Boardwalk in the woods in fall

Frontenac challenge: challenge accepted!

Today’s blog comes from Evan Holt, a Content Development Specialist for Ontario Parks. Evan has completed the Frontenac Challenge five times!

I first heard about the Frontenac Challenge a few years ago. As a seasoned camper, the challenge to hike Frontenac Provincial Park’s 11 loops and 160 km of trails between September 1 and October 31 intrigued me.

I hit the trails and quickly fell in love with this amazing park. Years later, I’ve completed the Frontenac Challenge five times, and learned a lot along the way.

In this blog, I will pass along some of my Frontenac wisdom, and help you get ready to complete the challenge this fall.

The ultimate hiking challenge

Couple hiking on fall trail

The challenge was created by Park Superintendent Lloyd Chapman in 1993 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of  Ontario’s provincial park system. If you can complete the 160 km challenge by Halloween, you will be presented with a certificate of accomplishment at the Frontenac Challenge celebratory BBQ in November.

Complete it five times and your name will be engraved on the “800 km Club” plaque. After 10 times, you will be recognized on the “10 Challenge Under Their Boots” plaque.

Frontenac is a park full of challenges. Other challenges are the All-Season Camping Challenge, which asks eager campers to camp at least one night in each month of the year for 12 consecutive months.

Then, the Junior Hiking Challenge, where youth up to 12 years of age can take part in a mini Frontenac Challenge to complete six of the main loops in the park.

Trail with boardwalk

Drop by the park’s main office to register for the challenge (it’s free!), and pick up your log sheet. As you navigate the trails, there will be signs with key words related to each year’s themes for you to jot down in your log sheet and return to the main office upon completion.

Last year I was the 218th person to register, and it was only a few weeks into the challenge! It was nice to see so many other people interested in this opportunity.

The signs at the beginning of each section are bang-on accurate for how long each loop should take you, so consult them for an approximation of how long your journey is going to take.

Here are a few tips from what I’ve learned  completing the entire 160 km challenge multiple times:

Get your map

Map of the trails and portages at Frontenac

The first way to prepare for the challenge is to download the PDF map of the trails (and campsites) from Ontario Parks’ website.

You should also be sure to pick up the more detailed map, created by the Friends of Frontenac. It’s available at the park office, and some outfitter stores.

Start early

Frontenac Challenge clue sign

The challenge lasts two months, but you have two things against you the longer you wait.

Temperatures last year during the first week of the challenge ranged from +25 to +15, while the last week ranged from +15 to -3. A few nights at the end of October saw a skiffle of snow, and didn’t have the comfortable camping temperatures of earlier in the month.

Your days also range from 13 hours of daylight at the start of September to 10 hours by the end of October. That extra daylight can make the difference between finishing Slide Lake comfortably, or running into a trickier situation in the dark.

Pack light

Two hikers with backpacks

I brought most of my regular camping gear on the first journey, but quickly learned that this is longer than your average portage. Cut down on everything when camping during this hiking challenge.

For the most part, I just brought a day pack with the bare essentials. I found being light and nimble allowed me to cover the most ground without being exhausted at the end of the day. You can also plan your trips around a campsite, returning each night to it so that you don’t have to keep carrying so much bulky gear.

Good footwear

Hiking boots in the fall leaves

Your feet will take a pile of punishment during this challenge.  Frontenac Provincial Park was the site of a mining facility, which tells you the terrain is going to be rocky. Having good hiking boots and socks will save your feet.

Hiking poles

backpacker with walking sticks

While not essential, they saved me from slipping on wet leaves and moss quite a few times late in the season. If you’re carrying a heavy pack, it will also help you manage the weight a little better as well.

Once most of the leaves have fallen off the trees in October, it makes for judging where you are going to step tricky. Poles help you probe a few areas that could be boggy, slippery or frozen.

Enjoy the hike

Rock stairs, Frontenac, Fall

It IS a challenge, which means you will be covering a lot of ground in the park.  But make sure you take the time to stop and take in some of the majesty of this beautiful park.

The sound of crunching leaves as you hike is an all-time favourite of mine and the smells of fall with little to no bugs bothering you makes for an ideal adventure. Be sure to take lots of photos and socialize with the other hikers you meet.

Layer up

Fall weather is kind of finicky. Have lots of layers, including a good packable rain jacket to stow away in your pack in case of sudden showers. Rain pants will help protect you on windy days, and keep you warm on the cold days. Even just a thin waterproof/windproof layer can make the difference.

Pack the batteries

Bring a headlamp in case you get stuck on the trail and still have lots of ground to cover while the sun has set. More important yet, make sure the batteries are charged or have extras.

Be sure to either turn off your cell phone, or put it in airplane mode as there is no cell phone coverage for about 95% of the park. As your phone tries to search for a signal, it will quickly drain your battery, leaving you without a phone to take photos, or better yet, make an emergency call if you run into trouble leaving the park.

Feeling turned around?

Frontenac view of the lake, Fall

Make sure to pick up a map of the park at the front gate when you sign up for the challenge. I found all 160 km of the trail very well marked. You will find the familiar little blue diamond hiking sign along the trail every so often so you won’t stray too far from the path.

Once the leaves cover the forest floor though, it becomes a little easier to wander off the beaten path. If you haven’t seen a hiking sign in a while, I found the most reassuring thing to do is just turn around and look behind you. You will usually see a sign for hikers headed in the opposite direction, so you will know if you are on the right path.

A whistle is a perfect signalling device if you get lost or injured.  Follow all safe hiking rules, and be sure to leave details of your travel plans with someone.

Is this your year?

Frontenac looking over the water with lily pads

After the challenge had wrapped up, it was great to chat with other hikers at the celebration BBQ, and it seems there is growing interest in this challenge. Over half of the attendees at the BBQ were first time challengers, and everyone I chatted with expressed an interest in attempting it again next year.

I’m sure to give it a go this year, and I hope you accept the challenge as well.

See you on the trails!