Trip report: Winter backcountry 4-day snowshoe adventure at Algonquin Provincial Park

Lost food, howling wolves, whipping wind, mystery footprints, snow fleas, a campsite visitor, rolling sleds and snowshoe adventures – what more could a 1st winter backcountry camping trip need?! Last weekend I spent 4-days/3-nights camping at Algonquin Provincial Park, with a basecamp of Provoking Lake West along the Highland Trail.

Shortcut to the full slide showhttps://goo.gl/photos/jBny8ZzMowQHoo6T9 (click on one image, and then on the little “i” to read the descriptions)

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Provoking Lake West.

Day #1:

After paying for a backcountry permit at the West Gate, my friend Cheryl and I headed for the Mew Lake campground, where we bought 2 bags of kindling, ate our lunch, loaded our sleds (see our packing list here), put on our snowshoes, and headed for the Track and Tower Trail, which would take us to the Highland Trail and our campsite for the weekend. I had borrowed a pair of Tubbs Women’s Elevate 25″ snowshoes and Tubbs snowshoeing poles from Algonquin Outfitters in Huntsville (snowshoe and pole review here).

We weren’t sure exactly how far we would walk before we set up camp for the night, but we were aiming to be close enough to a campsite that we could use the toilet.

In comparison to last year’s winter car camping trip during an extreme cold weather alert, this weekend promised to bring more reasonable temperatures! Daytime highs were to range from about -2 degrees Celsius to -9, and nighttime lows down to -15. Minimal snowfall was in the forecast.

Having never pulled a sled with gear before, we weren’t sure how difficult it would be. My sled was approximately 70 pounds, and really, it wasn’t too hard to pull it behind me (see my sled review here). However, going up very steep hills was another story! At one point we had to help one another get up the hill, me pushing Cheryl’s sled from behind, and then her doing the same for me.

Sometimes our sleds tipped over (and rolled!) as we walked, but after righting them, we were on our way again. We didn’t realize until dinner time that at some point in our trek to our campsite, our dinner and evening snack fell out of the sled (it was packed separately, not in the canoe pack with everything else)! We didn’t starve, but we did have to raid food from future snacks for dinner. See our menu here, and what we ate that first night!

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Provoking Lake West.

We ended up choosing a spot on Provoking Lake West to set up our tent, after hiking for approximately 4 km. We changed from our hiking boots into our winter boots, set up the tent, cooked our dinner, “washed” our dishes with snow, hung our bear bag, and went to bed! Normally we tie a rope around a rock and throw that over a tree branch to hang the bear bag, but with small rocks buried under the snow, we spotted a cooking pot that someone had left behind, and I threw that over the tree branch! It worked great. I was cool that night (not shivering, just not quite comfortable), so I didn’t sleep as well as I could have. And getting out of the tent twice to pee didn’t help!

Day #2:

After breakfast, Cheryl made some adjustments to her sled, because some bolts fell off and rendered the hooks useless – she replaced them with rope. We headed out for a day hike, wondering if we might find our lost dinner and evening snack! We never did (did a person find it? an animal? we’ll never know!), but we enjoyed hiking along the Highland Trail (6.2 km) and looking for wildlife in the woods – we saw lots of different kinds of footprints, but no animal sightings other than a few birds. We didn’t even see any people! We ate our morning snack and lunch along the trail, and cooled down quite quickly when we stopped to eat! All weekend we were removing layers of clothes and adding layers depending on what we were doing. When we returned to our campsite, we had a hot chocolate with our afternoon snack, and then took a sled with us to gather wood for a fire. Cheryl used her saw to cut bigger branches from fallen logs. We made our dinner, and while it cooked we built our fire. When we weren’t actively doing something, like gathering or splitting wood, we got cold quickly!

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Chopping kindling into smaller bits.

In fact, we were in our tent for the night by about 7:15 PM – it was warmer in there! We boiled water to put in Nalgene bottles so that we could have hot water bottles in our sleeping bags overnight – that, and slightly milder temperatures meant that I slept much better. The hot water bottle made for a cozy sleeping bag! That night we heard wolves howling very far in the distance!

