Exploring Canada’s Crown Land: Adventures and Lessons Learned

Exploring Canadas Crown Land

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.

Nahmint Lake - Exploring Alternatives

Don’t let this photo fool you: we never found Nahmint Lake! Photo credit: Recreation Sites and Trails BC

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!

Bear Danger - Exploring Alternatives

Bear Danger at Halfway River Hot Springs

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.

Crown Land Camping - Exploring Alternatives

Crown Land Paradise at Arrow Lake

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.

Happy Exploring!

Danielle

38 thoughts on “Exploring Canada’s Crown Land: Adventures and Lessons Learned

    1. Danielle Chabassol Post author

      We were too, Sumana! The rest of BC was perfectly litter-free though, so that’s good news :)

  1. Tammy

    Hahaha-aggresively nude, that cracks me up. Love what you are doing. Watched a utube vid posted by Kirsten Dirksen about your travels. I admire your bravery to make a go after what you desire and believe in. I feel my personality has a few life options-ie.marriage/kids/settling down in 1 location, world traveller but home base, nomadic life. I chose the 1st and am quite happy with it but definitely dream about the other 2 choices through people like you blogging about it. Don’t ever stop writing-you’re good at it! I look forward to reading the next post.

    1. Danielle Chabassol Post author

      Hi Tammy – looks like we both have similar ideas/life options that interest us. It’s funny that you enjoy reading travel blogs while I enjoy reading mom/family blogs. I think life on the other side always seems interesting and it’s fun to peek at what other people are doing but I still try to find satisfaction with my own choices. Thanks for the encouragement – I really appreciate it <3

  2. Una

    Hii….great topic. We have been camping on crown land around Ottawa quite a bit. Every experience has been awesome, some sites better then others, except for the one time when we ran into a bunch of dudes that ended up throwing rocks through a bunch of our cars and stealing stuff. That said, this happened once, in I would say the last 10 years. So overall a really great experience for free camping in some untouched and wild parts.

    Also we found out that national forests in US are all free camping as well, and some beautiful spots too.

    PS. You really do have a great writing style, pleasure to read.

    1. Danielle Chabassol Post author

      Una! You really had guys throwing rocks at your cars? What a bunch of maniacs! I’m glad to hear that was an exception among all your crown land camping adventures.

      Have fun on your van adventures – I’m so so so excited to follow your journey South! <3

  3. Elaine Mari

    Hi there, my partner and I have recently come across your Youtube Channel and blog. Thanks for the effort you put into them, they are so well done. We’ve camped extensively in BC quite a bit on crown land here. We use the Camp Free in BC book and the Backroads Map Books, highly recommended. I’ve sent you an email with more info that is too long to put in a comment.

    1. Danielle Chabassol Post author

      Hi Elaine,

      Thank you for letting us know about the Camp Free in BC and Backroads Map books! We’ll definitely check them out the next time we’re in BC :)

      Sorry that I haven’t replied to your email yet – we’re really behind on responding but hopefully that will change next month when we start working on Exploring Alternatives projects full-time :)

      Take care and thanks again!

      Danielle

  4. Nika Fox

    I’ve definitely done my share of crown camping and will continue to do so… I’m familiar with the halfway hot springs, they are definitely one of the more popular natural springs I believe so I’m not incredibly surprised, though I still am quite disgusted.

    There are actually another set of natural springs not far from halfway, about 40 minutes from Nakusp as well that we camped at after the Shambhala music festival last year… they apparently are the much less known about ones and the sites were very clean as were the springs themselves.. still had the very cool big tubs that were built by some people as well. When we were there, there were only 2 other people, a couple of local guys on a little motorcycle trip that were absolutely kind and very talkative.

    I’m curious how these people were “aggressively” nude and in which way it was offensive to you? While we were at the hotsprings we were also nude, and the 2 local guys originally were not, I think we made them feel out of the place for wearing their shorts so not long after we started talking to them, they were like “screw it” and took off their swimming trunks. I hope we did not make them uncomfortable in any way, but I doubt it, as they seemed very comfortable with the idea after the fact.

    I also totally relate to your first crown land camping experience – a very similar thing happened to me on our last bc roadtrip. We were trying to find a place near squamish, when we arrived, all the signs were covered in graffiti and there were machete slashes in the signs and a bunch of the trees and a couple sketchy looking trucks parked around with no apparent drivers. We got a little freaked out and ended up leaving to pay for camping somewhere else. Later on that trip we ended up finding a lovely camping spot near Revelstoke. It was very clean, and very peaceful, right next to a small but roaring river. Definitely going to go back to that one soon.

    Anyway, I enjoy reading your guys blog, so keep at it! My boyfriend and I are in the midst of our DIY Sprinter Van conversion right now and as such love following others who are leading similar lifestyles to us. Our conversion should be complete before the start of winter, I’m excited to start full timing.

