Planning a paddling adventure

May 5, 2004
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Planning a paddling adventure
Question: My brother and I are planning a three- to four-day canoe trip on Big Cypress Bayou in East Texas. As we work on the float plan, we’re having a hard time estimating how far we can travel in a day. At various outdoor-related web sites I’ve found rules-of-thumb ranging from as little as two or three miles a day to 25 to 30 miles a day. Is there any reliable way to make such estimates other than past experience? My brother and I are both very experienced outdoorsmen but neither of us has tried a long canoe trip before.

Scot Walker
Bryan, Texas

Adventure Adviser: Though I’ve never paddled on the Big Cypress Bayou, I have spent many days in a canoe trying to figure out just how many miles to push my group in one day. There’s definitely not a magic number, but there are a lot of factors that you can evaluate which will give you an idea of how far to go. If you have any plans to stop and fish or take a dip along the way, I’d try to shoot for a comfortable number like 10 to 12 miles per day. The other option, if you know of a particularly good campsite that is particularly far from your entry point, is to do a long push day of about 20 miles and then follow that with a layover day. Whatever you decide, here are a few factors that will affect the number of miles you can paddle per day: Number one is the size of the group. Since you and your brother are traveling alone, chances are, you’ll be able to make some pretty good time because you won’t need to wait around for anyone. Also, I’m assuming that since you’re active outdoorsmen, you’re in pretty good shape and won’t be bothered when that mid-afternoon shoulder pain sets in. The second factor is the number of portages you have to cross. Time is drastically lost when you constantly have to empty your canoe and portage everything to the next body of water. For this reason, try to keep things light and efficient. Whenever I go on a canoe trip, I pack the bare minimum, meaning one food pack, one equipment pack, and one personal pack for both people. (Make sure to line all of your packs with bullet-proof plastic and keep your rangier on top of the pack.) If you do have to portage often, try to make as few trips as possible across the portage to cut down on time and energy. Usually, one guy can carry the canoe and a pack while the other guy doubles with two packs. The third factor that affects mileage is the size of the body of water. Generally, if you have to cross a large lake there will be a good amount of wind and the waves will slow you down (unless, of course, you’re traveling downwind). In Bayou country you may not have to worry about waves, but you may get tangled in the trees. Finally, the most obvious factor is whether you’ll be paddling on moving water. Obviously, you can go much farther if there’s a current pushing you — an easy day on moving water is 18 miles. Unless you have to reserve campsites in advance, I’d try to keep your plans as flexible as possible so that you can take advantage of good weather and hunker down in bad weather. If you feel good, move on. On the other hand, if you feel like taking a swim, by all means take one — that’s what vacations are for.

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