After 40 years of wilderness canoeing, a list of only 20 items to consider before your first wilderness canoe trip is seriously restrictive. There are so many more things you’ll need to know.
However, I’ve narrowed down some key elements to planning a trip and I’ve offered up my best 20 (for now).
Please remember that this is NOT a “what to pack” instructional article. This article is an overview of where you need to focus your thoughts when you are starting to prepare for your first major wilderness paddling trip (in other words, your “headspace”) before you fully commit to any specific trip.
Your thoughts on the outlined elements could serve to save your life, or at least set the stage for how you love or hate canoe or kayak tripping for the rest of your life!
Table of Contents
1 – Determine the Exact Type of Trip You’ll be Taking (“Get ‘er Done” or Take Your Time and Enjoy!)
You’ll need to figure out whether you’ll attempt to make good time and travel a great distance, or whether you’ll take your time and enjoy the distractions along the way.
This is a crucial element to consider since it will determine 100 other things like who you’ll go with (if anyone), how many days you’ll be gone, how much you’ll spend on camping permit fees, and so on.
There’s nothing worse than heading out on a week-long trip with a partner whose expectations are quite different than yours in terms of priorities.
You’ll both need to understand and agree on the same “style” of trip to avoid arguing about why one of you wants to fish every fallen tree along the shore and the other wants to hit 6 more portages before evening!
2 – Determine the Exact Route, and Under What Category the Land is Classified
Before you choose a particular route, remember than the land surrounding your watery voyage will be as important as the lake or river.
Will you be camping on Crown Land? How will you know? Will you be camping in a Provincial or State Park? If so, you may need permits.
Is there any private land on your route? How will you know if you’re trespassing?
The 2 best ways I know of determining the answers to these questions are to research the route online (read forums and comments from those who have paddled the route) and even more importantly, check local government websites that outline land use (if applicable).
In Ontario, Canada, (I’m using it as an example because it’s probably the biggest canoe/kayak magnet in North America) you’ll want to check the Ontario Crown Land Use Policy Atlas.
This will tell you exactly how the land is categorized along the route you’ll take. Check out THIS ARTICLE for details on how to use the Atlas.
3 – Educate Yourself About Potentially Using the Expertise and Services of a Canoe Outfitter
While it is entirely possible to plan and enjoy a canoe trip without an outfitter (I usually do it all myself), there may be a strategic advantage to using an experienced outfitting company’s services at first.
An outfitter can provide maps, exact routes to suit your goals, skill level, timing, etc. while providing you with emergency equipment like a satellite communicator and emergency help in case of a problem.
The outfitter can also determine tons of logistics like where to park your vehicle and if that location is safe from vandalism, wildlife, environmental factors, and various authorities.
Once you see what services and help were provided, you’ll better be able to take care of some of those issues yourself for your next trip, but now you’ll at least know how to take that same trip with confidence if you choose to do it again!
Of course, there is a cost involved, and that would be determined by a phone call or email to a local outfitter in the area you’re considering.
4 – Be Realistic When Assessing Your Skill Level and Pain Tolerance
It’s one thing to fantasize about wilderness tripping while watching YouTube videos of various adventurers, and quite another when you face the real thing!
If you have little experience, please keep your trips short and not so remote.
I would also strongly suggest engaging in some level of fitness preparation since only 1 day of using muscles you didn’t know you had (like the ones between your neck and shoulders or your forearms) can put you in a nearly incapacitated state with searing pain and even cramps that won’t allow you to stand up!
I’ve experienced such cramps and I’ve needed emergency help after not preparing with at least some basic cross-training and conditioning. I’d suggest using light weights and moving your body in ways you would on a trip (ie. arms up portaging a canoe, carrying a backpack walking upstairs, shoulders paddling, etc.)
Are you mentally prepared for having virtually all your basic tasks becoming way more difficult for several days or longer?
Even tasks you take for granted like going to the bathroom, cleaning dishes, making oatmeal, and sleeping will become more difficult, time-consuming, and perhaps even determining the difference between life and death!
Oh, and everything takes longer too! If you at least understand that concept (and agree with it) you’ll be okay!
