Early Season Canoe Trip Tips

Early Season Canoe Tripping Tips

As we inch closer to ice out on our local lakes and waterways, diehard paddlers are chomping at the bit to load up the car and splash down for their first trip of the season.  Many of us have been looking over maps and planning our trips carefully.  For some of us, we start to feel like 'a kid on Christmas’ as our first trip of the season becomes a reality.    

The other day we received an email from a friend asking us if we had any advice for early season / ice out canoe trips.  The short answer is ‘yes’ but let’s expand on that a little.

Make no mistake, there is a big difference between a canoe trip during the hot summer months and an early season trip.  Even though we are anxious to get back on the water there are a number of things to consider.

  1. Know The Water Conditions Before Setting Out: Knowing is half the battle.  Don’t take it for granted that lakes will be passable just because your local conditions are favourable.  We encourage you to keep a close eye on ice conditions and to reach out to the local area experts.  Many outfitters and park offices will be happy to provide ice out conditions if you contact them.  There are also a number of great on-line resources that can be referenced.  On another note, it’s worth planning your early season trips around smaller bodies of water that are less likely to be impacted by bad weather. 

  2. Stay Warm and Dry: Few things are as important as staying warm and dry during an early season trip.  This is a theme that will be explored in greater detail throughout this article.  Make sure to pack warm clothes, with multiple layers and always have a second set of dry clothes that you can change into.  Waterproofing is another important element.  You can have all sorts of clothes with you, but if they are all wet they will not keep you warm.  Wool is a great option (especially Merino Wool) as it will still retain warmth, even if it is wet.  We recommend waterproof pack options and proper raingear to help keep everything dry.  Upon arriving at your destination start to dry out any wet items so that they can be used again later.  Pro Tip: If you are drying out your footwear, avoid putting them too close to the fire, boots (surprisingly) burn easily.  We found a burned hiking boot 35km into the La Cloche Silhouette Trail in Killarney.  I wonder how their hike out was?        

  3. Weather Can Be More Unpredictable:The spring season is well known for wild weather changes.  We can experience warm temperatures and sunny days, only to be followed by cold rains and sometimes even snow.  Winds can blow more fiercely which can increase the likelihood of being storm stayed.  It is wise to keep an eye on the weather forecast before setting out.  This can help you plan accordingly and make smarter decisions.  Make certain that your trip plans account for this possibility of being storm stayed and that you have enough food for an extra day or two.      

  4. Tripping Can Be Slower Than Normal: After a tough Canadian winter, the trails will likely be in bad condition.  You will likely encounter deadfall across the portage trails.  There may be some put in/take out locations that still have ice or snow.  River crossing may be running higher than normal.  It is also a reality (and tough on the ego) that most of us are not in the best condition at the beginning of the season.  During the spring season you will also have more weight in your packs (extra clothes and food) which will translate into slower tripping.   All of these things mean that you will need to take more time to get from point A to point B so plan for shorter travel days with frequent rest stops.         

  5. Plan on Having a Good Tarping System:Continuing with our theme of staying warm and dry, proper tarping can be pivotal in achieving both goals.  What makes the difference between a good tarp setup and a poor one?  Several things!  The first goal should be to keep you dry if it rains.  Water should be able to freely run off of the tarp without pooling and pay special attention to where that water will be running.  You don’t want it going towards your fire or your tent.  Tarps should be pulled taught on all sides which will help cut the wind and ideally prevent noisy flapping and premature wear.  The second goal is to protect your fire and firewood from the elements.  The real trick is to protect the fire, while allowing the smoke to blow clear of the tarp.  You should also leave a reasonable amount of space between the fire and your tarp to prevent burn holes that render the tarp useless.   

  6. Be Confident In Your Fire Making Skills:The good news is that in the early spring, there is usually a lot of deadfall and finding firewood can be effortless.  The bad news is that sometimes this wood can be wet and difficult to burn.  There are all sorts of methods and techniques for building a quality fire.  I highly recommend that anyone heading out for early season trips ensures that they are confident in their fire starting abilities in even the most difficult conditions.  Fire starters (homemade or store bought) are a great resource to pack in with you for these trips.  A great tip is to start with a dry base, fires tend to have trouble in the early stages due to ground moisture.           

  7. Have A Warm Sleeping System: Few things can make for a more miserable camping trip then being cold at night.  After a long day in the woods it is important to get a good night’s sleep.  Having overnight lows around / below zero demands that you have a quality sleeping system.  This includes a low temperature rated sleeping bag (down or synthetic; both have their pros and cons) as well as a sleeping pad to insulate you from the cold ground.  A toque and warm wool socks are also nice items to have for sleeping on cold nights in April and May.  Another tip to stay warm during the overnight is to eat some food before going to bed.  As your body works to digest the food, it will give off additional heat.  Finally, if you have ever had the experience of crawling out of your warm sleeping bag in the middle of a cold night to go to the bathroom, you know that you should try to reduce the amount of liquids you consume before packing in the for night. 

  8. Invest in a Candle Lantern (http://www.mec.ca/product/5027-954/uco-original-candle-lantern/?q=Candle%2BLantern): Please do yourself a favour and invest in a candle lantern.  On a cold evening a candle lantern is a reliable source of light and also generates heat.  Set the candle lantern up in the tent an hour before retiring and it will provide enough heat to take the chill out of the tent and your sleeping bag.  

Always remember that safety is the most important part of any trip.  Proper planning and smart decision making can only mitigate against risk.  We strongly ask people to be even more diligent and attentive to safety during early season tripping.  Cold spring water temperatures can prove to be deadly.  Wear your lifejacket, be smart and return home safely.

Both Mark Highfield and Darren Placido collaborated on the content and presentation of this article.