In Canada, we are blessed with a wealth of land, lakes, rivers and wilderness that is virtually unparalleled in the rest of the world.
As Canada’s second-largest province, Ontario provides plenty of opportunities to enjoy the Great Outdoors through camping, canoeing, hiking and a myriad of other outdoor activities.
Camping in Ontario can be the perfect weekend getaway for beginners and pros alike. There is a wide range of camping styles and trips available, each with its own set of challenges and rewards. With so many options at hand, it can seem overwhelming to plan your first trip.
However, with a few tips, pointers and guidelines under your belt, you can be out enjoying a quintessential Canadian experience in no time. Let’s get you started!
Why Go Camping In Ontario?
The allure of camping will differ depending on who you talk to. Since you are reading this article, chances are you already have some motivations of your own.
For my part, I love the simple, beautiful experience of getting out in nature – the sounds of birds, frogs and insects without interference from the engines, electronics and other noises that are ever-present in today’s society.
Seeing wildlife in its natural environment is a huge allure for me as well (hint, early morning is the best time of day for this).
And not to be understated, the experience of unplugging from technology and being present in your surroundings is something that we do far too little of these days.
While out camping, I am a big advocate of turning off the phone and saving the music for trips to the cottage.
Different Camping Styles in Ontario
The next question to ask is ‘what type of camping experience do I want to have?’ Camping is one of the most popular things to do in Ontario and there are many different ways that you can go about it.
Remember: The perfect camping experience will mean something different for everyone.
That being said, the most popular ways to camp in Ontario are car camping, canoe/kayak tripping, hiking, RV/trailer camping, and glamping. Each comes with its own set of pros and cons.
Car camping is the way that many Ontarians (myself included) have received their initial introduction to camping. The method is simple – drive into your site and set up camp.
It allows for an easy introduction to the outdoors and is a great way to practice essential camping skills like cooking over a fire/camp stove and sleeping in a tent.
The car acts as a storage unit to keep food and equipment dry, clean and away from critters when they aren’t being used.
The amount of storage space available means that you don’t have to be super choosy about which items you bring and those you leave behind.
Having your vehicle on hand also means that you have the option of driving to a store (if there is one nearby) if you happen to forget something like a lighter or tomorrow’s breakfast – this is an option that has saved many a new camper.
The drawback of car camping is that you aren’t able to get into remote backcountry sites. The neighbouring campers are usually closer as well and if they don’t follow the guidelines of ethical camping, it can put a damper on the experience (more on this later).
All that being said, car camping is a great first step for beginners or those looking to get out of the house without doing a ton of planning and preparation.
There are many Provincial Parks in Ontario that provide the opportunity as well as private campgrounds and a wealth of Crown Land sites if you know where to look. More on these later.
A great option for more experienced campers (and my personal favourite) is to reach your site by water. The traditional method is by canoe, though kayaks have gained in popularity in recent years.
A canoe is able to carry more equipment and is easier to portage (carry over land) if your route requires you to travel between waterbodies.
Kayaks do not portage as easily and cannot carry as much, but they hold the advantage when it comes to navigating large, windy or wavy waterbodies.
Either method will allow you to access sites – including islands – which are a little further off the beaten trail.
Multi-Day Canoe/Kayak Trips
How far you go (and how many nights you spend out in the wilderness) will depend on your level of experience and ambition.
For me, the more remote the better. Generally speaking, the harder it is to access a site, the less it is used. This means more wildlife sightings, pristine views, better fishing and fewer sounds of civilization.
The relative isolation that is cherished by backcountry campers also brings with it additional challenges.
Any gear that you bring in must be paddled/carried along the route and there won’t likely be an option to replace something that is forgotten, lost or broken along the trail.
You are also more at the weather’s mercy and must be prepared to deal with any challenges that may arise, using only your wits and the limited resources at your disposal.
In short, backcountry camping is more demanding but also more rewarding. Once you have acquired the skills and experience necessary for the challenge, it is well worth it.
There are many Provincial Parks in Ontario that provide the opportunity for backcountry canoe/kayak trips.
There are virtually no limits for adventurous backcountry campers looking to explore the vast expanses of Crown Land waterways in Northern Ontario.
