Canoe camping is a skill beyond all the ultralight hiking and camping skills you know. Skill with paddling come mainly through practice but it helps to know a few basic strokes. A basic forward paddle, the long sweeping paddle needed for turns, a back paddle, and how angling a paddle affects the boat and your grip. How to get into and out of the boat without getting wet (this is the one I have trouble with.) These are basic skills that only require a few minutes of practice to have successful results with.
Camping requires practice, too. (I won’t try to reiterate what others have written on how to lightening a pack.) Most of the skills needed are well within any beginners reach. Sometimes, when racing down a stream filled with white water, boulders, rocky shelves and falls, canoe camping can be more challenging than hiking a trail. Different from climbing a rocky peak, it can be as dangerous, perhaps more so, since more people die from drowning than falling off a mountain. A few special concerns, since you are near water.
Always, use a personal floatation device/life preserver. Canoes and other small boats, by nature, are not very stable. Accidents happen in a second. Have a PFD handy whenever you go paddling. Wear it if you feel the least uncomfortable on the water.
Cold water and wind, the energy expended while paddling, can leave a paddler open to hypothermia even in 50 degree weather. Know the signs and avoid it. Have a sweater or rain jacket handy. If you are paddling and you get cold, you will be doubly cold when you stop to camp. My gear includes a good fleece or wool sweater. Both types of sweaters get wet, both retain keep enough insulating value to make them worth it. Leave the sweater under your seat or sit on it when you don’t need it. Other than during summer, you likely will.
Leave white water to the younger crowd. A portage around class III and greater runs is a bit of work, but much safer, usually. Especially if you are not really equipped for the conditions you might encounter along these stretches. Longer flat-water boats do not maneuver well enough to handle these conditions. Floatation bags are usually not carried. Helmets are not usually carried on ultralight camping trips. Longer flat-water paddles are harder to handle in close quarters than short, light paddles; you can feel the loss of leverage/power needed for the short, quick maneuvers needed for white water. Or you might simply lack experience. In colder weather special wet suits/dry suits and other types of specialized equipment are often needed, just to stay warm. The more specialized canoe equipment is often unavailable to a ultralight camper. He just doesn’t carry the extra weight. Pack-rafts are becoming popular, but make sure you have a repair kit handy.
After a long paddle, using the different muscles for a portage lets you continue on. Portaging uses legs and feet , instead of torso and shoulders, and, an opportunity to get off your rump. I feels good to stand and walk on solid ground for a change, but, it also leaves you open to getting cold easily by expending energy from all parts of your body, leaving little left to keep you warm at camp. Total exhaustion is an easy avenue to getting cold.
Staying warm while wet can be difficult and the calories burned can be very high. Especially if you manage to dump the canoe and are dripping wet. Bring more food than you think you need. Food fuels the body to generate heat and maintain energy. A longer paddle will burn between 4000-5000 calories a day, or about the same as a 10 hour hike. Hiking and canoeing are different activities, but can be as strenuous.
Judge weather and temperature accordingly. Lightning can be deadly if you are caught out on an open lake. Head to shore when you hear thunder approaching. Pull over and get out. Standing under a lower tree will provide some cover from the wind and rain, and, you will not likely be struck by lightning. Often storms are preceded with a blast of cold air and you can find yourself paddling hard, yet cold and wet from spray, not daring to stop to get a rain jacket on. Think ahead of the weather. Paddling will involve about a 10 minute delay to being on shore, safe from an electrical storm. Thinking ahead is necessary to stay out of trouble.
Avoid ice choked water. Sometimes, ice can form bridges, dams and shelves over otherwise open water. A current can drag a paddler under it with severe results. Snow and rain itself is not usually a problem, but sliding under ice can be deadly. Thin ice near shore can cut flesh and damage a boat. Currents can pull as well as push around eddies. Eddies will often spin your boat towards the center. Upwells can make your boat unstable and try to send you swimming. Avoid getting sideways in the middle of a heavy current against any obstacle, you are sure to get wet getting away from the pin.
