Setting Up Your Backcountry Campsite

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picture of a picnic table with a biolite camp stove, bugaboo camping set, for cooking while backcountry camping
Cooking on the Biolite twig stove while backcountry camping

The following is the transcript from our podcast episode called Setting Up Your Backcountry Campsite. You can listen to the episode here for all of the jocularity, or read the transcript below.

Hello and good day, eh?  Welcome to the Super Good Camping Podcast. I’m Pamela

Thomas: I’m Thomas

Tim: And I’m Tim

And we’re from We’re here because we’re on a mission to inspire other families to enjoy camping adventures such as we have with our kids.  Today, we’re going to talk a little bit about what an initial day of backcountry camping looks like.  So I’ll turn it over to Tim. 

Tim: So ok.  I don’t even know where to start sometimes. The most important thing is to go back and make sure that you’ve planned your trip well.  For backcountry camping, you have to take into account that you need to arrive in daylight.  In the backcountry, you can’t turn on the headlights and use them to set up your tent.  You have to do it in daylight, you can’t do it in the dark.  It’s no fun, I can assure you. 

Pamela: Been there, done that! 

Thomas: Yeah!

Tim: Paddling in the dark is no fun. 

Pamela: Trying to locate your site in the dark is no fun!

Tim: What are those lights?  Those lights aren’t supposed to be there.  Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God!  

Pamela: Where’s the portage??

Thomas: The thing is, setting up in the dark in the backcountry is no fun because the dark is really DARK. And there’s no way around that.  

Tim: So initially when you’re planning your backcountry trip, make sure that you do a good job of reading the map, and figuring out timelines.  If you aren’t heavily experienced the easiest way is Unlostify maps.  They have timelines for how long it takes to paddle this portion, portage this portion, look at those, and use them for timelines. Give yourself a buffer. It’s way better to show up early.  For instance, Thomas and I are doing a trip through Algonquin this year. It’s a very small, very easy route this year.  Thomas, I’m sure, is quite excited about the very easy portion of it.  We actually have to go all the way from Toronto to Killarney Outfitters to pick up our new canoe, which is the exciting part for me.

Thomas: I’m excited about that too because it’s about half the weight of our old canoe. 

Tim: Yes, I think we’re going to come in at 46-48 pounds where the other one was pushing 90 pounds.  We have to go up there, pick it up, load it, and come all the way back to Algonquin.  Google Maps tells me it’s 7 hours.  Google Maps is lying.  One is because there will be stops along the way.  Hopefully this time we won’t do “nuke a cheeseburger”, because that was really gross last year. 

Thomas: I left one in the car over the trip, by the time we got back home, it looked exactly the same as it did before we even put it in the microwave.  And it tasted about as good as it looked [which was NOT good].  

Tim:  That was just a preservative burger, and it was so gross. Anyhow, there are going to be stops. And the highway that leads from the highway [highway 69], the Killarney road highway [highway 637], I forget the name.  It [highway ON-637] leads off of the main highway [highway ON-69] and leads past Killarney Provincial Park and to the Outfitters about 10 minutes past it.  It’s gravel and washboard and potholes which they were endeavoring to repair last year.  Nevertheless, it was close to an hour just on that road [highway ON-637].  Google Maps obviously doesn’t know that.  There’s the first part of the planning, realistically we’ve got between 9 and 10 hours just to get there.  So this year we’ve planned to do car camping on our first night.  Even if we get up at the crack of dawn, which one of us is not inclined to do. 

Thomas: That’s ok, you’re getting on in years.

Tim: I’m tired in the morning sometimes.

Thomas: And grumpy, but that’s not just a morning state.  

Tim: Or I’m getting old, that’s just me, period. We’re going to go car camping for one night before we hit the backcountry, because there is no way after 9-10 hours of driving we can put in, load up, canoe, portage, find our site, etc. It also means, because everything is so booked up, we’ll get the crappiest site by the time we get there.  It’s just not worth it.

Thomas: And by the time we’re setting up it will be getting dark.

Tim: It will be midsummer, so sunset will be 9-9:30, but there will be trees that will cut off sunlight earlier than that.  We’ll be in shadow.  It’s about time.  In a normal situation, we would try to leave early, make our stops as short as possible, get there, get on the water as quickly as possible, and boogie.  I tend to book our first night on the first lake, on our access lake, or not far from it, one portage into the site. Just to make things easier. This is an 8-day trip this year. When Thomas and I start setting up on our first night, we’re not quite in sync yet, so you’re looking at close to 2 hours to get set up, and then sitting down to make dinner. 

Thomas: By the end of the trip it’s generally about half that. 

Tim: Yeah, it’s an hour and a quarter maybe.  And tear down is a little bit faster than that.  It depends on how long we’ve been there. If you’re there for 2 days, your stuff is all where it’s supposed to be, still all nice neat. 

Thomas: By the end you’ve got all the stuff out, rather than just the stuff you need.

Tim: That’s very true.  So when we do finally get to the first site, we usually divide and conquer.  I will pull out the food for dinner and have it standing by.  We will look at numerous things. Weather is the big one if we’ve got some weather rolling in and we’re running around. 

Thomas: Tarps are generally first.

Tim: Yep, tarp goes up first so we’ve got somewhere to hide out if bad weather does come in.  Or if we haven’t been paying attention because we’ve been on the water all day and not listening to the weather. We’ve got a radio that picks up Environment Canada broadcasts. I tend to not listen to it on the water, we’re busy paddling and stuff. The tarp goes up first and then if it’s possible I’ll move towards getting dinner happening, to try to see if we can hit that 2-hour window with dinner going.  Thomas moves onto the tent.  He’s extremely good at putting that up.  We blow up our sleeping pads.  They’re Thermarest style, they’re called self-inflating closed-cell sleeping pads.  Anyway, you unroll them, open a valve and they slowly expand.

