If you haven’t tried canoe camping yet and are on the hunt for new physically-distanced activities, you may want to find a spot for it on your list of things to try before winter officially arrives. If you’re new to camping or prefer to spend your days relaxing along the lake, this may not be the activity for you – but if you love the outdoors, are moderately fit, and are craving an adventure, this could be your new favourite way to escape into nature!

I grew up camping with my family and had gone on a few weekend getaways more recently with friends, but a couple of years ago my then-boyfriend and I decided to up our game: we rented a canoe and spent four days paddling around Ontario’s Algonquin Park. For me, it was the ultimate getaway. If you’re itching to give it a shot yourself, here are some tips I learned from my first canoe camping adventure.

I’ll stop here to say that although this was my first time portaging, it wasn’t his. He was quite experienced with being in the woods, and already had all of the required gear (minus the canoe). If you’re not comfortable camping or using a map, or don’t have someone in your group who is, I recommend starting off with a smaller goal, like an overnight hike or weekend car camping trip. And when in doubt, go shorter (more on that in my last tip).

1. Get the Right Gear and Pack Wisely

Canoe camping requires a totally different approach to supplies and packing than car camping does. I went car camping a few weeks ago and loaded up the car with everything I thought I might need, extras of a few things, tons of food, and even a small table.

With canoe camping, you have to carry or paddle all of your supplies. It’s important to invest in gear that’s lightweight and easy to pack, as well as a couple of extra-large drybags to put everything in. Of course, this can be expensive if you’re starting from scratch. Borrow what you can to make it easier on your wallet (who thought getting lost in nature could be so expensive?).

We ended up having to pack, unpack, make decisions on what to leave behind, and then re-pack in order to get everything we needed for two people and a dog for four days and three nights into two bags – making sure we could actually carry the weight throughout our journey.

Of course, if you’re in bear country, make sure you have a bear barrel to lock food and scented items in (did you know bears are attracted to the smell of toothpaste?) as well as bear spray.

2. Get the Lightest Canoe Possible

You could argue that this falls under the above tip, but having lived through the experience I firmly believe this deserves its own tip. We rented a kevlar canoe from Algonquin Bound Outfitters, and the lighter the canoe the more expensive it is to rent. We went for the light-but-not-lightest model, thinking the few extra pounds wouldn’t make a difference.

They do. Splurge and get the lightest canoe possible.

3. Plan for Extra Time on Your First Day

If I could go back I would have planned to leave earlier to account for all the little things that take up time: stopping for gas, stopping for lunch, picking up the canoe, getting the truck unloaded and the canoe properly loaded… it all takes a lot more time than you think.

We ended up arriving at our first campsite on Stratton Lake just as the sun was setting. It was a short trip from push-off to the campsite, just about two hours total and only one short 50-metre portage (nothing that prepared me for the days to come), but by the time we set up the tent and got ourselves organized, we were eating dinner in the dark.

With a full day ahead and a sleepless night that first night (everything sounded like a bear in the woods) it would have been smart to get in and settled with time to relax that first day.

Canoe Camping photo by Nikki Gillingham
Photo by Nikki Gillingham

4. Don’t Overdo It

Being both relatively fit, we had a big day planned for day number two: Get all the way to the bottom of Barron Canyon. From our spot on Stratton Lake, here’s what that looked like:

  • A paddle to the end of Stratton Lake
  • An 80-metre portage
  • A paddle through St. Andrews Lake
  • A 550-metre portage
  • A paddle through High Falls Lake
  • A 300-metre portage
  • A quick paddle through Ooze Lake (easy to see where it gets its name when you’re there. Gross)
  • A 640-metre portage
  • An even quicker paddle across Opalescent Lake
  • A 750-metre portage
  • A paddle across Birgham Lake
  • A quick 100-metre portage
  • A paddle through Brigham Chute
  • One last 440-metre portage
  • And the final paddle through the Barron Canyon (beautiful is an understatement) and to our campsite.

We overdid it. Obviously.

Eight hours after leaving the first site, we got to our second campsite, set up the tent, made a fire, ate dinner, put out the fire, and promptly passed out.

In Algonquin Park’s backcountry, you book a spot on a lake, but the sites themselves are first come first serve. On day three we had only two options for campsites, and they were quite a ways apart from each other. Being exhausted from the day before, we only paddled and portaged for a couple of hours before arriving at the first site and, seeing it was empty, decided to stop for the day. 

View from the tent photo by Nikki Gillingham
View from the tent photo by Nikki Gillingham

5. Listen to Your Body

We woke up the morning of day four and, because we opted for a shortened day three, had another long journey ahead of us. This was supposed to be our last day in the park – we were heading back to the truck and home, but not before completing another nine portages and paddling across eight lakes.

The site we happened to be on was on the edge of the park – next to the main road that led to our starting point. And I had my running shoes with me.

It was too tempting to pass up. While he packed up the site, I ran along the road and got the truck. In about two hours, we were packed up and on the way home.

Of course, we felt like we cheated by not paddling our way out. But we also knew neither of us had it in us to make it through another tough eight-hour day. Since we had the option, the smartest – and safest – decision was to call it when we did.

Throughout the course of our trip through Algonquin Park, we saw only a handful of other people. In the backcountry, campsites are large and far apart from each other. This can be unnerving if you’re new to being in the woods, but if you’re truly looking for an escape, want to try something new, and don’t want to have to worry about COVID safety regulations, I highly recommend giving canoe camping a shot. As exhausting as it was, there’s nothing like a few days in nature to fill your cup and nourish your soul. You’ll come back refreshed and ready to plan your next adventure.