Gear and Stuff

With Algonquin's long portages, it pays to minimize packed weight and put some care into the selection of food, clothing and gear. Everyone who has been on an Algonquin backcountry trip will have developed their own opinions on what to bring. A few of my biases are summarized below.

Safety on the Water

In a moderate wind Algonquin's big lakes- Opeongo, Cedar, Lavielle and others- can easily generate waves high enough to swamp a canoe. It's important not to underestimate the size of waves at the center of a lake when leaving a protected shore. If the waves become unmanageable, it will almost certainly not be possible to paddle back to shore into the wind. High winds and waves pose a particularly severe threat in May and early June, when lakewater can be intensely cold. If a canoe upsets in these conditions, the paddlers will have only minutes to reach shore before hypothermia sets in. Canadian federal law requires that an approved personal floatation device (PFD) be carried for every passenger in any watercraft, and these should be put on before entering any potentially dangerous situation. It's difficult enough to control a canoe in high waves without the added distraction of struggling to put on a PFD. Sometimes it is necessary to simply wait until the wind drops before crossing a lake. Summer westerlies are often strongest in the afternoon, and drop away at dusk. Dawn often also brings at least temporary calm. On any trip involving travel on the larger lakes, it's always a good idea to bring an extra day's food (something light like oatmeal is a good choice) as a precaution.

In mid-summer afternoon thunderstorms are very common, and pose a special hazard to canoeists. Winds in a thunderstorm can easily reach 80 km/hour, with sudden gusts. Actual tornadoes are rare, but do occur on occasion in the park. Thunderstorms also bring torrrential rain, which may cut visibility to a few meters. Lightning can be intense, and on an open lake a canoe may be a preferred target for a lightning strike. On a hot, humid day,when the late afternoon skies fill with towering cumulus and thunder is heard in the distance, it is prudent to stay close to shore. At the end of the day a campsite should be chosen that is not too exposed, and tents pitched away from tall "lightning rod" trees. Canoes should be carried well back from the shore, overturned, and either tied to objects that can't move or jammed between large trees. All lightweight loose gear should be stowed away.

Most of the rivers in Algonquin Park are too shallow to have runnable rapids, particularly in summer. The main exception is the Petawawa River between Cedar Lake and McManus Lake, which is a very popular whitewater route during spring runoff, and runnable for much of its length even in mid-summer. This section of the river includes several very dangerous rapids which should only be attempted by canoeists with extensive whitewater experience. Readers interest in running the Petawawa are referred to A Whitewater Guide to the Petawawa River for further information.


It is possible to have an enjoyable wilderness canoe trip in Algonquin using discount-store camping equipment and a heavy aluminum or fiberglass canoe. However, there is no question that a long trip will be much less taxing if modern, light-weight gear is used. Kevlar canoes are a real asset on any trip with portages longer than about 1 km. Tents and sleeping bags designed for backpacking help save weight in the pack. Self-supporting tents are necessary on some rocky campsites. A synthetic-filled bag rated to 0 C is adequate for use from late spring to early fall. Backpacking stoves add to packed weight, but save a good deal of time in searching for and cutting firewood. Modern stoves using butane/propane mixtures are the lightest, least expensive, easiest to operate, and safest, but provide limited heat output and are not very environment-friendly since the canisters are disposable. White gas stoves are slightly heavier but provide a much hotter flame and hence are better suited to early spring and late fall conditions, and to cooking for large groups.

If you have any intention of starting fires, a folding saw such as a Sven saw is almost essential for cutting wood. Axes are comparatively heavy, and are not recommended. Birchbark from fallen trees is abundant at many campsites, and makes a remarkably effective natural firestarter. Birchbark should never be stripped from living trees.


In typical mid-summer conditions in Algonquin it is often possible to make do with little more clothing than a T-shirt and pair of shorts. A wide-brimmed hat is essential, both for protection against the sun and to restrict the target area available for insect attacks. Cool nights are always a possibility, and a pair of lightweight wool or synthetic pants and a sweater or light jacket are necessary to deal with these. Tightly-knit clothing that mosquitoes can't bite through is very useful. Blue jeans are not recommended since they are very difficult to dry if they become wet. Rain gear is another essential, since thunderstorms are frequent, and bring torrential if brief downbursts. A spare pair of lightweight shoes or sandals which can be used to wade through shallows is heavy, but many travellers find dry feet worth the extra burden.


