How to Choose a Paddling Route for a Multi-Day Kayaking Trip

How to Choose a Paddling Route

Whether you’re an experienced kayaker or just starting out, no one should just jump in their boat and start paddling with reckless abandon.

Proper planning and preparation not only maximizes your time on the water but also keeps you safe while you’re out. One of the biggest keys is knowing how to choose a paddling route.

In this article, we’ll be taking a detailed look at all the factors you should consider when piecing together your route, whether you will be gone for a day or several weeks.

Determining Your Trip’s Distance and Number of Days

This is an obvious place to start. It depends heavily on where and what you hope to see on your paddle. Getting a baseline for your average kayaking speed will help you determine a lot.

In neutral conditions (minimal tide and wind), you can safely plan on traveling about three miles per hour. Of course, this will vary depending on your group composition and type of kayak. Still, it’s a conservative number and a good place to start. 

Longer kayaks with stronger paddlers will move faster. But large groups of paddlers tend to move slower.

Don’t plan on doing a lot of eight-hour days, though. Kayaks aren’t the most comfortable method of transportation. After a few hours, my hips and knees start to stiffen up. It’s preferable to make a more conservative paddle plan with your longest days in more of the six or seven-hour range, with some shorter days mixed in. 

The same goes for the number of days of the total trip. For example, a 21-day paddle in the wilderness of British Columbia may sound incredible on paper. But a three-week excursion includes tons of logistics, including food drops, heaps of campsites, and a detailed packing list that may be more than you’re willing to handle. 

If it’s your first multi-day expedition, I’d recommend a shorter trip with a conservative paddle plan. Something around four days with 45 total miles is a reasonable starting point. 

Planning Campsites

If you are paddling in new territory, it may be challenging to locate good camping spots. Some areas may have designated camping areas. If this is the case, adhere to these guidelines. These specific areas have been set aside for a reason.

If there are no such regulations, study a nautical chart before heading out (a waterproof chart should absolutely be on your packing list too). 

If possible, seek out some local campers and kayakers and see if they have any recommendations. They may not be willing to give up their favorite secret camp spots. But odds are they’ll point you in the general direction of some good areas to pitch a tent.

When looking at a chart, points of land or narrow peninsulas often offer good camping spots. These areas tend to be reasonably flat, easy to access, and without thick forests.

Along stretches of shoreline without a lot of obvious points or peninsulas, look for areas with shallow, long beaches. In tidal regions, this is usually denoted on charts by a scattering of dots below the high tide line or filled in with green. These indicate areas where more of the beach is exposed at low tide.

Reid Inlet and Ibach Point
Figure 1: An area with three ideal camping areas can be found at the locations with scattered dots. Two near the mouth of Reid Inlet and the third east of Ibach Point.

Try to avoid areas with steep elevations. On charts, elevation is indicated by a series of long lines. These represent mountains, hills, and other high terrains. The closer these lines are to each other, the quicker the elevation gains and the more challenging it will be to camp.

Johns Hopkins Inlet
Figure Two: There’s little in the way of good camping areas here due to the tightly-packed contour lines that indicate very steep mountains and beaches. 

Predicting and Planning for Weather & Tides

Nothing will alter your paddle plan like the weather. So before you leave, ensure you have the most up-to-date marine and traditional weather forecast. If you’re carrying a marine VHF radio (I recommend it), there are designated weather channels that report the weather for your given area on a loop.

Weather forecasts aren’t always accurate. So be aware of the environment around you and be on the lookout for changing weather patterns. Squalls, storms, and gales can spring up from nowhere, particularly in the northern latitudes. Even a sunny afternoon can turn breezy, making paddling on the ocean or large lakes dangerous

It’s difficult to provide precise tidal information in an article like this. But tidal activity significantly affects many of the world’s most popular paddling locations. Most locations have semidiurnal tides, meaning two high and two low tides roughly every 24 hours. 

Depending on the change between high and low tide and your paddling location, this fluctuation may be barely noticeable or be the difference between an enjoyable paddle and a white-knuckling adventure. 

On your chart, look for narrow, bottleneck passages with bigger waterways on each side. Water doesn’t compress, and these tiny areas can cause water to rush through with magnificent force.

Sitakaday Narrows and Beardslee Entrance
Figure Three: Sitakaday Narrows and Beardslee Entrance have some of southeast Alaska’s most immense tide currents. Note not just the bottleneck east of Rush Point, but the shallower water denoted by the light blue areas (depth is in fathoms), along with the Tide rips warning.

When traveling through these areas, it’s best to go with the tide, ideally as close to high tide as possible. Going at high tide means there’s as much water as possible in the area, giving it more room to disperse. Tidal flow is also at its lowest rate at high and low tides.

Selecting Paddle Partners and Boat Composition

It’s always best to go with at least one paddle partner. Not only does it get lonely traveling by yourself for multiple days, but an extra person provides an extra layer of safety should anything happen.

It’s easier to recover from a capsize with another person, and additional eyes to monitor the weather and water conditions can be invaluable. 

If you’re going with a group of people, choosing tandem kayaks can make life easier for everyone. This gives you half as many boats to keep an eye on and will minimize the odds of a kayak falling behind while another one speeds ahead. Those extra eyes and hands won’t do much good if all the boats are miles apart.

Paddling in doubles also allows you to manage different experience levels. Pair more practiced paddlers with the newcomers. They can operate the rudder, allowing beginners to get comfortable with their paddle technique

Understand everyone’s paddling experience and comfort level, and ensure that everyone is on the same page regarding the paddling itinerary and goals. Beginners probably won’t be interested in making an ambitious trip with many twenty-mile days. Conversely, a hyper-experienced paddler may be frustrated with a group of slower newcomers.

Filing a Float Plan

It doesn’t matter if you’re going kayaking for an hour, a week, or a month. Anytime you’ll be on the water, let someone know where you’re going, who you’re going with, and when to expect you back. 

For overnight trips, report your paddling plan, including your designated camping spots and any times you intend to check in. Once you file your float plan, do not deviate from it unless continuing on your planned itinerary puts you at risk. If something happens, you want to be where you told your emergency contact you would be.

Some areas like national parks may require you to file a float plan specifically with them. If this isn’t the case, leave your float plan with a friend or family member and include instructions on who to inform if you’re overdue. Most search and rescue teams won’t consider you overdue until you’re 24 hours late.

If something happens and you cannot get home, stay put and wait for help. If you filed a proper float plan, help should be coming soon.