Bear with us — Parks Canada is updating its booking system, but some campers aren't happy
A revamped Parks Canada booking system might make more campers happy this summer, but some outdoor enthusiasts still see room for improvement — including a tougher stance on no-shows.
Demand for campsites across national, provincial and territorial parks soared over the pandemic, making it even harder to make a booking on websites that had already struggled with overloading, glitches and crashes that left some campers empty-handed.
On March 13, Parks Canada will launch a "more modernized" reservation system for camping, cabins and outdoor activities, with bookings staggered over the two weeks that follow, to help limit website traffic.
The new system has been in the works for more than three years, and includes measures limiting the number of reservations an individual can make at one time. It comes after six tour companies made 2,300 reservations in a matter of hours in 2020.
Parks Canada told CBC News that users will only be able to place a maximum of five campsites in their cart before they must proceed to checkout. A user can make multiple bookings for the same date, as long they put different names for each primary camper.
As in previous years, the site will have a virtual waiting room, with users assigned a random number in the queue.
Seasoned campers say they hope this year's changes will make it easier to book their desired dates.
"The biggest issue we've had in the past two years is that when you did get on, it just crashed or was slow, so you'd get on and you can't actually finish the reservation — and by the time you did, it crashed and then you lost it," said Mathieu Bisson, a backcountry camper from Calgary.
He and three friends logged on last year, hoping that the person closest to the front of the virtual queue would be able to secure their reservation — but they were out of luck.
"One [friend] was number 4,000 in the queue. By the time he got [to the front], we still couldn't get the dates we wanted."
However, some campers believe those long and fruitless waits will continue unless stricter policies accompany the new booking system.
No-shows a pet peeve
On Parks Canada's Facebook post announcing the new reservation system's launch date, several commenters urged the agency to penalize no-shows and late cancellations that leave campsites unfilled, despite overwhelming demand. Under its existing policies, no-shows and cancellations qualify for partial refunds.
In response, Parks Canada said it encouraged campers to cancel early, but "we also recognize that surprises do happen and it is not always possible to arrive to your reservation."
Some other parks services across North America are no longer offering refunds for no-shows and late cancellations. Wyoming State Parks tracks no-show "repeat offenders" and says it will suspend users' reservation privileges after "four strikes".
"Things like that can modify behaviour, potentially," says Eric Karjaluoto, a camper from Vancouver and co-founder of Campnab, a website that notifies subscribers about campsite cancellations at national and provincial parks.
He and others said they would like to see Parks Canada limit the maximum length of reservations, to ensure more campers get a chance to book — a move Ontario Parks is making this summer by cutting stays in its most popular parks down to as little as seven days.
A Parks Canada spokesperson was unable to tell CBC News whether the agency was considering reducing the length of stays, which vary by site and are unlimited at some locations.
"No piece of software is going to change the fact that a lot of people want to camp, and there are only so many campsites out there," Karjaluoto said.
"I think it's more about making good use of the parks that are there right now, and not having those sites go unused."
Campers also said they would also like to see Parks Canada add alerts that notify users if a spot opens up at their preferred campground or cabin.
Ontario Parks added availability notifications last year, and Sask Parks recently announced its system will have a notification feature when reservations open in April.
For now, users have to keep checking the Parks Canada site for cancellations — or sign up for a third-party website that will do it for them.
Last year, after missing out on his own reservation at a national park, Daniel Thareja wrote a piece of code to scrape the Parks Canada website for cancellations and later launched a website, Schnerp, which operates similarly to Campnab, alerting users when reservations open up.
"It's so silly to me that reservation sites don't have this," says Thareja, a web developer who moved to Canmore, Alta., from Montana in 2019, in search of year-round outdoor adventuring.
"[Parks] have all the data, they know all the availability. You should be able to filter by sites, by amenities, by all those things to make those notifications actionable for you."
While users wait to see exactly what Parks Canada's new booking platform looks like — and whether they have a better shot at reserving a campsite this year — Karjaluoto says campers also need to help ensure as many people as possible get to pitch a tent this season.
"We simply have a limited amount of supply, and so just like you wouldn't throw away a good meal, you shouldn't be throwing away a good campsite."
The parks agency declined to provide images of the new-look interface. Despite previously announcing it would use a "new platform," Parks Canada on Wednesday clarified that the system launching in March was, in fact, a newer version of its existing software from reservations platform Camis.
In 2020, a different platform provider, US eDirect, was announced as the winner of a contract to implement and operate the new reservation system.
It was unclear why or when Parks Canada chose to stay with Camis. Parks Canada referred questions about the contract to Public Services and Procurement Canada.
US eDirect did not respond to a request for comment, while Camis declined to elaborate on the details of their contract with Parks Canada.
Key dates for Parks Canada reservations:
Before Feb. 26: Log in to your existing account and make note of any favourite campsites and activities (this information will disappear when the new booking platform launches)
March 3 onwards: Create a new account on Parks Canada's new reservations website