Canada is a prime destination for canoe camping, with a nearly endless list of possible destinations. However, if you’ve never been canoe camping before, getting started can feel pretty intimidating. Where do you go? What do you pack?
In this post I’m going to outline everything you need to know to plan your first canoe camping adventure!
1. Choose your destination
If you’re new to canoe camping, you’ll want to choose a destination that is somewhat popular and isn’t too far away. You want it to be a place where you can easily rent equipment and there are park resources available. I’d typically recommend a nearby national or provincial park. In Ontario (where I’m from), both Algonquin Provincial Park and Killarney Provincial Park are excellent places to do your first canoe trip. If you’re outside Ontario, you can find good destinations by asking your local MEC or REI (or another outdoor store in your area).
Do you need a reservation or permits?
A lot of these destinations will require you to register for campgrounds or obtain a permit, which can usually be done through the park’s website or an outfitter. If all you need is a permit to be in the park, you can do this before finalizing your route (see step 2). However, if you need to book specific campsites, you’ll need to plan your route first…
2. Plan your route
First, decide how many days you want to be out for. Typically 1-3 nights is a good number if you’re new to canoe tripping. I recommend Googling something like “Algonquin Park 3 night canoe route” or phone a local outfitter and ask them for suggestions. If you’re planning the route yourself, use a park map like the ones sold at MEC. They list all the campsites, portages, distances and special areas to note. For new canoeists, I estimate a paddling speed of 3.5 km per hour and I recommend keeping portages under 400 m. And don’t plan to be paddling for 8 hours each day – that isn’t an enjoyable way to ease into canoe camping. Keep the trip easy so you can focus on other skills (cooking, setting up a tent) in addition to paddling.
3. Pack your equipment
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 for a canoe trip.
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).
Paddle: 1 for each person paddling + 1 spare
Lifejacket: 1 per person + 1 spare
What to wear on the water
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.
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.
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).
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.
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):
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.
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.
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.
Sunscreen, bug cream, sunglasses, buff (if I’m not already wearing it), sunhat.
Disposable camera (or another type if you’re fancy).
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:
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.
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.
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.
Wool Socks: Warm feet are happy feet! Bring a few pairs.
What to pack in the equipment pack
Your equipment pack carries all the hard wear you’ll need. This covers fire starting, water purification, cooking, shelter, etc.
- First aid kit (I have a post on building a wilderness first aid kit that you can reference)
- Matches and lighters
- Cooking stove and fuel, small grill for over the fire
- Pot with lid, frying pan, spatula, spoon, fire glove
- Bowls, spoons/forks, multi-tool or knife
- Steel wool or scrubber, camp suds
- Garbage bags
- Toilet paper and hand sanitizer (and a trowel if you’re going somewhere more remote that doesn’t have thunder boxes)
- Water purification: this could be a water pump or aquatabs
- 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)
- Bonus: I like to carry some extra carabiners and zips ties because they’re handy
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.
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.
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.
- Book, journal, pens, cards
- Headlamp and batteries
- Bug net (optional)
- 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?)
- Compressible or blow up pillow (optional)
- Hat and/or gloves if it’ll be cold
4. Go out and get canoe camping!
Once you’re packed, you’re just about ready to go! Please always leave a copy of your route and when you’ll be back with someone from home. That way, if something were to go wrong, someone will know where you were supposed to be and it makes finding you much easier.
Anyways, there you have it – a beginner’s guide to canoe camping! I’ve tried to be both thorough and concise so I hope this helps get you started with your canoe trip. As always, should you have any questions, comment away!