Camping may be defined as living in a temporary or mobile shelter in the outdoors, whether a lean-to, tent or camper van. For the native peoples of Canada, camping was usually a way of life in precontact times; for early pioneers, explorers, prospectors, surveyors and trappers, it was often a necessity.
The first recreational campers travelled by canoe, horse transport or on foot, and were limited in mobility by the weight and bulk of the equipment available to them. Military tents of army duck, sheet-iron stoves, folding cots and sheepskin sleeping bags encouraged campers to stay in one spot while they enjoyed HUNTING or SPORTFISHING within close range. In the 1890s the YMCA, followed in later decades by the Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, churches, labour unions and local governments, began sponsoring camps to improve the health and character of the young. The early organized youth camps might have had a few permanent buildings for dining and recreation, but campers generally slept "under canvas." Activities varied from water sports to HIKING and CANOEING, but all stressed the development of self-reliance and life skills. From the 1890s as well, the CPR publicized camping and climbing in the Rockies. In the early 20th century, the nature and wilderness travel books of Ernest Thompson SETON were read widely, and the GROUP OF SEVEN helped bring an awareness of canoe camping to the Canadian public.
The increasing use of the AUTOMOBILE and expansion of the road network made car camping popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Camping supply houses opened and a variety of camping outfits, trailers and tents were marketed. Several Canadian companies did business in producing camping equipment, including the Peterborough Canoe Co (Ontario) and Chestnut Canoes (NB) for wood and canvas canoes, Jones Leisure Products Ltd of Vancouver for the Trapper Nelson packboard, Woods Canada Ltd of Toronto for tents and sleeping bags, and Coleman for gas stoves and lanterns. Travellers camped by the roadside, and municipal governments began providing free camping grounds, both to attract tourists to their area and to control health standards. Private campgrounds were also established, for which a fee was charged, and which offered increasingly sophisticated facilities such as cabins, electrical and sewage hookups for motorized vehicles, and organized recreation activities. After WWII, as Canadians had more time and money to spend on leisure and as a vast flood of war-surplus equipment hit the market - tents, packs, rucksacks, sleeping bags - there was a tremendous expansion in outdoor camps. Governments released land for campsites in designated areas in NATIONAL and PROVINCIAL PARKS and, in 1960, a federal-provincial agreement undertook to develop campgrounds every 160 km along the TRANS-CANADA HIGHWAY. These campgrounds had fewer conveniences and lower rates than their private competitors, and proved so popular that authorities had to impose limited stays to allow maximum accessibility to all campers.
In the 1960s the "backpacker boom" hit North America, encouraged by the development of durable, lightweight equipment made from nylon and polyester, dehydrated foods, and a public increasingly concerned with fitness and outdoor skills. Camping became big business, and a number of new Canadian companies (eg, Taiga Works-Wilderness Equipment Ltd, Far West, Canadian Mountaineering Equipment Ltd, Mountain Equipment Co-op) emerged to meet the demand. By 1985 Statistics Canada estimates that 26% of Canadian households own camping equipment, with 1.7 million households having tents, 371 000 having tent trailers, and 224 000 owning truck campers. There are almost 3000 tent and trailer campgrounds distributed across the country. A 1996 survey showed that 20% of Canadians go camping each year.
The Canadian Camping Association estimates that there are approximately 1500 youth camps in Canada, the majority of which are run by agencies and nonprofit organizations. Camps for special groups, such as the handicapped or children with particular health problems, have become more common. Private camps, often begun by teachers in their free summer months as an extension of their educational role, are concentrated mainly in southern Ontario and the Montréal area, parts of Alberta and lower mainland BC; these camps may offer a specialty in canoeing, hiking or similar outdoor skills.
Ironically the greatly increased activities of camping and hiking have had a severe impact on fragile wilderness ecosystems. Much-travelled portage trails have become eroded gullies and camping areas have been denuded of vegetation by scores of people searching for firewood. The result in many national and provincial parks is restriction of entry by a system of permits and a host of regulations about where to camp and the kinds of packaged foods that may be brought in by campers.