Are you ready to go backcountry camping?

Many Ontarians are looking forward to getting outside and roughing it. But backcountry trips can have hazards — here’s how to stay safe on the water and in the woods
By Marsha McLeod - Published on Jun 04, 2021
Alex Savatti (left), and his brother Aaron, the co-owners of the Trip Shed, on a portage in Algonquin Park. (Courtesy of Alex Savatti)

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Looking for safe outdoor diversion during the pandemic, Ontarians flocked to provincial parks last year — Ontario Parks logged a record 11 million visits in 2020. It seemed as if 2021 would bring a new record, until April’s stay-at-home order paused overnight camping. (Provincial parks remain open for day use, but Ontario Parks asks that people visit only parks “close to home.”)

Spending time in nature is linked to myriad benefits — including reduced stress, better mood, and improved attention. But as more people venture outdoors, police services and rescue organizations across North America — from Clearview to Vancouver to the Wind River mountains in Wyoming — are noting an increase in adventurers in need of rescue. In 2020, the Ontario Provincial Police tracked a nearly 30 per cent jump in search-and-rescue calls across the province compared to 2019. 

“I think more people in our parks, appreciating them, is great,” says Alex Savatti, a backcountry canoe guide and co-owner, with his brother Aaron, of the Trip Shed, which runs trips mostly in Algonquin Park. “And, on the other side of that coin, I think that leads to potentially more risk of folks who don't necessarily know all the [necessary] skills.”

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With backcountry camping set to resume when the province enters the first step of its economic reopening plan, TVO.org speaks with Savatti, as well as OPP provincial search-and-rescue coordinator Sergeant John Meaker and Algonquin Provincial Park assistant superintendent Rick Stronks, about how to be safe on the water and in the woods. 


Know what you’re getting into 

What is the backcountry? Stronks explains it’s the part of the park that can’t be driven to — it is only accessible by foot, kayak, or canoe. 

“There's this huge network of canoe routes — over 2,000 lakes with portages in between and campsites on the lakes,” he says. (Portages are marked land routes where canoers carry their gear from one lake to another.) There are no electrical hook-ups, no restrooms (beyond the “thunderbox”), and limited or no cell service. The presence of parasites means that all drinking water must be boiled, filtered, or treated with a chemical disinfectant. 

a smiling man outdoors
Rick Stronks is the assistant superintendant of Algonquin Provincial Park. (Courtesy of Rick Stronks)

Before going into the backcountry for the first time, Stronks says, it’s important to assess your skill level with things like making a fire, cooking outdoors, and navigating with a map: “If you're not quite comfortable with it, perhaps what you might want to do, for your first trip, is consider hiring a guide or going with an experienced friend.”  


Plan, plan, plan

Whether you’re a beginner or an expert, going into the backcountry requires a plan, Stronks says: you should put together a day-by-day itinerary, study your route, check the weather forecast, and share your itinerary with someone who is not coming on your trip. If you don’t arrive back as planned, that person can alert the authorities.

Stronks says that the weather can change very quickly in Algonquin Park. "If it's warm out and you get cold rain for several hours and if you're not prepared — even in the summer, that can be enough to get into hypothermia conditions,” he says. Ensure that you waterproof your essentials and have rain gear for yourself. If you travel in the spring or fall, Stronks suggests packing as if it’s going to be winter weather. 


Start small

For first-time trippers, start with small trips and excursions — even a trial-run in your own backyard, Stronks says. “So, Opeongo Lake, which is our largest lake, it's tempting to say, ‘Let's do a trip up there.’ But a person who is new to canoeing — even experienced canoers — will sometimes find that's just too much.” (Last fall, a 32-year-old man died on Lake Opeongo after his canoe capsized in windy conditions; he spent more than an hour in open water.)


Make an emergency plan

Last year, Sergeant John Meaker, the OPP’s search-and-rescue coordinator, was in Algonquin Park with his family when he witnessed a group with a capsized canoe. He paddled out from his campsite to rescue those in the water, but before long, their canoe tipped again, leading to another rescue. “You could tell [they were] way over their heads,” he says. “It was too windy, and they had no control.”

orange poster on a tree, with a campsite in the background
An orange marker indicates the presence of a campsite in Algonquin Park. (Flickr/Adam Campbell)

Meaker says that trippers need to plan what they’ll do in case of an emergency — for instance, how one canoe in a group would help another if it were to capsize — before setting out on a trip. “If you're trying to think that out when you're seeing your friend drowning, you are going to make a bad decision.”


Learn to navigate

Meaker says navigation is a crucial skill for any tripper. “You have to have a map; you have to have a way to navigate,” he says. “You have to know where you are and where you’re going. That sounds pretty reaso­nable, but not a lot of people follow it.” 


Practice open-water safety 

In early June, lakes across Ontario are still very cold. Lake Ontario, for instance, was roughly 12 C on Thursday. Unless people have trained for it, falling into water of that temperature generally prompts them to involuntarily inhale — which can lead to drowning. “Anybody's a good swimmer until they're in freezing water,” says Savatti.  “A lot of these stories that we hear — horror stories of people having really awful circumstances in paddling open water — oftentimes, it has to do with the water temperature and lack of preparedness, lack of skill.” Savatti stresses the importance of wearing a life jacket at all times when on the water and, when paddling, hugging the shoreline of a lake, rather than travelling straight down the middle of it. 


Drink enough water 

On any trip, Savatti says, preventing dehydration should be a chief concern — and staying hydrated means consuming at least four litres of water a day. “If you’re not drinking enough water, your energy is low, your mood gets low, your capacity gets low, your physical strength gets low,” he says, adding that it’s also important to wear sunscreen and a hat and keep your blood-sugar level up.

a yellow tent in the woods
A campsite on an island on Burntroot Lake in Algonquin Park. (Flickr/Mitch)


Prepare for bugs

The intensity of the bugs in the backcountry, particularly early in the season, can be “kind of a bummer” for some people, Savatti says. (Blackfly season usually runs through May and June.) He suggests wearing light-coloured clothing and packing bug spray or a bug jacket. 


Keep your campsite clean

In backcountry areas home to black bears, campers should pack all food and scented products in a bag and hang it least four metres off the ground and two metres away from a tree trunk, as a black-bear safety measure. (Always remain a “respectful distance” from any animals and never feed or approach them, says Stronks.)  


If something goes wrong 

a man in a hat and police vest
Sergeant John Meaker is the OPP's provincial search-and-rescue coordinator. (Courtesy of John Meaker)

When the OPP is called in to find someone, Meaker says, his teams typically find them on marked trails or portages where “either they've hurt themselves or they've bitten off a trip that was too significant for their abilities.” If someone you know is not back from a trip on time, don’t hesitate to call the authorities, Meaker says. “It's much easier to find someone when we tackle it immediately.”  


If you get lost

“If you are ever lost in the woods, ‘hug a tree,’ and do not move,” Meaker says. “Once you figure out that you're lost, you're probably not very far away from us, and we will find you very quickly. But if you keep wandering, you'll get so far away." 

However, if someone has already wandered around for several days, Meaker says, they should go to an open area and create a signal that can be seen from the sky — ideally, three large fires that can be lit at first sight or sound of an aircraft. Bright clothing is helpful for being spotted from the air, he says.


Once you’re ready, get out there

Despite the learning curve, getting into the backcountry is well worth it, says Savatti. “There's such gold in these waters. There are such beautiful experiences to be had, and there's such a level of empowerment to feel. Everybody, I think, should have this," he says. “These days more than ever, I think we can all use more adaptability to uncertainty.” 

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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