Introduction to Wilderness Paddling

So you want to go on a wilderness adventure, something like a week in the North Maine Woods, the Boundary Waters, the Adirondacks or maybe the Northern Forest Canoe Trail (NFCT).  Trips like this can be lots of fun, but if you donít prepare properly, they can be your worst nightmare.  If youíve never done this type of trip before the best advice you can get, is to do your research.  It is always advisable to have at least one experienced paddler on a trip.  Another option is to hire a guide.

Find out everything you can about the area you plan to visit.  Then start planning the trip.  We will point out some of the basics, but the rest is up to you.  If you need more information, there are some good books you can buy or borrow.  The RICKA library might also be a good place to start. We are assuming that this will be a canoe/kayak trip so your choice of boat will be important.

The Journey

Once you decide where you want to go, you need to find out everything you can about your journey.  The more you know the safer it will be and the more fun you will have.  Get maps and  guide books. Visit message boards or talk to someone that has already done the trip.  You should have everyone in the group review the material so there is a common understanding.  Then get together and start your planning.

Will you carpool and if so who will drive?  How many vehicles will you take?  Once there, will you need to run a shuttle?  Can the shuttle vehicle(s) carry all the boats and equipment? Not planning this properly can add an extra day at each end of the trip.  Remember that if the first night's campsite is an 8 hour paddle downstream that you need an early start.  You may want to stay in a motel the first night after you complete the shuttle.

Review the route and distance to be traveled each day.  Remember to figure extra time for portages.  Donít try to set records for distances paddled.  Remember, this is an adventure, not a race.  Locate possible campsites and alternatives for each day.  Plan each day so everyone will be comfortable and relaxed when you arrive at the campsite.  Make sure that there will be plenty of daylight for setting up camp and preparing the evening meal.

Check the River Flow level.  Too much water will cause floods and can make it extremely dangerous.  Too little water may mean a dry riverbed and lots of walking and carrying equipment.  Both of these extremes need to be avoided.

Review all obstacles such as dams, rapids and portages.  Get information as to routes through rapids. Does a broken dam have any hazards that need to be avoided? Is there a good portage trail and is it cartable? Will everything need to be carried and how many trips will it take?

Are the rapids runable by everyone in the group?  Will someone need to portage some of the rapids?   If someone gets separated from the group is there a plan for finding that paddler?

One of many things I learned in the Boy Scouts that has come in handy on many occasions, is the buddy system.  Pick another boat that you want to buddy up with and always keep that boat insight.

Regulations and permits

Many of the wilderness areas have requirements that must be met.  On Lake Memphemagog we had to wash our canoes and get an Aquatic Nuisance inspection sticker from the local harbormaster.  Crossing into Canada and back into the US, we had to report to customs and were issued a permit number. In the North Maine Woods, we had to get camping and fire permits and pay a road use fee.

What will you be paddling?

Well that depends on where you go and how long a trip you are planning.  Letís say we are going to the Allagash Wilderness.  Will you be paddling just the lakes or is this going to be a down river trip?  Will there be a lot of portages? Are you paddling tandem or solo?

 Are you planning to base camp (same site every night) and paddling lakes or stream on day trips? If so you really donít need to be as concerned with weight, so a heavy canoe or low volume kayak will not be a problem. If you plan to camp at a different site each night, you will need room to carry all your equipment and may want to pack a little lighter.

If you are planning a downstream paddle and will have portages, remember that you will need to carry the canoe and all your equipment at every portage.  On a Saranac River trip we had as many as four portages on several days.  That meant loading and unloading the boats five times on a single day.

Will you paddle long distances each day?  Remember a short wide boat is not only slower but takes more energy to paddle. If everyone else is paddling long narrow boats, you might not be able to keep up.   The bottom line is, all boats should be similar or at least be able to maintain the same pace.

 What Equipment will you need?

If there is one thing you can say about our sport that is, it can be very wet.  If you accidently tip a boat on a downriver trip and your equipment is not protected, you may be in serious trouble.  Dry bags are a must for most of your equipment.  I normally have several changes of clothing in sealed baggies, which are then inside a small dry bag.  This is then put inside my dry bag backpack.  The same thing applies to my sleeping bag. It is stuffed into a medium size dry bag, and then into the dry bag backpack.

Tents should be packed in a manner that will keep them dry as well.  If the inside of your tent gets wet, so will youíre sleeping bag and anything else you put into the tent.  At least carry a towel to dry it out if it wonít fit into a dry bag.

Speaking of tents, does everyone bring their own or do you share tents.  If you are on a long downriver trip you may want to share your tent as well as other common items.

Sleeping bags are also a very important item. In the warmer weather you may only need a lightweight bag, however in the early spring or late fall, your sleeping bag should be rated for the coldest nights.

There are many items that you may want to share.  Should you bring your own water filter?  A group of three or more campers should have at least two filters.  Itís always nice to have an extra just in case one stops working or becomes clogged.

