Setting Up Camp

Our campsite is our home away from home while we're out paddling. It is the reward at the end of our paddling day. It is the place for us to finally stretch out, relax, enjoy a good meal and visit around the campfire. Since it is so important, it is worth putting some time and effort into the selection and setup.

First, we have to give some thought to when we start looking for a site. If a route is busy, or campsites are scarce, we probably want to begin looking for a site in the middle of the afternoon. There is nothing more discouraging that being ready to stop for the day - arms tired and backs sore, only to find that each site we approach is already occupied. It can end up being a long day before we finally get to stop. On the other hand, if few groups are paddling the route or if campsites are plentiful, we can paddle as long as we wish. In both cases, we have to remember that we don't want to push our luck too much ... if we decide to go that little bit further to find a better site, the strategy may backfire and we may end up in a worse site than we just passed up, or we may end up setting up camp and cooking supper in the dark.

So we've paddled our 15 or 20 km and we're ready to stop for the day. What do we look for in a site?

In some cases, decisions may be made for us. Many of the parks such as Killarney and Algonquin have designated campsites and we have no choice but to stay there. On more remote or unregulated routes, we are permitted to stay wherever we want. We begin to watch for open clearings or points - these are generally where we will find a site. What makes a good site?

  • Flat tent spots
    One of the most important qualities - slipping and sliding downhill all night is a nuisance
  • Good fire pit / cooking area
    A reasonably convenient location for cooking, dishwashing and relaxing around the fire
  • Good drainage
    We don't want to have sit or sleep in a puddle if it rains
  • Exposure to breeze
    This will help to keep the mosquitoes and blackflies away
  • Cleanliness
    If a site looks over-used and has garbage strewn about, chances are the friendly neighbourhood bears make regular stops to do their grocery shopping. Have a look around for paw prints, scat or claw marks on the trees - if you find any of these, it might be worth moving on.
  • No dangerous conditions
    Are there tall trees just begging for a lightning strike or standing dead trees that could fall on a tent?
  • A spot to hang the food pack
    Surprisingly enough, it isn't always that easy to find suitable trees for hanging the food pack
  • Firewood
    Not required right in the campsite, but if we're going to light a fire, it's nice to have a reasonable source of wood in the vicinity
  • A great view
    That's what we're out there for, isn't it?

Ok - we've found the "perfect" site. Now what?

The first thing to think about is getting the gear out of the canoes. Landing a canoe doesn't just mean ramming it bow-first onto the shoreline and starting to pitch out the equipment. If possible, it's nice to be able to bring in the canoe parallel to the shoreline and empty it out that way. We save some wear and tear on the canoe, and it's also easier to get at the packs. We may have to unload the canoes one or two at a time, but that's not a great hardship - emptying three or four packs from a canoe is a one-minute job.

The packs are out of the canoes, and the canoes are up on the shoreline. Now we set up the tents. It's sometimes tempting at the end of a tiring day to sit down and relax for a few hours, maybe have a drink or a swim and think of setting the site up later. Resist that temptation. The prospect of erecting tents and setting up a kitchen will be no more appealing three hours later than it is at present. We have to just take the half hour and get our site organized. Two people should be able to get their tent set up and their sleeping bags and mattresses inside in ten minutes anyway.

Now we've got somewhere to sleep on our "perfect" site...what next? We set up the kitchen area. We always need a table, so we take one of the canoes to the kitchen area, turn it upside down and steady it with rocks or logs under the gunwales. An instant food preparation table (of course, we use a cutting board - we don't cut directly on the canoe).

While some of our group are setting up the kitchen, others can go out to gather firewood if we are going to be using a campfire. We don't try to scavenge wood from our campsite - if we do that, the site will look barren and "beaten down" in a very short while. We go off for a little paddle and look along the riverbanks or the lake shoreline for fallen dead wood. Standing dead trees are left standing as potential homes for birds and small mammals. We make sure we have enough wood - we don't want to be out in the dark later that evening trying to find some more. If we happen to gather a few sticks too many, we can leave them cut and neatly stacked beside the fire pit - what a treat for the next paddlers who use the site.

One important piece of advice for after we're done with the canoes. We should rope them together and tie them to a tree or large boulder. Even though it's sunny and calm when we set up camp, the wind can come up suddenly during the night and we may wake up to find one or more of the canoes has sailed into the river, landed upright and is now 20 km downstream. For those who don't believe this can happen, I was sitting in my back yard one day and watched my Kevlar canoe lift off from the ground where it was stored, sail through the air and land 12 ft. away in my swimming pool, perfectly upright and ready to paddle.