5 – Start With Short Trips if You Have Little or No Experience
With no experience under your belt (or even just a few trips), I’d strongly suggest a trip of around 3 days. Anything shorter won’t give you the feel of a “real” canoe/kayak adventure.
Anything longer will potentially jeopardize your safety or at least ruin your enjoyment level if you forgot a crucial item or you’re not prepared for what will ultimately happen to you (ie. heavy rain for 2 straight days, camp pests/bears, broken flashlight, leaky tent, wet gear, cracked kayak, etc.)
6 – Research your area well and prepare accordingly (Bear Spray, Bug Protection, and More!)
I’ve made the mistake (as a teenager) of forgetting that Northern Ontario is a very inhospitable place in May and June.
The warm Southern Ontario breezes and sunshine were helpful in encouraging me to get excited about a backwoods fishing excursion in the Temagami wilderness, but with little feedback from others and no internet in existence, I was in for a rude awakening.
Bear attacks are not unheard of and blackflies can be so incredibly problematic that your entire trip could potentially be ruined before you leave your parking area!
Here’s a great option for bear deterrent sprays available on Amazon.
Not all areas have the same problems, but you NEED to determine what the special considerations are for your area from the perspective of temperature, other environmental factors, insects, etc. and how the date on the calendar affects those factors.
My dad’s life was saved by one squirt from a canister of bear spray (just pepper spray) as he was charged by a Grizzly in Northern British Columbia back in 2005. I’ve learned from his experience and I now prepare accordingly.
7 – Consider Logistics Carefully. Does Your Trip End at the Same Place it Started?
I know a few friends who actually planned their river excursion and arrived at the put-in only to realize that they did not want to paddle back upstream, but had no one to drive their car to a new take-out point!
This is a service that an outfitter can provide, and in fact, I really don’t know of any other option for a solo paddler or even a group navigating downriver.
Because of this, I’ve limited all my trips (yes, ALL my trips since 1980) to lake loop routes that have the same put-in and take-out points. And, all of those points are mere meters from my truck!
Besides, if you’re new to canoe tripping, I might suggest sticking to the quiet, still waters (AKA no current) of small lakes.
Even if you can’t find a route that loops around to your starting point, just go one way out and then return the same way. If you do, there will be SO MANY more routes available to you, and you’ll be safer along the way!
8 – Understand that there is a direct link between the level of your gear quality and your level of enjoyment!
While it’s not a 100% guaranteed correlation, a good rule of thumb is that better gear contributes to a more enjoyable trip.
In fact, an entire collection of all cheap gear (starting with the canoe) is the surest way to discourage someone (especially if it’s their first trip) from EVER wanting to go on even 1 more canoe trip in their life!
I know this from first-hand experience so I’m well-acquainted with this principle.
While enjoying the outdoors is not all about money, I would encourage you to think long and hard before you buy every piece of your gear at Wal-Mart.
Cheap packs will not repel rain or any other water. A cheap canoe will be heavy and slow (A.K.A. “discouraging”). A cheap paddle will be heavy, cold, and inefficient. A budget stove will be 3 times the size it needs to be and 4 times heavier than it should be!
You get the picture right? Do some basic research and you’ll have gear that can very well last an entire lifetime of successful, fun, and efficient tripping.
9 – Count the portages and be sure to understand how many (and how long a walk) you can handle!
My first canoe trip gave me a rude awakening when my Dad failed to inform me that the very first portage I would ever see was about 20 yards short of a kilometer in distance.
I had to rest along the way (who wouldn’t with a STEEL CANOE on their shoulders marching uphill through a forest for well over half a mile?!
If you’re relatively new to wilderness canoe tripping and you’re fitness level is anything less than that of a triathlete, may I suggest you keep your portages to a minimum?
I’d suggest 1 – 5 portages on your first trip (I still do trips with 3 short portages) and keep them to less than 500 meters. Most of your canoe trip maps will give you the distance of your portage in meters (at least in Canada).
One final note on physical fitness and expectations; if you’d consider yourself generally average with an average partner and an average canoe, then I’d say you’ll likely travel an average of about 4 km/h cruising speed over long distances in decent conditions without heavy waves or headwinds.
