Planning a Canoe Camping Trip

I am the editor for my local club’s newsletter, so I’m always writing stuff that I might be able to use. My latest is on planning a canoe camping trip.

I debated whether I should call it planning a “wilderness” trip, but I lot of the stuff that we do around here isn’t exactly wilderness, so I went with canoe camping. It is a pretty good outline of what we usually do, but I’d be interested in what others do. What types of trips do you do, and what are the critical things that you think about when planning a trip.

I would talk less about the camping part and more about logistice such as shuttles, staying together, how to share camp duties, and emphasize safety. Most people that are interested in a canoe trip know how to camp. What is new are logistics, paddling, sharing duties and on the water safety. Good luck. I have been leading trips for 50 years.

1 Like

Nice basic write up. Good for a beginner. Not at all how I do it but it is probably what I should do. You really eamphasized planning ahead which is probably the smart thing to do but actually I’m pretty lax about a lot of that. Sometimes when I have the rv I have to really plan out the rv campsites out ahead of time (reservations). Mostly though I excel at winging it, suffering needlessly and liking it.

What critical things do I think about? Are permits required, special rules, access, parking, campsite availability? Shuttles, Time of year (weather, water levels, bugs, crowds) type of boat, distance, and difficulty (portages, ww, wind) and water treatment.

The people aspect and the camping isn’t a big deal to me. Can I do the trip with what I already have? How much is it going to cost? How dangerous is it?

On my last paddling trip, I used social media and met up with folks (even folks from this forum that I hadn’t met before) for day trips, and just did whatever they wanted to do, That’s about as loose as it gets. I didn’t overnight on the water but had the basics with me to do it had folks wanted to do that. One of these days PJC and I will hit up the Wisconsin River. He tried to entice me on this last trip. Big wide rivers and wind and sandbars will have to wait for another time but I loved his passion about it so we’ll make it happen at some point.

Overnights in a kayak are simple. You just can’t take much stuff- so you just prioritize like you would backpacking. If it don’t fit, it don’t go ,or you get rid of something else so that it can fit.

Trip planning can be its own joy but it can also prevent you for just getting out there and making it happen.

You need food, water, and shelter. If you are boating then you need a boat and a paddle and a pfd. Everything else is extra. Flexability and adaptability are just as important as trip planning to me.

I agree Ppine. I have been leading extended day river camping trips for a long time as well and other than advising folks not to overload on gear and possibly some loading advice, logistics and safety are priority 1. At times we have as many as 30 paddlers on some of the more popular trips, so making sure we have the shuttle well planned and assigning point , sweep and mid pack experienced and rescue trained paddlers to keep an eye on everyone. Plus, we always have people carrying first aid supplies and rescue gear, GPS (several now have In Reach), weather radios, maps, etc… We are also starting a program to train new leaders and coordinators and make sure that our years of information and experience gets passed along. We also rate our trips by difficulty level and encourage new paddlers to start out with an over nighter to make sure they have the right gear, skills and stamina before trying longer trips.

1 Like

You’re right - it is more about camping and less about safety. In my club, the folks expressing an interest in canoe/kayak camping are mostly experience paddlers who are less experienced campers. Point taken though - safety and logistics are critical.

I guess I was also thinking that safety on a canoe/kayak camping trip is just like safety on any other type of trip - know the conditions (recognizing that conditions can change quickly), know your group, know your skills and resources, and plan accordingly. One huge difference could be the remoteness of the location, which is hours or days away from potential help. In remote locations you definitely need to take extra precautions just in case.

Once you get into this you realize that there is so much that you need to know. I guess that is why where are books on the topic. Great idea to do training for wilderness leaders, and start people off on easier trips.

On overnight trips I like to work on safety. We get people in the water swimming easy rapids, throwing rescue lines to swimmers, capsizing boats, and practicing rescues. Those are the most important skills to learn.

The second most important are the people skills making sure people can get along. I see a lot of ego in some people, especially as they age. Some people are used to being competent and they can get their feathers ruffled by participating in an activity they are not good at. Pairing people in a tandem boat takes some experience. I tell people that canoeing is a group sport. You have to look out for your fellow paddlers, cooperate in camp, wait for people on the river. That kind of stuff. Some people readily think about the group. Some are only capable of thinking of themselves.

I cannot imagine leading a group of 30 people. I have enough trouble with 8.

1 Like

Never thought about training for wilderness trips, but it is a good idea.

It would also be interesting to have people in loaded tripping boats get out and paddle in different conditions and practice rescues (not sure who would want to volunteer their boat and gear for that). Is it better to tie your gear in or lash it in. How do you get the boat and gear to shore if you dump. What happens if it gets pinned. How do you keep the bags from floating away. Can you empty, reload, and get back in your boat while out in deep water (like in the middle of a lake). To be honest, I have never done any of the that, and it would be great to practice.

