How we find our 'secret' camping spots: A Crown land trip report [Long]
Last week I went out on an overnight backpacking trip to test out my new (used) hammock. Upon my return and hearing what a nice time I'd had and the comfortable sleep I'd enjoyed, my wife decided to order a hammock of her own. My brief solo trip left her a little envious of my time in the bush but she wasn't willing to wait for her hammock to arrive and insisted we return to where I'd solo camped so we could enjoy a 3-day tenting trip over the weekend. And so while she dug out our homemade dehydrated meals and worked out our meal plan I packed up my bag again and packed hers. Before I could finish packing her gear she was at the computer studying the Crown land policy atlas and Google Earth satellite images to figure out some places we could hike and explore near to where we'd be camped. We are always questing for the next place where we can hike to and make camp.
Before continuing, there's a bit of back story that I should offer in connection with where we I'd camped for my solo trip and where we were about to explore. I'm doing so because I get a lot of questions about the precise logistics of how we go about finding our 'secret' and out-of-the way camping spots on Crown lands. I have made videos showing how to locate Crown land, but I'm offering this trip report as an example of how my wife and I commonly go about finding a good camping spot on public/government/Crown lands.
BACK STORY: RECONNAISSANCE HIKE
Last summer, after looking over some satellite images of some Crown land about 40 minutes from where we live, we noted a very promising looking lake on the shores of which we might be able to make camp. It looked promising because this crown land was near a boat launch where we could leave our car overnight. This was no coincidence. My wife had done an online search to find listings of every public boat launch, beach, and marina in our area, because those are places where one can commonly park overnight. She then consulted the online Crown land policy atlas (OCLUPA) to see if any of them happened to be on or close to Crown lands. She noted that a public boat launch was situated near a large swath of undeveloped bush nearby and the landscape featured many small lakes, ponds, and streams. These smaller water bodies are just the sorts of places that attract less attention from developers, hunters, and anglers. These are the sorts of places you can typically get to off-trail on foot or by canoe.
She then noted that just a couple of kilometers from the boat launch (as the crow flies) was as small lake. Lakeside camping is almost always idyllic because it means easy access to drinking and cooking water, as well as making it possible to swim, bathe, and fish. This particular spot also looked good to us because there was high ground surrounding it, so it was probably not going to turn out to be some stagnant, fetid swamp and we wouldn't have to walk through bog to get to it. Using a closeup image, we saw what looked like faint white spot jutting into the water on the western shore that had the highest elevation, suggesting it was a rocky point - an ideal spot for bush camp on a lake shore.
Because there would be no trails leading to this spot, we'd be travelling off-trail which can be very slow and fraught with physical obstacles, so we used Google Earth satellite images and it's 3D landscape rendering feature to plot out a hiking route that would take us through the bush atop hills and ridges as much as possible. Higher ground in these woods consists of more open forest of mixed hardwoods and softwoods and such a route would permit us to avoid the low swampy areas which are sometimes completely impassable as well as the frustrating dense tangles of willows and conifers which dominate lowlands and swampy shores. The route we plotted was not direct, but would be faster and easier and minimize time spent struggling to cross streams, wade through muck, or bushwacking. We wrote down the GPS coordinates of several waypoints along our route then printed the image on which we'd added those waypoints. This printed satellite image would serve as our map. We would hike from waypoint to waypoint using our GPS device.
Because this was just a reconnaissance hike, we packed very light. My wife had her GPS and a pocket EDC/Ditch kit, while I had a very small day pack that held food, water, and the essentials in case we found ourselves lost or stuck in the woods for the night. We didn't know what we'd find at the lake, or even if we'd make it all the way there, so there was no point in heading in with full camping gear. As a safety precaution, before heading out to hike off-trail, even for just a few hours, we sent our route information to two reliable friends along with the time when we'd be back and would call them. When hiking off-trail, this is a very important precaution.
With GPS in hand, we hiked our way to it in just a few hours. Here's a rare moment of easy hiking through an open floodplain and climbing down from a ridge to cross a narrow rocky stream to get to another ridge.
