So…you’ve mastered hiking and backcountry camping (because it goes without saying you wouldn’t go on a backcountry canoe adventure if you hadn’t) and now you are thinking of taking on another type of grand adventure? For me, that next go to was adventure by boat…in the form of canoe. A canoe would allow me to get deeper into the backcountry and have greater access to more secluded spots in some rugged and wild landscapes.
Before you go full swing ahead, there are a few important factors to consider when planning a backcountry canoe trip. Any adventure on water has its own set of risks over that on land, so it is even more important to plan ahead and be prepared. As you start to think about this big adventure and how it will all come together, lets review some of the basics on how to plan and execute a successful backcountry canoe adventure:
1. CANOEING SKILLS:
While canoeing seems pretty easy, there IS some skill involved and it’s important to have basic skills and knowledge of canoing and canoe management. I would NEVER recommend taking any type of overnight or extended canoe trip without any experience. If you are going with someone else, make sure they can also paddle, or you may find yourself…floundering. Out on the water is not a good time to make mistakes. I recommend taking an entry-level canoeing course if you are considering this kind of adventure. You and your canoeing partner should have a basic repertoire of the following skills:
- Basic Strokes: For example: basic forward stroke, draw, J stroke, pry
- How to properly enter and exit a canoe
- What to do if your canoe flips
- How to properly lift and portage a canoe
H@H Quick fact: What is a portage you ask? This is when you carry your canoe over land between two bodies of water or to avoid some type of obstacle (dam, rapids etc).
2. PLAN YOUR ROUTE:
Picking a park with designated canoe routes is great for beginners and will make your life a lot easier for planning. Boundary Waters, Alqonquin and Killarney Provincial Parks are somewhat local to Michigan and have some of the best canoeing around. These are massive parks with a huge network of canoe routes, marked portages and canoe-in, backcountry campsites. First I recommend getting a good map, specific for canoe routes. Often the park or local outfitter will sell these.
H@H TIP: For some Canadian locations, check out JeffsMap which are the most valuable resource out there for your canoe trip planning.
These maps should give you an idea of the size of the lakes, the campground locations and the distances of each portage. It is critical that you plan your trip according to your ability. If you are a beginner, a short trip with short portages, on smaller lakes and a defined, well-marked canoe and portage route is essential. You may even want to make a base camp and use your days to canoe nearby to get a feel for it. Avoid routes with rapids, strong currents, large lakes and long portages to start. Even though my canoe partner and I are both avid canoers, we still enjoy the simple canoe trips on dedicated canoe routes until we have more concrete experience under our belt.
3. DON’T OVER COMMIT:
You know you average about 2 miles an hour while hiking. But knowing your “canoe” speed isn’t going to be that easy. A lot of things factor into your travel time including: weather (paddling is a lot slower if its windy or wavey), current (sometimes the water works against your), obstacles (sometimes you have to get out of your canoe to avoid a beaver dam, a tree jam…you name it), fatigue (if you aren’t used to paddling you may find you tire easily using new muscles). It is also difficult to gauge your speed on portages as it is not easy to haul gear AND a canoe uphill and over difficult terrain. Not every portage will be a highway-like trail. Some can include streams, bogs, roots, rocks, and big hills. You will also need to consider if you plan to carry all of your gear WITH the canoe at once on a portage, or if you will have to go back and forth on a portage more than one time to get everything to the other side. If you have to make 2 trips with your gear, this turns a short 1 mile portage into a 3 mile portage pretty quick. You will need to factor this into your time for travel.
H@H Tip: I love this illustration from JeffsMap on gauging travel time (keep in mind this is in good weather without any obstacles). Always plan for the worst and give yourself plenty of day light hours to spare.
D. RESERVE AHEAD:
Once you know your route, make sure you research if permits or reservations for canoe-in campsites or backcountry access are needed and secure these early. If you need gear or equipment, be sure to reserve these ahead of time with a nearby outfitter. Usually the summer months can be pretty busy in these parks for rentals; you don’t want to get all the way there to find out your ship does not await.
