Preparing for a Wilderness Canoe Trip




Introduction: Preparing for a Wilderness Canoe Trip

About: Retired software engineer. Like the outdoors, canoeing, camping, hunting and fishing. I’ve built 3 cedar strip canoes and 2 cedar strip kayaks and use all of them. I built 3 acoustic guitars and play all of th…

My first canoe camping trip was more like the world’s strongest man competition than a camping trip. We packed tons of food, gas stoves, gas lanterns, more clothing than needed, heavy tents, camping chairs, children and dogs into heavy rented canoes and paddled to a remote campsite. Portaging was impossible.

After almost 20 canoe camping trips I now know what I NEED to pack.

for more info, see:

Step 1: Load Carrying Capacity

Even if you want to bring all the gear and clothing you own or empty the pantry and kitchen for some wilderness gourmet cuisine you will be limited by the load carrying capacity of your canoe. Overloading can be dangerous. Stacking a heaping mound of gear between the gunnels of the canoe can raise the center of gravity and make it tippy.

My cedar strip canoe has a maximum load in the “optimum” range of 450lbs. So with 2 paddlers of about 160 lbs each, 2 canoe seats about 5lbs, 2 PFD about 5lbs, two paddles about 5lbs, that only leaves about 105lbs total for gear. I found that carrying about 50lbs of gear per paddler, for a one week trip, is on the lighter side but is a good goal.

Step 2: Number and Difficulty of Portages

If you do not plan to portage your canoe and gear, then, hey load it up. Portages can slow you down and depending on heat, insects and trail conditions, can be quite miserable. I usually double portage, which means to get the canoe and all my gear to the end of the trail, I walk it 3 times.

You will also want to have your gear organized into packs that are easy to carry, usually means shoulder straps, so that you are not stumbling and fumbling dropping things along the way.

Step 3: Length of Trip – Number of Days

The amount of “stuff” you take is obviously tied to the number of days you will camp. Food can make a major contribution to weight. Meals should be planned carefully, I usually have a tendency to overestimate the amount of food we need. I plan each meal and pack only what is necessary for that meal.

If you carry a cook stove, estimate the amount of fuel you need. If you don’t already know about how much fuel you need from practical experience, you can estimate by timing how long it takes to bring a small pot of water to a boil.

I sometimes pack too much clothing. I often camp during the time of year and in locations where there maybe snow or heat waves. I’ve experienced both. The advice to layer applies here, so does thinking about multiple use. A packable rain jacket over a fleece jacket and long sleeved synthetic T-shirt can keep you quite warm. Zip-off pants that convert to shorts are a favorite of mine. One complete change of clothing is necessary.

Step 4: Weather

Obviously you will be exposed for several days, rain gear, hooded jacket and pants, is essential. Purchase the best you can afford. Avoid the heavy stuff unless you plan to follow a crab boat into the Bering Sea. The term “packable” will usually indicate it is lightweight and durable. I bring a knit hat for cold weather and a ball cap for warm. Neoprene gloves can be nice if it turns cold since your hands may likely get wet. The cold weather rating of your sleeping back is something to consider. I have one that is rated for 20F.

Step 5: Pace – Fast & Furious or Slow and Leisurely

If you are not in a race, or a competition, or trying to prove something, then take your time. You can afford to pack a little more if you can afford to take more time to carry it and can afford to paddle a little slower. Add a luxury item or two. I have a 3” self-inflating mattress pad that adds a few pounds but feels so much better at the end of a hard day than sleeping on the ground.

Step 6: Tolerance for Discomfort

If you have a high tolerance for discomfort then you can minimize the gear you bring. If you can tolerate sleeping on the hard ground then leave the extra mattress pad at home. If you can tolerate damp clothing or wet shoes for a week then leave the spare pair of shoes at home along with the extra clothing. If you can tolerate eating only MREs or meals that can be prepared with boiling water then leave your cookware at home. If you can tolerate eating only cold meals then leave your stove at home. If you can survive on minimal food, then just bring a pack of saltines and a fishing rod.

Step 7: Physical Condition

If you are in great condition you can carry more, travel faster and longer, and in general do more. Come with me on my next trip, I could use you. I am 5’8”, 170ish pounds, and well over forty. I find a portage pack that is over 70 pounds is too much. About 50 is right. A canoe that is over 60lbs is also too much. Shorter travel days are better for me, 4 – 8 hours works good, depending on weather and wind. No matter what shape you are in you need to carry loads that are light enough, travel slow enough and take enough breaks to avoid exhaustion. A serious injury in the remote wilderness is not good.

