7 Most Common Mistakes of Wilderness Canoiests

Canoe tripping is my thing. It’s the main reason I own canoes.
Cliff Jacobson is probably the closest thing I have to a canoe Guru.
So when paddling.com sent me this article I, naturally, took interest.
Here are the seven mistakes and my own comments on them.
1- Not scouting ahead. I usually avoid rivers with rapids, partly because they usually require you put your name into a lottery. I always try to talk to whatever government body is in charge of the section of river I’m floating and ask them if there is anything new I need to know about.
2- Leaving an unsecured canoe. Wow, yes! I was taking some friends down the Green River in Utah and one morning I got up and went to check on the canoes and one was missing. Two of my friends hadn’t pulled their canoe up far enough and the river came up during the night. Luckily, there was a group doing invasive minnow removal and they were camped, with a motorized Jon boat, within walking distance. It was amazing how far the canoe had floated. We, finally, came around a bend and there it was, floating right side up, in the middle of the river.
3- Rushing the Journey. I try to allow plenty of time, but I have to say I’m pretty determined to do what I set out to do. That has bit me in the behind once or twice.
4- Paddling with an unzipped PFD. What about not wearing one at all. It’s hard to force adults to do what they don’t want to. I think, in the future, I’m going to have people sign something promising to wear their PFD.
5- Over loading the canoe. Boy oh boy! When my brother and I paddled together, we tried to keep all the gear below the gunnels. But I have some crazy pictures. Even of my own canoe. A couple times I’ve had a friend of a friend as my partner, and my friend thought it was funny to tell them to bring everything but the kitchen sink.
6- Incompetent back ferry. Forward ferry is pretty useful too. I once had to cross the Missouri River without moving downstream. A back ferry would have been a real pain.
7- Too many loose items. My first couple canoe trips were with an outfitter and they taught me to tie everything to the canoe. Try to get as much as you can into your canoe packs… If little or nothing floats away, after a capsize, you’ve done your job.


I see 4,5 and 7 so often. I always try and instill in my kids when tripping how dangerous it is even if you are only a few feet from shore. Of course you have to lead by example which is harder said than done sometimes. 7 was something I used to be so guilty of. Before I could afford decent gear I used to just use (and still do sometimes) a trusty 5 gallon pail with lid attached to the thwarts.

Not packing watertight, and/or, not RE-packing watertight.
To have everything watertight after planning and getting on the water the first time is easy. Repacking on day 3 takes thought.

Not knowing how to make actual meals on your cooking gear.
Can you exist on oodles of noodles? Yes. It doesnt take a lot of effort to make real food that will fuel you and make the trip enjoyable.

Not pre testing your gear.
You have a new tent? Great. It needs to be staked and you are spending the night on a platform. you need to know that and have a plan. New stove? how much fuel does it use?

Not knowing or having a real good idea of what the area is before you go.
Its great to say “we will camp at XX” Well, XX is full, can you rough camp or do you only have the stuff to camp at a campground with a toilet and fire rings?

Interesting read. I’ve been doing some trips in the kayak and wanting to be out longer is why I decided that a canoe was the way to go and added a couple of them to my fleet last year.
Scouting and knowing what to expect is huge, not over packing for the boat is the very reason I’ve added canoes to the boats I have.
Having to draw for an area with rapids ( or any area ) is odd to me. In the Northwest for the most part public land is just open, although I am going to look into what it takes and what’s available for Glacier and Yellowstone parks. I assume those take some serious mother may I and come with lots of restrictions.

Varmintmist makes an excellent point here, and a fine addition to Cliff Jacobson’s list. A couple examples from my own experience - and not necessarily only in “wilderness.”
Part of the beauty of this paddling sport, perhaps the biggest part, is that it takes us to places that we wouldn’t ordinarily experience. On one of my very early trips with the Ozark Rendezvous group we camped at a campground on the banks of the Current river (as we have many many times since). One night before turning in I decided to make a pit stop at the campground facilities. The john was lit and there was a blacktop road, maybe 100 yds long, leading to it. I’m a big boy, not afraid of the dark, knew where my tent was and could see the light at my destination. So I went there, leaving my headlamp at camp. I competent enough to follow a paved road for 100 yds in the dark, no biggie. There were some twigs I could just make out on the road, nothing unusual at any campground. So I went , came back, slept like a baby. The next morning I was having morning coffee with some of the others and it was mentioned that everyone but me had noticed the unusually large number of copperheads warming themselves on the blacktop going up to the john that night. I’m thinking I made a mistake and was lucky to get away with it. Its not something a northern guy thinks about - but I wasn’t in the north. Didn’t have as good an idea of the area as I should have.

