You are totally planning your first canoe trip right now

April 9 | Guest post by Alexandra
Photo from our last canoe trip.
Photo from our last canoe trip.

Once upon a time, in University, my friends and I sat around our living room, discussing all the things we'd rather be doing than studying for our finals. Somewhere between sky-diving and climbing Mount Everest, portaging came up as an option… There were four of us, and only two of us had any camping experience to fall back on. The other two had never even been in a canoe, and none of us had ever planned a canoe trip. I was the most experienced, with a single canoe trip from when I was 13.

Before we knew it, a trip was planned and packed, and we headed out into the Ontario wilderness less than one hour after our last exam. We were rained on, got lost and sidetracked down a disused, flooded snowmobile track, and ate mostly rice flavoured with soup mix in a tortilla with salsa. We came home tired, sore and dirty. And it was completely amazing.

Since then, it's been morphed into an event that happens once or twice a year, often with new people who've never camped before, and every year, we get a bit better at it. But in honour of that first trip, here's a guide on everything important you need to know/do to survive your first canoe trip into the wild.

This guide is for planning out a round trip through the wilderness, travelling mostly by canoe through lakes and rivers — you can also use a kayak, but I never have. Where the lakes and rivers end, you'll get out, carry all your gear to the next lake, and repeat, until you reach camp for the night. It's not the easiest type of camping, but it's also incredibly fun, especially when you look back and tell people what you did. You're far away from civilization, and there's something to be said for being the only human beings for miles around.

Things you need to plan your trip:

Location:
Before you can go camping, you need to know where you're going. In Ontario, I've gone canoe tripping in both Algonquin Park and Killarney Park. Between the two, Algonquin is the more popular choice. It's significantly larger than Killarney, and there's dozens of possible routes and trips within the park. Killarney Park is absolutely stunningly gorgeous, and filled with crystal blue lakes and white mountains.

You can also look around at provincial or state parks in your area. A call should tell you if canoe tripping is possible and hopefully get you a map to the water routes and portages in the park. Which is good, you'll need one.

Transportation:
First off, you're going to need a canoe. Most parks will have places that will rent you a canoe (And paddles and lifejackets). Most canoes hold two people, some hold three. Three person canoes are heavier and longer. So, if you have an odd number of people, get one three-person canoe and fill the rest into two-person canoes.

Canoes also come in a variety of weights. The general rule is, the lighter the canoe is, the less stable it is but even the lightest canoes are hard to tip. Our first trip we went with the second lightest option, and split the complete novices between the two canoes. In the end, we could have gone lighter.

The most important factor for the canoe though, is that the canoe has a yoke. The yoke is what allows you to carry the canoe on your shoulders when you reach a portage point.

Canoe Trip2

Camping Gear:
There's a lot of essential gear you're going to need. This helps if you're already an avid camper, but we managed our first trip by borrowing just about everything from our parents. There may also be places to rent the important gear.

  • Tent(s): Most campsites have at least two spaces clear enough and flat enough to fit a tent, but not necessarily room for a third tent. Tents always claim to sleep more people than they do. Our six-person tents sleeps four people, without gear.
  • Camping backpack: You'll need one per person. If you're out shopping for one, and can't decide on a carrying capacity, get the biggest one. The most important features are going to be a well-padded waist strap, and a chest strap. Make sure the pack is comfortable before you leave, it's only going to get worse. The more you can compress the pack, the easier it'll be to carry. Learn from our first trip, and waterproof your pack (lining it with garbage bags is quick and easy).
  • Sleeping bags: If you're going in the summer, anything should do (even a blanket), but the smaller you can pack it, the better.
  • Sleeping pad(s): More importantly, bring one sleeping pad or Thermarest per person. Our first trip out, most of the group decided to be manly and skip the Thermarest. After our bags got wet, we realized that the real benefit to the sleeping pad is actually in breaking contact with the ground, which quickly leeched the heat out of our bodies. Oops.
  • Clothes: You want to prepare for as many possible scenarios using the least possible space. So think layers. T-shirts for when it's hot, a sweater for when it's colder and both shorts and long pants. Try to pick things that dry quick in case of rain. Pay attention to your feet too, good shoes and socks are a must for the portages.
  • Water purifier and water bottles: There's a couple of options for water, based on how expensive you want to get. The easiest and cheapest way is with Iodine tablets, but they take time. Then there's hand-pump water filters, which are more work, but taste better. A gravity-fed water filter is probably the most expensive, but also the easiest and quickest way. Our first trip, we used Iodine tablets, and everyone brought a 1L water bottle. It worked fine, and we upgraded to water filters in later years.
  • Food: More on this later on.
  • A map and compass
  • First aid kit
  • Rope
  • Toilet paper and hand sanitizer: Also a shovel if your park doesn't have a box for this
  • Matches or lighter
  • Sunscreen
  • Bug repellent
  • Cooking dishes, eating dishes and utensils and dish soap
  • Flashlights

