Alberta’s landscapes are some of the most majestic and gorgeous landscapes on earth. It is no wonder why us crown land enthusiasts love the outdoors so much! We have put together this comprehensive guide to make it easier for Albertans (and tourists) to enjoy our amazing outdoors! Our guide will define the various types of land designations in Alberta, offer a set of general rules and guidelines for enjoying the land without impacting the environment, and offer some good tips for any newer crown land user. So without further adieu, lets get into it!
What is Crown Land?
In simple, crown land is basically any land that is not owned by private citizens. The land is public because it is managed by the government (the “crown” refers to the King of England as Canada shares a sovereign with the United Kingdom). Public lands are owned by the citizens of Alberta, but are managed by the provincial and federal governments. The terms ‘public land’ and ‘crown land’ refer to the same areas of land and can be used interchangeably. I make this point primarily to reduce confusion as I heard arguments that they somehow differ.
Management of Alberta’s crown lands is entirely under provincial jurisdiction except for national parks (i.e. Banff, Jasper), military installations, and First Nations reserves which are all managed federally. Generally speaking, national parks tend to have stricter and more enforced rules due to their larger significance.
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Where To Find Great Crown Land in Alberta
The first step in finding awesome crown land to camp on in Alberta is to first be knowledgeable in all of the various land designations that the province has assigned to the land. Knowledge of where you intend to camp is extremely important because different rules are applied to different areas. Most people are referring to either Agricultural Public Land or Public Land Use Zones when they mention ‘crown land,’ however there is also other forms of crown land both in park form, and in nature reserve form.
Agricultural Public Land
Good recreational access but no camping and a bit complicated to access since you need to request permission from leaseholders.
In 2003, the Alberta government assigned about 5 million acres of crown land to be used for agricultural purposes and livestock grazing leases. This land has its own set of guidelines designed to protect the animals and crops while allowing recreational users to access the land.
The leaseholders are responsible for maintaining the land. They must give permission to recreational users when they are asked unless: there is livestock in the field, unharvested crops, firearms/explosives are used near livestock, hunters are hunting near livestock, there is ATV and other off-road vehicles, they wish to camp, or if there is a fire ban in place for that particular area.
Recreational users are responsible for obtaining permission from the leaseholders to access the land. Agricultural public land – while being owned by the public – is leased to private citizens for a period of time. The recreational user is then responsible for leaving the land as good or better than they found it, not inhibiting the leaseholder from operating the land, and obtaining permission to light any fires.
Agricultural leases are scattered actually quite randomly across the province and often are found in close proximity to private land. The Alberta government has a mapping tool that can help identify agricultural leases here. Like most things government though, it is very difficult for the average person to use and quite slow. An easier option for determining land ownership is called iHunter.
Provincial Recreation Areas (PRA)
The Alberta government has created a whole bunch of Provincial Recreation Areas (PRA) for Albertans to better enjoy Alberta’s outdoors. These parks are often located near areas of geographic, cultural, or social significance. In fact, more than half of Provincial Recreation Areas are either on a river or a lake.
PRA’s are designed to help protect areas that are desirable destinations for larger groups of Albertan outdoors enthusiasts by providing designated trails, campgrounds, and other facilities.
Each PRA has a unique set of rules about what activities are allowed and not allowed based on environmental and safety considerations (for example, you wouldn’t want to allow Kayaking near Elbow Falls PRA – for obvious reasons). PRA’s can be thought of a smaller version of a Provincial Park – in fact many of the existing Provincial Parks are former PRAs.
Note that random camping is not allowed in Public Recreation Areas.
Public Land Recreational Areas (PLRA)
Public Land Recreational Areas (PLRA) exists in areas of Public Land Use Zones (PLUZ) that due to various reasons, are higher traffic areas. PLRAs in Alberta include many trails, staging areas, or access to geographical features.
PLRAs do offer some basic amenities that are unavailable in regular crown land areas. These can include information boards, interpretive signage and camping amenities such as washrooms and water.
Note that random camping is not allowed in Public Land Recreation Areas.
Public Land Use Zones (PLUZ)
Public Land Use Zones are what people generally are referring to when they talk about crown land camping. Alberta has 19 PLUZ across the province and each one has unique activities that are allowed as well as unique geographical features.