Food is on item one which everyone will have their own opinion. We always try to pack for single-trip portaging and so tend towards freeze-dried food for its very light weight. Instant oatmeal for breakfast is another great weight saver, and instant oatmeal is a good choice for that pack of emergency reserve food to use when wind bound. Lunch items tend to add a lot of weight but so far we haven't found a good alternative. Pita (or other flatbreads) and really dense rye or pumpernickel bread can survive days of being tossed about in a pack and still be reasonably palatable. Cheese wrapped in a cheesecloth and then sealed in plastic will keep for a few days, depending on the temperature. Peanut butter (the kind with preservatives) is the usual alternative when the cheese runs out. Fruit drink crystals are heavy to carry, but make tepid lake water much more palatable in hot weather. When the weather turns cold and wet it seems we've never brought enough instant hot chocolate packs.

Water Purification

For decades it was normal practice for wilderness canoe trippers in Algonquin to drink water directly from the lakes, and many campers still follow this tradition with no apparent ill effects. However, increasing concern over water contamination with the parasite giardia lamblia has led many others to purify all drinking water. Experience suggests that the chances of contracting giardia from Algonquin lakewater are very small, but giardia infections are sufficiently unpleasant and difficult to treat to warrant preventive measures. Just bringing water to a boil is sufficient to kill all infectious viruses and bacteria, but boiling for a full ten minutes is needed to ensure destruction of giardia cysts. The problems with relying on boiling are the extra fuel consumed, and the fact that no one wants to drink hot water on a hot day. Several light, efficient water filters capable of removing all parasites and bacteria are now available at a cost of approximately CDN$150, and are a worthwhile investment for anyone who routinely canoes in the Algonquin interior. One of the slickest approaches to water purification we've seen lately is a chlorine-based system sold by Pristine. The system uses two small bottles of chemicals, one containing chlorine dioxide and the other phosphoric acid. A few drops of the chemicals are combined in a mixing cap, and allowed to react to for a few minutes release molecular chlorine. The chlorine solution is then added to drinking water, and allowed to stand for ten minutes. Sufficient solution to last four canoeists for a week-long trip costs CDN$15 and weighs less than a water filter. Remarkably, this method leaves no residual chlorine taste that we can detect. In our opinion it is light years ahead of traditional chemical treatments such as bleach or iodine tablets. Sometimes it's still useful to have a small bottle of bleach on hand so that a few drops can be added to dishwashing water.

Camp Robbers

Nearly every Algonquin campsite has a resident army of camp robbers. These typically include red squirrels and chipmunks, either of which is capable of chewing a hole through a pack in a few minutes to reach food it smells inside. Grey jays (whiskey jacks) are also skilled at hit-and-run food robbery. At night the smaller end of the camp robber community expands to include mice. These may appear cute, but will leave a trail of droppings through any packs, dishes or food bags they are able to enter. Racoons are common campsite visitors, and adept at tearing open packs. Algonquin has a large population of black bears, and there is always a chance one will decide on a nocturnal visit to your campsite to provide the ultimate camp-robbing experience.

To avoid loss of food and damage to gear, it is essential that every pack containing food or even smelling of it be tied shut and suspended off the ground at night or when leaving a campsite unattended. Squirrel proofing is relatively straightforward, but a determined racoon may attempt to chew through the rope holding up a pack, and bears are capable of reaching packs far off the ground. Complete bear-proofing of a food pack requires that it be suspended at least 3 meters off the ground, and 3 meters from the nearest trunk or branch capable of supporting a bear's weight. Bear proofing a food pack can prevent loss of supplies, but it will not prevent a curious bear from inspecting a campsite, and nosing through any pack or tent on which it detects the slightest odour of food.

The majority of Algonquin bears are wary of humans, and will go out of their way to avoid contact. A few bears have learned that camp robbing can provide an easy source of food, but even these bears are normally timid, and can often be frightened away by loud noise. If a bear approaches your camp, the first line of defense is to make as much noise as possible. (Banging pots and pans is the traditional method). If the bear doesn't back away, the only safe alternative is to let it have its pick of the available food. It is important not to run from an aggressive bear, but rather slowly back away while facing the animal.

