Gear for Canoe Trips

The Canoe

Just about any canoe can be used for canoe camping, as long as it can safely carry you and your equipment from one place to another. However, some styles are better suited to the sport than others.

In general, the best boats for canoe camping are:

  • Roomy
    Not every trip requires a large canoe. But longer, deeper and wider boats provide more storage space for gear, better protection from water and waves, and greater over-all stability.

  • Tough
    Canoe camping can be rough on canoe hulls. Waves, rocks, stumps, portage trails ... there are lots of things in the wilderness that can damage your boat if you're not careful.

    To combat these forces, many paddle campers choose canoes that are made out of durable, long-lasting plastics like polyethylene or Royalex (ABS). These materials are especially popular among canoeists who enjoy paddling whitewater rivers.

    If you prefer long trips on calmer waters (especially routes that involve lots of portages), you may want to sacrifice a little toughness in exchange for a lighter hull material. Fiberglass and Kevlar(R), for example, are not as impact-resistant as the plastics above, but they are far lighter.

  • Easy to paddle over long distances
    Paddle camping can be physically challenging. To conserve energy and minimize muscle strain, you'll want a canoe that glides efficiently through the water. Here's a list of design features to consider:

    • Length
      Contrary to what you might expect, longer canoes are generally faster and easier to paddle over long distances than shorter canoes (of the same width). Long boats are more difficult to maneuver, but tight turns and quick stops are seldom as important to distance-oriented canoe campers as good forward efficiency.

    • Width
      Narrow canoes are typically easier to paddle forward, easier to control (especially in windy conditions), and easier to hold on course than wide boats. The downside? Narrow canoes offer less storage space than wide boats and are often less stable.

    • Hull shape
      Most canoe campers prefer rounded or "V" shaped hulls to flat-bottomed ones, since they offer far better overall stability. Rounded hulls are the most efficient through the water and provide the best overall stability. But V-shaped hulls are also quite efficient, and they provide better straight-line tracking.

    • Volume
      High-volume boats (boats with lots of inside hull space) make great gear carriers, so they're popular on long expeditions. But, high-volume hulls usually take more effort to paddle, and they tend to get pushed around more by wind and waves (especially if they have a high bow and stern). Keep an eye on weight, too. Remember, sooner or later you'll be carrying your boat, not riding in it.

    • Rocker
      Rocker is the upward sweep of a canoe's ends when viewed from the side. Canoes with lots of rocker tend to be easy to turn and maneuver, but harder to paddle in a straight line over long distances. Canoes with little or no rocker keep their courses more effectively, but can be tough to turn quickly.

      If your canoe camping plans involve fast water and rapids, consider a boat with lots of rocker. If you're thinking about longer trips over calmer waters, you'll probably be happier in a canoe with little or no rocker.

Canoe Paddles

You should have access to two paddles at all times while you're on the water; your primary paddle and an emergency spare (one per boat is usually fine). Both paddles should be tough, sturdy and lightweight. When choosing them, consider:
  • Blade design
    Long, narrow paddle blades require a quicker stroke rhythm (cadence) to keep the canoe moving, and they generate less power per stroke than wide blades. But they allow you to paddle longer distances with less effort and muscle strain, which can be key on longer trips.

  • Shaft design
    Canoe paddle shafts can be straight, bent or curved. Straight shafts (the traditional style) are easy to paddle and maneuver with. Bent shafts provide a slightly more efficient stroke by limiting the amount of upward lift that occurs at the end of each typical paddle stroke—perfect for paddlers who travel long distances on relatively calm waters. But, bent-shaft paddles can be harder to maneuver with, especially in rougher water. NOTE: When held correctly, bent-shaft paddles angle forward toward the bow of the canoe.

    Ergonomically-designed curved shafts are designed to reduce wrist and forearm strain. They are intended for long-distance, flat water journeys. Neither bent nor curved shafts are recommended for whitewater paddlers, since they can make certain controlling strokes more difficult to perform.

    NOTE: Look for canoe paddles with shafts that are oval-shaped in cross-section. This design provides a more natural grip and reduces wrist and forearm strain.

  • Grip shape
    Certain grip shapes can cut down on arm strain and make paddling easier over time. Pear-shaped or cobra-head grips, for example, are more comfortable to grab onto and pivot during regular paddle motions. Standard T-grips, on the other hand, are preferred by most whitewater canoeists because they allow for better overall paddle control.

  • Materials
    Most modern canoe paddles are made of wood, which is lightweight, relatively strong and affordable. Some are cut from a single piece of wood, others are built from many thin, laminated layers for increased strength and responsiveness. Some wood paddle blades are reinforced with fiberglass or Kevlar(R) for added durability.

    Paddles made of lighter, stronger materials like fiberglass and graphite are available,.but their high cost keeps most recreational paddlers away. Heavier, less expensive materials like plastic and aluminum are also available. These materials are more durable than wood, but heavier and more cumbersome. They're typically used in emergency paddles, rental paddles or paddles designed for beginners.

