Adventure Paddling, Ten Proven Steps to Succeed

Updated: Mar 29, 2019

Long distance paddlers often have strong opinions about what they do and how they do it.

Canadian expedition paddler Martin Trahan, landing at Key Largo, Florida at the end of this expedition from Astoria, Oregon in 2018

No matter the subject when paddlers talk about their passions there will be disagreements. 

There is always more than just one way to do a thing and none of us can know everything, or be right every time. 

There are principles we can learn and strategies we can adapt to make expedition paddling fun and satisfying. Strategies change over time as conditions change, but principles always stay the same and they always work. Learn the principles to make sure of lasting success.

Here are ten steps to help thru-paddlers succeed.

Step 1. How to get started. The most significant reason people give for not enjoying their paddle camping adventure is a lack of knowledge. There is a learning curve, sometimes the curve is seemingly straight up, and it takes a while to put the pieces together. 

It is best to learn sequentially. Each step reinforces the one before and lays the foundation for the next. If you skip ahead, it may lead to confusion and frustration later in your progress. All of us are beginners until we learn how to do it. If you stick with it, study it, practice it, refine it, you will become an expert.  

Make new friends who share your interest in paddle camping. Read books and magazine articles and send questions to the authors. 

Join Facebook groups and online forums and see what others are talking about and join in the conversation. 

Join your local canoe and kayak club and go on club sponsored floats and camping trips. Many clubs sponsor classes in paddling, camping, wilderness first aid and swift water rescue. Classes are an excellent place to meet new friends while you learn. 

Step 2. Lack of planning is planning to fail. The second biggest reason that paddle trips fall flat is because there was not sufficient forethought and planning. Adventure paddling is not always wet, cold, miserable, painful and life-threatening. Many wild tales of wilderness misadventures will have you believe that, but it's not true most of the time. 

In too many cases the trip turns out to be more than the paddler or his companions bargained for, and they end their trip with skepticism and doubt. You can bet they will damn sure never do that again. 

Write a plan of what you are doing. Directions, route, timetable, shuttles, paddling gear, camping gear, food, clothing, safety, and who is going with you. Work out your plan definitively before committing to the trip. 

To dedicate days, weeks or sometimes even months of your life to something so improbable as thru-paddling from headwaters to the sea needs a good plan. Paddling without a plan is frustrating and sometimes even dangerous. 

Step 3. Pre-conditioning. Long-distance paddling requires a mind and body both ready for the trail. When you are ready to go be sure your body is ready for peak performance. Don't rely on the trail to break you in, it might cripple you instead. 

Daily paddle training is not always possible for most of us, but we can at least spend part of each day exercising. Walking is the simplest of simple exercises and for me it is cheaper and much more convenient than a gym membership. Walking with hiking poles in each hand exercises and strengthens the upper body.

Magnify the positive effects of walking by combining it with yoga.

Yoga For Paddling can help you reduce weight, tone your body, take away the pain, quiet your mind, increase your daily mileage. Fifteen minutes of yoga can prepare you for an extra hour of vigorous paddling or portaging to your day before exhaustion. Add hours of enjoyment to your days and add years of happiness to your life. 

If you are going with a partner or group, make sure your paddling companions are on-board with your ideas for trip preparation and physical conditioning. 

Your expedition will move at the speed of the slowest paddler, so make sure your partners can keep up with you.

Step 4. Preparation means to have what you need. Always buy the best equipment you can afford, but first, study and practice with borrowed gear until you decide what you need. 

Research what is available before deciding which products will best suit your needs. Write your shopping list and use the Good-Better-Best Buying System to shop for good purchases that will get you better equipment at the best price. 

Start out low-cost and be open-minded. You may not know what you need until you experience a few days on the water and spend a few nights in camp.

Borrow or rent in the beginning and have fun as you are building your knowledge base and skills levels. For example, here’s what Canadian outdoor writer Kevin Callan said about his first night in a hammock tent, ¨Its like your first kiss. You’re not sure you did it right, but you are definitely sure you want to do it again!¨

Long distance paddling is genuinely challenging. That’s part of its charm. But don't amplify your chances of being wet, cold, miserable and in harm's way because you allowed yourself or someone else to talk you into buying cheap, inadequate equipment.

Step 5. Quality food and clean drinking water are the fuel and the fluid that keep our motor humming. Don’t buy your food at gas station convenience stores even though they are plentiful and convenient and they always have cheap beer, sugary soft drinks, Slim Jims, Snickers, Honey Buns and Little Debbies snack cakes. Don't ask me how I know.

Junk food is abundantly available, and sinfully tasty. But do you really want to rely on these empty calories for an extended expedition? 

