Considerations for Your Kayaking Adventures
by Wes Kisting
Occasionally, readers ask me for advice about planning their first expedition. The advice I give depends heavily upon the type of trip they are contemplating, their skill level, the duration, the conditions they are likely to encounter, and many other factors. Nonetheless, there are several important considerations that go into planning any trip, long or short, whether you are a novice or a seasoned expeditioner.
What follows is not a comprehensive list of considerations, by any means. Instead, I’ve focused my attention on those aspects of planning which are particularly crucial to a successful expedition, but which tend to get overlooked or shortchanged by novice planners. If you’re thinking about taking a trip in the near future, these recommendations could do wonders for your comfort, safety, and enjoyment.
Of all the factors which weigh upon the success and enjoyability of an expedition, none has a greater or more variable effect than the weather. Yet, interestingly enough, this is the one area where novice expeditioners consistently skimp on doing adequate research. I suppose that’s because in the everday world of climate-controlled buildings and season-specific tires, it’s easy to live and travel from place to place with relative indifference to mother nature’s ever-changing moods. On an expedition, especially when you’re out on the water, we lose that luxury and become fiercely susceptible to the power of the wind and waves.
Before you go on a trip, it is vital to understand what weather conditions you are likely to encounter, and then prepare accordingly. For starters, always research the prevailing trends in wind and precipitation for the region you will be visiting, at the time of year you plan to be there. Let’s assume you will be taking a one-week trip in July, along the Upper Peninsula of Michigan on Lake Superior. At the very least, you should search the Internet to find out the maximum precipitation levels and maximum wind speeds which occurred on Lake Superior (especially in the UP area) during the month of July over the last five or ten years. This will give you a fairly accurate idea of the precipitation and wind conditions you are likely to encounter during your trip. (Remember, of course, that mother nature loves surprises, and your trip could still end up running into a “record-setting” year for wind and precipitation.)
In the month leading up to your trip, you should also pay daily attention to wind, precipitation, and (if available) wave conditions in the area you plan to visit. Keep a running log of the daily conditions for at least the last two weeks leading up to the trip. This will help you determine if weather conditions have been uncharacteristically fierce or mild this year—another indicator of what conditions you can likely expect to encounter when you go.
Finally, be aware of the “general temper” of the weather in the area you are visiting. Is the weather in the area famous for changing quickly, or is it generally consistent for days or weeks at a time? Is it common to see frequent, but brief patches of rain, or is the sky more likely to explode in a torrential downpour for several hours each week? Do the wind and waves consistently build to epic proportions, or does the area tend to be placid and mild? Are the winds generally stronger in the morning, mid-day, or evening? If you’ve researched weather trends for the area, you should already be able to answer many of these questions, but before you set out on your expedition, it’s also worthwhile to ask a few locals about the typical weather.
What do you do with all this information about weather trends? Take it into consideration when planning your routes, setting your itinerary, and choosing your campsites. If high winds regularly turn the water into a lethal playground of titanic waves, plan your routes to take advantage of sheltered coves, leeward calms behind land masses, and (if necessary) portages into more protected waters. If the winds tend to be calmer in the early morning, plan to wake up and get your paddling done early in the day. If the area is prone to, say, horrendous downpours, make sure you don’t camp in a low valley where flooding might put you in danger or carry away your kayak. Knowledge about weather trends will help you make safe, intelligent decisions during the planning stages and during the actual trip.
In addition to the weather, countless other factors of the local environment may complicate travel, impede comfort, or jeopardize safety during your expedition. These logistical factors all bear upon each other to greater or lesser degrees, but I’ve divided them into distinct categories for the sake of clarity. Since a comprehensive discussion of each category would be impossible to provide in such short space, I’ve listed some of the basic, vital questions you should consider about each. Again, these are not exhaustive lists, but they will get you started thinking about important considerations you might otherwise overlook. Answer them as seriously and as accurately as possible.
Is the area subject to tides? If so, how noticeable and dramatic are the changes between tides, and at what times do they occur? When and where is the surf likely to be more manageable for landings? Is the body of water you are traversing unusually cold? If so, what kind of thermal protection do you need to stave off hypothermia? And if so, how will the coldness of the water affect the surrounding air temperatures at night? Is the area subject to strong currents and violent undertows? Are there areas that are particularly susceptible to confused seas and dumping waves? What kind of purifier or desalinator is necessary to convert the water into potable drinking water? Is the water fairly muddy or saturated with algae? If so, pack extra filter replacements in case your purifier clogs. Are there hardier microorganisms like tapeworm in the water? If so, will chemicals be sufficient to kill them, or will you need a mechanical water purifier?