Day #3: 

First thing in the morning when I got out of the tent to pee, I saw movement on the hill and thought it was a squirrel. I later saw that it was a pine marten looking for food. Unfortunately, I wasn’t wearing my contacts so I didn’t get a great view of it! I did grab my camera from the tent and got a few (blurry) photos – they move so fast! Once again, we headed out for a day hike after breakfast. This time we headed for the Lookout over Starling Lake and the Lake of Two Rivers. From there, we took a portage down to the Lake of Two Rivers, and walked along the Old Railway Trail toward the Mew Lake campground. I decided to check to see if I had a cell signal, and when we discovered that we both did, we called home for a quick chat. During our 7.1 km hike, we saw only 2 people – a couple walking dogs on the Old Railway Trail. Once again we had our morning snack and lunch on the trail. Back at camp, we had our hot chocolate and afternoon snack. Since we didn’t really wash our dishes (dish soap was frozen), I had 3 drinks in 1 – remnants of gatorade and tea when I drank my hot chocolate! We gathered wood, chopped more of our kindling, started our chili, and built a fire. Despite a whipping wind and snow blowing horizontally in the afternoon, the evening improved and we managed to last until about 8:30 PM before we headed for the tent with our hot water bottles! The temperature must have been even warmer overnight, because we were both warm and could have shed layers!

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Letting the sled down before me – and watching it tip.

Day #4: 

On our last morning, we spotted 3 people crossing Provoking Lake West, but fairly close to the shore. They were wearing snowshoes and either wearing big backpacks or pulling sleds (or both!). After breakfast we packed up camp and headed out, with Cheryl spotting a snowshoe hare not too far from our campsite – it’s a wonder we didn’t see other bunnies, since there were tracks everywhere! It was a 3.6 km walk directly back to our vehicle. I had hoped to be able to feed sunflowers to chickadees, grey jays or blue jays, but no luck. The few chicadees we saw couldn’t be coaxed closer, we didn’t see grey jays, and the blue jays were in the midst of the paparazzi – we arrived back at our vehicle to see 10-15 people with cameras and huge lenses photographing pine martens in the trees. It was a funny sight.

We ate our lunch in the van, and then we headed back to Algonquin Outfitters, where I ended up buying the snowshoes and poles!

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At the Lookout over Starling Lake and Lake of Two Rivers.

It was a great 1st winter backcountry camping experience. For future trips, we would:

  • bring kindling again
  • not bring a 10 L jug of water
  • camp within reach of a toilet again
  • make slight modifications to our sleds
  • pack all food in the canoe pack – no loose things!
  • hike the Highland Trail again, or perhaps try another trail!

We’ll be back!

Related posts for this trip:

Packing list

Menu and cooking tips

Gear review: snowshoes and poles

Sled review

Menu and cooking tips: Winter backcountry 4-day snowshoe adventure at Algonquin Provincial Park

Part of the fun of planning a camping trip is planning the food! For this 4-day trip along Algonquin Provincial Park’s Highland Backpacking Trail, my first winter backcountry trip, my friend Cheryl and I wanted to keep things simple.

Given the frigid temperatures of last February’s winter car camping trip (-17 degrees Celsius, feeling like -29 with the wind chill), we planned to do as little cooking as possible this year, while still having warm foods and beverages! Why? Cooking takes longer in the winter, burns more fuel, cold fingers don’t work as well and standing around is, well, chilly! The easiest hot meals are ones that only require you to just boil water, then add it to something and let it sit for a few minutes (e.g. oatmeal and dried fruit).

We cooked exclusively using an MSR Dragonfly stove, which thankfully worked for this winter trip (last year, it was just too cold to get our stoves going – somehow the fuel would not go through the pump). We did use the campfire to heat up our cheese buns one night!

