Finding the Best Campsites in Algonquin Park—Backcountry Camping
Algonquin Park is arguably the most popular provincial park in Ontario, and there’s no shortage of areas to explore within the park. With 7,653 square kilometres of land area, more than 1,500 lakes, over 2,000km of canoe routes, and more than 1,900 campsites, you can spend decades camping in Algonquin Park and still find somewhere new to explore.
Developed Campgrounds aka ‘car camping’ attract thousands of visitors every year, but the real beauty of Algonquin Park lies in its backcountry. In this article, we’re going to talk about finding the best campsites specifically in Algonquin Park’s backcountry. This isn’t going to be a review of individual campsites though, if that’s what you’re looking for you can check out my Algonquin Park Campsite Reports.
One quick note and one quick PSA before we begin:
Note: The “perfect” campsite doesn’t exist. Everyone has their own personal preference in what they look for in a campsite, and a good campsite in one situation might not be ideal in another situation. Don’t worry, I’ll explain what that means, just keep on reading!
PSA: Please, please, please, pretty please respect your campsite. The past few years during COVID has seen a big increase in demand for camping, and as a result many campsites are left in poor conditions. Follow “Leave No Trace”; don’t cut down live trees, don’t mark or damage any trees, put out your fire before you leave your site, don’t leave any food or garbage in the fire pit or anywhere at the site, pack out everything that you pack in, etc. The site should look exactly the same, if not better, than when you arrived. The only thing that should be left behind when you leave a campsite is firewood for the next campers, if you’re able. Please do your part in helping to preserve this beautiful park of ours for future campers and future generations!
1. Booking Backcountry Campsites in Algonquin Park
Where you end up camping during your nights in Algonquin Park will have a big impact on your overall tripping experience. Fortunately, or unfortunately (depending on your personal views), individual campsites are not reservable in Algonquin Park’s backcountry for canoeing campsites. Unlike developed campgrounds in Algonquin where you reserve specific campsites, for canoeing campsites in the backcountry, it’s first-come-first-serve. You reserve a specific lake, and once you arrive on the lake, you’re free to take any vacant campsite.
You can visit the Ontario Parks website directly to review the official Reservation Rules and Regulations. But here are a few key things that you should know:
- Depending on the time of year, you can make a reservation on the Ontario Parks website, over the phone by calling Ontario Parks, or in person at one of several onsite locations.
- When booking before your trip, you are making a reservation for a permit, you are not getting the actual permit at that time.
- When you make a reservation, you will see that every lake has a number associated with it. For example, 10 – Burnt Island. This is not a campsite number! People often get confused and think they are booking “campsite #10 on Burnt Island” but the number you see is just the lake number.
- The earliest you can make a reservation is 5 months before the first day of your trip.
- If you need to modify or cancel your reservation, there is a tiered fee policy depending on how long you have had your reservation.
- In 2021, Ontario Parks announced that Killarney backcountry and Algonquin hiking campsites were moving to a ‘site specific’ reservation system (similar to developed campgrounds). There are rumours that this will be implemented for Algonquin canoeing campsites as well, but at the time of writing this article, it has not happened.
Pro tip: Want to see how many permits are issued for a given lake, and how many permits are still available? Use the Google Chrome extension SiteScout. The extension is completely free but if you find it useful you can buy the developer a coffee from the website (I am not the developer).
2. Using Online Resources to Research Campsites
The best way to research campsites in Algonquin Park is by visiting them yourself. Nothing beats some good old first-hand reconnaissance! But like I mentioned in the intro, there are over 1,900 campsites in Algonquin Park, so yeah, good luck scouting them all. It’s no surprise that people are turning to online resources to find information about campsites in Algonquin Park while planning their next canoe trip. Here are some useful resources that I recommend checking out:
Algonquin & Beyond: Of course the first recommendation is going to be my very own Algonquin Park Campsite Reports! I have 220 reports at the time of writing this article, and every year I continue to explore more of the park and grow that list.
Algonquin Adventures PCI: The “Portage and Campsite Inventory”, also known as the PCI, is an incredible resource on the Algonquin Adventures website. It’s what inspired me to start my own database of campsite reports, and you’ll find all of my reports included in the PCI. No campsite research is complete without first checking the PCI.
Algonquin Adventures Forum: While we’re talking about Algonquin Adventures, there’s also a forum filled with knowledgable, friendly, and helpful people. If you’re looking for some campsite advice from seasoned canoe trippers, join the forum and make a post. It’s as easy as that.
MyCCR Forums: The MyCCR website isn’t specifically for Algonquin Park, but just like Algonquin Adventures the forums are filled with some of the most experienced and knowledgeable people you’ll find. And there’s plenty of old posts and discussions to search through regarding campsites in Algonquin Park.
All of Algonquin: The personal blog All of Algonquin is basically the same as my website, just with different content. In depth trip reports and countless campsite reports will help you find the perfect campsite for your next canoe trip.
