Did you know that Canada has over 8 million square kilometres of crown land (~90% of Canada’s land area) available to the public? We’re so used to viewing land as a commodity to be bought or sold that our little hippie minds exploded when we found out that we could (in theory) live on public land, almost anywhere in Canada, for free.
True, it would probably be out in the boonies, and we would definitely not be able to build a permanent structure on it, but we could stay at one site for up to 21 days at a time. Not bad for a couple of nomads, right?
We envisioned our future selves living off-grid in the wild and feeling proud that we’d found an alternative to buying land, but to be honest, it sounded too good to be true – even to our idealistic ears. We still wanted to explore the idea though, and this is the story of how we did just that.
Adventure #1: Nahmint Lake
Our first attempt to camp on crown land was a total failure. We were driving from Nanaimo to Tofino and had decided to spend a couple of nights partway there at a quiet campsite on the shores of Nahmint Lake. We headed towards the lake with vague directions from the Recreation Sites and Trails BC website, expecting to follow signs to the campsite when we got close. Except there were no signs. Instead, we found ourselves in a maze of steep, narrow, potholed logging roads with the hot sun alternatively cooking us or blinding us through the van windows. Windows that we couldn’t even open because of the bloodthirsty mosquitoes waiting for us on the outside.
After more than an hour of searching we still had no idea if we were on the right track. We were scared that a logging truck was going to come barrelling down the hill towards us or that we’d be hit from behind by the pick-up trucks full of hooligans speeding past us, presumably headed to a bush party at our utopian destination.
It was miserable. We were miserable. And so we did what most rational people would do after being lost in the woods for a couple of hours: we tucked our tails between our legs, turned the van around in a graceful 17-point turn, and drove back to town feeling pretty sorry for ourselves.
Lesson #1: finding a good crown land campsite requires more planning than a quick Google map search!
Adventure #2: Halfway River Hot Springs
A month after our first crown land camping attempt we met a sweet couple living in a cute mini bus who convinced us to check out Halfway River Hot Springs near Nakusp. They assured us it was worth the trek and so we headed out the same day with vague directions to drive a dozen kilometres on an unmarked gravel road and to turn left when we saw an abandoned van – apparently the only indication that the hot springs were nearby.
We carefully followed their directions and, after an hour of bumping along a familiarly rough logging road, we were surprised to find the hot springs exactly where the couple said they’d be. We were only mildly perturbed by the “Bear Danger” sign at the top of the trail and, armed with 2 cans of bear spray, we made our way down the hill to explore. We immediately fell in love with the wild river that poured past the campsite, the enchanting stone pools that bordered it’s bank and the hand-built hot tubs that steamed with water from the hot springs.
We spent the afternoon dunking ourselves in the glacial pools and then warming ourselves back up in the hot tubs. It was paradise, but only if we ignored the garbage bags piled around the outhouse, the latex gloves strewn along the trail (why?!), and the other random crap people had left lying around – paper towels, underwear, food scraps, water bottles. We were not surprised that there was a bear in the area after seeing the way it was carelessly treated by campers.
Also, we got some weird vibes from a few campers who could only be described as aggressively nude. Needless to say, we only stayed one night.
Lesson #2: public land is public to everyone – including litterers, partiers, and crazy naked dudes.
Adventure #3: Arrow Lake
The day we left the hot springs, we stopped at a waterfall to top up our water supplies and to dispose of our garbage (like all respectable campers should), and ended up chatting with a braided goatee-sporting man who maintains the local rest areas. He seemed genuinely disappointed when we told him about the mess at the hot springs and told us that it’s often closed to the public halfway through the summer because of the way people neglect it :(
As we bonded over our shared disdain for litterers, we found out that he had grown up in the area and he shared the location of a beautiful crown land campsite where we’d be able to park the van on a beach and have a big beautiful lake to ourselves. So, with yet another set of vague directions, we headed off in search of the site and were excited to discover that it was exactly as he had promised.
We parked the van right on the beach, created some shade with our tarp and some driftwood sticks, and settled in for a magical 3-day crown land vacation. We swam in the lake twice a day, watched the sun set behind the mountains in the evenings, and woke up to the sound of waves in the mornings. It was a beautiful, peaceful, life-changing experience for us and it 100% renewed our interest in exploring Canada’s crown land again!
Lesson #3: paradise on crown land does exist, you might just need a local to help you find it.
Have you camped on crown land (or BLM land in the US)? Tell us about your experience in the comments.