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:
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.
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.
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
- Toilet paper and hand sanitizer: Also a shovel if your park doesn’t have a box for this
- Matches or lighter
- Bug repellent
- Cooking dishes, eating dishes and utensils and dish soap
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!