13 Tips for Canoeing in Ontario

From planning to execution, here are 13 things to think about when dreaming about getting on the water.

Ontario has the stuff canoeing dreams are made of. This collection of Bucket List destinations is an excellent primer on the province’s tried and true paddling spots. Peruse and follow the links, and you’ll be a long way toward deciding a destination you can really look forward to experiencing.

But taking the dream to reality requires a bit of planning. There’s the size of the boat, for example, and the issue of how you’ll get it to water. And the question of just what body of water to get it to will take some figuring out.

Empty white canoe pulled up on shore beside a calm river at sunset.
250,000 lakes in Ontario, each with their own sunsets. Photo: @gordonpphoto

But don’t be daunted. Local adventure companies offer a variety of outfitting services including specialized trip planning advice, ultra-light canoes and kayaks, high-quality camping gear, pre-packed meals, pre-and-post-trip accommodation, and more.

Canoes can be carried by one adult, they fit easily on a car’s roof rack, and outfitters can often deliver them to a route they’ve suggested for you.

Books have been written on the topic of how to get out canoeing, but we’ve done our best to distill it down to the essential tips for Ontario. Because the simple ingredients of self-propulsion in a beautiful outdoor setting are such a good start, there’s no need to make it too complicated.

Take a Guided, Fully Outfitted Canoe Trip

To save time and planning, you could consider taking a guided, fully outfitted canoe trip offered by a local adventure company. All you have to do is show up. They have done all the work for you.  Here’s a list of the top 10 paddling adventures in Ontario.

Image shows underwater view as well as two people paddling a yellow canoe on a lake.
There's more than meets the eye in Killarney Provincial Park. 

Take a course

A little learning will go a long way. Visit Paddle Canada or the Ontario Recreational Canoeing and Kayaking Association to peruse a huge range of canoeing courses offered across Ontario. Want to get the basics on flatwater, or dip your well-worn paddle into whitewater? Madawaska Kanu Centre offers a variety of courses. Any time spent with an instructor will be time well spent.

Rentals and Outfitting

Considering what’s involved in storing and transporting canoes, renting is the only option for some people. Fortunately, the province is full of providers who will rent you a range of canoe types, for rates that vary but generally fall between $40 and $60 per day. They can also provide high-quality camping gear, meal, shuttles, and even guiding services. Here’s a handy listing of canoe and kayak outfitters in Ontario.

Laughing woman pushing a canoe out from a portage landing.
Even portaging can be fun with the right gear. 

Ask your Outfitter

An outfitter can be a canoeist’s best friend. Even seasoned canoeists can have their trip logistics smoothed considerably by a local with some route knowledge, a shuttle vehicle, and maybe a rental fleet and canoe trailer.

Here’s a list of Ontario Parks that offer backcountry paddling and the adventure businesses that service them. 

Canoe on a serene lake at sunset.
Kawartha Highlands, one of dozens of paddle-perfect provincial parks. Photo: @paul.e.german

But don’t turn off your brain and assume the services the outfitter is providing are exactly what you expect. Here are some questions you might want to ask as you plan your trip:

  • What type of canoes do you rent? Heavy but nearly indestructible plastic boats, or light but comparatively fragile composites?
  • Are paddles and PFDs included in the rental? How about a throw bag and painters?
  • Will the outfitter deliver the boats to the access point, or do you have to pick up at their base?
  • If you are picking up the canoe, do they provide any tie-down equipment for your car? If you don’t have a roof rack, you might need foam blocks that fit over the gunwales and separate the canoe from your car as it is strapped down.
  • Are there other expenses you should be aware of, like a parking fee at access points or permits required for non-operating parks?
  • Will current water levels in the rivers or lakes provide any challenges for the chosen route?
  • For whitewater rivers, does the canoe come outfitted with any of the following: thigh straps, knee pads, flotation bags, helmets?

Do you have a reservation?

