Beginner’s guide to canoeing in Ontario
Indigenous peoples recognized the value in travelling with a light, portable watercraft. As such, many of Ontario’s greatest canoe destinations have immense cultural significance that provides modern-day canoe trippers with a tangible reason to acknowledge the province’s original inhabitants.
Canoe tripping is a great way to experience Ontario’s outdoors. Canoes are designed to be carried between lakes and waterways, a technique known as portaging. There are canoe routes in Ontario to meet all expectations, from relaxing trips for families to exciting whitewater rivers and challenging long-distance wilderness odysseys.
Discover some of the best places and seasons for beginners to canoe and get an overview of what you’ll need to get started.
Where to go canoeing
Beginners will want to start canoeing on well-established paddling routes on smaller, sheltered lakes, smooth-flowing rivers and short portages. Here are a few suggestions:
- Algonquin Provincial Park: One of Canada’s favourite provincial parks is also one of the best places to go on your first canoe trip. Algonquin has multiple access points along the Highway 60 corridor, east of Huntsville. Start at aptly named Canoe Lake for a beginner-friendly canoe trip into the backcountry with easy, well-marked portages to nearby lakes. The on-site Canoe Lake Store outfitter provides canoe and equipment rentals. Make your backcountry campsite reservations as early as possible.
- Bon Echo Provincial Park: A handful of lakes allows for easy overnight canoe trips for beginners in this eastern Ontario park north of Kingston. Mazinaw Lake is noted for its soaring cliffs while Joeperry and Pearson Lakes have 25 backcountry campsites. Make your backcountry campsite reservations online in advance.
- The Massasauga Provincial Park: A network of inland lakes and sheltered inlets on Georgian Bay make for a beginner-friendly canoe route just south of Parry Sound. Campsite permits can be reserved online.
- Queen Elizabeth II Wildlands Provincial Park: If you’re looking for adventure within a short drive of the GTA, this non-operating park in the Haliburton area has several options for canoe trips on small lakes connected by short portages that are suitable for novices. Camping is on a first-come, first-served basis.
- Killarney Provincial Park: Located between Parry Sound and Sudbury, Ontario’s “crown jewel” wilderness park features a great beginner-friendly canoe route leaving right from the beach of the George Lake campground. Take the Parkbus from Toronto, rent canoe and gear from Killarney Outfitters and be at your own backcountry campsite on gorgeous Killarney Lake in time for dinner. Be prepared to make a couple of easy portages along the way and make your backcountry campsite reservations well in advance.
- Quetico Provincial Park: Northwestern Ontario’s flagship park offers an overwhelming array of canoe routes for all levels of paddlers. Quetico is a bucket-list destination for its sheer variety of canoe routes. Work with a local outfitter to find one that’s best for you.
Get more inspiration with 10 Easy Beginner Canoe Trips in Ontario.
When to go canoeing
In general, the canoeing season in Ontario extends from the Victoria Day long weekend in the end of May through to Thanksgiving in October. Peak season is considered July and August, specifically late July and early August for the warm, stable weather and minimal insects throughout central Ontario’s canoe destinations. Naturally, this time of year coincides with the greatest visitation and most competition for camping permits on popular canoe routes in Ontario provincial parks.
Consider a trip in May or June if you’re prepared to deal with colder water, less predictable weather and a high likelihood of mosquitoes and blackflies. The payoff for spring canoe trips is fewer people, great fishing opportunities for cold-water species like trout and the best chance to see wildlife like moose.
Many Ontario river trips are only possible during the high water of spring, however, strong currents and debris, combined with cold water, can also pose safety hazards for novice paddlers. Don’t fret if you miss out on scoring a backcountry camping permit for July. Late summer trips in August and September are often highlighted by warm days, cool nights, fewer crowds, minimal bugs and the chance of witnessing the first fall colours appearing in shoreline forests, making this another great time for your first canoe trip.
How long to go on a canoe trip
Like any new outdoor activity, you’re best to focus on a modest plan for your first canoe trip. Take your time and allot no more than 15 kilometres of paddling per day. Consider an overnight or long-weekend trip for your initial excursion. Get a taste for canoe tripping from a drive-in waterfront campground site. Several options are available in Algonquin Provincial Park where you can make day trips and return to the safety of a comfortable base camp. If you’re looking for a little more adventure, reserve a more remote paddle-in site at Algonquin’s Canisbay Campground.
