An overnight paddling trip can make for a world-class adventure, broadening horizons and pushing boundaries. One of the keys to having a fondly remembered adventure is doing your homework. Even for seasoned paddlers, overnight expeditions involve serious planning and preparation. Whether you’d like to spend a night along the shores of a local lake with a cooler in tow or strike out into the backcountry for a week, here are a few ways to ensure your overnight paddling adventure goes smoothly.

1. Do Your Research

It may seem obvious, but first things first, do your research. In addition to stocking up on current maps and guidebooks, be sure to research practicalities like necessary permits, camping guidelines, restrictions on campfires, and shuttle or transportation services. Pay attention to safety issues too, and check on factors like seasonal weather conditions, tidal patterns, or dam releases. If your trip involves an extended portage, know what kind of terrain to expect and plan accordingly, especially if you’ll be bushwhacking between waterways.

2. Pack Smart

Although it might be tempting to load all your gear into one hefty duffle bag, a single sack isn’t very practical for an overnight paddling trip. Instead, divvy up gear into a collection of smaller dry bags to make things more accessible and easier to strategically distribute around the boat. Use an extra layer of waterproofing (even just a regular garbage bag) to ensure essentials like sleeping bags, headlamps, and cold weather layers stay dry. If possible, use different colored dry bags to make it easier to identify specific gear stashes in a hurry. In case you end up in the water, keep a spare set of clothes in a separate, sealed dry bag. 

3. Leave a Float Plan

Whether you’re a seasoned explorer or a first-time canoe camper, leaving a float plan with a reliable friend or family member is essential. While weather and water may force you to alter your intended route, provide as many details of your itinerary as possible. For an extended wilderness expedition, especially if you’re heading out solo, a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) can be a critical lifeline.

4. Plan for the Worst

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Be prepared to handle foul weather, unplanned portages, and other potential hiccups. Paxson Woelber

Even with the most meticulous planning, some trips can still turn into a nightmarish comedy of errors. Maybe the weather is miserable, you end up getting sick, or lose something absolutely essential. While these trips eventually make for great stories, in the moment they can be miserable. Plan for the worst possible scenario with essentials like a rechargeable light, a supply of repair tape, a patch kit for all sorts of fabrics, a hypothermia-preventing space blanket, emergency signaling devices, a fully-stocked first-aid kit, and a river knife that hooks directly to your PFD.

That said, dress for full water immersion, no matter how idyllic the conditions are when you first set out. According to the National Center for Cold Water Safety, paddlers should treat any water temperature below 70 degrees with caution. A wetsuit or drysuit is recommended for water temperatures starting at 55 degrees, and for anything below 55 degrees, a drysuit is essential.

5. Choose Gear Wisely

Go through that gear list with a fine-tooth comb and cut as much weight as possible. Can you get away with a hammock instead of a bulky tent? Will your splash jacket double as a raincoat? Maybe you can even sit in a camp chair while you paddle? Or use your PFD as a pillow when you turn in for the night? For short summer paddling trips in tropical climates, sturdy sandals might be the only footwear needed, and in most cases, wetsuits and drysuits are hardly necessary.

6. Do a Practice Run

You definitely don’t want to wait until you’re at the water’s edge to find out that your gear doesn’t fit into your boat. Before hitting the water, do a dry run and practice packing your boat to be sure all your stuff fits safely and comfortably. If you need to strap gear to your boat, opt for something adjustable and reliable, like elastic cords. And, don’t forget that your boat will handle differently in the water once it is loaded with gear, so you may want to consider taking your fully-packed vessel out for a spin before setting out on an overnight expedition.

7. Bring Water

Bring drinking water, even if you plan to carry a water-purification system and sip from crystalline lakes throughout your trip. To stay ahead of the curve, begin your outing with a half-gallon of drinking water per person onboard. This way, you start the journey with the added advantage of being adequately hydrated, because nobody needs a leg cramp at the beginning of an epic paddling expedition.

8. Don’t Count on Catching Dinner

Even in waters famed for harboring gargantuan trophy fish, hooking a delectable river monster in time for dinner isn’t a sure thing. Guarantee your caloric intake, plan meals in advance, and pack enough food for the trip. For an overnight outing, it’s well worth the effort to haul a cooler so you can store the ingredients for a gourmet meal. Paddlers doing extended excursions will find that freeze-dried meals are hassle-free and easy to pack. Also, don’t forget to bring snacks. In case you do catch that epic trout, it never hurts to haul a few of your favorite spices or seasonings into the backcountry (they can always jazz up freeze-dried meals too).

9. Plan for Auxiliary Adventures

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Bring a camera for great photo ops, and pack other accessories for off-the-water adventures. Paxson Woelber

An overnight or multi-day paddling trip can provide access to a whole host of auxiliary adventures, from sweet fishing spots to idyllic swimming holes and close-up encounters with wildlife. To take full advantage of your opportunities, pack accessories like birding binoculars, fishing gear, a trusty camera, and the easily-packable Quick Dry Microfiber Towel for swimming stops.

10. Bring Good Coffee

It’s virtually weightless, and it makes backcountry mornings beside the water even better.

Written by Malee Baker Oot for Matcha in partnership with Gear Aid and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@getmatcha.com.

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