YouTube: I’m hesitant to recommend YouTube as a research platform because I see people giving really bad advice and blatantly breaking the rules way too often in their videos… but there’s no denying a video showing you a campsite can be really helpful.
*You may see campsite numbers on the map when researching campsites in Algonquin Park (for example, on my Campsite Reports). Just to clarify, there are no official campsite numbers for canoeing campsites in Algonquin Park; this numbering system is not associated with Ontario Parks and is simply a community-based effort to make referencing campsites easier.
3. The Journey vs. The Destination
Let’s jump back to something that I mentioned earlier – canoeing campsites in Algonquin Park are not ‘site specific’ bookings. You book a lake, and campsites are first-come-first-serve when you arrive on the lake. So a big question you need to ask yourself is which do you care about more, the journey, or the destination?
Some people absolutely love finding the best campsite on their reserved lake. They’ll hit the water first thing in the morning, paddle hard, portage fast, and aim to arrive at their destination as early as possible to snag a good site. On the other hand, some people enjoy taking their time during their travels. They may stop to take pictures, observe the wildlife, or take their time for any other number of reasons. There’s no right or wrong approach, and finding a middle-ground is usually the best mindset in my opinion.
It’s always nice to arrive early on a lake to try and get a nice campsite, but there’s no guarantee that you’ll get a specific campsite. Never plan a route that you’ll only be happy doing if you get specific campsites, because you’ll just be setting yourself up for failure. Maybe another group is coming to the destination lake from somewhere closer in the park, so they get there before you. Or maybe a group has already been camping on the campsite you want for a few days before you even arrive! The rare exception to this is if you book a lake that only issues one permit, but there aren’t many lakes to choose from like this.
Don’t ruin the journey by focusing solely on the destination, especially when most of the time there’s no guarantee which campsite you’ll end up getting.
Pro Tip: If you trip in the off-season when there are fewer people in the park, you can spend more time appreciating the journey, and still arrive to a lake with plenty of vacant campsites. Also, you can plan shorter travel days. Instead of pushing hard for 6-7 hours, you can plan to travel for maybe 2-3 hours each day so you can take your time during the journey and still arrive at your destination lake early.
4. The Ultimate Campsite Checklist For Algonquin Park
Everything we’ve talked about so far has been during the planning stages before your actual trip. Now let’s get into the good stuff. You’ve packed all your gear, driven to your access point, and you’re ready to hit the water. Now that the trip has officially begun, let’s find you the perfect campsite.
The variables below are an overview of the mental checklist I go through when arriving at a campsite. Some of the variables are much more important than others, and the importance of each variable will change based on external factors (see section below “Other Variables to Consider When Choosing a Campsite”)
Before going through the checklist it’s important to remember that there is no perfect campsite! There’s a high level of personal preference when choosing a campsite; most people will follow a mental checklist similar to mine, but they’ll give different weighted values to each variable depending on what they prefer to have at their campsite.
Tent Spots: I’ll look at the number of tent spots, as well as their size and location. Flat, soft ground is crucial for a good night’s sleep, and my preference is to have my tent sheltered by some surrounding trees. Don’t forget to look above and make sure there are no widowmakers hanging over the tent spot!
Fire Pit and Seating: Is there enough seating for your group? Are the benches flat so they’re comfortable to sit on for long periods of time? Is the fire pit well built and are there grills to cook on? Most importantly, do you get a nice view onto the lake from the fire pit?
Shoreline: I’ll sacrifice a lot in a campsite if it has a nice rocky shoreline. Large, flat rocks are great for enjoying the sun as well as late-night stargazing.
Swimming: I don’t swim too often in the backcountry, but it’s always nice to have a campsite with deep water surrounding it instead of shallow, marshy, mucky waters. This is a perfect example of ‘personal preference’; a campsite without good swimming opportunities may be a deal breaker for some, but I personally don’t mind.
Exposure Direction: Which way does the campsite face? East will provide sunrise views and early morning sunshine, and west will provide afternoon sun along with sunset views. Personally, I love islands and peninsula sites that offer views both east and west because I’m a sucker for both sunrises and sunsets!
Tree Coverage & Shelter: Is the campsite relatively sheltered or is it heavily exposed to the elements? The ideal campsite for me is one that has an exposed rocky shoreline, with a more sheltered interior.
Hammocks & Tarps: The tree coverage around the campsite isn’t only important for protection from the elements, but if you bring a hammock and/or tarp you’ll want to make sure there are places that they can be set up between the trees.
View From Campsite: Is there tree coverage separating the campsite from the water, or do you get a nice view onto the lake directly from the campsite? I’ve been to campsites that have a 20-30 metre walk inland from the water, and that’s an immediate deal breaker for me.
Privacy: Are there other campsites nearby? Is it near any portages? Will canoeists pass right in front of the site during their travel? Sometimes a site will be worth camping at if it’s tucked away in a corner of the lake; some people may prefer privacy and solitude over some of the other variables listed.
Canoe Landing: The canoe landing can be small, rocky, and full of roots, or it can be a large beach. It varies widely, but a good canoe landing is one where there’s enough space to comfortably and easily unload your gear.
