15 Tips to Help Plan Your Solo Canoe Trip

Approx. 15 Minute Read

There’s something about being alone in nature that’s so incredibly peaceful. I often get asked why I enjoy solo tripping and words like ‘healing’, ‘peaceful’, ‘relaxing’, and ‘rewarding’ are usually part of my answer. Solo canoe tripping has become more popular in recent years and it makes me happy to hear that people are venturing into the amazing experience that is solo tripping. But there’s no denying that solo canoe trips take a lot more planning. Many people ask themselves “Is this something that I can do?” and while solo canoe trips may not appeal to everyone, if you do some research beforehand you might just find that solo tripping was made for you!

Please keep in mind that solo canoe trips are inherently more dangerous than tripping with a group, and should only be done by people who feel confident in their skills. This article will provide some helpful tips and pieces of advice, but it is not meant to be a thorough training guide. Please reflect on your current skill set to determine if a solo canoe trip is something you feel comfortable doing.

Solo Canoe Trip Tips - preparing to paddle solo canoe on beach during canoe trip

1. Choose the Right Canoe

Solo paddling is very different than paddling with other people. As a solo paddler you’ll be providing all of the power as well as the control, and each stroke will have more influence on the boat. You have three main options when choosing a canoe for your solo canoe trip. 

Solo Canoe: A solo canoe has one seat situated in the middle of the boat. This is the ideal spot to paddle from and you can choose to either sit on the seat, or kneel in front of it on the bottom of the boat. Since the seat is situated in the middle of the boat, there will be no yoke permanently attached to the boat. If you’re renting a solo canoe, make sure it includes a detachable yoke.

Pack Canoe: A pack canoe is almost identical to a regular solo canoe, however the seat is on the bottom of the canoe. Since you are lower in the canoe while paddling, you need to use a double-blade paddle (ie. kayak paddle) rather than a single-blade paddle. Pack canoes can be more stable on the water and help you travel faster, but personally I prefer the overall experience of paddling a regular solo canoe much better.

Tandem Canoe: Many people will do a solo canoe trip using a tandem canoe with two seats. You can turn the canoe around and sit in the front seat facing backwards. This brings you closer to the centre of the boat to make paddling more efficient. Symmetrical shaped canoe models are better if you plan on using this method of turning the boat backwards. Solo paddling a tandem boat will not be as fast or efficient as a regular solo canoe or pack canoe, and the wind will have much more influence and can ‘bully’ you around more easily. My recommendation will always be to use a dedicated solo canoe or pack canoe, especially if you are new to solo tripping.

*Paddling a solo canoe for your first time will likely feel ‘tippy’ at first, but don’t worry, you’ll get used to it quickly!

2. Bring a Backup Paddle

It’s always a good idea to bring a back up paddle on a solo canoe trip. All it takes is one wrong drop on a rock to break the paddle, or slip out of your hand to lose it in the water. And without a paddle, it will be pretty difficult to travel in your canoe. I recommend bringing one single-blade paddle and one double-blade paddle if you’re new to solo tripping. The double-blade paddle will help you travel faster if needed, and will also help you in windy conditions.

Personally, I don’t enjoy paddling with a double-blade nearly as much as I enjoy paddling with a single-blade, so I don’t bring a double-blade with me anymore. I did however bring a double-blade with me on my first few solo canoe trips, and it was a life saver against some nasty headwinds!

3. Know Your Strokes

When paddling tandem, if each person paddles on opposite sides with relatively equal power the boat should stay pointing forward. In a solo canoe, you have no second paddler to balance things out, so every time you do a stroke it has much more influence on the boat. Knowing some basic paddling strokes is super important to help keep the boat pointing straight so you don’t zigzag your way across the lake, wasting precious time and energy.

You don’t need to know every stroke possible, but it would be good to know at least a few different strokes that can be used in different circumstances. For example, the J-Stroke is one of the most popular strokes due to its efficiency and ability to keep the canoe pointing straight. An alternative would be the Goon Stroke or Canadian Stroke. Some other useful strokes to learn would be the Pry Stroke, Draw Stroke, C Stroke, and Sweep. This Wikipedia article does a good job of explaining these strokes, and there are plenty of YouTube videos that go into further detail. 

4. Stay Close to Shore

Paddling close to shore is always a safe choice when doing a solo canoe trip. It’s increasingly important if you’re i) paddling a large lake, ii) paddling in windy conditions, or iii) paddling in the off season when water temperatures are colder. 

Windy conditions make it more likely to tip, and cold water temperatures could turn a flipped canoe into a life or death scenario extremely quickly. Dealing with a flipped canoe in the middle of a lake is much easier if you have a second person or a second canoe with you since it opens up rescue options like the T-Rescue. But when you travel solo it becomes extremely difficult to do a self rescue if the boat flips, and if you’re in the middle of a large lake it will be difficult to swim to shore. This can lead to hypothermia very quickly if you’re travelling in the shoulder seasons. Staying relatively close to shore is always a smart choice so that if you do tip, you can get to shore safely and quickly. And remember, always wear your PFD while paddling!