PLUZ are not recognized or managed by the Alberta government as ‘parks’ therefore there is a unique feeling of ‘lawlessness’ that users of Crown Land love. They are designed so that the government can still manage the natural resources without treating the land as a park. For example, you aren’t allowed to hunt, use firearms, or off road vehicles in most PRA and PLRA areas – and certainly not in Provincial/National Parks. They also allow for random camping which one major reason that people love this form of crown land!
Provincial Parks (PP)
Provincial Parks are similar to Provincial Recreation Areas except that they are often larger and more developed. They often place a bigger focus on historical or cultural significance. Most provincial parks have reasonably large campgrounds with other developed facilities such beaches, boat launches, and even public showers & playgrounds.
Note that random camping isn’t allowed in Provincial Parks.
National Parks (NP)
Since the inception of Banff as Canada’s first National Park, the Canadian government has added 37 new national parks, and 10 national park reserves across the country. Five of those parks are right here in Alberta. National Parks have a reasonably strict set of rules as they are created in areas of great historic and cultural significance.
National Parks users do need to purchase a Parks Canada Pass in order to park in a National Park. They also have a federal fishing permit separate from the existing Alberta one.
In most national parks, backcountry/random camping is not allowed however they usually do have designated campgrounds.
Wilderness Areas (WA)
Wilderness areas are essentially the opposite of Provincial Parks. They are large areas primarily undeveloped and left in their natural state. The objective is to preserve the natural ecosystems and provide opportunity for Albertans to experience the true (and usually very remote) wilderness.
Natural Areas (NA)
Natural Areas are very similar to Wilderness Areas except that they have little to no access to any kind of recreational facilities. They also generally have much stricter rules on activities such as hunting and camping. Their core purpose is to preserve the natural ecosystems.
Backcountry random camping is allowed in Natural Areas provided that the campsite is more than 1km from any road, provincial (or national) park, or PRA (PLRA) boundary. You should also follow a minimum impact philosophy when setting up your campsite. Note also that there is no vehicle access permitted in the Natural Areas so you would need to hike in to the camping spot.
Wildlife Sanctuaries (WS)
Wildlife Sanctuaries are areas that exist to preserve wildlife in their natural ecosystems. They also have strict rules around hunting, trapping, and camping. This another area you will want to avoid for camping purposes.
Heritage Rangelands are another form of crown land that exists in Alberta. They are meant to preserve the natural grassland in Alberta’s prairies. The management of the Heritage Rangelands is to balance land uses such as haying, grazing, and energy production with conservation and ecosystem protection. Albertans can use the Heritage Rangelands for recreational uses including bird and wildlife viewing and hunting. Note that certain areas restrict these activities to protect sensitive ecosystems.
Backcountry random camping is allowed in Heritage Rangelands provided that the campsite is more than 1km from any road, provincial (or national) park, or PRA (PLRA) boundary. You should also follow a minimum impact philosophy when setting up your campsite. Note also that there is no vehicle access permitted in the Heritage Rangelands so you would need to hike in to the camping spot.
Wildland Provincial Parks (WPP)
Wildland Provincial Parks are similar to Natural Areas in that they are often very remote and managed to preserve natural ecosystems. The main difference is that under certain conditions, resources such as minerals, wood, and oil can be extracted from the land.
Alberta Crown Land Camping Rules (PLUZ)
|Public Lands Camping Pass Required |
(except Kananaskis Country – see below, Holmes Crossing PLUZ & Whitecourt Sandhills PLUZ)
As of June 1, 2021 – The Alberta government charges PLUZ users to random camp along many of the PLUZ in the Rocky Mountains. This is to help cover expenses associated with maintaining the land and providing services.
You can purchase a Public Lands Camping Pass here (~$20/3 days or ~$30/year)
Kananaskis Conservation Pass Required for Parking in Kananaskis
As of June 1, 2021 – The Alberta government charges PLUZ and Park users for parking in Kananaskis country in order to recover some of the costs associated with maintaining the land. This applies to the following PLUZ: Kananaskis PLUZ, Sibbald Snow Vehicle PLUZ, Cataract Creek Snow Vehicle PLUZ, McLean Creek PLUZ.
You can purchase a conservation pass here (~$15/day or ~$90/year)
General Crown Land Camping Rules
Each Public Land Use Zone in Alberta has their own unique rules surround land usage. We created a guide to each PLUZ in Alberta to help clarify some of the region specific differences. This section however is meant for some of the policies that apply to all of the different PLUZ across Alberta.