This pristine wilderness is often where you’ll find the best backcountry camping in Ontario. Of course, this is a challenge best tackled one step at a time – a one- or two-night trip is a good introduction that can be followed by longer and more remote expeditions.
Day Tripping To Build Skills
If you have a limited amount of time to get outdoors or are looking to take a step up from car camping, a day trip hiking or paddling is a good option.
Planning an out-and-back or a small loop route is a great first step into the backcountry. Skills like steering a canoe through waves or cooking over an open fire require practice. If you develop a few of these at a time, you will have an easier time putting them all together in the end.
Problems will also come up that you may not have predicted – equipment failures, sudden changes in weather, accidents or injuries etc.
Learning to manage these and similar challenges with the knowledge that your exit point is never too far away will help you to build the confidence and skills needed for longer excursions.
Once you find that you are comfortable with both car camping and day trips, it may be time to start planning an overnight trip into the backcountry!
Like canoe tripping, hiking into a site will allow a camper to get further off the beaten trail and access some beautiful backcountry. Many of the pros and cons related to remote access are the same as those experienced by canoe trippers.
A critical difference between the two is that any gear brought in by a hiker needs to be carried in on his or her back.
For this reason, hikers need to be quite selective with the gear that they bring and will generally opt for lightweight items.
Though there are fewer kilometres of hiking trails in Ontario than those of lakes and rivers, there are still plenty of options.
Many Provincial Parks have well-maintained trails and the Bruce Trail and its offshoots provide over 1000km of hiking opportunities within southern Ontario.
Another popular method of camping in Ontario is RV (recreational vehicle) camping. Motorhomes, fifth wheels and tent trailers all fall under this category.
Of course, renting or buying any type of RV is going to incur higher costs than traditional car camping. However, this type of camping suits those who want a bit of security and/or more “homey” amenities while out exploring nature.
Many campgrounds – both Ontario parks and privately-held campsites – have space for RV campers. In fact, there are many trailer parks in Ontario specifically for this style of camping.
However, each RV resort/campground is going to differ with the amenities and services they offer to those with an RV.
As a rule of thumb: It’s important to book RV parks in Ontario in advance to get a great spot! Check out GoRVing as a resource for everything RV-related and RV camping in Ontario.
Glamping in Ontario
Finally, there is glamping. Glamping or “glamorous camping” is a way of enjoying the outdoors while retaining a few more creature comforts and amenities than you would with traditional camping.
In fact, they can be downright luxurious with soaker tubs and cozy chairs.
There are numerous glamping locations across the province where you can rent a cabin, wall tent, yurt or other pre-constructed shelters. Glampsites can be found in some of Ontario’s Parks as well as privately run campgrounds.
Types of Campgrounds
Now that you have an idea as to which type of camping is right for you, it’s time to find a campground. There are lots of places to camp in Ontario.
The province is rich in campgrounds and no matter where you are located, there are likely some near you. There are a few different types of campgrounds to choose from, each with its own pros and cons to consider before you book.
Ontario Provincial Parks
The best starting point for new campers in Ontario is often Provincial Parks. Ontario has a wealth of Provincial Parks offering day use, car camping, RV camping, canoeing/kayaking, hiking and/or backcountry camping.
As with anything, there are pros and cons to camping at a Provincial Park. They generally have well-maintained sites and amenities such as washrooms/thunderboxes (think outhouse without walls or a roof), firepits and visitor centres.
Canoe rentals, firewood purchases, potable water and more may also be available, depending on the park and the type of site. Sites can be booked in advance and will sometimes fill up quickly.
They charge a fee for campsites/parking spots but I have found that you get what you pay for, all things considered. If you like the certainty of having an established site with your name on it, Provincial Parks are a good way to go.
Some of Ontario’s most popular Provincial Parks include:
- Sandbanks Provincial Park (car camping, RV camping) – a popular place to stay in Prince Edward County with famous sand dune formations and lake Ontario shoreline
- Presqu’Ile Provincial Park (car camping)- good camping near Toronto with a very long, dog-free sandy beach
- Algonquin Provincial Park (car camping, backcountry) – Arguably Ontario’s most popular operating Provincial Park. It occupies over 7000 square kilometres of Central Ontario and contains a dozen campgrounds and extensive backcountry opportunities. It can be easily accessed from the south, east or north.
