Parks Canada Tests a Different Approach to Tenting to Entice New Campers

Interior of cottage tent.

The interior of one of the cottage tents in Jasper National Park. Photo by H. Lecky, Parks Canada.

Editor's note: In an effort to better understand how other countries are managing their parklands, and to compare and contrast U.S. efforts to those from abroad, Traveler on occasion runs items from beyond U.S. borders.

Tent camping was once a popular activity in parks, but most of today's visitors are more inclined to spend the night in a hotel or luxurious RV. Parks Canada hopes to entice more people to try tenting with a trial program that takes most of the roughing out of camping.

Unless you're already a convert to tent camping, there are plenty of reasons to just stay in the park lodge: Good equipment is expensive, smaller cars don't have space for all that gear, sleeping on the hard ground doesn't sound very appealing, and setting up and breaking camp takes time and effort.

Then there's the knowledge factor: How do you build a campfire, much less cook a meal without a microwave—and what about keeping your food safe from bears or other raiders?

Despite those challenges, converts of camping will tell you there's something special about sleeping under canvas—or nylon—where you can enjoy being closer to the natural world. It's hard to hear the wind in the treetops when the guy in the next hotel room has his TV cranked up to the max.

Parks Canada is trying a program to lure a few more visitors into the campground, and it involves some upscale tents and even a few yurts. Everything is already set up for you, and if you're new to camping, that's not a problem. A park spokesman says,

Those who are new to tenting can book time with a Parks Canada staff member who can spend up to an hour explaining camping basics – equipment, setting up, lighting and tending a fire, keeping a safe and clean campsite, as well as tips and tricks to being comfortable and having fun, including some hands-on practice with campfire cooking. There is no charge for the orientation program, but it must be booked in advance with a camping reservation.

The latest test program is in Jasper National Park, located a full day's drive north of the Alberta-Montana border.These comfortable tents aren't the glitzy luxury versions used in the activity sometimes referred to as "glamping" (glamorous camping), but they're certainly not your grandpa's pup tent.

Three sites in the park's Whistlers campground will be equipped with canvas-walled "cottage tents" that are set up on wooden floors. The 14' x 20' tents will be equipped with basic furnishings (one double bed and mattress, bunk beds with mattress, and two fold-out lounge chairs that each make into a single bed.) The tents include electricity (2 lights) and baseboard heat, which is described as "just to take the chill off; do not provide full heat."

Basic gear for cooking for up to six people will be available, and since this is bear country, each site also includes a locker where cooking essentials and dishes are stored and another locker where campers can store their food. A cook shelter and split wood is located nearby—a great feature in several of the Canadian parks I've visited. Information from the park notes,

For safety reasons, no cooking, storing or eating food is allowed inside tents. Upon arrival campground staff will provide information on camping safely in bear country. Campers need to bring their sleeping bags or other bedding, food and other personal items. One of the tents is wheelchair accessible.

Additional details about the tents, what's provided, and what visitors need to bring is available on the park website.

The tents will be available from May through October next year, and can be reserved through the Parks Canada online campground reservation system www.pccamping.ca or by calling 1-877-787-6221. Rates for 2010 are still to be finalized, but are expected to run about $90 a night.

Information from the park sums up a key goal for this program:

If your family has never camped or tented before and want to check it out, without having to buy all the equipment and do set up – this might be for you...

Some purists will question whether a night in one of these tents really qualifies as "camping," but that's a term that clearly covers a lot of ground. These accommodations certainly get visitors closer to the natural world than modern RVs or park lodges, and this approach just might encourage a few newcomers to venture into a campground for the first time.

A key part of the program is the hands-on educational approach offered by the park staff, with the opportunity it affords to acquaint rookies with at least the basic skills needed for a trip to a developed campground.

Jasper National Park has plenty to offer visitors:

Jasper National Park is the largest of Canada's Rocky Mountain Parks and includes 4200 square miles of broad valleys, rugged mountains, glaciers, forests, alpine meadows and wild rivers along the eastern slopes of the Rockies in western Alberta.

The park includes the highest mountain in Alberta (Mt. Columbia, 3747 metres), the last fully protected range in the Rocky Mountains for caribou, and the largest glacial fed lake in the Canadian Rockies (Maligne Lake).

There are more than 660 miles of hiking trails and a number of spectacular mountain drives. Jasper joins Banff National Park to the south via the Icefields Parkway. This parkway offers unparalleled beauty as you travel alongside a chain of massive icefields straddling the Continental Divide. The Columbia Icefield borders the parkway in the southern end of the park.

Large numbers of elk, bighorn sheep, mule deer and other large animals, as well as their predators make Jasper National Park one of the great protected ecosystems remaining in the Rocky Mountains. This vast wilderness is one of the few remaining places in southern Canada that is home to a full range of carnivores, including grizzly bears, mountain lions, wolves and wolverines.

A similar program in Forillon National Park in Quebec offers five pop-up tent trailers, which are set up in park campgrounds and ready to use, and five yurts.

Traditional lodging utilized by the nomads of Central Asia, the yurt is an innovative type of lodging, which is gaining popularity in Quebec. An amalgamation of rustic outdoor living and comfort, this type of lodging has proven its durability through the ages. Round and dome shaped, this tent-cottage is equipped with a wood stove, hardwood floor and abundant windows. Four occupants can be lodged in a yurt.

One key difference between Jasper National Park's tents and the yurts in Forillon – the yurts are available during the winter months. You'll find additional information about that park, and the tents, on the park website.

The concept of permanently installed tents, or tent/cabin combinations, isn't new, of course. They were used in various forms in several U.S. parks over the decades, although most have been phased out in recent years. Perhaps the slightly upgraded versions in the Canadian parks will help introduce a few more people to a night in the campground.