So You Want to Go Camping This Summer

The sun feels vaguely warm again. Birds are beginning to sing. Squirrels are emerging from their dens.

Take heart, winter-weary Canadians. Decent weather will soon be upon us.

This turn of seasons may have you thinking ahead to our very own summer utopia: long, sunny days interspersed with chilly plunges into fresh water, topped off by stargazing with roasted marshmallows by firelight as loons call in the distance.

If so – and especially if your summer holidays are restricted or you have your heart set on a specific location – the time to start planning is now.

Here are a few things to consider that can help ensure your Canadian summer camping experience makes for nothing but wonderful memories.

Book Now

National and provincial parks are already taking bookings for the summer of 2018, and many prime campsites – especially those within an easy drive of major cities – are booked solid many months in advance.

Have somewhere in particular you’d like to visit this summer? Then check on availability as soon as you’re certain about which dates you’ll be travelling.

If you find that you’ve missed your chance, you may still have options.

Even if your ideal park is booked solid, look for other campsites nearby. For example, Bruce Peninsula National Park is wildly popular, and all but the most basic walk-in backcountry sites book out every summer. But a handful of independently owned campgrounds can be found within a 10-minute drive of the park’s most popular features, meaning that you can still take a swim in the Grotto as long as you’re willing to wait for day-use parking. (Bonus: private campgrounds are often more affordable, too.)

If you waited too long and can’t find anything where you first wanted to go, consider other options. As a rule, the further you’re willing to drive or the harder you’re willing to work to get to a campsite, the more likely you are to stumble on a gorgeous one at the last minute. For example, Georgian Bay Islands National Park often has sites available because getting there is tougher than average – the park requires overnight campers to use private boats and haul their own gear in. Those intrepid enough to try it will be greeted by grounds and facilities that are nothing short of stellar.

On the other hand, if you can pay a little more, the park also has cabins and yurts available, and booking them gives you access to reserve space on the park’s boat and lets you travel with far less gear. Plus some provincial park organizations make it easier to find available hidden gems: for instance, Ontario Parks publishes a weekly list of last-minute availabilities on their website and Facebook page throughout the summer.

Plan Your Gear

Thinking ahead to exactly what you’ll need can save you a bundle.

If you have a tent in storage, drag it out and set it up in your yard on the first nice day of the year to ensure there are no surprises to deal with such as mould, rusted grommets or poles, or holes made by hungry critters. If you keep supplies such as sleeping bags, chairs, and cookware in a garage or damp storage area, they could use a once-over as well.

Backcountry campers will want to inspect the snaps, pulls, and canvas on their packs – those are the last things you want to discover have failed as you pull your bag out of the closet on the day before your departure.

The ideal time to go shopping for anything you need to replace is a week or two before the May long weekend, when the camping season begins in earnest and most everything goes on sale.

If you’ve booked a structure at a provincial or national park such as a cabin, yurt, or oTENTik permanent tent, then you can skip this step. This is the easiest style of camping out there: your accommodation and supplies will all be included. The only things you’ll need to bring with you are food, bedding, maybe some outdoor chairs, and firewood.

Don’t Start Cutting Down Trees, Though

No matter where you live in Canada or how pristine you think your local trees are, this rule is now set in stone: never, ever transport firewood.

Those based in southern Ontario may be familiar with the emerald ash borer, an insect that’s native to Asia and has killed millions of ash trees since first being spotted in the area in 2002. But that’s not the only invasive species threatening our wooded areas. This summer, Kejimkujik National Park and Historic Site in southwest Nova Scotia is restricting all movement of firewood in and out of the park due to nearby sightings of the hemlock woolly adelgid. This pest is destroying hemlock trees, but is in no way related to the poison of the same name.

Add to that the brown spruce longhorn beetles found around Halifax, Asian long-horned beetles destroying hardwood trees in the Greater Toronto Area, and the message becomes crystal clear: transporting firewood simply isn’t worth the risk.

Most every campground now keeps local firewood for purchase on-site, and those that don’t will direct you to the nearest corner store. Yes, it’s more expensive than bringing your own. But if you enjoy our natural resources enough to want to spend time living in them, then a few extra dollars to preserve the health of our forests should be considered money well spent.

Protect Your Family from Mosquitoes and Ticks

Mosquitoes have kept many a potential camper from enjoying the outdoors. Not only are they a nuisance, but they can also spread West Nile Virus, which in roughly 20 percent of those infected causes a fever, headache, vomiting, or rash, and in less than one percent brings on neck stiffness, confusion, or seizures caused by encephalitis or meningitis.