- Bon Echo Provincial Park (car camping, backcountry) – close to Kingston with Mazinaw Rock to check out
- Arrowhead Provincial Park (car camping, RV) – Located close to Huntsville for those looking for camping in Muskoka
- Killarney Provincial Park (car camping, RV, backcountry) – windswept Georgian Bay coast that inspired The Group of Seven
- Sleeping Giant Provincial Park (car camping, RV, backcountry) – the gem of Lake Superior with vast hiking trails close to Thunder Bay
When choosing a park, it is important to note that there are two main kinds of Provincial Parks in Ontario: operating parks and non-operating parks.
Operating parks come with facilities, staff, reservations, and open/closed seasons. These parks are maintained and are a good camping option for beginners.
They are sometimes available for only limited recreational activities (i.e. no camping) or are found in remote parts of the province. It is a safer bet to stick to operating parks when searching for a camping option near you.
Many Provincial Parks in Ontario also have a number of what are called “roofed accommodations” – think back to the section on glamping.
There are generally fewer of these accommodations available at the Parks, so reserve in advance if this is something you’d want to book. If this type of activity is more up your alley, you might also consider a cabin/cottage rental in Ontario.
Many smaller lakeside “resorts” – like in Muskoka, for example – offer rented cottages/cabins that might also be a good option for you.
National Parks in Ontario
There are also a few National Parks in Ontario that provide camping opportunities. The Parks Canada website is another great resource to use when considering taking your first steps into camping.
Examples of National Parks in Ontario include:
- Bruce Peninsula National Park – a popular park up in beautiful Tobermory
- Pukaskwa National Park – offers lots of lakeside hiking trails in Northern Ontario
- Georgian Bay Island National Park – a boat-access park made up of over 60 islands in Georgian Bay
- Thousand Islands National Park – Located along the St. Lawrence River – has oTENTik rentals (a mix between a tent and a wooden cabin)
Visit the National Park website for official details about each one.
Crown Land Camping in Ontario
An alternative to Provincial Parks is Crown Land camping. There are many thousands of square kilometres of Crown Land in Ontario that is maintained by neither the province nor municipalities.
This land is owned by the government and generally free to be used by the public. As such, you don’t need to pay for these sites.
This is where you find free campsites in Ontario – but they also cannot be booked in advance, so it’s first come, first served.
While some sites are well maintained, others are rougher or even just raw land – no bells, whistles, fire pits or thunderboxes (not an avenue that I would recommend for beginners).
All Crown Land has a maximum occupancy period of 21 days. After this point, you must pack up and move camp. It can be a bit of a wildcard but if you know where to look, there are some hidden gems out there waiting to be found, free of charge.
Private Campgrounds in Ontario
Finally, some sites are maintained privately or by a municipality. Private campgrounds in Ontario have different rules and the quality of sites can vary widely depending on the location/company.
There are lots of these independent and privately-owned Ontario campgrounds across the province. Camping in Ontario is the website to go to for a registry of all the privately-owned sites in Ontario.
They have a handy “search by filter” option which allows you to search for campgrounds in the area you want with the amenities you want. For example, facilities for showers, hookups for RV, onsite activities, etc.
You might also look to KOA (Kampgrounds of America) for a reputable campsite. KOA are the largest system of privately-held campgrounds in the world.
There are many KOA sites across Ontario that may be exactly what you’re looking for in the location you’re looking for.
Best Time to Go Camping in Ontario
Each season in Ontario has something unique to offer campers, but the most popular season – by far – is summer.
Camping In Summer
Summer unofficially kicks off with the Victoria Day weekend in May and ends with the Labour Day weekend in September.
Since outdoor activities like swimming, hiking and canoeing are most readily enjoyed in warm weather, this is when you will find most people enjoying the Great Outdoors.
As a result, many parks will tailor their operating seasons to this timeframe, with a month or two of buffer zone on either side – roughly April to October.
However, there is a fair amount of variation between campgrounds and it is best to check with each location for their specific dates.
Privately-held campgrounds follow a similar trend. For example, KOA campsites are open yearly on April 1st and close on November 1.
Some other private campgrounds in Ontario specialize in winter experiences so you’ll find them open all year round.
Camping In Other Seasons
Although summer is the best bet for beginners, camping season in Ontario is defined primarily by a camper’s level of experience, dedication and the activities that they are interested in.
