The best way to explore Banff National Park is getting into the backcountry. We share how to book backcountry campsites in Banff with our tips below.
Banff National Park is one of Canada’s most popular outdoor destinations – with over 3 million visitors annually. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find some solitude; most of the park’s 6641.0km2 are untouched, pure backcountry just waiting to be explored.
While most of Banff’s peak season visitors will stay in one of the park’s 14 campgrounds, there are literally hundreds of great backpacking and hiking routes to choose from, dotted with prime camping spots and breathtaking views.
Looking to head out to Banff for a backpacking adventures? Here’s everything you need to know about backcountry camping in Banff National Park.
Permits and Rules For Backcountry Camping in Banff
To spend the night in any of Banff’s backcountry areas, you will need a backcountry permit. Permits are $9.80 a night per person, and group size is limited to 10 people. You can spend up to 3 nights in one site before needing to move on.
Backcountry camping permits in Banff National Park are limited, so you’ll want to reserve your backpacking permit well in advance for trips in peak season (June through early September). It’s wise to book early for trips on either side of peak season, too. There’s a non-refundable reservation fee of $11.70, no matter how many nights you stay. This is in addition to the National Park Pass needed to enter Banff National Park.
Reservations for backpacking campsites in Banff National Park usually open in January on the National Parks website.
Prepping for Bears and Wildlife – Stay Safe in the Banff Backcountry
Grizzly bears and black bears are common in Banff, and the entire place is teeming with elk, fox and mule deer. Cougars, lynx, wolverines and wolves are also out there, so caution is warranted no matter how close to the front country you might stay. Always use the food storage cables or lockers at the backcountry campsites; if they aren’t provided, such as at random camping spots, you’ll need to bring a bear canister or rig up your own storage.
As always, do not approach wildlife – of any kind. Stay at least 100m from bears, and slowly back away if you come across any in your path. With most creatures, if you leave them alone, they’ll return the favor.
Also, keep an eye out for ticks, which can carry Lyme Disease.
Are campfires allowed in the Banff Backcountry
Some backcountry sites allow fires in designated metal fire rings. Some do not. Keep any fires small, and never leave it unattended. It’s highly recommended that you carry a backpacking stove for sites that do not allow fires. It’s up to you to know which sites allow open fires.
Random Camping In Banff National Park
Random camping (dispersed camping) is only allowed in designated areas in the remote reaches of the park. You must camp at least 5.0km from the trailhead or any designated campgrounds, at least 50m from any trail, and 70m from any water source. Fires are not allowed when random camping. A backcountry permit is required for random camping.
Other Tips + Etiquette for Backpacking in Banff
Pack in, pack out. Banff is absolutely gorgeous – please keep it pristine and just the way you found it!
Take Only Photos. You know the drill; leave all rocks, fossils, antlers and wildflowers, etc, where they belong.
Planning a Trip – Best Backcountry Camping Trips in Banff National Park
Backcountry camping trips in Banff range from the easy to strenuous, crowded (especially in summer) to secluded. Whether you want to spend 2 days or a week on the trails, there’s something here for you. Here are some of our favorite backpacking trips in Banff.
One quick backcountry camping trip, popular with novice backpackers, is the out-and-back trip to Glacier Lake from Icefields Parkway. This hike covers 17.0km and can be done in one night. You’ll spend the night at Glacier Lake backcountry campsite, which offers 5 sites with incredible views of the alpine lake. There are also fire pits and picnic tables, and it’s a perfect place to enjoy an easy night in the Rockies.
The problem? A place this popular and scenic and it fills up fast. It’s a great early-season hike but snagging a site in summer can be tough.
For a true multi-day backpacking trip through some of the park’s most exotic scenery, Devon Lakes can’t be beat. This 61.0km trek takes you to two remote alpine lakes deep in the heart of the park, 40.0km of which is above treeline. It’s a gorgeous experience, but one that can really only be attempted from July through September.
You’ll spend the night at Fish Lakes Campground, which – like Glacier Lake – has 5 tent sites, located near Fish Lake in a green, forested area. There are picnic tables and an outhouse at this campsite, so you’re not totally roughing it. There’s also a bear pole, which you’ll need, and be wary of the mosquitoes. They can be rough!
While not as crowded as Glacier Lake due to its remoteness, this site still fills up during the summer as well,so plan ahead if you want to attempt this epic trip.
