How to camp for free (and sites to visit to right now)

tent in the middle of a forest on a lake Photo by @natemuskoka

Looking for a camping spot in Ontario but can’t find availability atv your favourite parks? Don’t worry, there’s still a solution: Crown land camping—these sites are managed by the Ontario government and make up 95 percent of Northern Ontario. And not only do they tend to be a privacy lover’s paradise, but Canadian citizens can camp for free for up to 21 days each calendar year (non-residents will need a permit). 

Before you hit the trails and pitch your tent, remember to follow the golden rule of backcountry camping and leave no trace. Be respectful of the existing animals and ecosystems, dispose of all garbage, be cautious when making a fire, and follow local regulations set out by the local Ministry of Energy, Northern Development and Mines district office. Simply put, take only pictures and leave only footprints. 

How to find Crown land to camp on

Here’s the thing: finding Crown land can be tricky and seasoned campers are unlikely to share their hidden gems for fear that sites will become too popular. We suggest checking out the Crown Land Use Policy Atlas, and go exploring. For those looking for insider tips, we’ve rounded up ten Crown land camping spots across Ontario.  

Lake Temagami near Sudbury, Ont.

Calling all adventurers! Just east of Sudbury, Temagami Region has over 2,000 lakes and 2,400 kilometres of routes, often only accessible by portaging. Grab your best GPS system or a handy map because many points are difficult to find or maintain. Check out Lake Matagamasi to Donald Lake Loop and Wolf Lake, or Wicksteed Lake, Kenny Forest, and Marten River while you’re in the area. 

Ruth Lake in Killarney, Ont.

Ruth Lake is an ideal place to camp because it’s nestled in a network of canoe and backpacking trails. Plus, it’s close to the La Cloche Silhouette Trail for anyone wanting to embark on a short or multi-day hike. Plus, if you change your mind about the Crown land appeal of no washrooms, staff, or camping infrastructure, there are many Ontario Parks campgrounds in the area.

Fish Bay Conservation Reserve near Nipissing, Ont.

There are quite a few Crown land shorelines and islands free to camp on buried in the Fish Bay Conservation Reserve. Campers can access them by Wade’s or Chapman’s landings in the Township of Nipissing. You’ll often be greeted by fishermen in this popular fishing spot (if the name didn’t give it away).

Chiniguchi Waterway Provincial Park near Sudbury, Ont.

Find Chiniguchi Waterway Provincial Park just 50 kilometres outside Sudbury and near the townships of MacKelcan, Rathbun, McCarthy, and McNish. Boaters will be thrilled to know that this is a popular canoeing destination, plus it has loads of trails to hike on. This park is also the home of Ontario’s Blue Lagoon, known for its waterfalls and natural pools. 

Philip Edward Island in Killarney, Ont. 

Philip Edward Island is a backcountry access point in Killarney that is only reachable by boat. Head to the island by parking at the Chikanishing Trail and paddle across the Collins Inlet. Be prepared to sleep on rocks and have minimal shelter from trees at this camping site. 

Ahmic Forest and Rock Barrens Conservation Reserve near Parry Sound, Ont.

This conservation reserve near the hamlets of Dunchurch and McKellar is one of many camping spots in the Parry Sound area, with over 6,000 hectares of Crown land. Hunting and fishing have been permitted in the past, but it’s best to check with the local ENDM district office before engaging in any recreational activities. 

Egan Lake in Bancroft, Ont.

With no cottages and no hydro, this Crown land camping spot is a true off-grid hidden gem. Fair warning to drivers: roads are often unmaintained, and you should travel with a 4×4 vehicle. Once you get past the rocky terrain, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the quiet, peace, and beautiful lake.

Harris Lake in McDougall, Ont.

Harris Lake is only about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the Greater Toronto Area, making it an easy spot for any city dwellers looking for a weekend escape. Make sure to check the map before you venture out because only about 60 percent of the shoreline is Crown land. When you’re there, grab your paddle and cruise along to Magnetawan.

Eagle Lake Islands Conservation Reserve near Dryden, Ont.

Eagle Lake Islands Conservation Reserve is a gold mine for Crown land campers. With over 500 Crown land islands accessible by boat, you can explore 3,395 hectares just outside of Dryden and Vermilion Bay.

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