As expected, it was slow going in places. At times we were forced into dense low-lying bush and had to tip-toe across beaver dams to get from one area of high ground to another and the bugs were pretty bad in some spots, but off-trail hiking, though a bit strenuous, is always invigorating and fills you with a sense of adventure and exploration, since one is always having to make small decisions about how to avoid obstacles in one's path such as, blow-downs, dense stands of conifers, open swamps, soggy floodplains, unexpected steep ascents and descents, and the like. Game trails, whenever they were going in roughly our direction, were eagerly used until they veered too far from our next GPS waypoint. As the crow flies, our destination was not far (just over 2 km), but even a short distance off-trail on uneven ground through bush is much slower-going than trail hiking or a stroll through clean, open forest or fields. By early afternoon, we were a little tired, sweaty, and bug-bitten, but we reached out destination. To our delight, the lake was indeed beautiful and quite pristine.
The greatest evidence of anyone's having been there before was an old bear-scattered fire ring of rocks where some anglers or hunters had made a shore lunch.
We'd been correct about there being a rocky outcropping that jutted out into the lake a bit. This would be a safe place to build a fire, catch a cooling bug-free breeze in hot weather, enjoy a warming sun after a cold swim, and where we could enjoy a view during the day and stargaze at night. Because it was not some well-trafficked campsite like those encountered in the backcountry campsites of a park, the ground litter and vegetation was intact and firewood was superabundant. We looked around to determine where (in future) we'd string our tarp and pitch our tent. We determined the best place from which to fetch lake water and where to swim, as well as where we'd hang our food bag. By the time we left, we'd touched nothing, but knew the layout of our future campsite. When we would return we would need to snap off a lot of low-lying dead branches on the trees from which be stringing our tarp, clear branches, rocks and first year saplings so we could pitch our tent, then assemble a fire ring; all part of the fun of making a bush camp, as opposed to moving into a campsite where all has been taken care of by countless prior campers. Having done all the legwork and reconnaissance we hiked back to our vehicle. Because there was no trail by which to find our way back we again had to make countless small decisions, as retracing one's exact steps is all but impossible in the bush unless one has taken pains to blaze a trail or use flagging tape, both of which would have taken time and only served to lure people to a location we preferred to leave unvisited by others. For this reason one's hike back from such reconnaissance trips is invariably a little different and equally exploratory.
My wife enjoying some shade and a snack on the hike back.
We had planned to return to our newly discovered camping location within a few weeks, but we didn't do so until early Autumn. I won't go into detail about that trip because I have already made a little trip report video about that on my YouTube channel. However it's important to mention that getting back there was quite a lot harder under the weight of a loaded backpack, even though we had firsthand knowledge of the terrain and route. For any who are interested in how that September overnight trip went, here's the link:
That takes us back to my recent solo hammocking trip last week. Since I just wanted to test out my hammock and sleeping setup for the first time, I wanted to go someplace I'd been to before where I could camp for free. I had thought initially I'd hike back to that same newly found lake, but as the last of the snow had just melted and creeks and floodplains are quite high at that time of year, I expected I would not be able to make it all the way, so as I made my way into the bush I kept an eye out for suitable spots for an overnight camp. Because I was hammocking, I could afford to be more openminded about where I could make camp. I wouldn't need a flat area, just two trees within a short distance of water and a safe place to make a cooking and warming fire. I found it only an hour or so from where I was parked, a short distance beyond point #2 on my satellite image route map.
I won't go into detail about that solo hammocking trip since I have already posted a trip report about just a few days ago: https://www.hammockforums.net/forum/...ad.php?t=72436
MOST RECENT CAMPING TRIP: TENTING FOR TWO (and how it compared to hammocking)
And that now brings us up to this last tenting trip with my wife. Before heading out, my wife recorded some GPS coordinates from Google earth satellite images to some interesting low-lying areas near to where we were going to make camp. We would spend our second day out hiking and exploring these areas to the south and the west of our camp in the hopes of finding another little gem.
Here's a satellite image of the areas we would explore.