Thomas: Emphasis on slowly!

Tim: Being an old crippled guy, I prefer to have a little extra padding.  So we’ve been additionally blowing up our pads. Someone posted something on one of the Facebook groups about finding black mold inside their pads. It turns out that the moisture from your breath going in there and not ever being expelled or dried out makes a nice breeding ground for mold.  So we bought a mini pump.

Thomas: It’s absolutely tiny.

Tim: It’s itty bitty, it’s 3-4 oz maybe.  It and all of its accoutrements are smaller than my fist.  It’s got a rechargeable battery.  We’re taking power packs for all of the cameras, and all of the electronics that we are taking with us. So he’ll blow up the pads, he’ll lay out our sleeping bags and our pillows.  He usually pulls out and starts prepping the table, so that hopefully by then the tarp is done and I’m working on dinner.  Either over an open fire or over our MSR Pocket Rocket or our twig stove.  

Thomas: And then a line for the food barrel

Tim: Water first.  

Thomas: Always get water filtering.

Tim: The very first thing we do we start water filtering before we move on to anything else.

Thomas: Because the water filtering takes a while, and it’s very important to have safe drinking water.

Tim: And we usually have depleted our water bottles by then so we’re pretty thirsty, and you need it for rehydrating things.  Not necessarily on the first day, we’ll get to the first day’s meals in a second. When you cook, you’re rehydrating things 9 times out of 10, or 7 times out of 8 in our case.  Plus you’re going to boil water for washing dishes.  In the morning you’re going to be thirsty, and you’re going to need water again for rehydrating or cooking oatmeal, or filling up your water bottles again. We tend to not do many rest days. 

Thomas: We tend to have one site where we’ll have two days on the same site on most trips.  I think the most we’ve had was two sites where we’ve had two days.  That was cool because that was the island site, that was a super cool site to spend two days at.  

picture of the view from the canoe while backcountry camping at Kawartha Highlands Provincial Park
Backcountry camping at Kawartha Highlands

Tim: That was an awesome site.  Some day we’ll go there again. That was potentially my favourite site ever. That probably covers most of it.  Do your bear hang – 15 feet up and 10 feet out from the tree.  

Thomas: And then we’ll always want to go higher than the 15 feet up, so then I can hang it down lower, and then we’ll also avoid raccoons.  Because those are no fun.

Tim: We’ve mentioned that before.  We’re into our current setup because of raccoons.  What Thomas is getting at is that he wants to go to a branch higher up, so that he can hang it farther below that branch.  So they have to learn how to climb a rope down. 

Thomas: Which they’re not always inclined to do.

Pamela: But they will figure it out. Because they can figure out the locking garbage cans here in Toronto.

Tim: They’re smart but a nuisance.  I don’t like raccoons, they’re cute, but they’re also a pain.  So there’s your setup for the first night.  While I’m doing dinner, Thomas will pull out our mess kit, set up the table, and pull out whatever accoutrements we need.  

Thomas: Probably while snacking on something. 

Tim: Usually snacking on something. Nuts, fruit, pretty much the whole time.  We burn a lot of calories in the backcountry.  Our first night’s meal is one of the best things in the world because we don’t have to worry about it.  We’ve frozen it beforehand, it’s thawing out all day while we’re driving. So we take steaks, potatoes, and fresh vegetables.  We tend to do dinner over the firepit on a grate over the fire. People often leave their grates behind, which makes me sad.  

Thomas: Having real flamed-grilled steaks, it’s fresh, and you’re out in the middle of nowhere, and it’s quiet. It’s great.

Pamela: According to Survivorman Les Stroud, when you’re REALLY hungry, even a grub tastes good. 

Thomas: I’m sure it would.

Tim: That’s just so gross! 

Pamela: Well, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

Thomas: At least we’re not Bear Grylls‘ing our drinks. 

Tim: At least we’re not what’ing?

Thomas: Bear Grylls‘ing.

Pamela: Do we want to know about Bear Grylls‘ing our drinks? Probably not.

Thomas: In survival situations, he says “drink your own pee”. 

Tim: Oh! Ok!

Thomas: Hey if there’s nothing else to drink!

Tim: Wow this is going sideways.  And on that note… I think that pretty much covers your first day/night in the backcountry.  You will paddle a bunch, hopefully not a particularly long portage and then you find your site.  I’m not sure if it’s the same as car camping, but I think 2 p.m. is the time that you can take possession of your site.  You can be searching before 2 p.m. for your site, if someone is still on it you can hang around to see if they are leaving.  Unlike car camping, in the backcountry in a canoe (except in Kawartha Highlands, at Kawartha you choose a site when you book it)… 

Thomas: In most other places you book the lake, and pray that a good site is open. 

Tim: Right, and Ontario Parks is smart enough to only book as many people as there are sites.  I think there is supposed to be an emergency site in case you get caught in bad weather, or you’re in over your head, or there’s an injury, or what have you.  Letting people in on your site, or too many people on a lake is something that came up in a post recently.  A topic which gave me some pause and we can talk about another time. 

Pamela:  That’s it for us for today. We’ll be back soon. Please do connect with us on all of the social media, we are on Instagram, and Facebook, and we have a public Facebook group called “The Campfire“. We’d love to meet up with you there.  Please do email us. Our email address is  I’m Pamela.

Thomas: I’m Thomas.

Tim: I’m still Tim.

Pamela: And we’re from, thanks so much for listening. Bye!

Tim: Bye!

Thomas: Byyyyye!

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