Canoe Trip Planning and Safety
A well planned and executed canoe expedition is the stuff that memories are made of. These good times, however, are no accident and require thorough canoe trip planning and safety before heading out on the water. This article has been prepared to help the avid paddler get ready for a multi-day paddle expedition.
Basic Canoe Expedition Safety Equipment
Canoe trip planning and safety should include the basic safety equipment as outlined in our article Canoe Safety Gear. The list of Mandatory Safety Equipment shown therein should be adhered to very closely. The Optional Safety Equipment listed should also be carefully considered. Longer expeditions and expeditions in very remote areas will require even more equipment and more planning. On a long trip, otherwise optional items become more important and necessary for safety and convenience. In addition, a multi-day paddle outing will require attention to safety in a number of areas that may escape the notice of a novice.
Note: The safety equipment is only helpful if you wear it, have it readily accessible, and know how to use it.
The most important safety item is the personal floatation device or PFD. Again, it only works properly if worn! Modern paddlesport PFD’s are much more comfortable and handy than the old fashioned bulky models of the past. There really is no excuse not to wear one. They allow freedom of movement for ease of paddling and have pockets for other essential small gear such as sunglasses, sun block lotion, safety whistle, cereal bars, maps and so on. Even a strong, experienced swimmer needs a PFD should they become injured or rendered unconscious during an upset.
i) Other critical safety items include a whistle, spare paddle, floating throw line and bailer.
ii) Every one in the expedition including children should know how to use the safety gear and know where it is stored!
iii) For a printable copy of a Progressive List of Safety Items to include in a Canoe Expedition, follow this link: Canoe Excursion Safety Checklist
The other key element to safety is visibility. Other boaters, especially power boaters, need to be able to see you to avoid collision. In event of an upset or other emergency, highly visible boats and PFD’s make it quicker and easier for rescuers to find you. It is highly recommended that your boat and PFD’s are made from bright, highly visible colours such as yellow, orange and red.
A paddle expedition should include a Float Plan. This is a detailed itinerary of your trip. It includes details such as where you are going, your intended paddle route, the number and names in your group, and when you intend to return. The float plan should be given to a competent adult. Thus, if you run into trouble and do not return on time, this person will inform the authorities and give them the important information in the float plan to help them find you quickly. No expedition should be started without first filing a float plan.
For a printable copy of a Paddle Expedition Float Plan, follow this link: Float Plan
Canoeing Experience and Ability
Never embark on a trip that is beyond your ability and level of experience. It is best to progressively expand your experience in graduated increments. Start out with an overnight trip. Then a few nights in an area with camping services. Then try a few nights in an area with fewer services and conveniences.
Likewise, gradually increase the level of paddling skills required in an expedition. Start out with short distances on small lakes and rivers with short portages between bodies of water and gradually take on more challenging distances and larger waters. Remember to take into account the geography of the area being portaged, the distances, the services available and the experience and athletic abilities of the other members of your group. Always plan according to the abilities of the most inexperienced member of your team.
Note: Do not travel alone in remote areas. An injury, sudden sickness, canoe upset or loss of gear could turn into a life threatening disaster if traveling alone in the wilderness.
Be aware of the water route. Know where there are dams and rapids; plan accordingly. Swift waters can appear suddenly and overwhelm inexperienced paddlers. Do not take risks! Only very experienced white water paddlers with proper gear, including helmets, should ever tackle rapids. Swift waters and whirlpools can occur near dams. Water conditions can suddenly change many kilometers upstream of a power dam if gates are opened by dam operators. Use a portage if available!
Note: Plan rest stops or areas to regroup and check the condition of equipment and people.
Plan Your Drinking Water
Pay lots of attention to drinking water when planning a paddle expedition. Paddling is an athletic activity and participants need to drink lots of water to avoid dehydration. On a short day trip or over-nighter, sufficient water for the duration can be carried along in containers. However, on a multi-day expedition it is more expedient to carry along some equipment to purify water.
Do not drink lake or river water without first treating it with some method of purification so as to avoid contracting Giardia or “Beaver Fever”. This is a nasty parasite that causes severe diarrhea and other very unpleasant symptoms that would ruin any expedition. Symptoms can last for weeks.
One of the best methods of water purification is to bring the water to a rolling boil. This will kill any organisms infecting the water. The boiled water can be allowed to cool and placed in sealed containers for later use. Be sure to prevent any particles such as leaf litter from falling into the water after it has been purified.
Another method of water treatment is the use of a mechanical filter of at least 1 micron efficiency. These must be cleaned, maintained and stored properly to maintain the efficiency of the filter.
Finally, water can be chemically treated with chlorine or iodine to purify it. This method sometimes results in an after-taste that is disagreeable to many people. The chemical agents must be added to the water in the proper quantity and must be left for a certain amount of time (usually several hours) to be effective.