Planning your trip:

Hopefully when you picked the location for your trip, you also got a map showing you all the lakes and portages in your park. Now what you want to do is spread that map out, and start planning. My group does round trips anywhere from 4-7 days in length. You want to plan based on the following factors.

You can travel between 10-15 KM in a day (I apologize for my metric-ness) easily. Expect to do less on the first and last day if you also plan on driving to/from the park that day.

You go further by canoe than by portaging. We use a pessimistic estimate you go 3km/h by canoe, and 1km/h by foot.

Try to make it to camp by 4pm each night. Setting up in the dark is a terrible, terrible thing.

Factor in some extra time to your portage just in case things go wrong. Strong winds, low water levels and beaver dams can all slow you down.

A piece of string knotted to match the legend makes measuring distances easy.

You can always spend an extra night on a lake to have a rest day, to make the trip easier.

Any portage under 500m is short. (Your mileage may vary. Literally)

When you're done, call the park and book your route. Make adjustments as necessary (We always leave this to the last minute). If you aren't in Ontario, this would be a good time to ask about how the sites are set up (if they have an outhouse or box, if the campsites have firepits or if you need a stove, how many tents can fit on a site, how are portage points and campsites marked, where you to sign into the park, etc).

The food and the cooking:

Camping food is some of the best food I've ever eaten. Not because it's actually good food. But because after you've just spent a full day out canoeing and hiking, just about anything warm and filling will make you squeal with happy delight.

If your park has a fire ban on, or disallows fires, or if you just want to be able to make dinner even in a thunderstorm, bring a camp stove. Our first trip involved two old pots and a pan that we used to cook everything.

Here's some very basic ideas for meals that have served us well:

  • Rice, cooked in dried soup mix: Our first trip, we ate this for three nights, in a tortilla with salsa. Salsa saved that trip.
  • Oatmeal: One of the best breakfasts, it's fast, warm and very easy to flavor (dried fruits, cinnamon, nutmeg, nuts, whatever). You also don't need to boil the water very long, unlike the aforementioned rice.
  • Instant mashed potatoes: This isn't precisely a meal, but having a bag or two along is a good back-up. If you ever manage to have a terrible day where you finally manage to drag yourself back into camp just as the sun goes down, that's when the mashed potatoes come out. The water just needs to get warmed, and it's a filling meal.
  • Trail Mix: For a one-week trip, we bring four sandwich bags of snacks for each person. FYI, chocolate chips will melt, gluing bits together into tasty, messy chunks. If you don't want the mess, use M&Ms instead.
  • Tortillas and peanut butter (or nutella or jam) are a super quick, easy, high energy snacks or meals.
  • Bring juice mixes, teas and coffee.
  • For anything else, keep in mind that your pack will be hot, and food will get crushed easily. The internet is a great source for camping meal ideas.

The most important part about food is what you do with it at night!
Bears are a problem on camping trips. If you want to avoid them visiting in the night to steal your food, at the end of each night, put all your food into one pack, and string it up in a tree. The tree should be outside of your camp and the pack should be at least two meters (10 feet) above the ground, and four feet from other trees. Anything scented (deodorant, toothpaste, dishes and soap) should be strung up with the food pack.

During the canoe trip

Your day will basically break down as follows:

  • Wake up
  • Make breakfast and fill up any empty water bottles.
  • Break down camp, and pack your bags. We put the food (except for trail snacks and water bottles, which get distributed to people) in one pack. It starts out the heaviest but it gets lighter up as the trip goes on. Before you leave, do a quick site check for forgotten items or garbage.
  • Head out in your canoe(s). Your day's route has already planned out, and you know where you need to be that night, so get there. Regardless of how many dams those beavers put in your way. (My Canadian is showing again)
  • When you reach your target lake, go find a campsite. Pitch your tent, get dinner going, and replenish everyone's water supply.
  • After dinner, string up the food pack.

