Basic Basics – Canoe Trip Tips for Beginners

Never been on a canoe trip before?  Here’s a guideline to get you started.

by Laura Puckett, Contributor

Many people have gone canoeing for a leisurely afternoon, but then there are others, those blessed with a healthy dose of gumption, who head out for multiple day canoe trips.  Canoe tripping is a wonderful way to experience the wilderness on an intimate level.  If you only have a weekend even one night out in the woods can restore your peace of mind.  Be forewarned, though, if you enjoy canoeing, one night, one week, even one month can very quickly feel insufficient.  By virtue of their boats, canoeists can carry everything they need for many weeks, so they can journey deep into the hinterlands far from civilization, and suddenly they find themselves wishing they never had to go home.

We are getting ahead of ourselves, though.  You just want to know where to go this weekend, what to pack, and how people manage to get their gear across the portage without a hernia.  So here are the basic basics: the fundamentals of canoe tripping.

Destination

Before you can get very far, you need to know where you are going.  Canoeing.com’s Destination Guide exists for this very reason: to connect you with the many possible places to go canoeing.  It is a portal to different parks and waterways that are great for canoeing, with all the information you need for where to stay, where to get your gear, what rules to follow, and whatever other services and attractions the area has to offer.  Explore the Destination Guide to find a route suitable to your location, your skills, and your goals.

For a first trip it is a good idea to start close to home, in a park that is accessible, with good maps, designated campsites, and in-depth visitor information.  Go for a few nights if you can—3 or 4 nights will give you the time to find a rhythm, but will hopefully not be so long that you get overwhelmed.  It is important to begin in a manageable situation.  It is always sad to run into folks who detest canoeing, simply because they got in over their heads on their first trip—either too long a trip, too hard a route, or inadequate preparation.

Gear

Once you know where you are going, you need to decide how to get your gear.  Nearly every canoeing destination is served by local outfitters who can rent or sell you all the gear you need, from boat to bug dope.  If you are interested in buying your own gear, the Canoeing.com Gear Guide is full of information on hundreds of products.  The Gear List is a basic run-down of essentials.  You can shop online, but it is always a good idea to check out products in person.  Your local outdoors store should have knowledgeable staff that can not only point you toward the necessary equipment, but who can help you find the pieces that are right for you.

The basic principle to keep in mind whatever you buy: canoeing is wet.  Lakes, rain, sweat, mud—be prepared to be wet, and that whatever you bring may get wet.  Thus, synthetic or wool clothing is better than cotton, wearing layers means you can easily accommodate to changes in weather, and in a storm, good rain gear is worth ten times its weight in gold.  This isn’t to say you have to buy the most expensive gear out there.  Plastic bags can work wonderfully at waterproofing and your old wool sweaters will be just as warm as high-tech fleeces, but it is important to consider the conditions when you are shopping and packing.

Packing

So now you’ve got all the gear, how do you fit it in the boat?  “Duluth” packs are the classic style canoe packs.  They are boxy, short, and stout, compared with backpacking packs.  The old style is made with heavy-duty canvas and leather straps, by the Duluth Pack Company in Duluth, Minnesota.  Newer packs use synthetic materials and have the amenities of a backpack, like hip-belts and easily adjustable straps.  These canoeing-specific packs fit in the canoe well—typically two in a compartment—and keep the center of gravity low in the boat.  Any pack will work to get started, though, just so long as it can get wet, fit easily in the canoe, and is not too uncomfortable to carry over portages.  Remember to pack the heaviest things towards the bottom so the pack is not top-heavy.  If your pack is not waterproof, purchase heavy duty (like lawn) garbage bags for pack liners, and pack all your stuff inside of that.  Smaller bags, like thick zip-locks, can work to extra waterproof books, but dry bags or some other specifically waterproof case are recommended for your camera or other valuables.

Paddling

Paddling is not a difficult activity, but the first time you go it is helpful to have a bit of instruction so bad habits are not engrained.  There are a variety of instructional books and videos available (see our list of Books & Media). If you can, try to find a friend who paddles—more than likely they will be eager to get on the water— and have them show you the basic strokes and give you tips as you are learning.