Accessibility: Is there a steep climb or long walk from the canoe landing to the main campsite area? This is important when you need access to the water, whether it’s for cooking, to put out your fire at the end of the evening, or if you’re like me and enjoy getting into your boat numerous times throughout the day to go for a paddle.
Food Hang: If you’re hanging your food overnight (which I recommend doing), it’s important to check for a viable branch. And more importantly, where is it located? Ideally your food should be hung 30 metres or further away from the main campsite area. When you arrive at a campsite you can do a quick check to see your options.
Firewood: There’s no denying it, I’m a huge fan of island campsites. But small islands are usually picked clean when it comes to firewood, meaning you’ll need to go on shore somewhere else to collect wood. That’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make for a nice island, but other people may prefer otherwise.
Thunder Box: Also known as the toilet, or privy, a good thunder box is an important aspect of any campsite. You’ll want to make sure it offers privacy, while not being too far of a walk from the campsite (for those times when duty calls in the middle of the night). Hopefully it’s not too full either!
Cleanliness: No one wants to stay at a campsite that is messy from previous campers, whether it’s food leftover in the fire pit, garbage on the ground, or miscellaneous items left behind. Don’t be that group! Be the group that follows “Leave No Trace” and helps keep the campsite in better condition than the way you found it.
Wildlife: Nothing will scare you away from a campsite quicker than seeing fresh bear scat. When you arrive at a site, walk around and see if there are any signs of wildlife. If I see signs of a bear, I won’t want to stay at the site. But oftentimes I’ll see moose prints or moose scat; that won’t deter me from staying at the site, but I’ll know to be mindful of the fact that I may have a visitor at some point during my stay.
5. Other Variables to Consider When Choosing a Campsite
The previous section “The Ultimate Campsite Checklist For Algonquin Park” offers a comprehensive list of things to look at when you arrive at the campsite. It focuses on the physical features and characteristics of the campsite, but there are some other external factors to consider as well. The importance of each variable from the previous section may change based on the following:
Group Size: There’s a huge difference in campsite requirements if you’re travelling solo, or if you’re travelling with 5 other people. I mostly travel solo, so I only need one small tent spot. Flat seating around the fire pit is nice, but I bring a lightweight folding chair so campsite seating isn’t a necessity. Plus, I really enjoy going out for paddles so I look for a site that has easy access to the water. Simply put, certain variables are more important when you’re solo, and certain variables are more important when you’re with a large group.
Season: Some of my favourite campsites in the summer would be very non-ideal in the off season. A small, exposed island campsite may be great on a sunny day, but if it’s a cold, windy, rainy October evening, you’ll be cursing at yourself for choosing a site like that. And if you’re brave enough to camp during peak bug season in the spring, you’ll want to find a site that’s exposed to the breeze to help keep the bugs away.
Water Levels: The water levels are always changing based on the amount of rainfall throughout the season, and this will have a huge impact on the perimeter of the campsite. Low water levels can expose an otherwise hidden beach or rocky shoreline, and can make the canoe landing much more accessible. Alternatively, high water levels may do the opposite and cover up most of the shoreline and can make the canoe landing a PITB (pain in the butt!). Generally speaking, low water levels result in ‘nicer’ campsites; who doesn’t like more exposed rock and accessible canoe landings?
Weather Forecast: Don’t be fooled by that pretty island campsite if the weather forecast is calling for buckets of rain and strong winds. If you see forecasts of 45km/hr winds coming from the west, don’t choose a site that’s heavily exposed to the west. It may be a beautiful campsite, but trust me you will regret it. And if it’s calling for heavy rainfall, you’ll want to prioritize a campsite with good shelter and places to pitch a tarp instead of sunset views. There’s no point in prioritizing a sunset view if it’s just going to be blocked by overcast anyways, right?
Length of Stay: This one ties in with every other variable simultaneously. For example, if I arrive at a campsite late in the evening and it’s raining and I know that I’ll be leaving early the next morning, I won’t care about swimming or having a good fire pit. If the site is sheltered and has flat ground for a good night sleep, that would be way more important in that situation. However, if I’m base camping on a campsite for a few days, my priorities will definitely be different.
Age and Physical Ability of Group: I’m still a pretty young guy (or so I like to think) but with each passing year I find myself more drawn to flat, easily accessible campsites. If you’re travelling with people who are older or physically less fit, look for a campsite with a flat canoe landing and minimal incline to the main campsite area. It’s ok to save those scenic cliff campsites for another time!
There you have it, my ultimate guide to finding the best campsite in the backcountry of Algonquin Park. Keep in mind this article is just my personal opinion and is based on my own experiences and preferences. Even my own preferences seem to evolve with each passing year. I’ve visited well over 200 campsites in Algonquin Park so I like to think I know what makes for a good campsite, but who knows, maybe when I visit 200 more I’ll have a different opinion than I do now. I guess I should start preparing for v2 of this article!