Is the area you’re traveling through shallow, or deep, or both? Is it rocky, sandy, flat, lined with cliffs, studded with jagged rocks, lined with thick forest? Are there convenient landings with good approaches and sheltered coves, or will you have to race your kayak through dumping surf and land on jagged rocks? Is there a safe place to land every few hundred feet, or will you have to travel miles at a time between plausible stopping places? How will the contours of the land affect or redirect the prevailing winds along various legs of the journey? Are there places where a long open space might allow waves to build particularly high if the wind comes from the right direction? Are there spots where waves will echo off sheer cliff faces and produce confused seas? Are there places where shallow sections could convert a steep chop into dumping waves? If your kayak is damaged irreparably, is there a feasible route to hike to get assistance? Are there areas noted for magnetic deviations that could affect your compass? Are there alternative routes which might be preferable and safer under a particular set of weather and wind conditions?
Wildlife and Insects
Are there moose, or bear, or raccoons, or squirrels, or other predatory and foraging animals which might require special consideration when packing food, disposing of cooking waste, ensuring your own safety, etc.? Do you know the proper way to respond if you encounter a dangerous animal at camp? Are insects reputed to be annoying or vicious in the place you are visiting, at that time of year? If so, what repellant or protective measures will you need? Are you properly equipped and sufficiently knowledgeable to treat bee stings, wood ticks, spider bites, snake bites, and other such injuries? Do you have allergies or a medical condition which might require special attention in the event of such injuries?
Distances must be considered carefully in relation to your endurance, the endurance of your paddling partner(s), and the logistical factors mentioned above. Generally, I recommend setting daily distances by estimating the maximum distance the weakest paddler in your group can reasonably paddle, and then reducing that number to 2/3 or 1/2. For example, if the weakest paddler in your party feels confident he can handle a pace up to 15 miles per day, you should plan to actually paddle 7 to 10 miles per day. I typically paddle 25 to 30 miles per day on a solo expedition, but I usually plan for 15 to 20 miles. Remember, there’s nothing wrong with running ahead of schedule and finishing a trip early, so it’s in your best interests to plan distances conservatively. If you plan more than you can chew, you’ll feel pressured to over-exert yourself each day just to “keep on schedule”—and you’ll lament falling behind. Subjecting yourself to an overwhelming itinerary will only ruin the trip for all involved.
It’s also extremely important to be flexible and plan for contingencies. When I plan a long trip, I spend hours pouring over maps and marking down convenient rest stops every 3 to 5 miles (or even closer if the trip passes through dangerous waters). Often, I plug them all into my GPS unit so that I don’t even need to consult the map to find them. Although I hardly ever stop at these places, I always know where to find the next convenient stopping place if an emergency occurs, the weather turns bad, or I just need to rest or eat. This information is also extremely useful when you’re running an hour or two ahead of schedule and would prefer to keep paddling beyond your planned campsite. If you’ve already plotted convenient campsites every few miles, you can just paddle on to the next destination, without wondering if it’s going to be 1, 3, or 8 miles before you find the next suitable site.
Many expeditioners spend little or no time planning out a proper diet for their trip. Instead, they succumb to the lazy tendency to toss a bunch of snack foods into the hull or pack multiple helpings of just a few, simple-to-cook foods. Yet a proper diet is one of the most vital elements to a successful and productive expedition, especially if you’re going to be logging serious mileage. Good planning is crucial if your body is to get the calories and variety it needs to keep performing in top condition.
The type of food you pack is going to be heavily dependent upon your personal tastes. Certainly, you don’t want to choose your food exclusively according to its nutritional value. It should be food you will enjoy eating. Why? Because if the food doesn’t taste good, you won’t eat it. If you don’t eat it, its “nutritional value” won’t do you any good. Besides, tasty food will do wonders for your morale. I always start planning my meals by writing down a list of all my favorite, easy-to-pack, easy-to-cook recipes and their approximate nutritional and caloric value. Then I make choices based upon the weight, bulk, nutrition, and convenience of the ingredients required. This could be quite a challenge the first time you plan a trip, but it gets easier for each succeeding trip as you gradually get a better idea which foods appeal to you on an expedition. In fact, the smartest thing you can do during, or after, each trip you take is to write down the foods you like and don’t like, as well as their relative “ease of preparation” (how much hassle it took to prepare them) and “satisfaction value” (how well they filled your belly and quelled your hunger). This list will be invaluable when you plan your next trip.