Knowing your average speed will help you plan your daily distances and help in finding a camping spot.
10 – Get a Detailed map and a GPS for safety and peace of mind.
With modern GPS systems, it’s a joy to navigate the wilderness lakes of my native province of Ontario. As a kid, I only had a set of topographical government maps which did the job adequately, but only just barely.
Obviously, learning the skills necessary for understanding a compass (and how to use it) is very helpful and can be life-saving.
However, if you’re not up for taking compass classes, I would strongly urge you to have BOTH good maps of your area (and try to learn how to recognize points on a map with the real-life world around you) AND use either a good GPS (ie. from Garmin) or use a canoeing/boating app on your phone.
A good option for an app would be NAVIONICS for all maps of waterways.
If you have the budget for a dedicated GPS, you can’t go wrong with Garmin. Garmin offers a whole line of GPS units meant for outdoor adventuring.
The Garmin Montana 700 is a perfect choice for wilderness trips and it’s equally as good on the road!
As a final cautionary tip regarding electronics, you’ll need to be sure you have enough battery power to make them useful all day long on a 10-day trip (maybe). That means you’ll need to consider power sources. I use a solar panel but there are other options you can research!
As far as the most important piece of low-tech gear – YOUR MAP is concerned, I’d spare no expense for this.
I’d get a map made specifically for canoe/kayak trips that shows campsites and portages. I have a whole series of maps from chrismar.com though you’ll only be able to get the most popular canoe area routes in Canada.
You can also contact the “friends of” websites for many popular parks in Ontario and not only will they steer you in the right direction, but the park offices will also have route maps ready to go.
If you use the services of an outfitter, they will provide the maps at no added charge (usually).
11 – Don’t flirt with disaster. Get a 2-way satellite communicator or at least a Personal Locator Beacon.
I’m still amazed that I survived my early years in the backcountry with no GPS, satellite phone, or PLB (personal locator beacon).
My Mom never really knew where I was while on a trip, and if anything serious were to happen to me, I would likely not receive help for weeks if ever.
Nowadays, it’s relatively inexpensive to have your own rescue team on standby, and for less than the price of owning a cell phone, you can contact your loved ones daily to update them on your condition/status, and you can check the latest weather conditions as well.
Any good outfitter will equip you with either a satellite phone or a 2-way communicator that works from anywhere in the world!
While I like the idea of a phone or communicator, my bank account requires that I take the cheapo approach. That means I own a Personal Locator Beacon which allows ONE-WAY communication (from me to the rescuers) which is to be used ONLY if you’re in a condition where you likely will be unable to recover in time to save your own life!
I like the ACR ResQLink (pictured below). It’s the most popular brand and the best deal financially.
Unfortunately, each of these units requires you to buy a monthly subscription, and each company has different policies regarding a minimum subscription period with terms, etc.
The PLB is a bit more expensive but requires no ongoing service fees (aside from a new battery every 5-7 years).
12 – Weight is more important than Luxury
This may seem obvious, but after watching countless YouTube trip documentaries in the Canadian wilderness, I keep seeing canoeists bringing large slabs of raw steak or ribs and a seemingly infinite number of fresh eggs so they can show the details of a succulent dinner being prepared over a gently crackling campfire as the sun sets peacefully over a quiet, glassy lake whilst listening to the haunting serenade of a lonesome loon.
I see dedicated coffee pots and cast iron skillets to mention only a few horrific items at which I cringe with the thought of carrying them over even one portage.
It is this trip veteran’s opinion that the appreciation of a light pack over the longer term far outweighs the allure of a luxurious, gourmet meal en route.
This may not always be the case, however. If you’re looking to make a fun overnight canoe excursion YouTube video for your 65K followers, it might be nice to drag along 40 lbs of raw beef.
But for serious trippers looking to conquer a 50 – 150 mile trip over the course of a week, weight is a serious concern.
In a nutshell, my ENTIRE food store for a week will contain only dehydrated items like risotto, dry fruit, light energy bars, dry oatmeal, nuts (GORP), and powder milk along with some energy drink powders.