Spring camping holds the allure of thinner crowds and the sights of nature coming to life after a long and snowy winter.
Biting insects like blackflies and mosquitoes emerge en masse in May and can test the resilience of even experienced campers. The weather is often cold and wet, but there are usually some nice days mixed in as well.
If you are lucky enough to catch a warm and sunny spring day before the bugs emerge, it can feel like the most beautiful thing in the world after a long and snowy winter.
The fall camping season in sub-boreal Ontario is a breath-taking sight once the leaves begin to change. The colours are world-renowned and definitely something to be enjoyed at least once in your life.
There are often plenty of warm and sunny days in September and some years, October can be quite nice as well. Even warm days can turn to chilly nights though and campers need to be prepared with appropriate clothing and gear.
Weather patterns can also change in a hurry this time of year, bringing in prolonged periods of cold, wet weather.
Some Ontario Parks and private campgrounds remain open for winter camping and activities. These activities can be beautiful and rewarding, but also challenging due to Ontario’s cold and snowy winters.
Proper clothing and preparation are a must. A place to go to get warm and dry is essential for all but the most experienced and dedicated outdoor enthusiasts.
Algonquin is one Provincial Park that offers winter activities such as dogsledding, snowshoeing and roofed accommodations – yurts – to experience the outdoors in the winter!
Planning for Camping in Ontario
Before you head out on your Ontario camping adventure, you’ll need to plan. No matter the type and style of Ontario camping, good planning is essential to have a safe and enjoyable experience.
Here are a few basic tips and other things to consider when it comes to planning your trip.
Know What You Don’t Know
The first question to ask yourself when planning a camping trip is ‘what is my experience level and the level of my group?’.
If you are new to planning outdoor excursions, a lengthy backcountry canoe trip in the remote wilderness is not a good starting point.
A day trip or easy over-nighter might be more manageable options for someone who is new to camping. Don’t make the rookie mistake of biting off more than you can chew!
A bad initial experience can sour a newbie’s attitude towards the outdoors and discourage them from taking future trips.
As a teenager, I organized a multi-night backcountry canoe trip with a few friends, one of whom was new to camping. While I had done trips like this with family before, I had never organized one myself.
The learning curve was steep and the result, far from ideal. We packed too much of the wrong stuff, not enough of the right stuff and not everyone was prepared for the challenges en route.
We never made it to our intended site and ended up going home a day early. While the rest of us chalked it up as a learning experience and vowed to be better prepared for next time, the newbie in the group was scared off and hasn’t been camping since.
Whether you are new or you’re introducing someone else (especially kids), starting small and going from there will help to build confidence and create positive memories.
Good campers are built through experience and that is best done one step at a time.
While there are lots of reasons to enjoy the outdoors, there are also certain safety considerations that need to be taken into account before heading out into the woods.
A few basic pointers:
- Bring a well-stocked first aid kit and consider taking a first aid training course.
- If swimming or boating is on the itinerary, be sure to bring all of the required safety equipment and stay within your skill level.
- No matter the activity, it’s always a good idea to be aware of the weather and your physical surroundings. Consider both the risks and rewards of any activity and be prepared with an emergency exit plan if you need to get help. A safe trip leads to happy campers.
There is no way for me to tell you about all of the precautions that you will need to take for your trip. The risks will vary depending on the type of trip as well as the location.
Doing research into your specific trip will help you to be more prepared for whatever challenges you may encounter.
What to Pack When Camping in Ontario
An important part of planning for a camping trip in Ontario is choosing the right gear. Your packing list will differ depending on what type of camping trip you are planning.
Some items are deemed essential by most (e.g. a tent) and some are more luxury items (e.g. an inflatable mattress) which are not always absolutely necessary.
Here is a basic list of items to get you started:
- Sleeping bag (camping pillow and sleeping pad/mattress optional but recommended)
- Water-proof bag (for packing clothing & sleeping bag)
- Water filtration system or drinking water (if not available)
- Matches and/or lighter
- Camp stove with fuel
- Cutlery, bowl & mug
- Garbage bag(s)
- Flashlight/headlamp with spare batteries
- Bug repellant
- Water-resistant rain jacket
- Sturdy, closed-toed footwear/hiking shoes
- Clothing that is appropriate for the environment: Quick-drying materials (leave the cotton clothing at home) with options for layers
- Compass and trail map (if hiking)
- Ropes and tarp
- First aid kit
Now that you have an idea of the why, the what, the when, and the where, it is time to take a look at how you should go about camping.
