backcountry campsite in a store

Backcountry for beginners: the recap

On March 20, our team went live at SAIL to answer all of your questions about backcountry camping.

Unfortunately, we ran into some technical difficulties and aren’t able to deliver our promised recording of this event. We’re very sorry to everyone who was hoping to catch the replay.

Instead, we’ve gotten the team together to recap the questions in written form, so we can still share the answers with everyone who couldn’t be there live.

First of all, Anne talked equipment with SAIL gear expert Adam

While we didn’t review every piece of gear needed for the backcountry, we went over a few core needs.

Anne and Adam looking at backpacks


This is a crucial piece of gear, especially for backcountry hikers. Find one that keeps everything snug and dry.

Adam showed us a 70 L pack, highlighting the importance of finding the correct size for your build. Keeping safe and healthy on the trail starts with finding the right gear for you.

When you pick one out, don’t be afraid to ask the sales representive for help in finding the right size and fit.

Hiking boots

Protect your feet, folks. They’re what are going to carry you safely on your travels through the wilderness.

boots hiking trail

Two features he especially advised checking? The flexibility of the sole (if it’s too flexible, it may not provide the support you need) and the waterproofing (keep those feet dry on portages!).

SAIL has a great blog with more details about finding the right fit.

Food storage

To hang or not to hang — that was one of our questions 😉

Our Ontario Parks experts said: yes, make sure to hang your food. This keeps it and you protected from wildlife (especially bears).

staff member demonstrating how to hang food barrel

Adam showed us a great bear barrel, complete with a carrying harness. It seals neatly, to keep scents in and moisture out.

He also showed us some great rope. Twisted poly rope isn’t up to the task; Adam recommends paracord.

To protect our trees and make the hanging process easier, you’ll also need a pulley. Feed your first rope into the pulley, then use your second rope to lift the pull up the tree. Wrap the cord around your waist, and walk backward to lift your heavy barrel into the air.

Water purification

Natalie and Jason told us how important it is to purify water in the backcountry. You don’t want to get sick!

Adam showed us two neat water purification tools. The first was a handheld purifier, paired with a water bottle lid with a built-in filter. The second was a 10 L bag that you can fill and hang when you make camp.

Personal flotation device (PFD)

You should always wear your PFD on the water, even if you’re a strong swimmer.

Fit matters, so check with a store representative if you’re not sure how to choose the right size.

Camp stove

As Jason and Natalie pointed out, when the weather gets hot and dry, it may not be safe to light a fire. Don’t forget to check whether your park is under fire ban before heading out.

A camp stove is a great option in any season. Whether you’re trying your hand at dehydrated meals or you just need your caffeine fix, a quick boil stove is a great comfort at the end of a long day.

Adam showed us a great option that packs up small and light, and boils water in less than two minutes. Look for something with no open flame (so that you can use it in the event of a fireban), and don’t forget to dispose of your fuel responsibly after your trip.

First Aid kit

As we heard from Natalie and Jason, a big part of being safe and successful in the backcountry is being prepared.

Carrying a First Aid kit means you’re ready in the event of an emergency. Make sure you’ve got emergency equipment on your packing list.


Beyond the light of the campfire

Dry matches and firestarters are key. Adam showed us a neat option called Fire Sticks, which are good options for lighting your fire even when it’s windy or rainy.

Tracker / sat phone

The last item Adam showed us was a nifty piece of technology. It tracks your progress, and friends and family can check your location. It’s also got an SOS feature that will call for help in the event of an emergency.

Thanks again to our friends at SAIL for hosting us!

Our Ontario Parks backcountry FAQ

For the rest of the evening, Anne shared your questions with our backcountry experts Jason and Natalie, the superintendent and assistant superintendent of Balsam Lake and Queen Elizabeth II Wildlands Provincial Parks.

Jason, Natalie, Anne talking around the campsite

Here’s what they had to say:

Are there particular routes/parks that are good for beginners?

Absolutely. In fact, we’ve got a great list of parks with introductory hiking and paddling routes here.

Should I bring my dog to the backcountry?

Jason said: sure! He brings his pup all the time. He recommends a dog-sized PFD if you’re taking Fido in the canoe. He also found a pack for the dog to carry, so the  collapsible bowls and kibble are covered.

Dog drinking on campsite tent in background

Natalie reminded everyone that it’s important to keep your dog under control in the backcountry. Loose dogs can disturb and harrass wildlife — a big no-no. Don’t forget: you also need to clean up after your furry friend.

What happens when “nature calls” in the backcountry?

Ah the joys of thunder boxes, wooden seats that are atop a hole. Some campsites will have their own thunderbox, others will have a single thunderbox per cluster.

Don’t forget to bring your own toilet paper. To save space and keep it dry, take it off the roll and seal it in a plastic baggie.

Toilet paper is okay to throw in the thunderbox, but items like diapers and sanitary napkins should be packed out the backcountry.

How do I know if my paddling skills are ready for backcountry?

A common theme from both Natalie and Jason? Know your limits and don’t overchallenge yourself.

person canoeing on lake
Restoule has some great options for backcountry beginners!

Safety should be your number one concern. If you’re new to backcountry, you should definitely choose a shorter route without any whitewater. Make sure to check the weather, and be ready to cancel your trip if storms are brewing.

Want to get some formal training? Check out ORCKA’s programs, which include general paddling, as well as backcountry specific options.

