A guide for those new to canoeing

In this post I’m going to walk you through how to prepare for a short flatwater canoe trip (1-4 nights) in a popular destination (like a nearby national park). Whether this is your first time planning a canoe trip or you’re a regular looking for some tips, you’ve come to the right place.

1. Choose a destination and then register for campgrounds or obtain a permit. Set some dates, make a route and tell a friend or family member your intentions.

  • Many provincial, state and national parks require advance bookings or permits
  • Killarney Provincial Park is very popular and has limited campsites, so you need to book the specific campsites you want well in advance
  • Missinaibi Provincial Park requires a permit for the dates you’ll be in the park, but it’s first-come-first-serve for campsites.
  • If you aren’t in a national or provincial/state park, it’s possible you don’t need either at all, but do some research so you know.

2. Determine the type of trip you’ll be doing. This will influence the type and amount of gear you’ll need to bring. For your first canoe trip, you’d likely be choosing something similar to this:

  • Length: 1-4 nights
  • Season: Summer
  • Type of trip: Flatwater canoeing
  • Level of remoteness: Low (Algonquin Provincial Park for example)

3. Unless you have your own equipment, contact an outfitter about getting the gear you need. Many provincial and national parks have outfitters that service the park, or you can buy/rent gear from a place like Mountain Equipment Co-op. Here’s a fairly comprehensive list of what you’ll need.

  1. Canoe: 1 per two people paddling (you can do three in a boat, but it makes the canoe more wobbly and is uncomfortable for the middle person)
  2. Paddle: 1 for each person paddling + 1 spare
  3. Lifejacket: 1 per person + 1 spare


    Canoes and lifejackets and paddles! Photo taken by Connor Furneaux.

What to wear on the water:

  1. Quick Dry Pants and/or Shorts: I typically bring one pair of each. I have a pair of MEC hiking pants, but for shorts I typically just use shorts you’d wear to the gym. Nothing fancy, just shorts.
  2. Quick Dry T-shirt: I’m still using the polyester quick dry shirts I got in high school track and field tournaments a full 7 years later. Again, nothing fancy, it’ll get dirty anyways. A tank top works too, but I rarely paddle with anything but a T-shirt on because I get sunburned so easily.


    This is the track and field t-shirt I have worn on just about every canoe trip for the last 7 years. I just pulled it out of my drawer (yes, I even brought it to NZ) to check the material. It’s 100% polyester, but I almost couldn’t read it because it was so smudged.

  3. Wet Shoes:  Whenever you think your feet might come in contact with water (while canoeing, when it’s raining) you wear your wet shoes. I prefer to use closed toes shoes so I can wear them during a portage or when walking through rapids too.

    Screen Shot 2018-03-08 at 10.27.36 PM

    I used these Salomon shoes all summer and for $119 they were amazing. Dried faster than running shoes, good grip, kept sticks and rocks out and were comfortable without socks.

  4. Bathing Suit/Underwear & Sports Bra: Bathing suits are great if it’s hot and you want to go from a quick tip during the day, but some people prefer to just wear underwear and a sports bra (if applicable).

What to have with you in the boat:

Clear 10L dry sack: This is more a personal preference, but one of my favourite pieces of gear to have on a canoe trip. Everything I might want during the day gets put in there; it’s all easy to access, but it’ll also stay dry. In the dry sack I pack (in roughly this order):

  1. Toiletries: I keep my toothbrush, toothpaste and chap stick in here for so I don’t lose them in my dry sack or barrel. Plus, I’ve usually packed up all of my stuff and loaded the canoes before I’ve eaten breakfast; having them here makes it easy. I don’t need it during the day so it’s goes at the bottom of the bag.
  2. Fleece Long Sleeve Shirt: This again is more of a personal preference. I like to have a shirt handy if it’s windy or chilly on the water, and fleece dries relatively quickly if it were to get wet. I don’t take it out too often, so it’s near the bottom too.
  3. Rain Pants: If you’re going for a short trip, rain pants aren’t necessary but I strongly recommend them. If it’s raining during the day you’ll stay much warmer if your legs are dry. Even at site, you’ll stay so dry and be so much happier when you’re setting up your tent or cooking in the rain.
  4. Sunscreen, bug cream, sunglasses, buff (if I’m not already wearing it), sunhat.
  5. Disposable camera (or another type if you’re fancy).
  6. Raincoat: Good quality raincoats need not be expensive. For a weekend in Algonquin you don’t need a $400 Gore-Tex jacket; I’ve used a basic Patagonia Torrentshell (~$149) for three years now. It’s been used in the Canadian Arctic, on 20+ day river trips and short hiking trips in New Zealand, and still works great! I keep my raincoat at the top of the dry sack for quick access!