If, however, this is your first trip and you just don’t have a good sense of what meals will work well, there are two things you can do: (1) ask the advice of an experienced expeditioner, and (2) count calories. The first option is self-explanatory; the second deserves more discussion. I try to plan out my meals so that I will consume approximately 2000 calories per day, not counting snacks between meals. In other words, when you add up your breakfast, lunch, and dinner, they should fall somewhere in the neighborhood of 1800 – 2200 calories. Snacks such as trail mix, power bars, granola, and other “munchies” may add as much as an additional 1000 calories or more. Consequently, I end up consuming around 2500 – 4000 calories per day.
Of course, calorie numbers need to be put into context because the numbers alone will not necessarily “fill” you. Moreover, you may find that your caloric needs are higher or lower than mine, depending on your body weight, your metabolism, and how much exertion you put forth each day of the trip. Some foods like breads and grains may have comparatively low calorie ratings, yet can be surprisingly filling. Other foods (especially sweets and deserts) may have loads of calories with relatively little or no “filling” effect. Both kinds of foods have their uses. I always try to work breads and grains into each meal (especially dinner and breakfast) because these supply your body with the carbohydrates its needs for long-term energy and good physical recovery during the night. It’s best if you can eat your dinner within a half-hour of arriving at camp, while your metabolism is still accelerated from the exertion of paddling, so that your dinner will be well digested and have plenty of time to begin restoring your body’s energy reserves. A small snack about an hour before bedtime will also help, but don’t overdo it.
My snacks throughout the day tend to be calorie-intensive snacks like frosted power bars, trail mix, or cookies because these help keep up your blood sugar for short term energy and quicker recoveries during rest periods. It’s important, however, to mix the two. Sugars alone, or carbs alone, will not help you get the most out of your body. Chewing snacks (especially dense power bars) very thoroughly before swallowing will help speed up the digestive process. It’s also more effective to snack frequently, in smaller portions, throughout the whole day, rather than gulping down one large snack or meal every two or three hours. Keep a steady, manageable stream of calories flowing into your body, and you’ll reap the rewards of greater stamina with less potential for stomach upset or crashes in your blood sugar.
Finally, don’t overlook the importance of proteins. Due to their perishable nature, meats are often difficult to work into an expedition diet, but the old stand-bys (peanut butter, beef jerky, and high-protein energy bars) are generally effective. Summer sausage keeps fairly well if kept well-sealed and stored in the bottom of your hull. Pre-cooked microwavable bacon will keep for several days if vaccuum-sealed and stored out of the sun. It cooks up nicely and quickly in a small skillet (no microwave required). If you happen to be in good fishing territory, fish are also a good source of protein. Carry along a little seasoning and some lemon juice and plan a tasty fish-fry back at camp. Whatever the source, protein is particularly important during long-distance trips for muscle recovery and strengthening. Without sufficient protein, you’ll find that your muscles begin noticeably losing strength after the fourth, fifth, or sixth day of a rigorous trip. If you want to keep up the pace, work protein into your meals as often as possible.
Health & Safety
Never plan an expedition on the assumption that you’ll be healthy and happy throughout the whole trip. It amazes me how many novice expeditioners will plan a lengthy journey with little or no consideration for medical and safety supplies. At the very least, every expedition paddler should carry some anti-inflammatory medicine like Ibuprofen, an effective topical antibiotic like Neosporin, some gauze bandages, and some waterproof medical tape. Make sure to pack along any medicines required to treat personal illnesses or conditions such as asthma, allergies, diabetes, migraines, depression, and so forth. Also, be aware that the dietary changes which typically occur during an expedition (dehydrated meals, increased snacking, etc.) may wreak havoc on your stomach. Pack along some diarrhea and constipation medicine, too, just in case.
Safety is a broad topic which extends far beyond basic health issues. It includes such considerations as carrying a spare paddle, packing the proper equipment to produce potable water, and knowing how to use emergency signalling equipment like flares, VHF radios, and distress streamers. Read The Kayaker’s Lifeline for a detailed discussion of essential safety equipment no expeditioner should lack. Remember, just having the proper equipment is not enough. You also need to practice using the equipment before the time comes when you actually need it.
