How do you plan a paddling adventure?

This coming weekend, I get to be a bachelor again as my wife and daughters go on a girls-only weekend vacation. I plan to spend the weekend getting in some quality paddling. I’m very, VERY new at all this paddling stuff, but I’m very excited to get out on the water and want to make sure I do it all as safe as possible, while still having a great time, of course.

I will be solo kayaking on slow, calm waterways here in the north/west Chicago suburbs. I plan on doing some day paddling on the Fox River one day and probably another day on some other local, small lake. My question is other than looking up put-in locations on the Launch Sites Map here and trying to search for trip reports specific to the waterways you’ll be paddling, how else do you plan your paddling adventures? What specific resources do you consult? Where do you go to study the specific waterways and plan your route? How do you find out the distance of your planned route and how long it should take you to paddle the route? How do you find out if the route is appropriate for your particular skill level? How do you plan your clothing for the outing? Where can I find out what kind of clothing is appropriate/required for specific types of weather out on the water? And once you have all the necessary route and safety planning taken care of, what else do you do to make sure that the excursion is going to be fun and enjoyable?

Sorry for all the newbie questions, but I just want to make sure I’m safe while on the water. And I want to make sure I have the most enjoyable time, as well!

Forgot to mention…
My specific paddling plans for this coming weekend. I’d like to spend several hours on the Fox River on Saturday, and then several hours on Sunday at a small, calm lake somewhere. I haven’t exactly decided where for Sunday; so that’s still up in the air. If Saturday on the Fox goes really well, I may just end up going back and doing another section of the Fox on Sunday. It all depends. I just need to figure out how to read the river and what sections are appropriate for beginners such as myself. I don’t want to just put in anywhere and find out halfway into my excursion that I made a really poor decision on where to paddle.

All my paddling this weekend will be recreational day-tripping only. I’m not doing any camping or multi-day paddling here. I haven’t quite reached that level yet. I just plan to slowly meander up and down my route relaxing and taking in all that nature has to offer. I will be putting in and taking out from the same point as I do not have anyone to shuttle me back to my car.

I use…
Google maps and its distance tool to determine how far I want to paddle. I also look for paddling blogs, club or park information on a given area also. I bring snacks, lunch and plenty of water. For safety gear, cell phone, paddle float, pump, gorilla tape and of course PDF. I bring a GoPro to video the trip and post to my Youtube channel to show friends and family, and a reference for others to use. I dress for the weather and bring foul weather gear appropriate for the time of year. I use a large deck bag to keep things I need to get to quickly if needed. I let my wife know where I’m going and leave a map up on the computer.


consider joining a club
It is a bit late for this weekend, but there are a ton of paddling clubs in northern Illinois. This page gives a list:

By becoming a member of a local paddling community you will be made aware of many paddling venues in your area that you might otherwise never come across. You will meet local paddlers that can make for safer boating opportunities and facilitate shuttling. And you will come in contact with more experienced boaters from whom you can solicit advice.

Paddle planning
Where do you go to study the specific waterways and plan your route?

  • check weather: eg, and don’t forget the wind (for me, 15mph or less)
  • check water flow (especially rivers):, then compare those water levels with minimal/best/maximal levels obtained from experience or guide books.

    How do you find out the distance of your planned route and how long it should take you to paddle the route?
  • distance: use the distance measuring tool of a mapping website (eg Google maps), Google Earth, or mapping software like Garmin Basecamp.
  • how long: time yourself on outings to find out your personal speed. When going out for the first couple of times, start conservatively and figure 2-3 miles/hour.

    How do you find out if the route is appropriate for your particular skill level?
  • find printed or online river or lake guides that will provide information about a body of water, including hazards, portages, and minimal/maximum water flow levels. Talk to other paddlers who are familiar with the location.

    How do you plan your clothing for the outing?
  • use common sense (layering, wide brim hat for sun, rain jacket for rain) and dress for immersion. Prefer quick-drying moisture-wicking (non-cotton) garments unless you want to use evaporative cooling. Get some water shoes with toe protection and good soles for walking and wading if you plan on running rivers.

    Where can I find out what kind of clothing is appropriate/required for specific types of weather out on the water?
  • the Internet, including this site, or your local paddling shop.

    And once you have all the necessary route and safety planning taken care of, what else do you do to make sure that the excursion is going to be fun and enjoyable?
  • tell others where you are going
  • tie in and waterproof the gear you want to keep
  • take a GPS and phone, maybe a headlamp

Paddling guide books
There are paddling guides available for every state in the Union. Here’s just one I found listed for Illinois:

I have found canoe guides invaluable in trip planning. The one I use most in my state (“Paddling Pennsylvania”) lists dozens of waterways and lakes, with maps showing access points, point to point distances, the relevant gauges and recommendations for the right range of water levels for safe paddling, description of water conditions (flat water or what class of whitewater) and ranking from beginner to expert.

Whenever we take a trip, we record what the water level was that day and any notations on the experience in the book for future reference.

Right on! Why re-invent the wheel?
I have tons of guidebooks, and there are additional guides on the internet.

But I also do a lot of exploring. I use Google Earth to scout for trees in the river, access conditions, rapids, etc. My exploration accounts have appeared as fragments in Georgia guidebooks.

Paddling info
Look around on the internet. There are tons of sites. I have a library of paddling guides like most people to find out gradients, rapid ratings, hydrographs, put in and take locations, etc. The USGS is the best source for flow info.

Joining a club is a great idea. Practice rescues, wear a PFD and dress for immersion. Paddling solo is not such a great idea for a newbie.

Info on clothing and other stuff
Chicago and upstate NY have similar issues there. Below is a page on how to dress, along with a bunch of other stuff, from Atlantic Kayak Tours in the Hudson Valley, NY.