5. Keep Weight in the Boat

Every canoe has an optimal load capacity to help maintain best performance on the water. If there isn’t enough weight in the canoe, it may ride high above the water and it may be more difficult to control the canoe in windy conditions. 

When you’re travelling on a canoe trip, in addition to your own bodyweight you’ll often have a good amount of gear inside the canoe with you. But what happens if you get to camp, unload all of the gear to the campsite, and then decide to go for a paddle? The canoe would just have your bodyweight and nothing else. In calm waters this won’t be an issue, but if there’s any chance of wind picking up, it’s a good idea to add some extra weight to the boat. Some heavy rocks and/or firewood in the bow and stern of the canoe will do the trick. Try and keep the weight evenly distributed, with a slight preference for extra weight in the front of the boat.

6. Bring a GPS Communication Device

Travelling with a GPS communication device on a canoe trip is a good idea regardless of whether you’re travelling solo or not. But I felt it was worth having its own section because in my opinion, it’s even more important for solo travellers. In an emergency situation you won’t have anyone with you and the nearest group might be far away, so it’s important to have a method of communicating with the outside world. Yes, there are some pockets of cell service within Algonquin Park, but it’s extremely spotty and unreliable.

Ideally you’ll want to bring a GPS communication device that has two-way communication. Some brands to consider are SPOT, Garmin, and Zoleo. I personally use a Garmin InReach Mini and would recommend it to anyone looking to purchase a GPS communication device. Remember that if you bring one of these devices with you, don’t store it away deep in a pack somewhere—make sure it’s literally on your body at all times so that it’s easily accessible in the event of an emergency.

Aside from emergency situations, GPS communication devices also let you keep in contact with your loved ones back home. It’s a great way to reassure them that you are ok and everything is going according to plan. My first preset message on my InReach Mini is literally “I’m Alive and Ok”, which I send every morning when I wake up, every evening before I go to bed, and sometimes mid-day when I reach my destination.

Solo Canoe Trip Tips - sitting solo by the shoreline with fall colours and red canoe

7. Assume All Portages Require a Double Carry

On a solo canoe trip you’re responsible for everything. Unfortunately, that means you’re responsible for carrying all of your gear plus the canoe on every portage. It may not seem like a lot, but unless you’re an ultralight traveller, it’s probably more than you think.

I’d recommend weighing all of your gear before the start of the trip (including paddles, PFD, etc.) so that you have an idea just how much weight you’ll need to portage. It’s recommended to portage 1/3 of your bodyweight, up to a max of 1/2 of your bodyweight. Everyone’s capabilities are different and some people may be able to exceed these guidelines, but that’s the general rule of thumb when determining how much weight you can portage.

On a solo canoe trip, assume every portage will require a double carry. The only exception to this is if you’ve already gone out and done a solo trip with the exact same gear, and you know without a doubt you can manage a single carry. If that’s not the case, plan for double carries. If you end up single carrying, great, you have more free time in the day! But the last thing you want is to plan for single carries, and find out that it’s not possible and you need to double carry, but now your route is way too long and not doable.

8. Make Noise While You Portage

Most of the time you spend on a solo canoe trip will be in silence. You have no one to talk to, so unless you enjoy talking to yourself (hey, I’m guilty of it sometimes), you’ll be very quiet during your travels. When it comes to portaging, I always make noise on the trail. Sometimes I’ll have music playing at a quiet volume. Sometimes I’ll make loud random noises or talk to myself. Sometimes I’ll intentionally bang the canoe with my hands to create noise.

The main reason for making noise while portaging is to make any nearby wildlife aware of your presence. You don’t want to accidentally bump into a bear, or startle a moose during rutting season. I’ve personally come face-to-face with fox, moose, and wolf on portage trails because they didn’t know I was around.

9. Include Buffer Time, All the Time

Remember earlier when I said “On a solo canoe trip you’re responsible for everything”? That’s an easy thing to forget while in the planning stages of a trip. Every single thing you used to rely on the other members of your group to help with, you’ll now need to do by yourself. From small tasks like loading and unloading the canoe at a portage landing, to bigger tasks like setting up the tent, collecting firewood, and preparing and cooking dinner.

Everything takes longer when you’re doing it by yourself. It’s important to give yourself buffer time for every single task. Until you get comfortable with all the chores and know exactly how long it will take you, assume it will take 1.5x longer than normal. It’s better to plan for things taking longer than they actually do, rather than the opposite. And if you beat your planned time, you’ll have extra time to relax, go for a paddle, and enjoy your surroundings. Can’t complain about that, right?