Another example ties in with Jacobson’s mistake #2. Paddling a western river is a really big deal for me - several days drive, nonstop scenery that anyone could make a beautiful calendar from. But all the all plants were unfamiliar to me, most of the birds, too. Camping I was constantly on the lookout for scorpions, though I didn’t know when or where to expect them - and there are a bunch of different rattlesnakes, yet didn’t cowboys always sleep under the stars with their bed rolls? Surely being observant and cautious would be enough? Well, it was. Beautiful trip. On the last night we camped on a sandbar, just like I usually camp on on the Wisconsin and have for decades now. Beautiful calm night with the colors of sunset playing on the canyons and more stars than I though could exist. Not a cloud in the sky. We pulled the boats up at least half a dozen boat lengths from the water and I once again turned in without a rainfly on the tent, just staked lightly at the four corners - we hadn’t seen even a drop of dew, this is desert and ~4000 ft above sea level. About a half hour later the tent was hit with a gust of wind. Odd. Then another. In just a couple minutes it turned to a full force gale. The tent stakes popped. I had to hold the tent poles down spread eagled in the tent. Then a camp chair hit the tent, followed by a folding table. Out the mosquito netting I could see canoes starting to roll down the sandbar. And after less than a half hour it stopped as abruptly as it started. Not a cloud in the sky. Everyone was out in the moonlight in their underwear chasing down the bits and pieces of their camp stuff. Only one of us had secured their canoe (a sandbar - what’s to secure to?). That was DuluthMoose who had brought a dog tie out auger, and it held. Fortunately none of the other canoes were blown “out to sea”, but they sure weren’t where we’d left them. I think this properly qualifies as a mistake. I’ve gone through plenty of lollapoluza wind storms on sandbars, but always with a rain fly and 10 long stakes, not four short ones. I’ve done that because when I set camp in an area I’m familiar with, I knew a storm was coming. Previously I’d been a place where I had a real good idea of the area. And there still wasn’t a cloud in the sky. This was just upstream from Mineral Bottoms, our take-out. Just across the river from a spot on the map called Hell Roaring Canyon. I now suspect it wasn’t named for a flooding incident.

On the subject of scorpions, I have a good story.
On one desert trip, I took along extra drybags, on the shuttle, in case anyone needed one at the put in. When we’d get to camp, I’d take the dry bags and throw them out on the ground.
The day after getting back home, I took my car out for something, then, when I got back home I got out and opened the garage door and drove my car in. When I went to close the door, I noticed something crawling up the driveway. It was a very large scorpion. I surmised that it had crawled into one of the spare drybags and had crawled out in my car, then fell out when I opened my door.
So, we had driven all the way home with a scorpion crawling around in the car. Lesson learned.

Good to see even westerners can get surprised too. I hear its the little straw-colored ones that pack the bigger punch and they crawl under tent floors to surprise you when you’re packing the tent up in the morning. But being out of my area I never would have thought of that unless I’d been warned. I still haven’t a clue where they might be stumbled upon otherwise, and there’s a lot of “otherwise” possibilities. Can lead to mistakes. Finding you’d taken a long car ride with one, as you did, would surely be a shock.
Its like the copperheads - I knew they were around but, for inexperience in that particular environment, didn’t know where or when I was likely to encounter them. That’s the sort of thing that can happen to any of us when we get the opportunity to paddle in places that are really unique to us, but can lead us to make errors. Not a reason to stay home, mind you, but the opportunities to make mistakes increases. I’ve had the chance to paddle in Spanish Moss and cypress swamps also - and its the same situation. I’m just not familiar enough with the environment to adequately recognize what might be problematic, and how, and how fast, the weather in the area can change.
I rarely consider rockfall when setting camp, though looking back there are places I’ve camped where one should. Bet there are some among us who are more dialed in to that as well.

But folks who know those beautiful and complex environments well are just the sort who might come north, pitch camp in the middle of a blueberry patch, and be surprised when the black bears appear. As paddlers/campers we’re the products of the waters we’ve known and places we’ve camped - for better or sometimes perhaps for worse.
Varmintmist was wise to bring that point up.

Oh cool… I got called wise without the extra word :slight_smile:

Critters are one thing, weather is another.

I was thinking about the trip I took this spring. It was nice during the day, and called for 40-45 at night. I had considered only taking the 30 degree bag. Before I made the call, looked at the night time temps for the gorge we would be camping in and they were considerably lower, we slept in 28F reported and I think it may have been cooler where we were as I woke up to ice on the tent. I am glad I prepared by tossing in a fleece bag also. Using the fleece as a liner, everything but my nose was warm.

Planning for the perfect trip, and only the perfect trip, will make the trip a lot less than perfect most of the time.

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Perhaps you’ve tried this, but if you can toss a few of those chemical hand warmers in your bag with the raincoat, compass, etc. it can come in handy. Cheap, packs small, and it’ll help a lot on nights when it gets colder than you thought. Just activate them and toss them in the foot of the sleeping bag.

And that would be knowing your conditions. How you overcome them and or prep for the possibility is hand warmers or fleece bag.
In my case a fleece bag may have been enough if the temps were warmer, so I had 3 options. Fleece bag, 30 deg bag, or both.
Good idea though. I wonder if I can tape one to my nose. That would have been awesome. I had a knit hat, so the head was good.