Sometimes, you might run into wild animals. For the most part, nothing will bother you if you don't bother them first. Keep your distance, and don't feed any wild animals and you should be safe. Animals will only attack if they feel cornered, or if their young are in danger.

This is not a complete list of everything you need to plan a camping trip, even (or maybe particularly) if you've never gone before. So if anyone else has tips that I missed for planning your first canoe trip, leave 'em in the comments!

  1. This is fantastic! I'm a kayaker and an avid camper, and I'm trying to suck it up and just plan an expedition trip already (though that'd be one long river versus lakes, but same general idea). Thanks for showing me that I'm really over-thinking it!

    A couple random notes:
    -"Quick-dry" means "Cotton is your worst enemy." Don't bring it on your trip.
    -Small microfiber towels can be helpful for everything from drying yourself off after a swim to picking up hot pots from the fire. Not necessary, but useful. Same deal with something like CampSuds to wash dishes (or yourself, if you are so inclined).
    -Some regions and rivers require something called a groover, which is literally a shit box to pack out your sewage. Hooray! Check your area's requirements.

    Great post, thank you!

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    • Get planning then. =D I know what you mean though, after we did our first trip, I came back with a realization that wasn't nearly as tricky to plan and execute as I thought it would be. It didn't take a whole lot of knowledge to get out there and just do it.

      I've never heard of a groover before, most Ontario parks have a thunderbox (which likely has other colourful names) which is just a box with a seat and lid over a hole. If not for that, you need to have a small shovel to dig a small hole (Something like 100m from the water edge and campsite) for your business.

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      • My family always called the thunderbox "the room with a view"! :D

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  2. For camping food: Couscous is better than pasta since there isn't any extra cooking water. And couscous typically cooks faster than rice, so it uses less fuel. Packing your "cooking jacket" with the food also decreases the chance of a bear visit.

    The first time I went backpacking with some college roommates, we were constantly warned to watch for bear scat. Unfortunately, none of us could tell you what it looked like! We didn't run into any bears, though.

    You can also get water right bags at any camping store for cameras, cell phones, etc.
    And I second the comment about microfiber towels- great idea!

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    • Couscous is the easiest camping food! Simply boil water, add couscous, let stand. On our (bicycling) honeymoon, my husband and I cooked basically nothing other than couscous. We particularly liked it with parm. cheese, pesto mix (or just dried basil), garlic butter (which is easier to contain than oil, although it can get melty, and more importantly for bike tripping, was readily available in relatively small (1/4 lb) quantities), and sundried tomatoes. Sometimes we had fresh tomatoes, but that's a luxury more suited to bike tripping than canoe tripping.

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  3. My man and I were just talking about doing a canoe or kayak trip this summer! I'll post updates back here once we decide on something!

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    • Post back if you have any questions! I did my best to summarize everything you need to know to make it happen, but it feels like I could have written an article about every step as well.

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  4. Also, be aware that in some locations, you should not hang bear bags but instead use a bear canister. Bears are smart and in some areas have learned how to get bear bags down. Certain parks in the US require bear canisters, so check with the park rangers.

    Often you can rent bear canisters for very cheap.

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    • Another thought: even if you're in an area where you can hang your food, I'd be inclined to hang it in a ditty bag or a stuff sack so that if the bears do get it they don't destroy my backpack.

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      • Then you might run into the issue that your pack on the ground will smell like the food, which scares me more. Truthfully, if a bear comes and gets the food, I'm writing off any material losses as "it could have been worse.". It helps that my pack is an Osprey and my understanding is that the warranty would cover it evemln if a bear does maul it.

        The food barrel is another good idea, I just dislike them because I can't imagine its comfortable on a 3k portage. If it's a park policy that's one thing, but some parks like the ones I mentioned will rotate out campsites over the years to keep the bears from forming those habits.

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        • I use a bear canister, but I am usually backpacking in a park where they are required, and, frankly, necessary. As for the pack on the ground, squirrels and or marmots are usually a bigger concern. I deal with the marmots by putting the pack in the lower branches of a tree or on top of a bush ( buckled to it in case the wind rises) and he squirrels and bears by completely emptying it and unzipping everything.