Canoe Expedition Food Safety and Planning
Pack sufficient food for the duration of the entire expedition. Do not depend upon fishing, foraging or hunting to supply you with food during your trip. Doing so is a recipe for disaster. Remember that paddling is a very athletic activity and you will need more calories than you normally consume. Pack high energy foods such as nuts, trail mix, candy, cereal bars, and energy bars.
Pack only foods that will not spoil. This means that foods requiring refrigeration are not appropriate. They will quickly spoil and cause food poisoning. Use dried foods, canned foods, and vacuum packed foods. Be sure to pack the foodstuffs in dry bags so that they will not be spoiled if they get wet.
i) Plan a menu for each day of your trip and pack the foods for each day together. Stick to the menu so you will not run short of food.
ii) Remember to pack food seasonings such as salt and pepper to improve the taste. These are usually light weight and do not take up much space anyway.
iii) Pack a little extra food just in case you under estimate your consumption or are delayed on your return to civilization.
It is often best to pack a small gas powered camp stove. A camp stove is quicker and easier to get started than a fire especially in damp weather. They save time used in collecting and chopping firewood and building a suitable cook fire. Furthermore, in many areas open fires are banned either because of the risk of forest fires or to minimize the impact on the environment caused by collecting firewood. Be sure to check first before heading out regarding camp fire restrictions.
Note: If you take a camp stove be sure to pack a spare fuel cylinder.
Canoe Expedition Clothing
Plan for hot and cold, wind and rain. Where appropriate outdoor clothing for the area you will be visiting. Check the weather statistics before hand for the expected temperatures including the night time lows. Pack accordingly.
Plan for rain even if it is not in the forecast. Include rain gear for your legs, torso, and head. Bring a tarp to cover your gear that is stored in the canoe. Bring another large tarp to suspend over the tent.
Plan for bugs. Pack a hat with a mosquito net. This will save you much frustration and anger when dealing with mosquitoes, black flies and deer flies. Be sure to pack bug repellent.
Plan for long term sun exposure. Pack a wide brimmed hat that will protect your ears, eyes and forehead. Wear sunglasses and pack a spare set. Pack high Spf sun block lotion and use it. Sun burn can ruin an expedition and make paddling agony.
Wear good, solid footwear suitable for canoeing and hiking. Many experienced paddlers have a set of footwear for use in the canoe and on the beach and another dry pair for portaging, hiking and around the camp. The canoe footgear should be comfortable when wet and dry quickly. Often a pair of rubber sandals is best.
On a short expedition of only a few days you can pack all the clothes you will need. On a longer expedition you should plan to be able to wash your clothes during the trip. For this reason, the amount of clothes packed on a long expedition is often much less than that packed for a short trip. However, you will need to pack some environmentally friendly detergent and a container for washing clothes. This container can usually be a multi-use unit that doubles as a cargo carrier. Pack only quick drying clothes such as wool or synthetics. Outdoor outfitter shops often have an excellent selection of quick drying, easy to wash clothing.
Note: Be careful when paddling in cold weather as hypothermia can quickly set in. Be especially alert to hypothermia if you fall into the water or get wet from rain. Stop and change into dry clothes. Learn how to treat hypothermia.
Always prepare for the worst especially if paddling in the spring or fall as weather conditions can change significantly. Even if the weather forecast is good, keep in mind that the temperature out on the water is always colder and winds are usually stronger than onshore. Watch for sudden changes in the wind direction or rapid changes in the temperature as these are strong indicators of a storm brewing.
Make wise choices that lean towards safety and security. The further you are from civilization and the bigger the water, the more you should lean towards safety. Keep in mind the capabilities of the least experienced member of your group. Remember to factor in the time to completely set up camp.
Stay together as a group; there is safety in numbers. If anyone leaves the group for any reason, they should advise the group leader that they are going, how long they will be gone, and when they will return.
If you get separated from the group, fall behind, have an emergency, or need to stop, use your whistle to attract the attention of the others in your group. One whistle blast means “Pay Attention” or “Hey! Look at me”. Two whistle blows means “Everybody gather together” or “Group meeting”. Three consecutive whistle blasts means “Emergency” or “I need urgent help now. Come help me quick”.
Note: Everyone in the expedition group including children should know these signals and have their own whistle to be able to sound these calls.
An expedition is an opportunity to train lesser experienced paddlers. More experienced paddlers can teach the newbies all their skills. Show them why things are done the way they are done. Train them in safety procedures. This will make the trip more interesting for the newer ones as well as make them better and more capable paddle companions for future trips.
