It’s not all fun and games: Our worst camping moments

In one of my previous posts, I mentioned that my son accused me of always focusing on the positive aspects of camping while consistently ignoring everything that ever goes wrong. And he is not the only one who has charged me with practicing “joy-washing” as I called it. My friend says that whenever she asks about a trip, my answer is always: “It was great!”

Well, I’ve never denied that camping involves certain hardships and inconveniences but to me they are insignificant compared to all the joys that every trip brings.

However, in the spirit of total disclosure, I decided to pull together some stories when things didn’t exactly go as planned starting with…

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Add Some Nature to Your Summer

Summer is finally here, and it is meant to be spent outside soaking up the warmth of the sun and storing it up for the upcoming winter. You don’t need to go away on a long extravagant vacation to the Caribbean or an African safari to get closer to nature. There are many ways to add more vitamin N to your everyday life, even in the city.

 

grasses in the sun

Summer is here – time to soak up the sun!

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Happy Birthday to Algonquin, land of beauty, memories and adventures!

So Algonquin Park is turning 122 today! Established in 1983, Algonquin is the oldest provincial park in Canada and it’s becoming even more beautiful and attractive with every passing year.

I couldn’t miss such an important occasion since it’s the place of so many favourite memories: our first trip into the interior, our first four-day canoe trip, our first winter camping adventure in a tent. Beautiful sunny skies, stormy weather, rainbows, fall colours, spring flowers and moose sightings, incredible sunsets and loon calls at night. We’ve visited Algonquin in all seasons, experienced it in every type of weather, explored it on foot, in a canoe and on a bike and it is always beautiful and exciting.

Lake of Two Rivers in the spring

Lake of Two Rivers in the spring

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How Green of a Camper Are You? Ways to Reduce the Environmental Impact of Your Trips

Green and camping seem to  go together naturally. What can be greener than spending time in nature? Unfortunately, every time we go camping, we witness activities that are the complete opposite. I am always perplexed by people who insist on driving their cars everywhere in the park: store, wood yard, trail, comfort station? Isn’t the whole point of getting outside to get some exercise? I am appalled by the amount of disposable plates, cups and cutlery that often piles up on some of the sites and disgusted by garbage found on the beach and along trails. And why do people feel they have the right to turn lakes into their personal bathtubs even if there are no shower facilities nearby?

Camping is a great way to connect with nature, relieve stress, get some exercise and fresh air. The benefits are endless. Yet we shouldn’t forget that our mere presence in the parks can be damaging, so we have to make every effort to minimize our impact. If we want to ensure that our children have an opportunity to enjoy nature the way we do, we need to adopt camping practices that promote nature preservation and sustainability.

Here are some ways we try to make our camping trips greener.

Ditch your car, walk or bike instead

boy with a bikeOntario Parks encourage their visitors to park once and walk or bike the rest of the stay. Last year, we finally managed to do that. We used our bikes or feet to get to park stores, beaches, trail heads, even to bring fire wood. Granted it is sometimes hard to do it in larger parks, like Algonquin or Lake Superior. Several national parks in the United States, including Glacier, Rocky Mountain and Grand Canyon, offer free shuttle bus service to their visitors in an effort to reduce traffic on their roads. Hopefully, parks in Canada will consider introducing a similar service. In the meantime, we try to focus on exploring nearby trails and lakes and plan stops at faraway attractions on our way home.

Dispose of your garbage properly

disposing of garbageI am not just talking about not littering here. That should be engrained. It is also important to properly dispose of your garbage at recycling centres available in most camping parks. Sorting your recyclables doesn’t take too long and ensures they don’t end up in a landfill.

Last year, we also tried to reduce the amount of garbage we produce. We buy a lot of our food in bulk and then bring the necessary amount in reusable containers. We try to buy less packaged food and cook more from scratch (there are lots of simple delicious camping recipes that don’t require a lot of time or preparation).

Forgo disposable products

Sometimes I wish parks and conservation areas just banned disposable products all together. This summer, we watched our neighbours accumulate four huge garbage bags of disposable plates, cups and cutlery over two days. Yes, they were a large group of people but that also means they had more than enough people to do the dishes. Yes, washing the dishes isn’t fun, especially in the woods. But isn’t removing yourself from the conveniences of civilization part of the attraction? Just think of it as part of the wilderness survival challenge. gnocchi

We haven’t used disposable eating utensils in years. Last summer, together with our friends, we decided to ditch foil roasting pans as well. Even with reusing them a couple of times, it was still a waste. The regular roasting pan we use at home works just fine outside. We also bring kitchen towels instead of paper ones because we prefer our trees in their original form and not on our table in the form of paper napkins.