          Unless I am mistaken, you are accustomed to less acclimatized brown and black bears, while I am accustomed to extremely acclimatiZed black bears. I can safely assume that the bears where I backpack would get into anything I could hang, but are unlikely to eat me.

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          • That's about right, though I think it's just get black bears here too. The bears aren't really that likely to eat me either, since black bears are pretty timid when it gets down to it, but I would rather not get anywhere in it's way when food is involved. Last bear I heard of that got acclimatized was "relocated" within the week. I say relocated, the story my mom heard was that it got into someone's trailer (So, not interior camping) and they shot it because it learned that's where the food was.

            I did heard that since bears are such extreme creatures of habit, one of the best ideas was just to move your food bag to a random location, well away from both the campsite and any obvious hanging trees. Since there's generally only a handful of trees you could logically hang food from in most campsites, the bear would check those few spots, then leave to check another campsite. Now, I wouldn't trust this advice unless I coupled it with a food barrel (especially because of mice and squirrels), but it was an interesting look at it.

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          • Bear behavior varies greatly depending on the area, and what works in one place will not work at all in another. I've even heard of one bear(not sure where this was, but it has not spread) that figured out how to get into the nice lighter weight blue bear barrels with the spinny top. She smashed it against rocks till the safety latch broke, then sat on it and spun.

            In Yosemite you don't want to leave chewing gum or a child's car seat in your car and there is a widely held belief/ rumor that minivans are more likely to be broken into because of a higher likilihood of food, but in Mammoth Lakes, on the other side of the mountains, they tell you to put anything smelly in your trunk, and that that is enough. It all depends on what they've learned.

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  5. My family did a lot of canoe tripping in Killarney when I was growing up, and those were some of the best family vacations I can remember! (Actually, most of our family vacations involved some sort of self-propelled adventure, be that backpacking, canoeing, or cycling). One year, we actually went on kind of a spur-of-the-moment canoe trip, deciding to go to Killarney only a week before we actually went, which was a lot of fun! We wound up with a really long paddle in on the first day, but we got to some really remote parts of the park (Nelly Lake, among other places), and it was amazing. My dad is the sort to plan *very* thoroughly (honestly, he calculated how many calories each of us would need, and packed food based on that — he even calculated the calories in our homemade trail mix!), so it's good to remember that canoe trips don't HAVE to be planned that thoroughly. Someday, my husband and I will do a canoe trip, probably at Killarney. Maybe at Quetico, which is much bigger, and significantly less popular (although I've heard even more beautiful) than Killarney — probably because it's on the Manitoba border, so rather far from where all the people are. For now, we're bike-tripping, since we own bikes and my family have panniers, so it's a lot cheaper.

    Some things we worked out for canoe-tripping:

    – If you emphasize paddling over portaging, you can bring more heavy things, such as a cast iron frying pan for blueberry pancakes made with fresh wild blueberries. Even with a bunch of portages, you still don't need to pack nearly as light for canoeing as for backpacking.

    – 4-gallon pails with handles and water-tight lids make great food containers, since they minimize the amount of smell that leaks, are fairly easily hung in trees, and aren't easily chewed through by rodents. Also, your food stays dry, which is good. We generally brought one pail per meal plus one for snacks — and we got the pails free from our local grocery store (I think they originally contained icing…).

    -Commercial freeze-dried meals (sold at outdoors stores like MEC, Dick's Sporting Goods, etc.) are sometimes really nice to have, since you generally just add water and let stand, but they tend to be really salty, so they're best when extended with a compatible starch (usually rice or pasta), which can make a 2-person meal feed 4 fairly happily, especially if there are cookies afterwards, and one or more of the people is still a child.

    -We generally had oatmeal, apricot almond couscous, or pancakes, along with tea/hot chocolate, for breakfast (generally pancakes only once), instant soups (only requiring boiling water and letting stand), crackers (or sometimes tortillas), summer sausage, and cheese for lunch, and then some sort of (generally freeze-dried) entrée and extra starch for dinner. Summer sausage is an excellent thing for any sort of camping (or travel in general), since it is a protein form which doesn't require refrigeration. Cheese can also be kept without refrigeration (assuming you don't mind slightly squishy cheese…) by soaking cloth in vinegar, wrapping it around the cheese, and then dunking the whole contraption in melted wax.