Lake Minnewanka (A Classic)
A Banff National Park classic, Lake Minnewanka makes the perfect weekend backpacking trip. You can head out from the trailhead on Friday afternoon and come back Sunday, covering almost 25.0km of gorgeous views around the rim of Lake Minnewanka.
We usually spend the night on this trip at Aylmer Pass Junction Campground, but it’s closed from July 10th to September 15th due to grizzlies stirring up trouble (bring bear spray!) When it’s open, it’s got 10 fantastic campsites with sweeping Lake views, and a firepit. Again, this campsite fills up early when it’s open, so you’ll want to reserve early in the season.
Two other campsites for this trip (which you’ll want to use July through September when Aylmer Pass Junction is closed) are Aylmer Canyon and Mount Inglismaldie Campground. Both offer 5 tent sites and some epic views of Mt. Inglismaldie towering overheard and are excellent places to spend the night. While not the most crowded of trips, campsites still fill up fast in summer.
Lake Minnewanka is a great early-season hike when the snowpack is low, as it will often be snow-free in early May. Also note that it is closed to groups of less than 4 from July 10 through September 15th.
Baker Lake + Skoki Region
For an all-around epic backpacking trip in some of Banff’s most scenic backcountry, head to the Skoki Region. Baker Lake, sweeping mountain views and alpine meadows make this a rightly popular spot, but not one that’s too crowded to enjoy. You can easily spend 3-5 days in the region, provided you can book enough campsites. Like Banff’s other best trips, it’s best hiked July through September, but is usually open starting in late May or early June.
You’ll start your hike at the Fish Creek Road trailhead, right off Highway 1A. There are 4 great campsites to choose from in the Skoki region: Hidden Lake campground, which offers 5 tent sites but is very close to the trailhead; Merlin Meadows and Red Deer Lakes, which offer 10 sites and fire pits but boring views; and Baker Lake Campground.
Baker Lake is the most popular and the best. It has 10 sites all located right next to beautiful Baker Lake. The views are spectacular. Just be warned that it’s not a secluded spot, and there are no toilets. Our usual caveat applies – these campgrounds fill up fast, though you may be able to snag some last-minute spots in the tail end of the season.
This another excellent backpacking trip with some of the best views in the park, on the opposite side of Sentinel Pass from Moraine Lake. Unfortunately, the campground is often closed July through September due to grizzly activity. Groups of 4 are required for safety. The trailhead is off the Moraine Lake Road. There are 8 backcountry tent sites at Paradise Valley with some pretty epic views. It’s a quieter and less traveled trip, too, so snagging a site shouldn’t be too hard.
Beginning at Mosquito Creek on the Icefields Parkway, this is a 4-day, 3-night trip that covers 52.0km over 2 stunning mountain passes and some of the most jaw-dropping views Banff has to offer, including vast, wide-open expanses of alpine meadows abutted by rocky peaks. Spend the first night at Mosquito Creek, the second at Fish Lakes, and the last as Molar Creek, or do it in the opposite direction and reverse those campsites. Note: If staying at Molar Creek, be careful not to pass the campsite, which is marked by only one, easy-to-miss sign.
Sawback Trail, Banff
If you’re in the mood for a true backcountry odyssey in Banff, gear up for the Sawback – a 74.0km trail that will take you through the craggy, intimidating Sawback Mountain Range. You’ll get to climb three equally mighty mountain passes and navigate a sampling of all the varied terrain Banff is known for. You’ll also need 4 to 6 days to do it.
Sawback Trail goes from near Lake Louise to just outside of Banff village. You can start at either – from the Fish Creek Trailhead near Lake Louise or the Cascade Amphitheatre Trailhead on the other end. If starting at Fish Creek, you’ll stay at Hidden Lake campground on night 1, followed by Baker Lake, Wildflower Creek, Badger Pass Junction, Johnston Creek, Larry’s Camp and Mystic Valley the following nights, depending on how quickly you want to accomplish it. You can also reconfigure the sites for a shorter trip more to your liking.
There’s not a lot of elevation gain over the course of those 74.0km, but the long distances plus the rugged terrain can be challenging. This is one backpacking trip for which you definitely want to know yourself and your limits.
The trick with this trip is planning ahead and getting all the campsites you want in the right order; you’ll want to book as early in the year as possible, especially if going during peak summer months. But if you can get them all, trust us – it’s a true alpine experience every step of the way.
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