15 Important Tips For Your Backcountry Canoe Trip in Algonquin Park

(Approx. 12min read)

Camping. Tripping. Canoe Tripping. Portage Camping. Backcountry Camping. Whatever you prefer to call it, getting outside and exploring Algonquin Park is a beautiful thing. But you need to make sure you’re prepared for your trip, and you should know some basic do’s and dont’s of canoe tripping in Algonquin Park. Not just for your own experience, but also to ensure you help preserve the surrounding environment.

With restrictions on international travel, there’s been a major surge in demand for ‘staycations’ like camping. While it’s great that more people are getting to explore Ontario’s parks, not everyone does the proper research beforehand to make sure they’re following the rules and best practices. So whether it’s your first time canoe tripping in Algonquin Park or you have a couple trips under your belt, here are 15 of the most important things you need to know before your backcountry canoe trip.

*This isn’t a comprehensive guide. Start with these tips and continue researching and educating yourself. And if you have any questions, feel free to send me an email.

Swift canoe loaded with canoe pack and food barrel - 8 Days Solo in September trip report feature image
Starting an 8-day solo canoe trip in Algonquin Park's interior, September 2020

1. Leave No Trace

I don’t want to say this is the most important tip of them all (since they’re all super important), but please read up on “Leave no Trace” and what it means. Basically, as the name implies, you want to leave no trace of your camping trip after you’re finished. What does this mean exactly? Don’t leave any garbage behind at the campsite. No food or wrappers in the fire pit. Don’t cut down live trees. Leave things where you found them. Respect the wildlife.

When you arrive at a campsite, you ideally want to see no trace of anyone being there before you. Yes there will be a fire pit, and a privy, and hopefully some flat ground for tents, but that should be it. And when you leave that campsite, you should leave it in the same condition you found it, if not better. One exception is if you want to leave behind processed firewood for the next campers, or as I like to call it, a ‘courtesy pile’. That’s always appreciated!

For more info check out the online Leave No Trace brochure over at Algonquin Adventures.

DONT DO THIS - please respect the outdoors and clean up after yourselves

2. Don’t Feed the Wildlife

This one might sound obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people think there are exceptions to this rule. There’s a saying “a fed bear is a dead bear”. When humans feed animals, they associate that spot and that interaction with being fed. So if a bear finds food while at a campsite, you can bet they’re coming back to that campsite again, and again, and again. And when that happens they start to lose their fear of humans and can become a nuisance bear, possibly requiring relocation. Or if the bear poses a safety risk to humans, the bear could be shot.

But even smaller, cuter wildlife like squirrels and chipmunks shouldn’t be fed. If you’ve ever been to a campsite where the chipmunks have been fed by previous campers, you know just how annoying they can be. You can’t leave your food unattended for 10 seconds without them trying to get into your stash. And they will absolutely chew threw almost anything to get your food… trust me, I’ve had chipmunks almost chew threw the lid of my food barrel overnight while it was hanging in the trees.

And on top of all of that, when humans feed wildlife they become dependent on being fed by humans and may lose their ability to hunt/forage on their own. So no matter what animal or critter or rodent you see, please always keep your food to yourself.

Chipmunk scratches on blue food barrel black lid
Eager chipmunks almost getting through my barrel to my food

3. Know Your Limits

You’re not just going car camping, you’re going into the backcountry! You’re portaging and paddling for hours and travelling through some tough terrain! This isn’t a trip for wimps, you’re going to burn thousands of calories every day and earn those dinners!

It’s exciting, I get it. But please be smart.

Especially if this is your first trip, or one of your first trips, plan accordingly. Don’t book lakes that you’re not sure you can make it to. Give yourself a rest day. Add in extra buffer time for everything that you plan to do; portaging, paddling, setting up camp, taking down camp, etc.

When you reserve a lake that’s too ambitious for your experience level, you may need to camp off-permit and that will throw off someone else’s reservation.

When you paddle in windy waters with white caps and you end up flipping your canoe, it could be a life or death scenario. I highly recommend reading this blog post by KPW Outdoors about a tragic accident that happened on Lake Opeongo, October 2020.

It’s not always easy to know the difficulty of a trip when looking at a map; everything looks small and inconsequential (ok, maybe not those 5k portages, but you know what I mean). Simply put, know your limits and don’t bite off more than you can chew. Not only can it ruin your own trip, but it can ruin other people’s trips as well.

Need some route suggestions? Take a look at my Trip Reports for some inspiration.

Map of trip details and campsites for six days solo in Algonquin canoe trip
Route planning for a 6 day solo trip (campsites filled in after the trip)

4. Prepare for the Season / Weather

Canoe tripping in Algonquin Park in May is a very different experience than canoe tripping in August. After the ice is off the water and camping season begins, you have a few weeks before the bugs start to get bad. And then they get bad… really bad. As July and August approach, the bugs will start to subside and the weather will get even hotter. As fall starts to come around, nighttime temperatures can dip to below 0 degrees celsius.