Crown Land Campsite Rules
Alberta has created guidelines about camping on crown land in order to minimize impact on the environment while still allowing Albertans to have a great time!
- Campers need to have the appropriate pass for the PLUZ where they are camping (Either a Kananaskis Conservation or Public Lands Pass). These passes are way cheaper than other campground fees and they help the government to improve services and maintain public lands.
- Campers need to follow the signage that the government has placed across the crown land. They place signs to communicate safety risks, environmental risks, and other area-specific nuances.
- Temporary Structures are the only type of structures allowed on crown land. For most people this is tents and campers, but technically it could be anything that can be moved if needed.
- Limit your stay to 14 days. After 14 days, campers need to relocate to another spot at least 1km away and stay there for at least 72 hours. For permanent residences, consider moving to one of Alberta’s amazing small towns, or private land somewhere.
- Keep the Site Tidy & Wildlife Away from Food. Most animals will happily rummage through your garbage – especially if there is food. They will also drag your garbage into the woods and scatter leaving quite a mess. Keep garbage inside a locked container or vehicle when you close down camp for the night or when you leave to explore.
- Pets should be under control. This means that they shouldn’t be chasing wildlife or annoying the neighbors (personally I love it when a strange dog comes and visits – however some people are afraid of dogs).
- Parking should be on firm ground such as gravel and rocky surfaces to prevent damage to the soil. It is also good practice to leave adequate space between you and the neighbors – especially if you are a nighthawk like myself.
- Put some thought into choosing a spot. There a few things that you need to be aware of when picking a spot. For example, you can’t camp within 100m of any body of water. Also be aware of industrial sites near your campsite. Oil wellheads can release toxic gasses that would be no good near any campsite. Watch for animal trails as well as they are very good indicators of where wildlife naturally travels. Look also for berry patches because they tend to attract wildlife (especially bears).
- Never Leave a Campfire Unattended. I am always amazed by the lack of fire safety that I have observed with many of my own friends. In September 2020, there was a forest fire in the Ghost PLUZ that was caused by a campfire left unattended. If you leave a hot fire, make sure to extinguish it using water. Stir it to find hot regions and water those down as well.
- Be Aware of Fire Bans. The Alberta government will issue fire bans in regions that are particularly high fire risk due to dry conditions. You can check fire bans on the Alberta Firebans website.
- Leave No Trace. Any garbage you create while using the crown land needs to be packed out when you leave. If we all leave the land a little better than we find it, then it will stay clean for future Albertans to enjoy!
Crown Land OHV Rules
One of the big reasons that Albertans love crown land so much is the ability to explore vast regions of terrain. OHVs and Snowmobiles are excellent tools to efficiently traverse rough terrain. There are some specific rules about OHV usage (some PLUZ don’t even allow OHVs)
- Keep Wheels Out of Water. I know how tempting it can be to cross that stream but crown land users need to resist that urge. Off-Road vehicles cause damage to fish habitat and disturb the silt that protects fish eggs along the bottom of the river/stream. Also when the silt is disturbed it dirties the water downstream for other users.
- Avoid Wet Trails. Similar to the first point, you will want to avoid wet trails where you can because Off-Highway vehicles are notorious for tearing into the soil and leaving deep ruts that fill with water and can leave the trail impassable when it dries.
- Clean the Vehicle Regularly. It is very important to stop every once and a while and check your off-highway vehicle for debris that is caught near hot engine components. These can start forest fires if left up against hot components of the vehicle. Take special note of areas such as the engine itself, brakes, or exhaust components as these generate the most heat.
Crown Land Non-Motorized & Horse Rules
The Alberta government has developed a set of guidelines for non-motorized activities as well in order to protect the environment from erosion, wildfire, and loss of vegetation.
- Be Aware of Trail Conditions. There are different rules for different trails primarily determined by the likelihood of soil erosion caused by usage of those trails. Try and stick to established trails to prevent damage to the plantlife.
- Use Bridges to Cross Water. To protect fish habitats and spawning. Water regions are also particularly sensitive to erosion.
- Travel on the firmest trails possible. Erosion occurs quite easily when travelling on muddy/wet trails.
