Whether you’re a seasoned outdoorsperson or a camping novice, we’ve got the info you need to experience the wonders of the Canadian wilderness.
A national pastime enjoyed by many, camping has seen a surge in interest during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s no wonder given how many options there are to choose from—national and provincial parks, private campgrounds, backcountry campsites and even your own backyard. Many campsites include a picnic table, a place to park, a firepit and a flat spot to pitch your tent. There are also often indoor washrooms available and even indoor plumbing for showers! Some campgrounds are equipped with kitchen shelters, electrical, sewer and water hookups, and wifi access zones.
Before you go
It’s always best to book your site in advance, as some campgrounds fill up quickly. Once you’ve secured a site, it’s time to get ready. “Look at maps and plan your route; check out photos, recipes and the gear you need to bring with you. Enjoy the preparation—it’s a prelude to the trip itself,” says Matt Ronan, department manager at MEC Toronto.
Preparedness is vital, but it’s not all about the gear. The best advice comes from the Happy Camper, Canadian camping expert and bestselling author Kevin Callan. “I’m called the Happy Camper for a reason—I camp to thrive, not survive. There’s a huge difference.” Know your limits and don’t push yourself to try something you don’t feel ready for. Car camping and RVing offer an ideal starting point for beginner campers. And don’t forget to bring along a sense of humour, says the camping expert. A positive attitude can go a long way if the going gets tough.
Some essential skills you’ll want to master are “knowing how to set up your tent, how to light and safely maintain a fire and how to cook a meal either on the fire or on a stove,” says Ronan. He also recommends becoming familiar with your equipment, such as a camping stove or water filter, ahead of time. Consider spending a night camping in your backyard before you go: “This is a great way to check your gear while helping you, your children or dog acclimatize to the experience of sleeping in a tent,” he says.
To make a great trip even better, Callan suggests bringing good food as part of the “thrive” mindset. Ronan agrees: “Chop, mix, prepare, combine and season as much as possible in advance at home so that only the final stages of food preparation are left for the campsite,” he says. Vacuum-sealing, dehydrating or freezing food beforehand will ensure that it keeps for the duration of your journey. There are excellent camping cookbooks out there with gourmet recipes to try, too!
CL Ultimate Camping Packing List:
When you arrive
If there’s a visitor’s centre, make sure to stop by and pick up a map of the campground, which is helpful for finding your site, as well as hikes, beaches, washrooms and other services. Check out information pamphlets or talk to park staff about fire, wildlife, water and weather safety so you know what to expect.
Setup is key! While you may want to go exploring or crack a beer, shelter and food storage should be the top priorities upon arrival. Nothing is worse than trying to set up in the rain or after dark. There’s plenty of work to go around, so delegate tasks based on campers’ strengths, suggests Callan. First things first: Pitch your tent, set up a tarp for shelter and find a good place to store food.
Take in the lay of the land, find a flat area for your tent and be sure to scope out the surrounding trees for any dead branches before deciding on a spot. You’ll want to enjoy your site regardless of weather, so shelling out for a good quality tarp means you won’t spend the whole time in your tent if it rains. When the tarp
is set up properly, you can actually enjoy a fire underneath it. This way, you can immerse yourself in the environment instead of trying to escape it, says Callan.
Car camping has the benefit of easy food storage since you can simply keep everything in your vehicle. Some backcountry campsites are now equipped with bear boxes—a simple method to keep food safe! If you do need to hoist your food bag up in a tree, Callan says to “look for a place way behind the campsite.” Don’t wait until after dinner when it’s dark to find the perfect tree. Instead, find a tree a far distance back during daylight hours, and put your rope over a limb. Mark the rope with a piece of reflective flagging tape, so you can find it after dusk, he adds. “Ideally, a bear hang—a container such as a dry bag—should hang at least two metres from the trunk of the tree used, and at least three metres off the ground,” says Ronan.
While you’re there
Don’t bring any food items or scented products (like deodorant or toothpaste) into your tent. Keep your site clean to prevent any critters from visiting while you’re off on an activity or during the night. Remember that you’re entering their home, not the other way around.
Take advantage of the great outdoors and plan activities for the days ahead, such as paddling, swimming or hiking. Many campgrounds also offer exhibits in the visitor’s centre or guided tours and activities for children and adults alike—a great way to get the most out of your experience. A deck of cards or other games offer something to do during downtime or on a rainy afternoon.
