If Canadian camping is to stage a comeback, it may well start with outings such as Learn to Camp.
Dozens of the 9,000-plus neophytes who have tried Ontario Parks' four-year-old program gush about their experiences in YouTube videos and blog posts. "Thanks to your program," the Sethi family of Brampton, Ont., writes, "we are now hooked on camping for life."
Campsite supporters must relish this enthusiasm. The Canadian Camping and RV Council is slated to release a report on the state of the industry in March, but recent statistics show steady decline. Between 2000 and 2013, the number of overnight camping stays in Ontario's provincial parks fell by 10 per cent, while a 2010 study from Tourism Quebec found that campsite occupancy in that province fell by 8.7 per cent between the summers of 2006 and 2009. (The dip would have been more dramatic if not for RV use, which saw a 6.9-per-cent gain. Tenting, however, plunged by 34 per cent.)
National Park attendance is indicative of camping stays, says Ed Jager, Parks Canada's director of visitor experience, and while the federal agency saw a 4-per-cent increase in overall visitation from 2009 to 2014, this failed to keep up with Canada's population growth. It's the same story south of the border, where overnight camping stays with the U.S. National Park Service fell to 7.91 million in 2013 from 9.2 million in 1998.
There's no shortage of government and industry efforts to reverse this trend, however, with growing public engagement in introductory programs seen as a positive sign. Most Learn to Camp participants, for example, go camping again, says Anne Craig, a senior marketing specialist with Ontario Parks. Parks Canada's program of the same name has drawn more than 5,000 participants across the country since 2011.
The "typical car camper," Craig says, still fits the traditional mould: aged 25 to 44, with children under 14 in tow.
It's widely acknowledged that growth must come from elsewhere. "The Canadian population is increasingly urban and diverse, so there are fewer people who have had a childhood experience of camping," Parks Canada's Jager says.
Empty-nesters, another key demographic, embraced camping when their homes were full, "but don't necessarily want to sleep on the ground any more," Craig says.
The plan is to lure them back with cushier, connected facilities. At 14 national parks across Canada, for example, oTENTik cabin-tent hybrids make camping "easier, more comfortable and more accessible," Jager says, without detracting from "the essence of the experience."
Empty-nesters "really value the flexibility of being able to go anywhere and still sleep in their own beds," says Maryse Catellier, president of the Canadian Camping and RV Council. "A lot of them also like to travel with their pets, and there's the social aspect: You meet new friends who share the same interests."
Then there's the recent rise of "glamping" – a portmanteau of "glamorous camping" – which has seen private campgrounds across Canada erect WiFi connected yurts in an effort to lure urbanites into the woods.
Will these comeback efforts work? Craig is cautiously optimistic: "We're starting to see changes in our overall camping population, but there's still a lot more work to do."