So you're tired of paddling the family boat around the same little lake, are ya? It may be time to venture off to different waters, camping and cooking along the way. Sorta like a hike, only using your arms and you're on the water. Ok so maybe not like a hike at all but the exploration part is pretty much the same. You're just exploring different things. Whether you're out for an overnight, a week, or longer, there are some things you need to know before setting out. Whether your vessel is a kayak or canoe, let's go through some important information for Water Expeditions.
SKILL LEVEL AND EXPERIENCE
Don't Get in Over Your Head
ZERO EXPERIENCE CAN BE DANGEROUS
If you've never paddled before, it's best you think again before heading out on a full water expedition. A little experience goes a long way.
Practice Paddle: Before heading out, load up your boat with all the gear you plan to take and give it a spin around your local lake or waterway. Paddling will be a little different with gear, so it'll be good to give yourself a little crash-course on what it'll be like. Feel out the way the boat balances. Do some turns and common maneuvers so you know what to expect.
Wet Exit + Re-Entry: Solo, with a friend or even a group, you should know how to perform a wet exit (kayak) as well as re-entry/rescue (kayak or canoe). A wet exit is when your kayak flips over, you've gotta know how to exit the boat while under water (with and without a spray skirt). Practice this with a friend to help near the shore, as it can be quite alarming for your first try.
The same goes with re-entry of whatever boat you're paddling. There are techniques you can use to flip your boat with as little water as possible, and you'll only get better with practice. It's just as important to practice all of this with and without gear loaded into the boat. Once your boat is flipped, you'll want to center yourself at the side of your boat towards the middle, and KICK HARD. It's hard work to heave your own body weight back over the edge of your boat but it is possible. Hopefully you're wearing your life jacket (PFD if you prefer), it'll not only make it easier, but safer.
Start Small: No need to go all out and leave for weeks immediately. Start small with an overnight trip, especially if you're nervous. For simple planning purposes it'll help you figure out what gear you need and what gear you can leave at home. Plus, it'll be way less pressure on yourself. You can even hire a guide for the first time out, then it's not all on you to get it right the first time.
All bodies of water are not created equal
Your boat should be suitable for the water you'll paddle
Rivers: Usually freshwater, these flowing waterways often lead to another river, a lake or ocean. Choose your river wisely, and something appropriate for your skill. Not all are calm and meandering. Rivers come with their own dangers, from sweepers (overhanging branches that can whack you in the face or off the boat completely), to strainers (branches underwater, can hold you and gear down underneath), boulders and rocks, plus much more. Even the current itself is a danger.
Lakes: A basin that is full of water and is usually pretty darn deep. While land is nearby, if you're smack in the middle, it can often be a long way to the shoreline. Not only that, not all shorelines are exactly safe for a landing, there could be a cliff when you get to it. Most worrisome on a lake is the wind. While lakes are considered flatwater, wind can create plenty of waves in quite a jiffy.
Oceans: Large body of salt water that covers most of this Earth. Technically it's one big ocean, but we smartly divided it into 5 different ones to make things easy. Besides the incredible depths it can get up to and terrifying sea creatures (angler fish, sharks, sea cucumbers), the most important thing to pay attention to are tide times. Grab yourself a tide chart and put it in a map case for the trip. Know and understand how to read it, otherwise it'll be useless. Tides effect currents so you'll have to be aware of those as well. It's best to paddle with the flow than against, or when the flow is negligible. It's not just as simple as "paddling in low tide could find you stuck on a manatee. Or the sand, whatever."
Calm / Rough: With any water you decide to paddle, they can all be calm one moment and rough the next. Be prepared to tackle it all, from flat, boring waters to waves big and small.
PACKING AND RIGGING
Kind of Like Playing Boat Tetris
Pack light, but leave no essentials behind
I hope you like Tetris because packing your boat is going to be one big real life game of it. Packing light and leaving your 7 hardcover books behind is a good general rule of thumb. Just like backpacking, you'll have to make some sacrifices here and there, leaving unnecessary items behind. Do a test pack before you head out to figure out what works and doesn't.