Use biodegradable dishwashing products and toiletries

We don’t use any commercial chemicals-packed dishwashing liquids or beauty products at home and it’s even more important to avoid them in nature. Baking soda can do the job just fine or if you need some bubbles, you can make your own dishwashing liquid using Dr. Bronner’s castile soap (we just dilute it in water 1:3 and add 1 tablespoon of washing soda for each liter of liquid plus a few drops of any essential oil for smell). Castile soap is also great for washing yourself. Your skin will thank you. If you are not into making your own dishwashing liquid, shampoo or toothpaste, you can always buy eco-friendly biodegradable options. And avoid using any toiletries around rivers and lakes. A few days without a shower will not kill you.

There are lots of other ways to make your camping more eco-friendly, like buying used equipment or renting it from an outfitter, staying on trails and using marked campsites, using proper firewood, respecting wildlife, taking nothing but pictures and memories. Visit Leave No Trace Canada website to learn more about what you can do to reduce your environmental impact. Parks and conservation areas are here for us to not only enjoy but also protect nature. Let’s remember that!

custer state park

 

Time to Spring into Camping

So spring is officially here! And it comes with warmer weather, longer days and a promise of more camping trips. While April and May with melting snow, uncertain weather, lots of mud and quite often still cold nights may not seem like the best choice to head into the woods, there are lots of things that make spring camping special. Here is what I am looking forward to as we are preparing for our first spring camping trip of the year.

Rebirth of nature

After a long winter sleep, nature finally shakes off its white blanket and springs into a burst of colours, smells and sounds. Even though I know it’s coming, every year I am mesmerized by this magic act of rebirth, by the vigour of spring flowers pushing their way through the ground, by the tenderness of swelling buds. The blues, yellows and purples of spring ephemerals and bright greens of first leaves look like drops of paint spattered by a careless artist around the otherwise still bare forest. So put on a pair of waterproof boots and head to the forest. Walk slowly and look for signs of spring awakening.

boardwalk at Presqu'ile Provincial park

flower   first leaves

spring flowers   spring flowers

tree in the spring   willow in the spring

spring flowers

Trilliums

Yes, it is a flower and could be mentioned above but in my book of spring camping it deserves a separate chapter. It is Ontario’s official flower and spring is the only time when you can see it. Imagine forest floor covered by a blanket of snow-white curvy petals with occasional pinks or reds peeking through. It is a sight worth seeing, practically a must if you live in Ontario.

red trillium   white trillium

trilliums

Twitter

Not the one on your phone, of course, the original one produced by birds. In the spring, woods and lakeshores are filled with chirps, cheeps, peeps and tweets. Ontario Parks offer excellent birdwatching opportunities. Some parks, like Presqu’ile, Long Point or Point Pelee are practically birders’ meccas. So if birdwatching is your thing, grab your camera and binoculars and head to one of the parks. And even if you are not a birder, waking up to a birdsong is way more pleasant than to an alarm on your phone.

heron near the lake

duck

warbler   warbler

family of geese

Wildlife sightings

As more and more animals wake up from their winter slumber and right before summer crowds hit the parks, spring offers a great window for wildlife viewing. For instance, spring is the best season for moose watching in Algonquin. You don’t even have to go far. You are almost certain to see these animals along Highway 60 as they are attracted by the salt in road ditches. As always, it is important to remember that wildlife may pose danger. So exercise caution when you are driving in or close to the parks, and give animals lots of space whenever you come across them in the woods.

moose in algonquin park

moose in algonquin   groundhog

More daylight

Longer days mean more outdoor activities. While there is a certain charm to long winter evenings by the fire and there are lots of enjoyable activities to fill the time, as the days are getting longer I am looking forward to spending more time outside and can now plan for longer hikes or bike rides.

More sun

After a long and cold winter, we all deserve a bit more sun. And with more sun come better moods, warmer weather and more Vitamin D. Spring weather with its gentle sun, a bit of a breeze and without the usual summer humidity is perfect for outdoor activities.

