Squamish looks to crack down on free 'wild' camping

The District of Squamish plans to bring in new rules to clamp down on people who camp for free in areas such as forest service roads and on Crown land.

Squamish has become an increasingly popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts from climbers to van-dwellers. But as more people set up camp off-the-grid — sometimes referred to as "wild camping" — issues around crowding and the impact on the environment increase.

The district's proposed bylaw prohibits camping in public spaces, including on Crown land within the municipality, except for two areas: a gravel section roughly nine kilometres up the Mamquam Forest Service Road, east of Highway 99, and an area near Cat Lake, which is close to Alice Lake Provincial Park north of Squamish.

"This is an issue that we've been grappling with as a community for a long time," said Natasha Golbeck, senior director of community services.

"We're finding this to be more and more problematic."

The concerns cited by Squamish staff range from waste management to conflicts with neighbouring residential communities, Golbeck said.   

Nicole Gurney

Part of town's identity

Right now, the Land Act allows people to "wild camp" on Crown land for up to 14 days — the idea being that campers will be dispersed across an area and leave behind little trace.

But that's no longer the case. A few areas, like the first few kilometres along the Mamquam Forest Service Road have become hotspots for free camping.

"We really do welcome recreation-driven tourism  — that's part of who we are and our identity as a community hardwired for adventure," Golbeck said.

"But we need to do this in a way that manages the impact that it's increasingly having."

Under the proposed bylaw, enforcement officers would fine people for camping in restricted areas. Golbeck said an exact dollar amount for the fines hasn't been set yet but is likely to be a couple hundred dollars.

Nigel Kam

Catching up with other municipalities

Toby Foord-Kelcey, president of the climbers' advocacy group Squamish Access Society, said it's reasonable to ask people to either pay for a camping spot in a campground or, if they wish to camp for free, to do so further away from populated areas.

He said he's "cautiously" supportive of the proposed bylaw.

"That's completely in line with most people's expectation in other parts of North America."

The district consulted with the Squamish Access Society about the rule changes.

Foord-Kelcey said there needs to be a balance between protecting the environment, respecting the residential and First Nations communities that live nearby and catering to campers.

He pointed to other B.C. cities, like Whistler, have similar rules around camping within municipal boundaries.

"What Squamish is doing is catching up on what would be normal in other municipalities," he said.

The proposed bylaw has been presented to council but still needs to go through several readings before it is formally adopted.

Golbeck said she expects the details to be hammered out next month and that the hope is to have it ready for enforcement by summer.