How to start backcountry camping
Canoe and camping expert Brad Jennings shares his tips
Although there are spots throughout North America where camping is seriously curtailed if not outright banned temporarily due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But that will change and when it does the growth trend of backcountry camping will continue. And why not? It is a unique and incredible experience, and it is also further removed from increasingly busy and hard to book frontcountry camping.
There is also a lot of fairly accessible backcountry camping available for those just looking to get their tents wet, and plenty of opportunities to scale up and go further. To that end, there is no surprise that rescues and injuries in the backcountry are also increasing thanks to those who are not fully prepared.
Brad Jennings has been canoe tripping in northern Ontario since he was three years old, a tradition passed down for three generations. He also runs the website Explorethebackcountry.com where he highlights his trips through some pretty incredible short films, not to mention reviewing outdoor gear for Get Out There. We thought he’d be the perfect person to give us a little introduction to the backcountry.
“Our backcountry paddling adventures grew from a father-son pastime into a lifelong passion for exploring the lesser travelled and forgotten routes of a bygone era,” Jennings says. “These days, my wife and I do the majority of tripping, some years, spending up to 100 days in a canoe! I'm lucky enough to live in Northern Ontario where all my outdoor pursuits may involve some aspect of backcountry travel, from biking to hiking to adventure racing.”
According to Jennings, the biggest difference between the front country, or car camping, and backcountry is the proximity not only to other people but also to help. After that, it is the lack of even the most basic amenities one might find in a campground like a privy and a fire pit.
“A trip to the backcountry requires a degree of physical effort as you're traveling with all your equipment over land or water,” he explains. “However, the privacy, solitude and breathtaking wild environments far outweigh any struggle. The first backcountry canoe trip is often touted as a life changing experience for good reason.”
Canoe tripping makes it easier to carry gear
So how do you know when you’re ready? Jennings says, when you feel confident and comfortable with frontcountry camping, you’re ready to try something more. But that doesn’t mean taking on some epic adventure right away.
“Your first foray does not have to be a daunting ordeal. Organized groups, guide and outfitter services, or travelling with a well experienced partner, can ease you into the backcountry all while building valuable tripping skills,” Jennings says. “If you're venturing out on your own or it's your group's first trip, you'll want to brush up on some of those necessary basic skills and put new ones into practice first.”
Jennings suggests reading articles, watching YouTube videos are a fine idea, but actually putting those skills into practice is what’s important and there is nothing wrong with figuring things out in the safety of your own backyard instead of in the pouring rain after a two-hour paddle to a bug-infested campsite.
“There's nothing more disheartening than arriving at your site in inclement weather and struggling to set up your tent or get your stove going because you've never used it before,” he adds.
Regarding equipment, backcountry camping requires the usual essentials including a shelter, sleeping bag, headlamp, stove etc. In addition, campers will also need a fully-stocked first aid kit, maps, a waterproof pack to store gear and clothing in inclement weather. For those travelling by water, a spare paddle is required, lifejackets and, you know, a canoe or kayak.
“If it's your first trip, don't rush out and buy the latest and greatest lightweight expedition gear as this will get pricey quickly,” Jennings says. “A short trip in the summer can comfortably be accomplished with frontcountry grade equipment. After you've put gear to use, you can begin to sort out what would be your next upgrade or purchase. Most large parks offer outfitting where you can get fully equipped with their gear and even a backcountry friendly scrumptious meal plan.”
If you're headed out on the water, you'll need to know how to paddle your craft of choice. Jennings suggests getting familiar at your local lake or give paddling a go the next time you're in the frontcountry. Better yet, take some lessons offered by a certified paddle instructor. In addition, a basic sense of navigation and map reading is required to successfully make your way down the trail or lake to that prime campsite.
Now that the gear closet is full and ready to roll, and the skills are backcountry ready, it’s time to plan. If you’re the planning type, you’re in luck. Jennings says trip planning for an adventure is half the fun.
“Plotting a route on a map is made less of a daunting task when accompanied by a detailed guidebook or a trip report,” explains Jennings. “There's a robust online community of backcountry travellers across social media and dedicated websites who share trip reports or can help answer questions. You can always use the service of an outfitter to assist in picking a route that would best fit what you're looking to see and experience.”
Another essential is to always file a trip plan with someone before you go.
For a first trip, it is a good idea to try an established park with novice friendly canoe routes, which can be found in the majority of provincial parks in Ontario that offer backcountry paddling opportunities.
“Start off small. Head out for one or two nights and don't stray too far from an access point. Aim to tackle one or two short portages to give you an idea of how to move your gear overland without overdoing it,” he says. “Some Ontario Parks even offer up beginner friendly routes complemented by a well-equipped campsite complete with tent pads, picnic table, fire pit and grill, pit privy and bear hang.”
If going by foot, stick to a trail system first and don't push far on your first outing. Canoe tripping can offer more flexibility in what to pack, as more gear can be moved with relative ease.
Backcountry camping can offer magical experiences (Photo: Destination Ontario)
Also be sure to follow these additional backcountry etiquette tips:
· Be bear wise and keep your campsite clean. That means food is stored away from curious critters and scraps are never left out.
· Practice low-impact no trace camping. Always leave the site cleaner than you found it as there is no backcountry garbage collection service. Leaving trash in the firepit or pit privy is frowned upon as these will inevitably be used by others and will attract nuisance animals like bears.
· If no pit privy is available, you'll have to bury your waste at least 30cm and far away from any established site, trail or waterfront.
· Pack out, burn or bury your toilet paper, no one likes to walk around a site and step in an unpleasant reminder that others had been there.
· Never cut down live trees. Not only is this illegal in parks, green wood burns poorly and removing standing trees creates lasting damage to a campsite. Instead collect fallen dead wood far away from your site.
Jennings says he has been lucky enough to travel to some amazing places, each with its own set of unique draws, but some have left a permanent impression.
“The rugged northern coastline of Lake Superior stands out because it offers up a truly unique paddling experience,” he says. “The world's largest freshwater lake is akin to an inland sea. Plagued by fickle weather, the lake can switch from a sheet of glass to a boat sinking frothy frenzy alarmingly fast. Weathered cliffs, craggy peaks, endless beaches and some of the finest solitude you can experience. It's a route only suited for the highly experienced or under one of the guided trips offered by area outfitters”
Jennings says he’s also fallen in love with a region known as the Little North, a vast wilderness sprawling for over a million square kilometres in the northern reaches of Ontario and Manitoba.
“You could spend a lifetime paddling the lakes and rivers that flow between Lake Winnipeg and ocean waters of Hudson and James Bay,” Jennings says.
“Stateside, I'd have to say the Rio Grande River remains the standout favourite. From the wide open desert landscapes of the Great Unknown to the neck craning, skyward matching walls of the Lower Canyons, the paddler is constantly treated to a mesmerizing landscape. The river flows past some impressive historic sites, hot springs and if water levels are up, there are some challenging rapids to run too. Guided trips through portions of the river are offered.”
Brad Jennings has helmed ExploreTheBackountry.com for more than a decade, mapping and maintaining routes, producing videos, photos, reports and more, all while encouraging others to get out and explore for themselves.