A First-Timer’s Guide to Planning a Canoe Camping Trip

person sitting beside a car parked by a semi-frozen lake and mountain
A canoe camping trip, or portage trip, is a rite of passage for any outdoor enthusiast who longs to get back to basics, test their hardiness and connect with nature. Follow this beginner’s guide to planning a successful canoe camping trip.

A canoe camping trip, or portage trip, is a rite of passage for any outdoors enthusiast who longs to get back to basics, test their hardiness, and connect with nature. Eager to paddle deep lakes and clear rivers, hike old-growth forests with your boat strapped to your back, and let the heat of the campfire melt your stress away? Before you head out into nature, read our beginner’s guide to ensure your next canoe camping trip is a success.

 

Choose your location wisely

Portaging is hard work—physically and mentally. A beginner needs to choose a destination that suits their abilities. Here’s what to look for: 
 

  • FlatwaterWhile the thrill of paddling hard through rapids might be alluring, whitewater requires expert paddling skills. To keep occupants (you, your food, and gear) dry and safe, stick to flatwater, like still lakes and gently flowing rivers. 
  • Serviced by outfitters. For easy access to the equipment and advice you’ll need, opt for a backcountry camping region that’s well serviced by camping outfitters and outdoor adventure stores.  
  • Well mapped. You don’t need to veer into uncharted territory to feel like you’re off the grid. Stick to official backcountry camping areas, like those belonging to national and provincial campgrounds. They’ll offer routes that have been mapped and vouched for, so you can be assured you won’t find yourself in waters above your skill level, private land, or areas not suitable for camping. 

 
Vet your group members

Think carefully about who you invite to join you on your inaugural portage trip. For your first time out, pick two fellow campers: you can ride in one three-seater canoe, lower the costs of food and equipment, and share the physical load. 
 
Whoever you invite needs to have an equally strong love of the outdoors and a thirst for adventure, a willingness to work hard, and an easygoing attitude. When the sun is hot, the bugs are bad and the canoe feels extra heavy, you need to be able to count on your crew to push through.

 

Find a local outfitter

Nearly all novice canoe campers rent gear for their trips: a canoe, paddles, and lifejackets (at a minimum), as well as tents, sleeping bags, bear-proof food barrels, dry sacks, and cooking equipment. 
 
When it comes to which outfitter to choose (popular backcountry camping areas should have a variety on offer), consider reputation, price point, and location. A good outfitter will also offer delivery options, invaluable advice on your planned route, and options for (paid) guided tours.

 

Pack strategically

The guiding principle for canoe camping trips is to pack light and pack right. Heavy and bulky items need to be swapped out for lighter and more compact alternatives (for example, a high-quality water purification tool instead of jugs of water). Clothing needs to be optimized for comfort, durability, and protection against the elements. Sunscreen and bug repellent are non-negotiables. 
 
Look up packing lists for many of the most popular canoe camping destinations online—recommendations from experienced campers who know your route can be invaluable.

Leave info with loved ones

Before you head out into the wilderness, leave detailed information about your plans with a friend or family member. This includes your planned route, your schedule, which outfitter you’ve rented your equipment from, and which campground you’re registered with. You probably won’t have cellphone service during your adventure (and even if you do, you’ll want to be disconnected), so it’s crucial that someone knows your whereabouts in case of an emergency.

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