OPINION: Backcountry camping in Ontario is too expensive

One thing that Ontario loves to pride itself on is the great outdoors and vast expanses of nature all over the province.  But it can be easier and cheaper to cross the border to enjoy the outdoors, or not go at all.  With bookings for the approaching summer months opening, it’s worth talking about how stressful and expensive it can be to backcountry camp in Ontario parks.

Backcountry camping is all about being immersed in nature, with no amenities like toilets or electric outlets.  It’s just you, whatever you bring with you, and the outdoors.

Algonquin Provincial Park

Ontario has seventy-two provincial parks with hundreds of backcountry campsites available.  Every one of them is beautiful and stunning in its own way.  However, some of the fees associated with these campsites can be off-putting. 

Let’s take Algonquin Park as an example.  It’s one of Ontario’s most popular and most-visited provincial park

To spend one night in Algonquins backcountry it costs around $60.  That doesn’t include the cost for canoe rentals, parking, or food for the trip.  On average, back country campers in Algonquin can plan to spend anywhere from $80 to $120 for a single overnight stay.  That’s not what backcountry camping is about.

A backcountry campsite marker

Ontario has a so-so history of offering free campsites within the province. 

Torrance Barrens Dark-Sky Preserve is a nature reserve in Muskoka district.  It was set up so visitors could see the Milky Way and a sky brimming with stars.  It used to offer a limited number of free campsites that were available on a first-come, first-serve, basis. 

However, after offering this service for several years, it was temporarily shut down because the area was being damaged by campers.  Shattered glass, alcohol bottles, and food litter left by campers forced management to close the campsites indefinitely.  This is, without a doubt, unfortunate, and litter shouldn’t be accepted anywhere in nature.  But does it justify some of the prices that provincial parks charge?

Another solution the province has tried to implement is designating Crown land.  Crown lands are public areas that offer free campsites in various locations around the province.  Eighty-nine percent of land in Canada is Crown land.  So, you would think it’s easy to find a free campsite and go spend a few nights.  It’s not. A map of these sites is buried in an obscure Ontario website and once you do find it, you’ll have no idea what you’re doing. 

Unless you’re trained with GPS software and understand the science jargon that litters the interactive map, you’re going to have a rough time.  Even if you do understand the map and how to navigate it, you still won’t find specific locations or coordinates for the free campsites.

Ontario’s Crown lands map, and all it’s confusion. (Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry)

The idea of free campsites on publicly-owned land is inviting.  It doesn’t require booking sites months in advance or worrying about fees and costs adding up. 

The United States understands this far better than Ontario does.  The United States offers free camping (even to Canadians) in all of it’s 155 National Forests, which are spread throughout the country.  Each campsite even has its own webpage with detailed instructions of where the campsites are and how to get to them.  There is no difference between the backcountry campsites offered in Ontario (that cost around $60/night) and the free campsites in US national forests. 

Given that 90% of Canadians live within 100 miles of the Canada/US border, it’s often easier to just cross the border and camp in a national forest.  There are plenty that are only a few hours drive from Toronto.

Hopefully, Ontario can take note of what they’re doing wrong, and make some changes, so that people can enjoy what beautiful scenery Ontario has to offer.

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