Solo Canoe Trip Tips - sitting by the fire on a solo canoe trip in Algonquin Park

10. Plan a Realistic Route

This is another tip that applies to all canoe trips, but I still wanted to highlight it for solo trips specifically. When you’re doing a solo canoe trip the accumulation of everything throughout the day tends to be more tiring. Paddling against headwinds is draining. Portaging will wear you out (especially if you double carry). Setting up and taking down camp can take hours.

Planning a realistic route means planning something that you can actually accomplish, and that you’ll still enjoy doing. If your route planning is too ambitious you may need to camp off-permit, and that could negatively impact other people’s trips. Even if you’re able to follow the route without camping off-permit, an overly ambitious route can drain you and take away from the overall solo canoe trip experience.

11. Take At Least One Rest Day

Building on the last section ‘Plan a Realistic Route’, I highly recommend taking at least one rest day in your trip. If you’re planning a short 2 to 3 day trip and a rest day isn’t realistic, I would still recommend having at least one or two days with very short travel time.

Take some time to appreciate the environment and being alone out there. It doesn’t always need to be a constant hustle. Give yourself time to enjoy the simple pleasures of canoe tripping; wake up for the sunrise and go for a paddle, stay up late to stargaze, etc. Those will be your favourite memories.

12. Easing Nighttime Paranoia

One of the most common concerns about solo canoe tripping is the fear about bears. I’ve written a whole article Bears in Algonquin Park—Everything You Need to Know that you can check out, but when it comes to nighttime paranoia there are a few pieces of advice that might help.

First, choose a campsite that makes you feel comfortable. Sometimes a campsite will have an eerie feeling to it, and even if it’s a nice campsite otherwise, if you don’t feel comfortable for whatever reason then keep on looking for something else. I tend to like campsites that are open and spacious so I’m more aware of my surroundings at all times. It’s reassuring to know that if a bear stumbled upon my campsite I might have a few extra seconds to prepare myself (move towards my canoe, get my bear spray handy, etc.)

During the daytime if you hear a noise you’ll look around and notice that it was probably made by a bird, or a chipmunk. At night, it’s harder to identify where noises are coming from so it makes your mind wander. This gets even worse when you’re inside the tent because you can’t see any of your surroundings. Every tiny sound may trick you into thinking it’s a large animal outside. A really simple solution is to bring earplugs and/or headphones to wear at night. Out of sight, out of mind. If a bear were to stumble upon my campsite in the middle of the night, there’s no chance I would get out of my tent, so I’d rather wear headphones and be obliviously unaware of its presence.

The truth is, many solo trippers will have nighttime paranoia, and if you’re one of those people, just know that it’s only temporary. Every night you spend out on a trip you’ll feel more comfortable and the paranoia will slowly disappear.

Solo Canoe Trip Tips - paddling a solo canoe in Algonquin Park

13. Watch Out for the Wind

This tip ties in to many of the previous ones but it deserves its own section too. It’s much harder paddling through windy conditions when travelling solo, and much easier to get windbound for the day. Pitching a tent or hanging a tarp by yourself can be exponentially more difficult in windy conditions as well. Watch out for the wind and plan your days accordingly. It’s perfectly acceptable to start your trip a day later, or end your trip a day early if the forecast calls for extremely strong winds.

Even if you’re mid-trip, if you’re able to pull a weather forecast and it’s calling for nasty winds, you can plan accordingly. One personal example, midway through my trip “Big Dipper – 8 Days Alone in Algonquin” it called for 42km/hr winds on Lake Louisa, my destination for the next day. Lake Louisa is a large lake and prone to choppy waters, so when I saw the forecast I decided to get on the water as early as possible. I made it to Lake Louisa at 9:30 AM before the worst of the winds hit for the day. I made sure to choose a campsite that offered protection from the wind, and I decided to play it safe and avoid paddling once the winds picked up.

14. Prepare for the Rain

We’ve talked a lot about wind already, but what about the other dreaded element… rain? When you’re on a canoe trip with other people and it starts raining, you can chat, play games, and keep each other company. But when you’re by yourself, you’re essentially in solitary confinement either in your tent or under a tarp. Rainy days are depressing as it is, but when you’re on a solo canoe trip it can really take a toll on your mental state. Make sure you prepare for the rain by bringing some activities that can be done alone to help keep you occupied. Some solo activities that can be done in your tent or under your tarp could include writing in a journal, practicing tying knots with a rope, reading a book, and wood carving with a knife. There are a ton of options to choose from, it’s just good to plan in advance so that when the rain starts you’ll be able to keep yourself engaged.

15. Always Err on the Side of Caution

This is the last tip but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s the least important! In fact, it may be the most important thing about solo tripping. Always err on the side of caution. Always. Don’t do any cliff jumping while swimming. Don’t try and be superman on the portages carrying your bodyweight worth of gear and end up injuring yourself. Don’t forgot proper safety precautions when dealing with dangerous objects like knives, saws, or when managing a fire. You’re by yourself and if something goes wrong, no one is there to offer immediate help. Enjoy the solo canoe tripping experience but remember to be smart about everything you do.