lighting fires," Cowles said.

"But when it comes to the Nordegg area, which I have car camped in and around, I found that area to be extremely bad when it comes to garbage, to people taking down living trees."

Cowles doesn't believe harsher enforcement is the key.

"I favour more education," he said. "Having an educated public that knows, like, you don't want to be disturbing it so that the next person to use that spot is going to be in a worse situation."

Zapach, who runs Skadi Wilderness Adventures near Nordegg, says a complete list of rules and regulations, as well as best practices for random camping are laid out on the Government of Alberta website.

With files from Alberta at Noon and The Canadian Press.

With files from the Canadian Press and Alberta at Noon


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