Beyond Car Camping... With Kids (Walk-in Camping Near Calgary)

by - Thursday, September 11, 2014

When my hubby and I had my first child, friends were betting on how long it would take for us to take the wee one backpacking. We had, afterall, met on a backpacking trip, so it seemed natural that we would continue with our favorite mountain pastime, but we'd seen intrepid parents suffering on the trail with 50 pound packs plus their 20 pound baby and knew it wasn't for us. It is possible, and I salute those folks, but it wasn't for us because it didn't look fun. We decided to start with car camping and graduate to walk-in camping when the kids could handle it.


Why Walk-In Camping? 

Walk-in camping is as close as you're going to get to the backcountry experience without having to pack your kids and gear over far distances. You sacrifice some comforts of car camping in exchange for peace and quiet; no partiers, RVs, or barking dogs; and the chance to rekindle memories of your glory days when you hiked hours off the highway to bag summits, sleep in the rain, and capture sunrise photos of grizzly bears.

How Old is Old Enough? 

The Camping Readiness Test below will determine your family's (walk-in/backcountry) Camping Readiness Score. Good Luck!
  1. Can your child sleep through the night?  1 point
  2. Can your child sleep through the night in a strange place? 5 points 
  3. Do you know how to set up your tent properly? 10 points 
    • If you've never set up your tent, practice before you go. Read the manual or watch a video so you know how to peg the fly down properly. This is the most important step - so many people complain that their tents leak, when in fact, the tent is fine. Read the instructions! Soaked sleeping bags make for cold and cranky campers.
  4. Has your child successfully (i.e. without waking and screaming and waking up the whole campground) slept in a tent several times? 10 points 
    • "Camping" at the cabin or in a trailer does not count. You need to cram yourselves into a small tent in the pouring rain or at high elevation where it's -8C at night.   
Troubleshooting: Most kids who sleep through the night but can't sleep in a tent are either frightened or cold. This is why practice camping - even in your yard - is valuable. It is better to put your kid(s)and gear to the test when the car/home are not far away before venturing into the wilderness.

Unless you despise sleep and enjoy having obscenities screamed at you in the night, you need to score a minimum of 20 points to venture beyond car camping with your kids. If you scored less than 20, stop reading now.

Did you pass?? Hurrah! Now you can check out where to go! Tips for walk-in camping with kids follow.

Walk-In Campgrounds in BC and Alberta

Elbow LakePeter Lougheed Provincial Park
  • backcountry campground 1.4 km from parking lot
  • reservable; 
  • fires permitted. 
  • Dayhikes: hike to Edworthy Falls or Rae Glacier. Fishing is permitted here, check Bikes are allowed on the trail, but it's a very steep climb up to the campground, especially if you're towing kids and gear.
Elbow Lake, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park
Lake O'Hara, Yoho National Park

  • technically a bus-in campground; campsites are less than 100 m from the bus stop; 
  • reservations required 3 months in advance, but totally worth it; 
  • several amazing dayhikes; Trip Report Coming Soon.
Opabin Prospect, above Lake O'Hara, Yoho National Park
Lower Elk Lake Campground, Elk Lakes Provincial Park, BC

  • 1 km hike from the BC side (9 km backpack from Elk Pass Parking Lot, Peter Lougheed Park, AB); 
  • many dayhikes in the area - if you're feeling ambitious, Petain Falls is beautiful (8 km return from camp). A shorter day hike is Upper Elk Lake.
Lower Elk Lake, Elk Lakes Provincial Park, BC

Mount Sarrail Walk-In Campground, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park 

  • 44 sites with convenient parking super close to campsites; some sites are in the open with no shade, some are forested; 
  • first come, first served;  onsite firewood sales; 
  • dayhikes: various, consider Lower Lake Interpretive (1 km), Lower Lake (7 km), or Rawson Lake (7.8 km). There are also lots of paved bike trails in the area. We like biking to Boulton Creek Trading Post for ice cream!
  • For more information, please see my Camping and Activity Guide for Peter Lougheed Provincial Park.
Rawson Lake, Peter Lougheed Provincial Park
Takakkaw Falls Campground, Yoho National Park

  • 35 lovely walk-in sites near the stunning Tak Falls; 300 metre walk
  • first come, first served; 
  • dayhikes: various; shortest dayhike: Laughing Falls (5 km); do as much or as little of the Iceline Trail as you like (it is ~20 km, so best for parents with babies they can pack or teenagers).
Takakkaw Falls Walk-In Campground

Tunnel Mountain Village II, Banff National Park

Tunnel Mountain Village II has 34 walk-in sites available. This is the most civilized walk-in camping you can do as the campground has flush toilets and showers and is minutes from the town of Banff!

Two Jack Lakeside, Banff National Park

Two Jack Lakeside has a 23-site walk-in tenting area. Camp lakeside with beautiful views! Washrooms have cold, running water, flush toilets and showers. There are picnic shelters and food lockers too.

Tips for Walk-In Camping with Kids

  • Pack as if you are backpacking since your car will not be that close in most cases.
  • Let the kids carry their own jacket, snack, and water.

  • Coolers are not allowed; bring food in a large, waterproof stuff sack to place in a food locker or hang from a bear wire. (Bring an extra stuff sack for cookware, dishes, and toiletries.)
  • If your kids cannot be parted from technology, and you don't mind indulging them, bring along walkie talkies and/or a portable GPS unit.
  • When planning your trip, check if fires are allowed since you don't want to deprive your kids of their favorite part of camping (roasting marshmallows!). Most walk-in campgrounds will allow campfires unless there is a fire ban, some have a communal fire pit near the cooking area, and some do not have any fire pits. Don't forget to pack marshmallows and hot dog sticks!
  • Consider the distance from parking lot to campground. The distance will determine, most importantly, if you can make it to camp before dark if you plan to arrive Friday after work.
  • Check if the campground has wheelbarrows/carts to haul gear. These are great if you can't leave car camping comforts like camp chairs behind. (I have seen it, but haven't done it!)  Ensure you have plenty of clothing appropriate for the weather before bringing "extras". 
  • Please, no pets and no stereos (again, have seen it but haven't done that sacrilege).
If sites are reservable, I recommend making a reservation in advance.

Where is your favorite walk-in campground? And when did you take your kids camping for the first time?

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  1. Great advice! I did lots of backyard camping with my daughter who is now a seasoned backpacker. I had to pretend some of our early trips were the best ever because one bad experience for your kid could set them back for years. Letting them bring a friend when they are a little older is a good strategy also. Canada is so beautiful! Those sites you suggested are all awesome.

  2. Aww, you rock! What a lucky kid you have!! Backpacking is such an amazing experience at any age, but it's easiest to get kids hooked when they're young, isn't it? I'm happy to hear your daughter still loves it!


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