What kind of food should I pack? 

Jason reminds everyone to pack enough food. Spending the day hiking, paddling and portaging burns a lot of calories. Make sure you have enough fuel.

Natalie’s go-to backcountry meal is steak and twice-baked potatoes. She freezes the steaks and uses them to keep the rest of her food cold.

For shorter trips, fresh food works just fine. As your skills grow and you consider long trips, you can investigate options like dehydrated food.

Do I need to hang my food? How do I do that?

We recommend hanging your food whenever possible.

Find a good spot well away from your campsite, and hang your food well away from the trunk (remember: bears are great climbers).

Anything with a scent — like toothpaste or deodorant — should also be stored here (this includes any garbage). You don’t want a bear following its nose back to your tent.

hanging bear barrel in the backcountry

We’re also got several parks that offer bear-resistant containers for food storage.

What happens if I’m approached by a bear?

Prevention is the best practice. If you’re storing your food responsibly, the chances of meeting a bear on your site go way down.

That said, bear encounters, while extremely rare, do happen. Our experts suggested checking out the Bearwise website for safety tips before venturing into the backcountry.

How do I protect myself from bugs?

Natalie and Jason are both big fans of bug jackets. You can also pack bug spray.

How much do I pack?

Jason told the story of a past mentor who packed him a super heavy bag. It definitely brings down the fun if your muscles get burnt out on the first night.

Preparation is key. Make sure you have what you need, but go light wherever you can. For instance, you don’t need a new outfit for everyday. Choose thin, warm layers, rather than big bulky items.

If it’s an option, upgrade your equipment. A down sleeping bag, for example, packs much smaller than your average car camping bag.

Travelling with a group? Compare your packing lists to optimize your overall carrying weight.

What happens if I get caught in bad weather?

Safety first.

Always set up camp in a sheltered place, where possible. That way, if a thunderstorm rolls in, you can just sit back and watch the show.

Caught between campsites? Get off the water and shelter in place. Hole up on that portage, or hug the shoreline.

Again, be as prepared as possible:

  • check the weather report before you head out
  • know your route well, so it’s easy to find an emergency stop if needed
  • pack for contingencies
  • carry emergency items, like firestarters, warm/waterproof clothes, sat phone

Should I tell anyone where I’m going?

Yes! Leave a travel itinerary with a friend or family member not going on the trip. Include expected return time, date, and location.

Do I need to pick up my permit? What if I arrive too late?

It depends on the park.

Many parks have permits that can be printed from home, while others require you to check in at your access point. Check with the park before you head out.

Arriving late? The first thing you should ask is, “Can I safely get to my site before dark?” If you’re too late to check in, there’s a good chance you should put off your departure until the next day.

What happens if I get to my site and there’s garbage on it?

We’re always disappointed when campers don’t clean up their mess. If you do find garbage on your site, please pick it up.

Littering earns you a fine, which is another reason to keep your site neat and tidy. Our wardens can’t tell who has left the garbage on the ground, so if the campers before you weren’t responsible, it’s an opportunity for you to step up as an ecosteward.

Is backcountry camping different in the winter?

Yes. It’s considerably more challenging and carries more risk. Please hold off on winter backcountry until you’re a more experienced camper.

Can I do a two-person portage of my canoe?

Sure can.

One point Jason made when we answered this question is that — like many backcountry techniques — there’s no single right way.

woman portaging canoe with man and dog

Some folks like to solo carry, others prefer a two-person carry, with each partner gripping the gunnels at either end of the canoe. Find out what’s comfortable for you.

Can I go backcountry camping with a kayak?

You may need to travel a little lighter with a kayak. If you’re choosing a backcountry site with a short paddle-in, you could bring your gear over in multiple trips.

If you travel with a group, mix the paddling options up to include canoes and kayaks, so your gear can all be carried.

They can be trickier to portage too, so try out some carrying techniques before you head out.

Do I need a map? Where do I get one?

Yes. Make sure you’ve got a good waterproof map and you’re confident in your ability to follow it.

Campers studying map on campsite

You can purchase maps from parks, from stores like SAIL, or from our online store.

Tips for backcountry with kids?

One of our education specialists wrote a great blog post on this topic.

For trips with kids, remember to choose shorter, less challenging routes. Also, be very confident in your paddling and survival skills.

A few extra gems of advice?

Jason said: start small and work your way up

Start with car camping and do some longer daytrips in a canoe or on the trails. Practice your paddling skills or sign up for ORCKA training.

Try a trip with an outfitter, find a more experienced co-camper, or sign on for wilderness training at Frontenac Provincial Park.

There’s lots of great ways to level up your skills until you’re confident and experienced.

Adam said: protect your feet and back

Choose gear that you can wear/use/carry for your entire trip, not just for a five-minute test drive in the store. Invest in the tools you need to stay safe and have fun.

Anne said: it’s all about contingencies

Plan ahead. Think about anything that could go wrong, and how you would react. Pack responsibly. Don’t take risks. Put safety first, and always have a back-up plan.

Natalie said: stick with it. It’s challenging, it’s hard work, but it’s so worth it

Picture yourself here:

sunrise on lake

Is this the year you plan your first backcountry trip?

Thanks for sticking with us folks. We’re sorry we couldn’t share the full recording as planned.

We’ve scheduled another backcountry chat (a debate/Q&A combo!) for the coming Wednesday and we’d love for you to join us.