    P.s. I’d totally love the directions to Arrow Lake; it looks like a place we’d love to visit.

    All the best!

    1. Danielle Chabassol Post author

      Hi Nika,

      It’s great to hear that you’ve had similar good and bad experiences on crown land – it makes me feel like we’re not just the worst campers ever.

      We went to a few nudist beaches this summer and although we haven’t been brave enough to join in, we’ve been totally comfortable with other people’s nudity.

      The people at Halfway who were “aggressively nude” were loud and didn’t respect our personal space (for e.g. they walked close to our faces while we were sitting down several times which put us in very close proximity to their bits) and generally just disturbed the peacefulness of the place.

      It doesn’t sound like you guys are aggressive in your nudism so I wouldn’t worry about it at all!!

      I’d love to see pics of your sprinter van conversion when it’s ready! Have fun and safe travels!

      xo

  5. Loralee Hutton

    I clicked through from the tiny house blog & saw the arrow lake pic & immediately had to dig into your blog. Loved reading it. We often camp in the very same spot you found. We’ve driven 9+ hours just to spend time in that location & make trips up the mountain to the other hot springs…

    Keep asking locals and you’ll find directions to that one as well. (or send me a message – happy to share that insider secret).

    It’s an absolutely lovely place to disconnect from the world and reconnect with nature… Not as great for getting work done on the road though :)

    1. Danielle Chabassol Post author

      Hi Loralee,

      It’s crazy that you recognized the Arrow Lake spot from our photo and also nice to hear that you’ve had peaceful times there, too :)

      There’s actually someone living there full time right now which is pretty cool, although it would definitely be impossible to get work done there.

      Thanks for the offer to share the location of one of your favourite places with us – I might take you up on that offer the next time we’re in BC :)

      xo

  6. Ray Lance

    I’ve followed all your videos with a lot of interest. I’ve recently purchased a cargo van and have started it’s transformation. Hope to start some alternative adventures in March. Thanks for all the info and inspiration.

    1. Danielle Chabassol Post author

      Hi Ray,

      That’s super exciting! Keep us posted on your cargo van transformation – we can never get enough of seeing peoples van setups :)

      Happy Exploring!

      Danielle

    2. Cara Dukes

      Hi Ray
      I have also converted a cargo van. It is a 21 ft. dodge ram. Sleeps 2, (2 single beds) has sink, potty, 2 sets of drawers, water and propane stove. I would love to find a facebook group site where we could all share our stories.

      1. Danielle Chabassol Post author

        Hi Cara,

        Your van sounds awesome! I’d love to see pics sometime.

        Great idea about the Facebook group – I’m not sure that there’s one already in existence, but if not, you could get one started!! ;)

        Happy exploring :)

  7. OldMack

    Christine and I lived as mobile nomads all through the 70’s, raising our daughter and home schooling her. When she was ready for high school, however, I threw out the anchor, leased a house for four years and began to acquire clutter and credit card debt. While on the road I took jobs available to persons without phones and permanent addresses–some of which were great fun, such as climbing tall old growth Douglas fir trees to pick their cones. In public campgrounds I built boats and sold them to other campers; at one point we left Key Largo with six boats nested in our kitchen space and had to set them out on saw horses in order to cook meals–passersby saw them and stopped to buy one. The last of that lot was traded for a new outboard motor and it was sold in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Visit my blog for tales and pictures.
    I truly enjoy your writing style.

    1. Danielle Chabassol Post author

      Hi Ron,

      Thank you for sharing your travel story with us – it’s wonderful that you were able to travel with your daughter for so long, and that you found such a creative way to make a living on the road, even if it meant having 6 boats in your kitchen!

      I love your blog – just read a couple of your posts and hope you keep it up! Take care and happy exploring!

  8. pants_ghidorah

    Hey, enjoying the site so far, figured I’d drop a line. I recently left a job doing archaeology for numerous forest companies in BC and spent a fair time around Nakusp and Arrow Lake (though my primary area of work was in the Cariboo around Williams Lake and Quesnel). Often times we would spend 5-6 hours a day driving Forestry Service Roads and come across the most remote, beautifully isolated campsites I have ever seen. BC is rich with these, though the FSRs can be tricky (and dangerous) for rec traffic when operating in a radio controlled area. I once escorted a camper van back to a highway after encountering them over 100 km deep down a series of infrequently used roads. They did not have a back roads map and were convinced they were nearing a camp site only 10-15 km down the main trunk road. It could have turned into a bad situation for them. Anyway, cool site, safe driving. I’m going to go back to planning a cargo trailer to tiny home conversion I’m looking to build up here in Yellowknife. Cheers!

