Ultimate Guide to Canoe Trip Planning and Execution - Phase IV: Execution

This is Phase IV in our Ultimate Guide to Canoe Trip Planning and Execution. See below for Phases 1-3. In the upcoming weeks we will be adding Phases 5 and 6.

Phase I: Planning the Route

Phase II: Gear and Supplies Inventory

Phase III: Packing and Waterproofing

Phase IV: Execution

Phase V: Base Camp

Phase VI: Conclusion – Happy Campers

The big day has finally arrived! You have made it to your launch location with your gear and canoe and are ready to start your trip! Now what? This post will take you through everything you need to know for your first day on the water.


Loading Your Canoe with Gear


It’s time to load all of your gear into your canoe. It’s best to put the canoe in the water and parallel to the land for loading. Have one person hold the canoe steady while someone else loads the packs in. Loading the canoe while it’s in the water allows you to see if your packed canoe is well balanced and keeps you from having to drag a canoe full of gear on the ground.

Canoes ready for some gear!

Canoes ready for some gear!


You want to distribute the weight of your gear so that the canoe does not lean either to the right or to the left. Try to place the heaviest items in the center of the canoe. It’s also best to keep the weight as close to the bottom of the canoe as possible to create a lower center of gravity. If possible, lay you packs down on their back as opposed to sitting them up.


Another thing to consider is the trim of your boat. Trim refers to weight distribution between the bow (front of boat) and stern (rear). You typically want the stern to be a bit heavier, so that the front of the boat is trimmed slightly up. This will allow you to cut through the water more efficiently. Keep this in mind when loading the canoe, but also consider the weights of your bow and stern paddlers. If the stern person weighs a bit more, for example, pack your gear so that the trim is level. Then when the paddlers get in the canoe, the boat will be slightly trimmed up. The trim can be adjusted while on the water by pushing packs a bit forward or back. A more in depth article on canoe trim can be found here.


After you have your gear loaded and you are happy with the weight distribution, use some ropes or bungee cords to tie in your gear. Run the ropes through and on top of your gear at diagonal angles and tie off to the thwarts. A detailed discussion on tying in gear can be found here.


The last step is to put your personal gear in an easily accessible location. As discussed in our last post, thwart bags are a great place to put the gear that you will need while on the water. Make sure you have easy access to water, snacks, sunscreen, maps, and GPS.


Getting Into and Out of Your Canoe


Time to get in and go! The two most important things to remember when getting into your boat are to keep the boat off land and keep your weight in the center of the boat. If any part of the boat is touching land and someone steps in, it will make it very easy for the boat to flip over. And that is not a great way to start your trip! Instead, put the canoe parallel to land and have the bow paddler step into the center portion of the bow area. Try to keep your weight as low and as central as possible. Once the bow paddler is settled have the stern paddler do the same while ensuring that when they sit down the boat will not touch the ground. Now push off with your paddles and be on your way.


Getting out of the boat is the opposite of getting in. Try to position your canoe parallel to shore and have the bow paddler get out first. Being parallel to shore is not a requirement as long as the bow paddler is in shallow enough water to quickly stand. They can then maneuver the canoe so that the stern paddler can exit.  Don’t try to get out in deeper water! If you do your interior leg will probably get stuck and you’ll bring the canoe down with you!


On the Water - Paddling


Ok, you have successfully loaded your canoe and managed to get in without flipping your boat. Congratulations! Now it’s time to paddle.


The goal here is to get your boat going where you want it to go. The person in the stern has the most control over steering the boat and the person in the bow is more in charge of setting the pace and will provide more of the power. Ideally, the two people should paddle on opposite sides of the boat and should paddle in sync. The bow paddler should set the pace and the stern paddler should match the paddling rate of the bow paddler as well as steer the boat.


The bow paddler should do a basic forward stroke most of the time. YouTube has many canoeing videos. Watch some of these to get a feel for the basic forward stroke. If the stern paddler only used a forward stroke, the canoe would likely turn in the opposite direction than the side that the stern paddler is paddling on. To correct this the stern paddler will typically need to do either a J-stroke or a stern rudder to keep the boat going straight. Below is a good video that explains the J-stroke and the stern rudder (sometimes called the “goon stroke”).


When first learning to steer a canoe it can be hard to keep the canoe going straight. But keep practicing and you will get it down! There are many other strokes such as the draw stroke and the sweep that can be useful in helping you steer your boat and avoid obstacles. It’s best to search for videos of these strokes to see them in action. Practice your skills once on the water!


On the Land - Portaging


If you need to go from one lake to another or go around an obstacle on the river (such as a waterfall) you will have to portage. This means that you will have to carry all of your gear on land.

This will require a portage to get around.

This will require a portage to get around.


Typically, one person will carry the canoe and other people will carry portage packs filled with gear. You can make as many trips across the portage as needed, but we like to do a maximum of two trips per person. Two trips means that everyone would carry one load and then walk back and bring a second load across the trail.


The person carrying the canoe can either pick up the canoe by themselves or get someone else to help. Here is a video that shows both procedures:


When carrying the portage packs be sure to make use of all of the straps. They will help to get some of the weight off your shoulders. I like using the hip belt to try to get most of the weight on my hips. Play around with the straps to get them adjusted in a way that is comfortable for you. While carrying the backpacks grab loose items such as life jackets and paddles to carry across. Paddles double as great walking sticks!

portaging a canoe

Long portages can be exhausting! It’s a good idea to have water available and don’t be afraid to stop and take a rest if you get tired. Once the portage is complete you will probably be relieved to be back on the water!




Well there you have it. Those are the basic steps to complete a day of paddling and portaging. After your first day I’m sure you will be excited to get to camp! In our next installment we will go over everything you need to know to set up camp and get everything running smoothly in your new home away from home.

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



Ultimate Guide to Canoe Trip Planning and Execution - Phase I: Planning the Route

Four Days on the Sabine River

Weekend on the Colorado River