    NOTE: Selecting the right paddle length is important. To find the right overall length for your body shape and canoe, sit in your canoe and measure the vertical distance from your nose to the waterline (which will be the shaft length you need). Next, add the length of a blade that's appropriate for your paddling plans (longer blades for more power, shorter blades for more efficiency).
Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs)

Personal flotation devices ("life jackets") are a must for safe canoeing. Their primary job is to provide positive buoyancy to keep you afloat. They can also add an important layer of warmth in cold or inclement weather/water.

The United States Coast Guard requires that every canoeist carry an approved PFD with them whenever they are on the water. These PFDs should be worn, not sat on or stowed with other gear, since they can be extremely difficult to put on after a capsize, especially if conditions are rough or you're already busy trying to hold onto your boat and paddle. Keep in mind that in windy conditions, a loose PFD can be blown out of reach very quickly.
  • Fit
    After the Coast Guard seal of approval, the most important thing to look for in a personal flotation device is fit. PFDs should be snug but not binding, and should allow for a full range of torso, arm and head movements.

    To check the fit of a PFD, put it on and tighten it up (most PFDs have adjustment straps on their sides or around the bottom). Stand with your arms straight to your sides, then get a friend to push up on the bottom edges of the PFD, while you turn your head from side to side. The PFD should not slip or rise up significantly on your torso. If it rises enough to interfere with your side-to-side vision, try a smaller PFD or a different style.

  • Types and styles
    Their are five categories of US Coast Guard-approved PFDs (types I-V). Each type offers a different level of flotation for different water conditions and boating situations.

    Almost all canoeists use Type III PFDs, which are designed for recreational use not far from land and/or rescue. They're popular because they offer an acceptable level of flotation (enough to keep a conscious adult's head above water in all but the roughest water conditions) without being too bulky to paddle in comfortably.

    When it comes to specific styles of Type III PFDs, there are also options. Some canoeists prefer "shorties"—jackets that are cut high enough on the torso that they don't bunch up when worn in a seated position. Others prefer the added flotation of full-length jackets, usually with a roll-up cuff at the bottom to help alleviate bunching up when seated.

  • PFDs for kids
    Young children should wear a PFD any time they are in or near the water. Smaller kids (up to 30 lbs) should be fitted with a Type V PFD (designed to keep their head "face up" and above water indefinitely), while older children can be fitted with a standard Type III.

    Choose a PFD for your child that fits like yours does. Never "buy big," assuming that your child will grow into a larger size. Look for important safety features like grab loops and crotch straps for smaller kids. And make sure you check for specific laws and regulations in your area regarding boating safety and children's PFDs.

Bailers are simple scooping tools that canoeists use to remove water from their canoes. Most paddlers use everyday items like cups, pots, and plastic jugs with their tops cut off. Make sure the bailer you use is stored in a safe place inside your canoe and connected to your boat with a short safety line.

In addition to a regular-sized bailer, carry at least one marine sponge with you as well. Sponges are easy to use, easy to store, and they are perfect for sopping up small pools of water that your main bailer can't reach.

Safety/Throw Lines

Most experienced canoeists tie permanent lines (called "painters") to both the bow and stern of their canoes. These lines, which are typically 25 feet or so in length, can be used to secure canoes to shore, tow other boats or equipment, or tie the canoe down during cartop travel. Painters are typically tied through holes or loops that are already installed in the end of the canoe by the manufacturer.

Make sure your painters float, that they're strong and water-resistant, and that you have a secure place to store them on our under your front and rear decks. Coil them carefully so they don't become safety hazards during capsizes.

In addition to painters, a 50-65 foot emergency throw line is also a good idea, especially on more challenging journeys. This line should be coiled carefully and stored either in a throw bag or tucked carefully under one seat. Learn how to store and throw this emergency line correctly before you leave on your trip so you're ready to respond effectively in an emergency.

NOTE: Never use your emergency line to secure gear inside your boat. Use a separate tie-down line (50-100 feet of 3mm water-resistant rope should work well).

Navigation Items

Carry a detailed topographical map (or maps) of your entire route whenever you paddle camp. Store your maps in a water-tight case, and pack them (along with a quality compass) in an easily accessible position like on top of the equipment load in front of you or, in a PFD or jacket pocket. Everyone in your canoe camping group should know how to use these important navigation tools before your trip starts.

If your paddling plans involve coastal areas, also carry an up-to-date tide table and current chart for the area you'll be exploring. You may find nautical charts of the surrounding region helpful as well. These reference materials should be stored in a water-tight case and kept nearby for immediate access.

Spray Covers/Skirts

Spray covers and spray skirts are removable waterproof barriers designed to keep water out of your canoe in rough or rainy conditions. These covers, which snap or hook onto the edges of the canoe and stretch across the open hull, help keep you and your equipment dry and help keep your boat floating higher in the water. Spray covers and skirts come in a variety of styles, and are considered optional equipment by most paddle campers. On adventurous journeys in rough conditions or wet weather, however, they should be considered basic safety equipment.

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