While you may be away from the city, there are still definite expectations and ethics to observe when camping.
First things first, please be considerate of other campers – both those around you now and those who will be coming after you.
Speaking from personal experience, it is extremely disappointing to have your outdoor getaway ruined by the inconsiderate actions of others.
If you’re ever unsure what the ethical thing to do in a given situation is, think back to my reasons for getting outdoors – the sounds of nature, pristine views, the chance to see wildlife etc.
Now think about both the immediate and long-term effects that your actions will have on other campers and keep the Golden Rule in mind: If you wouldn’t want to pick up someone else’s garbage, it’s a pretty safe bet that they won’t want to pick up yours.
Here are a few general rules and camping etiquettes to keep in mind when out on the land.
Garbage will quickly ruin the visual appeal of a campsite and attract unwanted animals. Therefore, any items that are brought into a site need to be brought out with you when you leave.
Pack it In, Pack it Out
No excuses – if you had room in your pack/car to bring it in with you, you’ve got the room to bring it out.
A simple solution is to include a few garbage bags with your gear. Having a few spares is definitely a good idea in case of rips or dirty items that need to be double-bagged.
It is also a great practice to leave the site cleaner than you found it. The next campers will always appreciate your efforts.
What to Do with Organic Waste
Even though food waste and organics will eventually decompose, they should not be left laying around or tossed into the bushes by your site.
That apple core is far more likely to be found by future campers or wild animals long before it has time to decompose.
In the case of animals, they will quickly learn that food can be found around a site and will return in hopes of more easy meals.
This can lead to nuisance animals that will plague a site and, in some cases, they may become a safety concern for those who come after you.
Burying organic waste is not a good practice, as most animals possess a sense of smell that is far greater than ours. Anything that is buried will likely be dug up again before long.
In most circumstances, it is better to burn or pack those organics out. If you do need to bury something, do so at least 50m away from camp and other areas used by people.
While there are some items that can be burned (paper, cardboard and some organics), it is important not to view the fire pit as a garbage can.
Some items shouldn’t be burned (metal, plastics and other synthetics) and those that do, need to be completely disintegrated.
The best practice is to get a good, hot fire going before adding any garbage and then continuing to add wood afterwards.
Anything that does not burn completely the first time around should be given more time in the heart of the fire or else packed out with you after it has a chance to cool.
Your firepit should be completely clear of any bits of garbage when you leave your site.
The appropriate way to dispose of grey water from dishwashing will vary depending on location. If you are camping in a maintained park, they will likely have guidelines that you can look up or ask about at the park office.
If you are camping in the backcountry, the best option is often to walk at least 50m out from camp and dump the water in an area with good soil cover.
Any chunks of food should first be removed and disposed of as garbage. There are plenty of biodegradable soaps available and the microorganisms in the soil will help to break down any traces of food.
Fish guts (if you fish and can properly clean and cook your catch) are best dumped in deep water, where they will sink to the bottom and be eaten by scavengers.
The key word here is deep – don’t put them somewhere that will ruin the swimming experience of others!
Most established sites will have an outhouse or thunderbox at or near the site. They are there to ensure that all human waste is collected in one area, keeping the rest of the site clean. If your site has one of these, please use it.
If it does not have one, then find a place to go that is at least 50m away from both the edge of your camp and the water.
If you are going #2 or using toilet paper, dig a hole at least 15cm deep and ensure that all materials are thoroughly buried afterwards.
If you wouldn’t be comfortable putting your own foot on top of your refilled “cat-hole”, then add more dirt or rocks until you are.
I have had the misfortune of stepping in other people’s half-buried waste on more than one occasion. It can put a damper on your day in a hurry.
Most car campgrounds will have established quiet hours at night after which music and loud conversations are not allowed.
If you are canoe tripping or camping in a less established area, you will have to use your discretion based on how close you are to other campers.
It is important to note that sound travels very well across water. Raised voices or loud music can be heard from well over a kilometre away on a quiet night.
