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Tips for booking an Ontario Parks campsite

Tips for booking an Ontario Parks campsite

Five tips (plus one) for booking an Ontario Parks campsite
Have you booked your camping trip yet? I know, I know…. Winter still seems to have an icy grip on the province. But that means it is exactly the time to start planning your camping trips. This isn’t news to a lot of campers who have a lot of experience venturing into Ontario parks.  Over at Sometimes Eventful headquarters, we usually have all of our summer trips planned and booked before spring officially arrives. In fact, in just a few short weeks we’ll be looking at booking our annual fall trips.

Tent camping at Bon Echo provincial park
At Bon Echo Provincial Park

It amazes me how often I hear people talk about going camping in some of the most popular parks in the province  just a few days before they plan to arrive, and they haven’t booked a site. And I’ve been a witness to far too many people who have driven hours to go camping, only to be turned away from a park office registration desk because the campground was full and they didn’t have a pre-registration.  I’m writing this little article so you won’t be one of those sad people who have to turn around and make the drive home because you weren’t prepared.

Quick Fact:  Ontario Parks has an online and phone registration system for advanced site booking. 

You can use the online service to book campsites, yurts, and most backcountry sites. (Backcountry sites for Algonquin and Killarney can be booked online now. Visit Ontario Parks online reservation site and choose ‘Backcountry’ under reservation type).

Check out our backcountry camping guides:

Algonquin Backcountry Camping Guide

Bon Echo Backcountry Camping Guide

Ontario’s Provincial Park booking system is set-up so you can book five months in advance of your arrival date.  For example, if you would like to arrive at Bon Echo Provincial Park on August 1, you can make your reservation on March 1.

Did you just pause and start counting to figure out the date 5 months from now?

No matter how you look at it, you should start planning and booking your summer and early fall camping trips NOW.  Here are a few tips to help you book a site at an Ontario Park campground:

Do your research in advance and choose your park and campsite BEFORE the registration date opens.

  • One of the best features of the Ontario Parks reservation site is the availability of photos for each campsite. Pay attention to the site description and compare it to the photo to be sure the site is right for you.

Have a first, second and third choice of campsites.

  • Competition for great sites is fierce, especially for sites that are beside water. By having three choices planned in advance you have a good chance of securing a site that meets your needs when you log on to register.  Over the last two years we have rarely been able to book our first choice site. But because we were prepared, we were happy with our second or third choice sites.

Set-up your Ontario Parks Reservations account BEFORE the date you plan to register for a site.

  • In the time it takes for you to register your account (just a couple of minutes) you could lose your first, second and third choice site to someone who was more prepared.
  • Being familiar with the site and registration system will allow you to make your booking faster.

Book exactly five months before your departure date.

  • Mark the reservation date on your calendar. Turn on notifications for a reminder. Don’t forget!

Get up early and log in to the Ontario Parks Reservation System before the reservations open.

  • The system “opens” at 7 am.

Quick Fact: Algonquin, Killbear, The Pinery, Sandbanks or Bon Echo are the top five busiest parks in the province.

Ontario boasts more than 100 parks, but if I asked you for the name of the first park that pops into your mind, there is a good chance your answer would be one of the “top five”. That makes these campgrounds some of the most difficult to reserve – especially if you haven’t planned 5 months in advance.  Consider trying a place you’ve never been or is a little farther than you would normally travel.

What if advanced booking is not possible? Here is the bonus tip….

Sometimes it’s tricky to book your trip five months in advance. Sometimes you find yourself at the last minute with a free weekend to go camping. Starting in May, you can find out which parks have available sites on the Ontario Parks Campsite Vacancies page before hitting the road or trying to book that last minute reservation.

I can’t say that following these tips will guarantee success in booking a site at an Ontario Park. But we have followed this routine for years and we haven’t missed a season of camping yet.

Story and Photography by Gayle Labuz, Sometimes Eventful

Sometimes Eventful is an outdoors family lifestyle blog where Gayle shares her stories and photos of getting outside, exploring and doing stuff with her family.

38 thoughts on “Tips for booking an Ontario Parks campsite

  1. The Ontario parkws website might “open” at 7am but sometimes is overloaded and is soooo slow that you don’t get the site that you want. If you try to call all you get is a busy signal.

    1. I agree we have tried 4 times for Oastler at exactly 7 am with no luck ~~~ontario parks office should open prior to 7 amfor sone to call all sites are gone by the time you get through on the phone ~~~website ontarioparkscampsitevacancies above for last minute sites does not exist

  2. Would have liked to see some commentary on those campers who book days in advance of their required days to ensure they get the ones they want and then later cancel leaving others with no options! Ontario Parks needs stiffer penalties for cancellations to avoid this behaviour!

    1. I’d say losing half the value of the site for a family emergency or whatever may come up is over kill. You basically paid for the vacation you didn’t get to take.

    2. I had to cancell last year my vacation that I booked due to my Mother was dying with cancer and she Did dye. So when it comes to
      situations like that we had to cancel. This behaviour was out of our hands to control!!!!!!! I usually book my campsites each year for the last 20 years and that was the first time I had to cancel!!!