“I strongly recommend unplugging as much as possible,” says Ronan, but if there’s one app you’ll want to use, it’s the camera. “The best camera for any situation is the one that you have with you at the time, and for many of us, this is the camera on our phones.” You might also consider safety apps—such as AdventureSmart or the Canadian Red Cross First Aid app—or others designed for plant identification or stargazing.
Before you leave
Leave your campsite without a trace that you’ve been there. The adage holds true: Take only photos, leave only footprints. Maintain the natural beauty of your
location by leaving nature where it is for future generations of campers to enjoy.
Pay it forward: If you want to go above and beyond, leave some firewood in a dry spot for the next arrivals—it’ll be much appreciated. “Think of it like going through the drive-through at Tim Hortons and having someone in front of you pay for your coffee,” says Callan.
Make sure you have a well-stocked first-aid kit and a whistle. Don’t forget sunscreen and bug repellent!
Lightning storms are more dangerous than wild animals, cautions Callan. “You need to wait for at least 20 minutes, and even up to two hours, for the storm to pass because it can hit you two kilometres away.”
Always wear your PFD when on the water, and consider taking paddling lessons if you’ve never canoed or kayaked before.
A campfire is a quin-tessential part of the experience. Make sure you know how to safely maintain and put out a fire. Adhere to fire bans where present to preserve the natural environment.
The most important things are to be aware and give wild animals lots of space. Parks Canada offers a good rule of thumb: Stay at least 30 metres (3 bus lengths) away from large animals such as deer, moose and elk, and 100 metres (10 bus lengths) from bears, wolves, coyotes and cougars. Bring your binoculars, or a telephoto lens if you’re keen to capture a photo.
There are numerous benefits to getting outside and enjoying nature, including boosting the immune system, improving mood and reducing stress. Going camping can also help you get a good night’s sleep and reset your inner clock. Living according to the cycle of the sun by camping outside can help the body restore its natural circadian rhythms, resulting in more restful sleep, say the experts at Parks Canada. Camping is also a great way to tune in to yourself. “I like being in the woods because it’s a great way to reconnect with the simplicity of life,” says Callan.
“It doesn’t matter where you go, it matters that you go,” says the Happy Camper. If roughing it in a tent isn’t your thing, there are plenty of other alternatives available for those who want to get outdoors without so much of the outdoorsy part. For example, at national parks the unique oTENTik option is a cross between a cabin and tent that can house up to six people. Parks Canada notes it’s an ideal solution for families, friends and couples of all ages who want to discover the joys of camping but prefer the comfort of a bed and an already prepped campsite.
OUR PRODUCT PICKS
Make the most of your camping experience with these handy items.
1. Preparedness is the key to camping. Cooking over the fire can be tricky, especially in the rain. Make sure that you’re not going hungry with this portable, lightweight cooking set. It also creates on-demand electricity if you need to charge your phone or headlamp. Bonus!
BioLite CampStove Complete COOK KIT, $300, altitude-sports.com.
2. Kevin Callan’s comprehensive book that has everything you need to know for an enjoyable camping experience.
The Happy Camper: The Essential Guide to Life Outdoors (Firefly Books) by Kevin Callan, $25.
3. Snooze in style with an ultra comfy, self-inflating sleeping mat like this one. For added comfort throw in a pillow, too!
MEC Reactor 10 SLEEPING PAD, $230, MEC Deluxe PILLOWs in Deep Navy, from $35 each, mec.ca.
4. Flashlights are so passé. A rechargeable headlamp leaves your hands free to chop wood, make dinner and read ghost stories.
Black Diamond Spot 400-R HEADLAMP in Octane, $75, mec.ca.
5. Keep your kiddos happy with games and activities. This one is fun for the whole family!
Spot It! Gone Camping Card GAME, $21, amazon.ca.
6. You can dine in rain or shine with the right equipment, and who would know better than the quintessential Canadian outdoor outfitter.
Woods Lodge Camp SCREEN SHELTER, $240, canadiantire.ca.
7. It’s easy to pick up the cheapest camping chairs available, but they sometimes don’t survive the journey. A solid camping chair makes a considerable difference in comfort, especially for larger bodied folks. This one is rated up to 800 lbs.
ALPS Mountaineering King Kong Steel-Frame Heavy-Duty CAMP CHAIR in Deep Sea, $98, walmart.ca.