Having a compatible group is very important – especially on a long trip when you will spend days or even weeks together. Personally, I like to know who I am tripping with, and I’m lucky enough to have plenty of friends who also enjoy it. It’s a different issue if you are looking to bring new folks along. I guess it is better to do that on short trips.

Also can’t imagine tripping with 30 people – talk about herding sheep. How do you find campsites big enough for everyone. Personally, I like 4-6, and around here even that can get crowded in campsites.

1 Like

Some of the things I’ve done with groups might surprise you. I’ve intentionally left the axe or hatchet behind with some scout groups. They would pick it up at the commissary and I would remove it from the kettle pack without them knowing. Kids and sharp objects in the middle of nowhere can be a bad combination and if the kids looked immature I didn’t risk it. I should also explain that we were expected to use the contact method for splitting wood which doesn’t work well. To compensate I took a lot of candles to help start fires in wet weather, carried birch bark (not peeled off live trees) and would leave the bow saw in the kettle pack to be used on a trip.

Rather than dutch ovens, I would try to get them to use a camper kitchen, a similar thing, but it is much smaller and rectangular and made out of cast aluminum. It is trickier to cook with but a lot lighter. Standard procedure was to put up a tarp first in Maine with boyscouts, then tents. In dry climates that’s not a big deal. In the southwest, what you want is shade but you may not have trees or ridgepoles over picnic tables so pop up awnings are good for groups. Fires or no fires depend on where you are and the desires of the group. With scouts they have an established structure and I would work within that structure- crew leader, duty roster for scouts, adult advisors all had a role to play. Things are a lot looser with club groups, meet ups, and friends.

Lead and sweep boats are pretty standard with groups but just remember there are all different kinds of groups and other ways to structure:: staging out in eddies, leap frogging down, rafting up, and buddy boating. With really large meet ups I like breaking into pods. Things like permits, groovers, and commercial shuttles add a different dimension and have to be preplanned at least a little bit.

One of the cool things about guiding for Maine High Adventure was that you got to teach people how to paddle. I enjoyed that. What skills you taught would change with where you went- lakes, rivers, whitewater. We did however, always practice lake rescues and administered swim tests before setting out. That would be a hard sell with other types of less formal groups. One thing that changed for me was the use of pfds. I became a one hundred percenter by the time I had finished with the scouts. Some freak weather convinced me of that. Overall, I thought we took way too much stuff. My own inclinations tend toward taking less, going lighter, and moving quicker.

I did a trip on green in utah 16 months ago. It was a really loose trip. Mostly I was recruited to haul out gear and oar frames. I kayaked, somebody else canoed, some were on rafts with oar frames, some in paddle rafts. Lots of ways to get things done on the river. Unloading and loading all the gear was quite a process. One of the guys had high white rubber boots, perfect for standing in the muck to unload the rafts. I never would have thought of that. As far as all the cooking, cobblers, multiple dutch ovens, I enjoyed the food but to me it wasn’t worth all the hassle. One of the weird things was they didn’t heat water up for dishes. Yes, we used river water, a wash and a rinse but didn’t heat it up. I once had a scout group that whipped out the easy-off oven cleaner to scrub the pots on the last night. They didn’t believe in “soaping”.

All this talk about canoe camping has me hankerin’ for a dab of ol’ woodsman fly dope, standing over smokey fire to get some relief from the blackflies, and eating a zagnut bar. Well maybe not but it is a good memory!

In my meet up travels I find others often want to lead. I’m good with that. Although unintentionally I sometimes piss people off a little bit. One nice lady told me I shouldn’t seal launch or drag my boat and that she was an instructor and told all her kayaking students that. I told her my boats mostly wear out under the seat. My 215’ weight and the fact that I like over running rocks is probably why I don’t care because in two or 3 years I’ll be plastic welding and buying another “new to me” boat . I mentioned I’ve never had a boat wear out at the “drag spot” behind the seat. By the last day of paddling with her, I noticed she was dragging her boat some at the takeout. Glad I could teach her how to be a slacker!


try this again, more than you ever wanted to know, feel free to skip over, more for my own amusement and recollections of how we used to “get errr done” but will share my rambling thoughts about canoes trips and Maine.

The easy way to tie in gear was to use a clovehitch on the center thwart and tie each trailing end to a pack (bowline). It was simple but you have to make sure the rope was under the pack and not a snagging hazard. The packs and rope themselves could become snagging hazards if you capsized so I always carried a knife when canoe tripping. It was far easier to empty the boat when you took on water with this “slack under the pack” arrangement. We bailed some with hats and bowls when the packs were hard to move. The piece of gear I always tried to tie in tight was the kettle pack. It didn’t float. Ultimately, If you can tie your gear in tight I think you are always better off. Most of the time it adds flotation to your boat. It just makes it harder to bail or portage and takes longer to do. This isn’t always practical when you are using stock canoes- trippers, discoveries, grummans etc. which don’t have many tie in points or lack intermediate thwarts. You go with what you got and convenience factors in.