Guided canoeing tour companies
Join a guided canoe trip to shorten your learning curve as a novice canoe tripper, help with the planning and ensure safety and comfort on your adventure. Guided canoe trip packages are available for beginners, with routes selected to match little to no experience or skill level. Most of your gear is provided, including canoes, paddles, tents, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, cooking equipment, packs and safety items, and in many cases, gourmet wilderness meals. Simply pack your personal gear, arrive at the trip meeting location and be prepared to learn and soak up the canoe tripping experience.
Here’s a selection of guided tour operators in Ontario:
- Grand Experiences: This southwestern Ontario-based canoe company offers guided trips on the historic Grand River.
- Voyageur Wilderness: Located on the edge of northwestern Ontario’s vast Quetico Provincial Park, Voyageur Wilderness offers beginner-friendly wilderness canoe trips.
- Forest The Canoe: This exciting new business near Sault Ste. Marie provides great learning opportunities on day-long and overnight guided canoe trips.
- Algonquin Adventure Tours: Dwight-based local guided company offering some of the most best professionally guided tours in Algonquin Park for canoeing, photography, fishing, hiking, birding and more.
- Voyageur Quest: Based in the northwest corner of Algonquin Provincial Park, Voyageur Quest offers an excellent introduction to canoe tripping in Ontario’s favourite park.
- Algonquin Outfitters: This veteran outfitter provides guided trips and instructional packages (check out their unique “guide for a day” program to get your trip off to the right start) along Algonquin Provincial Park’s popular Highway 60 corridor.
- Temagami Outfitting Company: Based in the heart of northeastern Ontario’s finest canoe country, Temagami Outfitting Company offers beginner-friendly guided trips on ancient canoe routes.
- Black Feather Wilderness Adventures: This long-standing ecotourism operator provides beginner-friendly, family and women’s-only guided canoe trips to great paddling destinations like the French and Magnetawan rivers.
Find more guided canoe trips available throughout the paddling season all across Ontario.
Learn how to canoe
Skillful paddling is an art that takes a lifetime to master, get started by learning the best and most efficient paddling techniques. Short courses are available all across Ontario, or you can sign up for a longer clinic at a paddling centre. Many guided canoe trips include a strong instructional component as well.
Here’s a list of companies that will help you learn how to canoe.
- Check out the Paddle Canada and Ontario Recreational Canoeing & Kayaking Association (ORCKA) websites for searchable databases of course offerings.
- Based in Magnetawan, Paddle Like a Girl provides half day and multi-day workshops to introduce women to canoeing, camping and backcountry skills.
- Paddlefoot is a central Ontario paddling business that focuses on both whitewater and flatwater canoe instruction for small groups, including on Northern Ontario’s Missinaibi River.
- If you’re looking to learn how to canoe in Northwestern Ontario, check out Kenora’s Green Adventures for expert instruction and local advice on paddling Sunset Country.
- Based on Lake Superior, Naturally Superior Adventures provides basic and intermediate canoe training for flatwater and beginner whitewater.
- Madawaska Kanu Centre delivers courses in whitewater canoe paddling with the option to practice your camping skills, too. Or you can enjoy the luxury of a riverside lodge.
- Paddler Co-op takes advantage of great year-round whitewater on eastern Ontario’s Madawaska River. A riverside campground and excellent instructors round out a great learning experience.
- Harbourfront Canoe & Kayak Centre provides expert instruction in the heart of downtown Toronto, affording a new perspective on the city while you learn paddle strokes and canoe handling skills.
- Toronto Adventures is a GTA-based canoe instructor providing canoe instruction in natural areas throughout southern Ontario.
Find more places in Ontario that offer canoe instruction.
What gear is needed for a canoe trip
Renting from an outfitter is a great way to sample different canoe designs and try out various pieces of camping gear, including tents, stoves, water filters and satellite communication devices. It’s also the best option if you have limited storage and a more economical option if you only plan on doing one or two canoe trips per year.
Rent the best gear you can afford. Starting with a canoe, look for a model that’s large enough for your needs (typically 16- to 17-feet for tandem use; some outfitters carry 18-foot, three-seat canoes for families). Rent a lightweight, composite canoe (usually made of Kevlar) for routes with portages and be sure it’s equipped with a yoke for comfortable carrying. River trips generally demand a more rugged (and heavier) plastic canoe.
