Safety in the Backcountry
Safety is always top of mind for me when camping in the backcountry, but it was even more important recently when my 12 year old daughter and I did our first ever canoe trip just the two of us, on Ralph Bice Lake at Algonquin Provincial Park. Not only did I need to make smart decisions, but I needed to be sure that my daughter, too, knew what to do in the case of an emergency.
I’ve put together a list of 15 tips to help keep you safe when in the Algonquin backcountry, whether you’re backpacking or canoeing. The most important thing is to avoid getting into trouble in the first place. Plan for the worst, and hope for the best!
1. Choose a route within your capabilities
Consider your physical fitness, health, and hiking or paddling abilities. Be honest about how far you can walk or paddle in a day. Is the terrain flat, hilly, or rocky? Does it require you to scramble over rocks? Are you planning to paddle on a river, or a lake? Is the lake small, or large and prone to wind and large waves? Will you have to portage the canoe and all your gear, and if yes, are the portages long and/or difficult? Don’t overestimate your abilities and those of your camping partners. Need help with route planning? Algonquin Outfitters can help.
2. Inform your family or friends of your plans
Let your family or friends know where you’re going – the park, trail or lake – and when you expect to be home. Decide prior to the trip when they should contact park authorities or the police if you are overdue – for example, should they wait until you are 1 day overdue? Make sure your family or friends know the colour of your tent and your canoe, in case a search party is needed.
3. Take a map and compass or GPS and know how to use it
It’s not enough to just bring a map and a compass – you actually need to know how to use them! If you’re bringing a GPS or relying on an app on your cell phone, remember that technology can fail, batteries run out of power, and having a back-up is wise! Waterproof maps are available at many local outfitters.
4. Be trained in first aid and CPR
Take a certification course from a group such as the Canadian Red Cross or St. John Ambulance and learn not only what to do in case of an emergency, but how to prevent one in the first place. Even my daughter has received first aid and CPR training through a babysitter’s course. You might want to consider taking a wilderness first aid course as in the backcountry help isn’t always just a phone call away.
5. Treat your water
Staying hydrated on any backcountry canoe trip is very important. You can’t possibility carry enough water (2L/day of water weights 2km or 4.4lbs) for a multi day trip, so know how to treat your water along the way. Even if the water looks clean, treat it! Don’t risk ingesting waterborne pathogens such as protozoa (think beaver fever), bacteria and viruses. There are many treatment options out there, such as chemical drops, manual and gravity filters and UV purification systems. Do a little research and stay safe!
6. Keep your food safe
Think carefully before packing fresh foods such as meat – make sure you are able to keep it frozen or cold until you cook it. Keep your meat separate from the rest of your food to avoid cross contamination. Practice safe food handling practices, wash your hands, and don’t keep leftovers that may spoil. Don’t forget to hang your food up in a tree to keep creatures big and small out of it – at least 4 feet from the base of a tree and at least 10 feet off the ground.
7. Pack appropriate clothing and gear for the weather conditions
If you’re a 4-season backcountry camper like me, remember that overnight temperatures can drop significantly! Pack many layers, which you may have to add or remove depending on what you’re doing. Don’t forget to bring your winter hat and gloves for spring and fall camping. Invest in a good quality sleeping bag and sleeping pad that will keep you warm at night!
8. Carry your gear in waterproof bags
Whether you are backpacking or canoeing, you want your clothes, tent, sleeping bag, food etc. to be dry when you arrive at your campsite. Use waterproof compression sacks or stuff sacks, water proof canoe packs and rain covers for your backpack.
9. Pay attention to the weather
Know what to do in the backcountry when the weather turns – for example, when a thunderstorm approaches.
10. Respect fire
If the wood is dry and you manage to get a fire going, don’t make it too big, and be careful! Watch your clothes and your hair, and limit the amount of stuff lying around! Have a collapsible bucket or pot of water handy – just in case. And always douse the fire when you’re done!
11. Be bear aware
When in Algonquin Park’s backcountry keep your campsite clean, place all food and other bear attractants (soap, toothpaste, etc.) in a pack or stuff sack and hang it well off the ground [at least 4 feet from the base of a tree and at least 10 feet off the ground]. Blue barrels, coolers and even cars aren’t bear proof.
There are several ways to deter a bear, if one happens into your campsite. Most black bears should run the other way if you just shout at them or bang a stick on a tree, you can also purchase bear bells, bear bangers (think firecracker) and as a last resort bear spray (pepper spray) is available.
12. Wear a lifejacket don’t just bring it along
A lifejacket at the bottom of the canoe is completely useless. Wear it. Always.
13. Fasten your gear to your canoe
Just in case your canoe capsizes, make sure all your stuff is strapped on so that you don’t lose anything!
14. Bring a spare paddle
You never know when you might break one and need another. Just remember to always pick it up when you portage, the extra paddle is the item most often lost on canoe trips and the outfitter may try to talk you out of taking an extra one because of this.
15. Bring a signalling device
If you’re like me, you camp in areas without cell service. I carry a personal locator beacon that is registered with the Canadian government, and in case of a life or death emergency, I press a button, a satellite signal is sent, and I can be rescued. For the canoe trip with my daughter, I made sure that she knew how to use the beacon too. There are different types of signalling devices on the market. For example, Algonquin Outfitters rents the SPOT personal GPS messenger.
Happy adventuring – and stay safe!