Fewer layers

As the weather gets warmer, we can start shedding all those winter layers. As much as I enjoy winter, I won’t miss extra sweaters, snowpants, scarves, hats and gloves and I am looking forward to spending less than ten minutes getting dressed before going outside. Spring nights can still be pretty chilly so don’t put away your sweaters and hats too far away just yet. If you are concerned about spring chill at night, consider booking roofed accommodations at one of Ontario Parks. They are much easier to book in the spring as more people are choosing to stay in tents.

awenda in the spring   Macgregor point

walking over a log   on the beach at awenda in spring

Cycling

Yes, you can bike in the summer and fall too, but there is nothing like the first bike ride of the season. After a long cycling gap (unless, of course, you are a winter biking enthusiast), the sensation of pushing pedals is always new and exciting. With a breeze in your hair and a birdsong in your ear, spring cycling is filled with childlike joy. So dust off your bike, tune it up and head outside. A lot of Ontario Parks have excellent biking trails, for instance, Pinery, Algonquin, MacGregor Point. Quite a few also offer bike rentals.

biking in algonquin   biking at craigleth provincial park

Canoeing

Just like cycling, canoeing is not a strictly spring activity. But just like with cycling, I can’t wait till the first paddle of the year: the slight resistance of water as my paddle cuts through it, the splash, the feeling of gliding on the surface. Plus rivers and lakes are at their fullest in the spring after the snow melts making them easier to navigate. Some routes can only be paddled in the spring or early summer at the latest and they become almost impassable as the water levels drop later in the season.

paddle in the water

Finally, the best cure for cabin fever

Even though we go camping in the winter too, with only two or three trips over the whole season I feel like we spend too much time in the city. So why wait till summer if you can go camping now. Nothing can chase those winter blues away like the orange crackling of a campfire, the bright yellow of first spring flowers  and the tender green spirals of fiddleheads.

marshmellow in the campfire

yellow spring flowers   fiddleheads

Time to start packing! Remember that Ontario Parks have different opening dates while some are open year round. Check Ontario Parks website for help with your trip planning and to book campsites.

 

Winter Camping Tips

If you read my previous post, you know how much I love winter camping. Now I have a confession to make: I haven’t always been a fan of winter. It is definitely an acquired taste. The secret is wearing proper clothes and getting involved in winter activities. Here are some tips to help plan a winter camping trip.

yurt in killarney in the winter  Yurt in Macgregor Point in the winter

Warm clothes

Proper clothing is key to enjoying winter. Invest in a good winter coat, snowpants, hat, scarf, waterproof gloves or mittens, warm socks, waterproof boots. It is also important to dress not only according to the weather but consider what you are planning to do outside. Some activities, like hiking, cross-country skiing or skating, are more physically demanding and may cause overheating. Sweat is definitely not your friend when the temperature is below freezing. So layers that can be taken off and put back on are always a good idea.

Start with a base layer, which is usually long underwear or any other tight-fitting clothes. Base layers should be made of fabrics like polyester, merino wool, silk or blends that wick moisture and dry quickly. Cotton would be the worst choice for a base layer. Follow with a mid-layer, which can be a long-sleeved shirt, sweater or fleece vest. Finally, add the insulating layer, such as a fleece jacket or a down vest, followed by a waterproof and windproof shell. Some winter jackets already come with a built-in, removable fleece jacket or insulated liner.

Don’t forget to bring lots of extra socks, hats and gloves, especially for kids, as those tend to get wet during snow play and may not dry fast enough.

winter

Roofed accommodations

As I mentioned before, we usually stay in a yurt or cabin in the winter although winter tenting is definitely on our bucket list. Quite a few Ontario Parks offer roofed accommodations, mostly yurts, which come with two sets of futon bunk beds, a table and chairs, electrical or gas heat, fluorescent lighting, and one electrical outlet. Outside, yurt sites have a picnic table, BBQ and fire pit. Some parks have camping cabins and cottages. Learn more about Ontario Parks roofed accommodations here.