While your noise levels can be a bit more relaxed in the daytime, there’s much to be said for enjoying the peaceful sounds of nature, both day and night– after all, that is a major appeal of camping for many people.
And if you want to see wildlife in its natural environment, your odds are far greater if you control your noise levels. I have found that few things scare animals away like the sound of a human voice.
Many campgrounds in Ontario have designated “radio-free” campsites. These are sites – or blocks of sites – where the use of amplified radio is not permitted, day or night.
This includes car radios as well as smaller radios/stereos. This designation can even go a step further to mean “no excess noise” which might include guitar playing, singing etc.
Whether or not you choose to book a “radio-free” site will depend on what you want to get out of your camping experience. Keep this in mind when making your reservation.
An evening campfire with optional marshmallows to roast over top is a quintessential part of the camping experience. Of course, there are some important guidelines to keep in mind before getting it lit.
Fires Permitted or Fire Ban
First things first, are fires currently allowed where you are? There are generally signs posted along roadways or at the Park Office that will let you know whether or not fires are permitted.
If the weather has been hot and dry, there may be a fire ban in effect. These signs are updated regularly to prevent forest fires and there are hefty fines for those who don’t obey them.
It is important to note that transporting firewood is not a good practice and is forbidden in some areas.
This is to prevent the spread of pests and diseases like the emerald ash borer or Dutch elm disease, which can devastate local tree populations.
Firewood can be gathered near your site if you are not in a high-use area or purchased locally if you are. Some parks will require you to purchase the wood that they provide.
If you are gathering your own firewood, be sure to use dead, dry wood and not green, living wood. The latter does not burn well and is also not ethical to use.
Wood that has fallen on the ground is a safe bet. Low, dead branches are often a good, dry option to use if it has been raining.
Cleaning Up Your Campfire
Finally, it is essential to put out your fire and douse any embers when you are not there to attend it.
This can be done by pouring water on it, stirring with a stick to expose the protected embers and adding more water until it is fully extinguished.
It is important to be thorough, as even a few unattended embers can cause a forest fire under the right conditions.
More Helpful Camping Tips and Tricks
Here are a few more helpful tips when it comes to camping in Ontario. These are all based on my experience – some are good to know, some might keep you alive in the backcountry!
It’s important to stay hydrated! Dehydration can sneak up on you when you’re out being active in the heat and the sun, so stay ahead of the curve and make a habit of drinking water or juices throughout the day.
Avoid consuming too much alcohol and/or caffeine, which will dehydrate you. Offset any drinks that you do have with plenty of water.
Car camping sites will usually have potable water on hand, but it never hurts to bring a full jug with you. You can always refill it when you run out. Backcountry camping will require some form of water purification system.
There are lots of options here including pumps, chemicals and high-tech gadgets. If all else fails, bringing water to a rolling boil will help to kill any bacteria and parasites.
Plan Your Food
The body works harder in the outdoors, so be sure to pack a bit more food than you would normally eat. This is especially true if you encounter cold or wet weather.
Embrace the Bugs
Biting insects are a part of the experience. They may be unpleasant, but unless you are allergic, they won’t kill you. Bug spray helps, as does clothing that covers your skin.
The ones that fly are often attracted to movement, so don’t bother swinging at them in the air – let them land before you swat, otherwise, you’ll only end up bringing more in.
And like I said, they won’t kill you. Defend yourself as necessary but don’t let them drive you crazy.
Actually Make a Packing List
Make a packing list, check it twice and hang onto it for your next trip. This will help you to remember everything and make the task much more efficient.
The list will evolve over time as you add and remove items as necessary.
Get Up For Sunrise
I always make a point of getting up to watch the sunrise at least once per trip. It is a calm and beautiful time of day and is often the best opportunity for fishing or wildlife sightings. I would argue that sunrise beats the sunset 9 times out of 10.
The mosquitoes are big fans of the sunrise too, but that’s a price that I’m willing to pay. After all, it’s all part of the camping experience.
And there you have it – my detailed beginner’s guide to camping in Ontario.
In the end, there is only so much that can be learned on paper – your best bet is to arm yourself with enough knowledge to get started and then to learn the rest by experience.
So start planning that next adventure and see where it takes you!
As always, Keep Exploring, Eh?