Choosing your location can be the most important camping decision you make. Some things to consider:
- Does anyone in your group get car (train, plane, boat) sick? If so, plan your trip close to home.
- Does your family enjoy any particular activity or share specific interests such as canoeing, kayaking, hiking, pond study, swimming, star gazing, spelunking (caving), rock climbing, geology, local history, etc. Choose a location that will allow for as many of the favourite activities as possible.
- Do you have very young children? You may wish to avoid areas with white water, cliffs and any other potential hazards until they are old enough to enjoy these safely.
- Do you prefer true wilderness experiences (canoe, kayak or backpacking trips), home comforts and gadgets (car or trailer campgrounds with or without electricity), or a bit of both?
- How long will you have for the trip?
- How close to a major town or city do you wish to be?
- Does anyone in your group have any medical concerns or physical limitations?
- How much cargo space do you have in your vehicle (consider renting a larger vehicle or a utility trailer for extra room on very special trips)?
- Do you own (or have access to) the gear you need to make the trip work? (see equipment for suggestions)
- Is the location you choose "child-friendly" with lots to see and do nearby, quiet (no reputation for rowdy parties), and in a safe, no-hunting area?
- How crowded is the area likely to be?
- For wilderness trips, plan your route to allow some flexibility for dealing with varying weather conditions, ie. high winds when canoeing, storms, etc.
- Don't plan your first camping experience as a wilderness trek with toddlers in tow. Instead, plan a car camping trip at a nearby campground. Only take young children on wilderness expeditions if you have wilderness experience!
- Go slowly! Children move much slower than adults, and like to explore--if you follow their lead, you may see much more than you would travelling at an adult pace.
- Will your dog be joining you? Some environmentally sensitive areas have bans on dogs, some only require leashing, and others leave it to common sense. Be especially careful and respectful of other campers if you are taking your dog on portage trails.
When to Go
Early spring (late March til the second week of May in southern and central Ontario)
little to no insect activity
no crowds in most places
higher water levels meaning less portaging distance for paddlers and more potential for running rapids
long hours of daylight
greater chance of seeing wildlife
potential for cold nights
the water is cold bringing an increased risk of hypothermia and making swimming less practical
not much chance of catching a park interpretive program
higher water levels may be dangerous for inexperienced paddlers
more need for cool weather gear
wildlife behaviour is less predictable during mating season
if in school, the kids may need to take a couple of days off (but I guarantee they will learn more on the trip than in the classroom!)
Late spring / early summer (Ontario mid-May-early July)
good chance of seeing wildlife
better chance of catching an interpretive program
water levels are still high, but may not be as risky by this point
longest daylight hours
blackflies, mosquitoes, no-seeums, oh my!
increased human traffic (both on the road and while camping)
did I mention the insects?
the water may still be too cool for comfortable swimming
Summer (early July and August in Ontario)
lots of company!
excellent chance of catching a park interpretive program
excellent chance of good to hot weather
water is warm enough for swimming
as the season progresses, the insects diminish
crowds--if your area takes reservations, you will need to make them many months ahead
it may be uncomfortably hot for strenuous activity on some days
Late summer / early autumn (September to mid-October in Ontario)
most of the flying and biting insects are gone
the water is at its warmest
the leaves are changing colours
after labour day, there are less crowds
earlier sunsets mean earlier stargazing
wildlife is busy getting ready for winter
many interpretive programs are no longer available
schools and extra-curricular activities are in session again
the air temperature may get cold on rainy or cloudy days
earlier sunsets mean shorter days
less in the way of wildflowers etc. to see
after Thanksgiving (second week of October), hunting is allowed in some areas
winter weather can come early, but heat waves are also possible so you will need both warm and cold weather gear
the water quality may have deteriorated in well-travelled areas, making swimming risky
Winter (November-March in Ontario)
Rather than list the pros and cons for winter camping, I will just say that if no one in your group has done this before, bringing along young kids for the first winter camping experience is not a wise idea.
Especially for your first winter trip as a family, consider hiring a guide. To winter camp, you will need a suitable tent (or reliable access to a yurt) and a winter-rated sleeping bag for each camper. You can also build a shelter from snow, but if you don't know what you are doing, you are best finding someone who does to show you how. You may also wish to try out dogsledding, cross-country skiing and/or snowshoeing as part of your adventure, and a local guide will have access to equipment and local knowledge that are necessary for a successful trip.
Many youth groups (Guides, Scouts, etc.) include a winter camping outing in their programs which can be a good way for novices to try it out.
If you live in or near Toronto or Ottawa, Ontario, Parkbus offers busing to popular camping destinations, plus discounts on gear rentals. http://www.parkbus.ca/