- Yield to Equestrian Users. Horses have the right of way on trails due to their size and how easily they can be spooked.
- Don’t Damage Vegetation. Use flagging to mark your route if needed and remove the flagging when you are finished with the trail. Avoid using axes and spray paint to mark your path.
- Leave No Trace. Any garbage you create while using the crown land needs to be packed out when you leave. If we all leave the land a little better than we find it, then it will stay clean for future Albertans to enjoy!
- Don’t Disturb Nature. This means that while using the land, you don’t cause any harm or distress to any livestock, animals, birds, or any other natural entity. Fossils are incredibly cool when you find them, but you should leave them alone when you discover one – after all it’s been protected in its location for millions of years.
- Close the Gate. If you end up in an area, make sure that you close any gates behind you. They are often used in grazing leases in order to contain the animals.
- Mountain Bikers: Do not construct ramps or permanent structures without written permission of the government to do so and stick to established trails.
- Hikers: Step over exposed roots where you can, and in alpine regions with less established trails, spreading out will help protect the vegetation because in any given spot, plants are only trampled by one set of feet instead of 6.
- Equestrians: Avoid tethering horses to trees or anywhere where tree rubbing can occur. Also avoid soft areas near water.
- Canoe & Kayak: When launching your canoe/kayak avoid soft or marshy areas and try and find a more rocky place to launch instead.
- Climbers & Cavers: Don’t drill holes into the mountain whenever possible. Many climbing areas have existing protection and anchors that can be used. Caves ecosystems are sensitive to outside contamination as well so avoid touching anything in caves.
- Skiers & Snowboarders: Ensure that there is good snow cover in areas that you intend to ski/snowboard. Skiing over vegetation and trees can damage them.
Crown Land Firearms & Hunting Rules
One of the big reasons that Albertans love crown land so much is because of their ability to use firearms and hunt. Public Land Use Zones are one of the few public land areas in Alberta where shooting a firearm and hunting is completely acceptable – provided you are following all firearm safety legislation as well as the PLUZ regulations.
- Safety Always Needs to Come First! At the end of the day, firearms are tools and like any other tool, serious injury or death can occur with misuse. Most people wouldn’t horseplay around with a circular saw or a car – firearms need to be treated with the same level of respect.
- Know Where You Are Shooting. Determine a direction that is to be considered down range. Ensure that you are not shooting towards (or across) any roads, buildings, infrastructure, or trails. Always choose an area with a hill or embankment to stop bullets.
- Don’t Shoot the Trees. A common practice that is not permitted is attaching targets to the trees or other vegetation. This causes damage the trees.
- Know The Sunset & Sunrise Times. Shooting a firearm is illegal between half an hour after sunset, and half an hour before sunrise the next day.
- Clean Up When You Are Done. Clean up any clays, targets, brass (spent cartridges), and garbage. The goal is to leave the area better than you find it.
- All Firearm Users Must Follow Possession Acquisition License (PAL) Regulations. The PAL is designed to ensure that firearms are only used by qualified, trained individuals. Restricted firearms aren’t permitted for use anywhere except qualified gun ranges.
- Hunters: Must have valid tags and licenses for hunting a specific type of game.
Tips for Beginner Crown Land Campers
For a beginner, crown land camping can be incredibly intimidating. My goal with this guide is to make camping on crown land a little bit easier. I promise that when you try it with the right mindset – it is an addiction. There is something powerful about Alberta’s majestic landscapes and being there just puts things into perspective. Here are some tips that I have to better enjoy your time in Alberta’s PLUZ and to leave it just as amazing for future campers:
- Research The Area You Intend To Visit. What you want to do it find out is the conditions that you will be camping in. If you are headed out to crown land, you should be aware of any fire bans in the areas that you intend to camp in. The Crown Land Camping Alberta Facebook group is an excellent resource to connect with other crown land enthusiasts to check conditions. Hunters should also be aware of the hunting seasons.
- Plan Transportation. Ensure that whatever vehicles you are bringing to crown land are reliable and that you have the tools for basic repairs if required. Also bring more fuel than you think you need because oftentimes gas stations are far away. I also would be cautious about spending more than half my tank of gas getting to a spot because you also need the fuel for the return trip.