Partnership is one of those easily-underestimated, yet ultra-vital considerations for any trip, long or short—but it’s particularly important when you’re planning a long-distance expedition. I could write whole volumes about the issue of partnership. Read my longer article about partnership and planning to get an in-depth look at vital aspects of partnership. For purposes of this article, however, let me distill my advice into a single “golden rule” of partnership:
Simply put, be sure to take several shorter trips with your paddling partner(s) before you commit to a long-distance trip together. It’s vital that you establish a solid foundation of trust, communication, and mutual expectation under real-world paddling and camping conditions before subjecting your partnership to the far greater rigors of extended expedition tripping.
Trust me, the middle of a rigorous expedition is not the place to find out that you and your partner don’t particularly trust each other or care for each other’s company. It’s also not the place to begin learning how to iron out your differences or to deal with each other’s mood swings. Avoid a miserable (and potentially catastrophic) experience by taking several overnight trips together first. Pay attention to how well you enjoy each other’s company and how peacefully you can coexist in the same space. Make sure you have a workable partnership to begin with. Then take a few longer, 2- or 3-day trips to fine-tune the particulars such as what gear you intend to share, who will “own the map” and be responsible for navigation, what paddling pace you both prefer, whose eating schedule you will follow, and so on. I cannot emphasize the importance of establishing a solid, dependable, enjoyable partnership. Do not treat the matter lightly. At some point during your expedition, your life may depend on the partner(s) you’ve chosen!
Foolish as it sounds, I’ve seen many paddlers wait until the day of their trip—in the last few minutes before they venture out—to pack their cargo in their hull for the first time. I’ve even been guilty of this mistake once or twice myself. Unfortunately, the day of the trip is not the time to realize that half of your gear won’t fit through your hatches or stuff inside the recesses of your hull. It is far smarter to “test pack” your kayak several days in advance, when you can come up with reasonable alternatives to just strapping everything on deck or crushing it through the hatch openings with exhorbitant effort and frustration. Also, don’t rush or shortchange the test-run. Try to pack everything exactly as you intend to pack your hull during the actual trip, and write down the order and placement of things once you determine the best arrangement. On future trips, you may not need this list, but for the first few trips you take, I find a list of packed items to be extremely useful for optimizing your packing strategy. Over time, you will learn to pack things according to the frequency with which you need them.
For me, nighttime necessities like my shelter, my sleeping bag, my dry “camp clothes” and other such items are packed in the less accessible areas of the hull so that more frequently needed items—lunches, snacks, extra layers, rain gear, signalling equipment, a first aid kit, etc.—can be stowed closer to the hatch openings, for easy, quick access when needed. As further refinements, I’ve learned to pack my rest-stop and lunch equipment (toiletries, food, and my stove) in the front hatch. Why? Because when I stop for lunch, I always pull the bow of the boat ashore. If everything I need for lunch or a rest-stop is packed in the front hatch, I don’t have to wade to the back of the kayak and stand in the water to get out the things I need. They’re already there, conveniently packed under the front hatch, surrounded by dry shore!
Of course, you also need to consider the weight of your gear and try to strike a balance of weight fore and aft. Your kayak’s performance will suffer dramatically if you end up stern- or bow-heavy, so to optimize performance, check the trim of your kayak (the bow-to-stern waterline as the kayak sits in the water) to make sure it is evenly loaded. While you’re at it, if this really is your first expedition, paddle around in your fully-loaded kayak for awhile to make sure you understand how the added weight is going to affect the speed, stability, and “feel” of your boat. Make sure you can handle the boat just as confidently and competently as you can when it is unloaded.
While this is not a comprehensive list of the considerations which go into a safe, successful expedition, my advice will help you start off on the right track by forcing you to think about important issues which many novice expeditioners overlook or ignore. As a rule, I try to learn as much about every facet of the trip as possible. Always allow at least one full month (after obtaining the necessary charts and maps) to plan out the particulars of your trip and to gather local knowledge about the area. The Internet is particularly valuable tool in this regard. In most cases, if you search for information about virtually any place on earth, you will find either the answers you are looking for, or a particular person who has the knowledge you need.
However you manage to glean your information, it is important that you connect with your resources early and leave plenty of time to reflect on the information you uncover, rather than rushing into the expedition ill-prepared. Done properly and thoroughly, good planning need not be a tedious chore. It can actually be a pleasure in its own right, and a very practical one at that. Not only will you be able to impress your partners with your knowledge, you’ll also know how to proceed safely and confidently through every leg of your journey, making for a more enjoyable, rewarding experience.
by Wes Kisting