  3. The entire reservation system is flawed. Getting a site is by far one of the most difficult frustrating things on earth. The busy signal you get is from their call centre blocking phone lines.
    The 10% penalty is far from fair when people book 5 months and 18 days in advanced for a 3 day trip they are having in August. Many of the employees you speak with care more about Getting you off the phone quickly opposed to doing their jobs correctly. Resulting in you having errors on your booking. Further more there is a lack of care for the customer as the customer service is abysmal.
    After this year I’m officially boycotting the provincial parks and moving onto private campgrounds. The hassle and cost isn’t worth it.

  4. There are definitely challenges with the system. There is a huge demand for sites, and reserving one has almost become a competitive sport. Other than raising the cancellation fees, what else can Ontario Parks do to make the system better? I’ve never tried to book in another province or state, so this and the Parks Canada system are the only ones I know. Have any of you come across a better reservation system somewhere else?

  5. It is very frustrating to get a site, especially when you are trying to book 3 to 4 so you can be camping with family and friends. It usually takes me about a week or so to get that many (at Killbear). And yes I am one of those people who start trying to book about a week ahead of when we are planning to be there, and then cancel the extra days, but that is the only way I have been able to ensure that we are all there for the same dates. That being said I’m not sure how they could make it any better than it is and I will continue getting up early for days and going on line to book for many years to come. For me the fun and the memories well out weigh the 10% penalty and a few early frustrating mornings each year:)

  6. The problem is that many companies don’t have their vacations/shut downs at the same time every year, so you can’t know 5 months, or 1 year in advance when they will get the time off. This system is set up to benifit the lazy travellers who want to catch the last inning of the ball game before they hit the road. Also not enough spaces are held aside for the traveller who need to stop over night, when this system first started we were aassured that that was going to be taken into consideration , but right from the start that was tossed to the side. Like an other writer I to will start going to other camp sites, this isn’t worth the aggravation.

  7. Folks, rather than complaining about the ontario parks reservation system on a blog post and claiming that you’re boycotting the provincial parks because of the system, why don’t you do something constructive like contact the ontario parks main office and make your complaint heard? If enough people complain about something do you not think they do something to fix it? If no one complains, they might just think everything is okay.

  8. More spaces should be made available for over night travelers
    Its hard to see the province when you need to reserve 5 months ahead
    Consideration should also be given for Out of Province campers
    Again you cannot promote Ontario Parks when you can`t find a site

  9. the day provincial parks changed their mandate from providing a service to the public too making a profit from the public it really went down hill. Let me go on just a bit of a rant. On line booking fees and phone in booking fees, give me a break. It is almost impossible to get a site by just going to a park, because they are well booked in advance. They might as well just raise the price another $5 – $10 a site.
    I read a post saying your have to book in advance because if you go to a park the staff will turn you away because they is not one empty site left. Well that’s not the case. The fact is there are 12 dozens of empty sites. The problem is these sites were booked online, and it turns out the people didn’t go camping. OR in a lot of cases people who have lots of money just book EXTRA sites in the off chance they want to go camping that weekend, and if it turns out they don’t go these people just loose half their money which they have lots of. And people who are trying to go on the cheap and save the dumb online booking fee by risking it and driving to the park, get turned away. The parks don’t care, they are generating their revenue and have less to clean. Don’t even get me started on fire wood. Other than that the parks are beautiful! lol

  10. I really resent the comment about people cancelling reservation. I have been reserving sites for the past 20 years and have not cancelled a site till last year when my mother took ill with cancer and she died from the cancer in the summer. There are circumstances that come up for cancelations.

    1. Cancellations yes, I get your point.

      Changing the length of your stay because you booked 5 months ahead for a 23 day stay knowing full well you only wanted 2 or 3 nights on a certain weekend is unfair and should be penalized more heavily. That is an entirely different scenario.

  11. Also be aware the “rules” are only enforced as the person you are speaking to feels like. We had a large group of men (they booked 2 sites but all stayed on 1 site) and 5 vehicles on the site next to us at Lake Superior Agawa Bay last fall, they had a pair of 500 watt halogen floodlights up in the trees that stayed on ALL NIGHT long. When complaints were filed with the Park Manager they just spewed BS and denied anything happened.

  12. I have tired for 3 years years to get a site a the Pinery Dunes and have failed with the Ontario Parks reservation site. what does a person have to do to get a reservation even after checking eveything out before hand….thisi s frustrating to say the least…

  13. I think it’s worth clarifying what people are referring to when they complain about people booking early and cancelling part of their reservation. They aren’t complaining about people who cancel their trip due to an emergency or bad weather. They are complaining about people who go online February 15 and book a campsite from July 15-Aug 2 when they only plan to camp July 31-Aug 2. They then go back online on March 15 (you can’t make a change to your reservation until 4 months prior) and cancel July 15-30 at a 10% penalty for those nights (meaning that they get a 90% refund). It feels like an unfair way to work the system, but it’s become almost necessary to get a high demand site. I think Ontario Parks should explore a way to curtail that practice.
    But as things currently are, it’s worth noting that if you get shut out when you try and book your preferred site (or sites) 5 months in advance you should check again 4 months in advance. That’s when people cancel the nights that they’ve reserved and aren’t going to use. This most commonly works out if you were trying to book a weekend prior to a long weekend or something like that.