But that’s nothing compared to the menace black-legged ticks pose in Canada’s south, where Lyme disease is spreading and increasing in prevalence. Known populations of ticks carrying the disease are entrenched in popular camping and hiking locations such as: Point Pelee National Park and Rondeau, Long Point, and Turkey Point Provincial Parks on the north shore of Lake Erie; Pinery Provincial Park on Lake Huron; natural spaces around the Greater Toronto Area; and points further east on the north shore of Lake Ontario including Prince Edward County and Thousand Islands National Park.

None of this should keep you and your family from enjoying the great outdoors. While present, the relative risk of contracting a serious illness from an insect bite remains very low in Canada. Rather than avoidance, choose prevention instead. A little preparation goes a long way.

Mosquitoes can be kept at bay by covering up as much exposed skin as possible (they can’t bite through loose-fitting or tightly woven cloth, and light colours are said to attract them less), staying indoors at peak times such as at sunrise and sunset, and applying insect repellant. If you’re averse to DEET, some new products containing a chemical called picaridin have begun appearing on Canadian shelves that are just as effective and far less irritating.

These same steps help keep ticks from biting, along with a few additional ones such as tucking socks and shirts into pants to restrict access and showering within a couple of hours of returning from wooded or grassy areas. Most importantly, make a tick check a daily habit while you’re spending time outdoors. Ticks that are infected with Lyme disease take 18 to 24 hours to pass it on to their hosts if they remain undisturbed. Since tick bites don’t hurt or itch, checking yourself and your kids daily is the best prevention for ensuring no tick stays attached long enough to do damage.

Ticks love warm and cozy spaces, so take the time to check behind ears, along hairlines, under chins and armpits, in navels, behind knees, and in groin areas. Ticks vary in size depending on their type and development stage, but what you’re looking for is something that looks like a new freckle that’s more or less the size of a sesame seed.

A tick kit that includes a pair of tweezers, some antiseptic wipes, a roll of clear tape, and some small zip-top bags helps make quick work of tick bites. If you spot one, grab the tweezers and use them to take a firm but gentle hold of the tick as close to the skin as possible. Then, without squeezing the tick, pull it straight back and away. Check for remnants and then disinfect the bite with the wipes. Wrap the tick up in the clear tape to immobilize it and place it in the zip-top bag. If you’ve got time to take it to the closest health unit for testing, the staff there will be grateful for the opportunity to track the tick populations in the area. If not, hang onto it in case the bitten person develops symptoms so that the doctor can have it tested.

Never use other methods of removing ticks such as burning them off or picking them by hand, as this dramatically increases the likelihood of infection.

If you’ve been bitten, monitor the site over the following weeks. The first symptom of Lyme disease is a tell-tale rash shaped like a bullseye that radiates out from the initial bite. A doctor can prescribe antibiotics at this stage that can fully treat Lyme disease before it takes hold. If you wait longer, you could develop much more serious symptoms such as severe headaches, facial paralysis, heart and neurological disorders, or severe arthritis, all of which become significantly more difficult to treat as time passes.

The black-legged ticks that carry Lyme disease aren’t the only ticks around, and Lyme disease isn’t the only illness ticks pass on in Canada. Though other ailments are much rarer, if you or a loved one has been bitten by any tick, monitor for physical or mental symptoms over the following weeks and report any changes in condition to your family doctor.

Don’t Forget Your Car

Whether you’ll be travelling 50, 500, or 5,000 kilometres to get to your favourite outdoor escape, you’ll need to ensure that your car is up to the task of getting you there.

Every road trip should start with a vehicle walkaround a few days beforehand. At minimum, inspect your tires for damage, cracks, pressure, and tread depth, and check that all of your lights and signals are working correctly. Check that your spare tire is usable and properly inflated, or that your tire repair kit is fully stocked and functioning. Consider whether the distance you’ll be covering means that you’re due for an oil change or scheduled service that you should take care of before you go. And, if you need to pack a lot of gear, give some thought to whether you might need a trailer or a roof box to keep your occupants comfortable and happy along the way. On the off-chance that you run your battery flat by using your car’s stereo and lights a little too often, a portable booster can be a lifesaver.

With a little advance planning, you’ll have less you need to think about during your travels, giving you more time for what’s most important: soaking up every available minute of that glorious Canadian summer.