Unlike car camping, planning a canoe trip is a bit more complicated, especially when you’re going with a group of people. In this series, we will take you through the process, from planning the route and coordinating with an outfitter, to executing and keeping all members of your party engaged and happy. In the upcoming weeks, we will add the following phases:
Phase V: Base Camp
Phase VI: Conclusion – Happy Campers
For now, let’s get started with Phase I.
Phase I: Planning the Route
If you’re anything like me, the planning phase of the trip can be just as much fun as the trip itself. Studies have shown that the act of planning and anticipating a vacation can bring more happiness than the vacation itself! Brainstorming different trip ideas and imagining yourself out on the water can be great fun. This phase can be broken down into four steps:
Step 1 – Decide on Group Members
The first thing to do is to determine who will be coming on this trip. It’s essential to know an approximate group size and the skill set of your party before choosing a route. You also need to know the availability of everyone in your group, how long they can take off for a trip and any scheduling conflicts they may have.
Start by asking your friends and family if they are interested in joining you on a canoe trip. (Note: If you know that you want to plan a more difficult trip that requires paddling experience, only invite those that meet that criteria.) It might be a good idea to send out a group email to gauge interest. Be aware that at this stage many people may express interest, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they will go through with the trip. If you’ve ever coordinated any kind of vacation before you know that people often say that they want to come, but back out at a later date. So at this stage try to really get a feel for the commitment and interest level of those you approach.
Step 2 – Determine the Length of the Trip
Once you have a few people expressing interest, get an idea for the amount of time that they are willing to take off for a trip. This time-frame is obviously capped by your own circumstances. Is everyone available for a week, two weeks, a weekend? This is key information that is needed for selecting a route. After you have a general time-frame, ask everyone what time of year is best. Maybe you all agree on summer. Next, get a list of everyone’s summer scheduling conflicts.
If the consensus at this point is for a shorter trip (like a weekend) then you already know that your trip will have to be close to home. However, if you have agreed on a longer trip you will need to do a bit more digging. Get an idea of the distance that everyone is willing to travel to get to your trip location. Is your group open to flying somewhere for a trip, or does everyone want to drive? This is largely determined by budget. If everyone would rather drive, find out if there is a cap to the distance your group is willing to travel.
Step 3 – Choosing a River or Lake System
Now the real fun begins! At this point you should have a general idea of group size and skill level, length of trip, season of trip, and distance everyone is willing to travel. Keep all of these in mind when selecting a river or lake system.
It’s probably best to start with the most limiting aspect listed above to start narrowing down your search. For example, if you are planning a short weekend trip, start by looking for rivers and lakes in your area. If everyone is open to a longer trip away from home and you have some beginners coming, start by looking for easy trips. It can seem a bit overwhelming with all the choices, so narrow down your search as much as possible here.
The internet is your friend at this stage. If you have decided on an easy trip in Texas, for example, search for “canoe trips in Texas” or “easy river canoe trips Texas.” You get the idea. This will give you an idea of some rivers or lake systems that fit your criteria. Once you have a few ideas, search for other paddler’s trip reports of specific rivers or lakes. For example, you may search for “Brazos River canoe trip reports.” Reading about other people’s experiences will give you a real feel for a potential trip.
The following are some trip ideas and resources to get you started:
- Northern Forest Canoe Trail – The NFCT is a series of lakes and rivers that connect Upstate New York to Maine. Our ultimate goal is to complete a through-paddle, but you can plan a trip of any length for any skill level. Check out their website or the official guidebook for more information.
- The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Quetico Provincial Park – The Boundary Waters is located in Northern Minnesota and contains over one million acres of wilderness area. Quetico is located in Northwestern Ontario, north of and adjacent to the Boundary Waters. Both parks contain thousands of lakes resulting in many routes of varying lengths and difficulties. I grew up going on canoe trips in this area and can vouch for the gorgeous scenery. If you want to do some portaging (carrying your canoe and gear on trails between lakes) on your next trip this is a great area to go.
- The Buffalo National River – The Buffalo River flows through Northern Arkansas, and approximately 135 miles are managed by the National Park Service. Multi-day trips of varying difficulty can be easily planned on this river as there are multiple outfitters available to rent canoes and gear. We have a couple of friends who say that this river is an absolute blast. It’s definitely on our list!
- The Green River – The Green River flows through Wyoming, Utah and Colorado. It runs through Utah’s Red Rock Canyons, which are tall sandstone cliffs that are absolutely gorgeous. There are multiple side canyons that can be explored on day trips. If you find the desert landscape beautiful I can’t recommend this trip enough. My favorite trip as far as landscape and location was on the Green River.
- Devil’s River – A trip down the Devil’s River in Southwest Texas is an ultimate bucket list goal of mine. This is a very difficult river and only experienced paddlers should attempt a trip on the Devil’s. The beauty of the river and the remoteness of the area are what make this one of my ultimate goals. It’s also supposed to be a great place for fishing! Droughts may cause the river to be too low to run, so make sure to check on this before you go. We own The Devil's River guidebook, which is the most comprehensive guide I have found for this river.
- Southwest Paddler – I find this website to be a valuable source of information regarding rivers that run through the southwest portion of the country including Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah.
Step 4 – Picking the Exact Route
Now that you have your river or wilderness area selected it’s time to choose the ideal route for your group. The easiest way to do this is to decide on an outfitter and ask for their advice on routes. What is an outfitter, you ask? Typically an outfitter is a company that rents canoes and equipment and provides shuttles and, on occasion, guide service to help your trip run smoothly. You don’t need to hire an outfitter if you have all the gear that you need and want to run your own shuttle, but it’s helpful to have someone to talk to about your route and to get some advice. I prefer to use an outfitter for shuttle service at a minimum because it can be a hassle to run your own shuttle. Keep in mind, you enter the river at one point and leave it several miles downstream, so you have to figure out where to leave your car. The outfitter can transport you via shuttle from one end of your route to another, either at the beginning of your trip or at the end, depending on what seems to be the safest place to leave a vehicle.
Search for outfitters that provide services to the area of your choosing. Many times their websites will list various routes and you can browse through these to see if any look appealing. The best thing to do is to give a few outfitters a call to chat about potential routes. Tell them how long of a trip you are planning, your skill level and what kind of a trip you are interested in and they should be able to suggest some routes. They will also know of any permits and reservations you may need. While you are on the phone, get a quote for the cost to rent gear and to hire a shuttle service.
After gathering the information from the outfitters report back to the group about your findings. See which routes appeal to everyone and make sure that the prices quoted are within everyone’s budget. When a consensus is reached, congratulations, you have completed Phase I and successfully planned your trip route!
Stick around for the following articles in our Ultimate Guide to Canoe Trip Planning and Execution:
Phase V: Base Camp
Phase VI: Conclusion – Happy Campers