Take a week to paddle along a pristine coastline or down the natural highway of a river. Experience the satisfaction of self-sufficiency and the pleasure of being able to fish a remote lake at first light. Introduce your children to their first real wilderness experience. These are some of the reasons many of us want to be paddlers.
This article provides some guidance and tips on how to be a knowledgeable and environmentally responsible canoe camper. From planning an itinerary to becoming a low-impact wilderness user, we hope your overnight trips will be some of the best times you’ll ever have.
Planning Your Trip
Careful planning can really make or break a canoe trip. On a perfect outing, all the surprises will be good ones and the challenges will be those you’ve prepared for.
The first time you go out, try and pick a relaxing destination and a good stretch of weather. (You want things to go right on your maiden voyage, and nothing shines as brightly as a sunny day.) Make sure you head for a place that’s appropriate to your skills and equipment – if you’re heading for a river, remember that high water can change a “beginning” stretch into something even experts avoid.
To choose a destination, prioritize what’s important to you and your paddling partners. Good fishing and wildlife viewing? Solitude? Scenery? A short driving distance? Be flexible – chances are you’ll have a good time if you’ve got a good attitude. Local outfitters and guidebooks are excellent sources of information for possible destinations.
Try to plan around predictable elements like late afternoon winds or tidal cycles: there’s no point in fighting a headwind if you could just as easily paddle the other direction or be in camp already. And remember to consider seasonal factors like mosquitoes and water levels.
Once you get maps, spread them out on the dining room table before you depart. It’s fun to imagine what the area will look like ahead of time, and it’s important to identify possible hazards, drinking water sources, and potential campsites in advance. Maps will also clue you in to interesting side trips like hikes, old mines and historic buildings.
Before you head out for a week or more, take at least one shorter “shakedown” trip. A two-night excursion gives you just enough time to get into the rhythm of your experience, and also have at least one full day away from the car.
A canoe is a backpacker’s dream: so much space for gear! And you don’t even have to carry it on your back.
There are limits, though. Like any form of travel, you’ll regret it if you weigh yourself down with too much stuff. Don’t forget, you still have to carry everything from the car to the water, up to camp each night, and during portages. The more gear you have, the more time you’ll spend packing it up each morning, and the heavier your boat will feel all day.
So what to bring? Start with good quality, lightweight camping gear: sleeping bag, camping mattress, and a tent appropriate for the climate. Always bring a stove: campfires can be unreliable or hard to find wood for, and may be prohibited in some areas. Then there are all the other basics:
- Cooking equipment
- Lanterns or headlamps
- Bug repellant and/or mesh mosquito jacket.
- Water bottles
- Dry bags
- Extra clothing
- Toilet articles
- First aid Kit
- extra ground cloth
- Repair kit
- Small shovel or trowel for burying human waste
Of course there are hundreds of other gadgets, from campfire espresso makers to wilderness toasters to battery-operated shavers that you could bring. Feel free to unleash the gear freak within – just don’t go overboard. Here are a few simple suggestions:
Long length of cord or lightweight rope. Use it to make a clothesline for hanging all your paddling gear. You can also use your throw rope.
Small whisk broom. Shorelines tend to be sandy, and it’s nice to be able to keep your tent and other gear from becoming too gritty.
Compact, short-legged folding chair. After a day of paddling, treat yourself to one with a backrest. Most outfitters sell take-apart or very compact nylon or canvas chairs.
Daypack. Even though you may be traveling from camp to camp by boat, you’ll probably take some short walks. A pack can be helpful for toting water bottles, too, if the water supply is more than a few yards from camp. This one is important, so take your time learning about daypacks and finding the right one.
Carabiners. You’ll find a hundred uses for these handy “climber’s” clips, from hanging gear on the clothesline to clipping stuff into the boat.
Cooler. One of the things you can bring that really separates canoe camping from other forms of wilderness travel, a cooler is a real luxury. Make sure you bring one with a latching lid in case of a capsize.
