Beginners guide to backcountry camping in Algonquin
You’ve done some camping at various Ontario Parks and have heard about how great Algonquin Park backcountry canoe camping is. But how do you make the switch from campgrounds to forging your own path in the vastness of Algonquin Park? It’s not as hard as you might imagine; knowing what to expect can help a lot and I hope this article will help you get prepared.
Type of Trip
One of the first steps after deciding you want to go interior camping is to pick the type of trip you want to take. With 7630 square kilometers of scenery, encompassing everything from flat-water lakes, twisting rivers and whitewater, there is something for everyone. You can travel a couple of lakes over and set up a basecamp to explore from, or make the most of travelling as far as you can each day with the reward of a new campsite each night. If this is your first backcountry visit you most likely want to go with other people but there is always the option of solo canoeing if you have the skills. In fact, if you can find an experienced camper to join you on your first trip you will be able to pick up innumerable tips from them. Besides canoeing and gathering around the fire, Algonquin Park offers a great number of natural environments and historic areas.
There are many resources to help with your decision of where to go. First would be Jeff’s Map of Algonquin Provincial Park, relentlessly accurate and jam packed with all the information you need for a successful backcountry trip in Algonquin Park. Jeff includes sights to see along the way and travel times for all of the routes within the Park. Second would be the Friends Of Algonquin Park who can provide information on permits and fees, access points and regulations. Third would be all the people that have previously gone to Algonquin, Google search “algonquin park trip logs” and you will find many trip reports describing how other people have done it. You can also check out some of my trip logs in my blog Smedley Co. There’s nothing wrong with finding a report of an awesome trip and duplicating it. You’ll have a great handle on what to expect and will gain experience that will help you strike out on your own next time. You can now book an interior Algonquin Park trip online as well as on the phone with Ontario Parks.
You’re likely to get excited about all the options available to you after examining Jeff’s Map for a while. For your first attempt you will want to consider your skill level and pick a route that is within your abilities. I would suggest you go with 3-5 like-minded people and stick to a shorter basecamp trip of 2-3 nights. Pick a route that includes smaller lakes and shorter portages and involves travelling for no more than 4-6 hours to get to your campsite. If you are unsure of your abilities pick a well-travelled route where there is a better chance other campers will be nearby if needed.
Choosing the right canoe
One of the most important elements of your trip is going to be your canoe, obviously. For campers with limited experience I would recommend renting from one of the many outfitters that service Algonquin Park. An interior camping trip involves portaging and the lighter your canoe the better. Take the time at the outfitter to explain what you are doing and take advantage of their years of experience to get you into the right canoe. I suggest have at least one or two people on your trip that have some experience canoeing, or tailor your trip to suit your paddling abilities.
The largest difference between campground and interior camping is the fact that you will be carrying everything you need on your back, there is no keeping everything in the trunk. Getting you and your gear across a portage will be where you find out if this is really for you. Ideally you want to be travelling light enough that you can single carry across the portage. However, if you have chosen a route with shorter length portages it won’t be too bad walking them twice. Nothing frustrates an experienced canoer more than clogged up portage landings. Move your canoe and gear out of the way and be sure other travelers have access.
As for the necessary gear, that could take an article in itself. Refer to some of the useful ones below
I again recommend renting from an outfitter if there is any gear you are lacking or that is not suitable. For example, just because you have a big 10 man tent from Canadian Tire doesn’t mean you want to carry it! Most items you have from car camping you can make do with, just remember weight and bulk is a concern, so upgrade if needed and rent items if you have to.
Planning your food
The food required, when backcountry camping, is also a little different than if you were in a campground. Generally you can have fresh (or frozen) food the first day or two, but after that your food items should be ones that don’t require being kept cold. Also, there are no cans or bottles allowed in the interior of Algonquin Park. A typical menu would be steak/potatoes/vegetables the first night, eggs and bacon the first breakfast. After that you should be thinking pasta or dehydrated meals for dinner and pancakes or oatmeal for breakfasts. There can still be a lot of great meal variety three days into a trip, Google “interior camping meal ideas” is your friend here too. To keep your food, and you, safe while in the backcountry you should always hang a food bag each night. The Friends of Algonquin Park describe how to do this on their Black Bear Safety Rules page. You can also refer to our article on Camping Safely in Ontario – ‘The Bear Country’.
You can also check out some of our camping food tips
- Eating like a pro in the backcountry
- Nutrition tips for your next backpacking trip
- Food hacks for camping
After deciding where, when and with whom, you need a way to get to the Park. Jeff’s Map and the Friends of Algonquin Park have all the driving instructions to the Access Points and it should be fairly straightforward. For those without their own transportation there is the option of the Park Bus, who will drive you to several drop off spots in Algonquin Park. Visit the permit office that services where you are starting from and obtain the required permit, keep this on you while canoeing.
