Categories: CampingGuides & hacks

How to Find Free Camping in Ontario

With a landmass bigger than Texas, Ontario has a lot to explore. Thankfully, you can find plenty of places to camp freely or go backcountry camping in the wilderness—but you’ll need to follow some basic rules. Here’s a breakdown of where you can find free camping spots in Ontario, as well as what to know before heading out on a camping trip.

Photo by Manny Moreno

Free Camping on Crown Land

While Ontario is known for its big cities like Toronto (the fourth largest metropolis in North America) and Ottawa (Canada’s capital), it’s mostly open, raw nature. An astonishing 87% of Ontario is registered as Crown Land, meaning it’s public land owned by the government (nominally, the British monarch) where you can camp for free under certain conditions, typically at dispersed camping sites.

If you’re a Canadian resident or have been in the country for seven months prior to your night in the backcountry, you can spend 21 days in one calendar year in any individual free campsite on Crown Land. If you’re from the US or elsewhere, you’ll need to buy per-person, per-night permits at participating Service Ontario locations or authorized license issuers. Non-resident campers also need to avoid green zones when Crown Land camping—only Canadians can camp in green zones because the land is being protected for reasons like over-tourism and over-fishing.

To map out your journey, have a poke around Ontario’s interactive Policy Atlas, which shows the province’s Crown Land boundaries, or check out a Backroads Mapbook.

Photo by Kayvan Mazhar

Free Camping on Park Land

Ontario is seriously blessed with some unbelievable, world-renowned national and provincial parks. You’ve got the grottos and turquoise waters in Bruce Peninsula National Park, Georgian Bay Islands National Park with its playground of islands, and Algonquin Provincial Park, home to gorgeous hiking trails and what is possibly the best freshwater canoeing in the world. Some backcountry areas and non-operating provincial parks allow free camping, but aside from those, the cost of Canadian parkland camping depends on a number of factors, including where you’re going, how many people you’re with, what you plan on doing, and even how old you are. Here are some general guidelines:

  • Admission to Parks Canada destinations (national parks, national historic sites, and national marine conservation areas) is free to kids 17 and under, as well as to new Canadian citizens for one year. Fees still apply for camping and excursions.
  • If you expect to visit the same park multiple times in a single year, you can purchase an annual single-location pass.
  • The annual Discovery Pass, which grants unlimited access to 80 national parks countrywide, varies in price based on whether you’re an individual, a senior, or a family/group.
  • Camping reservations and wild camping permits also vary in price, starting at about $10 per night.

Free Camping on Conservation Reserves

British Columbia and Alberta may have recreation sites, but Ontario is home to hundreds of what are called Conservation Reserves, areas managed by Ontario Parks for ecological or cultural preservation, education, and some recreation. Some offer free camping experiences and others require admission or camping fees, but with a huge variety of landscapes (think everything from wetlands and sand dunes to forests and beaches), these are incredible options for time outdoors. You can see which ones allow camping here.

Photo by Alina Pavlova at Blues & Greens by the Bruce Trail

Free Camping on Private Land

Ontario’s easy-going nature stretches to those passing through on a road trip. If you’re car camping, a vanlifer, or an RVer, then rest stops and truck stops usually allow you to go boondocking or stay the night for free. The same goes for Walmart parking lots, some big supermarkets like Real Canadian Superstore, and visitor information centers, which sometimes offer overnight parking. Always check for signs that prohibit parking, and consider asking an employee if you’re worried about getting in trouble. Shameless plug, but if you’re wild tent camping and want more privacy, better views, and areas off the beaten path for your next getaway, you can always search for private camping spots on Hipcamp.

Photo by Kath Fudurich at Cherry Hill Hobbie Farm Camping

Ontario Free Camping Rules

  • It should go without saying but wherever you stay, make sure to leave the site as it was or even better than when you arrived by following Leave No Trace guidelines.
  • If you’re planning to fish, Ontario policy stipulates you must be between 18 and 64 years old and have a proper license.
  • Before starting a fire, check local fire warnings and restrictions.
  • This is more of a suggestion than a rule, but Ontario has a healthy population of black bears, so for your own sake, pack your food tight and perhaps even hang it from a tree.

Joel Balsam is a Montreal-based freelance journalist and travel guidebook author. His work has appeared in National Geographic, Lonely Planet, the Guardian, TIME, BBC Travel, CBC, and more.

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