What to Know Before Your First Backcountry Trip

Updated: Aug 28, 2020

First time in this neck of the woods? Here are some tips to make your first trip go smoothly.

So you think you’re ready to take the plunge and make your next camping trip backcountry? Here is how venturing away from car camping is different and what you need to prepare for.

1. Learn basic first aid and bring a medical kit

Knowing what to do in a backcountry emergency is key especially when there is no reception and Googling on your phone is impossible. Everyone should have basic first aid knowledge and be able to use all the items in their medical kit. There are first aid courses offered by the Canadian Red Cross and St. John Ambulance which I've previously taken and would recommend.

Extra tip!

  • Check over your medical kit before every trip to make sure you are well stocked and all items are still in good condition.

2. Tell someone where you are going

I know you're in a rush to get going on your adventure but it's important to tell at least one person where you are in case something goes wrong. We usually send our trip itinerary to a family member so they know exactly where we are, this is important for week-long trips. We check in with them when we get back. If they don't hear from us in 24 hours then they know to contact the park or an emergency number.

You can also speak to the park to see if they have any services available for emergency rescue or tips. We recently came back from Pukaskwa National Park and they took down our information (name, tent colour, car details) before we departed on our trip. If our car was still in the lot after our check out date or if we did not return the check out form they would call emergency rescue services on our behalf. They also let us know that in an emergency we would be close to other reserved campsites so we can give fellow campers or hikers a message to take back to the park office.

3. Bring a map and compass

Some parks will provide you with a fairly good map but in other parks like Killarney Provincial Park or Algonquin Provincial Park you should buy your own waterproof topographic map (around $15 each). Learn how to read a map using landmarks and how to use a compass. If you are relying on your phone or a GPS device make sure to bring sufficient batteries or a charging method. I would still recommend having a paper map as a backup.

4. Test out your gear and learn how to use it

Make sure you know how to set up your tent, use your water filter, and how to operate your pocket stove before you leave for your trip. If you are breaking in new shoes or testing out a hiking backpack I would suggest doing this at a nearby trail before taking it backcountry and discovering your shoes or your backpack do not suit you. Being uncomfortable while hiking or camping always leads to a bad time!

5. Check the weather

This is one of the checkboxes at the top of our Camping To-Do List because it is important! In an opcoming post I'll publish our Camping Check List so look out for this in the Related Posts at the bottom.

Know what weather you are going into and pack accordingly. Will it be cold? Rainy? Sunny? In cold weather bring extra layers. If it's rainy bring a rain jacket and waterproof pants (not just water resistant). If it's sunny bring light coloured airy breathable layers. Our packing list is sectioned off by Cold Weather Packing and Rainy Weather Packing for ease.

6. Have a packing checklist and check it before you leave

We have a packing list that has evolved over the years as we buy more gear or retire gear that is no longer used. I always leave an empty section at the top so that I can add more items if needed. This list makes packing and preparing for a trip a no brainer. We both sit down and go through the list right before we walk out the door so we know there is nothing missing.

I would consider myself an organized stressball because I love getting everything together in a list but the process of packing it into my backpack causes me a lot of stress. If it was up to me, I wouldn't pack my bag until the last minute. If I can at least gather all the items on my checklist in a pile next to my bag then I know that I'm not missing anything when stress packing later.

7. Be aware of bear safety

We've camped in Alberta where we had close encounters with grizzly and large black bears (and their cubs!) so we know bears are no joke. It is a possibility that you will have a black bear encounter so read over The Government of Ontario's Bear-Wise page. It will help you understand what to do in these situations and they have a bear density map so you can check the risk level.

Tip #1 - Check the park board!

Most parks will have an information board at the front gates and they will post about bear activity. Bears may sometimes frequent the same campsites because they know that there is a possibility of finding food. Ask the park staff about bear activity if you have questions.

Tip #2 - Use the bear boxes or bear poles!

Some backcountry sites will have bear boxes. They look like a metal storage cabinet with some type of locking mechanism. Put anything that has a scent in here for the night or if you are leaving your site for a period of time. If unsure, just put it in the box.

Other backcountry sites will have bear poles. These look like a flag pole where you can attach a bag filled with your items for safety. We usually use one of our dry bags because it is waterproof and the loop is perfectly suited for heavy weight and lifting.

8. Be aware of tick safety

Avoid getting Lyme disease by performing nightly tick body checks and by treating your clothes with a layer of permethrin. It may be hard to bathe (I never wash my hair while backcountry) so visually scanning your body can be your only defense against them. Read my related post here to learn more about Lyme disease and tick safety like how to remove ticks without spreading the bacteria into your body.

9. Wear long-sleeved clothing

This is a pro-level tip that I've learned from hiking and camping in hot climates. It is always recommended to wear long-sleeves to protect you from sun damage and from bugs like ticks and annoying mosquitoes. It will reduce the need to apply sunscreen or bug repellent on your arms all day especially when it's inconvenient like while canoeing or mid-hike. When hiking, it protects your arms from plants on the sides of heavily forested trails or mosquitoes when you are carrying a canoe.

10. Learn how to carry a canoe with proper form

Watch this video from Algonquin Outfitters to learn the proper technique. If you are not confident enough to lift it from the ground and toss it over your head, in the video they show an easy way to lift it on if you have another person with you. It is important that you carry a canoe correctly so you do not hurt yourself.

11. Brace yourself for the thunderbox

If you are backcountry you will need to eventually use a toilet. The thunderbox is the outdoor solution to this! It is a wooden box in the middle of the forest with a lid on it. Just lift the lid and you have yourself a toilet with some serious nature views. I bring toilet paper and hand sani in a Ziploc bag so I can place it on the ground if needed.

12. Brace yourself when there is no thunderbox!

You may want to find a sturdy looking tree to brace yourself for this one. Bring a small shovel or trowel and dig a hole at least 200 feet away from your camp, trails, or water. Your hole should be about 15 to 20 cm deep and 10 to 15 cm wide. Cover the hole when finished.

Extra tip!

  • Read up on your specific park to see if you need to follow the Leave No Trace Principles. This may mean you will need to pack out your poo. Yes, you will have to carry your poo back with you.

13. Plan, plan, and more planning

If you're not sure how to plan a backcountry trip I will be writing a post about this (see below Related Posts for this soon). My advice is to plan a route, arrive early, and give yourself plenty of time to get to camp before the sun sets. I have route plans for the Killarney Highway 6 Access Point if you are looking for easy backcountry trips (see Related Posts).

Related Posts

How to Plan a Backcountry Trip From Scratch - Part 1

Camping Check List - Coming Soon!

Killarney PP Backcountry Trip Routes for Hwy 6 Access

Camping Gear - Ticks and Lyme Disease Prevention

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