During rainstorms in a canoe, there is no cover. Be prepared to bail the boat if you get stuck in a sudden downpour. Sponges, pots, and pumps can all be used. Often trees will mediate the downpours when hiking. You can do close to the same in a canoe, pulling up, under a larger pine, for example. Expect to get wet in a canoe and know how to stay warm when wet. On a serene paddle across a calm lake, it is just a relaxing paddle. Wet, cold and windy paddling is often just miserable work. Setting up a quick ultralight camp lets you dry out and explore an area a little. Take a break if the weather is against you, it is sure to change.
Windy weather can raise large waves on a lake. The winds and waves can conspire to push the boat in odd directions near shore and around points. Avoid paddling in these conditions, if possible. Sometimes, you need an extra day to dry out after such a run. Sometimes the sun is shining and warm, but a 30knot wind makes paddling difficult, at best. You’ll be better off in camp. Do not be afraid of being blown off a lake. It is a mark of good judgment, never shame, if/when it happens. Know when to quit and simply wait out a storm.
So, what gear do you need for canoe camping? Basically, NEEDED gear is simple. A standard hikers backpack, a canoe/PFD and a paddle. For ultralight canoe paddling, again, it is the same gear, but smaller, lighter boats are used. My ultralight pack will weigh about 20 pounds, but I double this load with a canoe and boat gear.
The basic canoe is required to go paddling, but what constitutes a canoe? A kayak works. An 80 pound “duck” boat works. An old rowboat works. There are too many definitions for what a canoe is, let alone the combinations with gear used for any one definition to be used. The definition I use for canoe camping is anything that will float, can be paddled and can be carried (portaged.) From pack rafts, kayaks, canoes to row boats, all have been used. Of course, the boat should carry you and your camp gear. Insure you have the capacity to carry at least 250 pounds in a solo boat.
My personal favorite is a low profile solo canoe, about 12’6”(4 meters) long. This is paddled using a double paddle or “kayak” style paddle. Small at 12’, easy to maneuver through small streams and waterways of the Adirondack’s in New York, it is light enough to be portaged at 21 pounds. Sitting near the bottom, “kayak” style, and the low profile means high stability and the winds are mitigated. I have used canoes as light as 8 pounds (skin on frame boats) and as heavy as 95 pounds (older aluminum canoes.) Rowboats are often wider and somewhat heavier, but these are better on fishing trips. They work well on larger lakes with short portages, too. Packrafts are easy to carry at about 6 pounds, but don’t handle larger bodies of water well, nor winds. So, don’t feel limited if there is no actual traditional canoe available. It is all canoe camping.
A ultralight canoe and related gear should weigh less than 25 pounds, but, you don’t need to go ultra light. The portaging equipment, paddle(s), PFD, spray decks or skirt, and, 25’ of mooring/dragging line brings the weight up to 24pounds from the 21pounds I mentioned for the boat weight.
On most water, a paddle is needed, obvious until it is forgotten as I did once. The traditional canoe paddle is what most people associate with paddling. There are many styles available. On smaller streams or when headed upstream, paddles are often traded for a 7-12’ pole for polling the craft. A kayak paddle or double ended paddle means you can stroke on both sides of a canoe, alternately. In some cases, webbed gloves or “hand paddles” can be used effectively (pack-boats.) Rowing lets you use the more powerful legs to assist locomotion, but facing backwards. On some boats a lever system lets you row facing in the direction of your travel. On narrow streams, it is often possible to grab sticks, branches or scrub to move forward, mostly used through swamps and bogs. Some boats are propelled by leg or hand power turning a propeller or paddle wheel. (It is not my intent to recommend one method over another.) Some form of propulsion is needed when on the water.
On some streams the water is too shallow for boats. Headed upstream, against the current, you may need to drag the boat behind you as you wade through these shallows. This is called “lining”. Some boats have special eyelets mounted near the bottom of the bow to allow this. This is actually more work than hiking, but is often the easiest way through some sections.
Of course, any boat needs a PFD for every person. The life preserver can be a simple pad, vest, or jacket. In most states a life preserver is required. In New York, it is required to wear a life preserver in cold weather. With the proper selection of boat, paddle and life vest, these can be integrated into a general camp system (using the life vest as a sleeping pad, the boat as a shelter “base”, and/or the split paddle as pole for a tarp staked over the boat.) On most sites a simple tarp shelter is good enough. Bugs are always a problem near water, though, bring a piece of netting to rig over your head and shoulders.