The expedition should have a leader. This person should be the most experienced paddler or camper in the group. Everyone should agree before hand who this person is and agree to follow their instructions especially in an emergency. The group leader should be kept informed of any changes or problems, especially safety issues. If you sign up for an organized expedition, you are indicating your willingness to follow the instructions and guidance of the expedition leader.
Usually the group leader, or someone designated by him, will be navigating and closely following the group’s progress, determining rest stops and selecting camp sites. At the same time, every one in the group should be kept informed of where they are, where they are going, and what is expected of them. This is not just a courtesy but also a safety issue should some become separated from the group.
Note: 2-Way radios are an excellent means of maintaining communications especially if the group is separated or stronger paddlers are sent ahead scouting for the group. Spare batteries should be packed in water tight containers.
Follow existing trails and portages. Do not wander away from the group; it is very easy to get lost in the woods. Keep your whistle with you at all times and do not be afraid to use it. Take a flash light with you if you leave the immediate camp site area at light. This will help guide you, prevent trips and falls, and help you to be seen if you become lost.
Usually the group leader, or someone designated by him, will have the first aid kit. Everyone should, however, know where it is kept. They should inform the leader of any medical issues and any medical supplies used. Each person should keep any personal medications with them. They should be kept in containers that are water tight.
Camping and Camp Site Planning
Your trip planning should include a number of suitable camp sites for each day including alternate sites should the primary site prove unsuitable or unavailable. Many factors can cause a site to be unsuitable: Wildlife such as bears will make a camp site unsafe; forest fire or wind damage will result in no shelter or fallen trees covering the campsite; you may find the site occupied by other campers.
The camp sites selected along a paddle route should be spaced apart so that they are attainable by the least experienced paddlers in the group. The time between sites should include provision for portages, rest stops, preparing meals, time to set up camp for the night and provision for any unforeseen problems. Often the only way to know this timing well is through past experience on less challenging expeditions.
i) The camp site should be selected and laid out carefully with some forethought towards safety. Always plan the camp site with wind, water and wildlife in mind.
ii) Tents should be placed well away from the camp fire to prevent damage from the fire.
iii) Tents should be away from dead trees that could fall over in a wind.
iv) Tents should be on well drained ground away from hillside run off and away from any wildlife trails.
v) Where possible, it is best to use existing camp sites so as to minimize environmental impact.
Store your food items away from the camp so that any marauding wildlife will not be lured to join you in your tent. Although bears are the most dangerous, raccoons are probably the most prevalent, destructive, ingenious, and persistent; they are acrobatic, have voracious appetites and never sleep.
Animals are attracted by the smell of food and garbage. Keep the camp site and the area around it clean and odour free. Do not bury your garbage as animals will still smell it and dig it up. Then they will come looking for more. They will not take no for an answer. Garbage should therefore be burned or sealed in airtight plastic containers and carried out. Food stuffs should be stored in air tight plastic containers to prevent odours from escaping, and then they should be stored so that they will not be vandalized by wild life.
One method is to hang the food stuffs from a suitable tree away from the camp site. Suspend the food pack from a rope so that it is at least 3 metres (10 feet) above the ground, 2 metres (7 feet) out from the tree trunk, and 1.5 metres (5 feet) beneath the branch. It should be clear of other branches so that raccoons can not use these to reach the pack. Even so, the pack should be tightly sealed to prevent odours from escaping and to resist raccoon hands and teeth.
Another method is to place food stuffs in a tough, locked, sealed, pest resistant box or barrel that is firmly tied to a tree. Tying it to a tree will prevent it from being rolled or dragged away. This container should be strong enough to resist gnawing, chewing, clawing, and pulling by bears and raccoons.
Yet another method, and probably the best, is the over water method. In this technique, the food stuffs are stored in sealed containers and placed in a canoe that is tied firmly to a tree on shore and anchored so that it will stay well away from shore. The food items should be covered with a tarp and resting on a platform (perhaps some paddles or wood pieces) so as to prevent it from getting wet if it rains. Be sure that the canoe is firmly anchored and tied to shore so that a sudden storm will not carry it away, capsize it or run it ashore and damage the boat.
Items stored in the food packs should include all odourous items including some non-food items that might attract unwanted animal attention. These items include toiletry items such as deodorant, toothpaste, sunscreens, clothing soiled with food, used juice containers, used pots, utensils, and dishes, and any garbage.
Note: For convenience and safety more than one of the above methods can be used at the same time.
Camping is no place to ignore good personal and group hygiene. Poor hygiene can ruin a paddle expedition by causing unnecessary sickness. This can be very serious if it occurs away from civilization.
