When Alison George got married, she registered not for traditional china, but for camping gear at Mountain Equipment Co-op, the plan being to go on a romantic canoeing trip with her new husband for their honeymoon. "Give me a barrel pack and a portable hammock and I'm in heaven," the Toronto PR consultant says. She and her spouse, an architect, are now planning another canoeing trip for August, this time with their young child in tow. "We took our son car camping when he was six months old and on his first canoe trip when he was four," George continues. "He's nine now, so this summer marks his sixth camping trip. And I know there will be more."
Despite her enthusiasm for it, George didn't grow up camping; she came to it later in life, after launching her career in communications. In this respect, she is typical of the great tide of Canadians who are embracing camping in growing numbers, many for the first time. According to an Angus Reid survey commissioned by Canadian Tire and Coleman Canada, at least 46 per cent of Canadians now take camping trips as part of their summer vacations. And even though it's still early in the season, "camping reservations at Parks Canada [campgrounds]are up 14 per cent over the same period last year and 24 per cent compared to the five-year average," says the federal agency's Natalie Fay.
Unlike "glamping," the overly precious, mercifully brief trend toward "glamorous camping" (think "tenthouse suites" with heated slated floors), the current fondness for the great outdoors seems rooted in much less affected interests, from camping's cost-effectiveness in an era of increasingly expensive air travel to its low carbon footprint to a genuine desire to really get to know one's own country. ("Campcations" are also big in Britain this year.)
"I think everyone's craving a more organic lifestyle and camping is part of that general societal movement right now," says Maryam Mokhtari, a 27-year-old Toronto-based fashion illustrator who has also lived in New York. "It takes you away from the busyness and chaos of the city to connect with nature and also your friends in an intimate way. I derive a lot of inspiration from the great Canadian landscape."
Mokhtari acquired her camping know-how as a teen on wilderness trips with friends, mastering cooking over an open fire and learning how to fish. Many, though, couldn't tell a perch from a pickerel if their dinner depended on it. To remedy that, Ontario Parks and Parks Canada have joined forces this year to offer a spate of new workshops created specifically with campsite newbies, from lifelong urbanites to new Canadians, in mind. The federal agency is also offering or co-sponsoring similar programs in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec and Nova Scotia, while its website (www.parkscanada.gc.ca) includes how-to diagrams, instructional videos and up-to-the-minute information on such resources as new camper-friendly campgrounds across the country.
During the overnight Learn to Camp workshops in Ontario, participants get on-the-(camp)ground schooling in campsite, campfire and camp-stove set-up, food preparation and storage, campsite safety and cleanliness and, last but not least, how to have fun in the great outdoors. According to Parks Canada, the pilot program was test-driven last fall in Samuel de Champlain Provincial Park near North Bay, Ont., where a diverse group of new Canadians from countries as diverse as Kazakhstan, India, Rwanda and the Ukraine pitched their tents. The exercise was so popular that it led to this year's initiative, specifically three more Learn to Camp programs in a trio of parks - Darlington, Sibbald Point and Bronte Creek - within driving distance of Toronto.
"I think it's a great initiative," says George, who is planning to camp at Killarney Provincial Park this August. "If you don't know what you're doing, camping can not only be intimidating, but also dangerous. I've watched people - many people - who don't know how to paddle a canoe head out onto a lake in the middle of Algonquin Park. I think that's crazy. If you're inexperienced or if you have the wrong gear, camping can go wrong in a hurry."
Once novices have the basics nailed down, however, camping is a pleasure, she vows. "It's inexpensive, great for families and so much fun. You can go hard-core with big trips in remote locations or gently with all you need in your car."
Whichever road is taken, camping-supply providers, many offering the brands and styles that your grandpa might have bought, are lining up this season to serve enthusiasts a burgeoning market. New York's Best Made, for instance, is enjoying a booming trade in its carefully curated line of wares, from handsome handmade axes to first-aid kits with the United States Forest Service's seal of approval to waxed-cotton totes and rucksacks strategically labelled Archival. Here in Canada, lifestyle entrepreneur Joe Mimran has revamped Tera Gear, the moribund outdoor-living line, for Loblaw Companies Limited. "Tera Gear is a brand Loblaw had and we wanted to revitalize it and give it a design identity that has a strong Canadiana feel," he says. "Much of the camping gear available on the market has a real rough-and-tumble image, so we wanted to offer a chic alternative at a great price point for modern families looking to explore the outdoors." Translation: boldly coloured tents, sleeping bags, tables and camp chairs as unassumingly good-looking as they are practical.