Not quite. A casually loaded canoe or kayak can make paddling harder and even jeopardize your safety. It may take a bit of experimenting to figure out the right system, but your efforts will pay off in increased convenience, efficiency and safety. Follow these basic rules of thumb to get your own system going:
Camp table. Another luxury item, great for cooking at a comfortable height and for keeping your food out of the sand.
If you’re like most of us, figuring out what not to bring will probably be your biggest challenge.
Loading the Boat
You’re ready to go: the boat is poised expectantly by the shoreline, your food’s all packed and it looks like a great weekend. All that’s left is to toss the gear in and shove off. Right?
Make sure your gear is waterproof. Even on the sunniest and calmest of days, some water will collect in the bottom of your boat from wet feet and “paddle drip.” Dry bags are made of waterproof, abrasion-resistant fabric and have special sealing closures for watertightness. If you plan to do much portaging, look for ones with shoulder straps. You can also use other packs or duffels, lined with sturdy garbage bags. Avoid packs with large rigid frames: it can be difficult to stuff these into your boat.
Tie everything in. Always important – better to be safe than sorry! Try and develop a simple, repeatable system for keeping everything secure in your boat. If you’ve got a touring kayak, your gear will probably be kept in closed compartments; make sure those hatches are tight. For open canoes you’ll want to make sure your gear is not only tied in but secure so it won’t shift during the day or dangle if you tip over. Many packs and gear bags come with straps attached: fasten these around the thwarts, and use a second strap in a criss-cross pattern over and through the whole load. Buckle-end straps work well since they reduce the number of poor or complicated knots to contend with and can be easily tightened later on.
Balance the load. Even a slightly off-balance load can compromise your stability. It can also cause back pain over the course of the day, since you’ll unconsciously try to compensate with your own weight. The best balanced loads are trimmed evenly from gunwale to gunwale with heavier items on the bottom for stability. The entire load should be slightly weighted towards the stern.
Do your best to keep your gear below the level of the gunwales and don’t forget to consider the paddler’s weight difference in a tandem canoe or double kayak.
Use the ends of the boat only for the lightest gear. Keep your heaviest bags and large water jugs towards the center of the boat and use the ends for lightweight gear like sleeping bags and pads. The boat will turn and handle much more easily if you keep the ends light.
Keep fragile items safe and organized in dry boxes. Dry boxes are remarkably impact- and water-proof, quick to open and close, and easy to customize with Ensolite or foam. Besides cameras, dry boxes also work well for guidebooks or small supplies that might disappear to the bottom of a dry bag. (Just make sure the dry box can’t rattle around in your boat.) Buy ones with the rubber seals in good condition, and before you leave on your trip double-check to make sure the seals are good by loosely wadding paper towels inside and submerging the box in your tub. If the paper towels get wet, you’ve got a leak. Sometimes a little vegetable oil on the seal will help. Dry boxes are a great solution for packing out garbage and human waste, too, as discussed in the low-impact section below.
Try to get dry bags in a variety of sizes and colors, including clear. This will go a long way towards improving organization and reducing the frustration of hunting through several bags each time you want something. Try using two or three larger dry bags for camping gear and clothing you won’t need during the day. Then, use smaller bags for quick access to lunch, camera, first aid supplies, and other day gear. (If you are paddling a kayak, small bags are probably all you can fit in the boat.)
Keep waterproof day items handy. Sunscreen, sunglasses, compact wind gear, and similar items don’t have to go in a dry bag. Try one of the commercially made nylon or mesh seat compartments, or even a fanny pack around your waist for convenient access.
Don’t clutter the area around your feet. As tempting as it may be to stuff last-minute items around your legs in a kayak cockpit, or close to your feet in a canoe, try not to; if you tip over, you can get tangled in the excess gear.
Remember, it’s hard on you and on your boat to drag it ashore fully loaded. Bring waterproof shoes so you’ll feel comfortable unloading the boat from the water. And, of course, carry the empty boat well up onto high ground for the night, especially on a river or tidal area where water level fluctuations can take you by surprise. Turn your boat over to keep rain out and to make it harder for an unexpected gust of wind to catch it.
Low Impact Camping
Low-impact camping is no longer an “alternative” concept; rather, it’s a responsibility we all share. And with modern equipment like compact camp stoves, we don’t need to be destructive campers. Keep in mind the credo, “Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints,” and remember that much of your potential impact is invisible-buried waste, soap scum and even noise.
