Trip Reports

Lessons learned

Lessons learned on my first 4000 km of canoe tripping

Tripping allows you see wonderful things that can’t be seen elsewhere. It is worth the effort. I learned many lessons when something went wrong. Though all of the details are not included here, you can imagine them!  I have lost and found my wallet and wedding ring on trips. I have had my only filtration system and stove break. I have forgotten my PFD, my paddle and equipment required by law.  I’ve tried to portage with many items not packed away. I’ve left parts of my first aid kit at home and then needed them. I’ve had car issues and CAA has rescued me many times.  Many trips were altered to avoid unsafe conditions.  This article is written so that you may not need to repeat my lessons learned!  Many people begin with easy day trips, progressing to short camping trips and later to longer expedition trips as their paddling and tripping skills improve.


Lessons learned about preparing for a trip:

Preparation can be done long before your trip.

Make sure your tent, stove, pack, and headlamp are in working order. Get enough fuel.

If there is a fire ban, your stove will be used to cook all of your food. Eating unheated food when you had planned to cook it is not ideal! You’ll want a backup cooking option.

Check your first aid kit and your repair kit. 

Make and take a comprehensive first aid kit. If you decide to leave part or all of your first aid kit behind, that will be the time it will be needed!

If the air or water is cold (water less than 15 degrees C makes a legal requirement), make and take a hypothermia kit.  Will you wear wetsuits or drysuits or carry a dry change of clothes in a waterproof container? 

Learn any local rules for the area you will visit: cans, bottles, fires, fishing etc.

Learn about local dangers or risks.

Learn some of the best features of the area you expect to visit.  You will know what to watch for when you go.

You need to filter or boil your drinking water.  Follow the filter instructions to prepare the filtration system. Practice using the system before your trip.  Have a backup filtration system.

There are various options for backcountry food.  Dehydrate any food you will want. Purchase any special food (foil packs or dehydrated meals etc.) ahead of time.  Try consuming any new foods ahead of your trip so there are no surprises.  Prepackage your food so there is less waste to carry. 

Lessons learned about safety risks:

Always wear your PFD or lifejacket when on or near the water.  This is the best way to avoid drowning.  80% of drownings happen when a person is not wearing their PFD or lifejacket.

For guided excursions you will be required by law to wear your PFD or lifejacket. 

Can you swim in deep water wearing a PFD?

Can you paddle the distance of the trip?

Do you know the route?  

Avoid getting lost by learning navigation skills.  If you are unsure, go back to a spot you knew on your map. Try to figure out your route from there.

Do you have a trip plan?

Do you have the safety gear required by Transport Canada? (fitted PFD, whistle, bailer, 15 m floating rope, waterproof light if visibility is limited or when there is not daylight)

Do you have the survival essentials?

            Flashlight, spare batteries, spare bulb

            Fire making kit

            Signaling device (whistle or perhaps communication)

            Extra food and water

            Extra clothing (rain gear, wind and water protection, warm hat, bug hat/jacket)

            Navigation aids (map, compass)

            First aid kit

            Emergency shelter

            Pocket knife

            Sun protection (sunscreen, hat, glasses)

If something seems unsafe to you, what options will you have?  Discuss with the trip leader?

If for any reason you plan to leave an organized trip, tell the leader your plans.


Do you have an emergency plan? Are there optional take-outs for emergencies?

Who is trained in first aid and will act as the first aid leader in an emergency?

Appoint a “guardian angel” at home who knows your trip plan.  It should include your planned route, campsites, start and finish (location, day and time), colours of boats, colours of tents, vehicle licenses.  Include a copy of emergency contacts (guardian angel, local police, nearest hospital, participants names & their contacts).

A guardian angel can get help if you do not return on time or if an emergency is communicated.

Do you have working communication?  If not, what options do you have in an emergency?

WEATHER: Check for suitable weather and adjust plans accordingly. Is it too hot, too cold, too windy, too smoky or is there too much sun?