    1. Danielle Chabassol Post author

      Hi pants_ghidorah,

      It sounds like your job allowed you to spend time in some of the most amazing places in the world – how lucky!!! Thank you for the reminder that the FSR roads are dangerous – I definitely agree that it’s important to know where you’re going and to be as safe as possible. Have fun with your trailer to tiny home conversion and happy exploring :)

    1. Danielle Chabassol Post author

      Hi Karilee, thanks for reading this post! We enjoyed almost every single minute in BC and can’t wait to go back! Thanks for sharing a link to the van dwellers Facebook group – I just joined :) Take care and happy exploring!

  9. Gemma

    Hi Mat and Danielle! We would definitely second the recommendation for the Backroad Mapbooks for British Columbia – they have been absolutely invaluable to us for finding free campsites. I honestly think we must have slept for over 150+nights for free over the last few years.

    The Nahmint Lake recreational site is pretty nice, though we didn’t end up sleeping there, just went for a swim. Our blog post on it is here

    http://offtracktravel.ca/2013/08/27/seaside-camping-and-bear-watching-in-the-alberni-valley/

    1. Danielle Chabassol Post author

      Hi Gemma – thanks so much for checking out our post and for seconding the Backroads Mapbooks recommendation – we’ll definitely invest in one next time!

      I’m jealous that you got to see 4 bears when you were in the Nahmint Lake area (and that you actually found the site!). We should definitely meet up one day. Do you have any plans to head East next year? We’ll be road tripping around the East Coast in May/June next year..

      Take care and happy exploring :)

  10. ET

    Why park the van right on the beach?
    How about a little respect for plants and other wildlife and walk to sensitive sites?
    No matter how careful you are oil can drip, soil compaction occurs, erosion is likely, and plants get run over.

    1. Danielle Chabassol Post author

      Hi ET,

      Thanks for checking out the blog post. We parked on the beach where there was already an established campsite with some gravel and a fire pit, and it was as far back from the water as possible. You can’t tell from the photo, but we’re at least 100 feet from the water’s edge.

      That said, we are always conscious of our environmental impact in everything we do, from the way we eat to the way we live. Unfortunately we all have to make an impact at some point though. That said, we will definitely remember your comment and continue to choose our future campsites with care.

      Thanks again!

      Danielle

  11. Brigitte

    Just discovered your blog. If you haven’t read it yet, you should really check out the book “North of normal” by Cea Sunrise Person. This post reminded me of it.

    1. Danielle Chabassol Post author

      Thank you, Brigitte! That sounds like a neat book and I’ve added it to my “must-read” list :)

  12. Jacob Verbrugh

    Hello guys,

    I found your youtube page through Kirsten Dirksen’s account, I fell in love with your videos in September. I always look forward to new videos and posts! I have to admit I watch your videos several times because they’re that inspiring and interesting. I’m curious to know, where have you and Mat spent most of your time living in the van? also where do you see yourselves going next?
    Thanks a lot Danielle & Mat!

    Take care guys!
    -Jacob (from BC living in Edmonton, AB)

    1. Danielle Chabassol Post author

      Hi Jacob,

      Thanks for reaching out and for being so supportive & encouraging. It’s great to hear that you’re enjoying our videos! We put a lot of work into them and have a blast doing it :)

      We drove across the US in the van in November 2014, then we lived in it for over 3 months this summer in BC and then drove it across Canada. Since then, we’ve done some shorter trips in it but now that it’s cold, we’re house sitting & staying with family until we can take it south – hopefully early February!

      We’d love to be able to live in it full time, but right now we do a mix of house sitting, living in the van & visiting family.

      Take care and happy holidays!

      Danielle

  13. JB

    Hey! I stumbled on this while looking for crown land to camp on – Nahmint Lake is one of my favourite places to go! It’s super sketchy driving on like 3 different logging roads for an hour without signs (a couple of them are marked, but when I Google mapped it, I had to make notes like “left at the fork after 4km” or whatever), but there is a rustic (and very hidden) sign for Nahmint Lake, with a really steep driveway down to the rec sites. We normally park our car by the outhouses and hike in to the beach and ste up there. If you’re ever back in that area, let me know and I’ll give you better directions! It’s a great getaway! Here’s a blog post, Nahmint is maybe the 5th down: http://www.jillandkai.com/our-stories/category/various-camping

    1. Danielle Chabassol Post author

      Hi Jill,

      Thanks for letting us know that Nahmint Lake is one of your favourite places to camp (and that it really does exist!). We’ll definitely reach out to you the next time we try to find it haha!

      I checked out your blog and it looks like you guys are having some epic travel adventures. The spherical tree houses are gorgeous :D

      Take care and hope our paths cross one day!

      Happy exploring,

      Danielle

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