Roughing it gently
Comfort camping a growing trend at Alberta campgrounds
Saturday, May 17, 2014 06:00 am
Reservations can be made at reserve.albertaparks.ca or by calling 1-877-537-2757
The May long weekend is the official start to camping season, and Albertans are blessed with some 14,000 sites in 250 campgrounds around the province – spots with views of majestic mountains, the badlands, river gorges and wide open prairie.
Most people are familiar with the typical campout scenario – a tent, trailer or RV set up on a gravel or grassy site, complete with fire pit and picnic table. The outhouse is that-a-way.
Hardy campers may find it hard to believe, but not everyone wants to enjoy the great outdoors in such fashion. Some want the best of both worlds – the chance to sit around a crackling campfire, gazing up at the stars, but with all the comforts of everyday life, warm bed and nightlight at the ready.
Call it glamping or comfort camping – luxury hotel-like stays are a worldwide trend, providing accommodations in interesting, sometimes exotic locales: a tricked-out, vintage Airstream trailer tucked into the desert, a peaceful eco-retreat on Hudson Bay, or a cliff-side yurt overlooking the Pacific are just a few such offerings.
Canadian outdoor guru and author Kevin Callan, a.k.a. the Happy Camper, said glamping is a sign of the times – the more we disconnect from the wilderness, the more fears and phobias we have of communing with nature.
“Glamping is a trend, but one that’ll be here for a while,” Callan said.
“It’s for people that want to give camping a try but aren’t willing to give up the comforts of our everyday world. And it’s also for people that have camped for many years, but their bodies have had enough of sleeping on a cold ground.”
A dedicated advocate of wilderness travel, Callan said he’s tried glamping a couple of enjoyable times.
“Did it alter the way I view my connection to the natural world? No. To me, wilderness travel is a true Canadian identity,” he said. “Glamping introduces people to wilderness areas they wouldn’t necessarily otherwise try. But if that’s what it takes to get people out into the woods, then maybe this is the beginning of the end. Seriously.”
Camping purists may shake their heads at the idea of comfort camping, but it can make sense for those with little to no camping experience, such as newcomers to Canada, or tourists with no gear but a desire to partake in a truly Canadian outdoor experience.
Comfort camping has been an option in a number of Alberta campgrounds for several years, ranging from wood cabins and canopied canvas wall tents to yurts – the oddly-shaped modern version of traditional dwellings used by nomads of central Asia.
It’s the comfort of these luxurious alternatives to traditional camping that attracts guests, but also the convenience of just picking up and heading to camp for the weekend with no preparation required, said Tim Chamberlin, spokesperson for Alberta Tourism Parks and Recreation.
“Comfort camping caters to those who don’t have equipment and allows people to just show up. All you need to bring is food, your pillow, sleeping bag and a toothbrush,” Chamberlin said.
Currently, comfort camping is available at 17 provincial park sites (though private campgrounds may offer something similar). The government-sanctioned sites have varying amenities like covered decks and lounge chairs, indoor heat, refrigerators, cutlery and LED lanterns, barbecue grills and free firewood.
None allow cooking inside, however, and none have indoor toilets.
Pigeon Lake Provincial Park offers three yurts, which are built onto platforms in beautiful wooded areas, Chamberlin said, adding that more will follow in future years if the units are well-utilized.
While the contact reservation centre can answer questions on fees ($100 to $200 per night), and sizes of units (sleeping four to 10), a few common rules apply, such as no pets, no additional tents or trailers allowed on the sites, and a limit of 16 nights per stay.
If you aren’t able to secure a reservation for the sought-after comfort camping sites this season, Chamberlin advises keeping the reservation number handy for early next year.
“Interest is growing and weekends are very popular with tourists and those who’ve never camped before. The more people know about these sites, the busier they get.”
For those who don’t secure a reservation at a designated comfort camping spot, there’s still a way to camp in plenty of comfort this season, said David Arsenault, hard goods buyer at Campers Village.
The store sells screened gazebos to keep bugs off picnic tables, double wide sleeping bags and 10-centimetre-thick foam mattresses that mimic sleeping in a queen bed.
“There’s the RV crowd and the tenting crowd – you can be a minimalist if you want, but there’s so much available that can make camping for the weekend at Alberta Beach way more comfortable,” Arsenault said.
How about a camp kitchen – a table with racks to house the stove and dishes, leaving the picnic table for actual eating? And have you heard of a portable toilet with a reservoir that sort of flushes? Arsenault said it’s a real thing. The same goes for a 10-litre portable nylon sink, complete with soap and buckets.
“Once May long weekend hits, we don’t have a long season to get out and enjoy,” he said. “There are many risk-free, comfortable ways to make the most of the camping time we have.”
Wi-Fi in the campground?
Parks Canada recently announced that, by this summer, it will install Wi-Fi at up to 20 remote locations, which are likely to include Banff and Jasper National Parks.
The free Wi-Fi is meant to help people communicate in areas where cell service is limited or non-existent – to complement a park experience, said Parks Canada vice-president Andrew Campbell.
“You’re not going to be on the top of the mountain or on the middle of the glacier and getting Wi-Fi service,” Campbell told a Calgary newspaper. “It’s going to be around your campground at night where you’re going to communicate to your friends and family in ways that a lot of people do today, through Facebook or Twitter, putting your Instagram photo up.”
The Happy Camper Kevin Callan said if campground camping already includes RVs with satellite dishes as the norm, why stand in the way of progress?
“Why fight against being connected while out in the woods? What’s wrong with eventually being able to read Aldo Leopold on your tablet, Google a rare bird species, or watch a John Denver special on Netflix?” he said.
“But my nine-year-old daughter also said, when she heard of the Parks Canada news, ‘it’s obvious whoever’s making these decisions has never been on a true camping trip.’”