Cycle Touring & Camping
Cycle Touring Vancouver Island
Camping is a prime reason to head out cycle touring or bikepacking. Vancouver Island & the Sunshine Coast have countless brilliant camping choices.
As times change, there are changes in camping and the backwoods. More people live in towns or cities, and many kids and busy parents are keener about their electronics than getting out into the great outdoors. Many campers today seek more comforts or bring their own with them: RVs are the biggest such change (more common than tents now), and most campgrounds close to cities now have showers, electricity and even wifi. Not surprisingly, the cost of camping has risen.
Here's 2 popular walk-in campgrounds for cycle tourists in the region. The top is at Porpoise Bay Provincial Park near Sechelt. They will almost always make room for one more cycle tenter. And check out the early morning wake-up committee on the left. Below is from Rathtrevor Provincial Park south of Parksville (this walk-in site fills up in season)
A key caution for planning your cycle touring trip - most campgrounds close to main travel routes are real popular (and often full) in season, particularly on weekends. Summer long (holiday) weekends top the list. Advance reservations (if possible) are a real good idea.
Most formal campgrounds will not allow you to cut wood, or even gather downed wood, for fires. They will sell wood at painful prices.
If you need a good night's sleep (and what cycle tourist doesn't?), bring earplugs, as sound travels at night, and you never know what to expect for neighbours.
Wild camping along Little Lost Lake, NW of Courtenay. The track you see was a rough go to get in. Zero facilities, but a great spot, with several energetic beavers who woke me up in the early morning by slapping their tails on the lake.
To give a sense of the range of options, I've proposed grouping campgrounds into some categories:
Provincial Campgrounds - the gold standard for me, usually attractive, well treed, with spacious fairly private individual sites, fire pits, boat launches, perhaps beaches, and hiking trails. Bigger grounds will have water, showers and maybe power outlets. More remote sites will almost always have at least clean outhouses & well maintained grounds. Some sites have cheaper, walk-in sites for cycle campers or hikers (see top pic). Most accept online reservations, and close down in the off-season. They can cost $15 to $40. There are also a small number of national campgrounds (e.g. Pacific Rim National Park), which are comparable to the provincial sites.
Private/Commercial Campgrounds - mostly near towns or travel routes. They usually have more facilities, including showers, electricity, water sports and small shops, and these days cater mostly to RVs (some sites have colonies of customers who return every year, like little communities). They may even rent gear like canoes and even have a small store. They are generally more costly, and I often find them more cramped and exposed for tenters. Most take reservations & close in the off season.
Regional or Municipal / City Campgrounds - usually nice campgrounds, with all the basics, just not quite as nice the provincial campgrounds. A reliable option.
The fabulous swimming beach at Gordon Bay Provincial Campground, along SE Cowichan lake. Lots of great swimming around this popular lake, and the nearby Cowichan River is a popular destination for summertime 'tubing'.
Rec (Recreation) campgrounds - These are common in backwoods areas throughout the region, and are a mainstay for off the beaten path cycle touring or bikepacking (almost always accessed via backroads). Many are maintained by Recreation Sites & Trails BC, others by logging companies or First Nations. There's great variety. Bigger Rec sites may wells for water, lots of well maintained sites, boat launches, outhouses and in-season hosts. There are countless less developed sites, that may only include a rough access track, a few clearings, perhaps with picnic tables and an outhouse, and perhaps a lakeside boat launch. Then there are old, no longer maintained sites, where there is only an access road and clearing, usually near water. The more formal Rec sites charge fees in season (~$15 to $30), while countless less formal sites are free. There are a number of rec sites only accessible by lakes, rivers or portage trails (some great for bikes) that have been put in place to service paddlers on canoe circuits such as the Powell Forest Canoe Circuit and the Sayward Forest Canoe Circuit. I think of the Rec Campsites as a treasure.
Last year I discovered a couple of Horse Camps around Brewster Lake, west of Campbell River, maintained by the Back Country Horsemen Society of BC. These sites are along horse trail routes, and have corrals & water troughs for horses. Here's from the Rec Camp webpage for Memekay: "...designed and developed primarily for equestrians accessing the Salmon-Brewster Horse Trail..."
Equestrians riding to Brewster Horse Camp
Pullout Camps - this is my term for very basic (usually backwoods) camping options where others have clearly been there before you (which is almost everywhere). These spots usually involve a pullout so you have some offset from roads, a clearing where you can fit a tent or two, sometimes some stones for a fire pit, and (usually) water access. If you are near a lake or river, keep your eyes open for any rough track heading to the shores: more often than not, you can find a spot where others have already camped. Sometimes these can be beautiful spots.
Wild Camping - this category here refers to simply finding a spot you can put your tent down at the end of a hard day's riding. Usually, all you need is a flat enough spot for your tent, and water. Sometimes, I'll fill my water bladder at a stream and then just look for a spot for the tent. If you're on a remote trail, try to avoid blocking the trail off with your tent, as these are sometimes used by animals (including bears) at night. As you might gather, the possibilities for wild cam,ping are endless.
some people like to practise what many call 'stealth camping'. I see this from several perspectives. First, it is good to not be seen from the road - not just so you don't get rousted, but also for security reasons, or just so you can get your sleep. I've had lots of times after hard days when I have needed a place to camp close to a community or farmland, or maybe in a closed campground - and I keep things low key when setting up camp. Most of the time on Vancouver Island, though, my wild camping is just out on the middle of nowhere, where no one cares if I'm camping - so there's no need to be stealthy (beyond getting that good night's sleep). If I do see I'm on someone's land, 10 minutes down the road and I'm likely out in the backroads again.
The incredible, otherworldly, wetlands trail into Smuggler Cove Provincial Park, with a tiny, basic facility campground at the gorgeous seaside
In case you really need a warm shower and bed, there are also options to stay with people registered as members of Warm Showers - a community (worldwide, including Vancouver Island & Sunshine Coast) for touring cyclists & hosts. I've heard great reviews from cycle tourists, though check out some of the cautions on their FAQ section.
A small informal campsite on a pullout to the shores of remote Hadikin Lake, off Walbran Main, a break on a very wet riding trip