Dry Bags are a gear saver. Seriously, it'll keep all your stuff dry. Unless you don't care if your things get soaked. Soggy sleeping bags are the pits.
• Sizes: Large dry bags work best for canoes, somewhere between 3 and 5, 30L or larger range. When you're packing up a kayak however, a few medium and many small dry bags work much better, since you're dealing with a confined space behind the bulkheads. Kayaks work great with dry bags between 5L and 20L, and tapered ones can be tucked all the way into the bow or stern areas.
• Trash Compactor Bags: Cheap additional protection. Line your dry bag or just pack a few extra into your boat just in case.
Rigging is canoe-specific, so if you're a kayaker, move along. Rigging is how you'll secure your gear load. Why you ask? Well, any time you're on the water, you run the risk of capsize and losing your stuff is the pits. Secure your stuff or pay later. Pack your gear in, keeping heavy items at the bottom and center of the boat. Mid-weight items can go on top and towards either seat, while lightweight items can go past that or even in the bow or stern (such as a daypack for quick-access items you may want to grab during mid-paddle). Once the gear is in the boat properly, there are two main rigging options, choose wisely.
• Gravity Rigging: The easy to remember gravity rig only requires you to put your gear in the boat. Boom, done. Let a genius try that one. If you're on flatwater lake routes, this is probably the best option. If you do end up capsizing, it's going to be much easier to flip the boat, empty it of water, then gather the bags. Even if you're choosing this method, I'd recommend tying down at least 1 small bag with important items in it (maybe your phone, VHF radio, or Satellite Communicator / GPS unit) as well as your map case. You can secure these right in front of you in the boat for quick access as well.
• Diamond Rigging: Some adventures require you to actually secure your gear to the boat. The better option for river travel, especially if you're coming across constant pool-and-drop situations. Chasing gear down the river doesn't sound like my idea of fun.
For the diamond rig, you'll need to utilize 7 D rings in your boat. There are 3 at the bottom of the canoe on the centerline under the bow thwart, yoke, and stern thwart, and the remaining 4 are placed just under the gunwales halfway between the thwarts. Save yourself time and get yourself a 15-20 foot cam strap and start at the bow. Slip the strap through the floor D ring under the bow thwart, go over the top of your gear, over to the gunwale D ring, over gear, through the floor D ring under the yoke, over gear, through other gunwale D ring, over gear and back to the cam buckle. As you're going over your gear, feel free to slip the strap through a single loop on your dry bags for extra security. When you're done with the bow, repeat the process with gear at the stern section. Tighten the strap, but leave some slack and you're all set.
Hatches are kayak-specific so when I kicked out kayakers earlier, you can come back now. Canoe-people, get outta here. So, I see you've set all the gear you want to pack next to your boat and you're wondering how to get it all inside there? Welp, good luck. Ha, well it's a bit less luck and a lot more practice and paddle-smarts. First off, remember hatches aren't usually waterproof, so get anything you don't want wet inside a dry bag. From there, you're going to have to get creative while remaining smart. Tapered dry bags or anything you're going to shove deep into the cockpit or stern, tie a length of cord to them. It'll make extraction of said bag much easier when it's time to unload. Unless you have long monkey-arms. Heavier items should be placed at the bottom of the boat towards the cockpit, medium weight items can go on top and middle-ish, while lightweight items should be at the bow and stern. Paddling cold water? Pack some of your food along the keel to keep it colder!
Safety Gear: This list is long, but pretty darn important. Without proper water-specific safety gear, you could get in trouble fast while floating in your boat or being dumped into the drink. First up, if you don't have a PFD, life jacket, floaty-vest-thingy, then get one now. That's my number 1 rule.... besides bringing good beer. Here are some items that can help when you're navigating the waters: sponge, bilge pump, paddle float, repair kit, whistle, spare paddle, first aid, potable water / water filter, spray skirt, throw / tow rope, knife, flashlight / navigation lights, flares, VHF radio.