4. PICK THE RIGHT EQUIPMENT:
Your local gear and guide shop will be the best resource for selecting a canoe that suits your needs. Don’t automatically assume that an ultra lightweight canoe will serve you better. Lighter canoes, while a dream to portage, are more difficult to steer, easier to tip and more difficult to paddle in poor conditions and therefore may not be the best option for first timers. A heavier canoe will feel sturdier and more stable but will drain you on a portage. Rely on your outfitter’s suggestion and be honest with them about your capabilities and strength. Canoe rental fees usually include paddles, a safety/bailer kit and life jackets. Be sure to ask so you don’t get hit with hidden fees. Make sure to ask if your outfitter will deliver your canoe to your starting location or if you will be responsible to transport it with your vehicle to your departure point.
This is a no brainer. On land, only the rain and the odd river ford have you worried about wet gear. In a canoe, the risk is way higher for wet gear. You can purchase dry boxes, barrels, or bags; and any of these will suffice. I opt for my regular hiking pack because it’s far more comfortable for long portages. I do however, make sure that my key items are sealed properly IN WATERPROOF (and tested) DRY SACKS. I love the Sea to Summit sacks. What is important to keep dry you ask? My sleeping bag, a dry set of clothing and insulating layer, my electronics and map and my food.
6. TIP PROOF YOUR CANOE
Properly loading the canoe is critical in your goal to stay dry. Your gear should sit in the middle of the canoe with the weight distributed as low and evenly as possible. While it is possible to have three people in a canoe, I wouldn’t recommend it. Two people with gear is hard enough to handle as it is. The best way to balance your weight in the canoe is to paddle while kneeling in the canoe and not sitting up in the seat. Perhaps bring a knee pad for comfort if you wish to paddle this way. Knowing how to properly enter and exit a canoe will save you a dunk in the lake, as this is when most people end up taking a dip.
7. PRACTICE PROPER PORTAGING (PPP)
You may be thinking, I can pack so much more than I would hiking because I won’t have to carry all of this gear for miles! WRONG!!! Remember that you have to haul your gear AND THAT CANOE over portages. Pack wisely to avoid having to do multiple trips back and forth at a portage. Portaging is NO JOKE. I recommend watching a video on how to portage your canoe (a single man portage, two person hand carry for short portages and two person tandem lift for long portages with your friend). Then, practice proper techniques ahead of time. This will save your shoulders, your patience and your back from getting tweaked.
8. KNOW THE CONDITIONS:
You know what to do during a storm on a mountain, but do you know what to do when you are out on the water? Being on the water in a storm is a BIG NO NO. High winds can make paddling difficult and increase risk of tipping. If you hear thunder and lightning, get to shore as soon as possible. It’s easier to get cold out on the water, so do a weather check before you leave and know the temps and weather conditions you will be facing and pack accordingly. Good rain gear is an absolute must. Bugs may be bothersome on the water so pack your DEET and bug net to avoid being lunch.
9. SAFETY FIRST:
Water and boating safety regulations mandate that you must have the following items on board your vessel: paddles (obviously), PFD for each person in the canoe… make sure you actually wear it (do not do as we do!), a buoyant Rope, bailer, whistle, a flare or light. Remember that navigation on water is far more difficult than following a beaten path on land. Having some compass and map skills are critical. I also aways carry some kind of personal locator beacon with me especially on these trips. AND ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS TELL SOMEONE THE DETAILS OF YOUR TRIP PLAN.
10. ENJOY IT
Your first canoe trip will be hard. Canoe backpacking is a whole other beast from regular hike backpacking. Portaging will make you curse and scream. Paddling will make your upper body burn halfway across the lake… but you will get better at all of it. My first trip wasn’t easy and Sarah and I both hated portaging with a passion. Now we are bosses at the portage and have the rhythm of paddling down pat; canoe trips may now just be our favorite. Take a moment to breathe and enjoy your surroundings; take a dip in the lake (on purpose), watch the sunset paint the water, take an early morning paddle as the mist blankets the lake and the sun is just rising, stop and listen to the cry of the loon across the water. These trips are magic. You’ll see.
Safe paddles !