What to wear when you get to site:

Once my group has arrived at our campsite we all unload boats, and then some set up tents while others collect firewood. Once camp is in good shape, I change into my site clothing (weather permitting). With each canoe trip you do you’ll learn more about what you like best. This is typically what I wear:

  1. Dry Shoes: Tevas or similar are popular because they dry quickly if you accidentally get them wet, they’re easy to put on and take off, and you can wear wool socks underneath.
  2. Fleece and (Synthetic) Down: I like fleece because it’s warm and dries quickly, so I bring a pair fleece pants. I also have a little puffy down jacket I like to wear. I typically only wear it at site because I don’t want it to get wet if I were to fall into the water. If you’re new to camping or going on a short trip, you don’t need expensive, technical fleece or down. For fleece (both tops and bottoms), I typically buy unknown brands, on clearance or second hand. Just check the label so you know the actual material blend. For puffy jackets, a simple synthetic down jacket from MEC is great and not expensive. If you are tight for cash though, you can also find it second hand or clearance or just use a fleece sweater.
  3.  Long Underwear: For short and close trips, a pair of non-cotton tights and a non-cotton long sleeve are a great substitute for expensive long underwear. If you would like something a little more technical, long underwear (both pants and shirts) are either made of merino wool or synthetic material. Merino wool is warmer and wicks away moisture better, but it’s also less durable and more expensive than synthetic. After tearing three pairs of merino tights, I only use synthetic now.
  4. Wool Socks: Warm feet are happy feet! Bring a few pairs.

Equipment Pack:

Your equipment pack carries all the hard wear you’ll need. This covers fire starting, water purification, cooking, shelter, etc.

  1. First aid kit
  2. Matches and lighters
  3. Cooking stove and fuel, small grill for over the fire
  4. Pot with lid, frying pan, spatula, spoon, fire glove
  5. Bowls, spoons/forks, multi-tool or knife
  6. Steel wool or scrubber, camp suds
  7. Garbage bags (Yay no trace camping!)
  8. Toilet paper and hand sanitizer (and a trowel if you’re going somewhere more remote that doesn’t have thunder boxes)
  9. Water purification: this could be a water pump or aquatabs
  10. Tarp and rope (you could probably get away without these on shorter trips, but having a cooking shelter when it’s raining is a real game changer. I’ll post some tips for setting up good tarps if you need inspiration)
  11. Bonus: I like to carry some extra carabiners and zips ties because they’re handy


    Check out all of that equipment!


  1. Tent: Obviously you’ll need a tent. The nice thing about canoeing (especially when you have short portages) is you don’t need to splurge on an ultralight tent. I’ll make a post about how to choose a good tent soon. Store it in a dry sack so it stays dry throughout the day.
  2. Sleeping pad and sleeping bag: Your sleeping bag will have a rating on it. This gives you the temperature that the average person could sleep comfortably in one layer of clothing (long underwear) on a sleeping pad. Check how cold it’ll get at night. People often underestimate how cold it gets on a clear night. Your sleeping pad will also keep you warm in addition to comfortable. You can rent these from a place like MEC for weekends. I’ll also make a post about this kind of gear if you would like to buy your own.
  3. Pajamas: I like to sleep in either base layer pants/long sleeve or pj shorts and a cotton t-shirt. I’m ok bringing cotton for my pajamas because I protect this clothing with my life! I never wear them outside the tent and lot of the time I just pack them into the foot of my sleeping bag so I know they’re safe during the day.


    My wonderful little tent (my camera got wet, hence the weird blue streaks).


  1. Book, journal, pens, cards
  2. Headlamp and batteries
  3. Bug net (optional)
  4. Face wipes (some people disagree and think you shouldn’t bring anything to clean yourself with, but unscented face wipes are one of my necessities. Keeping my face and neck clean makes me feel way better, and it doesn’t harm anyone so why not?)
  5. Compressible or blow up pillow (optional)
  6. Hat and/or gloves if it’ll be cold


So much stuff! So what are you going to put it all in?

And there you have it! I’ve tried to be both thorough and concise so I hope this helps get you started with your canoe trip. Over the next few weeks I’ll do some posts specific to tents, sleeping gear, cooking meals, tarps, etc.

– Mikaela

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