It took nearly an hour for us to heat up our frozen solid stew and chili. In future, we would freeze the meal in the shape of the pot, so that we could easily place it into the pot and have more surface area of the food touching the heat to speed up cooking! We would also move our cooking spot around – the snow melted and a “pit” formed, so much so that on our last morning, there was so much water in the pit that it extinguished the flame!

We made everything from scratch, preparing and cooking the meals at home, so that all we had to do while camping was thaw or re-heat things. For spring, summer and fall trips we dehydrate as much as possible so that we’re carrying less weight, but given that we would be pulling all our gear in sleds, the weight of our food (17.4 pounds) was less of an issue. We did dehydrate some of our food – the fruit for our breakfasts and for our evening snacks.

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Most meals were packed in individual bags, labelled by day and meal (e.g. Saturday breakfast). It makes finding things in the food bag really easy!

Day #1: Home to Algonquin Provincial Park’s West Gate to Mew Lake Campground – hiked along Track and Tower Trail to Highland Trail to Provoking Lake West, pulling 70 pound sled (3.99 km)

Breakfast – at home

Morning snack and lunch – packed lunch

Afternoon snack – chocolate nut energy square

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Chocolate nut energy square

Dinner – minestrone and cornbread (prepared at home) [Note: we somehow lost this on the trail, so for dinner we ate hot chocolate, and pilfered the dehydrated bananas and chocolate from Day #2, as well as some of the chocolate chip granola bars from Day #2.]

Evening snack – dehydrated banana and chocolate treat [See comment above – lost!]

Day #2: Day hike along the Highland Trail (6.2 km)

Breakfast -oatmeal and dehydrated fruit, gatorade (very cold!) and tea

Morning snack – trail mix

Lunch – bagels, pepperettes, cheese strings

Afternoon snack – chocolate chip granola bars, hot chocolate

Dinner – stew and cornbread (prepared at home and re-heated at camp)

Evening snack – none – eaten the day before

Day #3: Day hike along the Highland Trail and Old Railway Trail (7.1 km)

Breakfast – granola and dehydrated fruit, gatorade (using water that we had in Nalgene bottles overnight as hot water bottles – so, not ice cold!) and tea

Morning snack – chocolate chip granola bars

Lunch – apple peanut salad wrap (prepared at home) [Note: thawed out by carrying in our coat inside pockets for several hours]

Afternoon snack – trail mix, hot chocolate

Dinner – chili and cheese buns (prepared at home and re-heated at camp)

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Warming the buns up on the campfire

Evening snack – dehydrated banana and chocolate treat

Day #4: Hiked from Provoking Lake West to Mew Lake Campground, pulling sled (3.6 km)

Breakfast: cranberry walnut couscous porridge and dehydrated fruit, gatorade (not freezing! and tea [Note: the hot cereal wasn’t hot enough for me, because we boiled water, added it to the bowls, and let the couscous absorb it – next time, I think I would actually cook the cereal]

Morning snack: – chocolate nut energy squares

Lunch: carrot raisin peanut wrap (prepared at home) [Note: thawed out by carrying in our coat inside pockets for several hours – we ate this back at the van at the end of our last day’s hike]

Afternoon snack: peanut granola bar [Note: we ate this on our way home]

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Meal prep (we used 1 tarp from the top of a sled as a food prep area, and the other as a mat just outside our tent door)

Despite losing our first day’s dinner and evening snack, we had the perfect amount of food! We are getting good at food planning!

Notes on Melting Snow for Drinking Water

  • Avoid snow crawling with snow fleas!!
  • Be prepared to keep adding snow to the pot as it melts.
  • Bring a coffee filter, or be prepared to drink lots of little bits of wood and other things found on forest floors!
  • If you do it over a campfire, as we did at times, keep the pot lid on at all times, or you’ll end up drinking very smoky tasting water (with lots of floaty bits) as we did – yuck!

