Into the wild

A great family camping experience is more about the right attitude than the right gear—what you need to know before you pitch the tent

By Darrell Roberts

Karly Wurnig has strong memories of camping with her family while growing up. She remembers the sensory experience of being out in nature, and the fun that she had with her sister. She knew that she wanted her own kids to have that same experience. 

When her daughter Samantha was just four months old, Karly and her husband, Jerry, took her camping for the first time at Rissers Beach Provincial Park, on the South Shore near Bridgewater. They pitched their tent, set up a pack and play, bundled Samantha up, and stayed the night. Samantha is now four and is a bit of a camping veteran. Two-year-old brother Walter is right in step.

Karly’s kids are making the same kind of memories that she made while growing up. She cites moments like the first time her children roasted marshmallows, and their excitement about getting to eat outdoors.

“They love having that freedom and that change from routine,” she explains. “It’s fun to watch them explore that.”

This summer, as the pandemic continues to postpone most annual festivals and events, other outdoor activities are gaining traction in Nova Scotia. Karly belongs to the Camping in Nova Scotia Facebook group, where she sees ever-growing numbers of campers ask questions and share advice.

Learn to camp programs at Kejimkujik introduce all family members to the basics of camping. Photo: A for Adventure

Oh, the places you’ll camp

Jan-Sebastian LaPierre is the president of A for Adventure, an organization that facilitates outdoor adventures for people of all ages. 

“We live in this absolutely incredible paradise for adventures,” he says.

LaPierre believes that camping is a great way for people to recalibrate and connect with nature. He notes that getting outside has been shown to have a positive impact on sleeping cycles and mental health. He also believes that the outdoors provides a safe space for people to connect with each other.

Karly agrees, but she knows how hard it can be to push yourself to go outside.

“It’s so easy to default to inside and it is something that I challenge myself with,” says Karly. Although she enjoys relaxing on the couch and using her phone as much as anyone, it’s important to Karly that her kids understand the benefits of being outside.

Nova Scotia is home to stunning provincial parks and campgrounds, with a few located around Halifax, making it easy for a quick night out under the stars or for the wary first-time camper who might get a boost of confidence not straying too far from conveniences.

Sandra Fraser is the parks promotion and development officer for Nova Scotia Parks. She says that after the past year, people are looking for a change of scenery (and a break from their screens) now more than ever.

Each park has a different variety of amenities and recreational opportunities. Fraser recommends checking the Nova Scotia Parks website to see what each park has available. Families should reserve their campsite before arriving at the park.

Fraser says that Nova Scotia Parks are also in the process of making the parks more inclusive and accessible. Some parks have added Mobi-mats, roll-out mats designed to offer greater accessibility on soft soil areas. There are Mobi-mats in six parks so far: Rissers Beach, Clam Harbour Beach, Mira River, Heather Beach, Pomquet, and Melmerby Beach. Nova Scotia Parks is also in the process of creating more gender neutral and accessible restrooms at the parks.

Since many campgrounds are in relatively remote areas, they can be difficult to access for people who don’t drive. Shubie Campground, located in Shubie Park, is just minutes from downtown Halifax and Dartmouth and can be accessed by bus.

Kristi, the owner and operator of the campground, says that while the park has something to offer for all ages, it’s an especially “amazing” experience for kids and families.

“Sleeping outside, breathing in that fresh air. There’s nothing more magical than sitting around a campfire with the fire blazing,” says Kristi.

A hike with young children includes many stops. Samantha explores the brook on her adventure to Uisage Ban Falls in Cape Breton. Photo: Karly Wurnig

Preparing for camping

LaPierre says that it’s a good idea to get kids excited about camping before the trip begins. He says that sharing videos and books about camping with children is a good way to show them what the experience will be like. He suggests setting a tent up in the living room or in the backyard for a campout at home before the real deal.

“Make it as accessible as possible for you and for the kid,” LaPierre says.

If you don’t have room to set up a tent­—or you don’t have a tent—some campgrounds (like Shubie Campground) offer yurts or other tent-like structures so that your family can experience sleeping outside without investing money in an expensive piece of equipment.

Quality outdoor gear is notoriously expensive. “Try to stick with the basics,” advises Fraser. A tent, a cooler, a flashlight, and a stove is a good start. She says it’s a good idea to practice using equipment before your trip.

Miah Acebedo is the owner and operator of Nova Camp, a local outdoor gear rental company. She is a second generation Filipino Canadian, they started Nova Camp to make outdoor adventures more accessible for people who don’t have the money or room for their own gear.  

“I feel like sometimes people feel the pressure to spend a lot of money when they don’t need to,” said Acebedo.

Clients can book online, the gear is delivered to their door or the campground, and then they return the gear when the trip is over. This summer, they hope to have family-oriented packages.

Acebedo says it’s a good idea to study the area where you plan to camp, and ensure you have a campground map. They recommend packing clothes for all types of weather, even if it’s
the middle of summer.

“And always, always, extra socks. Anytime I make a packing list, and write down socks like four times,” laughs Acebedo.

Stick to the essentials—especially your first time out. Remember, camping is supposed to be relaxing. If you’re looking for a place to start, the Parks Canada website has a useful checklist to help you pack.

“You don’t want to just pick up your life and bring it with you,” says Karly. “You want to pare down and just kind of have the bare minimum of what you need.”

Everyone should be able to enjoy a day at the beach. National and provincial parks are becoming more accessible and inclusive. Roll out beach mats and adaptive chairs can transform the summer experience. Photo: Communications Nova Scotia

At the campground

Your first-time camping may not go entirely smoothly­­—and that’s OK!

“Even if it goes badly, that doesn’t mean it will always go badly,” says Karly. “It just takes time to figure out what things you need and what works for your family.”

Although camping can be challenging, you can also make memories that will last a lifetime.

Karly remembers one night in the campground, when Samantha was only two. She was too restless to sleep in the tent. Instead, Karly let Samantha lay on her lap and fall asleep under the stars.

“We’re usually inside by then,” said Karly. “That was really special.”

Provincial parks with campgrounds near Halifax

Dollar Lake

  • Just under an hour from Halifax 
  • Unserviced campsites
  • Supervised beach 

Laurie Park

  • Located just outside of Fall River and Grand Lake 
  • Unserviced campsites
  • Unsupervised swimming

Porters Lake

  • Located outside Dartmouth
  • Serviced campsites
  • Unsupervised swimming

Graves Island

  • East of Chester
  • Serviced and unserviced campsites
  • Ocean views

Nova Scotia camping essentials

  • Tent
  • Bedsheets/sleeping bag
  • Sleeping pad
  • Toys and books
  • Cooler
  • Flashlight
  • Batteries
  • Waterproof matches
  • Camping stove
  • Socks, socks, and more socks
  • Clothes for all kinds of weather 
  • Insect repellent
  • Sunscreen
  • First aid kit
  • Non-perishable food
  • Food tent or tarp (a place to eat if it rains)
  • Kitchen utensils

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