The weather was beautiful the morning we left; hot, but clear and sunny with a light breeze. We'd not been out of our vehicle for two minutes when we spotted a hawk flying overhead which perched itself a short distance from us. Regrettably, it flew off before we could determine its species. I think it's an immature Sharp-Shinned Hawk.
The last vestiges of the snow on north-facing slopes had disappeared just days before while I had been trying out my hammock, and everything was in bud. The forest had that fresh look of bright spring green on trees and shrubs. Black flies also were emerging, though thankfully, not biting yet as these were just the males swarming and they never bite. This meant we still had days and days to enjoy before the hungry breeding females would join the swarming males to breed and collect their blood meals.
We reached the spot where I'd camped after about a 90-minute hike. I'd tried to get there just from memory, but in the end I missed my mark, had to backtrack a bit and follow the shoreline of the beaver pond that blocked our way until we found the beaver's dam that constituted our bridge to our campsite.
We found the site as I'd left it - with the fireplace clean, extra fire wood neatly stacked, and some cut poles leaning against a tree for various uses, including my Cheek Spreader latrine.
We spent the first 20 minutes walking around looking for a suitable spot to pitch our tent. I'd chosen this spot initially for my hammock and so it was just a mess of fallen white pines, spruce and fir over uneven ground. We did manage to find one flat, level spot nearby behind a large boulder, just big enough to accommodate our 2-person dome tent.
The advantages of hammocking were already pretty clear to me from my solo trip, but they became even more salient when we had to spend a solid half hour clearing that flat spot of dead falls, pokey twigs, bits of rock, and small saplings. Hammocks could have been hung in less time than it took just to find that flat spot, much less clear it.
After a quick lunch I hung our food bag on the opposite shore of the beaver pond and then my wife set about stringing our tarp in case of rain - though none was forecast.
We spent a bit of time looking around the area, snapping photos, collecting firewood, lighting the fire with flint and steel, and boiling drinking water. My wife noticed a real abundance of turtles in the pond, so the site became affectionately known as 'Turtleville'.
We were serenaded all day by the sound of spring peepers (frogs). I'm happy to say they weren't as numerous as they'd been a few nights earlier when I'd been here alone with my hammock. They were now just loud enough on this trip to be enjoyable. Dinner that night consisted of a one-pot meal of re-hydrated pasta and meat sauce with grated parmesan cheese.
The next morning we both woke up to the dawn chorus of Robins, White-Breasted Nuthatches, Black-Capped Chickadees, Jays, Oven Birds and other feathered creatures. Most welcome was the sound of Yellow-Rumped Warblers. Warblers are insectivores and with bug season beginning, we are always happy to see and hear lots of warblers. Warblers, fly-catchers, bats, and frogs are what bring the scourge of Ontario campers - the black fly - to an end. Unlike mosquitoes, which have multiple breeding cycles all through spring and summer, black flies only have one breeding cycle in late spring, but it is massive - a true plague in these parts. Thereafter, they are slowly killed off, mostly by insectivores, which is why Black Fly season ends by early summer. For this reason we count warblers among our friends in these parts.
Though we'd slept enough during the night we both were complaining of soreness and stiffness as we emerged from the tent. Sleeping on the ground is a lot harder on the bony parts and lower back than a hammock is. Score another point for hammocking.
After a breakfast of oatmeal with re-hydrated blueberries and coffee I packed some food, a 2-liter folding water flask, and emergency essentials into an ultralight day pack, and with GPS, binoculars, and camera in hand we set out to explore some of the land around us. It was a scorcher for this time of year, with a high of 27C and full sun. We headed west around our beaver pond then turned south where we began picking our way carefully along a large marsh.
Our plan was to circle this wetland counter-clockwise in the hopes of finding a campsite where we could swim.
In most respects our Turtleville campsite was perfect, but the beaver pond was too shallow for a swim and, like most beaver ponds, it was filled with easily disturbed organic material on the bottom that made it impossible to even wade into without stirring it all up into an unpleasant soup of rotting vegetation and muck. Our goal therefore was to find a pond or creek that had better flow, greater depth, and less turbidity. On a hot day like this, a swim was what my wife wanted most. She had nagged me to bring the camp suds in the day pack so we could rinse off if we had any luck, but I was not optimistic we'd find anything better than what is pictured below.