Clothing + Shoes: Wear and pack the proper clothing for the season. Most paddle in the summer, so a swimsuit is probably a given, especially when it's time to jump off the boat into the cooling waters. Paddle jackets, wetsuits and even drysuits are also considerations, especially when bad weather or colder seasons come into play. Don't forget you'll want some dry clothing for hanging around camp as well as sleep. When it comes to shoes, grab a pair that aren't afraid to move in and out of the water, with good wet traction and drainage holes. If you're going the sandal route in the summer, get some that strap to your foot securely.
Friend, lover, or foe.
Discuss your goals pre-trip, and plan accordingly.
Bring a friend! Paddling with someone isn't just a little added safety, but way more fun. Unless your friend won't help paddle and sings really annoying songs. If you're both belting out the latest Taylor Swift together, you may have found a good one.
Group Goals are important to discuss before heading out, especially if you have more than one boat. For the most part, there are two types of paddlers:
1. Hard + Fast: This paddler is only focused on getting to next location and doing it quickly. Long miles and hard working.
2. Slow Exploration: This paddler is slow and meandering, taking constant pics and checking out every lagoon, offshoot and beach.
There are definitely hybrids and paddlers that lie in the between, but pair up the outliers and someone's temper is going to explode quick. Choose a hybrid paddler to go with, or someone that has similar goals to your own.
Where'd all that water go?
Hike your boat and gear to more water
Just when you thought you'd only see water for miles. A portage is where you must carry your boat and all gear between two navigable waters. If you've hiked the backcountry before, at least you have a bit of a clue of what this may entail. Now besides all your gear add a boat that weighs between 35 and 100 pounds. Not so easy. Some trips won't have any portages at all, others can have multiple. Portages can be as simple as taking out your boat at a dam, then putting back in not much further on the other side. Some are a kempt trail of 2 miles or less, while others require you to bushwhack for the whole way through. The Grand Portage from Lake Superior to Pigeon River in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area is listed as easy, but it's also an 8.5 mile walk.
What comes first? The boat or the gear? Most times, you'll probably want to carry gear separately from your boat. It'll lighten the load, although it does require you to hit the trail twice. If you are doing a double trip, carry the gear first. It'll be much easier to follow the trail the first time around with just a pack on your back, especially if there is a quick turn you'll have to navigate via map. Then return for your kayak or canoe.
Canoe Kayak Carts: This bit of gear can certainly make your portage easier, especially if you've chosen to travel alone. It's basically a collapsible cart that can fit inside your boat when not in use, but when it's time to portage, you strap your boat (underneath, at the center) to the two wheels, then lift up the bow and walk. You'll be zoomin' along the earth. Trouble comes when it's a trail you'll have to bushwhack, you blow or crack a tire, or something else on the cart fails. All hail repair kits!
Excuse me, Mother Nature, I ordered sun.
Weather is unpredictable, so pack outerwear for the worst you may encounter.
A trip doesn't always come with perfect weather. Sure, you can get lucky, but since you're out there with just your boat and whatever you've packed into it, you've gotta be prepared. Rain, storms, sun, wind, heck, even snow. You'll need appropriate clothing if you're paddling through it such as a paddle jacket or even a full rain suit.
Be smart about weather, as sometimes it's just best to take an off day, especially when it's storming and lightning comes into play. Set up camp, huddle into your tent or shelter and wait it out. Bonus gift: it'll rest up your arms that feel like limp spaghetti after hours and hours of paddling.
What? I'm not on the Two Hearted River?
Get to know the water you'll be paddling
Before you set out, have a plan. Know which waters you plan to travel, whether that be a river, lake, ocean or backyard pond. If you don't know where you're going, how will you know where to go?
Map + Compass/GPS Unit: Once you pick your waters, grab the appropriate map or download it to your GPS unit. Put that map in a waterproof case because if you're on the water, it'll get wet at some point. Know how to read the map and read up on where the portages are located beforehand, making notes that may call attention to them.
Notify Family + Friends: Leave your itinerary with a friend or family member. Let them know where you're going and when you plan to return. Don't be Aron Ralston.
GET OUT THERE AND PADDLE ALREADY!
Navigating the waters upon this earth is incredibly fun and just as invigorating as a hike through the woods. Step out of the comfort zone of the family pond and see what the next river or lakes have to offer. While safety is always important, having as much fun as possible is too. Grab your boat and just paddle, already!