If you need to rent a canoe or other pieces of equipment you can stop at the outfitter that makes the most sense, if there’s one at your chosen access point then they are a great choice. But outfitters will also deliver a canoe to most other access points. Either way, you should stop and pick up any last minute items and chat to them. They are usually very friendly and full of good information. Check out more information on Outfitters in Algonquin here.
Since Algonquin Park is at least several hours drive for most people, you need to factor that into your first day. Make sure that the distance you expect to travel to a camp site is manageable for you and that you aren’t worn out from getting up at 3 AM and driving for 5 hours. If necessary, stay somewhere close to the Park the night before or take advantage of “jump off” campsites near access points for late arrivals.
Once you are at the access point, you load up your canoe and hit the water. You should always wear your life jacket, be aware of weather and keep your map handy. As portages are marked in the Park it shouldn’t be too difficult to find your way to your destination lake. Once there it’s normal to start down the lake, checking out the available campsites until you find one to your liking. Camp site selection is a personal thing but a couple of guidelines are an exposed, windy site if it’s buggy and warm and a protected site out of the prevailing winds if it’s rainy or cold. Experienced trippers will generally leave their canoe up on shore where it can be seen by others or some other item readily noticeable. This allows arriving canoers to know the site is taken already without paddling all the way across the lake to it. A friendly wave or hello as you pass is nice, but most people in the backcountry are there for the solitude. Don’t interrupt people on their sites unless it’s necessary.
Setting up the tent and campsite
After a long drive and a few hours paddling you’ve made it to camp. Don’t think your work is done, before you can put your feet up and relax a few chores need to be taken care of. Unless it’s a very hot day and you jump in for a quick dip to cool off, you should get started on camp set up. First up is the tent, the weather could change and you want that ready as soon as possible. Tents should be set up on higher ground where water won’t puddle away from your food and the kitchen area. Be sure to check for overhead loose branches, they are called widow-makers for good reason. Then it could be stringing tarps if needed and gathering a pile of firewood for the evening. Water should be collected and treated, this could be spending a bit of time pumping with a water filter or simply hanging a gravity bag from a tree. You can then select the kitchen area and set up any items needed for it. Lastly, a suitable tree for hanging the food bag should be found. It’s my experience that finding one in the daylight hours is much easier than in the dark with a headlamp! This may sound like a lot of work, and it can be your first few times. With a little practice and with everybody pitching in I have seen all this and more done within 20 minutes of arriving at a site. With the chores out of the way you can then sit back and listen to the loons sing. Worth mentioning is the bathroom facilities, every backcountry campsite should have a “thunder box”, basically an outhouse without walls. A sign often points the way and a path will be noticeable that leads the way to the box.
Stick to ‘Base camping’
With the majority of the work done the first day you have the remainder of the trip to relax or explore nearby, unless of course you pack up and head to a new lake the next day. If it’s your first time interior camping you may want to just stay put and take day trips, returning to an already prepared camp each night. After a couple of times and with more experience you can begin doing longer trips where you cover more distance and spend each night at a new lake.
Keeping animals away from your campsite
Animals are one of the biggest attractions in Algonquin Park, and also what scares most people the most. You are in the wilderness and you will come across a wide variety of critters, most commonly loons, chipmunks and mosquitoes. Moose are also very common depending on the area and bears are very uncommon. If you keep a clean camp, hang your food as recommended and keep your eyes open, you will not have any problems and may see something more uncommon like a Pine Marten or a Bald Eagle.
You are on your own while backcountry camping in Algonquin; you will have to be prepared for the unexpected. The weather could turn nasty with winds too strong for you to get in a canoe for example. If this happens you need to be prepared to stay in camp, even if it means you aren’t leaving when you were supposed to. Weather is the most common problem to crop up, but it could be sickness or injury as well. Keeping calm and thinking things through will go a long way in managing the situation. Fortunately, Algonquin is not the far north and there is likely to be somebody nearby or passing through, especially if you have picked a popular area as suggested above.
Before you leave the campsite
When it’s time to leave you pack away all your gear, load the canoe up and take a last look around your campsite. Make sure that you haven’t left anything behind and that the area is cleaner than when you arrived. It’s usually common courtesy in the backcountry to leave at least a small pile of firewood for the next group to use the site, it may be late or raining when they arrive. Paddle back to the access point and before you know it you’ve completed your first interior camping trip! Return any rented equipment and head for the nearest fast food restaurant. Start planning the next trip.
About the author
Scott Rogers is an IT Coordinator providing support to a non-profit organization. Camping is a natural escape for Scott from his technology driven workplace. Over the past 15 years, Scott has connected with many outdoor enthusiasts while planning and taking numerous outdoor adventures. To connect with Scott check out his web site at http://www.smedleyco.com
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