Upon reaching the far side of this large marsh we found an area where we could, with care, cross back to the side we'd started on by using fallen logs as balance beams over the wet parts or hop from spongy moss bed to spongy moss bed. We managed to both get across without getting a soaker.
As we approached our camp it was only late morning so my wife entered coordinates into our GPS for a wetland to the west of Turtleville camp and we took advantage of the water around us to drink through a filter straw permitting us to conserve the boiled drinking water in our flasks for later.
Here is the route we followed to the wetland area west of Turtleville campsite:
To our surprise we happened upon a freshly axe-blazed trail made by hunters. We followed it a short distance but soon abandoned it as it didn't lead toward our westerly goal. According to our standard procedure, we stuck to higher ground for easier travel until we had no choice but to head down toward the wetland we wanted to explore.
The water body we found there exceeded my greatest expectations and my wife's expression here tells the story:
This was another genuine lake - unnamed and unmarked on any maps - albeit a shallow one. A high rocky point jutted out into it, making it a great spot from which to swim, fish, and catch a cooling bug-free breeze.
Best of all, there was no sign of anyone ever being here before; no tracks, no old fire ring, no signs of human occupation at all. Even in the spot most favourable for a shore fire, the trees still had all their smallest low dead branches intact. An absence of lower dead branches in such a desirable spot is always a sure sign that someone has been there before because those are what people invariably reach for first as dry tinder and kindling to start their fires. Here, the shore was completely untouched - a truly rare find in a location so perfect for camping.
We toyed with the idea of moving our camp to here for our last night, but in the end decided that we'd save this place for another trip - a longer one - since this spot afforded us opportunities for swimming and fishing, not to mention beautiful views and good options for both tenting or hammocking. We had a small lunch on the rocks as we took in the scenery and then did a bit more exploring around this lake; "Shallow Lake" we dubbed it.
One the way back, we stopped here again so we could take a dip and wash off the sweat and sunscreen. I now regretted not having brought the camping soap though. We stripped down and waded out into the water for our first chilly skinny-dip of the year. Man...did it feel great. The lake was deep enough to swim in, but not so deep as to be too cold to be enjoyed.
Afterwards we sun-dried ourselves in the hot breeze, dressed, had lunch by the shore, and very slowly made our way back to Turtleville campsite so as not to work up another sweat.
The whole way back to camp we were both feeling clean, refreshed, and filled with a sense of accomplished. Discovering a new 'secret' place to camp is always like that. We savoured the natural high.
I was feeling very 'up' when I spotted a standing dead Balsam Fir close to our camp. This inspired me to set another little goal for myself. I cut the small tree down and snapped off all the little branches so I could carry it back to camp like a spear. I lit our campfire with flint and steel (with some trouble) so my wife could boil up more water and prepare some coffee and eventually supper and while she did that I began carving a bow drill set from the small fir I'd cut down.
I was still enjoying a confident mood and because it had been so warm in recent days I thought my chances with this dry piece of balsam fir would be close to optimal. I set myself the task of getting a bow drill fire going.
It took many attempts (approximately a dozen), but I finally got my first bow drill fires. This was truly a perfect day of camping.
Later that evening we feasted on generous servings of re-hydrated meat chili with rice and lentils as we sat under the tarp in front of the fire.
The next morning we rose, complained about our sore bones again, and then relived the previous day's triumphs as we enjoyed a breakfast of 7-grain cereal and coffee.
We slowly broke camp, hiked out the way we'd come to our awaiting vehicle back at the boat launch parking area and then drove home. The warm weather camping season seems to be off to a good start for us. My wife has since slept (indoors) in her new hammock and she loved it. She's now seen the manifold and manifest advantages of the hammock when camping off-trail in a bush camp. Hammock Forums has produced two new converts.
If you've read until this far, my thanks to you.
As always, hope this helps,