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Travel Tips: Backcountry Camping

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Hi I am planning a trip to Banff Nat. Park, and am trying to figure out the best places to backcountry camp. I was thinking about Johnston Canyon, lake louise and perhaps Peyto lake. I was trying to find a loop that would cover these beauties. I fly in on a fri and fly out from Calgary on a tues. Thanks for any tips/ advice!!!

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    I think you need to do some serious research on camping in the national parks. Your current plan is not realistic.

    Firstly, there is no free-camping in the national parks. You must camp in front or backcountry campsites. Some front-country campsites are open or will open this weekend, but almost all of the backcountry campsites are shut until sometime in June or even early July. It's still winter at higher elevations.

    Backcountry campsites will be at least 4-5 km from the closest road and require advance reservations. For Banff NP, those reservations are by phone or in person, and are available 3 months in advance. It's about $12 reservation fee plus $10 per night backcountry fee.

    I don't think any of the sites will be open in late May - certainly the area around Peyto Lake still has plenty of snow. All require full gear - tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, stove, fuel for stove, food, method of treating water. And in late May, you need to be prepared for below freezing temps and snow - we may well get snow this weekend.

    As far as I know, there are no backcountry sites anywhere near Peyto Lake. The closest backcountry accommodation is Peyto Hut, which requires glacier gear and experience to access (and advance bookings). For Lake Louise, backcountry sites will be a good hike in and still likely to be quite snowy - if not snowy, then very mucky/muddy/icey. At Johnston Canyon, the closest backcountry sites are beyond the Paint Pots - a fairly long hike and also likely to be snowy still. I doubt any of those locations are going to be open for camping until mid to late June.

    I think you are probably looking for front-country (car accessible) camping. Some of those campsites are or will be open by late May, though you could still encounter fairly cold temps and snow. Some campgrounds can be booked in advance, others are first come, first serve. In late May, I doubt you need to worry about reservations.

    There's a campground right at Johnston Canyon which opens on May 26. However, the one in Lake Louise doesn't open until May 30 (the one for tents) and none of the ones anywhere near Peyto Lake open until June. The closest one open in late May would be Two Jack Lake right near Banff or all the way at Columbia Icefield Campground in Jasper National Park.

    For late May, I think you'd be better off looking at hostels. Early season camping, especially for a single person, is going to be a bit of a hassle. There are no fire bans in the national parks (yet), but you still need to have a stove, since cooking over a fire can be a hassle or near impossible (in rain or snow), and fires can only be made in designated pits or fireboxes (and you must pay a nightly fee for a fire). Plus, you will need to have gear that can stand up to cold temperatures and also keep a bear safe campsite (all food, liquids and scented items stored in your car or a bearbox). And by the time you factor in the camping fees etc., a hostel will be about the same price. In Lake Louise, it's also worth noting that the tent campsite is within electric fence because of bears and right by the train tracks.

    In Lake Louise, there's an excellent Hi Hostel. For Johnston Canyon, the Castle Mountain Hi Hostel is quite close by. For Peyto, the Mosquito Creek Wilderness Hostel is not too far - it's basic (outhouses, tank water for cooking and drinking), but provides all linens and full cooking equipment/kitchen. Very pretty setting.

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    Plus if you are flying in, is it realistic to bring all your camping gear? Most airlines do not allow stoves that have been used in checked or carry on luggage.

    If you arriving Friday and leaving Tuesday, I think your best plan is to base yourself at one or two hostels in the Canmore/Banff/Lake Louise area.

    The hostel in Lake Louise would be a great base to see all those locations, as would the one at Castle Mountain. Despite our mild winter, we've had some fairly cold and nasty weather as of late, so you won't be doing any of the higher elevation hiking trails.

    You could spend a day driving along the Icefields Parkway - see Peyto Lake. I'm pretty sure the road to the Bow Summit viewpoint is still not accessible via car, but you can hike up to the viewpoint. Just have good boots because it will be snowy & muddy.

    Then another day around Lake Louise and Moraine Lake, though there will be little to no hiking at the latter. It sounds like many of the trails around Lake Louise are safe, albeit still with a fair bit of snow cover, avy debris and lots and lots of mud/muck.

    And a third day, you could do Johnston Canyon, perhaps see a bit of Banff townsite or explore a bit around Canmore. Or head over to Yoho NP.

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