I can easily lift my entire food barrel way over my head and hold it there with one arm for 10 minutes … if I wanted to (which I don’t).
Note that higher quality equipment always weighs less than its Wal-Mart counterpart. Over the long term, it’s a better deal to pay a bit more for not only better performance, but longer life and superior weight profile!
13 – Prepare your meals with an emphasis on NUTRITION and weight (taste will come naturally)
This point is related to the previous one with regards to weight. I can’t emphasize that enough – especially for anyone with chronic joint pain or anyone over the age of 65 who doesn’t quite feel like they did at age 20.
I won’t beat to death the issue of weight now that I believe I’ve made my point.
However, there are a few other noteworthy points worth considering. For one, nutrition is sometimes a factor overlooked by backcountry campers who are looking to minimize weight.
Mountain House is one of several reputable brands that make dehydrated meals for outdoor adventurers. Still, I feel better about eating my own with no preservatives or chemicals at all!
So canned beans and fresh spinach are out of the question for the sake of spoilage and weight issues, but it’s too easy to replace them with KitKats (because they’re nice and light, but offer good energy right?) and dehydrated meals prepared commercially.
My goal is to educate backcountry paddlers how to pack NUTRITIOUS meals that are also LIGHT.
Okay, so what’s wrong with dehydrated meals you can buy at MEC? Well, I use them in an “emergency” but honestly, they are REALLY expensive (like $15 for one soupy meal). The packages that say “2 – 4 Servings” must be referring to 3-year-old children or mini-poodles.
Every 2-4 serving meal I’ve opened, I easily ate it myself and had room for lots more! I only weigh 170 lbs and wear 33-inch waist jeans, but I could eat 2 or 3 of those meals myself, while they say EACH MEAL feeds 2-4 people! Balderdash, I say!
In addition to excessive cost, ingredients are not nutritional. I don’t often have “gas” (sorry to get so personal, but this is important), but after one of those “backpacker meals”, I have serious gastro issues and I’m glad I’m usually alone at my campsite, much less my tent!
Here’s a sample of ingredients from a “Pad Thai” dehydrated backwoods meal:
- Rice flour
- White vinegar
- Autolyzed yeast extract
- Silicon dioxide
- Artificial color
- Corn syrup
- Evaporated cane juice
- Palm oil
- More salt
It’s true that at the bottom of the list (which means there’s a lesser amount than if it were listed at the start of the ingredients list) there are a few good things like Cilantro, Green onion, and Bell pepper, but that is usually small, dry flakes of the stuff in tiny quantities.
Autolyzed Yeast Extract is a killer. It is the same ingredient as MSG (monosodium glutamate) which is a very harmful chemical (though it tastes divine!). I won’t insult your intelligence by explaining why all other items on the list above are harmful.
Yet, if you prepare your own meals from scratch as you can with beans, lentils, onions, peppers, mushrooms and fermented whole wheat bread, you can actually heal and repair your body during the time it needs that the most (when you’re paddling all day).
As far as taste goes, I believe nutritious food tastes better if only because your mind knows you’re doing the right thing. Also, when you’re paddling all day long, just about anything tastes amazing at the end of a satisfyingly long paddle.
14 – Consider Your Vessel Carefully!
Once again, I feel like this is a huge item to consider carefully! Don’t assume that because you own a single canoe or kayak, you can do all things efficiently and safely on the water.
If you own a tandem, Kevlar canoe (as most paddlers do it seems), you may want to rent a Royalex canoe from an outfitter if you’re hitting a river. Your Kevlar may not last more than a direct encounter or two with a large rock just under the surface.
Even on a quiet lake, a tandem canoe that sits fairly high in the water is not made for a solo paddler with minimal gear. If your canoe is asymmetrical, it will be nearly impossible to have a successful trip.
The paddler will sit in the stern seat and have a huge, open canoe in front of him which may sit a bit too high in the water and even the smallest breeze will twist you around. It’s extremely annoying and your vacation may be better spent drinking beer on your deck!
If you’re traveling with a partner, a tandem canoe of almost any kind is adequate in most situations, but the lighter the craft, the more you’ll enjoy the trip and remember it fondly.