For over 40 years we have done a mid winter backpacking trip often among some of the highest peaks in the Appalachian Mountains. Back in the seventies we would generally boil our water to purify it. On cold nights we would put a liter bottle of boiled water in the foot of our sleeping bags. We called it sleeping with Bottle Betsy. On really cold nights it might be a threesome with her cousin Bottle Betty.

I have long been in the habit of securing my boats or pulling them high above the high tide mark. On a first trip kayak camping on Lake Jocassee we were with someone who was familiar with the lake. He said we should secure our boats as they would pump water back into the lake each night when electric demand was low to use to generate electricity during the day. We were at least a foot above the current water level and Jocassee isn’t a small Lake. Someone whos name will remain unknown said no way will they raise the lake by over a foot in one night.

I am often the first up in the early morning. I went down to my boat to get something and saw his boat floating out in the middle of the cove we had camped in. the wind was picking up, and it was headed toward a long arm of the lake. When I came back to camp he was up, and I said he could use my kayak to retrieve his, when he hesitated responding I realized he had a fear of being in a cockpit and that is why he paddled a sit on top. So I said I would get his kayak for him. When I went back to my kayak his was out of sight having made it to the long arm of the lake. When I got out to where I could see it the wind had pushed it about a quarter of a mile already and it was making good time going down wind. After a much longer chase than I had anticipated I returned with it to camp. Here is a photo he took waiting at the shore for me to return. The plants you see in the water were on dry beach the evening before.

One more caution for your camp site location. Be aware of dead limbs and dead trees. Widow makers got their name for a reason.

Rivers can rise dramatically as well and have an annoying tendency to do so at night. When camped on sand bars or gravel bars there is sometimes a lack of anything substantial to tie boats to. But if a decent size piece of drift wood or a sizable rock can be found, one can tie their boat to that and then bury said object as a “deadman”. It is also a good idea to pull your boat up to a location higher than your tent. That way if the river does rise dramatically you will get wet and wake up before your boat floats off.

If there is no other option tie the boat to the tent.

I see two common mistakes, too much equipment and not enough skill.


I have addressed this on other topics, but if you are going out on a multi day wilderness type trip, depending on only your cell phone for GPS, communication and navigation and weather is not a good plan.

  1. You should have either a real GPS or a good compass and a map (and know how to use them). Or Both. Your GPS may still function even if you have no cell service, but the maps will not update so eventually you will be a dot on a blank screen. I plan each day and put prospective camp choices on both my paper and GPS map. I am upgrading to a MAP 66I this winter so that I can also send and receive texts.
  2. Get a small weather radio. I picked one up on Amazon for less than $20 to replace my 30 year old Realistic transistor model. It has a digital tuner and it can monitor for alerts, just like big one I have at home. I leave it on at night just in case.
  3. Leave a copy of your float plan at home. Someone at home , usually Mrs Paddlinpals, who has my trip plan, contact numbers for the local ranger station, outfitter and sherriff’s dept and we have check in times and if I overdue, a call gets made.

On the Yukon 1000 mile canoe race, during each “night” (It never really gets dark that time of year), race rules require a minimum of a six hour stopover to camp whereever we happened to be prior to 11PM. We of course pull our voyageur canoe high onto dry land, tying to something solid if possible, but not before emptying it of all food scraps, gear and trash of any kind that might have an odor to it. A 1000 pound grizzly bear deciding to take a walk in the canoe during he night could be disastrous a hundred miles from any village or assistance.

Not only do I have a complete set of maps for all portions of the Yukon races, I also carry a compass, and have plotted on my maps from Google Earth each turn point, shortcuts, and favored current around island passageways. All are displayed on dual GPS units (each showing a different data set) during the race. At home I have 'flown" GE video dozens of times on my path down the river and have memorized each critical turn and potential shortcut in and out of the main channel. Certain minimal critical gear (fire starters, signalers, a knife, mylar blanket, cash) is carried on each person within their always worn PFD in case of emergency. We have done very well in the race.

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Don’t you just love this about the information age!!

Learned to navigate in my teens. Learned to use a road map on family trips around 8. I have two compasses on me in the backcountry. Love marine charts and topo maps, and waterproof is a big plus.

For a long time I waterproofed my paper topo maps for hiking and canoeing by coating them with Thompson’s Water Seal. It not only makes them waterproof, it also makes them fairly tear resistant, dry or wet. Then I discovered that a can of waterproofing spray from Walmart works almost as well. I laid out 95 pages of computer paper printed maps of the Yukon on my garage floor sprayed them, and slipped them into plastic sleeves in a 3 ring binder. They have survived several Yukon race trips.

As an instructor of land navigation, I own a couple of dozen compasses but I will generally carry 3 compasses with me when traveling for recreation in the backcountry; one compass is my primary, a seond is my backup, and a third, as I once learned from an old guide, is to give away to some poor soul who doesn’t have one that works. I actually did that on the mountain trails in Korea as a gift to a fellow I met who helped me decide on which trail to take for the best viewing experience. Rarely do I carry a GPS on recreational trips because I don’t need it and have more fun and can better build skills without reliance on the thing.

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Is ct dead?