It is 4 a.m. and I lie awake, mesmerized by a spectacular display of the aurora borealis dancing just above the horizon to the north of my fly-less tent.
A billion twinkling stars slowly fade as the eastern sky erupts in the subtle colours of a wilderness sunrise. The haunting cry of a loon breaks the morning silence, amplified by the stillness of the placid lake.
I climb out of my sleeping bag and wander down to the water’s edge, perching on the smooth granite bedrock to splash cold water on my face. The lake’s surface is a plate of glass, now reflecting the sun as it clears the top of the ancient white pines, bathing the entire landscape in a soft golden light while a light mist slowly drifts across the scene. I breathe deeply, the cool morning air filled with the scent of sunbaked pine needles and smoke from a smouldering campfire.
This is serenity. While I love sharing this kind of experience with friends and family, there is something extra special about being out here alone.
Why go on a solo canoe canoe trip?
There is more to solo canoe tripping than spending time alone in nature, fully immersed and in tune with your surroundings. From a practical standpoint, solo canoe tripping has several advantages over travelling with a group or another individual.
When I want to go, I just go. I don’t have to work around someone else’s schedule or them dropping out of the trip at the last minute. Modern life is busy, and it is inevitable that it is going to impact availability.
I often adjust my agenda mid-trip, and not everyone would support my revised itinerary. I may want to paddle right until dark in order to reach a new destination or I may discover particularly good fishing that I want to enjoy for another day. I can linger longer and I don’t need consensus from a group to do so.
Someone you get along with perfectly well at work or at home often turns out to be a completely different person on a canoe trip. Physical stress, interrupted sleep, diet changes, dehydration and other discomforts can cause even the most amiable person to become unpleasant and hostile. Maybe that person is you, but at least nobody else will be around to notice.
When I canoe trip on my own, I seek solitude and unique experiences, which often means travelling long distances. It is physically demanding, and I would never expect my wife and daughters, my usual companions, to embark on such a trip. If I was not willing to travel solo, there are just too many places I would never get to see.
Group travellers should always plan their itinerary to accommodate the weakest and least-skilled member of the party. That can mean avoiding the large lakes and whitewater rivers that I may be proficient enough to tackle on my own.
Travelling solo is inherently riskier than travelling with a group, and those risks should never be underestimated. Breaking a bone or capsizing a canoe deep in the interior is inconvenient for a group —it can be deadly for a soloist. When you canoe trip on your own, it is imperative to hope for the best but plan for the worst. That means continuously honing your outdoors skills and using the highest quality gear you can afford, from your canoe right to your fire starter.
When you achieve the level of proficiency necessary to canoe trip solo, your self-confidence will soar. This is comforting, but it goes deeper than that. Self-reliance benefits you and everyone around you. If you are self-sufficient and capable of surviving in the wilderness on your own, you will rarely be a burden to your partners on a group trip. If they get into trouble and need assistance, you are the person to help them.
Solo canoe trip tips: how to get started
Solo tripping is not for everyone. But if you have the ambition, skill, physical fitness and mental acuity to spend time alone in the outdoors, it is time to start planning your first trip. There are several things to consider that are unique to solo trips, so a little bit of research and planning is necessary.
There is a wealth of information on canoe tripping to be found in online and print magazines, like Paddling Magazine and our Paddling Trip Guide. Don’t be afraid to reach out to the authors of those articles with your questions and comments.
Visit online forums, such as those found on Canadian Canoe Routes, and browse through the solo threads. Ask questions—members are more than happy to help you out.
Watch YouTube videos
Observe such things as the person’s gear choices, their canoe routes and meal plans. Pay particular attention to time spent in camp. Solo tripping is mentally challenging, and some people find it unnerving to be alone in a quiet, dark campsite at night.
Select the right gear
Most of the gear you use for group trips is also suitable for solo tripping, but there are some items that are designed specifically for soloists and will make your adventure safer and more enjoyable, like a lightweight solo canoe and one-person tent. I suggest waiting until after one or two solo trips before buying something you may not use again.
Use an outfitter
Good outfitters have the experience and knowledge to put you on the right track. They can help you plan your canoe route and your meal plan, suggest the appropriate gear, and of course, rent or sell you everything you need for your trip.
Relax and have a great time on your solo canoe trip
A little bit of anxiety before a solo trip is natural, but if you are well prepared, you have nothing to worry about. Take it easy on your first trip. Start with one or two nights, and don’t travel too far. Stay close to an access point so help is nearby if you need it, or if you decide to cut your trip short.
Leave plenty of time at the end of each day to set up camp, collect firewood and just relax. Build a small fire, make a hot drink and sit down by the lake as the day comes to an end. That first sunset on your own will be special. The sunrise the following morning will hook you on solo tripping forever.
Shawn James is an entrepreneur specializing in online business education. When not spending time with his wife and two daughters, he can usually be found plying the waters and hiking the forests of Ontario solo.