When you’re planning your trip you need to be aware of these things. If you’re doing a canoe trip in bug season, bring proper clothing, a lot of DEET, and consider erecting a bug shelter once you get to camp. In the mid summer months be cautious of the sun and maybe don’t plan on spending 8hrs on the water every day if it’s going to be 35 degrees outside. If the forecast calls for rain, invest in proper rain gear, don’t just rely on throwing a garbage bag over your shoulders.

Some of these things are mild inconveniences, but some can be much worse. Do your research beforehand, check the reports and forecasts, and bring the appropriate gear.

Rain or shine, prepare for the weather!

5. Never Cut Down Live Trees

Ok I’m going to keep this one short because there isn’t too much to be said. Don’t cut down live trees. That’s it. You’re damaging the environment, you’re ruining the campsite for future campers, and live firewood doesn’t burn easily anyways. There’s really no reason to cut down a live tree, so just don’t do it.

Wood collection for a morning fire on Big Trout Lake island campsite
Dead wood is good wood; there's no need to cut down live trees

6. Know Your Portage Etiquette

This is one that many people might not think about, or even realize is a thing to consider. But oh yes, portage etiquette is a thing. Portage landings don’t typically have too much space for multiple canoes to arrive at the same time so if you’re just arriving, pull your boat and gear off to the side to allow room for another canoe to enter the landing. 

If you double-carry portages, don’t leave half your gear in the middle of the landing at either end of the portage; leave it off to the side in case anyone else arrives. Be cognizant of the fact that even though you’re out in nature, there are still other people that might pass by. This is especially true for portages near busier areas of the park off Highway 60.

But what about during a portage. There’s some basic etiquette for that too! A person carrying the canoe always has the right of way. If you see someone walking towards you with a canoe, step off to the side and let them pass. If someone is coming up behind you and moving at a faster pace than you are, same thing, just step aside and let them pass. If you’re doing a double carry and there’s another group travelling in the same direction as you, you can offer to help carry some of their gear on your walk back.

And last rule… don’t be shy! It’s nice to greet your fellow campers as you pass by, even if it’s just a simple “Hey, good afternoon, enjoy the rest of your trip!”

Portaging a canoe during Thanksgiving weekend with leaves on the ground
Just passing by 👋

7. Camp Where You Have a Permit

When you do a backcountry canoe trip in Algonquin Park, you need to have a permit for the lake that you’re going to camp at. And on that lake, you need to camp at a designated campsite. Yes individual campsites are first come first serve, but you still need to camp on the lake that you’re supposed to be at.

This is especially important if you’re i) camping on a small lake with few campsites, and ii) camping during the busy summer months. You should always camp where you have a permit, but especially in those circumstances, camping off-permit can ruin the experience for another group.

There are certain circumstances where you might need to camp off-permit. Maybe there’s a huge storm and it’s not safe to be on the water. Maybe someone in your group is sick or injured and can’t travel. Maybe the winds are too strong and you deem it’s not safe to leave camp. In these emergency situations it’s ok if you need to camp off-permit, but there are a few things you should consider doing. First, if possible, try and take a lesser-desired site on the lake so that someone with an actual permit can get one of the more desirable sites. Second, you can offer to share your site with another group (especially if the lake is very busy and there’s a chance that they won’t be able to find a vacant campsite otherwise). And lastly, don’t stay any longer than you need to… keep going with your planned route as soon as you’re able.

My 'permitted' home for the weekend

8. Pack Out What You Pack In

Don’t leave anything behind. Maybe you decided to bring a big comfy camping chair but it was super heavy and you don’t want to take it on that long 3k portage on your way out. If you’re debating taking it back with you, think about what Nike always says and Just Do It. Unless you’re considering leaving it behind, then it’s time to go anti-Nike and Just Don’t Do It. 

Remember when we talked about Leave No Trace? It doesn’t matter if you think the item will improve the experience for the next campers, it’s almost never the right choice to leave your stuff behind. Whether it’s a frying pan, garbage, a camping chair, or a pair of wet socks… if you brought it into the park with you, bring it out with you. It’s really that simple.

Fire pit and seating area for Ragged Lake campsite with blue and green lawn chairs
These chairs were left behind by previous campers, a big no-no *waves finger*

9. Respect Other People’s Privacy

It’s ok to be friendly. Say hi to people if you pass them on a portage. It’s even ok to ask a group if they’ll be leaving a specific site you want to camp at (assuming they are by the shoreline, don’t start yelling out to them or going into the campsite). But be respectful of other people’s privacy. People enjoy the solitude and isolation of backcountry camping, so don’t intrude on that experience.

Remember that sound travels very easily over water, so even if you’re not right beside another group that doesn’t mean you’re not disturbing them. Don’t yell or be obnoxious, and don’t play music out of powered speakers, which is against the rules anyways. And just a friendly reminder that drones are not allowed inside the park, so if you were planning on spying on your campsite neighbours with a drone, well, you’re not allowed to do that… plus, that would just be super creepy.

