Let your canoe open up new outdoor opportunities.
By Trent Jonas
Canoe camping transforms a regular old camping trip into a more adventurous excursion, but it's pivotal to take the steps to properly prepare. You don't want to overburden your canoe with unnecessary supplies, but it can also be hazardous if you leave behind essential equipment. The best way to prevent your adventure from becoming an ordeal is thoughtful preparation. From the right footwear to the proper number of dry bags, there will be several details to think about before you hit the water. Here are some tips on how to prepare.
Where you plan to paddle and how long your trip will be are the two factors that will guide most of your preparation. For example, if you’re going to paddle the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota or Big Bend/Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River in Texas, there are no services, so you need to bring everything you could need with you. On the other hand, a paddle trip down the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway in Wisconsin would afford the opportunity for resupply stops. What and how much you bring, therefore, depends largely on where you go and how many days you’ll be paddling.
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Your level of experience and your ability to maintain several days of paddling are also important things to consider. If you’ve never done a multiday paddling trip, you may want to spend some extra time on the water beforehand, getting your back, obliques, and shoulders into shape. You may also consider firming up your core to get through long days without back support. Think about where you will be traveling. What kind of paddling experience do you have? Have you paddled rapids? Do you know how to portage a canoe? Can you swim? Do you have the wilderness skills necessary for a backcountry trip? If not, check with a local outfitter or a place like REI and sign up for classes to hone your skills before you go.
The canoe you choose will depend on several factors. First and foremost, you need to figure out the combined weight of all the people in your party and choose a canoe that can safely support that weight along with the amount of gear you need to bring. Next, consider what kind of paddling will you be doing. Will you be portaging? If so, you want the lightest possible canoe. Will you encounter rapids? Then, you will want a canoe that performs well in turbulent water. Even if you already own a canoe, it may be worth your while to consider renting from a local outfitter with expertise in the waters you plan to paddle, especially if its unfamiliar territory for you.
If you’re going on a canoe camping trip, you will be surrounded by water. But you cannot drink it. In most cases, you will not have regular access to potable water sources, nor will you be able to pack enough water with you for a multiday trip—especially if you intend to stay hydrated, which you should absolutely plan to do. So, you need to plan to boil, filter, or treat drinking water. Boiling for a minimum of one minute is the most effective way to purify water. Filtration systems are also very effective. While not as effective, iodine tablets are the fastest way to treat water. Treat as much water as you can carry at a time, so you have sufficient water to get you through a day and don’t have to stop frequently to purify water. Carry something like a HydraPak or Dromedary to ensure you can keep enough water on hand.
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When planning meals for a canoe camping trip, there are plenty of options to consider, from freeze-dried meals to raiding your pantry to schlepping a cooler. Another option many canoe campers consider is simply fishing for their meals. Whether you’re able to do so or not will depend largely on the species available where your paddling your chances of landing a fish at any given time. It would be unwise to rely entirely on your angling skills to feed yourself for the entirety of your trip, but if you are an experienced angler, paddling a place with plenty of game species and little fishing pressure, like the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, you can probably safely reduce the amount of food you pack in by about a third.
For all that time on the water, you’ll need a hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, and something to protect your face like a Sun Stopper Gaiter. Be sure to pack and bring a first aid kit. Even though you may have a GPS, bring waterproof paper maps of your route and a compass. A whistle and emergency fire-starting gear (in case of an empty lighter or wet matches) are also crucial in any backcountry setting. If you’re going into bear country, be sure you know how to hang a food bag and carry bear spray with you. And finally, always wear a personal flotation device when you’re on the water.