Portaging

It takes a little while to learn to enjoy portaging.  It is not difficult, simply burdensome.  However, it can also be a great break to stretch your legs, explore the woods, and have lunch.  In fact, many veterans who are accustomed to the weight on their shoulders really look forward to portaging. 
The major factors that determine how hard or easy it is are your fitness level, the weight of your canoe and packs, and the condition of the trail.  The latter you cannot help: hills and muskeg (that thick, goopy mud that can pull your shoes off) will be there.  But you can make it easier on yourself.  Again, the weight of the canoe and packs is simply something to get used to, but you can try to mitigate the discomfort by getting packs with padded straps and canoes with a good yoke and yoke pads.   Bring what you need, but don’t overpack—and try to limit all the extra things in the canoe that have to be carried over by hand (cameras, sunscreen, paddles, waterbottles, maps, compass, lunch, etc.).  A smaller backpack can function well as a day-pack to hold all these items.

It is important to always lift with your legs.  This means squatting down low, grasping the pack or canoe, and keeping your back straight as you stand up.  Keeping your legs straight and bending from the waist to pick up a pack is the perfect recipe for slipping a disk or incurring long term injury.

A yoke and yoke pads at the center of the canoe is highly recommended.  No matter how heavy the canoe is, it really is easier for one person to carry it in the center, where the weight is balanced and the canoe is fairly maneuverable, than for two people at the ends to stumble up the trail.   Even 100 pound girls have carried 90 pound canoes by themselves this way.  The trick is to get the canoe balanced on your shoulders, to get used to the pressure, and to switch with another person when you need a break.  Portagers are easily rotated if the incomer stands in front of the outgoing carrier, lifts the bow of the canoe up so the stern rests on the ground, and holds it with locked arms while the original carrier steps out, assumes that same stance, and then the incomer steps into the yoke pads while the outgoer helps to lower the bow of the canoe down.

To get the canoe up on your shoulders, an easy method is to do a one-, two-, or three-person flip-up.  One person stands just in front of the yoke, if with two, the second person stands just behind the yoke, if three, the second and third people stand at the ends.  Grab the gunwales, lift the belly of the canoe to your thighs, grasp the far gunwale with your bow-hand, and using your hips to push, lift the canoe up and over until it rests on your shoulders.  Put your arms forward on the gunwales to brace the canoe, and start walking.  Any three people can lift a canoe this way.  Depending on your strength and the weight of the canoe, doing it by yourself may be a challenge, but it is overall an excellent and healthy way to get a canoe up for portaging.  To flip the canoe down at the end, simple reverse the process—catching the canoe on your thighs, and then easing it onto the ground or water.

Camping

Setting up a campsite is hugely a matter of personal preferences.  Some people like to cook over fires, other prefer stoves.  Some like to set up a bug tent, others don’t like tents at all.  Fundamentally, the only “rules” to follow, are the Leave No Trace principles, detailed on the LNT website.  These are extremely important to keeping the wilderness wild, so that you and everyone after you can experience the woods without trash, forests stripped of firewood, or contaminated water. 
A couple other good guidelines: If possible, don’t set up your tent on roots that could conduct lighting or beneath overhanging dead branches or trees that could fall in the wind.  Store your canoes out of the water, with the belly facing up and towards the water.  This “three-point stance” (bow, middle, stern on the ground) is stable, and the wind from the lake is less likely to catch the rounded belly than it is the exposed inside.  Then, you can also store extra gear, like boots, paddles, and packs, beneath the canoe in case of rain or wind.

There are hundreds of ways to vary this set-up. Every veteran paddler will have their tricks for how “best” to go on a canoe trip.  They are your best resources—ask them questions, take notes if need-be, but remember that each individual will be different.  Use what works for you. What’s most important is getting out there.  Appreciate the beauty of the woods and waters, the simplicity of living out of a pack and boat, the good company of your companions, or the solitude of a solo trip.  By going on a canoe trip you are carrying on a tradition that began hundreds of years ago, traveling from place to place utilizing the aquatic features of the landscape, living in concert with the land.  Although it can be hard work, hopefully these skills and resources will make it fun and easy enough to convince you to journey out again.

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