Favourite Backcountry Cookbooks

In case you’re interested, some of my favourite backcountry recipes come from the following cookbooks:

  • A Fork in the Trail by Laurie Ann March
  • The Trailside Cookbook by Don and Pam Philpott

My new favourites are:

  • Backcountry Cooking by Dorcas Miller
  • LipSmackin’ Backpackin’ by Christine and Tim Connors

Related posts for this trip:

Trip report

Packing list

Gear review: snowshoes and poles

Sled review

 

Sled review: Performance of my homemade sled on a winter backcountry 4-day snowshoe adventure at Algonquin Provincial Park

In early January 2016 I posted instructions on how to make a sled for backcountry winter camping. This past weekend I tested the sled out on a 4-day winter backcountry adventure at Algonquin Provincial Park.
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Gear in canoe pack with tarp and bungees.
The weight of the sled and gear was approximately 70 pounds:
  • sled – 7 pounds
  • gear in canoe pack – 40 pounds
  • food – 17.4 pounds
  • 1 bag kindling – estimated 5 pounds
Problems encountered:
  • The poles I used were the wrong kind – despite wanting rigid poles, I somehow bought flexible ones, so going down steep hills the sled would hit me in the back of the legs (exactly what I was trying to avoid!) – I will be replacing the poles!
  • Sometimes while walking along my waist would get a jolt – this was uncomfortable! It happened when I started pulling the load after a downhill section, or from a sudden start. It was better to start slowly.
  • The sled tipped over – the load seemed balanced, but sometimes given the terrain, it tipped over:
    • if the trail curved sharply, it was harder to get around the corner without it flipping
    • if there was a path cut in the snow already, the sled wanted to follow the path even if I didn’t
    • if there was a tree or stump in the way, and I walked past it but the sled got caught, it might flip over.
    • on a very steep hill along the Highland Trail, the sled tipped over and I was stuck – I couldn’t right it on my own without having to take my hip belt off and descend the hill a ways – my friend came back down the hill without her sled to right mine.
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This is my friend’s sled, which has straps rather than bungees. Note also the orange ropes, which replaced the failed hooks and bolts.
Positive notes about the sled:
  • 6 attachment hooks were sufficient
  • bungees worked well
  • no bolts were lost on the underside of the sled (for the 6 attachment hooks) – by contrast, my friend’s sled lost 5 of 8 bolts, meaning that the hooks were useless – she had to use rope to create new hooks
  • hip belt was great
  • on a very steep decline, I was able to hold the sled by the hip belt (while not wearing it), letting it go down the hill ahead of me (I was also able to attach the poles to the sled with the bungees, allowing me to use 2 hands to let the sled slide down the hill)
  • poles were attached securely to the sled and the belt
  • sled was big enough to hold all my gear – any more gear would have been too heavy to pull
  • sled made for a great seat come snack time!
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Sitting on my sled for a snack!
Modifications that I will make:
  • change to rigid poles
  • change bungees to straps, because I think the load could be kept tighter/more secure
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Going down a hill sled first.
All in all, I was happy with the performance of my sled, and I look forward to using it again! [Update: Modifications to the sled here.] Related posts for this trip: Trip report Packing list Menu and cooking tips Gear review: snowshoes and poles Follow me on Twitter: @kyraonthego Follow me on Instagram: @kyraonthego

Gear review: Tubbs Women’s Elevate snowshoes and Tubbs Snowshoeing poles

After deciding to go on my first winter backcountry adventure and choosing a date with my friend Cheryl, the next step was to find me some snowshoes and poles for our Algonquin Provincial Park adventure!

Enter Randy at Algonquin Outfitters (AO), who offered to set me up with the equipment I would need. Before he could make a recommendation though, he needed a few details on our trip.

He asked me:

  • Where are you going? 
  • Are you backpacking on snowshoes?
  • Are you pulling a sled? 
  • Do you plan to make your own trail or travel a well travelled trail? 
  • Will you be climbing hills and descending steeper declines?
  • Will you be walking on ice (lakes & rivers)?
  • How much weight do you plan on putting on them (person + gear)?