If there is lightning, for your own safety, get off of the water.


Risks vary by location. Follow local guidance. 

Are you prepared for ticks, mosquitoes, blackflies, red ants or other bugs?

Do you know the precautions for handling wildlife encounters such as bear, moose, rattlesnake?

Can you recognize poisonous plants? Poison ivy? Wild parsnip?

Food should be safely hung or in barrels away from your campsite. You will need ropes and perhaps pulleys if you are going to hang food.

Use a clip on your barrel to keep wildlife out.  Some parks require specific bear cannisters.

Ziplok bags are useful for packing and containing smells within barrels.

What you take in, expect to carry out.  Exceptions are paper or cardboard that can be burned.  There is no garbage collection in the backcountry.  You will need a bag to put garbage back into your barrel. 

Any used dishwashing water should be dumped away from the campsite and away from the water, since it may smell like food.

If you use toothpaste, spit it out away from the campsite and away from the water.  It may have a scent.

FIRES: Is there a fire ban? Has it been very dry? Will you collect or buy wood?

Are axes or saws on this trip?  There are dangers that come with these tools in the backcountry.

If you have a fire, use the designated firepit. Do not create a new fire location.

Keep water nearby that can be used to put out the fire. 

Keep fires reasonably small.

Make sure the fire is completely out before going to sleep or leaving.

AIRPLANES: Do you know how to make yourself visible from the air?

If floatplanes are seen in the area, paddling near shore is safest.

Lessons learned about planning and goals for participants:

Carefully read a trip description prior to signing up for a trip.  Only sign up if the trip and the trip leader match your capability and your desires. Ask the trip leader your questions.

What are the goals of the trip?

Basecamp or moving camp each day?

What are the paddling and portaging distances?

What is the daily plan, including the expected hours of waking, meals, departing, and sleeping?

Swimming, hiking, fishing, relaxing, having fun, ice cream, endurance, yoga etc.?

Do you have the skills to participate?

How are chores divided up?

Follow and support the trip leader’s plan. Do not expect to change the trip described, the route, the goals, the meeting time, the day, the duration of the trip, or the campsite selected. If you would like the trip done differently, consider leading your own trip.

Each adult is responsible for his/her own actions. 

MINORS & PETS? Are minors or pets permitted on this trip? Ask the trip leader.

Parents or guardians are responsible for the actions of their minors. 

Owners are responsible for their pets.

WAITING LIST? Are you a trip participant or are you on a waiting list? Know the difference.

PLANNING MEETING? A planning meeting is recommended for any trip longer than one day. 

Trip participants should attend the planning meeting, if there is one. The group discusses and agrees to a trip plan at the planning meeting.  Deal with expectations at the planning meeting.  If it becomes apparent that a person is not a good match for a trip, solve it before the trip. Afterwards, the plan usually does not change unless necessary due to weather, an emergency or illness.


Understand that sometimes plans need to change in the backcountry.  A trip may need to be shorter or longer due to weather or other circumstances.


Participants need to remain flexible and support the trip leader and the group.

A good participant replies to messages sent by the trip leader, brings their share of gear and food and helps with trip tasks before, during and after the trip.

CANCELLING If you are sick you must cancel to avoid spreading illnesses. Let your trip leader know as soon as possible, since cancelling may mean finding another paddling partner or another participant may not get to do the trip. 

VALUABLES/MEDS Leave valuables at home unless they are needed.

Arrive on time, with two car keys and two sets of any medications that might be needed.

Put your keys, medications and wallet in safe, dry places where you will be able to find them afterwards.  Inform your trip leader (if you haven’t already) of any medical conditions that could affect your participation.  Put the extra keys and medications carefully in a second safe place, perhaps with the trip leader or in a waterproof location in a canoe that is not yours.


What are the expected costs for the trip?

Canoe rental, campsite fees, food, transportation, firewood, other costs?