Bears are most likely to be a nuisance in heavily-used areas near access points where an abundant and reliable food supply can be obtained by raiding the camps of inexperienced travellers. They are particularly fond of fresh meat, fish and eggs. One of the best techniques for avoiding bear raids is therefore to carry only vegetarian supplies with little odour, and seal these in plastic bags. It is very important to minimize the smell of food on you and your clothing. Food should never be taken inside a tent.

In a few very rare instances healthy young adult male bears in Algonquin with no known history of camp robbing have attacked humans as prey. In 1978 three teenagers on a fishing trip atRadiant Lake near the center of the park were killed by a bear. In 1991 two adults were killed by a rogue bear on Bates Island in Opeongo Lake, in a heavily-travelled area just a few kilometers from the main dock. The bear clearly intended to eat the humans. In 1997 an 11 year old boy was dragged from a tent by a bear on the North Arm of Opeongo Lake. Once again, there was no food in the tent, so the incident can not be explained as a typical case of camp robbing. The boy would have been killed had it not been for the intervention of other members of his camp group, who drove off the bear by attacking it with paddles. In all three instances the bears involved in the attacks were tracked down and shot within a few hours. Since the attacks have all occurred in a relatively confined area of the park it has been speculated that the bears involved may have had a common ancestor, and been genetically predisposed to ununusually aggressive behaviour.

History suggests that we can expect an attack on humans by an Algonquin black bear roughly once a decade. Although this is a disturbing prospect, to put the attacks in perspective, the odds of being struck by lightning in Algonquin are far greater than those of being attacked by a bear, and the hazards of travel on the highways in and around the park present a far greater risk still.

Trip Organization

My most enjoyable trips in Algonquin have been with groups of either two or four canoeists travelling two to canoe. Using lightweight backpacking gear and dehydrated food, it is not difficult for two canoeists to fit all they need for a summer trip of up to a week's duration in a single large pack weighing less than 30 kg. A pack of this weight can be carried short distances by an adult in good physical condition without undue strain. Similarly, a typical 5 m long Kevlar canoe also weighs slightly less than 30 kg. With one paddler carrying the canoe and the other the pack and paddles, it is possible to cross a portage trail in a single trip. If it is not possible to fit all the gear into a mangeable pack for single trip portaging, then it is worth considering "trip-and-a-half" portaging as an alternative. In this approach one paddler carries the canoe completely across the portage, while the second paddler takes half the gear to the midpoint of the trail and then returns to the start of the portage. The first paddler next backtracks to mid-trail to retrieve the gear left earlier, while the second paddler crosses the entire trail with the remaining gear. In this way both paddlers end up making one and a half trips along the trail. Groups of more than three canoes tend to generate their own inefficiencies. The landings at many Algonquin portages are so narrow and rock-strewn that only a single canoe can be put in or taken out of the water at a time. With large groups these portages become bottlenecks, slowing progress to a crawl unless single file order is strictly maintained. Children's camp groups often travel with three paddlers to a canoe. This makes single- trip portaging relatively easy, since it is usually not difficult for two paddlers to carry all the gear even if relatively heavy equipment is being used. However, I am not in favor of the three-paddler system. Sitting in the middle of a canoe is uncomfrotable, and it is difficult to paddle effectively from this position. Further, a typical 5 m long canoe will be overloaded with three adult passengers. Larger expedition-size canoes (about 5.5 m long) are available, but can be heavy and difficult to manouever on portage trails. Solo canoe travel in Algonquin's backcountry should only be attempted by those with considerable experience. Many portage trails are in rough condition, and an injury as simple as a sprained ankle could be life-threatening for a solo paddler on a lightly- travelled route. Solo travellers always need to keep in mind what they would have to do to reach help in the event of an accident or emergency. Single-trip portaging while travelling solo is possible, but requires extremely careful choice of equipment. A fit adult can carry about 50% of his or her body weight on a portage trail. Specialized solo canoes about 4 m long and weighing as little as 15 kg are available, leaving just 15 kg for equipment, clothing and supplies for a paddler of average weight. Most solo paddlers are content to make two trips across portage trails, once with the canoe, and once with packed gear.

Back to Virtual Algonquin main page Last revision August 2004
Copyright 2004 Garry Tarr and Jo-Ann Holden