markinthepark seeking solitude

101: Tips, Tricks & Techniques

In this section I relate some tricks & techniques that I have learned & have had passed onto me by those much more experienced than I. You can click on the corresponding topic in the sidebar on the right side of this page. Hopefully my long-winded explanations may be of benefit one-day to your tripping experience, just as those who came before me, their experiences have helped me to overcome my problems in the bush.


Building campfires in the rain
Building a campfire can be an easy thing to do. Man has been doing it for tens of thousands of years. Yet, there are times when one faces the forces of mother nature, making the task difficult, sometimes seemingly impossible, especially under extremely adverse weather conditions. With a little know how and some extra effort, almost anyone can get a campfire going, even under the most crazy of situations.


The first steps I take is to inspect the designated fire-pit. Every campsite is supposed to have one. Use it, if you do not use the official one, you risk starting a forest fire; All official fire-pits are lined with a sand/gravel/rock combination, to insulate the bottom of the fire-pit. This is to prevent the ignition of an underground fire that can occur, as fire can penetrate and ignite underground roots from nearby trees. These roots can smoulder sometimes for weeks at a time before reaching the surface (long after the occupant has left the area), where it can flare up and start a forest fire. Even with proper care and use of an official fire-pit, the chance for underground fires can still occur.


So to minimize the risk, I use the official fire-pit, and have small campfires (as opposed to hot burning bonfires). Also, I make sure the surrounding rock wall of the fire-pit is built-up enough to shield the fire from wind. If not, I stack more rock till an effective wind-break is established. I then make sure the rocks are stable and will not collapse on me. It certainly wouldn't bode well to see my hard earned steak end up in the coals!


Next, I scrape out the fire-pit of left over coals, if any. Now at this point, if it is pouring rain, you might think “How am I going to get a fire going in this?” For me the answer is "When" to get a fire going, not "How". So, if it is pouring rain, it is more important to prepare for the event of a campfire then to stand there in the rain and wonder how to do it. So with the fire-pit ready for use, now is the time (still pouring rain) to collect firewood. I usually collect three piles of combustible material; fire-starter, kindling, and firewood.


Firstly, fire starter is probably the most important thing as without any of it, it will be next to impossible to get a campfire going. Fire starter consists of small flammable duff, things like hay, grasses, pine needles, etc. Birch bark paper(do not remove from live trees) when wet, will catch fire, as it contains an oil. Even if it has been pouring rain for days, these can be found with relative dryness under the overhang of some trees, underneath heavy leafed shrubs, fallen trees and rotting logs.


If you search around the surrounding rain-soaked forest, you are probably going to get wet looking for dry stuff. It is important to note though; as you are doing the physical activity of gathering fuel for your campfire, you are keeping your blood flowing, warming your body. Thus the old saying, “Building a camp fire warms you twice over”. This is critical if it is in the spring or fall, when damp cold weather can easily lead to hypothermia if one is not careful. I place the fire starter somewhere out of the rain, under an overhanging tree or under my canoe, etc. The kindling is second; sticks and branches of varying widths, usually small enough to break over your knee. Break them up as much as possible to present more surface area for a fire to burn through. Thirdly, collect firewood, via fallen dead trees, that you can cut up with a hand saw. Two to four inches is a good thickness, more than that and it gets too tiring to saw.


Now I have the three ingredients; fire starter, kindling and firewood, safely stored out of the rain for the moment. Still raining? No problem, I string up a tarp of sufficient height over the fire-pit. Remember to have the tarp set at an angle so as to drain off rainwater, else it will pool in the middle and bring your temporary roof (Filled with rainwater) down towards the flames! If it has stopped raining and/or I have a tarp up, I set my pile of fire starter in the fire-pit. If it is flooded, I scoop out as much water as I can. Another thing I can do is raise the fire off the ground if water is still a problem. I put some big logs down in the bottom of the fire-pit, building a 'floor'. From there, I put the fire starter down. Next a few kindling sticks, "Teepee" style works best.


Another method is to create a "lean-to" with some logs. Take four logs, and put two parallel to each other, leaving a space in-between for a third log, that will be held up at an angle by the fourth log that will lie across the first two. With the logs set up in this manner and fire starter and kindling under the raised log, a 'draft' is created, feeding the fire with oxygen. If I have brought a hatchet with me, I'll split the firewood, to get to the dry stuff inside. Taking my swiss army knife, I'll cut of shavings from the split logs, creating a mound of dry wood shavings, that with a lit match will flame very well.