If I was trip leading in Maine in may, june, or july, I would tell folks to bring some good bug repellent with deet, wear long sleeve shirt and pants, wear a hat. Plan on sitting close to a smokey fire. Prevailing winds mostly follow the lakes north so plan routes accordingly. If it is buggy, camp in exposed places and avoid grassy areas (bad for no-see-ums) Beware if you are headed south and the wind is behind you. Storm likely to follow. Expect gate fees, commercial shuttle fees, and depending on where you go, figure on daily camping fees as well- organizations like north maine woods, and allagash and the huber katahdin iron works road charge for access. Baxter S.P. isn’t at all flexible . If traveling in the park plan to follow their rules to the letter or go totally rogue and ditch the vehicle. There is no middle ground. They are there for their own amusement, not yours. They will not be understanding. Probably the most regulated backcountry place in the united states. If you want to link up the westbranch or allagash with the east branch then you will be in Baxter some of time ( telos cut, webster lake and brook, matagamon lake) . Plan on lots of driving time on those back roads that can be washboarded out. Fire permits are necessary some places.

Invest in some good water shoes, some of the rivers have sharp rocks and some places have been blasted out for logging and bring good dry shoes for camp. Maine isn’t really a sandal type of place. Old wood peaveys and other logging artifacts rusting in the woods. Don’t even think about doing abol slide on an ensolite pad unless you like driving to the medical clinic in millinocket and getting xrays, saw this on a regular basis with tourists. Yield to all logging trucks and machinery. Get way over. Be prepared to wait, even if actively logging they will eventually wave you through. Gas up when you have the opportunity.

Bring something warm- fleece, wool sweater for the occasional cold spell. Bring a rain jacket, cagoule, or paddling top. If the lakes get choppy and the wind is with you then consider “rafting up” and sailing with the dining fly although technically it is illegal in the Allagash. Chesuncook and Moosehead would be fair game for legal sailing. Rafting up is a good strategy anytime you are worried about getting spread out on big open water. Even if you swamp out, you remain stable when rafted up.

Think about extending the moose river bow trip down the moose river into brassua and moosehead and the east outlet. Don’t do the kennebec gorge unless you are a hardcore ww person. Don’t leave your boats near or on the railroad tracks! At one time the tracks on the moose river bow trip were active! Talk to the dam keepers, sometimes they will let extra water out for river runs so go to the residence next to dam and start a conversation.

Avoid drinking Moxie unless you like the taste of cough syrup but moxie falls is a pretty place to visit. Eat some bright red hot dogs, buy some brown bread in a can, and some baked beans or chowder, if you want to eat like a local. If you are fishing make sure you have the regs and know about the no fishing zones below dams. Also some streams are artificial or barbless only. The fishing regs are extensive and arranged by county so you have to know what county you are in to find the proper regs. Once you get frustrated trying to catch brook trout, togue, or landlocked salmon then head over to the eastbranch and sebois for some easier small mouth fishing. Perch can be wormy in the ponds. Even chubs are edible if you are hungry enough. Check your testicles for leaches after swimming in the ponds!

Look for brown topo lines crossing the river- waterfaills often labeled as “pitches”. Haskel rock pitch on the topo was labeled in the wrong spot so beware if doing the eastbranch.

Really hard to have good water for the rivers and miss bug season in Maine. In general avoid driving backroads at night- lots of big wildlife- moose, deer. If you need help go to a gatehouse, forest service or local hunting and sporting camp. Everybody has a radio and they will be talking “s@@t” about you on their repeater radio to the whole network but can get you help. It is safer to drink out of the lakes than the higher streams or ponds (beaver activity). Welcome to the North Maine Woods. More than you ever wanted to know and for that I apologize. It is okay to start out clueless. The trick is not staying that way.

The popular choices are the westbranch, lobster lake, moose river bow trip and the allagash. Tons of other cool stuff with less people, less permits, less money, more remote- sebois, aroostook, eastbranch, north and south branches, webster brook- hit that stuff earlier in the season due to flow. Buy a Gazeteer and let your imagination run wild!

When it comes to boundary waters, I just plan to wing it! Once I’ve done it, I’ll write a new dissertation.


Too funny - was laughing reading this. If you were giving me the Maine Guide test (seem like you know enough to be a Maine Guide) I think I would do OK - we are on the same page. May take me a while to respond to all this. Lots here to digest.

I can do without the axe – saw is fine for me.

Friend of mine uses a camp kitchen, but I still like my Dutch Oven. Very reliable if you stick with charcoal, and when it is my turn to cook dinner I don’t want to put something on the table that is raw, or more likely, burned to a crisp. I would like to try a reflector oven

I’ve been lucky on my trips – only needed the tarp a few times.

