5 Joys and Challenges of Solo Canoeing in the Boundary Waters

Recreation By Pete Marshall

If you’ve canoed the Boundary Waters, chances are you did so with others. Camping with others in the BWCA gives us a chance to reconnect with old friends, make new ones, and build shared memories.

But no matter how funny it was to hear your cousin tell that one story, or how tasty that weird but wonderful walleye chowder was that Hank cooked up, sometimes, you get the itch to go alone.

But is canoeing through the wilderness alone a good idea?

Yes. Yes it is.

Photo: Aaron Black-Schmidt

A solo canoe trip offers many rewards. But it’s not for everyone.

Being alone in the wilderness for three or four days can be daunting. Even if you’re experienced and not overly worried about safety concerns, you’ll probably have a family member who is a little hesitant with the idea of you taking off on your own.

Yes, there are safety issues, and yes, a solo canoe trip is different than a trip with a group. It is a unique experience, one that gives a new perspective on the wilderness, and yourself.

So, whether you’ve had a tough time getting everyone’s schedules together, or want some uninterrupted time with yourself, or are just plain curious about this kind of travel, we’ve broken down the five biggest challenges of solo canoe travel, and loaded it all up with practical advice to get you on the water.

1. The Experience of Solitude

On a solo canoe trip, the rewards are equal the challenge. By far the biggest draw of exploring the Boundary Waters on your own is also the biggest challenge.

Namely, that you’re alone.

It’s up to you to decide when the day begins, where to eat lunch, when to stop — of course, sometimes the weather decides for you.

With this kind of freedom comes additional challenges.

If you haven’t spent time by yourself, the experience can be startling. Especially in camp. With no one to talk with, no one to play cards with and so forth, you’ll find yourself trying to figure out how to fill up all that time.

And in our modern world, where we have thousands of movies, millions of video clips and songs just a thumb swipe away, it can be a real challenge to be by yourself.

Many enjoy solo traveling because of this. It gives them time to be alone, to catch up with hobbies like knitting or carving, painting or sketching, or reading through the third volume of In Search of Lost Time.

Everyone responds to solitude differently. Chances are, you’ll surprise yourself.

Along with the psychological adjustments to being alone, there are also safety considerations to keep in mind.

Which brings us to the next, and perhaps biggest, topic: Safety.

Photo: Chuck Dayton

2. Safety

Once someone decides to go on a solo trip, the number one concern, whether it comes from them or their skittish loved ones, is safety.

This is understandable.

Traveling solo is not inherently more dangerous. However, the consequences of a sprained wrist or twisted ankle, or any other mishap you might have on trail, are multiplied when you’re alone.

First and foremost, no matter your experience level, you do need to be extra cautious when traveling alone. Be aware of your surroundings and don’t put yourself in situations that could escalate into a survival situation.

Knowing how to properly assess risk is part art and part science. A good place to begin is by reviewing our safety guide to traveling in the Boundary Waters.

The fundamental thing to keep in mind with solo travel is to be prepared so that if something does happen, you can safely get out. To ensure this, religiously adhere to these three steps:

  1. Make a detailed itinerary of your route and leave it with a couple of people. Include the lakes and bodies of water you’ll paddle through, where you plan to camp each night, and your exit date. Make a plan for them to notify emergency services if they don’t hear from you two days after your planned exit date.
  2. Bring a satellite communication device, such as a SPOT or an InReach. These small units allow you notify people back home that you’re alright or in need of assistance. Some models allow you to send and receive text messages. Some outfitters have SPOT or InReach devices available to rent. These are a must-have for solo trips into the BWCA!
  3. Keep emergency equipment on you. If you capsize or somehow lose your pack with your tent, food, SPOT and other essential equipment, you’ll be in quite a predicament. To ensure you can safely get out, keep a small pack of emergency supplies on you at all time. This should include the SPOT or InReach, an emergency blanket, matches, knife, a few bars, and a compass. These should be packed in a waterproof case such as a thwart bag and always be within reach. Do not pack this away!

3. Solo paddling is different

It won’t come as much of a surprise to learn that a solo canoe goes slower than a tandem canoe.

The math is pretty self-explanatory: You’ve got half the muscles and half the paddles to make a fifteen to sixteen-foot boat move forward.

But that doesn’t mean they’re sluggish. Modern solo boats are designed to go fast and track straight. These canoes are a joy to paddle.

That being said, by the end of a day on the water, you’re going to end up feeling like you’ve done a good amount of work.

After all, it’s just you with that one paddle, moving all that boat and all that gear forward. In addition, you generally end up needing to do more correction strokes, which, after a day of paddling, can leave you with tired wrists and hands.

Many will argue that the most efficient way to paddle a solo canoe is to use what is known as the Minnesota Hut. This is done by making three or four paddle strokes on one side then switching to the other side to make another three or four strokes. No correction needed. This will keep you going straight without requiring you to slow down to use a j or a c-stroke.

Try it out, this might be the technique that works for you.

Another major difference in solo canoes comes at the portage trail. To make room for the paddler, the vast majority of solo boats do not have a fixed yoke in them. Rather, they have a detachable yoke that you screw in at the beginning of a portage and take out when you’re ready to get back in the canoe.

4. Solo canoe paddles are (sometimes) different

It’s entirely possible to paddle a solo canoe with the same paddle you would use on a regular canoe trip. However, many opt for a paddle better suited for soloing. Here are some options you might want to explore:

  • The double-blade kayak paddle Some canoeists might say using a kayak paddle in a canoe is tantamount to heresy, others wouldn’t have it any other way. Double-bladed kayak paddles make it easy to keep the canoe going straight. Because you are sitting higher off the water, you want to use paddle that would be about 10 mm longer than one you would use in a kayak. (Find out your kayak paddle size HERE). One reason some don’t like using a kayak paddle is that water drips down the shaft with every stroke, leaving you pretty wet!
  • Longer paddles — The general rule of thumb here is to use a paddle that is two inches longer than one you usually use. So if you paddle a 56-inch paddle, up it to a 58-incher.
  • Beavertail paddles — These classic paddles are both aesthetically pleasing and functionally at home in a solo canoe. They run four to six inches longer than what you would normally paddle, and learning how to truly use and get the most out of them is an art in itself.

5. Balancing your canoe is more difficult

Balancing, or trimming, a canoe is pretty straightforward in a tandem boat. Put your gear in the middle and ideally put the heavier person in back.

Properly balancing a solo canoe takes more finesse.

The easiest way to balance a solo canoe is to pack at least two bags. Even if you can fit all your gear into one big pack, divide it into two! This way you’ll be able to move the weight around your boat, from the stern to the bow to achieve proper balance.

Now, conditions can determine how you trim your boat.

For instance, because you have noticeably more freeboard on a solo canoe, paddling into even a slight headwind can be incredibly frustrating. Lower that freeboard by placing more gear in the bow. Loading down the front will allow you to cut the wind and more efficiently move forward.

The best way to know if solo canoeing is for you is to go out and try it!

Practice a few days on your local waterways then plan a trip for three or four nights. You might end up calling your friends when it’s over to start planning your next group trip, or you might be ready for a longer solo trip.

Pete Marshall is the communications director for Friends of the Boundary Waters Wilderness.

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