Are you sure you want to pay outlandish prices for conveniently located awful food?

For real work, your body needs real food. Real food includes protein, carbohydrates, and fat. For greatest enjoyment, we want flavor, sugar, salt, spice, grease, crunch and chewy. Some of us want caffeine and a smidge of alcoholic beverage, too. 

You can cut your food costs by two thirds, and food weight and bulk by at least half using Freezer Bag Cooking methods. Pre-cook meals at home using dehydrating equipment like the Excalibur 9-tray. Or combine dehydrated and freeze-dried meals from companies like Harmony House Foods.  

Filter, boil or treat your drinking water every time, regardless of what so-called trail experts will tell you. They might say it is safe to drink from a creek if it is moving, or in the highlands above cities or if your fairy godmother blessed the water last night while you were sleeping.

A water filter and purifier like the MSR MiniWorks EX Microfilter Water Purifier System is more than adequate for a small group. It costs less than $100 to insure against the severe illnesses lurking in the springs and creeks and lakes along the trail. 

Step 6. Health and hygiene include preparation, prevention, and cleanliness. 

Take one zero-day per week, for fun, relaxation, rejuvenation, repair, re-organizing and maybe even worship, depending on your religion. 

A zero day once a week is a chance to rest, recuperate, relax, go fishing or hiking or just lie around camp enjoying nature. Younger people who are in a hurry will scoff at my more leisurely pace. That’s okay, we each have our priorities. For me it means going faster, going farther and having more fun if I give myself a chance to rest once a week.

Cleanliness is the first defense against illness. Wash something every day, including yourself. Clean socks and underwear and clean crotch, armpits, hands, teeth, face, and feet can help keep you from getting sick and will help keep you from smelling like the dumpster behind the fish house. 

Especially clean the crack to prevent chaffing and monkey butt caused by paddling in clothing that may be wet most of the time.

Learn how to do a cloth bath in only a few minutes. Preheat the water, pour in a cap full of Pure-Castille or Wilderness Wash then scrub and rinse. It only takes a liter of clean water to enjoy a quick cloth bath before bed each night. 

Haircuts and nail clips are part of the hygiene package, too. Keep the dirty mustache out of your mouth and the beard out of your food and keep the insects and mice out of your scraggly hair. Well-trimmed fingernails capture less dirt and are less prone to break or tear.

Step 7. Set daily mileage objectives that are realistic. Killing the miles today can ruin your mileage tomorrow if you over exert or get injured.  

Arrive at camp an hour before dark for leisurely setting up, cooking and eating, cleaning up, taking care of chores and enjoying your cheery campfire as the night settles around you. 

You do not want to be the miserable, dehydrated, hypothermic guy paddling wearily along the shore after dark, forlornly searching for a place to get off the water. His only plan is to roll up in his tarp and lay on the ground in the pouring rain and pray to live through the night.

Step 8. Don’t take too much stuff. We’ve each been through difficult portages and we have each at least once paddled an unwieldy boat riding low in the water from too much heavy gear. 

Photo by Jim Wagner, Cottonwood, Arizona

In the beginning, you won’t be sure just what you will need. Chances are you will err on the heavy side. Keep practicing, and you’ll soon get it right. 

Learn to be like experienced paddlers who can disappear for a week at a time in the wilderness with nothing but a 40-pound canoe or kayak and a 30-pound backpack. 

Step 9. Take what you need and leave everything else at home. Within reason. Go light at first before you try ultralight. Don’t go ultralight until you are ultra ready. 

Ultralight paddlers are on a mission for speed and distance. Their game plan doesn’t always include comfort or good food and sometimes even compromises safety. 

Don't let hard-to-meet goals like theirs interfere with your enjoyment of the outdoors and don't let over-reaching ambition of your own try to stuff too many miles into a too-short vacation.

Step 10. Fail it fast, fail it fair and fail it forward. Find out as soon as you can if something is going to work the way you want it. Give it a fair trial and if it fails, then fail it forward. 

When something doesn’t work, you can learn a lesson from it. Use the new knowledge to move you to the next level. 

Don’t get stuck in the failure. Sometimes things don’t work. Accept that it failed and either improve it or replace it. 

Know the limit of your equipment but don’t push it to break just to prove you can. Everything has a failure point if you try hard enough and long enough, and believe me, duct tape doesn’t always cure inferior equipment. 

There are dozens more steps for enjoying successful paddling expeditions, but these ten are a start. You will have great fun discovering the rest.

Good luck on your paddling expeditions.  

Andy is author of the book Five Hundred Miles to the Sea and is administrator of the Facebook groups Adventure Canoe and Kayak Camping and Virginia Paddlers. He is chief paddling officer at

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