How to Plan a Canoe Trip

Hopping in a canoe and spending a few days paddling a river is a great way to get out of the city for a while, relax, and appreciate the beauty of natural wetlands. Preparations for this kind of excursion are similar to those for backpacking, but the added presence of the living river changes the game in a few very important ways.


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    Find a river. Consider your skill level, and do your homework. Do you feel up to tackling rough waters? Are there dams on the river you will need to 'port' (pick your canoe up out of the water and walk it to the other side of the dam)?
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    Get a canoe (assuming you don't already own one). Lots of rivers that are navigable will have multiple canoe liveries that can not only rent you a canoe and the proper equipment, but also shuttle you to a convenient drop-off point and pick you up where you want to end your trip.
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    Plan your trip. A good livery will be able to give you a rough idea of how long it will take to travel down different portions of the river, what obstacles you might face during the trip (dams, rough water, etc), and who you will need to talk to for the proper permits.
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    Get a Map! Even if the river is a straight shot from one end to the other, you will probably want to know where you are at some point. There are a few detailed maps published that you can purchase through for more common waterways, but the easiest (and cheapest) way to get a river map is to find it with a mapping tool like Google Earth. Just locate the river and print out the portion you plan on canoeing. It is a good idea to get a few good close-up images of important sections (campsites, forks in the waterway, entry and exit points, etc.) to help you identify landmarks. A GPS unit can be helpful to keep you on course, too.
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    Food is a must have. Plan your snacks and meals out and bring only as much food as will be consumed. Remember that you will probably have to pack out any opened cans or plastic garbage, and keep them to a minimum. It's best not to bring perishables (like eggs, meat, etc) on multi-day trips, but if you must then use a small cooler with a block of ice in the bottom and cubed ice up to the top, tied closed and to the canoe with bungee cords. Plan to use the most perishable items first.
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    Water is important to stock up. You will probably (or at least should) drink a great deal of water - much more than you normally do, since you are exercising and exposed to the elements throughout most of the trip. Bring a sports-style water bottle for each person, and a gallon of clean drinking water in a jug to get started. This probably won't be enough, however. To get potable water from a river, you can A) filter it with a pump-style water filter, B) clean it chemically with iodine tablets and neutralizer, or C) boil it.
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    Weather and Time of year. There is usually a distinct lack of shelter while paddling down a river. Check the local weather the day before you leave to get an idea of how to pack, but always expect at least one cold night, one hot day, and rain. Always bring a raincoat and some lightweight tarps in case of rain, sunblock and sunglasses for lots of sun, and a light jacket and pants for cool evenings.
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    Fire equipment. Pack all of your fire-making tools in a water-tight container, like a plastic jar or dry bag. Pick up a fire starting product that says it will light even when wet, since you might have trouble finding dry tinder lying around.
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    Plastic Bags. All clothing, bedding, and food should be kept in plastic garbage bags (the clear ones are best). These won't help if you dump the canoe, but they will keep important things dry if it starts to rain or your canoe gets splashed. Pack an assortment of extra zip-locks and garbage bags to replace ones that have ripped open.


  • Always pack iodine tablets, even if you have a water filter. More than one camper has had a water filter fail on him... and it is not always feasible to pull the canoe over and start a fire to boil drinking water when you need it.
  • Check the local ordinances first to see if fires are allowed. DNR officers get really touchy about unauthorized fires in their forests.
  • To really guarantee a decent fire in averse conditions, pack a small bag of match-light charcoal. Once you get a bed of coals going at the bottom of your fire pit, you can burn almost anything in it.


  • Never drink water straight out of the river, unless you are fond of things like intestinal parasites and strange diseases.
  • Zip-Lock bags are not water-tight. A few extra bucks on a real water-tight container can be the difference between a cold, wet, shivery night and a warm fire... or the life and death of your digital camera or cellphone.

Things You'll Need

  • A detailed topography map with a way to waterproof it.
  • Canoe (in good condition good for portages)
  • Route
  • Food (non perishables and accessible snack because you don't want to dig for snacks and get off balance in the canoe. Plus also bring a good amount of butter, tea, salt and pepper because you might be surprised how much they get used up.)
  • Cookware ( Make sure you bring plates, bowls, cups or mugs * if you bring a water bottle you don't need a cup , utensils, pot, pan, lid, camping handle, dish towel, sponge, soap * clean your dishes because its easy to get sick when you're camping)
  • 2 -3 Shoes ( Bring shoes to wear in the canoe to get in and out because you don't know what's in the water and it would suck to injure your feet. Bring canvas shoes such as converse or toms because they dry quickly then bring a hiking boot and wool socks for when you are on land and your cold.)
  • Food pail (pails used for wine making or bulk food can be purchased at wine making stores or fast food restaurants and are waterproof and super durable plus are good for containing smells from bears but should be washed after you use them)
  • Waterproofing equipment (sea line sacks and ziploc bags may seem reliable but they aren't and also if some type of gear such as backpacks say they are waterproof... they aren't. So to save yourself a lot of hassle if you tip you can use your sea line bags and ziploc bags but also use a durable plastic bag NOT GARBAGE BAG! and just twist it tight and tie it with a shoelace or stuff it on the side. Its just that extra per-caution and it actually works.)
  • Water and/or Purifying Equipment
  • Clothes suitable for weather (never bring cotton on a canoe trip because if it gets wet it will take forever to dry and won't keep you as warm as other materials.)
  • Rain Gear ( Investing in good rain gear will save your life! suitable brands are Patagonia, north face, MEC and Arcteryx. They do lose water proofing ability after a while so be sure to invest in waterproofing laundry detergent.)
  • Glove or mittens (you can buy expensive Pogies or paddling gloves to keep you warm while your paddling but using rubber gloves with a liner is just as good and less expensive)
  • Camping supplies (tinder kit, matches, camping stove, tent, ground sheet, Thermarest, sleeping bag, backpack, sunglasses, sunscreen, wide brimmed hat, duct tape, toilet paper, hand sanitizer, toiletries)
  • Safety equipment (whistle, personal floatation device, paddle, knife, compass, bear safety equipment)
  • Garbage bag, Ziploc Bag or Tupperware and shovel ( If you are going on a canoe trip you really don't want to litter because it affects the surrounding ecosystem and the people who will camp in your spot the people who camp there next, you want to leave as small as a footprint as possible. You will also need to make a grey water pit to make sure all of your dishwater, leftovers, cooking water all end up in one place and you fill it back up with dirt when you leave.)

Article Info

Categories: Canoes, Kayaks, and Rowboats