Note - you may not like some of the answers depending on how late into the winter you want to paddle. It can get pricey.

Also pay careful attention to the sections of rescue/self-rescue. If you are paddling solo, being able to do that on the water is huge.

Wow, such awesome responses and advice!
Thank you to everyone that has responded so far. I am loving all the info and the resources you are providing. Please keep it coming. More. MORE!!!

Yes, I understand that paddling solo is not ideal (especially for a beginner), but when it’s your only option, what else do you do? I’ve asked all my friends who paddle, but none of them are available this weekend. I would join a paddling club to meet other members and see if I can hook up with anyone for a paddle this weekend (and I FULLY intend to do so), but all the local paddling clubs I’ve found only use snail mail to register a membership; nothing electronic. So, I don’t think I’d get a membership and account access in time for this weekend. My membership will be perfect for planning future trips, though! I’m even reaching out to other residents in my subdivision to see if anyone paddles and would be interested in joining me this weekend. I’m in the process of creating a Facebook paddling group specific to our subdivision. But I haven’t received any input yet.

Trust me, I’d rather paddle with others this weekend, but if I can’t find anyone to join me, I don’t want to just sit around at home all by myself all weekend. So, I will try and take every precaution I possibly can to make sure I have a safe and enjoyable solo excursion if that’s what it comes down to. If anything, I may nix my river paddling intentions and just stick with a small, calm lake somewhere for the whole of the weekend. Although, I’m sure there have to be sections of the Fox River that are perfectly acceptable for beginner paddlers. Hence the reason I am looking for resources and guidebooks and such.

Speaking of guidebooks, I’d LOVE to get that “Paddling Illinois” guidebook that was linked in a previous post. However, it is only available in print form and is quite expensive. I don’t know that I would be able to find a copy locally in time for this coming weekend. I could order it online, but prices range anywhere from $20 for a heavily-used copy of the old edition up to $140+ for a new copy of the latest revision. Are there any electronic/digital guidebooks that anyone is familiar with? Or websites where you can get access to online guides? Maybe something membership based?

Try a book store
Finding a copy of that paddling guide in time for this weekend should be easy if you live in the Chicago suburbs. Any major book store is likely to have it, or something similar. Maybe call them first to find out.

Thank you, Celia!
That is a treasure trove of kayaking info, not just on clothing and such!

Already on the prowl…
Thanks, GuideBoatGuy. Already have feelers out.

The bigger ones I have
helped plan have been as much about logistics as the trip itself.

As a solo or with just the family on a lake, it is a matter of tossing the boats in the truck and getting out of the water before all of the late risers show up.

Ones where I was going downriver, I had a plan for a ride back up. I try to make sure that I am not getting in over my head, literally and figuratively, and stick to what I know, or can see without floating it.

Questions to ask;

If you are going to do a trip on a river, how do you get back to your car?

Do your skills match the water you are going on?

Are you confident that if you go over, your out of boat skills match the water?

Am I going to stop for a breakfast that the wife would be mad at me for eating before I start, or get a lunch that ends at a DQ after?

Found a group!
After some more research online, I found a local paddling group on They have a guided kayak tour and lesson event this Saturday. I became a member and RSVP’d for the event. So, now I will have a group to go out and paddle with during an event that is very much geared to beginner paddlers. I will even be able to learn and practice basic kayaking maneuvers. Now I’m even more excited to get out on the water this weekend!


I’m from the same area, and often in a similar boat regarding paddling solo. I recognize the risk, but it is better than staying home. I’d offer to join you this weekend, but I’ll be out of the country.

That said, I would not choose the Fox in your situation. Especially not this weekend, which is going to be one of the last warm ones of the year, and every yahoo with a motor boat will be out one last time. In your shoes, I would be on a smaller river, like the Des Plaines or Kishwaukee (never been on that one personally).

For a small calm lake, check out Busse Lake. A very nice option right in the suburbs. Skokie Lagoons are even better, actually, but less conveniently located.

As far as planning, to my outsider’s opinion, kayakers seem charmingly old-school. They rely on things called ‘books’ and like postal mail, as you’ve found :wink: Except this site, which has tons of useful information under the ‘Go Paddling’ tab. I also use GoogleEarth to scout launches, look for dams, and estimate mileage. Another site with much useful information for this area is

Weather around here changes a lot and fast. Just this weekend, I was just over the border in Wisconsin… and I was overdressed and too hot on Saturday, and underdressed on Sunday when it got far cooler. I am going to start keeping a bag packed with a variety of clothes that I can always throw in with the boat, and always have options.

Have fun.

My Basics
What’s the weather prediction? I tend to paddle into the wind going out then get a free push back. Same with current. Upstream going out; downstream to get back.

Take plenty of food and water. Thou shalt not bonk. A cell phone in a waterproof case is smart.

Tell mama where to tell the authorities to look for your body if you don’t come back. It’s a joke! Sort of.

When you’re a brand spankin’ new paddler always keep this in mind: What would I do if I tipped over right here?

cliff note version—planning.
Get an idea where you want to go, see, do etc?

Google the river…plenty of videos of the area already out there.

Google Earth it…see if from above…a great was to see potential camps…i used this to island hop for a month down the coast of thailand kayaking.

Research google to see if there are guidebooks out there.

Google to see if there is a message forum for the canoe route… Canadian Canoe Routes has a huge forum. SO does here. BWCA also has their own.

See if there is a Facebook site for it…may canoe clubs and river trails have their own facebook site. On there, should be many people who have done the route.

Get gear

Plan meals

get maps,

just go!

Google Images
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On weather refer to WeatherUnderground.

WU’s daily forecast carries a link access to last years weather for your event days in daily/weekly/month format