How To Plan a Paddling Route

From weather factors to shuttle tips and group dynamics, here’s everything to consider in advance of launching your next flatwater or downriver paddling trip.

Planning a paddling trip? Whether it’s just for an afternoon outing, a weekend overnighter, or even extended to a week-long journey, planning out your route can make it more enjoyable and safer while helping eliminate surprises. While your location, type of craft, and trip length will dictate much of your route-planning efforts (i.e., whether you have to deal with things like portages, tidal currents and different put-ins and takeouts), a little pre-trip preparation will go a long way toward ensuring a successful canoe, kayak, or SUP outing. The following planning fundamentals apply whether you’re heading across a body of water, hopping along coastlines, or launching a downriver excursion.

Research, Research, Research

If you’re new to the region you’re paddling, research where you’re going. There are plenty of online resources that outline recommended routes, permit and camping requirements, and other information. Also, get in touch with your local paddling shop or outfitter for advice, and peruse maps and guidebooks to help plan your route (note: buy each one for your trip). Local paddling clubs in the region are another great resource. 

Know Your Put-in and Takeout

It might seem basic, but know where you’re launching and how to get there. The last contingency you want is to get lost and delay your departure, having you running late from the get-go. Also know where your takeout is as well as the return route home once the trip ends. Research driving directions and times.  

Consider Distance

Think about how long you want your trip to be—and how far you want to go. In favorable conditions and protected water, about 10 miles a day is appropriate for beginner kayakers and canoeists, which will have you paddling for four to five hours. If there’s wind, plan on that distance taking an hour or two longer. If you’re heading downstream on a river, most flatwater moves around 1 or 2 mph, which will help your progress. Also make sure your trip is realistic for the entire group, and that everyone has the stamina to stick to the itinerary. Better to overestimate than underestimate your paddling time; plan your time on the water around the slowest paddler in your group.  

Group Dynamics

Whether it’s just one other person going along or a group of friends, make sure your planned route fits everyone’s goals for the trip. Are you trying for an epic, endurance-filled suffer-fest or just a leisurely cruise, with plenty of time in camp to après at sunset? Do you want to make stops along the way to fish, hike and explore side-streams and lakes, or paddle straight to camp each day? Do you want to schedule a layover day to rest? Make sure everyone agrees on the itinerary before setting out.   

Start Big

If you’re on a multi-day trip, don’t plan your biggest paddle for Day One (you’ll be busy driving and rigging), but do plan any big legs of your trip early on in the journey. If you're planning an out-and-back river trip, head upstream first. On a sea or lake tour, knock off your biggest days toward the beginning or middle of your trip. Don’t save the hardest day for last. That way, you can end the trip, pack up and drive home while you still have energy. 

Plan Around the Tides

On protected ocean tours, remember that tidal currents vary in speed and direction throughout the day. Check tide tables (and bring one or a tidal app with you) to plan your trip so you’re paddling with the tide in both directions. This is especially important when heading into narrow estuaries and passages. Also, make sure to haul your boats above the high-tide line at camp and during any side-hikes (and keep an eye on them when stopping for lunch). 

Plan Around Portages

If you’re canoeing in lake country (like the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness), plan for any portages you might encounter on your route. Depending on their length, factor in shuttling your gear, possibly with two trips, into your total mileage for the day.  

Consider Wind

Don’t utter the word out loud, but take wind into consideration every day. Conditions are often calmest in the morning, with the wind picking up in the afternoon as the land heats up from the sun. Try to beat it by either heading out early, or factoring it into your daily mileage. Note: Research the prevailing winds of the area as well; sometimes you might be able to have it at your back (hallelujah!). 

Track Daylight

Know when the sun sets so you have plenty of time to finish your day’s itinerary before dark. If you have a day when you’re pushing it, make sure each boat has a headlamp handy and knows where camp is located.  

Bring a Map and Compass (and Know How to Use Them)

Carry a map of the waterway and orient it and check it often so you always know where you are—especially if you’re not familiar with the body of water. A GPS device is another effective tool, marking waypoints as you paddle. 

Set Shuttle

On downriver trips or point-to-point tours, factor in the shuttle-driving time into your trip planning. Depending on access points, this can add a lot of time onto the trip before the paddling even starts. And, double-check your directions, with both map and navigation system, and make sure everyone driving is on the same page. 

Plan Your Camps

On overnight trips, research and plan where your campsites will be and how long it will take to get there. Also know if certain campsites require advanced reservations or not (some do). Factor in any stops along the way (side-hikes, fishing, portages, etc.) in planning what time you want to arrive each night. 

Research the Weather

Consult the weather forecast before heading out and plan accordingly, both for what to wear and how long each day might take. Check it again the morning you head out, paying special attention to wind and any storm fronts moving in. Bear in mind that heat, as much as wind, can also affect your paddling time, or dictate when you want to head out (i.e., early or late in the day). 

Bring a Watch

While it’s nice to escape the trappings of civilization, bring a watch or other timepiece to help keep track of your speed and how far you’ve gone each day. This is especially helpful if you're paddling late in the afternoon and need to make camp, or need to head out early one morning for a big day.  

Have a Rescue Plan

If someone in your group needs assistance, know beforehand if you’ll have cell service on your trip and where the nearest help is (i.e., ranger station, road or town). If you’re going for a big trip in the boondocks, consider renting a satellite phone or signaling device for emergencies.  

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.