How To Survive Your First Canoe Trip

The do's and don'ts of planning and participating in a canoe trip.

A canoe trip? Don't think that you could survive paddling all day, interspersed with long hikes laden down with packs and a canoe? Well think again. If you enjoy the outdoors and would love to try a canoe trip but are too overwhelmed by the prospect of it all, maybe you're underestimating yourself. With a few specifics and a lot of desire, a canoe trip can be an enjoyable adventure.

The Basic Skills: Before you can even think about embarking on a canoe trip, you need to know the basic paddle strokes necessary to keep a canoe straight not only in calm waters, but also on windy days when open bodies of water can get very choppy and rough. If you don't know the basics, the jay stroke, the cross bow draw, and the simple pry, you aren't ready for a canoe trip. Find a friend who knows how, take a course, get some lessons. There are plenty of outfitters in and around large waterways and parks that will be more than happy to teach you the basic strokes, and rent you a canoe so that you can get some practice before the trip. Going on a canoe trip without the basics could result in disaster.

The Equipment: A canoe trip requires a great deal of specialised equipment in order to ensure the upmost of comfort and safety. Most (if not all) of the equipment can be rented from an outfitter near the park where you plan on canoeing. For hygienic reasons, it would be advisable to bring your own sleeping bag. On a canoe trip it's difficult to avoid the portages. The places where there are fast moving rivers or dams that are not navigable in a canoe. Then, the canoe and your packs must be carried overland, to an adjoining lake or river that is safe to resume paddling once again. For obvious reasons, you want the lightest equipment that you can find, and the most comfortable pack. Outdoors equipment is quite costly. It is best to rent it first, make sure that you enjoy canoe tripping and then, think about investing in some of your own.

The absolute basics, that you must have for a canoe trip, are as follows:

-a tent (preferably a light one. Do not take an old, canvas tent. If that is all you have, then rent one)

-a large backpack (this will have to fit your clothes, food, tent and sleeping bag)

-a camp stove (while you could cook on an open fire, it is much faster and more environmentally friendly to cook on a camp stove. Try not to bring along a heavy, metal two burner stove, it'll be a backbreaker)

-a cooking pot or two (again, don't bring you heavy duty kitchenware. There are light pots made specifically for backpacking and canoe tripping)

-a sleeping bag that is both light and of the proper temperature reading. (don't bring an Arctic winter bag for a summer canoe trip, or vice versa, you'll be needing a comfortable sleep)

-a food bag (at night, while you're sleeping, you'll need to hang all of your food up in a tree to keep all the hungry nocturnal critters out of it.)

-a first aid kit (while it is hoped that this isn't necessary, it is an essential piece of equipment)

-a map of the park (always have your route mapped out in advance, and tell family and friends where you will be, when you're entering the park and when you'll be back out again)

-a whistle (this will help you to signal others in case of an emergency)

-a sleeping pad (while this is not an essential item, it certainly is nice to put some space between yourself and the ground)


-a compass


-a canoe of course (This cannot be an exceedingly heavy one. If the only one you have is difficult for two people to lift...RENT!! This will be the most awkward and uncomfortable item to portage, so splurge! At the outfitters rent the higher end models. They are made of a material called kevlar that make them light enough for one person to carry and are often equipped with carrying yokes.)



-a water bottle

Packing Your Clothes: While it is important to pack all of the above items, some of them will be shared among your canoe tripping partners. You will not be required to carry all of the equipment yourself. This should leave just enough space in your backpack for a change of clothes. Chose light clothes that insulate well. Polar fleece is a great option for a sweater. Try to avoid jeans. When they get wet, they stay wet. They are heavy when dry and heavier when wet. There are many lighter weight options. Don't over pack!! It's okay to be dirty when camping and canoeing. It's expected. For three days, you should be okay with one pair of shorts, one pair of pants and two t-shirts. Bring a swim suit. A towel is a luxury that you can bring if you think it's worth the extra weight.

The Essentials: According to Maslow, the most basic needs are food and shelter. A trusty tent will keep you sheltered, but food needs to be chosen carefully with both "pack-ability " and nutrition in mind. While it might be nice to have a four course meal with all the "fixings", it really isn't practical. A lot of foods are very heavy and therefore don't make good trail food. Some examples are: potatoes, oranges, apples. Some foods are fragile and won't be nearly as appetizing after being carted over a couple of portages. Eggs don't fare well but are sometimes brought, already cracked, in a plastic container to be used on the first day. Bananas, while full of energy, also won't hold up. Some canoe-trippers bring fresh meat for the first evening, and frozen meat to cook up for the second evenings meal. Meat is heavy, but it provides a great deal of protein and energy. Granola bars and trail mixes are great for a snack while paddling. Bagels hold up when being lugged around. Pasta is "bomb-proof" and easy to cook. Carrying pasta sauce in plastic jars will lighten the load. It is often prohibited to take cans into state and national parks. Raw vegetables are light, easy to carry and offer many tasty options. Pack some spices in film canisters. Try some of your favourite recipes. Look up some camp recipes at your local library or on the internet.

Water should also not be overlooked. While some of the more remote lakes contain potable water, you can never be too sure. There are several water purification options to avoid stomach distress while paddling. Probably the easiest way to purify water is to boil it. You need to bring the water to a rolling boil and maintain the same temperature for at least ten minutes. If your fuel is at a premium, or you just don't like te taste of boiled water, you can try water purification tablets. Be sure to also bring the neutraliser tablets, or the water will taste suspiciously like a hospital smells. The neutraliser tablets leave a cloudy film, but the water tastes fine. The most expensive option for water purification is to buy a water filtration system. These are very effective however, they will set you back a few hundred dollars. The choice is yours. Just remember to keep yourself very hydrated.

The Plan

A good canoe trip begins weeks before you get on the open water and smell the green in the air. A good canoe trip begins with a very thorough plan. Look at the map of the park where you're planning to take your canoe trip. On the map there will be small numbers that denote portages, and how long they are. For your first canoe trip make sure that all portages are under a mile. Even a half mile portage can be exhausting when carrying so much equipment. Be realistic. A three day trip should have no more than four or five portages. Always err on the side of caution when it comes to distance. It's much nicer to pull into a campsite early and have some time to enjoy it before night falls, than to try to struggle with your tent in the dark. Make sure that you factor in time for rests and to slow down and enjoy your surroundings. After all, you're not on the trip to set new speed records, you're there to be in the great outdoors.

The Portage

For many "want-to-be" canoe trippers, "portage" is a dirty word. It doesn't need to be. With some strategic planning when packing and realistic expectations, the portage can be almost as enjoyable as the paddling. The big rule is to try not to carry too much. Don't feel as though you have something to prove. Carry what is comfortable. Don't push yourself. Rest when you need to. Don't be afraid to make more than one trip. The walk back to pick up the next load will give you an opportunity to enjoy the hike. If possible, carry the canoe with someone else. One person can carry it for a little while, then, someone else can take it. It's actually easier for one person to carry the canoe on his/her shoulders than to share the load. Canoes with carrying yokes have been balanced to be carried by a single person. When you get back into your canoe you'll feel as though you've accomplished something.

Canoe tripping is a fantastic way to see nature as it should be. To see places that are otherwise inaccessible. Don't be afraid of the work involved. It's worth every bit of energy expended. Happy paddling!

© High Speed Ventures 2011