Wash your hands regularly. Always wash your hands after going to the toilet. Always wash your hands before eating and before handling and preparing food. Do not share wash water with others. Always use clean water and soap when washing. Wash dishes and utensils after they are used; only use clean dishes and utensils when preparing food.
i) Go to the toilet at last 15 metres (50 feet) away from the camp and water sources.
ii) Dispose of human excrement at least 15 metres (50 feet) away from water sources and the camp site. Dig a hole at least 15 cm (6 inches) square and deep. Cover it over after use.
iii) The expedition first aid kit should include items to deal with diarrhea and upset stomach.
Be very careful with spoilable food. Use the axiom: “When in doubt, do without.” In other words, if you suspect food has spoiled, do not use it. Cooking spoiled food will not make it safe. Dispose of it.
Ethical and Environmentally Friendly Camping
Practice minimum impact camping. This means that you leave the area you visit just the way you found it or even cleaner. It means enjoying nature without changing or disturbing its natural state.
Note: Using existing camp sites, trails and portages will minimize the damage to vegetation and wildlife habitat.
Use a camp stove if possible as these have a minimum impact on an area and have a minimum risk of forest fire. If you do make a camp fire, use only dead wood for your fire. Do not cut live trees for firewood. When foraging for fire wood, avoid trampling or damaging other vegetation. If you camp on a small island, gather your firewood off the island as this will save it from being trampled by repeated scavenging.
Note: Keep your fire small and use existing fire pits. If using a new camp site, remove evidence of your visit before leaving. This would include the fire pit.
Completely extinguish your fire before you leave. Repeatedly douse the fire with water. Stir the ashes to ensure all coals are extinguished. Remove all non-combustible items such as tin cans, foil wrappers, glass, and plastics, and carry them out with you. Do not burn plastic items and do not litter. Many parks have tightened regulations and restricted access because careless, thoughtless campers have left behind garbage or damaged the environment around camp sites.
Do not dig drainage ditches around your tent or camp ground. Do not dig new fire pits. Do not cut live trees and shrubs for tent poles or to make shelters. Avoid scarring the ground or vegetation.
Eat or burn left over food, or carry it out with you. Do not bury it near the camp site as this will attract unwelcome wildlife to the site and they will make life unpleasant for future visitors. If you bring it in, take it out with you. Leave nothing behind. If you did not take it in, leave it behind, where you found it, undisturbed. The only thing you should take out of the wilderness are pleasant memories and good experiences.
Do not wash dishes directly in a lake or river. When washing dishes, washing your body, brushing your teeth, or shaving, use a small water container and disperse it at least 15 metres (50 feet) away from any existing water sources and the camp site. Avoid damaging the ground cover when pouring out water.
Note: Do not use soap or detergents near or in a body of water. Even biodegradable soaps pollute the water and leave an unsightly trace.
Use park latrines and washrooms where possible. If none are available, dispose of human waste at least 15 metres (50 feet) away from water sources and the camp site. Dig a hole at least 15 cm (6 inches) square and deep for human excrement. Cover it over after use.
Enjoying Wild Life
Wild life should be seen and not contacted: do not approach wild animals; do not feed them; do not follow them; do not touch them; do not disturb their nests; do not handle their young. Take pictures and enjoy their sights and sounds.
Be especially wary of bears. Never approach a bear. If you see a bear, leave the area. If you see signs of a bear, such as bear feces or large claw marks, leave the area. Stay in a group of at least four people, as bears will never attack a group of people. If a bear approaches, make a lot of noise, make yourself appear larger, back out of the area. Always allow the bear to have an escape route.
i) Other large animals can be dangerous although they may look harmless. They are especially dangerous if they are with their young or feel trapped or threatened.
ii) Although raccoons may seem small, harmless, cute, and funny looking, they will bite and claw. Do not approach them. Do not feed them or you will regret it.
iii) Moose harm more people each year in Ontario than bears, who knew?
Check The Park Regulations Before Heading Out
Check for specific park regulations before setting out on your expedition. Park regulations vary from park to park, from year to year, and from season to season. Many parks are enacting new regulations to make visits more friendly and less invasive. New regulations may prohibit building camp fires or bringing glass or metal cans into the interior of the park.
Respect the private property of land owners adjacent to paddle routes and camp sites. Always ask for permission before camping on private land. Then leave the site in pristine condition. If you abuse your privileges, the land owner will not extend these to others in the future.
Canoe Expedition Gear
Many of the items necessary for a successful and enjoyable paddle expedition mentioned above can be found at our on water paddlesport showroom, or they can be purchased online through our paddlesport gear website: Kayak and Canoe Gear
For a printable copy of an Exhaustive List of Camping and Canoeing Items to include in a Canoe Expedition, follow this link: Canoe Kayak Camping Checklist
We hope you enjoyed this article. Should you have any suggestions or changes to improve it, please call 613.376.6220 or email [email protected]
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