In the final installment of her summer series for Outpost, “A Beginner’s Guide to Solo Canoeing,” adventurer Tori Baird tells you how to plan to be in the backcountry during your backcountry adventure.
Story and photos by (and courtesy of) Tori Baird
In June 2020, two girls set out on a canoe trip down the Spanish River in Northern Ontario. At some point along the way they got into a disagreement and one of them hopped in the canoe and took off, leaving her friend behind with no mode of transportation out of the bush, and no cellphone service.
Thankfully the girl who was left behind was wise enough to hop on her inflatable air mattress and float down the river until she was within cellphone range to call for help.
I use this as an example as to why it’s extremely important to choose your paddling partners wisely. Canoe trips can be challenging mentally and physically, and there may be times when you’re exhausted, hungry, frustrated, getting eaten by bugs or soaked from the rain and there’s still a ton of work to be done. It’s not always easy to remain in a chipper mood so disagreements are bound to happen, but it’s whether you can overcome them and still have a successful trip.
You don’t necessarily need to fill your roster with extremely experienced paddlers, but there are a few character traits that can be beneficial to your team, and others you may want to avoid. For example, if you think your friend of 20 years would be fun to head into the backcountry with but you know they’re not the type to take the initiative to help, or they often make unwise and hasty decisions under pressure, then maybe that friendship is best to keep in the front country.
Heading out with a beginner level paddler or camper may have its challenges but everybody has to start somewhere, and what’s most important is attitude over experience. As long as they can handle a bit of hard work and are willing to learn and take initiative to help whenever they can then they’re going to be a good addition to your trip. A newbie with a great attitude can be more favourable than an “expert” who doesn’t work well with others.
READ more of Tori Baird’s “Beginner’s Guide to Solo Canoeing”
Just be sure to plan your route based on the group’s collective experience because you’re only as fast as your slowest member. Also take note of your partners medical conditions or allergies. If they have an allergy that requires an Epi-pen or asthma that requires a special puffer, be prepared, and know where they keep them in case of an emergency.
These days you can get canoe-route specific maps, such as ones made by Unlostify, that tell you a lot of information from the distance you’ll be paddling to the difficulty of each portage. These make it extremely easy to plan out a route and have minimal surprises along the way.
However, if you’re using a less detailed map always be sure to pay attention to the scale, contour lines and contour intervals. In my earlier days of paddling, I once picked up a map from a park office, didn’t make note of the scale, and just assumed it was the same as a topographic 1:50,000. It wasn’t until after a few kilometres of paddling that we discovered the scale was almost double that, and it turned our 15- kilometre day into a 30-km day.
Luckily, it was just an in and out overnight trip and nothing we couldn’t handle at the time, but that distance likely wouldn’t have been something we could have kept up day after day.
A 1:50,000 topographic map is great for navigating the backcountry — and if you’re anything like me, fun to look at and imagine what the landscape looks like in real life. The scale 1:50,000 means 1 centimetre on the map is equal to 50,000 centimetres on land; each square representing 1 kilometre from one side to the other. The contour lines represent changes in elevation, and the contour intervals are 10 metres. (Here’s a great video from REI Co-op on how to read a topographical map.)
When planning your trip, you’ll have to know the distance you’ll be paddling each day and have an idea of the portage trails and what the terrain might be like. For example, if you’re planning on travelling from one lake to another but the lake you’re looking to get into is at a much higher elevation and there’s a steep cliff in between, this is something the contour lines will tell you.
A good rule of thumb for travelling distance on flat water would be about 2 to 3 miles per hour. How long you plan to be on the water is completely up to you; however, I highly recommend only travelling while the sun is still in the sky and making it to camp before dark.
When planning your route, you have to take into consideration what kind of trip you’re looking for. Do you want to do a push trip where you’re waking up at dawn and paddling all day, making it to camp at sunset? Or do you want to have a more laidback trip, travelling only a few hours a day and enjoying each campsite to the fullest?
Always be sure to have backup campsites in mind in case your first choice is already taken. When booking in parks like Algonquin or Killarney, most times you are only booking on the lake and not a specific site, so you may come across a situation where your first choice of campsite is taken, and the next available site is kilometres away. The same goes for camping on Crown land (in Canada, this refers to public land under federal or provincial jurisdiction) because there is no booking system — each site is first come first served.
The risk of planning a push trip would be that there is more potential to fall behind and therefore not complete your trip in time. This can often lead to people rushing and making decisions that could put them in more dangerous situations, like travelling at night or in unfavourable weather. Planning for a wind-bound day or having an extra day to either make up for falling behind or just to take a day off is always a smart idea, as is bringing an extra day’s worth of food.
Once you have your route planned out, you then have to transfer a 2D aerial view on a map to the perspective you’ll have when sitting on the water and seeing everything in real life, which can make things look very different.
Islands may not look like islands; bays may be hidden behind points; and water levels can change the landscape more than you may expect. To avoid getting lost or turned around I always plan to follow a shoreline as often as possible, jumping bays, depending on size and weather, or island hopping to cut across larger lakes.
For example, if the put-in is on the southeast side of the lake and the portage trail is on the northwest end, I would follow the eastern shoreline until I came across a safe place to cut across to the western shoreline, either at a pinch point or a couple of islands I could tuck in behind.
Before setting off on your trip it’s always a good idea to leave a trip plan with someone — a spouse or family member who is not going on the trip, outlining your route including start and end points, any alternate routes you may take, who you’re with and their emergency contact information.
If you’re booking sites through a park, they should have this information based on your booking reservation; this is why they ask for the colour of your tent and canoe so they know what to look for should you not return home when expected. But if you’re going camping on Crown land where there’s no reservation system, this is important information to leave with someone you trust, especially if you’re heading out on a solo trip.
Another potentially complicated part of trip planning may be arranging a shuttle. If you plan to travel from point A to point B instead of completing a loop trip, you’ll have to arrange a way to get back to your vehicle, or have your vehicle brought to you at the end of your trip.
Typically, this is something the parks or local outfitting companies will offer for a fee, but what if neither option is available? In the past, we’ve been successful in reaching out to a small local business near our finish point and asking if someone there would be willing to give us a shuttle. Ideally, we would arrange it so that our vehicle is waiting for us at the end once we complete the trip because after a few days in the backcountry you just want to get in your car and head home.
If you’re ever unsure of the route you have planned, chances are someone has travelled it in the past and you may be able to find a detailed trip report online at www.myccr.com or other online resourcs like canoeing or backcountry camping Facebook Groups. The more information you have, the better.
Trip planning can be a lot of fun; perusing maps and tracing out passages through wilderness areas you have yet to explore. Finding a route that will be enjoyable but challenging in all the right ways. It’s always interesting to look at waterways and see how they connect and think about how once upon a time, this was the primary means of travel in Canada.
It’s humbling, honest and grounding, and it’s a beautiful way of connecting with history and nature. Today maybe you’re planning a short trip in Algonquin Park in Ontario to get you started. But who knows, maybe in a few years you’ll find yourself on a floatplane about to get dropped off in the middle of nowhere, all to navigate a remote, seldom paddled, wilderness river.