Camping in Ontario

I'm sure I'm preaching to the choir for the most part, but Ontario's park system is a wisely-developed one, with careful thought on how to preserve a natural experience for park visitors, while making the outdoors accessible.  With over 19,000 developed public campsites, the park system attracted 1.2 million campers in 2010, who stayed a total of 4.8 million camper nights (It's worth pointing out that the Park Statistics have not been published since the 2010 report...That's not cool, Ontario Parks!). Chances are you were one of these campers, but if you haven't spent much time camping in Ontario, I think it's important to characterize what camping means, the two principle types (car camping and backcountry), the options available and how to identify a good campsite that will lead to a pleasant experience (I know what makes a campsite "good" is subjective, but I'll try to suggest these within a broad range of perspectives).

(It is also worth mentioning that there are plenty of private campgrounds in Ontario (KOAs, trailer campgrounds, etc), but most of these aren't centred around any features of natural or historic value.  An exception may be the Haliburton Forest, though I haven't verified myself.  I will not be discussing these here).

There are 7.9 million hectares of provincial parks in Ontario, spread across 329 unique parks.  Most of this area is located north of an invisible line that connects Deep River to French River, with 7 million hectares in the northern segment above this boundary (the Northeast and Northwest zones on the map below.  However, only 14% of all park visits were to these huge expanses of mostly undeveloped parks.  The rest were found in parks south of this line, including the Algonquin region and the parks in the southeastern (e.g. Bon Echo) and southwestern (e.g. The Pinery) parts of the province.  The examples listed are some of the biggest and most popular campgrounds in their respective regions, but as a result of the high demand, the quality of the camping usually suffers.

Figure 1: Map of the six different provincial park management zones (source: MNR, 2010)

I'd say a general rule is that the more popular a park, the more suitable it is for a day trip or for families with young children (assuming you don't feel comfortable taking them into the backcountry, though there are ways to make this work). These parks are also popular places for rowdier groups, due to their accessibility.  This can be a recipe for a failed camping excursion for both rowdy and non-rowdy parties, due to conflicting interests. The best destination for both parties, in my view, is the backcountry.  Rowdy groups can be their rowdy selves (within limits of course) and generally have little impact on those who are seeking peace and quiet, due to the lower campsite density.

Car Camping

Car camping in Ontario can be characterized by two principle traits: high density of campsites and vehicle access within close proximity of the site (as is suggested by the name).  This is the most common and most popular form of camping in the province, as it is family friendly with a touch of the natural environment that'll please most out-of-doors palettes. Car campsites come in a variety of flavours;  in addition to the conventional type, there is the "walk-in" (my preference), the "radio-free", and the "pet-free".  You can often find combinations of the 3 alternatives above, increasing the sense that you're in a natural environment and not in a city park (though I can think of a few city parks that feel more natural than most car campgrounds - one example).

The most popular campgrounds (those with the highest peak season occupancy rates, 2010 figures) include:

Central Zone - Arrowhead (82%), Algonquin (77%), Killbear (86%)
Northeast - Killarney (95%), Windy Lake (62%), Fushimi (59%)
Northwest - Rushing River (69%), Sleeping Giant (61%), Pakwash (57%)
Southeast - Bon Echo (76%), Charleston Lake (80%), Sandbanks (92%), Presqu'ile (81%)
Southwest - Inverhuron (86%), Long Point (88%), Pinery (93%), Sauble Falls (83%)

The least popular campgrounds (those below average peak season occupancy rates) include:

Central ZoneBass Lake (60%), Mara (59%), Mikisew  (45%), McCrae Point (54%), Sturgeon Bay (63%), Restoule (48%), Sibbald Point (50%)
Northeast - Kap-Kig-Iwan (9%), Missinaibi Lake (29%), Mississagi (37%), Rene Brunelle (31%), Tidewater (12%), Wakami Lake (36%), The Shoals (31%)
Northwest - Macleod (32%), Quetico (38%), Rainbow Falls (38%), Sioux Narrows (34%)
Southeast - Darlington (45%), Ferris (23%), Rideau River (37%), Voyageur (47%), Silver Lake (47%)
Southwest - Earl Rowe (51%), Selkirk (54%), Wheatley (48%)

The main reason that most of these get lower than average visitation is their distance from major population centres, and generally not due to their quality of their natural scenery (with the exceptions being some of those in the Southeast and Southwest zones).  Chances are that if you want a site on any one of the campgrounds that are below 50%, you can probably just show up without a reservation. I wouldn't expect that would be the case on peak season weekends or holiday weekends, though.  Whether or not you'll enjoy the park is another issue.  But I imagine there are some hidden gems amongst these, including Mississagi, Wakami Lake, Quetico, and Renee Brunelle.  The Northwestern parks, with their very low occupancy rates, will likely provide a decent site and excellent scenery in addition to not being very crowded.

