The Current

Inexperienced Canadian campers leaving waste behind, and risking injury and animal conflict, warn experts

As the pandemic forces Canadians to 'staycation' this year, many are turning to the great outdoors for camping and hiking. But some say they're not leaving those spaces as great as they find them.

Many areas lack critical infrastructure to handle high volume of tourists: Nick Frank

Campers should pack out what they pack in, says backcountry camper Nick Frank. (Martha Dillman/CBC)

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With holidays overseas on hold, Canadians are exploring the great outdoors at home, but not all of them are leaving it as great as they found it. 

"Most of the campers [behave] very well, but there is always that one per cent," said Nick Frank, a backcountry camper and president of the Nordegg Community Association in Alberta.

"We're seeing more garbage, we're seeing human waste, we're seeing animal conflicts," he told The Current's guest host Duncan McCue.

"We just recently had a black bear put down for somebody failing to clean the garbage up before they went to bed one night — and we're seeing more and more of those conflicts occurring." 

Provinces, such as New Brunswick and Ontario, are reporting increases in the number of people booking campsites and going backcountry camping after pandemic restrictions began to loosen at the beginning of the summer. Parks Canada lists specific locations that are open on its website, and instructions to enjoy them safely and responsibly. 

Demand for local campsites up as pandemic thwarts longer trips

2 years ago
Duration 0:41
Alexandra Anderson, executive director for Camping in Ontario, says interest in camping is “off the charts” as Ottawa residents choose to vacation closer to home during the pandemic.

With parking lots full, people are "parking down the highway, in just an area that doesn't have the critical infrastructure to handle the sheer volume of tourists that it's seeing this year.

Stephen Hui, author of 105 Hikes In and Around Southwestern British Columbia, says he's seeing a similar situation in B.C., where besides trying to find a vacant parking spot, "there are no restrictions."

That's putting pressure on search and rescue teams, he told McCue, citing the example of 17 campers recently stranded at Widgeon Lake, in Pinecone Burke Provincial Park, B.C., when their chartered float plane couldn't reach them due to inclement weather.

"There was no emergency, no one was hurt. They were just, you know, hungry and a little miserable because of the bad weather," said Hui.

"That's a bit biting off more than you can chew."

How to not fail at camping

3 years ago
Duration 3:14
Swapping your travel plans abroad for a nearby, provincial campsite during the pandemic? Here are some camping basics.

More education, investment in infrastructure needed

Frank wants to see campers receive in-person warnings at the beginning of their trips.

"I think it comes down to a localized level of partnerships within the provinces where you can create volunteers at staging areas, or even hiring staff at staging areas to explain the dangers of the trail they're about to take," he told McCue. 

"Somebody that can live interact, because we know signage and this continued putting up billboards and long-term education isn't working currently," he said.

"We need to find a better solution that helps protect people and protect the environment."

Hui wants funding dedicated to "trails being maintained — especially the really popular trails — and having a wider network of trails that are available so people can spread out." 

Frank agreed that "without some critical infrastructure and some sustainability around that, we're going to lead to more and more damage to the point where there is going to have to be a shutdown." 

"We need to develop our sustainability as a group of users, and with provincial support."

People heading into the wilderness should stick to less remote areas until they have enough experience to understand the risks, says Frank. (Sam Waddington)

What campers can do

Hui says if you pull up to an overflowing parking lot, "then you maybe should go to your Plan B or Plan C."

"Find a place in the valley next door, because there's usually something close by that is not crowded and still quiet."

Campers should keep groups small, travel along busier paths or trails in a single file and "not hog the only viewpoint on the hike for lunch — let everyone else enjoy the area, too."

Frank says campers should always "pack out what you pack in," and leave an area as they found it — perhaps just leaving some leftover firewood for the next group.

People new to camping should stay closer to established communities and areas with cellphone service, he added.

"As you get more experience, then spread farther or deeper into the backcountry."

It's important to get that experience first, he said, so you are "understanding the risk you're taking, before you take it and get yourself in that situation where it's uncomfortable, dangerous, life-threatening." 

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Alex Zabjek and Latifa Abdin.

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