Here’s a good article I wrote about finding the best canoe to portage on your backcountry outings:
If you’re going solo, I can’t begin to tell you (though I will try) how important it is to understand the MASSIVE difference between paddling a tandem canoe as a solo paddler and paddling a solo canoe as a solo paddler.
The solo canoe usually has a smaller freeboard (the amount of the canoe hull sticking out of the water below the gunwales) and the seat is in the exact center of the canoe. Those 2 factors will make you nearly 100% “windproof”.
In other words, the wind will not push you around, twist you backwards, or move you anywhere at all from where you want to be or go.
I understand we can’t all have every type of canoe, but it’s important to be aware of this issue.
Tandem canoes really are best with at least 2 adult-sized bodies and their gear.
15 – Consider Your Gear carefully and be sure to have adequate power-generating sources for electronics
Here’s a tricky one that sometimes comes as an afterthought for novice trekkers. You have your GPS, your cell phone, your drone, your GoPro and your satellite phone. But what about their sources of power?
You’ll need to consider purchasing not only extra batteries you charge well at home before the trip, but charging systems to keep everything powered for a week or more.
I can’t answer that in detail, but I can tell you that it wouldn’t hurt to have a couple of solar panels connected together that can cover most of your entire canoe (on top of your gear) while you’re paddling on a sunny day.
You can never have too much power, and if you use a drone and a GoPro liberally (as I do), you will NEVER have too much power or too many charging devices and not enough items to take the charge.
Pictured below is a great system that, while not inexpensive, is one of the best options for generating power since it will work even on cloudy days and because of its size, it will maximize its efficiency.
While not cheap, the RockPals foldable solar panel is one of the best options for generating power for all your devices while in the wilderness.
16 – After you think you’ve packed everything for your trip, take 5 minutes to visualize every action you may take during your trip and what items you’ll need – You’ll inevitably discover you’ve missed some piece of gear
I learned years ago to apply this neat trick. In my own mind I discovered how useful it is, but I’m sure thousands have been doing this before I ever did.
Once I finish packing, I actually take about 2-5 minutes right there in the garage beside my dry bag to go through a typical day on the water/trails with an emphasis on what gear I’ll need.
I think of my first paddle stroke and then I think “oh, no – what if my paddle breaks” so now I remember that I can’t forget my emergency paddle.
Then I realize after about 100 paddle strokes I feel hungry. Then I remember I’ll need a few snacks instead of just main meals.
Then I step out of the canoe at the first portage and realize I can’t forget my Crocs since my shoes are now soaking wet, and “oh ya, I need the removable yoke ’cause I’m about to flip the canoe on my back”.
You get the point I’m sure. Visualizing each step will help you remember to bring a rain tarp and a good flashlight or rechargeable light cube for the night, and countless other items you can forget about (including a water filter and a portable pocket knife).
17 – PLEASE bring a quality nylon tarp and the PROPER storage container for your gear
Though (as I mentioned at the start of this article) this is not a “what to bring list” post, I can’t help but direct your attention to a couple of crucial items that Newby paddlers don’t always bring.
I am emphasizing a good tarp and proper packs because these 2 items are items that I have neglected (against my better judgment) for DECADES!
I figured if my tent was any good, I wouldn’t need a tarp, and as long as I pack my clothes in a garbage bag, who cares what kind of knapsack or duffle bag I use!
BIG MISTAKE! On my first trip with a new tarp, it rained every day of the trip and I spent a crazy amount of time under the tarp and I was glad for it! A good tarp folds down to the size of a packed up T-shirt but offers an incredible return on investment for sure!
This McFly tarp by Nevis Outdoor is an excellent option though there are lots of others to consider
Even the best tents will start to have some wetness after days of constant rain and no chance to dry. A tarp will help minimize the pain!
Regarding packs, there’s just so much I could say. Let me just cut to the chase and tell you the best option. I suggest a large (70L – 115L) dry bag from Seal line as your main bag for literally everything other than food (and stuff that won’t fit like paddles and fishing rods).