    -Sometimes you need to book a long time in advance to get the route you want. Killarney opens bookings 5 months in advance (I think), and some lakes (e.g. Johnny, Bell, George — usually the ones close to a popular entrance) tend to sell out fairly quickly. This can mean you have a long paddle in on the first day — which is great if you're up to it, since it gets you into the more remote parts of the park fairly quickly, but if you're just starting out, try to make reservations early so that you can take it a little easier.

    -If you're at Killarney, try to leave yourself time to climb Silver Peak. Wild blueberries grow abundantly at the top, and some side of the mountain has ripe berries at nearly any point in the summer — try the south face early on, and the north face towards the end.

    Happy paddling!

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    • I adore Nelly lake, that is such a gorgeous spot. We unfortunately couldn't manage to book it though, not with our late bookings. However, there was this one spot right at the end of one of the bigger lakes (Great Mountain, I believe) that overlooked one of the quarzite rock faces. The tiny lake that one leads to is actually almost as crystal blue as Nelly, but that rock face… There was some thunder the morning we camped there. I can't honestly say how much thunder though, because it echoed about 4 times in that cove and there was just nothing but rumbling thunder for minutes on end.

      I might try that trick for our cheese next year. We generally just toss it in as is, but it gets quite squishy and melted. Cheddar cheese, summer sausage and bagels make for a perfect camping lunch though.

      Silver Peak is amazing. You need a lot of water to climb it though, our 1L a piece barely made it to the top of the climb, and it was still 6 KM back to camp for us. Clearly, we aren't nearly as big on planning as your dad was, but I think part of the charm for us is going, doing and coming back later to discuss what we should do better later. The things that didn't work out perfectly just make the stories even better.

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      • Even with somewhat obsessive planning, things still go wrong — there was the year we forgot almost all of the toilet paper in the car, and the guys wound up doing an unloaded day-trip back out to get it… The unexpected things are definitely one of the best parts! I tend a little more towards planning thoroughly for anything back-woods, but for bike-tripping, very little planning is required, since you can buy food along the way, and generally don't need reservations a lot in advance. We met a lot off cool people by not planning out our bicycling honeymoon in advance!

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        • Hehe, my best "worst case scenario" story is still that first trip, where the guys decided they were manly and just needed a sleeping bag to be comfortable, and that the bags were waterproof enough (Obviously, we had no plans of dropping them in the lake), and one of the guys even forgot to pack a sweater or something waterproof. Day 3, the heavens open up and dump buckets of rain and lightning around us. We get lost down the disused, largely flooded snowmobile path. We get soaked to the skin and crawled into camp just as the sun is setting.

          We grabbed the first campsite, which turned out to be mostly a sheet of rock, and we all crawl into bed where all the sleeping bags and PJs are wet. Oh yeah, and I'm the only person who brought a therma-rest, but I'd left it outside (stupidly) because it was also soaked. It was a very cold night, and after that, everyone learned that yes, waterproofing bags is a must, as are sleeping pads.

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  6. You have to get creative with your camping food if you want taste. Vaccum sealing food is good too. Some lime flavoured cous-cous cooked with dried cranberries and some pine nuts is awesome. We can also get these great curry meals that do not have to be kept cold in the supermarket here. Take them out of the box and you have a great little packet that heats up just in hot water.

    Unfortunatly there is not enough water in the part of Australia I am in to be able to do a trip like this, at least water that's not full of saltwater crocodiles and believe me, a canoe won't stop them from trying to eat you if they are hungry. Oh and on a side note BEAVER DAMS! that's so cool!

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    • Beaver dams are only cool the first time. XD Although it is amazing the structures these things can make, when you're sitting in a creek staring at a 3 foot monstrosity you're supposed to get up, it takes some ingenuity to say the least.

      On the other hand, they're still one of the most interesting parts of the trip!

      We actually made and packed a curry on our last trip in a big sealed container. It was just planned for day one or two, and we froze it so that by the time dinner rolled around, it'd be thawed and ready. Turned out to be a perfect choice since that was one of those nights where by the time we hit camp, the sun was just starting to go down.

