By Kevin Woodhouse
As a child, I developed a deep appreciation for the outdoors as my father built a cottage on a quiet lake about a half hour’s drive from Morin Heights on a dirt road to Lake Gustave, a small lake that did not allow motor boats so canoeing or rowing a boat was the mode of transportation on the water.
My wife and I now enjoy going into the bush at least once a year for an extended, canoe camping trip. For many years, we just went by ourselves but lately we have had another canoe join us which makes for some great family time out in the woods. And while for me, there is nothing better than getting away from it all by taking your provisions, tent and gear with you and heading out on a four day circuit that is destined to bring you great memories and stories to tell others.
But a poorly planned trip can teach some folks to never go into the forest unless there is a room service available. That is why I am offering the following tips on how to ensure your camping experience is unforgettable enough to make it part of your yearly activities.
Get good, reliable gear
You don’t have to spend a fortune to have the right gear but it pays to take care of some important formalities. Socks are not costly but a dry pair for every evening (yes, it can be the same pair for the whole trip) is better than a warm steak. A decent sleeping bag is also a must. Many a trip I have gone on has been ruined for those who brought along their 30 year bag that had been stored under boxes in the attic. Sleeping bags need to be aired out and tested prior to going on a long trip. The best way to preserve a bag is to leave it opened if possible and hung up in a closet.
Your tent does not have to be state of the art to ensure you will be dry in the event of rain. You need a tent with a proper fly that can be added in the case of a storm and one that does not leak. Products that come out of a can can help maintain the tent’s water repellant qualities. There are rare times on a trip where it can rain for most of it and sitting in the tent worrying if the fabric can take the precipitation is no way to spend time outdoors.
Get a small camping stove that will light on a rock face or an open camping area in extreme wind. For car campers, weight is not an issue but for canoe or kayak campers, small is better. On a three or four day venture, it is not advisable to borrow this from a friend who “used it a couple of years ago”. No warm food at night can make for a long, long trip.
Plan the course according to your fitness level
First time campers should not head out into the woods without an idea of where they are going and what they can take. La Mauricie Park does not allow for reservations but the camping lots have wood included in the package so if you want, you don’t have to spend two hours gathering wood and your trip would not include any portages.
Rollins Pond in the US is also a great place to start as they have easy canoe camping routes and car camping available too.
Alqonquin is a gorgeous place to camp in Ontario but you have to prepare against black bears. For this, my one suggestion would be to buy or rent a barrel. Barrels come with air tight locks so having to hang up your food is no longer an issue. Also, if you happen to go over in your boat, your foodstuff will remain dry.
La Verendrye Park is a perfect place to try canoe camping as there are a number of circuits to choose from. Lily dipping canoeists can go for a one day trip while real enthusiasts can get lost for days while enjoying some white water camping to boot.
Portages, while a real Canadian experience, can really eat up time if you are not ready for the work. Everything that is in your boat, kids and dogs included, has to come out and be transported using your back so never overpack your gear. For first time portagers, tying your life jacket or sweater to the yolk of the boat will lessen the pressure on your shoulders.
My personal record for a portage was a 4kmoneIdidwithagroupofaboutten guys a few years back. It took us all afternoon to lug all of the gear with myself and another buddy doing two trips. I am proud to say I did that but now, I look for portages that don’t take five hours to complete.
Maps and compasses are your friends
In an era of all information available at our fingertips through electronic devices, it is a joy to get out into the bush and rely on your own skills to get you to your destination. I always think back to when Les Voyageurs must have crossed these lakes and rivers for the first time without any maps or landmarks to choose from as they were doing it for the first time. I recently learned in a documentary that the Voyageurs used to paddle for 14 hours a day, every day and were expected to maintain a rhythm of 55 strokes per minute. That is a crazy pace.
Before heading out into the woods, take an orienteering course or learn how to use a compass in a safe setting near your home. On the water is not the time to learn, especially if people with you are counting on you to get them to their destination.
On the water by 8, off by 3
My wife and I used to do long trips in a short time which meant we were paddling for way too long. Getting off the water at 6 is no fun especially if you are in a popular park and camping spaces are a premium. Also, traveling with younger or older campers or animals ensures you should stop every two hours to stretch legs so planning to cover 20 km in one day can leave you stressed, hungry and tired which are not good for camping. Accidents happen when people are exhausted.
Getting a chance to enjoy a camp site is part of the fun of the trip. Arriving at nightfall with only minutes of light left to set up your tent is not a fun way to camp. Allowing for time on the water to get to your site as well as off is the key to balancing a good trip.
“It’s only one can” left behind at a site is not a good way to camp. Pack food that has packing that can be easily crumpled for your garbage bag or if it is environment-friendly, burn it in your camp fire.
Littering of any kind is terrible etiquette as there are no garbage cans around. Whatever you take in, should be taken out. It is simply the right thing to do and arriving at a site where the previous tenants left old food can be dangerous as critters are sure to be invited to stop by and see what’s for dinner.
Keep a camping journal
You don’t have to include everything that happened but a few notes jotted down on the day can go along way toward preparing for an even better trip the following year. You might not remember that on your first trip you packed way too much clothes or you realized that only bringing canned food without a proper can opener was not your best idea.
Seeing the comments written down can help plan a better one for the next time.
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