Based on my responses, Randy recommended Tubbs Women’s Elevate 25″ snowshoes (http://tubbssnowshoes.com/snowshoes/elevate-w) and Tubbs Snowshoeing poles (http://tubbssnowshoes.com/accessories?type=poles).

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Note that the poles are in 3 sections, with length measurements in the middle and lower segments (horizontal lines). I aligned each segment to 120 cm and they were a perfect height for me. For storage, they collapse to less than the length of the snowshoes. Also note the “basket” at the bottom of the poles for snowshoeing.

So, we headed to AO in Huntsville, where Randy helped me to try on the snowshoes in my hiking boots, and then a different pair for comparison. He explained how to tighten them, and how to adjust the poles for my height. In an ideal world, I would have tried the snowshoes on for a day hike before heading out for a 4-day backcountry adventure, but I don’t live near AO, so it wasn’t really an option.

The trail conditions for the weekend were mostly packed snow tramped down by other snowshoers or hikers. We did, however, blaze our own trail a few times as well, in somewhat deep snow with a crunchy layer on top (it rained the day before we arrived).

In short, I loved the snowshoes. I didn’t realize that on Day #1 my feet were too far forward in them, but on Day #2 the strap on the left snowshoe was much longer than the one on the right, so I figured something was wrong. I finally realized that with my foot too far forward, the hard plastic part that snugs the toes was slipping under the snowshoe and putting upwards pressure on the bottom of the snowshoe (see picture).

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Note the strap that runs across my toes (top to bottom in this picture). The hard dark grey plastic is sitting right here, but with my foot further forward, it would slip under the black plastic that runs in the backwards C shape.

After adjusting my foot backwards, the problem was fixed and I was good to go. Long term use of the snowshoe with the foot in improperly would definitely have damaged the snowshoes.

I found them very comfortable, light, and easy to maneuver. Sometimes I stepped on one showshoe with the other, but I’m sure that was my fault, not the snowshoe’s! Once I had my foot placed properly, they were very easy to tighten, and they did not loosen on me! There is a binding that goes behind the heel, and this too stayed snug. Even when ascending a steep, icy hill, the metal grips held tight, the snowshoe stayed tight on my hiking boot, and I was able to make it up the hill while pulling a 60+ pound sled with gear.

The strap behind the ankle would sometimes come out of the holder, but this was more annoying than anything – the strap did not loosen.

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The grey strap with the holes would come out of the little clip. It was not a performance issue. Note the light grey metal piece that looks a bit like a soccer net (minus the mesh) – it is a kick plate that lifts up for use on steep hills. It changes the angle of your foot relative to the hill and is supposed to make it easier to ascend them. I only remembered to use it twice and didn’t notice a huge difference. I need to try it out more.

 

I was able to loosen the snowshoes very quickly, but it wasn’t always easy to get my boot out given the straps were frozen with snow all over them. I never had to unclip the back strap to remove my feet though.

Snowshoe stats:

Dimensions: 8″ x 25″

Weight: 4.16 pounds

Optimal load: 54-91 kgs

Surface area: 452 cm

The poles? On Day #1 I wasn’t convinced that I liked them, because one kept loosening and shortening. However, I eventually really tightened it and never had a problem on Day #2, 3 or 4. Without the poles I would never have been able to get up the steepest of the hills along the Highland Trail! They held me in place while I figured out my next step.

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In the end, I bought the snowshoes and poles from AO!

Related posts for this trip:

 

Trip report

Packing list

Menu and cooking tips

Sled review

 

Packing list: Winter backcountry 4-day snowshoe adventure at Algonquin Provincial Park

The following is a packing list for 2 people for a 3-night, 4-day snowshoe backcountry trip in winter (February) at Algonquin Provincial Park. We each carried our own personal items (clothes, sleeping bags, headlamps, cameras etc.) and then shared things that we would use collectively. Items carried by my friend are denoted with a *. All of my things fit into one canoe pack, with Thursday’s dinner and evening snack, and our small shovel packed separately in my homemade sled. I don’t recommend loose items in the sled. Somehow our first night’s dinner and evening snack fell out without us noticing!