This Seal Line bag is roomy, very tough, very waterproof, and extremely comfortable on your back. The best quality may be that its shape allows it to fit perfectly in the belly of the canoe just forward of the center thwart.
Of course, if you’re kayaking, your gear will be broken up and stuffed into various compartments in the body of the kayak, so I’d suggest a series of smaller dry bags.
But, remember you still have to portage them so they need to be carried either separately or perhaps thrown into a large pack at least for the carry.
If you use any other type of pack (like a Duluth Pack or hiker’s pack, etc.) you’ll end up paying more, and you’ll get less storage capacity and less weather resistance, not to mention less efficient storage shape for a canoe.
For food, I would suggest a good barrel with a carry harness. It won’t be 100% bear-proof, but it’s the best option to deter critters and it will minimize leaking food odors while being very comfortable to carry and easy to pack in the canoe.
Here’s an excellent option for a bear-resistant container.
The UDAP No Fed Bear Bear Resistant Canister comes with Backpack Carrying Case Included
BOTTOM LINE! If you get a 100L – 110L dry bag and a large food barrel, you’ll have enough storage for up to 2 adults, all your gear (including tent and sleeping bags, pads, etc.) for up to 7 days or so.
18 – As much as possible, stay near a shoreline while paddling through most of your trip
It might sound a bit odd that I’m telling you where on the lake to paddle, but like most of my advice, I speak from experience.
Staying close to shore is most certainly not always possible when you’re trying to make the best time or you have to cross a large inlet to get to the take-out, etc.
However, as a rule, staying near shore accomplishes a whole lot more than you might think.
For one, the scenery is much nicer and an otherwise monotonous trip through open water can become interesting as you see small (or big) creatures in the bushes scurry or stomp away as you approach, and you hear the chirping and singing voices of the forest.
Aside from the beauty of the forest, you’ll often (about 25% – 50% of the time) be taking advantage of the quieter, sheltered waters of a less open lake environment.
If you have quieter waters, you’ll be less likely to run into danger with larger waves and wind, but you’ll also be safer if anything does happen since you’re only a few meters from shore.
There is a definite connection (psychologically speaking) between knowing you’re safer near shore and the overall enjoyment of the trip. No one loves to feel unsafe!! The beauty of the wilderness near shore is just a bonus and makes the trip go much faster…. and also takes your mind off your aching muscles!
19 – Be sure you’re confident enough with basic paddle strokes and maneuvers!
I know far too many people who have had bad experiences on canoe trips, and one of those people had a miserable time because she was not instructed on how to use her paddle.
The assumption is that using a paddle is an intuitive and obvious operation, so instructing someone on how to paddle can sound a bit patronizing. You know “put the paddle in the water and pull it towards you with the flat side pushing the water okay dear?“
In fact, a little instruction can be a lifesaver (if not literally, at least metaphorically).
Learn what a power stroke is, what is a J-stroke, a C-stroke, a pull and a draw. You’ll need them all.
Yes, it’s possible to learn them via experience alone as long as you’re intuitive and logical, but sometimes the luxury of time is not available.
Check out my very basic introductory video on the paddling strokes/techniques everyone will need to get started;
20 – Be careful not to stress so much about preparing and packing that your long-term memory of canoe tripping becomes a bad one.
It’s entirely possible to look back on a canoe trip (especially if it was a miserable one with bad weather, horrible food, and cheap gear) and remember it as the worst experience you’ve ever had.
Once again, I know such folks! One of the big factors in spoiling the wilderness paddling experience for some people is the memory of a stressful day or two trying to pack everything and running into problems with missing gear, no time to buy extra food, broken or moldy equipment and the list goes on.
These issues are a fact of life and you’ll have to deal with them in any other context totally outside of wilderness camping or paddling, so it’s best to approach the task of preparation with a light heart, happy demeanor, and the knowledge that you can delay a day or two if necessary to prepare.
Remember, if you choose to camp on Crown Land, you won’t have to make reservations for an exact day on an exact campsite. That fact alone can relieve stress!
The whole point is to enjoy yourself, and it’s taken me over 30 years to finally understand that the packing process should be just as enjoyable since that is actually the start of the whole trip experience!