Finding safe, free Ontario Boondocking Locations is challenging but not impossible
Even in Ontario, I have managed to find free boondocking locations. As a woman traveling alone, when I started out, I wasn't sure how much I could count on finding Ontario boondocking places that felt safe. I'm amazed myself! Nothing can compare to the campsites we find on our travels through the southern States because, here in Ontario, we don't have as much accessible "public land." However, finding or "creating" a safe boondocking spot for one night at a time turns out to be fairly easy, if you put my mind to it. For me, this worked perfectly on this trip, which was all about exploring a new area for a day or two and then moving on.
The average price for an Ontario provincial park campsite without services is $34.25 per night. ($39.25 with electricity. Most don't offer a full hook-up option.) These prices include tax. Since I don't need the hook-ups, I expected I could do a little better (price-wise) at private campgrounds. The 2010 Ontario Campgrounds Guide showed $30.00 was the average cost of a dry camping site. This seemed lower - until I realized these prices are quoted without tax. So, by the time you add on 13%, the cost is about the same as at provincial parks.
The main problem with Ontario's provincial parks is that, in peak season, you will need to reserve to get a site (an additional $9.00 cost). With private campgrounds, this may also be the case but the main problem with them is no knowing what you're going to get.
My whole life I've lived in Ontario, and camped at various times - almost always in the provincial parks.
This summer (2010), I stopped to evaluate a wide variety of private campgrounds, in various price ranges in southern Ontario's three prime cottage country areas: Muskoka, Haliburton Higlands, and The Kawarthas.
I discovered that, with only a few exceptions, most private campgrounds cater to seasonal rentals first, with very few sites available for transients or "weekenders" like me. I even stayed at two. For the most part, I found them to be clean, with reasonable service, good amenities and friendly owners and staff. The campsites, however, are usually crowded tightly together and offer very little appeal. I'll let this photo of one of the campsites I was offered speak for itself. Sadly, it is quite typical.
I arrived at a couple of places where the office was closed by 5pm. Isn't that about the time most travelers are looking to stop for the night? And at two locations, both listed in the official Ontario campground guide,I couldn't believe what I encountered: Picture a toothless, heavily tatooed couple, both smoking a cigarette without apology, while quoting the camping rates and extolling the virtues of their campground.I don't mean to sound like a "snob" (the worst kind of snob, at that - one who drives a 20 year-old RV and parks at Wal-mart to avoid paying for camping) but, when I'm paying $35.00 a night for a "campground" that is 95% full of RVs which haven't had a need for wheels for some years, I feel like the odd-man-out who just moved into a trailer park. And, you know what? I don't feel any better there than in the Walmart parking lot where, at least, I'm among my own kind.
I know, for many people, seasonal sites are their version of a cottage - a regular getaway from their city life. I don't mean to offend anyone with this, it's just that it's not the "camping" experience I'm looking for, even for one night.
I did find a couple of private campgrounds that are every bit as nice as those at the provincial parks. I'll mention them here because I want to highly recommend them: They are Whispering Pines at Santa's Village in Bracebridge and Beavermeade Park in Peterborough, which I believe is operated by the city. Both are lovely, not geared to seasonal rentals and, surprisingly, not overpriced by Ontario standards.
Because there are few desirable options, it's no wonder our provincial parks fill up fast. I believe that Ontario camping, is expensive (compared to the USA), with a lack of choices and, in peak season, hard to get, especially without a reservation.
If, like me, you prefer to travel without an itinerary and, even if you're willing to pay for camping, wonder if you'll be able to find it, you may be comforted to know there are boondocking options. In the bigger towns, Wal-mart is always there for you of course but, on this trip, I discovered that finding more appealing Ontario boondocking is less difficult than I had thought.
Yep, Ontario boondocking can be that simple.
For four full weeks now, I've been traveling through Ontario's "cottage country" - the playgrounds of well-to-do Torontonians. You would think these are not exactly areas where someone passing through in a 20-year-old camper-van might be invited to spend the night, parked for free. Yet, I've done it. I paid for camping four nights out of the past twenty-eight and found free boondocking the rest of the time.
Sometimes I ask local people who I've had some interaction with. I explain that I pay for camping sometimes but, often, I just want a quiet, safe place to park overnight without getting into trouble for it.
On my budget, I don't eat out a lot but, twice on this trip, I chose a restaurant for dinner, not only for its menu, but for the level, quiet parking lot in what appeared to be a safe neighborhood. A couple of words with the waitress, who consulted the owner and, both times, I was given permission to stay the night. In fact, one owner suggested, " Why don't you park in the staff parking area....I think it will be quieter."
I also asked for and received permission from various retailers and, once, from a librarian in a small town. Other times, the people I ask point me toward public property - a town-owned park, for example, where they have seen other RVs parked overnight from time to time. Fishermen, fellow campers, hikers, and RVers, as well as young people have been a good source for suggestions. But the best and most surprising responses have been when I've asked permission from "official sources."
Often, I drive around and scout out a suitable and desirable location and then approach the "authorities" to enquire. I always indicate that I only expect to stay for one night. By-law officers, police officers, provincial park staff, as well as federal employees of the Trent-Severn Waterway have all been very helpful and receptive. If they don't think I'll be safe or have a peaceful night in my chosen location, they often have alternate suggestions.
Usually, these authority figures cannot give me official permission, but they can reassure me that I won't be bothered by the authorities. As a result, I parked overnight at several public boat docks, trailheads, and town parks. In some places I had more than one choice. While I've spent some nights on paved parking lots, I was directed to some of the best scenic finds by "official" sources. These include a grassy area at a public boat launch on the shores of Georgian Bay, a view of a gorgeous waterfalls, east of Peterborough, and a small but unique conservation area that hadn't yet opened for the summer season.
A couple of times, after searching and finding a great "out of the way" scenic spot, I ended up at a Wal-mart or Casino parking lot after all but next time, when Randy is with me, I wouldn't hesitate to stay in the more remote campsite. At other times, I felt quite comfortable and safe, especially after meeting and interacting with the local people.
As a precaution, I do make a point of not letting anyone see that I am alone when I arrive at my overnight location. I also don't turn on any interior lights. I always call Randy to tell him exactly where I am and keep my cell phone turned on and handy. And while it may not be for everyone, after 28 days without an incident, I'm totally relaxed and sleep well at night. (Well, for my age, that is.)
So, the secret is - be nice, and ask permission (for some, maybe that first part is the hardest), and you're very likely to find boondocking almost anywhere in Ontario. Of course, the other key is not to overstay your welcome. One or two nights is the suggested maximum.
For the sake of the employees and officials who so willingly helped and directed me despite "official" policy, I won't reveal exactly who I talked to and where I camped. When and I write the Frugal Shunpiker's Guide for the area, I'll include specifics but, meanwhile, here are photos of some of my overnight bondocking locations on this trip.
I found these and many more Ontario boondocking locations in cottage country. Finding them required scouting around and asking questions. And, oh yes, I had to be nice too.