Some of the world’s most beautiful natural landscapes are in Ontario, particularly in York-Durham-Headwaters (but that might be our bias talking). Ontario Parks is the agency under the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry responsible for protecting them. It is the largest supplier of outdoor recreational experiences in Canada, and sees over 8.5 million visits every year to its locations. Its three main goals are to protect our recreational environments, provide a variety of outdoor recreational opportunities, and increase the knowledge and appreciation of Ontario’s natural and cultural heritage.
Which is why Ontario Parks offers a popular Learn to Camp program to orient new and urban Canadians to this beloved pastime and turn them into seasoned campers. It runs from June to August every summer at different locations, and each session takes place over one weekend.
“It’s all about teaching families who are new to camping the skills they need to create a lifetime of camping memories,” says Learn to Camp Program Coordinator Rachael Allison.
Excluding bedding and food, participants in the Learn to Camp program are provided with all of the essential tools needed for camping such as tents, camping kitchens, and even a S’mores kit to use at nightly campfires. The program instructs students how to use equipment, familiarizes them with essential skills, and addresses concerns they may have.
“A lot of people are worried about wildlife,” Allison explains. “We pay particular attention to how to camp safely in a wild environment like our parks.”
For those that have completed the Learn to Camp program, Ontario Parks also runs a graduates’ program. It is the next step for new campers who feel they may want additional instruction either to develop a greater range of skills, or hone those they have learned over a weekend.
There are over 70 parks in Ontario and many have staff offering discovery programs that run all summer. They may be student-led, or run by senior staff with significant expertise (depending on the size of the park). These discovery programs range from guided hikes to kids’ and evening programs to visitors’ centres.
Camping is also an opportunity to engage with friends and family and make new friends. Learn to Camp staff often find that participants who don’t know each other at the start of the program will become close over the course of the weekend. By the end, they will want to book campsites together to go camping as a group.
“They’ve never met before that day, but they want to experience new friends, and they want to learn and grow from that,” Allison says. “It’s such a beautiful way to connect with someone and with your surroundings on so many different levels.”
“You’re preparing and eating meals with friends and family, enjoying a campfire, or going for a hike together,” agrees Senior Natural Heritage Leader at Ontario Parks, Tobi Kiesewalter. “For the people that camp at our parks, it’s as much about the family and social experience as it is about getting to see some interesting wildlife and getting back to nature.”
For those interested in learning to camp with Ontario Parks, Allison encourages people to ask questions and to get out there and try it. “There is no harm in learning something new,” she says. “If your first step is to sign up for our program, that is amazing.”
“We see a lot of the time that our biologists and ecologists are inspired to do what they do because they started camping at a young age,” Kiesewalter adds. Ontario Parks’ Learn to Camp program costs $99 for one night and two days. For two nights and three days (which typically occur over long weekends), participants pay $149. To make a reservation to participate in the program or for more information, visit www.ontarioparks.com/learntocamp.
Written by: Katie Ryalen