North Face Thunder Jacket in Riding Mountain

Backpacking in Riding Mountain, Manitoba – Hiking the Tilson Lake Trail

This past weekend I did a three day solo-hike of the Tilson Lake trail in Riding Mountain National Park, Manitoba, Canada. The park is located in western Manitoba about an hour and a half north of Brandon and houses a number of trails suitable for hiking, biking, and horseback riding. There is front-country and back-country camping available and it’s home to Clear Lake: a very nice lake with a good beach surrounded by a quaint tourist town with shops and restaurants.

Centrail Trail Riding Mountain Park
You get lots of Canada’s best prairie views

Backpacking is fairly limited in the prairies and the trail selection is scarce. The Tilson Lake trail, in the north-western corner of Riding Mountain Park, is one of the few loops suitable for two nights, however it’s short at only 38.5 km. I decided to do the Tilson loop and add on an extra leg up to Kay’s campsite, part of the Birdtail trail, to extend the total distance to 56.8 km.Riding Mountain Park Map

Losing weight (in your backpack)

My lady was away for the weekend, so Guinness and I set out for a nice fall hike. In an effort to become more lightweight I’ve been tracking some of my pack weights and trimming out everything that’s not essential. My Mariposa Plus pack weighed in at 6.4 kg or 14 lb dry weight (with no food or water) and 10.5 kg or 23 lb total with food, water, scotch, book, etc.

Gearing up for Backpacking
I like to make gear checklists and lay everything out so I don’t forget any essentials

I feel that sub 25 pounds is definitely starting to get into lightweight backpacking territory and I’m happy with the progress that I’ve made. Though, I am still carrying a few things in excess; on this hike I brought a camera, iPhone, and a book (Fifth Business is what I’m currently reading). It would be nice to just use the iPhone for all three functions, but I find a dedicated digital camera still does a better job with pictures. Some of the things I’ve done recently to lighten up include:

At the end of this write-up I talk more about what worked well and what didn’t…

Frigid Fall Hiking

Manitoba Backpacking TrailFor the first day I trekked up past Tilson Lake (site B on the map), which lays 8 km in from the trailhead, to Kay’s campground (site A). Each of the backcountry campsites has a few picnic tables, fire pits, chopped fire-wood, a food locker, and an outhouse (bring your own toilet paper, just in case)

We walked 23.6 km on the first day, which was a bit ambitious considering we didn’t get started til 12:30. But, the trail is quite flat all the way along and we made good time.

The site lists Tilson as difficult, however it is mostly flat forest trail with occasional rolling hills. The trail was very easy to follow as was fairly well cleared, it would be fun to do on horseback (which I like) and would work well for a challenging bike as well (though don’t quote me as I’m not much of a cyclist).

It was upon our arrival at Kay’s, after our fast and furious hike to get in before sunset, that I found the campsite’s water pump, which to my dismay produced a brown sludge. There were no other water sources at the site and I remembered the last stream I passed was 4 klicks back. I attempted to cook my dinner, but couldn’t stomach the additional fiber and ended up eating dry oatmeal and using half of my remaining 500 ml of water to make a hot chocolate.

I crawled into my hammock shelter once it started to get chilly to give it one more try. I’d tried to sleep in it before, without much luck, but I was envious of my friend using it and wanted to give it another shot. I spent another sleepless night laying on my back, or kinked in a funny position on my side. It was after much shifting and shivering (I was quite cold without the ground to help insulate) that I started to ponder why we really go hiking.

Gossamer Gear sit pad
A trail breakfast

I left a comfortable warm bed at home, in a nice house, filled with good food and movies I haven’t watched yet, in order to walk all day alone, eat dry oatmeal, and have a terrible night’s sleep. The sun came out, I packed up quickly in the cold morning, and hiked the four kilometers back to the last stream to cook myself a hot breakfast. The warm coffee and sunshine made me feel instantly better and I decided not to give up on backpacking.


Ground Dweller, Swamp Drinker

Manitoba Moose
This was plenty close enough for me

As far as wildlife goes I saw a number of the Canadian prairie’s finest examples including a big owl, a few eagles, a couple of deer, and a large bull moose. The warden had mentioned to be wary of these guys as it’s mating season and they can be very territorial. The moose may charge a human and can be more dangerous than the bears and wolves that hikers usually fear. When I saw this one standing in the path I approached slowly, spoke in a loud calm voice, and made lots of banging with my poles. He wandered away, but if he had chosen to stay we would’ve had to wait until he decided to move on.