Use your trip as an opportunity to tune in to the natural world and intrude on it as little as you can. (Leave the boom-box at home.) True low-impact camping is a consciousness.
Garbage Management 101
Have you ever read about those contests to see how little garbage a family can produce? Try playing this game yourself; reducing your garbage in the first place is lesson number one in garbage management.
Leave home with as few cans, bottles, and other non-burnables as you can. Maximize your pre-trip food preparations so you won’t have leftovers or scraps like meat bones and vegetable peelings. Plan meals to minimize leftovers. (For example, plan less of the main dish and more of some easily packed and versatile extras – bread, fruit, and cheese.) Bring a cloth kitchen wipe instead of a roll of paper towels. With a little forethought, you can produce surprisingly little garbage.
Keep it neat
An unprotected plastic bag will invariably get torn, wet, and generally become a bigger attraction for flies than for ecology-minded campers. Keep your garbage neat! Dedicate one dry bag for garbage and line it with plastic bags. Keep it in a central place in camp and make sure it gets used. Your garbage will stay contained, more odor free and there’ll be fewer arguments over who gets to be the “garbage barge.”
If you carried it in, you can carry it out
Never leave any garbage behind, even by burying it. This includes biodegradables like eggshells and vegetable peelings. It’s still garbage!
When was the last time you went off to explore an intriguing little path, only to discover a grove of toilet paper “flowers” – or worse?
For liquid wastes, stay above the high watermark and at least 50 feet away from any streams. If you must use toilet paper when you pee, carefully burn it or pack it out.
For solid human waste, the very best and most responsible solution is to pack it out. This isn’t as bad as it sounds! And on some regulated trips like the Grand Canyon, it’s required. Line a large ammunition can with a plastic bag – trash compactor bags are particularly sturdy – and set a toilet seat on the can. (Or consider buying a packable toilet.) Each time you pack up camp, add some dry lime or other disinfectant and tie the bag off. Use a fresh bag for each camp. Use a second box to carry the disinfectant, extra bags, toilet paper, and a box of baby wipes for hand cleaning. Not only will you have significantly reduced your impact, but most campers will feel more at home with a real toilet seat.
If you don’t bring an ammunition can or packable toilet always bury your waste six to eight inches below the surface, where natural degradation works the fastest. Keep a pack of matches in a plastic bag with the toilet paper, and burn the paper carefully and completely before you leave.
Everybody loves a campfire. But an old campfire ring and underbrush scoured clean of burnable wood are glaring and commonplace scars of previous human use.
Have you tried camping without a campfire? You’ll be amazed: The stars are brighter and in the morning your clothes won’t have that distinct “eau D’ woodsmoke.” Try bringing a few candles instead: they provide the same calming focal point as a campfire without the environmental impact. (Use foil to contain the drippings.)
If you’re camping on a lake or a calm bay, use your campfire time for a really special nighttime treat: a moonlight paddle. One of my most magical experiences on a week-long sea kayaking trip to Canada’s Barkley Sound was discovering natural phosphorescence in salt water; each paddle stroke traced a soft glowing path through the water.
If you want a fire – and even the most hard-core, low-impact campers indulge sometimes – resist the temptation to make it a roaring bonfire. A small fire will take less wood and effort and will be just as satisfying. Re-use pre-existing fire rings rather than building new ones. In the morning, pick through the cold ashes and collect any unburned debris. For true no-impact campfires, build your fire in a fire pan and take your ashes out with you as garbage.
More low-impact tips
- Don’t trench around your tents, instead pick well-drained locations in the first place.
- Keep everyone on the same trails – around camp, on portages, scouting sites or side trips. Don’t destroy vegetation for firewood or to make room for your tent.
- Do all your soapy washing at least 100 feet from the water, even if you’re using biodegradable soap.
- Camp on a beach whenever possible; your impact will be lowest. Concentrate your impact.
- Don’t pre-wash dishes directly in a stream or lake. Those bits of macaroni will persist in the cold water better than you think.