Bringing in some newspaper is another option as well to add to my arsenal of fire starter materials. If the rain will simply not stop, or I don't have a tarp, or a suitable windbreak, I look around for old fallen birch trees. Sometimes I can pull out thick sheets of birch bark, suitable for shielding a fire from the elements, as I get it started. This method has worked for me many times. If none of these options is available, a canoe can be used for a windbreak, placed not too close to the fire-pit.


Now at this point, I would pull out my lighter or wooden matches. I am assuming folks bring such modern conveniences with them? If not, lighting a fire can be a real problem without them. For lighting a fire without matches or lighters, a fellow by the name of Les Stroud is highly qualified in that department. I Invite you to check out his web site here. If you have seen any of his "Survivorman" episodes, Les has demonstrated on a few occasions the “Fire-bow”. A method on how to create fire without a lighter, matches or flint. I gave a half-hearted attempt at this once and gave up after only 2 hrs...then I found my lighter. Whew!


Once the fire has been lit, I continue to feed it with shavings from a log. Kindling keeps the fire going while also drying out the fire-pit, by now the first ashes and small coals are probably starting to form. This is a crucial time. If I simply 'flood' the fire with big logs on top, the fire will most likely die. I need to keep fuelling the fire with smaller kindling: twigs, branches, sitting there feeding it by hand, one stick at a time if necessary. This way I build up a hot enough fire for my firewood to catch and sustain the combustion of fuel. I place wet logs on the rocks surrounding the fire-pit, the heat of the growing fire drying them out, thereby making my upcoming fuel supply more efficient.


Typically when I camp alone, I can expect to have a fire going fiercely within 30 to 40 minutes under the above conditions, this is from the time I've inspected the fire-pit, to collecting the fuel(fire starter, kindling, firewood), to finally having a blazing warm fire going in the rain. Remember to extinguish the campfire before retiring for the night or leaving the campsite. Plain and simple water will do the trick and use plenty of it.

So to summarize:

  • Clean & organize fire-pit.
  • Collect the three fuel types: fire starter, kindling & firewood
  • String up a tarp or use thick birch bark over the fire as a rain/wind break
  • With a knife peel off shavings from a wet or split log.
  • Bring several methods of ignition: Lighters, matches, etc.
  • Slowly feed the fire, do not smother with many wet logs all at once.
  • Extinguish campfire when finished or leaving campsite.

One day I hope to make a video of this process, which will make it easier to understand

Return to Top of Page



canoe portage
Portaging a canoe

"I look forward to the carry-over". No, I'm not a liar or crazy as Bill Mason would've suggested. I do enjoy the change of pace that a portage offers; the peace and tranquility of the surrounding forest. The opportunity to discover wildlife and even some flora that might be edible or camera worthy. There's lots to do on a portage besides just carrying everything I'll need for my stay in Algonquin Park.


There is of course, the business end of portaging; the canoe carry. Hauling your beloved craft through the forest is the only way to get your canoe overland and the most difficult thing one will probably face in Algonquin Park. It can be either your nemesis or just another “Walk in The Park". For me there are five vital steps (in no particular order) to getting past the hurdle of portaging;
  • Dress appropriately
  • Develop technique(Incl. “Mind games”)
  • Fuel up & rest regularly
  • Be prepared for bugs
  • Use a light canoe! 

Dressing for the carry-over: It won't take long before I work up a sweat carrying my canoe through the backcountry and if the portage has lots of elevation changes, my body will work harder and faster at dumping the excess heat generated. In the heat of summer, I tend to wear cotton shirts, this is ok if the weather is warm, but honestly, if the weather should turn cool, I would be in trouble. Synthetic fabrics that wick away moisture from your body are a good choice.


Cargo style pants are a good choice for leg wear, offering many pockets to store things like a portable saw, insect repellant, etc, while offering protection from scrapes and bites. Keeping a towel handy for wipe downs is also a good idea, as is a head/sweat band. Depending on weather/bug conditions a hat and a bug jacket might be gear that I will wear while carrying my canoe. Footwear is important too, with weather conditions/seasonal changes being the most important factor in making my decision on what to wear. For summer I leisurely wear water sandals. For spring and fall, I wear boots, usually galoshes with smart wool socks, as I dislike hiking boots.


Practise makes perfect, developing technique: I've had many trips to develop my technique for gearing up and making my canoe carry a trivial matter. In less than 2 minutes upon arrival at a portage I can be on my way up the trail, canoe upended with paddles, fishing rod, etc, all secured in my canoe as the forest closes in around me. First off, I make sure my canoe is off the to the side of the trail, you never no when a fellow tripper is going to come chugging down the trail, sweating mad and desperate to get a load off their back, only to have me in their way.