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All my stuff ready to go (minus the food).

Clothing (packed and worn)

  • 6 pairs hiking socks
  • 2 bras
  • 3 pairs underwear
  • 1 short sleeved shirt
  • 3 long sleeved shirts [Note: 2 were not worn]
  • 2 thin sweaters
  • 1 fleece sweater
  • 1 pair pants
  • 1 long john top and bottom
  • 1 balaclava [Note: not used]
  • 2 winter hats (one for sleeping)
  • 2 pairs of mittens [Note: 1 not worn]
  • 1 pair fleece gloves
  • 2 pairs running gloves + 1 pair waterproof shells
  • 1 pair fleece pajamas
  • 1 pair snowpants
  • 1 winter coat
  • 1 pair winter boots
  • 1 pair hiking boots
  • 4 plastic milk bags to use as boot liners if need be
  • sunglasses

Kitchen

  • food in bag suitable for hanging in a tree away from little critters (bears should be hibernating) + rope
  • MSR Dragonfly stove (x2, based on our inability to get them going during a winter camp camping trip in 2015 when it was -27 degrees Celsius with the windchill)
  • stove servicing kit [Note: not used]
  • fuel (2 x 887 ml bottle + 1 x 650 ml) [Note: used only 1 x 887 ml]
  • hand sanitizer
  • 3 nalgene bottles (1*)
  • 1 bike-style water bottle
  • Swiss army knife
  • waterproof matches*
  • 1 medium sized pot*
    • dish soap [Note: frozen – not used]
    • flipper [Note: not used]
    • pot gripper
    • lightweight utensils
    • dish cloth [Note: not used – washed dishes with snow, spoons, paper towels]
  • 1 more medium sized pot
  • 1 medium sized pot for cooking on a campfire
  • insulated mug
  • 2 Outback oven tea pot cosy things (1*)
  • paper towels*
  • lightweight bowls*
  • tinfoil* [Note: not used]
  • food
  • 10 L jug of water* [Note: in future, would not bring – too heavy]

Sleeping

  • winter tent (Marmot Thor 3 person)
  • MEC Phoenix winter sleeping bag (rated to -20 degrees Celsius)
  • pillow
  • fleece sleeping bag liner
  • shiny silver survival blanket for under thermarest
  • 2 thermarests, one on top of the other [Note: 1 was old and would not inflate]

Miscellaneous

  • snowshoes and poles (Tubbs Women’s Elevate 25″ and Tubbs Snowshoe poles)
  • homemade sled with tarp cover and bungees to hold it down
  • small backpack:
    • headlamp
    • GPS
    • extra batteries for headlamp and GPS
    • compass
    • map
    • whistle
    • snack
    • water in water bottle in a sock
    • emergency locator beacon (ACR ResQLink+)
  • toiletries, including kleenex
  • camera, tripod and extra battery
  • cell phone
  • ID and change for wood
  • small lightweight tarp + ropes [Note: not used]
  • shovel
  • sunblock [Note: not used]
  • 4 toilet paper rolls [Note: used 2-3]
  • extra bag for bringing electronics into the tent at night to keep them warmer
  • 2 quick dry towels (1*) [Note: not used]
  • trowel* [Note: not used]
  • axe*
  • saw*
  • fire starter*
  • first aid kit*
  • pen and paper*
  • emergency kit, including needle and thread, duct tape, etc.* [Note: used needle and thread for emergency button repair!]
  • 2 x Ontario Parks kindling ($4.50 each) (1*) [Note: approximately 5 pounds each, but would bring again to ensure dry wood]

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All my stuff fit into this canoe pack, + a loose shovel and first night’s dinner and evening snack (that went AWOL).

Related posts for this trip:

Trip report

Menu and cooking tips

Gear review: snowshoes and poles

Sled review