Will drivers be compensated for travel expenses: $0.50 to $0.60/km or other?

Are you sharing meals on this trip?

If sharing, are guidelines in place for the maximum cost of breakfast $5 per person, lunch $8 per person and supper $8 per person or something different?

Are there food allergies or dislikes?


Avoid irresponsible behaviour that can cause safety or environmental issues.

What are the expectations or requirements regarding alcohol/cigarettes/recreational drug use?

The wishes of the trip leader and any applicable policy for your group will need to be followed.

If the trip requires “no intoxicants on trip” and you don’t like it, don’t go.

If smoking, ensure embers do not cause a wildfire.  Do not leave butts in the wilderness - carry them out.

Lessons Learned about gear:

Have good quality gear. Test out your gear before going on a trip to ensure all parts are included and it functions properly.

What group gear is needed? What personal gear is needed?

FOOTWEAR Wear closed-toed footwear at all times to protect your feet from injury.  Vibram soles on shoes help you avoid slipping. They are worth the money. Taking two pair of footwear has advantages.  You can have a pair of wet shoes for paddling and a pair of dry shoes for camping.

WATERPROOF YOUR GEAR Gear can easily get wet.  Don’t get too confident.  Make sure you waterproof your gear that needs to stay dry. Almost all trips require you to bring a rain coat, rain pants, a sun hat, sunscreen, bug protection and extra drinking water. This allows you to be prepared for changing conditions.

An inexpensive regular camera in a waterproof case can take photos on a trip.  It is optional.


Navigational maps are helpful (on the Rideau waterway, the Ottawa River, the French River etc.) By matching a buoy number to its spot on the map, you can know your exact location.

Topographical maps include the elevation for each area. These can be helpful in estimating the difficulty of portages or hikes. 

Maps can also be used in an emergency situation to give your location or find alternate exit points.


For any gear that is needed and requires batteries bring extra batteries.

Include a multi-tool, duct tape and some wire as part of a repair kit.

If you paddle a lot, you’ll learn various paddle types work best in various conditions.

Do you want a very light paddle when going a distance?

Do you want a whitewater paddle when paddling in current or a strong wind? 

Load (or trim) your canoe differently to help in windy conditions. For a tailwind, try more weight in the stern.  For a headwind, try more weight in the bow. In general, you will want to balance the weight between the front and the back of the canoe as well as side to side.

Always tie up your canoe.  Locking your canoe may be necessary in some places.

Lessons learned about portages:

Ensure all loose items are packed away or are attached to something.  It makes a portage easier and avoids loss of items.

If a portage is unfamiliar, walk it first, possibly with a light load. Leave canoes until after you know where you are going.

Do not block the portage or the launch on either end.  Put your gear together and out of the way of others.

If you are doing a lot of portaging there are advantages to a lightweight canoe, lightweight gear and dehydrated food.

Lessons learned about hygiene and “washrooms”

How is hygiene handled in this location? 

Careful handwashing after elimination and before food preparation is important to prevent illness. Will you have hand wash stations?

Your backcountry campsite may have one of the following:

Thunderbox (box and lid with a hole underneath where waste goes into the ground)

Outhouse (room and box with a hole in it where waste goes into the ground)

If these are not available, dig a hole away from your campsite and away from the water.  Use it for elimination. Cover up the area after use.  Toilet tissue may be burned in a campfire or carried out with the garbage.  Buried toilet tissue may be dug up by animals.

Used menstrual products should be sealed and carried out with the garbage.

Extra food should be carried out.  Do not bury it or leave it in a firepit or a thunderbox/outhouse.

Lessons learned about wildlife

If you would like to see lots of wildlife, try early in the day.  Wildlife may also be more visible at dusk. 

Go to places that are not crowded.  There will be fewer people in areas that require a portage, have difficult access or are not well known. Try going early or late in the season or try weekdays instead of weekends if they are less crowded.

Consult locals so you know where to look and when.

