With few vacation options available in the "summer of COVID," many Canadians are spending a few days under the stars. Turns out, it's an incredibly affordable way for a couple or family to enjoy time away.
We’ve never really been a camping family. Sure, we’ve stayed in cabins at national parks and love getting out in nature, but actual camping? Nah.
That all changed this summer, when we’ve had to look at how we can still have fun with the kids when so many things are closed and the COVID-19 situation seems to change on a weekly basis. Suddenly, camping in your own self-contained tent where everything you need is touched only by us has become quite appealing, not only to us, but to many Canadians.
Parks Canada opened their bookings system on June 23, 2020—months later than in previous years—received more than 4,650 reservations on that first day. Provincial parks across the country are seeing a surge of interest as things start to open up locally too. “Campers are eager to get out to the parks this season,” says Robin Campese, executive director of visitor experiences for Saskatchewan Provincial Parks. “We had another busy reservation launch this year.”
As soon as Nova Scotia’s provincial parks opened up, my husband booked two camping trips with our kids, camping on the beach along Nova Scotia’s South Shore over the first weekend in July. I, meanwhile, got a much needed break and stayed home all by myself, which was sheer bliss. I’ll join them on the second trip, though, and try to become a tenting convert so we can have fun family breaks throughout the Maritimes, with no fear of COVID ruining our plans by shutting hotels.
Thanks to pandemic-related precautions, summer holiday options are limited, especially for those of us without a cottage in the family. Camping can be an economical way to travel— especially for families. You can pitch a tent at a serviced campground in Banff National Park for less than $30 a night. If you tried to book a hotel room in Banff in August, you’d be lucky to find one at $400 a night. Plus, you can save a lot of money eating by the campfire instead of eating at restaurants all through your vacation.
Here’s a breakdown of exactly what a camping trip costs (including the outlay for gear, if you don’t already have it), and how and where you can save yourself money in the planning and execution of your trip.
What are the supplies you need?
For a couple looking to camp this summer, Kim Worbeck, senior merchant at Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC), says you could get everything you need from MEC for less than $500. “You can likely buy cheaper from department stores, but better quality gear is going to give you a much more pleasant camping experience, and that gear is going to last for many more trips,” Worbeck says. (To give you an idea, two-person tents at MEC start at $239.99, whereas you can buy a very basic tent at Walmart Canada for around $40.)
In addition to a tent, you’ll need sleeping bags (you can spend from $40 up to $1,000 on these), and sleeping mats (such as a Therm-a-rest) or an inflatable mattress, depending on your desired comfort level. “You can get a basic sleeping pad for $50, or you could go for something super deluxe that’s five inches thick that’ll cost a couple of hundred bucks,” says Worbeck. There’s a huge array of camping gear to choose from, and if you get really into it there are lots of ways to blow plenty of cash creating your dream camping experience. There are often great sales on camping gear throughout the summer, so it’s well worth checking the weekly flyers for deals. Dollar stores often carry camping accessories too—sometimes from the same brands as you’ll find at bigger outfitting stores.
Used camping gear is another option, though of course we all need to be careful about purchasing used goods and interacting safely with sellers right now. Even if the used gear you buy isn’t perfect, you may well be able to fix any issues. “Inspect your tent before you go camping, though, so you can fix and rips or tears before you get to your campsite,” says Worbeck, adding that there are technical products that you can buy to waterproof tent seams, and it is pretty easy to wash out the inside of a used tent. “There are also special washes you can buy for sleeping bags, so you can clean them properly too,” she advises.
Besides something to sleep in and on, you’ll likely need a camp stove (a basic old-school two-burner Coleman camp stove is around $130 at Canadian Tire) to cook and heat up water; cooking pots, diswhare, utensils and cleaning supplies; and extra bits and pieces to make the trip more comfortable. This MEC camping list is a great starting point, and you may well have plenty of this stuff at home that’ll work just fine.
Planning your meals in advance will save you a bunch of cash, and having plenty of basics such as boxed mac ’n’ cheese, canned spaghetti, soups, beans and prepackaged snacks is the easiest way to go. Because everything tastes better eaten fireside, don’t stress too much about gourmet meal prep and all the accessories you’ll need to do that (maybe splurge on a few nice meals out at another time instead). Do not forget the s’mores supplies, though—those are essential!
In non-COVID times, there was the option of renting camping gear from outfitters such as MEC, and both Parks Canada and many provincial parks camping systems offered set-ups where most equipment is provided for you (the service is called Equipped Camping with Parks Canada). Sadly, these programs are on hold pretty much everywhere, and are unlikely to be reinstated for this summer.
Booking your campsite
Besides your nightly camping fee, which sits at around $30 a night for an unserviced frontcountry site (where you park your vehicle next to your campsite) in both national and provincial parks, there may be other permits that you need. Parks Canada charges park entry fees of $10 per person, per day, or $20 per day for a group or family, but if you’re planning on going more than once you may be better off getting a Parks Canada Discovery Pass, which costs $139.40 for the whole year, and gives unlimited access to all parks and National Historic Sites in the Parks Canada system. Some provinces also require a permit to use their parks, and these range in cost (but seem to be around $10 per day, with deals on longer trips and annual passes). You may also be charged a nominal booking fee to make a reservation (usually around $10).
Planning your trip out carefully is going to make everything go smoother, but keep in mind that camping is supposed to be about roughing it, at least a little. Cover the basics, and enjoy the learning experience that comes with each trip.