I slept much better the second night by making the Hennessy Hammock into a makeshift tent. I actually got hot in my -9 C Marmot Helium down sleeping bag on my Neo Air and I had been quite a ways from warm the night before.

Makeshift Tarp Tent
I got tired of swinging in the air and made my Hennessy into a makeshift tarp tent

hiking water filterIt should really be noted that access to water is limited on this trail. There are a few clean flowing streams along the hike and I would recommend filling up at these locations as the water at each campsite is less than spectacular. At least Birdtail (site C) had an actual water source, I still could only get close enough to take water from the still swampy area. I used my buff bandana as a filter, which at least got the little shrimpy things and big chunks out of it.

Lessons Learned

I said I would talk about what worked well on this hike and what didn’t. I learned a few things that I’ll keep in mind for the next trip:

  • Always hike with a water filter. Yes, the Pristine drops worked – because I’m not sick, but unless I knew a trail had plentiful clear flowing water sources I will always want a filter in my pack for those times when it looks like you are drinking Guinness (the beer, not my dog).
  • Don’t bring a hammock. I really wanted to like this a solo shelter, but I can’t sleep on my back and am not willing to train myself – I’m not even sure where I would start. It also is really only a summer shelter as the shoulder seasons in Canada can easily dip below freezing. I’ll keep looking for a ground based tent.
  • Secure your gear. I lost my knife, whistle, and emergency fire starter all at once (because they are all one thing with the Tool Logic SL3). I’m not sure when exactly, but it was clipped into a cargo pocket, which apparently wasn’t secure enough.

    North Face Thunder Jacket in Riding Mountain
    Guinness and I at the Birdtail campsite

The stars were fantastic, the weather was sunny yet cool -perfect for keeping a fast pace, there were no bugs, and no other people. All of this was great, however don’t expect any amazing views or unique terrain; most of the trail is along grassy paths in the forest. I wouldn’t recommend this when compared to hikes you could do in the rest of Canada, but for the middle of the prairies it was enjoyable in the end.

Do you have any hiking stories of trips that didn’t go quite as planned? I’d love to hear about them in the comments section below:

Check out Parks Canada’s Riding Mountain National Park website for more information and to book your hike.


13 thoughts on “Backpacking in Riding Mountain, Manitoba – Hiking the Tilson Lake Trail”

    1. Thanks, if you’re currently out west I can’t say I’d recommend making the trip out to this flat prairie land. But, if you’re ever stuck out this way looking for a hike let me know.

  1. Nice looking trip. Hammock is not a summer only shelter for me. With the right under quilt insulation & top quilt & tarp a hammock can provide a warm shelter into sub freezing temps. If interested search youtube for user shugemery. He has a few videos hammock camping in freezing & below zero temps.

    Enjoyed your pictures! :-)

    1. Hey Claire, I’ve seen some of the hammock under quilts and they look quite interesting, a good way to get around the sleeping bag compression.

      My main problem with the hammock is that no matter what, I don’t sleep great in it because I’m a side sleeper. I really want to like them because they would make excellent solo shelters, but after testing one in the rockies and this trip I’ve settled on shopping for a lightweight tarp tent.

      All the power to you hangers though!

    1. He enjoys every hike that’s for sure! He doesn’t seem to get bothered too much by stagnant swamp water, cold weather, or dry food — I guess I should be taking notes from him.

  2. I’m headed out to do almost exactly the same route this weekend. Nice post and thanks for the tips. I was worried about water sources. I’ll fill up whenever possible.

    1. Have an excellent hike! I’m glad the fall weather is still holding up for it. It’d be great if you wanna let me know how it went and what not once you’re back out. If you do go up to Kay’s Campsite I was originally going to hike that extra Birdtail Loop, but with the lack of water I wanted to get back to the closest stream, might be worth checking out.

  3. Thanks for the review. My kids & I were looking at Tilson Lake loop for this year – may wait until they are bigger and can haul more of their own water. Last time I did any of this trail it was very wet – guess it depends on the year

    1. I think the Tilson loop could be great for kids as there are a couple campsites along the way that I skipped. I wouldn’t recommend heading to that extra site up to the northwest, as that is where water got really limited. If you’ve got a good pump or filter you should be fine, but it’s not a good hike for drops and no filter, haha.

      I’d say you’re right that the time of year could make a big difference. I expect it’ll be pretty wet this spring with all the snow that’s fallen.

      Have a great hike if you do end up going!

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