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Tent-sion brewing? Balancing the health of parks and people as pandemic camping ramps up

By Catherine Reining

July 14th, 2021


The human health and well-being benefits of contact with nature are now well established and widely promoted (Lovell et al., 2014; Lemieux et al, 2016; Maller et al., 2008). The importance of spending time in nature has been no more evident than during the COVID-19 pandemic as Canadians come out of winter hibernation to find flights to destination getaways cancelled and instead look for solace closer to home in the great outdoors. Cue pandemic camping.

Under normal circumstances, Ontario Parks receives over 10 million visitors to their operational parks annually, with an almost even split between day users and overnight campers (Ontario Parks, 2019). In the wake of the current pandemic, camping chaos has ensued and reservations for campsites have doubled in comparison to 2020 (Sharpe, 2021). Between January to February 2021 alone, Ontario Parks reported bookings had increased almost 100 percent with campers making 58,475 reservations compared to 29,504 reservations during the same period in 2020 (The Canadian Press, 2021).

CReining Tent

Tent camping in Awenda Provincial Park. Photo: Catherine Reining


While the increased demand for camping points towards positive economic growth for local tourism and a societal shift in valuing nature for health promotion, it begs the question – are all campers, good campers?

Provincial parks are established and managed with objectives to safeguard ecosystem services, support economic development, and foster a sense of place. In addition to emphasizing visitor experiences, the Provincial Parks and Conservation Reserves Act (2006) identifies maintenance of ecological integrity as the priority when planning and managing regulated protected areas; two often competing goals.


So, what is ecological integrity and why is it important? Ecological integrity is an indicator of environmental quality. Ecosystems have integrity when they have their mixture of living and non-living parts and the interactions between those parts are not disturbed (Ontario Parks, 2017). In other words, ecosystems have integrity when their lands, waters, native species, and natural processes are intact. The quality of the environment is increasingly gaining traction as an important factor contributing to the health and well-being outcomes humans derive from nature contact (Thompson Coon et al., 2001). A recent study revealed visitors to an Ontario protected area who perceived the ecosystem to be of high quality, including species richness, naturalness, and ecological integrity, also reported higher restorative outcomes (i.e., feelings of calm, relaxation, free of worries, etc.) (Reining et al., 2020).

 The COVID-19 camping craze has seen many day users and first-time campers flock to provincial and national parks and while some will foster a lasting-love for the outdoors, for many it is a band-aid solution. The problem is what visitors are leaving behind – a substantial amount of garbage and lasting footprint (Howes, 2020). During the summer of 2020, Ontario Parks like many other provinces, saw a rise in litter piling up on beaches, campgrounds, and on-site washrooms, which was not only inconvenient for maintenance crews but had unintended consequences for surrounding wildlife who become accustomed to being fed. Furthermore, overcrowding of popular hiking trails and campsites resulted in visitors veering off trails and trampling through ecologically sensitive environments, showing a general disregard for these important ecosystems. Over time, this will diminish the ecological integrity of the ecosystems our parks are meant to protect.

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Litter increased in provincial parks as visitors flock to nature. Photo: Ontario Parks.

 Health promotion focused on the relationship between people and parks has often emphasized  the human health benefits of visiting parks. However, there is a need for more education and interpretation focused on visitor’s relationship with the environment, which emphasizes the value of parks, the importance of ecological integrity, and the benefits of spending time in nature. We need to not only understand the role parks play in our health and well-being, but also the important role they play in caring for the environment as visitors to that space.

With the rise of camping popularity, this is crucial now more than ever. As we ramp up for another summer of camping chaos, park managers should consider tightening restrictions on access to ecologically sensitive areas to avoid doing permanent damage that will last long past this pandemic. As visitors to the park, we need to do our part too, which includes being respectful of the environment, follow safety instructions, and leaving no trace!


About the author Catherine Reining

Catherine head shot

Catherine Reining is a Lab Coordinator in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University and a Project Coordinator at the Human Environments Analysis Laboratory (HEAL) focusing on the ParkSeek project. Her research interests include planning and management in parks and protected areas for human health and well-being, conservation, and environmental education. Catherine holds a Masters of Environmental Studies and Bachelor of Arts in Geography from Wilfrid Laurier University as well as a Bachelor of Education from Brock University. 




Howes, N. (2020, August 30). Canadian parks littered with excessive garbage during COVID-19. Retrieved from Editor's Choice: The Weather Network:  

Lemieux, C. J., Doherty, S. T., Eagles, P. F. J., Groulx, M. W., Hvenegaard, G. T., & Romagosa, F. (2016). Policy and Management Recommendations Informed by the Health Benefits of Visitor Experiences in Alberta’s Protected Areas. Journal of Parks and Recreation Administration, 34(1), 24–52.

Lovell, R., Wheeler, B. W., Higgins, S. L., Irvine, K. N., & Depledge, M. H. (2014). A Systematic Review of the Health and Well-Being Benefits of Biodiverse Environments. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health - Part B: Critical Reviews, 17(1), 1–20.

Maller, C., Henderson-Wildon, C. A., Pryor, L., Prosser, L., & Moore, M. (2008). The health benefits of contact with nature in a park context - A review of the relevant literature (2nd ed.). Melbourne, Australia.

Ontario Parks. (2017). Ecological Integrity. Retrieved October 1, 2017, from

Ontario Parks. (2019, July 12). Visitor Engagement. Retrieved from Ontario Parks:

Provincial Parks and Conservation Reserves Act S.O. 2006 c.12. (2006). Retrieved from

Reining, C.E., Lemieux, C.J., & Doherty, S.T. (2020) Linking restorative human health outcomes to protected area ecosystem diversity and integrity, Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, DOI: 10.1080/09640568.2020.1857227

Sharpe, K. (2021, April 2). COVID-19 camping craze continues into 2021, number of Ontario sites booked already double compared to 2020. Retrieved from CTV News Kitchener:

The Canadian Press. (2021, February 26). Ontario Parks report reservations for camp sites have doubled from 2020. Retrieved from Toronto Star:

Thompson Coon, J., Boddy, K., Stein, K., Whear, R., Barton, J., & Depledge, M. H. (2001). Does participating in physical activity in outdoor natural environments have a greater effect on physical and mental wellbeing than physical activity indoors? A systematic review. Environmental Science and Technology, 45(5), 1761–1772.