With my canoe out of the way, I am free to get to work without worry. I pull out two bungie cords which I use to lash my paddles and fishing rod to one side of the canoe using a thwart and yoke on the canoe. My bailer kit is at one end of the canoe and a canoe seat is at the other end to counter-balance the weight. I usually wear my PFD to act as an extra cushion on my shoulders as I carry the canoe.One trick I have learned is to "kick-up" my canoe with one foot to my waiting arms at waist level, thereby avoiding bending at the hips. Another trick is to bend at the knees, as I flip the outward facing canoe up and over my head.


If I can carry the canoe with one hand or none for a time, then I have archived a good balance and this is exactly what I want. Any other result is a negative for if the canoe is back heavy, where the front end will keep rising, it will feel like someone is pulling at your hips and your canoe will occasionally strike the ground or worse(rocks). If the canoe is heavy in the front end, it will feel like you are pushing the weight of the world up above your head and while doing this ascending hills is murder.


Running a line, the length of the canoe is a another solution to helping maintain a balanced load, but I do not use this approach anymore, I have my system down pat; I know at which end where each item goes and always have a balanced load. To me this is most important, more so than forgetting your bug spray, for if you have a terribly unbalanced canoe, you'll have the most horrible experience.


I also keep a small folding bucksaw in my pocket, handy for when a fallen tree can obstruct my path. I have actually cleared a path over a fallen tree, by cutting away sharp branches while the canoe was still on my back. Try doing that with an unbalanced canoe! So, all it takes is some planing and practise, with a quick-secure system and a learned system of leverage and balance, I can be strolling up the trail in no time with confidence, as I amuse my mind with little games of preoccupation...


Mind Games: For those really long portages of 2km's or more in length, I find that playing mind games with myself actually works to take my mind off the task at hand. It's almost as if I am hypnotizing my mind to ignore my body, while the body switches to auto-pilot. Sometimes I will sing, "I'm a lumber jack and I don't care...", or I will play a name game, where I think of a place and then the next place must begin with the last letter of the first place, like thus: Opeongo, Otterslide, Erables, Shippagew and so on. I find that this particular game works very well as I have to concentrate heavily on memory recall and visualizing the lakes and rivers of Algonquin Park in my mind helps to recall lake names. This added level of concentration really takes my mind off the passage of time. I find that keeping track of time is one of the worst things I can do; portages seem to take forever, my sensitivity to agony increases; I tire quickly and often.


So it may sound silly trying to fool your mind into thinking about something else other than a big, heavy load up there on your shoulders, but honestly give it a try, you'll be surprised. Just don't forget to watch where you put your next footstep, eh?


Take regular breaks and fuel up: I find more and more that even though I don’t feel like I need a break, I’ll take one every fifteen to twenty minutes. Tossing that canoe off my back when I’m not shaking with exhaustion is easier then when I’m ready to drop. So, take a break regularly, even when you don’t feel like you need one. Now of course, I mentioned earlier that I don’t like to keep track of time so much, so I guesstimate. Fresh fruit or dried fruit, nuts and chocolate are foods that I consume while on a portage. Along with fresh water and a quick break of less than two minutes, gets me energized and back on the trail in no time. Sometimes all I need is 60 seconds while the canoe sits on a canoe rest, drinking some water and eating two handfuls of “gorp”. You’d be amazed at how energized you’ll feel after such a short break and re-fuelling.


Bugs of the forest: Bugs on a portage can be a real problem. Many factors affect the level of harassment I encounter while on the trail: type of terrain, flora, weather conditions and season of the year. Sometimes if you are travelling in a group, being the third or fourth person down the line can be terrible: The bugs having already been stirred-up by the passing of those in front of you, now have the opportunity to land on you. There’s not much I can do to avoid bugs on the trail except to spray the areas that I’m most vulnerable: Head(away from the eyes of course), neck & shoulders, shoulder blades(Very important!), legs and elbows. I also spray my hat and ankles too.


Use a light canoe: This is one item I have not got around to owning yet. Until I get a lighter canoe, my carry-overs will be heavy, thus they won’t be as easy as they could be utilizing a lighter canoe. I’ve had the opportunity to carry very light canoes and I must say it is “Heaven!!”. Buying canoes is odd though: The more you pay the less you get. In this case though ‘less’ being ‘less weight’ is good, it just costs alot more to get less.


Return to Top of Page