- Make Sure That Permits Are Up to Date. Most crown land users in Alberta will be required to have either Public Lands Pass or a Kananaskis Conservation Pass in order to enjoy our crown lands. Make sure that your passes are up to date prior to heading out to the backcountry.
- Leave No Trace. Keep your campsite clean the entire time you are there and definitely lock up garbage and food before sleeping or leaving the campsite unattended. My rule of thumb is to always leave with more than I came in with and I keep a couple extra garbage bags on hand to collect garbage I find laying around. Also leave natural featured undisturbed as much as you can.
- Prepare for Weather. Alberta is notorious for fast changing weather and even in the cities it can catch you off-guard. I have left Calgary to go skiing in the Rocky Mountains before and by the time I arrive there, it is 20 degrees colder than in Calgary. Even in the summer heat – prepare for freezing and pack jackets/hoodies before heading out to the Alberta backcountry.
- There will be wildlife. Wildlife is one of the beautiful things about Alberta’s crown land. It is best practice to always be aware of your surroundings, avoid attracting them, definitely don’t feel wildlife as it attracts it to humans in the future, and keep kids (and smaller adults/pets) nearby as there are mountain lions that will look for an opportunity to attack. Staying in groups is your best bet! Lastly, never get between a mama bear and her cub!
- Plan for Self-Sufficiency. Bring along enough food and water for the trip and even for extra days beyond what you plan for the trip. Always have an abundance of fire starting tools and shelter for unexpected overnight stays.
- Be Respectful of Other Campers. If you are near other campers, practice a quiet down time to be respectful of their enjoyment of the land. In my experience most other campers are incredibly friendly, however they do want privacy so avoid setting up camp too close to the neighbours. Also… if you plan on using firearm, I recommend not shooting your beautiful rifle right beside a strangers campsite at 7am (speaking from experience).
- Inform someone of your plans. Before you head out, always make sure that someone who isn’t involved with the plans knows about your crown land adventures. Having someone who knows your plans can help initiate an emergency response if needed.
- Don’t plan to rely on your cell phone. In much of the crown land, cell service is non-existent and even if it is available, you are at the mercy of your cell battery. Pack a compass and a map of the area to fall back on when the phone fails you. I have known people who have satellite phones when they head to crown land which is a terrific idea if you can afford the phone.
- Pack Essentials. When heading to crown land you will want to bring a stocked first aid kit, flashlights, bug spray, sunscreen, and shelter such as a tent and sleeping bag.
- Be Mindful of Campfire Safety. Exercise caution around the campfire and keep all flames to within a 10ft radius of the center of the fire. Have water and a shovel nearby for if the fire gets to be out of control.
- Avoid Using Soap In Streams. Personal hygiene is important (especially on longer stays) but avoid rinsing any soap into streams as this can damage the ecosystems. A better option is to heat up a pot of water and use washcloths to clean yourself. If your camper has a shower, this is also a good option but it needs to be dumped at a dump station.
- Be Aware of Surroundings. Most accidents and injuries are preventable and one of these preventions could be to be aware of surroundings. Don’t set up camp at the top of an embankment or cliff. Stay away from water – especially if alcohol is involved.
- Bring Ol’ Fashioned Entertainment. You are have a great time on crown land and then it starts pouring rain. Anyone who has camped a lot before has been there – and it sucks. Plan for this by bringing a deck of cards, or a book, or some other form of non-electronic entertainment.
- Multi-Tools & Swiss Army Knifes are your best friends when camping in general. They can cut ropes, open cans, and even pull wine bottle corks. Their compact size and versatility make them a no-brainer for any camper. I’ve even used them to fix truck problems when my truck has broken down.
- Keep a small amount of cash on hand. Crown land generally doesn’t have much for facilities but I have always found that cash goes a long way with other campers. I have run out of beer before on these trips and instead of driving back to town, neighbours have shared their stash for a little cash. Many of the small facilities that do exist rely on cash.
- Be In the Moment. Instagram, Facebook, and life will be there when you get back. To maximize your enjoyment of crown land camping – be in the moment and have a good attitude. I cannot think of much more freeing than the overwhelming sense of awe that I have felt in Alberta’s crown land.
Official Crown Land Facebook Group: Crown Land Camping Alberta
Access: Agricultural Lease Access
Parks Passes: Public Land Camping Pass
Permits: Tree Cutting Permits
Hunting: Report a Poacher