In this climate, fashion brands specializing in outdoorsy allure are also enjoying a renaissance. Filson, among others, is capitalizing on its extensive array of (unironic) camping and fishing wear, "rugged twill" field bags and rod, reel and fly cases. Vancouver-based Native Shoes, meanwhile, recently released a sturdy, breathable boat shoe perfect for navigating muddy campsites or shorelines. (Think wholly enclosed Crocs but much better-looking.)
All of this camping abundance "is just so cool," enthuses George, who is already dreaming of bucolic days when the only tweeting on her mind is that of birds in trees. "My BlackBerry," she says, "is not invited on the trip."
Clockwise from tent: Tera Gear Wedge Dome Tent, $59, at Loblaw (www.loblaw.ca). Tera Gear 2-lb Sleeping Bag, $20 at Loblaw. Tera Gear Queen Size Sleeping Bag, $30 at Loblaw. Roots Memory Foam Portable Bed, $299.99 at Canadian Tire (www.canadiantire.ca). Coleman LED Rugged Rechargeable Lantern, $79.99 through www.coleman.ca. Broadstone Easy Up Storage Cabinet, $49.99, at Canadian Tire. The North Face Military Hat, $35, The North Face Molly woven short-sleeved gingham shirt, $70, The North Face Noble stretch capris, $65, The North Face Surgent fleece full-zip, $80, at Sporting Life (www.sportinglife.ca). Filson Lager Outfitter Bag, $475, at Holt Renfrew (www.holtrenfrew.com) and select boutiques across Canada. Penfield Knapsack, $70, at The Drake General Store (www.drakegeneralstore.myshopify.com). The North Face Hedgehog GTX women's hiking boots, $139.99, The North Face Hedgehog GTX tall men's hiking boots, $159.99, at Sporting Life. HBC/Klaxon Howl Duffel, price available upon request through www.hbc.com. Roberts Revival Digital Radio, $299, at The Drake General Store. Life Brand Sunthera3 Sensitive Skin Sunscreen SPF 60 Continuous Spray, $11.99, at Shoppers Drug Mart (www.shoppersdrugmart.ca); Burt's Bees Peppermint Foot Lotion, $14.99 through www.burtsbees.ca. Kiss My Face Lemongrass Clary Sage Liquid Peace Soap, $16 through www.kissmyface.com. Great Outdoors by Watkins Insect Repellent Spray for kids, $9.99 through www.jrwatkins.com. Rainbow Mini Cross and Shield Classic SD, $25 through www.swissarmy.com. Rocky Mountain Soap Company Peppermint Lip Scrub, $10 through www.rockymountainsoap.com. Kiss My Face Maple Sugar Lip Balm, $3.50; Native Miller shoes in Lemonade Yellow and Kermit Green, $59.99 through www.nativeshoes.com. Wabash Valley Farms Open Fire Popcorn Popper, $44.95 through www.cornpopper.ca. Ban Buster Propane Camp Fire, $149.99, at Canadian Tire. Coleman 24-piece Speckled Enamelware Dining Kit and Cutlery Set, $69.99. GSI Glacier Stainless Steel Percolator, $29, GSI Stainless Stemless Wine Glass, $8.25/ea., Handspresso Wild Done Pod Espresso Machine, $110, GSI Pinnacle Dualist Cookset, $59, at Mountain Equipment Co-op (www.mec.ca); S'more Making Kit, $20, at The Drake General Store. Coleman 54 qt. Steel Belted Red Cooler, $149.99. Coleman 2 Burner Stove, $79.99. MSR Basecamp Flex 4 System Cookset, $154, at Mountain Equipment Co-op. Coleman Party Stacker 2-gallon Jug, $26.99. Columbia Trenching men's plaid shirt, $50, at Sporting Life. HBC Heritage Point Blanket, $375 through www.thebay.com. Tera Gear Foldable Camp Chair, $15, at Loblaw. MEC Senate Seat, $33.00, at Mountain Equipment Co-op.