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People use social distancing circles at Trinity-Bellwoods park in Toronto, on May 13, 2021.

Cole Burston/The Canadian Press

When it became clear that booking a campsite had devolved into a competitive sport in the pandemic, Jennifer Laurie gave up on the trip she envisioned with her two adolescent children this summer.

As Ontario Parks bookings surged by 104 per cent this year compared with 2019, Ms. Laurie was dismayed to learn some families were so hell bent on staking their claim to a getaway they were hoarding weeks of camping time, only to cancel what they didn’t need later. Watching campsites rapidly book up for three weeks each on the parks’ registration website, Ms. Laurie, a charity fundraiser in Kitchener, Ont., felt rankled by the cutthroat technique.

“People are in survival mode for themselves and their family,” said Ms. Laurie, 48. “When your survival mode bumps up against other people’s survival mode, it gets ugly.”

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Canadians have grown strikingly competitive through the pandemic. In the first wave, they hoarded toilet paper, flour and pasta. When restrictions did away with international travel they flocked outside. Bikes, snowshoes and other gear sold out at breakneck pace. In some regions, going for a hike or skate suddenly involved making reservations days or weeks in advance. Picnic tables even became a battleground: Dorval, Que., councillors faced outcry and backtracked on a plan to charge non-residents $25 to reserve tables at two overcrowded parks on weekends.

As Canadians jostle for space and coveted goods, the competitive spirit is bleeding into their efforts to secure a vaccination spot. In his Twitter parody video The Amazing Vaccine Race Canada, Stratford, Ont., comedian Stewart Reynolds mocked the plight of Canadians vying for shots, running to pharmacies and hockey arenas and scouring tweets from Vaccine Hunters Canada, a volunteer group helping people land a spot. Vaccine braggarts posted selfies online after their jabs. Some stoked brand rivalries, in jest: Team Pfizer, Moderna Mafia, the J&J one shotters.

Those who are naturally competitive – and have the means to succeed – appear to be thriving in this landscape. For those with fewer resources, whose nerves are frayed after a year in crisis, the survival-of-the-fittest mentality has become exhausting, dispiriting and exclusionary.

“We have this sabre-toothed tiger mode playing out online in booking things like picnic tables and campsites,” Ms. Laurie said. “Scarcity of resources and competitiveness are bringing out the worst in people.”

In times of abundance, humans tend to be more generous with a larger group of others, according to Azim Shariff, an associate professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia who studies individual versus collective interests. During crisis, tribes shrink as people look out for their own.

Crisis also fuels fears of scarcity, which makes people hunt down certain resources (hiking trails, campsites), driving shortages.

“We’re being funnelled into a winnowed set of leisure activities, which increases the value of those,” Prof. Shariff said. “As people get into a scarcity mindset, they become more competitive and aggressive and less charitable.”

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On a larger scale, Prof. Shariff sees the scarcity mindset playing out with vaccine nationalism, as wealthier nations hoard vaccines for their citizens instead of sharing with poorer countries.

While vaccination queues are a more serious matter than campsite shortages, the stiff competition for outdoor space is hurting people, too, according to Calgary’s Annalise Klingbeil.

“For a lot of people, after the year we’ve had, a couple of nights camping, that’s their vacation and their escape. They get to leave the four walls of their house. It’s a big deal,” said Ms. Klingbeil, 33.

During the pandemic, she and her twin sister, Cailynn, started a newsletter, Go Outside, for those new to outdoor pursuits. In a recent post, the sisters criticized the province’s plan to charge hikers a $15 day fee to access Kananaskis Country. Officials said the new charges are meant to protect the natural area, which saw a 43-per-cent surge in visitors last summer compared with 2019.

Ms. Klingbeil countered that fees limit who gets to benefit from nature. She pointed to a friend who lost his job during the pandemic and hiked the region’s mountainous trails to stay sane. In his current financial situation, he won’t be able to afford the walks once fees are imposed.

“It goes back to a theme throughout this pandemic of, who is being hurt?” Ms. Klingbeil said.

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Avid backcountry camper Claire Cowan was disappointed to learn there were 3,885 others ahead of her and her husband in an online queue to trek the West Coast Trail in British Columbia this year.

“By the time our turn came around, there were no dates available,” said Ms. Cowan, who works in agriculture in Guelph, Ont.

As she tried to reserve a backcountry camping spot in Ontario, Ms. Cowan, 34, watched bookings go “crazy.” Even the most remote sites involving many kilometres of paddling and challenging portages were snapped up.

Still, Ms. Cowan doesn’t view the tide of new nature lovers as her competition. She and others are taking a more generous approach, pushing for more access for all. Ms. Cowan recommended tool libraries loan out camping equipment, since it’s so expensive and in-demand. Ms. Klingbeil wants better public information on lesser-known trails and parks so people don’t crowd a few areas. Ms. Laurie suggested more public libraries hand out free conservation passes.

She said she witnessed a deeply unfair dynamic playing out in Ontario’s online booking feud for campsites. On one side, the work-from-home set, ready at their computers. On the other, people without the means or flexibility in their workday to play the game.

“Everybody’s family deserves a break, not just the people who can get up at the crack of dawn, have their credit card ready and who can afford to pay the cancellation fees,” she said. “I would like the opportunity to be there for other people.”

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