Make sure your rental canoe comes with necessary accessories including:
- Paddles (ask for a spare if you’re going on a longer trip)
- Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs or life jackets)
- A bailer
- A throw-bag or 15 metres of floating rope.
- You may need special equipment to tie a canoe to your vehicle, so be sure to ask in advance what’s required and provided. Some canoe rentals include the option of delivery to popular canoe route access points, and some provincial parks (such as Algonquin and Killarney) offer canoe rentals at campground launch sites.
Ontario’s most popular canoe destinations have multiple outfitter options.
- For Algonquin Provincial Park, check out Algonquin Outfitters, the Portage Store, Voyageur Quest Outfitting, and Algonquin Bound Outfitters.
- Quetico Provincial Park is serviced by Canoe Canada Outfitters and Voyageur Wilderness. Smoothwater Outfitters and Temagami Outfitters both operate in Northeastern Ontario’s Temagami area, which includes several great canoeing parks.
- And Killarney Kanoes, Killarney Outfitters and Widgawa Lodge and Outfitters offer complete rentals in Killarney Provincial Park.
Besides canoes, several of these companies provide “complete outfitting” packages including everything you need for a great canoe trip, like tents, cooking gear, route maps and even great-tasting backcountry foods that are easy to prepare. They can also help you secure backcountry camping permits and will offer great local advice.
What to bring on a canoe trip
Booking a complete outfitting package with an outfitter at a popular Ontario canoe destination like Algonquin or Temagami or signing up for a guided canoe trip means you can largely skip the question of what to bring on your first trip (besides personal clothing and footwear). But the DIY process of packing for a canoe trip is fun, rewarding and a good investment if you plan to paddle regularly.
Packing for a canoe camping trip is like assembling gear for any other backcountry adventure: You want reliable equipment to keep you safe and comfortable that’s also lightweight and easy to use. Once you’ve decided where to go, your first step in putting together a gear list is to research the route and acquire maps. With the knowledge of where you’re going (including anticipated water conditions and campsites) you can start assembling the appropriate gear.
This helpful checklist for camping gear is a good starting point.
Best canoes and paddles
Canoes come in a bewildering array of shapes and sizes. For tripping, look for a canoe with at least 13 inches of depth to provide enough space to store your gear. Travel that involves lakes linked by portages demands a canoe that’s capable in wind and waves as well as lightweight, typically in the 16- to 18-foot range for tandems (14- to 16-foot for solo canoes). Lightweight composite construction, such as Kevlar or carbon fiber, makes for easier carrying. River tripping canoes are somewhat shorter (16- to 17-feet for tandem use), with at least 14 inches of depth, some rocker in the hull (that is, “banana-like” upturn of the hull at the ends of the canoe to increase maneuverability) and durable plastic construction. Canadian Coast Guard regulations stipulate that every canoe is equipped with a bailer, sound signalling device (a whistle), 15-metres of buoyant rope and lifejackets for everyone on board.
Don’t neglect the importance of a good paddle. Depending on your motivations and aesthetics, you may wish to invest in a lightweight, high-tech composite paddle for greater efficiency or a beautiful hand-crafted wooden paddle. Plastic and aluminum paddles are cheap and durable but heavy. The best way to size a paddle is to try before you buy and select what’s most comfortable.
Packs, camping and kitchen gear
Backpacks and barrel packs
Backpacks are required to carry your camping gear on a canoe trip.
Internal frame hiking packs are sufficient, but they’re usually too stiff to fit efficiently in a canoe. Look for a nylon portage pack with padded shoulder straps and a hip belt for greater ergonomics; these soft-sided, flexible packs have greater volume than hiking packs and conform to the storage area inside a canoe. Make sure everything in your portage pack is waterproof, either in small- to medium-sized drybags or in a large heavy-duty plastic garbage bag or nylon waterproof liner. Best to double-bag sensitive items like sleeping bags or electronics in their own smaller, waterproof storage sacks.
Some paddlers use barrel packs (a durable and waterproof 60-litre barrel, usually blue with a black lid, with carrying harness) for carrying food, though a portage pack will work, too. Either way, you’ll have to secure it out of reach of bears overnight in camp.
Tents and cooking
Canoe travel means you can carry a larger, somewhat heavier tent than you would on a backpacking trip so you can choose a more spacious three-person model to camp with your partner. Bring along a lightweight tarp so you can be outside but still sheltered on rainy days. Invest in a good, three-season sleeping bag. A down-filled bag is lightest and most comfortable but make sure you pack it in a waterproof drybag.