Groover – never heard that term before.

Shuttles on logging roads in Maine – I’d rather hire a commercial shuttle than beat up my car.

Bossy people on trips – like you, do my best to ignore them.

We tend to tie in gear – can’t imagine what would happen if we ever dumped. Hopefully we never will.

Bugs in Maine – yikes, they can be brutal. The worst for me was at Seboomook on the West Branch of the Penobscot in July. I got left behind to watch the gear while the rest of the crew ran the shuttle with no bug spray, and got eaten alive by mosquitos. Never made that mistake again.

Fees for the North Maine Woods – no way around them.

Folks up in Maine seem to like those knee high rubber boats – I still wear my Boundary Boots.

For wind on the lakes a friend of mine brings a 1 hp trolling motor - cheating I know, but the rangers all use them.

Last time I did the Bow trip the train track was still active – came through at around 2:00 a.m. – no sleeping through that.

I like Moxie – just kidding.

I let others do the navigating – I make up for it by cutting more wood. So many great places to go up there, and most of them I haven’t done yet. :slight_smile:

1 Like

In northern NY, the red hot dog of choice is from Glaziers out of Malone. Add some meat-ish sauce - sort of a mild chili/sloppy joe hybrid, and they’re called “Michigans”.
I have no clue why.

1 Like

In the West there are often no shuttles. We camp in places people may have never camped before. There are no fees, no train tracks, and sometimes no roads. If you have not capsized you will.

GROOVER is a term for a portable group toilet. People used to use ammo boxes and they left grooves on your behind. I can’t say I actually ever did that with an ammo box… So it refers to a portable waste system for places where you have to take your crap with you- like dry desert environments, required on many permitted rivers in the west.

Stuff breaks down in the Northeast’s wet environment and you can dig a latrine if need be. Of course Allagash has its own outhouses. The islands on chesuncook were getting kind of nasty from all the latrines though (30 years ago). Hopefully that problem has been solved. Perhaps they don’t allow camping there anymore. Did you get to run roll dam on the west branch? A lot of fun. Worked 2 and half summers out of pittston farm doing canoe trips and 3 and 1/2 out of matagamon. Worked the two bases so I could cover more watersheds.

If I was going to head back up to Maine for an extended canoe trip it would be to paddle the St. John or the Machias. They would be at the top of my list to do- missed those because they tend to run early. At pittston fram (where the north and south branch come together to form seboomook Lake ) you are actually not far from the top of the Saint John watershed. Hiking and bushwacking in that area was interesting (St. John Ponds). You wanted to stick to the high ground away from water to avoid the boggy areas. Usually I’m trying to follow water when I’m bushwacking… In the North Maine Woods i avoided it otherwise you would find yourself wading in a peat bog infested with bugs. There’s a reason why you see some of the trout fishermen smoking cigars in that neck of the woods to keep the blackflies away.

1 Like

Sounds nice - not many rivers like that around here - even up in Maine they are not quite that remote. Maybe someday I’ll get out west, or up to Canada.

Capsized plenty of times, just not with a loaded tripping canoe - pretty careful about that. :wink:

Yes - Seboomic Dam to the Roll Dam Campground - what a blast. I’d love to get back there again. I was sitting in the Roll Dam Campground getting eaten alive by bugs waiting for the shuttle - that was not fun.

Both are on my list. I was supposed to do the St. John this spring, but we decided to go to Disney World instead - go figure. Bunch of my friends have done the Machias. I’d also like to do the St Croix, the Baskahegan, the West Branch from Roll Dam to Chesuncook, and maybe the Debsconeag Loop.

I need to retire…

There is really no need for an axe or saw. Dead wood can easily be broken. Just feed the long pieces into the fire. If there is an axe around, I hide it when people start drinking. I have seen two people put axes into their feet in my life. Not good. Now I take blood thinners and only use a small hatchet to split kindling.

People drink on camping trips? :wink:

Agree with you on the axe. Sawing up logs and splitting them is more bother than it is worth. The big stuff that gets dragged out is almost always wet anyway and takes forever to burn - even if you get it split. Not worth the effort.

Not so much on the saw - folding camp saws don’t take up any room, so why not bring one - actually the more the better. There are tons of options, but I have a PocketBoy folding saw for gathering wood, and a Boreal 21 bow saw to cut it up. Get everyone going and before you know it you have a nice pile.

I know that not every group is as enthusiastic as we are about cutting wood. We tend to cook on the fire, which is a lot easier if you’ve got lots of wood of different sizes available.

1 Like

When i lived in Canada i use to do multi day circular canoe routes so i could finish where the car was left. Only take what you NEED but still take the essentials. I used a Klepper A2 folder.

1 Like