Camp stoves or burners can also be shared.  With large groups of campers itís nice to have a spare.  And always carry spare fuel.

Maps are another shared item, but again, what if the group gets separated or a map is lost.  Again itís nice to have an extra copy.  Even if youíre using a GPS, what if it stops working or runs out of batteries.  Itís always good to have that map and compass handy, just in case.

What about those minor injuries? Is there a First Aid kit handy?  Does it have everything you might need? Again, every boat should have at least some basic First Aid items such as band-aids.

Will there be any white water on this trip? Think about items such as throw ropes, carabineers, web loops, etc.  Depending on the rating of the river you may want to be prepared to dislodge a pinned boat.

A Word to the Wise Ė Donít Feed the Animals

 There are wild animals in those woods and they like to eat.  They like many of the same foods you enjoy. If you leave your food around the campsite, they may help themselves.

Donít invite them into your tent.  Keep all food, snacks and candy out of your tents. Invest in bear proof containers.  Hang your food away from your tents and high enough (15 feet or more) so a bear canít reach it.  

The first campsite at the start of a trip is the most likely to be the one where the bear learned about our food.  Donít start and end your trip there. Take care of your food.

Food and Drinks

 On my first wilderness trip we paddled mostly lakes with very few portages, so weight was not a problem.  So we brought mostly fresh food and drinks in a large cooler.  The first three or four days our cooler kept most items frozen and fresh, again, weight was not a problem. We did share all the food and drink, so the menu was agreed on long before the trip.

Most trips since then have been river trips with lots of portages and every ounce counts.  For these trips most of the food was freeze dried and very light weight.  We only filtered/pumped enough water for a day.  In the evening when setting up camp, we filtered water to be used in our meals. With freeze dried, everyone can pick and choose their own meals.

My normal breakfast was usually Oatmeal with raisins and milk, and coffee (from coffee bags) with cream and sugar. Lunch on a short break was fruit and nut bars or small cans of tuna and crackers as it was quick and easy.  Dinner was freeze dry meals, just add water.  Always try to have a snack handy that can be eaten on the river.


Having enough clothing without having too much excess can be another balancing act. I usually bring enough clean underwear for each day with a couple changes of clothes.  If necessary, Iíll wash clothes in the river and hope to have enough good weather to dry them overnight.  Just remember that if you go for an unexpected swim you need some dry clothes to change into.  I always leave a complete change of clothes in the vehicle (shuttle vehicle) left at the take out.

Donít forget to plan on layering your clothing in the cooler weather.  Spring and fall trips may require a few extra items just in case the weather turns cold.  And donít forget to wear layers which can be added or removed as needed.  A wet or dry suit might not be a bad idea either.


You never know what will happen on a wilderness trip, so itís best to be prepared for most possibilities.  It is always a good idea for everyone to take a First Aid course prior to the trip.  A Wilderness First Aid course would be even better.  

Does anyone on the trip have a medical condition that might require attention?  If you have a diabetic on the trip and their blood sugar drops would you recognize the condition and know what to do.  The best thing you can do is talk about this ahead of time. 

It is also suggested that everyone carry a medical card with them explaining any conditions, medicines, instructions, etc.  Does anyone have any physical limitations?  Your friends can only help you if they know what you need. 

Do you have all your required medications? You should always bring an extra day or two supply just in case the trip is longer than planned.

Carry at least one good First Aid kit, plus a small kit of band aids, etc., in each boat.


Planning meeting discussion items that you need to talk about:

         The Journey

o        Determine who is going

o        How you will get there

o        Find the put in and take out

o        Determine how to run a shuttle

o        Review the route

o        Determine trip length

o        Distance to travel each day

o        Location of campsites

o        Obstacles such as dams, portages, rapids

         Regulations and permits

o        Aquatic Nuisance Inspection Sticker

o        Passports

o        Camping and travel permits and fees


o        Length & width (Speed) and weight for portages

o        Capacity to hold equipment

o        Tandem or Solo - Extra Paddles


o        Dry bags

o        Tents (Sharing or individual)

o        Sleeping bags (Light weight or cold weather)

o        Water filter

o        Camp stove

o        GPS/Maps & Compass

o        First Aid Kits

o        Rescue Rope & Equipment

         Food & Drink

o        Fresh food verses Freeze Dried

o        Group meals verses Individual

o        Quick easy lunch

o        Filter water each day

o        Snacks


o        Enough based on number of days

o        Layers for cooler weather

o        Extra clothing in case of swims

o        Proper footwear for Paddling, for Portaging and for around the campsite

o        Wet or Dry Suit

o        Extras clothing and shoes left in vehicle at take out


o        Medical Information Card with conditions and/or limitations

o        Medications

o        Talk about anything that might become a concern

o        Small first aid kit in each boat