Identifying a Good Site

If you seek privacy and wilderness, car camping is not for you.  I don't know that there are many sites that can provide this and those that do are probably booked as soon as the become available. But here are some key points to consider when searching for a good, private site:
  • Avoid being adjacent to comfort stations, outhouses and water taps - while this provides some convenience, you'll often get people traipsing by/through your site to use these services
  • Understory is vital;  it's what provides the minimal privacy you'll get in campgrounds.  It's difficult to tell if your site has this feature from the reservation site, but ask around and inquire with the park (calling parks is a great way to get information, regardless of how surly the staff can sometimes be)
  • In the summer, shade is better than no shade.  You can always find sun when you need it (assuming it's not overcast).  In the spring or fall, you might want to have some exposure to sun to keep the chill from cool breezes at bay 
  • Grass is more comfortable to sleep on than hard earth.  Sand is ideal, but a tough find. 
  • Walk-in sites are the way to go.  They're more private and they feel a little more natural (less like you're camping in someone's driveway).  
  • Opt for "loop" campgrounds rather than "grid" campgrounds (see Figure 2 below).  Here is an example of a Grid campground and here's a Loop.  You really get the feeling you're completely surrounded in grid-type campgrounds, with other campers visible in every direction.  Loops (especially when you're on the outside of the loop) will generally leave you in the sightline of just a couple other sites, which isn't bad in the car camping 
Figure 2:  Generic "Loop" campground (left) vs "Grid" campground (right)

Backcountry Camping

Nothing beats the feeling of serenity, adventure and remoteness that can be found in a good backcountry park.  Ontario has a lot of opportunities for these, more than is advertised on their parks page.  Generally people stick to operating parks, but there are plenty of great non-operating parks (read "free camping") that provide unparalleled natural beauty in undeveloped settings.  Backcountry canoe camping opportunities in Ontario seem endless, with dozens of operating and non-operating parks, as well as crown land locations.  The degree of maintenance decreases in that order, with operating parks receiving the most attention and crown land campsites receiving the least.

Operating Parks

The most publicized and most visited backcountry sites are found in operating parks.  This is mostly because they promise a guaranteed site (when a reservation is made) and because the portages / campsites are maintained.  While the frequency of maintenance can be low in sections of larger parks (such as Algonquin), maintenance is generally good.  Probably the best feature of Ontario's operating backcountry parks is the provision of the privy toilet (or "thunderbox").  This makes the sometimes unpleasant task of addressing bodily functions in the woods much more bearable.  Additionally, there is little odor and no work involved.  It also provides a decent spot to dump dirty dish water; well away from water bodies and reasonably far from your tent pad.

There are two backcountry operating parks which tend to get most of the attention in Ontario: Algonquin and Killarney.  That doesn't mean that these are the necessarily the only ones worth visiting.  Killarney requires booking well in advance for weekends during peak season (especially for long weekends, these will fill up the just after the reservation centre begins allowing access).   Algonquin, on the other hand, is a little more forgiving, due to the size and number of sites.  However, the earlier you book, the better, especially for ranger cabins.

Other very good, accessible pseudo-backcountry experiences include Joe Perry Lake in Bon Echo, Grundy Lake, and Canisbay Lake in Algonquin. These are generally nice, require little-to-no portaging and you can usually find a few sites within a few weeks of travel (again, difficult on Canadian long weekends).  Other possibilities that aren't without their charm within a reasonable drive of major border crossings and urban centres include Frontenac (always full, and not very good, but a relatively short drive), Kawartha Highlands (better dispersion of sites than Frontenac, but cottagers and boaters are never too far away), Leslie Frost Centre (whose lakes generally enrobed with cottages) and The Massassauga.

There are also plenty of great camping opportunities north of Sudbury.  A few that are generally well regarded include parks in the Temagami region, MissinaibiMississagiLake Superior, and Sleeping Giant.

Non-Operating Parks

The potential for good camping abounds in Ontario within parks that can potentially provide solitude as well as natural beauty.  On top of that, these parks are often accessible without a fee (given their services are often limited or non-existent), so your gear and getting there (which in itself can be a huge expense) is the only cost.  While my personal experience in parks of this type is limited, a selection of parks that this would include is provided here.

French River, Lower Madawaska River, Mattawa River, Albany River, Lady Evelyn-Smoothwater, Sturgeon River, Wabakimi, and Woodland Caribou

As well, there are plenty of good crown land camping opportunities, as well as planning resources (like this handy map, available to those willing to make the effort.  I'd be really interested to hear suggestions from readers.

Identifying a Good Site

There are a few crucial things you need to look for when trying to identify a good campsite (when the park even allows you to select a particular site; often times reservations are site specific, such as in Frontenac, Grundy Lake & Bon Echo).  Key points include:
  • Level, well-drained spots to situate your tents, preferably away from the water
  • Away from swampy/reedy areas where stagnant water can create perfect mosquito habitat
  • A sandy docking point, or at least one that is flat and not too rocky
  • Away from portages (otherwise you'll see/hear a lot of traffic)
  • Out of view from other campsites (which can be a source of visual or aural disturbance or otherwise detract from the feeling of remoteness)
  • Absence of aggressive wildlife (birds, squirrels, raccoons, and, rarely, bears), though this will be difficult to determine right away...keep your eye out for litter or food scraps
  • A nice, open area for star gazing at night
  • Shelter from wind and rain (good canopy and understorey) 
  • A nice white pine tree with a thick horizontal branch to hang your food
  • An open area for sitting/cooking/conversing that allows a breeze to keep the mosquitoes away
  • Good supplies of pine needles/dead leaves (for fire starting), kindling (generally easy to find) and plentiful firewood (generally not on island sites, but this can vary depending on the size of the island)
  • Two trees that are the perfect distance apart for hanging a hammock  
  • East side of the lake or good eastern tree canopy (for those who like to sleep in)
Remember, always leave a little bit of firewood behind for the next group of campers - they may arrive too late to track down their own.