Walking in the water during a beautiful sunset on Three Mile Lake
Some alone time is good for the soul

10. Always Wear Your PFD

In case you don’t know what a PFD is, it’s a Personal Flotation Device. Not exactly the same as ‘Lifejacket’, but very similar and the two terms are often used interchangeably by people. It’s the law that you need a PFD for every person in the canoe, and you absolutely should wear it at all times. It doesn’t matter if you’re a great swimmer. It doesn’t matter if you don’t think you’ll flip the canoe. If you didn’t see the blog post I linked above about the tragic accident at Lake Opeongo in October 2020, here’s the link again. Especially in the shoulder seasons, water temperatures can be very cold and being submerged in the water can quickly turn into a life or death scenario. It’s really not a big inconvenience to wear your PFD, but it could easily save your life. *Insert seatbelt reference*

Safety first - wear your PFD!

11. No Scents in the Tent

It honestly surprises me how often I’m watching canoe tripping videos on YouTube and I see people eating inside their tent, or inside the vestibule of the tent. My rule whenever I trip is ’no scents in the tent’. Not just food, but anything that has a scent. Sunscreen, whiskey, even the clothes I was wearing during dinner. Remember, animals have a much stronger sense of smell than you do. Just because you don’t smell the chili that spilled on your shorts doesn’t mean that a bear won’t.

When I go to sleep I like knowing that I’ve done my best to prevent a curious bear from sniffing around my tent, or a hungry mouse from chewing it’s way inside. Bonus tip, try and pitch your tent far enough away from the fire pit so that the scents while cooking don’t get windblown towards your tent.

Green Eureka Suma 2 tent pitched on campsite #11 on Big Trout Lake in Algonquin Park
"Stay away from me if you are smelly, please and thank you" - Tent

12. Pack Smart

Waterproof your gear. Always have a first aid kit easily accessible. Pack into fewer bags so you have less loose items while portaging. Bring a backup water purification system and extra fire starters, and pack them in multiple places in case you lose one of your bags. Bring an emergency rescue device like a SPOT or InReach. Bring an extra day or two worth of food; you never know when you might get delayed or set back from your intended route. Bring multiple maps; digital and physical options are both ok, but don’t rely on only one map in case it gets lost or destroyed.

Large group travelling with tons of gear at the end of the portage into Cache Lake in Algonquin Park
There's packing smart, and then there's this...

13. Know When NOT to Paddle

This one may seem straight forward but a lot of people don’t recognize the danger of paddling in heavy winds or during a storm.

If you think a storm is coming through, create an exit strategy. Stay close to shore and check your map for the nearest campsite or portage landing so you can take shelter with easy access out of the water. Never paddle if there’s lightning, and it’s usually recommended to wait 30min from the last lightning strike before getting back onto the water.

If there are heavy winds, your group will need to determine if you think it’s safe to paddle through it or if you should stay on shore. If you see white caps or large waves, it’s usually best to err on the side of caution and stay on shore. If you do choose to paddle, stay near the shoreline so that if you do tip, you’re not far from safety. A flipped boat is never fun, but flipping in cold waters can easily lead to hypothermia and possibly death.

Windy Day on Burntroot Lake Sept 2020
Not a good time to be on the water - stay on shore!

14. Hang Your Food

Hanging your food isn’t a foolproof solution, I know. But hanging your food will almost always be better than not hanging it. You can do a simple hang to raise it off the ground from certain rodents / critters, or a more thorough hang high above the ground and far from the trunk of the tree to help prevent bears from getting to your food. It doesn’t take too much time to hang your food, but you’ll be happy knowing that the chances of mice or chipmunks or bears getting into your precious energy supply is much lower when it’s hung between trees. I’ve even created a simple step-by-step guide showing you How to Properly Hang Your Food in Algonquin Park.

David Lake campsite #1 food barrel hang
Hanging my food barrel at the island campsite on David Lake

15. Shit Happens

Yes, this is one of the 15 most important things to know before your backcountry canoe trip. No matter how prepared, educated, or experienced you are, shit happens.

In September 2020 I was checking out a campsite for my Campsite Reports and I thought I had secured the canoe well enough, but when I arrived back to the landing I saw the canoe slowly drifting away in the water. Within 5 seconds I was stripped out of all my warm layers into just my underwear, and going for a swim to get my boat before it drifted away too far. Did I want to go swimming when it was 3 degrees outside and I was wearing warm wool clothing? Nope. Was this the first time I’ve left my canoe at the landing while checking out a campsite? Nope. I’ve literally done it 150+ times and this was the first time that this specific situation has ever happened to me. You know why? Because shit happens.

Plan as much as you can, prepare as much as you can, but recognize that you’re never fully in control of every variable when you’re out on a trip. So be aware of your surroundings, think critically, and whenever possible, have a Plan B.

Linda Lake campsite #1 in 2018 propped open thunder box
No, not this type... but that does happen too 🙂