Lessons learned about swimming on a backcountry paddling trip:

It is safest to swim in the backcountry while wearing your closed-toed footwear and your PFD.

Lessons learned about lock stations:

If you stop at the blue line at a lock station it means you want to go through the lock. Therefore, do not stop at the blue line if you are not locking through.

Lessons learned about children on trips:

Begin with short trips that have optional exit points in case they are needed.

Provide lots of snacks and water.

Bring along a favourite toy(s) that will not be harmed by the trip.  Attach toy(s) to a pack to avoid loss.

Lessons learned about cars:

Learn about parking: availability, free or paid? Be prepared to pay with cash (change and bills), credit card and phone. There may be no VISA machines or ATMs in the backcountry.

Learn canoe transportation skills before going on your first trip if possible. Ensure your boat is firmly attached to your car.  If you are unsure, ask your leader or outfitter to check it.

Be prepared to transport your canoe and gear unless you are carpooling.

It may be necessary to carpool.  If carpooling, are masks required?  Do you have one?

Arrive with a full tank of gas. Be aware that gas stations and their hours are limited in the backcountry.

Drive cautiously.  An accident may end your trip. Wildlife can damage cars.

Prior unresolved vehicle issues, hitting something on the road, poor roads, tire issues or car repairs can slow you down.

CAA or other similar coverage can be helpful when car issues arise. Think about how much towing you might need and have appropriate coverage.

Lessons learned about the environment:

Avoid making a mess. If you make a mess, clean it up. Bring some gloves and a few extra garbage bags in case you need to clean up someone else’s mess and carry it out. 

Avoid moving firewood far to prevent the spread of pests.

When moving your canoe from one body of water to another distant body of water, cleaning the hull prevents moving unwanted species from one place to another.

If you find unexpected invasive species, let responsible parties know after your trip.

Dispose of any soap away from lakes or streams and away from where you are camping.

Lessons learned about scents:

Avoid scented items if possible.  Everything scented should go in a barrel. No scented items should ever go in your tent. Avoid wearing any scented products that may attract wildlife. This includes scented shampoo, soap and deodorant etc.

Lessons from locals and strangers:

Consult locals regularly about the route, the dangers, the history or the wildlife. 

Locals are a wonderful source of knowledge.

Strangers may quickly offer friendship in the wilderness, particularly if you are on solo trips. 

Lessons learned about trip leadership:

Group trips are easiest if the leader has good maps, has done their research and is familiar with the location.

Make a reservation if you expect the location to be busy.

Ensure your participants have the required skills and have agreed to a clear trip description.

Trip leaders are allowed to set reasonable requirements for trip participants.

Trip leaders may decline participants based on their lack of skills or for other reasons.

On trip, if the paddling teams are uneven the trip leader may rearrange the paddling partners for safety or ease of group travel.

Solo canoe paddlers may be slower than tandem canoe paddlers.

Some solo kayak paddlers may be faster than tandem canoe paddlers.

Day trips can work without a planning meeting as long as the trip description is clear.

Short overnight trips can have a planning meeting on Zoom or in-person.

Longer overnight trips may need an in-person planning meeting, especially if a gear check is required.

AS THE TRIP LEADER, bring extra essentials in your car (PFD, paddle, safety kit).

Be aware of any medical issues that can affect participants on the trip.

There are times when you must lead, particularly where safety is concerned or if there is an emergency. Be prepared to handle an emergency before an emergency arises. Are you trained in first aid?  If not, will you designate a trained participant to act if a medical emergency arises?

The trip leader should aim to meet the basic needs of participants: food, water, rest, shelter, and a sense of security. Check with trip participants regularly.  If you find issues, address them early.

Encourage respect and cooperation.  To be a good team, everyone will need to make some compromises.  Good teamwork makes good trips.

If you have prepared well for your trip, take time to enjoy the trip with your fellow trippers!

Compiled by Karen H with help from many in RACCC!