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Good Experience

Ask Marshall: How do I avoid looking like all-gear-no-idea’r on a portage trip?

Marshall Johnston
September 2, 2020

Welcome to the first instalment of “Ask Marshall,” a new series in which our resident outdoorsy pal will answer all your burning where (and wear), what, why, why, and how questions about the great Ontario wilderness. Who *is* this Marshall person? We’ll let him introduce himself.

Oh hey there, I’m Marshall. A west coast transplant dedicated to finding all that is great about the Ontario wilderness. When I first moved to Ontario, everyone thought I was crazy for trading in the west coast jungle for a concrete one.

The truth is, I never really had to. I took the old license plate motto — “Yours to discover,” RIP — as a personal challenge. What I found were endless kilometres of trails, countless lakes and a pretty rich geological history. Whether it’s a sweet lookout a short drive from your backyard condo balcony or a smooth paddle through Algonquin, there’s a slice of outdoors for everyone.

You don’t need to be a canoe-paddling, MEC membership card-holding, $300 hiking boot-wearing bush-whacker to get your dose of the Ontario outdoors. You just gotta be willing to get out of your comfort zone. I don’t claim to know everything, but I’ll help you out by giving you the kind of info I wish I had when I first moved to this beautiful province.


How do I avoid looking like all-gear-no-idea’r on a portage trip? 

Doesn't bother me one bit if you want to wear hoop earrings or Tevas and socks, as long as you promise to look up every once in a while to breathe in some of that fresh, fresh air [Editor's note: Right on, man].

Have fun with it. Get a book that tells you all about the local trees. Learn about the rocks. Scan the sky for constellations. This land is your land, this land is my land

Okay but for real.

1) There is no looking like an idiot. Own your look, whatever it is. What makes you look like an idiot is leaving behind a trashed campsite (garbage, beer bottles, etc.). Don’t be that guy! That guy sucks.

2) Just kidding, there are other ways to look like an idiot. And that’s by dropping hundreds on frivolous camping items that claim to do super cool things. No, you do not need a compressible backcountry toaster. Trust. Stick with the basics, and grow your set of gear as you need to.

3) Get a headlamp. They allow you to be hands-free when the sun goes down. They won’t break the bank (most are priced around $20 to $50) and it’s something you’ll get a ton of use out of. The strength of the light is measured in lumens. The more lumens, the better (mo lumens, less problems), but there’s really no need to go higher than 250.

Mandatory purchase: a headlamp. Like the Petzl Tikkina ($24.95, MEC).

4) Pack like a pro. Try to get all your stuff in one backpack and one bear barrel (a bear-resistant food container… yeah. Bears are a thing). Lifting 30 things out of the canoe, carrying them 100 metres, and then putting them back in the canoe just to do it all over again sucks. It’s exhausting.

5) Axe the axe. Everyone wants to bring an axe when they do a backcountry trip. There’s something about cutting down a tree… but I mean, you shouldn’t. They’re packed with water and won’t burn worth a hot damn. Enter: the saw.

A saw is what you want. You can cut all the dead dry wood your heart desires. It makes firewood collection happen at a blazing pace, so you actually have time to enjoy that bag-o-wine as the sun sets. Speaking of wine: not every park is cool with alcohol. Some are cool, but don’t allow glass containers. Know before you go.

The folding saw, making firewood dreams come true. (Agawa Canyon Folding Saw, $79.50; Lee Valley)

6) Dig out your old Nalgene. Sure, that double-walled, vacuum-sealed water bottle is trendier, but save that for home. A Nalgene bottle is light, unbreakable, inexpensive and looks pretty sweet with some campground stickers on it.

7) It’s Ontario! Expect bugs! Depending on where you’re going and when, expect a lot of bugs. Plan accordingly. Get yourself a campsite with a breeze and light that fire (bugs hate smoke and wind), buy a bug suit (it’s a thing) or embrace the DEET. A note on DEET: it can melt your plastic tent or rain jacket if you spray directly. But like, don’t let that dissuade you from using it. 

Got a question for Marshall? Drop us a line at

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