Keep in mind that yurts and cabins for long weekends get booked fast, usually five months in advance so non-long weekends or middle of the week may be a better bet. We have been known to miss the reservation dates a few times but were able to book a last minute cabin in the Allegany State Park south of the border.

yurt Killarney Provincial Park in the winter

Yurt at Killarney Provincial Park

Cabin in Allegany State park in the winter

Cabin at Allegany State Park

Winter activities

You will never run out of things to do. Lots of Ontario Parks have snowshoeing and cross-country trails, skating rinks and toboggan hills. Not all of them offer equipment rentals, though, so check before you go. Find an outfitter somewhere close to the park or rent equipment from your local Mountain Equipment Co-op store. Plus, there are a lot of activities that don’t require any equipment at all.

skiing in Killarney    snowshoeing in Arrowhead Procincial Park

Important thing to remember is that it gets dark early in the winter. So plan to come back from the trail at least an hour before sunset. Also remember to plan activities for long winter nights. Reading, playing charades, telling stories, talking around the fire, singing, and making rainbow loom bracelets are all fantastic ways to spend time. If you don’t play board games, this would be a good time to start. It’s a great bonding experience and way more fun that electronics. In addition, parks offer fun things to do after dark, like skating around the lit loops at Arrowhead and MacGregor Point.

inside a yurt in a provincial park

Snacks and drinks

Our bodies need more calories in the winter so we always bring lots of snacks and drinks with us on a trail. Good snacks have low water content and high fat content to prevent them from freezing so think nuts, dried fruit, granola bars, trail mixes, crackers, cheese, cookies and chocolate. Hot chocolate or tea on the trail taste divine so we do bring a thermos with us even though it is heavy. The parks also have warming huts along the trails, a great place to rest and fuel up.

In terms of regular meals, yurts in Ontario Parks have BBQs with a side burner. It’s important to remember, though, that you’ll be cooking outside. So think foods that don’t need a lot of time to prepare.

cooking on a BBQ at MacGreogor Point Provincial Park

Back in our meat-eating days

drinking hot chocolate outsde in the winter  inside a yurt in a provincial park

Play safe

Make sure the whole family is wearing proper safety gear, for instance helmets when skating, and whatever equipment you are using (skates, skis, snowshoes, etc.) fit everyone perfectly. Be careful around frozen bodies of water and ensure a tobogganing hill doesn’t end up on a road. Limit exposure on particularly cold days and know how to recognize and treat, but most importantly prevent, hypothermia and frostbite.

family day 2013-15

Winter in Canada is way too long to spend it cooped up inside. Embracing and enjoying it sounds like a much better plan!

Falling for Fall Camping

Summer is officially over but it doesn’t mean you have to put your camping gear away. Fall has so much to offer that it will make you fall in love with camping all over again. Here are some reasons why we love fall camping so much:

Killarney2View from the Crack, Killarney Provincial Park

Fall Colours

Well, it is an obvious one. Albert Camus once said that “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.” I could use hundreds of words to describe the second spring and wouldn’t come even close to capturing the beauty that is a forest in the fall. It’s as if nature, in the face of impending monochromatic winter, splashes all its paints across the canvas.

DSC_0661Looking up, Canisbay Lake Campground, Algonquin Provincial Park

Feast for Senses

Fall is a feast not only for your eyes but all the other senses as well. Cool crispness of the morning, earthy smell of mushrooms, crunchy leaves under your feet, campfire smoke dancing in the sunlight, multicoloured foliage twirling in the wind. Fall air is filled with beauty and tranquility.

BonEcho-19      Killarney3Dancing Light                                             Mushroom Log

Rediscover Your Favourite Parks

It is a great opportunity to rediscover your favourite parks and see them in a new light, both literally and figuratively. With the beach weather gone, fall is a good time to try new activities that parks have to offer, explore new trails and locations.

BonEcho-22Canoeists on Mazinaw Lake, Bon Echo Provincial Park

Mild Weather

Speaking of the weather, cooler temperatures make most camping activities, like hiking and biking, more pleasant and less sweat-inducing. Yes, the evenings are usually chilly but they make campfires even more inviting and conversations more sizzling. Plus a hearty stew tastes so much better on a chilly fall night by the fire!

Killarney4    111014fall019Getting Wood at Killarney                         Biking at Lake St. Peter Provincial Park

Absence of Bugs

No bugs! To all those people who can’t go camping because of pesky mosquitoes and flies – fall is the time to try it.

BonEcho-23  111014fall034Sun Rays                                                                                           Red Giant

Smaller Crowds

Finally, one of my personal favourites – fewer people. Parks tend to get overcrowded in the summer. As the number of park visitors subsides in the fall, I can finally find much needed solitude and refuge from the city buzz. As the nature starts slowing down preparing for the winter, I am inspired to do the same: breathe in deeply, exhale slowly, calm down my racing mind and listen to myself.

letchworth-8Autumn Reflections

For a list of great Ontario Parks to visit in the fall, check out my article on Parks Blogger Ontario.