Not-so-happy campers want Manitoba to refresh reservation system amid high demand, booking headaches

The idea of pitching a tent in Manitoba is surging in popularity thanks to cabin fever fuelled by pandemic travelling restrictions, but that rise in demand has left a lot of not-so-happy campers.

Surge in demand led to record numbers logging online on opening day experiencing glitches, long waits

Rhonda Heinrichs and her family had a positive experience booking campsites on opening day through the Manitoba Parks reservation site in 2021. (Submitted by Rhonda Heinrichs)

The idea of pitching a tent in Manitoba is surging in popularity thanks to cabin fever fuelled by pandemic travelling restrictions, but that rise in demand has left a lot of not-so-happy campers.

Nearly 38,000 online reservations were made in two days last week. That crush of thousands more people than past years logging in when reservations opened meant more website glitches than usual and longer waits to access the province's booking site.

Many were left empty-handed or settling for less than ideal options.

"This system has been terrible for years, but obviously the pandemic has been worse," said camper Eliza Penner. "I just thought they would anticipate things a little better, but obviously not, so that's frustrating."

Many others, like Penner, feel the system has never been a joy and say this season's opening week experience underscores the need for Manitoba Parks to update its booking system.

Last Monday, Parks Manitoba saw a 126 per cent spike in bookings on opening day for Birds Hill Park campsites, and cabins and yurts elsewhere. Nearly 13,900 bookings were made that day, compared to about 6,100 on the day those bookings opened last year.

When this year's reservations for Whiteshell and Winnipeg Beach sites opened two days later, there was an 83 per cent jump, with about 24,000 reservations this year compared to roughly 13,000 a year earlier, a provincial spokesperson said.

Glitchy experience

Penner was 5,000th in line on the booking site on Wednesday. She waited several hours, but her family lucked out with a couple of bookings thanks to enlisting a few loved ones on different devices.

That shouldn't be necessary, she said.

Several family members encountered the same error notification upon checkout, causing a moment of tension where they thought their efforts were all for nothing.

Manitoba Parks says staff were aware of glitches and delays in the payment processing stage last week. 

There were also issues with servers on Monday that kicked some people to the back of the line. The parks department suggested that had to do with high traffic on the website and people using several devices simultaneously.

This error prompt appeared for several people on Monday and Wednesday right after paying for confirmed reservations, causing some to wonder whether their bookings didn't actually take. (CBC)

Manitoba's website user experience is among the reasons Penner and others say Ontario's staggered system is a better option. 

In Ontario, days become available for reservations up to five months in advance in a rolling process, rather than all at once.

For example, a booking for June 15 could be made on Jan. 15, according to Ontario Parks.

But that system isn't without its own issues. 

"Summer is short and key weekends are very popular regardless of where you camp," a Manitoba Parks spokesperson said.

"Complaints then arise about people sliding their arrival dates to ensure they get their desired long weekend, removing the opportunity for others to book the dates the other person never actually wanted to take."

Joanne Bjornson, centre, on a hike in the Falcon Lake area last summer with her children Peter, left, Kieran, second from left, her husband Dane, second from right, and her daughter Iris, right. (Submitted by Joanne Bjornson)

Be that as it may, Joanne Bjornson says she also favours Ontario's system.

She thinks Manitoba Parks should also consider reducing the number of bookings people can make, given the rise in demand.

Bjornson logged into Manitoba's system Wednesday at 7 a.m. and was about 28,000th in line. She waited six hours and booked one stretch of a few weekdays in July in the Whiteshell. It's not what she wanted.

"Some people got their full vacation planned and others were left hanging," she said. 

"I know one fellow who is not bragging, but quite proud that he had nabbed three weekends in a year. It's like, well, that's nice for you.… There's no rhyme or reason. Everyone was on before 7 a.m."

Heather Boer was at the ready but got skunked both days — she waited nearly five hours on Wednesday — and is also in favour of some limiting mechanism.

"There are many ways currently to use or abuse the system," she said.

Winning the lottery

Boer thinks a lottery system of some kind might be more fair as opposed to first-come, first-served.

That might be a wise idea, said Rhonda Heinrichs, who also considers allowing three reservations at once to be generous. 

"There's no way we have supply for the demand and there's a lot of disappointed people out there," she said.

Heinrichs kind of already won the lottery.

Rhonda Heinrichs, second from left, with her partner Dan Warman, left, Warman's neice Alyssa Sattler, right, Sattler's boyfriend Liam Evans, and Jack the dog at Tulabi Falls in Nopiming Provincial Park last fall. (Submitted by Rhonda Heinrichs)

Wednesday was her first opening-day experience making reservations through the website. She lucked out, becoming No. 104 in line using only a browser on her phone.

Within minutes she was in and out with two weekends booked at Brereton Lake.

"I was kind of wondering what all the negativity out there was about when my experience was uneventful," Heinrichs said. "Low expectations, sometimes that's the key."

Still, she thinks it isn't as equitable a system as it could be, especially for single parents who can't take hours off from working or looking after their kids on a weekday.

Thousands will again be jockeying for position this Monday morning, when the remainder of provincial campground reservations open at 7 a.m. sharp.


Bryce Hoye


Bryce Hoye is a multi-platform journalist covering news, science, justice, health, 2SLGBTQ issues and other community stories. He has a background in wildlife biology and occasionally works for CBC's Quirks & Quarks and Front Burner. He is also Prairie rep for outCBC. He has won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award for a 2017 feature on the history of the fur trade, and a 2023 Prairie region award for an audio documentary about a Chinese-Canadian father passing down his love for hockey to the next generation of Asian Canadians.