Don’t plan to cook on a campfire. Finding firewood can be a chore at picked-over areas so go with a gas stove. Liquid fuels like white gas are efficient and eliminate the waste of single-use canisters. Use your menu as a guide for your selection of pots and pans. Large bowls are often all you need for eating backcountry meals along with the necessary cooking utensils and spare eating utensils. Boiling renders lake or river water potable, while other options for water treatment include water filters (pumps or gravity-fed systems) or chemical drops or pills, such as Aquatab.
With a few modifications, a wilderness menu can be much the same as you eat at home. Look for shelf-stable products at the grocery store and consider how ingredients can be modified for packing and eating on a canoe trip. Food spoilage is less of a concern on a short trip and durable fresh fruits and vegetables like apples, oranges, carrots and sweet peppers carry well, along with hard cheeses and cured meats. For the ultimate ease on your first trip consider buying pre-packaged freeze-dried meals. If you’re serious about canoe tripping and enjoy cooking, you may wish to invest in a food dehydrator to prepare trip meals at home.
Personal effects and safety
There are several key wardrobe items you’ll want on a canoe trip.
Start with good quality rain gear including jacket and pants. Then create a dedicated set of “travel” clothes, including socks, underwear, quick-drying pants, long-sleeve shirt (thick enough to block UV) and hat. Add to that “camp” clothes, comfortable pants, t-shirt, dry socks, underwear and several warm layers like a wool or synthetic sweater and a light jacket. For footwear, pack a pair of light hikers or capable trail shoes that you don’t mind getting wet for use in the canoe and a comfortable “dry” pair of shoes or durable sandals for use in camp.
A first-aid kit is essential for backcountry adventures. It’s also important to know how to respond to medical incidents and emergencies in remote areas, so consider signing up for a wilderness first aid course if you’re serious about canoe tripping. You should pack along a basic repair kit for gear, including a multi-tool knife, duct tape, zip ties and a small assortment of fasteners like nuts and bolts. Don’t forget to bring a healthy supply of matches and lighters, waterproofed and scattered throughout your camping kit.
Pack your maps and route guides in a waterproof map case and bring along a compass. Don’t count on your cell phone working in remote locations. Subscription-based GPS satellite communication devices like Garmin inReach and SPOT allow you to send text messages to keep family and friends aware of your safety and location, with the peace of mind of SOS capability in case of an emergency. Be sure all your electronics are waterproofed and fully charged before setting out.
It will likely take you a few trips (maybe even a lifetime) to master your packing list. At the end of an adventure, make note of the gear you used and what stayed buried in your pack to help improve your packing list for your next trip.
What to know before you go canoeing
Canoeing and canoe tripping is a pursuit of lifelong learning. When you fall in love with exploring Ontario’s lakes and rivers you’ll find you’re constantly adapting your skills and packing list to improve the experience. Remember these final safety tips before you go.
- Always wear a PFD, they are designed to be comfortable and worn anytime you’re on the water. Look for Canadian Coast Guard certification on the label.
- Two to a canoe is best: depending on the size of your canoe, it’s fine to carry a child or two as passengers, but ideally plan on no more than two actively paddling adults per tandem canoe.
- Travel with another canoe for safety on the water.
- File a float plan and leave critical details about your canoe trip, such as itinerary, route, intended campsite and a description of your equipment with a reliable person at home. Be sure to discuss a response plan if you’re late in returning from your trip.
- Leave No Trace! Be aware of your footprint on the environment, review guidelines for leave no trace camping.
- Hang your food. It’s important to secure your food overnight to avoid attracting animals like bears, raccoons and mice to your campsite. The usual method is known as a “bear hang” and involves using rope (30 metres should be enough) to suspend your food pack from a tree branch well above the ground and away from the tree trunk and at least 75 metres from your tent site. Provincial park staff can provide you with specific guidelines for the location of your canoe trip (for example, here are the bear safety guidelines for Algonquin Provincial Park).
- Treat the water. Boil your drinking water or use a filter or chemical treatment to eliminate the risk of water-borne illnesses.
- The goals for your first canoe trip should be safety and inspiration, not epic distances. For most, this usually means planning daily distances of 15 kilometres or less and choosing a well-travelled route with short portages and lots of campsites and contingency options.
Last updated: September 6, 2023