Provincial parks are an obvious answer to the question of where to go. Different parks have different reservation systems. Most Ontario parks, like Killarney and Quetico, offer a backcountry reservation system, where paddlers reserve a stay on a particular lake for a given night. Which campsite you eventually land at is only decided when you arrive at the lake. Some other backcountry parks, like The Massasauga, require you to reserve a particular site. Find out more about the best Ontario Parks for backcountry paddling.

In either case, reservations can be made five months ahead of time. Allow us to clarify: reservations should be made five months ahead of time if you are going to a popular park like Killarney and want to make sure you can do a particular route. Make online reservations here, or call 1-888-ONT-PARK.

Check for fire bans

When the weather gets hot and dry, there may be regional fire bans put in place. That means you can use a campstove, but not have any open campfires. Check the status of your destination here.

Abide by the law

When canoeing, there are a few basic safety items you’ll need, like PFDs, whistles, a throw rope, and a flashlight, if out after dark. Find out what you need to paddle legally here.

Remember a rod

Man in a canoe removing a hook from the mouth of a fish.
One that didn’t get away.

With half-a-million water bodies that hold fish, Ontario is a great place to throw in a line. But where? The Fish ON-Line website is a mobile tool for the aspiring angler that’s brimming with information on fishing in Ontario. Beyond explaining catch limits and season dates, it has directions to and information on 16,000 water bodies. Don’t forget, if you are between 15 and 64 you’ll need a fishing licence.

Don’t count on rental cars

If you are renting a car, don’t count on the car coming with a roof rack. Rental companies don’t provide racks as a rule (they consider it asking for trouble). True, some minivans and SUVs have rudimentary racks built in, but anyone who has ever rented a car knows that it’s very common to show up at a rental counter and be presented with a slightly different model than the one you thought you had reserved. If you are picking up a canoe from an outfitter, see if they are like Killarney’s Widgawa Lodge and will rent you a car-topping kit consisting of foam pads and straps. If not, you can pick one up at your local paddle shop.

Prepare to go dark

It’s true, there are still places cell phones don’t work. Plenty, in fact. Your provider’s website should have a map showing coverage areas (see coverage maps for Rogers, Fido, Bell, and Telus), but the interiors of the larger and Northern parks are simply out of range. If there are circumstances beyond simple psychological dependence making you think you’ll need an outlet to the outside world, you’d best rent a satellite phone.

Choose your moment

Person wearing a jacket and life jacket paddling in bow of a canoe.
Simple pleasures. Photo: @zachbaranowski

The month you choose to go depends on your priorities. Maybe you can’t wait to get out there? May outings can be a great way to start off the season. By the end of May, the blackflies and mosquitoes emerge in force for about a month. June is the month to catch some whitewater rivers before water flows drop to summer levels. As summer moves into July, the water warms up for long swims. August sees earlier sunsets and better stargazing, with the chance of meteor showers and northern lights. Many consider September to be the golden month, with crisp nights and empty campsites. Then there’s October, with all the splendour of the changing leaves. All told, take your pick from half a year’s worth of can’t-lose paddling options.

Stay inspired

It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day and never pull the trigger on planning a trip. If you ever feel your motivation waning, check out these nine videos about paddling in Ontario to remind you of your end goal.

Pull the trigger

It’s a big province. It’s hard to know where to start. This is just the beginning of a planning process for a day or a week spent canoeing Ontario-style, but treat it like the first step in a process that starts with a dream and ends in a canoe.

About Ian Merringer

After studying journalism at King’s College in Halifax, Ian Merringer started a freelance journalism career that has included a stint as the editor of Rapid, Canoeroots and Adventure Kayak magazines (now combined to become Paddling magazine). Over the last 20 years, he has written for the Globe and Mail newspaper and Canadian Geographic, Paddling, Ski Canada, Explore, Outdoor Canada and Ontario Nature magazines. He’s won multiple National Magazine Awards and lives in Toronto and has two canoes in his garage and another under his porch.

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