  14. The fix to the abuse of the reservation system may be as simple as not allowing partial cancellations. Full cancellaltions only – I think youd see a huge change in booking behaviour.

  15. I have been trying to book our family vacation for the summer and have not been able to secure a site. Up early, clicking the site at exactly 7am and site is unavailable. This is becoming completely ridiculous & so frustrating that I don’t even want to try anymore. And I agree that it is ridiculous that we have to book well in advance of the actual dates you want just to book the site. Complained directly to Ontario Parks and they claim that this is not the case and that most campers only book 5 days. Look at all the popular parks and the evidence is there that people are over booking their days. Up to 23 days is ridiculous. Should be limited to 1 week at a time.

  16. I don’t understand why I can’t book a backcountry site. ??I want to book a back country site at Murphy’s point. To Me they are the best sites.

      1. It seems I cannot reserve a backcountry site. They say first come first serve. But I want a site for june 30th till july till July 3rd. How can I garantee the site for my vacation?

  17. suck it up people. we are all in the same boat. i heard that whynne is going to raise the rates next year anyway to pay for the toronto transit plan… maybe then there will be more availablitly. but i doubt it.

    book what you can, when you can. if you don’t like it then find another private campground or go to the state parks in the usa. plenty of room there.

    1. “Flag the repeat offenders?” It may morally offend you but it’s certainly not breaking any reservation rules. A simple solution would be to open up reservations just as in the U.S. and people would simply be able to book the actual days they require, problem solved. Then again I’m sure the same lot on this Blog would find something else unfair, like “Flag the repeat labour day weekend hogs!” Agree with Chris, don’t like it, go somewhere else.

  18. Alright. So I set my alarm to 6:45am, logged in and have my reserve page open for the pinery site.

    There’s about 9 sites open on Dunes 1 and another 15 open on Dunes 3.

    How is it that I clicked at 7am, the site is taken, then I tired other ones and all are taken??

    How is that possible? and today is the first day to reserve for the dates I wanted 5 months in advance….

    Is there a reason to this? I mean, were these sites not available due to maintenance or something but they just never held it up until the day of? It doesn’t sound right that 1 sec ago 20 sites are green and the next second all are booked!!

    (I’m trying to book Pinery on a long weekend starting Friday.. how else can I book Pinery? I’ve tried also last year and failed ! .. also tried to book just on the weekends)

    1. We have the same experience booking Killarney. We always joke that we are getting up early with all the other hopeful campers around the province. It simply comes down to luck I think. Many people competing for the same site on the same day. We always have a couple days available as the departure date so we a few more options. Good luck to all. It’s a stressful process but worth it when it finally works out.

  19. We went for amid-week trip through Algonquin with my in-laws (each in our own RV). The on-line reservation system said all campgrounds in Algonquin were full and the same response when we phoned in. We stopped at a Visitor Info booth where they said they would call directly to the park. The park says come on in, lots of openings. Upon arrival at Two Rivers we were told to go pick a spot we like and come back to register.

    I took a video and posted it on youtube showing the “Full Campground”. What BS this is, its a private company doing the reservations and they don’t care. Likely a plot by the wretched Prov. Government to close down the parks saying they are not being used.
    Hope this link will post, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YmscM-El-pI
    otherwise search youtube for Ontario Parks Reservation system says the Campground is FULL!

  20. I find the latest comment here very interesting and a bit disconcerting too. I called and spoke to a guy in the park and he said ‘just come on up and you’ll get a spot’. I wasn’t quite so brave as the park is about 4 hours away for us.

    I would like to know how many non-reserve-able sites there are in Algonquin. I find it hard to believe that it’s booked solid into October…

  21. I have 2 questions:
    1) How many reservations can you make on one account
    2) As of 2021, are there ANY sites held back for people passing through. I read somewhere that as of 2019, ALL sites are 100% reservable and there are no longer any available sites for passers by. If this is true than that spontaneous family camping trip to see our beautiful province has been killed. So so sad if this is true.

  22. The issue with the sites is that people are using bots, there is no captcha like there is in this site. That makes computer bots that can do the reservation on a scheduled time within milliseconds possible. Put the captcha or a queue for reservations would make it much more fair. We need to change the system so contact your MPP to make your voice heard. I have been camping for years and this year I may not be able to go because of this flawed reservation system. But the parks don’t really care because they get their money and that is their main objective. Just like trying to get a ticket for a concert.

  23. In the states such as southcarolina. Residents of south carloina are allowed to book 12 months in advance since their taxes pay for there parks. Ontario should allow ontario residents to book 5 months in advance and out of province 4 months in advance. That is fair since our taxes pay our ontario parks.

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