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      • On this note, you can totally have fresh meat in the backcountry, just freeze it, and it will thaw in time for dinner the first night. I even ha one trip where a friend was hiking in to join us on day two, when we had fresh meat two nights in a row. Blue cheese mushroom beef burgers on night one, rabbit stew on night two, and then more ordinary backcountry fare for the rest of the trip.

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        • Man, that sounds divine. Though we found this works best if you cook the meat first, freeze it, then just rewarm it over the stove. Frozen raw meat gets… Messy. Especially if you're worried about cross-contaminating.

          Packing in apples are also great. They get banged up and bruised, but 3-4 days, something fresh and juicy is delicious.

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          • Peaches, however… yummy, but quite squashed (different trip). I think we triple bagged the meat. Also, we were at 10,000 ft, so it thawed slowly.

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      • Haha pretty sure I'd love them for a while. Clever little things!

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  7. Yay! I've been wanting to do a multi-day kayak or canoe trip, but get stuck on the planning part. I've been backpacking, and I just realized it's basically the same thing, but on water.
    In other news, I'll be visiting Killarney this summer on a roadtrip, and I am excited to hear it's as pretty as the pictures online! The travel book I got didn't even mention the park. : /

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    • Killarney is gorgeous! And yes, if you're used to backpacking, canoe-tripping should be a cinch. You can pack basically the same as for back-country backpacking if you want, although you can also take a few heavier items if you so choose, since you don't need to carry everything on your back all the time. A cast iron frying pan really spreads the heat from the camp stove nicely for blueberry pancakes made with fresh wild blueberries, and that's something you'd never take on a backpacking trip!

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    • Oh, Killarney is beyond gorgeous, but you do really want to try interior camping (or at least a day trip into OSA lake) to get the best view. OSA is the easiest of the crystal blue lakes to reach, while Nelly is the clearest, and if you can climb Silver Peak, I believe it's the highest elevation in Ontario (which isn't saying much). Granted, the climb to Silver Peak is a full day itself, but the view was amazing.

      And yeah, if you've been backpacking, this isn't that tricky. And the best part is, if you plan a first day with very little walking and mostly canoeing, you can go in with some impressive meals. My aunt was telling me that they normally bring a watermelon in for the first day, since you can just put it in the bottom of the canoe and go.

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  8. Cool article! i can't imagine encountering bears, but canoing trips might definately be in my future :).

    A word about backpacks, though. When in doubt about which one to get, do not get the biggest one. Yes, it'll (or YOU) carry more and that is exactly what can go wrong. The backpack easily ends up being too heavvy. You should choose one that matches your height. A camping shop should be able to assist with that. For example, my backpack is 45 liters (extendable to 55) and my husband's backpack is 70 liter. It is a good thing that mine is smaller; it restraints our packing (even more), but otherwise I would get exhausted easily. Also, the frame should match your back (which is why it is related to height)- so be sure to adjust all the straps to your body. Again, a camping shop sales person should be able to advise you.

    1 agrees
    • Getting the salesperson's help is good advice. When I talked to them, they told me to get the biggest because when you're in the canoe, it doesn't matter as much how big it is, and you're only walking for a very small part of the day. We normally don't walk more than 10km in a week long trip, and normally only a handful of long ones. On the other hand, I'm super tall, so there was no question that I could carry it properly either.

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    • What pack is right for you can depend greatly on the use. If you're going backpacking, the weight you can carry will depend on your body-weight and your strength, and the height your pack can be will depend on the length of your back. It's really important to have a pack that fits you well. Keep in mind also that larger packs weigh more even before you put anything in them. However, if you're canoe-tripping, a backpack is really just a nice way to portage a bunch of stuff. You can get away with a lot, assuming you don't have any really long portages — we've taken plastic pails, regular knapsacks, a cast iron frying pan in a bag… Backpacks are great for taking the majority of your stuff, but for that distance, how heavy they are and how well they fit both matter much less. You can get away with a bigger pack because you don't need to carry it very far, and you can also get away with a smaller pack because you can carry things that aren't in your pack (in fact, you'll need to — at minimum paddles, canoes, and PFDs!)

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  9. Yay for canoe camping! I live in Minnesota, home of the amazing Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Tip: if a canoe trip seems too intimidating, start with one on a river system. You can avoid portages (or have very short ones around waterfalls) making it easier to pack comforts like coolers. But seriously: go for it somehow somewhere!

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