a peek inside the fishbowl

30 Jul, 2014

Car camping: is it time to kick it up a notch?

Posted by andrea tomkins in: Misc. life

Spot the tree frog #latergram

I love sleeping in a tent; the sounds of the camp settling in, the smell of fire mixed with forest, and the blackness of the night and the shroud of silence that eventually comes with it. The air is fresh and I sleep deeply. Every day during our recent trip we awoke to birdsong and the echo of a faraway train.

I had a good time last week, I really did, but something about our recent excursion left me wanting.

Perhaps I’m slowly becoming a recluse in my old age, but I don’t want to drive for hours and hours to hear other people’s arguments about missing socks (I wish I was making this up), car alarms, and tinny radios. I’m also out of patience for campers who blatantly ignore good camping practices: people who wash their dishes in the sink at the comfort station, wash their clothing at the water tap, or chop up the deadfall in the woods when it’s supposed to remain there. These are all things we encountered at Presqu’ile, and I tell ya, my tolerance is slipping.

I’ve had lots of time to think about what I love most about camping. It includes:

  • peace and quiet
  • outdoor living (fresh air, making a fire)
  • fun time with my family
  • proximity to nature (hiking, photo taking, etc.)
  • time spent relaxing (reading, hanging out at the beach)

Given these things, I think it’s fair to say that my ideal camp site is (a) sufficiently remote but not so far out that we’ll get eaten by bears and no one will find our bodies (b) in a scenic area, close to water and good trails (c) has a hammock.

The best car camping experiences we’ve had – and includes points A and B above – have been our trips to a couple different yurts in the Ontario Parks network. (One was winter camping at Silent Lake, the other was in Algonquin.) They were peaceful, but not crazily far from clean water, chopped firewood, and the park warden.

I like visiting new places instead of going to campgrounds we’ve been to before. The question is where do we go now? And also, HOW? Is this the turning point for our little car camping family? Should we graduate to something a little more challenging? Is this why people buy canoes? Or maybe a walk-in site is the next step? Sigh. Any guidance would be most welcome here.


19 Responses to "Car camping: is it time to kick it up a notch?"

1 | Faustina

July 30th, 2014 at 8:46 am


Yeah, buy a canoe. At the very least, you can ease yourself into canoe camping and go to paddle-in sites such as those in Algonquin. Then think about portaging. And, with a canoe you can explore the lake and do short portages without all your gear.

2 | Faustina

July 30th, 2014 at 8:54 am


Or rent a canoe and see how it goes.

3 | Meghan Maack

July 30th, 2014 at 9:05 am


Hiking in to a spot is a great way to shake it up. We have hiked in at sites in Lake Placid and Vermont a few times and slept in a lean-to. American camping is also a lot cheaper than Canadian sites – sometimes its free! Lots of peace and quiet – but no cooler or air mattresses! Prepare to rough it!

4 | Lil Krstic

July 30th, 2014 at 9:29 am


We’ve done some yurt camping (easier than bringing 2 tents for our family of 5) and love it. And I agree that camping in the US is much less expensive and sometimes quieter. We went to a State Park in NJ (cape area) last year for a week. Beautiful tea colored lake, 20 mins from the ocean and hardly any neighbours. Peaceful and quiet.

5 | Gayle Labuz

July 30th, 2014 at 9:44 am


I know EXACTLY how you feel. Finding the perfect car-camping site takes some research, studying park maps and assessing the whole campground and a lot of luck. We have been to a few places in Provincial Parks that offer fairly secluded car camping sites. We find that the you need to go to the parks that don’t draw folks from large urban cities…. Grundy Lake, Silent Lake, Killarney are good choices.
But it is never perfect, so we took the step towards Backcountry this year. Like you, we felt our experiences in the last few years were a little spoiled by people who don’t have the same camping philosophy as us. So far, there has been a backpacking trip and a paddle-in trip. Both resulted in camping bliss!
I suggest starting with backcountry baby steps. If you’re interested in trying a paddle-in site, look at Grundy Lake and Bon Echo. And don’t forget, you can rent a canoe for a trip before you commit to the expense of buying one!
If you’d like to see how our backpacking trip went, please check out my blog post at http://bit.ly/1nPsdri. And I’ll be posting about our paddle-in trip soon.
We’re heading out for a few days at a Provincial Park with our trailer soon. It will be interesting to see how it feels after a couple of trips into the backcountry!

6 | Natalie

July 30th, 2014 at 9:45 am


Bon Echo has walk in sites. I know you’ve camped there before.

7 | EB

July 30th, 2014 at 10:43 am


Have you considered canoe camping at Lac La Peche in Gatineau Park? The canoe-in sites are lovely and serene. You can even rent canoes on site- a good option to try before you buy.

8 | Stacey K

July 30th, 2014 at 12:33 pm


I don’t know too much about the facilities available in Ontario, but here in BC, in addition to provincial parks, we have Forest Recreation areas that are managed by the Ministry of Forests. These areas are more rustic than provincial parks (no running water, pit toilets only, no garbage facilities), but they then have fewer “urban” campers. We are finding that these are a good option for us. There is no reservation system, it is strictly a “first-come, first-served”, so it can be challenging on long weekends. If you can change up your days, so you are not camping Fri-Sun, there is not usually a problem finding a site.