Step 8: Remoteness and Familiarity With Destination

If I am unfamiliar with the area I will be exploring or I suspect I won’t see another human for a week I tend to pack more stuff. Food for an extra unplanned day, more batteries for my flashlight and GPS, extra map incase the primary one is lost, extra clothing,extra paddle, more emergency survival gear(medical, signaling, fire starting, satellite phone). Try not to get too carried away, if the feeling of uncertainty creeps in. Think carefully about each additional item you pack and create scenarios in your head to imagine how you would use it.

Step 9: Packs

Packs should be waterproof or lined with a waterproof liner. We sometimes use the large canvas military surplus duffle bags with shoulder straps. Clothing and sleeping bags are double packed in heavy duty garbage bags before packing into the duffle. Framed backpacks should be avoided in favor of packs that can form to the shape of the hull. One larger pack and one smaller backpack/daypack per person seems to work well for me.

Step 10: Tricks to Reduce Volume/weight

partial cook kit – decide what you will need for cooking, leave the rest at home

accurate food calculations – plan and pre-measure portions, use individual ziplock bags for daily rations of trail mix

filling empty spaces – pack the coffee pot or water bottles with rope, clothing or granola bars, etc.,

evaluate each item – ask yourself if you really NEED it or REALLY want it, can you use something you’ve already packed in it’s place
If you fish, be practical about the tackle you bring. I ALWAYS bring too much, and most of the wieght is due to lead jig heads! For starters a good rule would be to lay out what you want to bring than take 1/2 of it.

If you plan to cook a lot, learn to cook over an open fire.

Step 11: Packing List

My Packing List - bold items are my essentials



FRS radios
medical kit
spare batteries
sleeping bag
sleeping pad
life jackets
canoe seats
bungee cord
para cord
duck tape
insect repellent

chap stick
reading glasses
ball cap
head net
knit hat
spare shoes
water filter
water jug
mess kit
serving spoon
coffee pot
coffee cups
aluminum foil
stoves & fuel
spare garbage bag
spare zip lock
paper towel - mix with meal pack
water bottles
spare rod/reel
spare line
spare rod tips
rod holder

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    5 years ago

    what's the trowel for?


    Reply 5 years ago

    In Quetico Provincal Park, where i usually take my trips, digging a small hole for #2 is required. They now suggest burning in your capfire. Haven't bought into that one yet.


    7 years ago on Introduction

    From what I witnessed in Algonquin PP, it's not advisable to portage a canoe while loaded. Even a short hump between lakes with a loaded canoe risks damaging the hull, esp if the canoe is dropped on or dragged across rocks. ALWAYS unload your canoe before any portage, no matter how short....


    Reply 7 years ago

    correct! perhaps in one photo it looks as if the canoe is was not. it had a small backpack in it. usually we have one person carry the canoe on their shoulders but that particular portage had many low branches so we opted for a two person hand carry.


    7 years ago

    Those pictures if I'm not mistaken are of the boundary lakes between Minnesota and Canada. The Boy Scout northern tier high adventure base is up there where I went when I was 14 and that looks just like what I saw. Am I right about the location?


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    you are correct. Most are from the Quetico Provincial Park side


    9 years ago on Introduction

    Also, depending on where you are going, a machete can be very helpful for the whole group.

    A few years ago we went on a trip after a major storm had passed in the area (we didn't know about it), every trail was filled with fallen trees. Our machetes litteraly made the trip possible.


    9 years ago on Introduction

    Your back pack doesn't need to by water proof, but everything you want dry should be in a dry bag. You can buy them at any outdoors shop, it's way better than some garbage bags and not very expensive.

    I usually have a huge one for the main pouch in my back pack, with my sleeping bag, clothes, etc in it, and a few small one for misc stuff, like matches, toilet paper and the like.

    This is the kind of stuff I'm talking about

    camping crazy

    Nice instructable!!! That is sooo true about the first canoe trip you always end up with more than you need!!!!!


    9 years ago on Introduction

    I only went canoe camping once when I was much younger. I suppose it is fair to say that my tolerance for pain was higher then. I didn't even bring a sleeping bag. After that we brought power boats.

    My list, and methods are similar to yours, with some style differences. For instance I always camp with a campaign hat, not a ball cap. I like more brim. Instead of spare shoes I'll bring something I can walk around camp with. Some lightweight slides are sufficient camp mocs for me.