I am wondering if the Conservation areas in Ontario would be similar: http://www.grca.on.ca/downloads/conservationareas/Conservation%20Areas%20Fact%20Sheet.pdf

9 | Less is more

July 30th, 2014 at 12:56 pm


I too have had it with car camping. It was fun and I think our Provincial/National parks are jewels, but I no longer risk having my fun ruined by loud campers (when did camping=booze or has it always been that way?). It’s just not worth it. What could be bliss becomes a stressful nightmare. We moved on to canoe camping and never looked back. Canoe camping is more of an adventure (fun!) and more much more secluded/wild. Being forced to limit what you take (has to fit in a canoe and you may have to haul it during a portage) changes everything. Less becomes so much more. Start with an easy trip – like maybe Gatineau La Peche. No portaging on first trip. If you like it, keep building on trip length and portages. Algonquin Park is an absolutely perfect place to canoe camp. Beauuuutiful. There is no limit to the various routes you can take. We once did a 12 day trip across the entire park, and back. Best canoe trip ever. What an adventure!

You mention needing clean running water. That would be a problem. But there is no lack of water that can be purified in minutes. Afraid of being eaten by a bear? There are way more bear encounters with car camping than with canoe camping. We saw a bear once. Far away on the shore. Not for long though….it fled – terrified.

With a family of four, you will need to rent two canoes. Oh and there’s often no cell coverage. Could you handle that?

10 | Grenouille

July 30th, 2014 at 1:18 pm


Love the frog photo.

11 | Carla

July 30th, 2014 at 1:44 pm


My favourite-est park is Papineau Labelle in the Gatineau side, great casse-croutes on the way back. Definitely explore nature the other side of the river! it is only 2ish hours away and gorgeous lakes and the sites are not as close as in many Ontario parks I’ve been to. Another gorgeous park is La Verendrye which is canoe camping, haven’t been there in a long time, but it is fantastic nature and there are campsites not very far out if you don’t want to go far. Many many years ago we used to rent canoes and then asked that a wedding gift of furniture be a canoe instead and we love it. This year, first time all of our kids could and would happily sit in the canoe and I could paddle us all and my oldest was doing a pretty good job learning to paddle. Canoe camping is so wonderfully Canadian too! you can’t go wrong. Another easy canoe camping is Bon Echo and Frontenac (also gorgeous). I would recommend renting different types of canoes before buying one to see if there is a type you like best before committing.

12 | Misty Pratt

July 30th, 2014 at 3:45 pm


yup, agree with the other comments about the canoe. You’re only going to get peace and quiet if you canoe or hike in somewhere, and I find hiking kind of brutal with a giant pack. I have a huge fear of bears though, so I do tend to enjoy knowing that SOME people are around :) My hubby is super adventurous and loves being out no matter how remote. We once did a portage trip through the Frost Centre (…it’s called something else now, I think). But yes, Achray is lovely!!

13 | Misty Pratt

July 30th, 2014 at 3:47 pm


oh, and get a radio-free site!! It helps not to have music blaring, although it doesn’t take care of arguments about socks :)

14 | Greg

July 30th, 2014 at 4:47 pm


An alternative is camping off-season. Once schools are in session you lose most of the families with kids during the week. The folks who want to sit around the fire getting drunk and noisy tend not to be out as much as weather gets cooler. Neither are the bugs. The downside of course is that you won’t be sunning on the beach or in the hammock either. You’ll need four-season gear too. Rainy weather camping sucks if you’re moving around but if in one place so things dry out it is peaceful. And nothing beats the beauty and solitude of snow camping.

15 | Susan

July 30th, 2014 at 8:29 pm


I recommend Frontenac (Provincial Park 2/3s the way to Kingston from Ottawa). There are hike in sites, canoe in sites and no car camping. There is a canoe rental place just outside the park boundaries so you don’t have to own a canoe. It is also open year around (though they obviously limit access to some of the sites in winter). It is a good step away from drive in camp sites but not as far as camping on crown land.

I was able to book sites mid-week last year at fairly short notice. Weekends tend to be pretty booked in the summer.

16 | lacoop

July 31st, 2014 at 5:55 pm


I’m with the “canoe” crowd. You can rent at Algonquin Park. Simply the best way to get away from the yahoos.

17 | wanda

July 31st, 2014 at 7:52 pm


Our family likes car camp, but in our experience not all provincial parks are as bad as you just experienced…we remember your experience…..Presquile is one of the worst for noise. Silent Lake and Charleston lake are two of our favourites.

18 | maryatparenthood

July 31st, 2014 at 11:52 pm


Canoe camping is great, but if there is an access point for a motor boat you can still get the hullabaloos. Lakes with no motorized traffic or camp grounds with no alcohol allowed can help significantly.

I concur that Lac la peche is a great place to go canoe camping if you are starting out, it’s one of several places close by where it is possible to do a 24hour canoe trip from Ottawa…

We love the wilderness camping ourselves but with kids 17mo and 5 we’ve stuck to single night camping recently. We often do group sites and go with a bunch of friends and family. Many campgrounds isolate their group campsites from each other (Rideau pines close by even has a beach just for the groups!) which is appealing to us.

19 | Camping = bringing your parenting outdoors. >> a peek inside the fishbowl

August 4th, 2014 at 8:39 am


[…] I know, but I guess I have a lot to say about it. By the way, thanks to everyone who commented on my post about taking car camping to the next level. You’ve given us lots of great advice and ideas. I definitely feel inspired, but whether I […]

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My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark and our dog Piper who is kind of a big deal on Instagram. We also have two human offspring: Emma (23) and Sarah (21). During the day I work as a writer at The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999. The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

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