ArticlesThe Lightweight Philosophy

Your Paddling Partners and Having Successful Trips

On a trip this summer, I had the chance to paddle a good portion of the Mississippi River over a 15-day period with someone that I had known for several years and someone that I had paddled with on many short trips. It had been his dream to paddle home to Dubuque, IA on the Mississippi River, and I had always wanted to paddle the entire river, so when he offered a chance to join him on this expedition, I figured I should throw in with him.

Necky Chatham 16 ready to launch
Necky Chatham 16 ready to launch

The original plan was to take three weeks, and paddle from Lake Itasca, the source of the river, to Dubuque. As it turned out, the plan changed when a reduction of time forced us to change our put-in, so we paddled from Jacobson, MN 560 miles to Dubuque, IA. With 15 days to complete the trip, we would have to paddle 37 miles per day with no rest days, and at least one resupply grocery-shopping day taking a half-day. Much to my surprise, a week before the trip, I found out that he hadnt done any planning for this trip. I scrambled to get maps and information, and the night before the trip we got together to try and plan, but we didnt get much done.

During the trip, we ended up having a fall out in the fog one morning. It started over a simple disagreement over navigation, but cumulated in a shouting match that cut through the fog. For ten minutes, we argued back and forth, paddled past bass boats filled with fishermen looking at us strangely, and finally split up. He quit and got a ride home from Winona, which was only a few miles downriver from where we had our argument. I went on alone for the next four days and finished in Dubuque. At the time, not only did this taint my memory of the whole trip, but also for my friend, he failed at a trip he had been dreaming about for the last six years.

This trip ending fight could have been prevented by extra planning and carefully determining if we were actually compatible expedition partners. By taking the steps outlined here, many of the bad things that happened on my Mississippi River trip could have been avoided, and these steps can help out your next trip.

A Mission Statement

Most major expeditions should have some sort of mission statement, which helps clarify what the expedition is hoping to accomplish. This could be to raise money for a charity, just to have fun, or even something like to expose how a looming environmental crisis is affecting a location. All the members of an expedition should understand and accept the mission statement, and by making sure that everyone knows this statement, agrees with the statement, and is willing to live by this statement, your expedition will start off with on two firm feet.

Writing A Mission Statement

A mission statement can be simple, or it might be complex, but Ive found that the simpler the mission statement, the easier it is to understand. For example, the mission statement for my Mississippi River trip might have been something like this: To paddle down the Mississippi River to Dubuque, IA while challenging ourselves with high mile days, but not too high so that we can experience and enjoy some of the river life. Just like this try to come up with your own. A good exercise is to start with a blank sheet of paper and start to brainstorm everything that you hope to experience, accomplish, and achieve on the trip, but remember that this doesnt have to be too complicated. A simple mission statement could be as much as saying, were going to go up to the Boundary Waters and base camp and catch fish.


After you come up with a mission statement for your trip, you have to come up with a set of goals that when added up will eventually lead to accomplishing those things that you set out in your mission statement. The best way to do that is to start with goal that address each part of your mission statement. For example, for the above Boundary Waters trip, the goals could be simple: 1. Paddle to East Pike Lake one day. 2. Set-up base camp. 3. Fish the Pikes for two days. 4. Paddle up to the waterfall one day. 5. Take down camp and paddle out. This may sound more complicated that it is. If your goals are simple, there is no need to write them down, but make sure that they are verbalized to everyone that is going.

But, Thats Not My Goal

When planning the goals for a trip, make sure to take into account other opinions on the goals needed to accomplish the trips mission statement, because there may be other ways of accomplishing the mission. If during goal planning, some members of the team cant compromise on the goals needed to accomplish the trip, then, maybe, those members are best left home. By doing this, you take away one future obstacle to finishing trip by removing members that may impede the goals while out in the field. Even if the person agrees to follow goals they didnt want, there may be some resentment, so make sure that if they still come that they are willing to live by the decided goals of the trip. By removing them now, you are doing well by them and good by the rest of the team.

Be Flexible

Make sure that everyone on the trip understands that although there are certain goals, these may have to change during the trip, because of changing circumstances.

A Leader

Most people who go on trips never see the need to determine a leader for that trip, but having someone available to make the decisions required by the circumstances and having someone who is willing to accept the responsibility for those decisions is a plus for most trips. Hopefully, your team will gel so well that no one will have to assume this role, but, occasionally, someone needs to take control, and by naming someone ahead of time, you will head off future arguments. I’ve been on a 6 month expedition before were no one had to step-up and take charge, because everyone was thinking on the same line, but Ive also been on a five day mountaineering trip that fell apart before we were able to put one crampon to the ice, because there was no designated leader to handle a problem that arose, and when someone tried to turning into that leader, the rest of the team turned against him. Different people can lead in different areas of the trip, so it always doesnt have to be the same person just make sure that everyone knows and agrees about who will lead and when.

What to Look for in a Leader

Many books have been written on leadership and I wont attempt to out class them here, but, simply speaking, a leader is someone who helps motivate people to move towards a common goal. I find that leaders who listen and take into account other peoples experience before making decisions (if they have the time,) and those who are able to make decisions quickly are the ones that work best for an expedition. The reason that I suggest these last two attributes is because on expeditions the stress and strain often leads to heightened emotional levels, and often these can be reduced and pacified by a leader who simply listens before decisions are made, but with that said, if there isnt time to listen, then the leader needs to be able to act fast and make a choice hopefully the right one and be able to mend fences afterwards.

What to look for in Team members

When bringing other people onto a trip the first thing to look for is a willingness to agree to the mission statement and then to agree with the goals of the trip, and be motivated to accomplish them. Secondly, they have to be at a physically fitness level and have a skill level to accomplish those things. Thirdly, they have to be able to listen and be able to speak their mind instead of keeping quiet. Fourthly, will they fit in? Many other writers, outdoors people, and outdoor leaders will tell you many other attributes, like good humor, positive attitude, etc& that they like to have with them, and this may be true in their case, but really only the four I list are absolutely necessary for a good team member. The first, I believe, is self-explanatory, if someone doesn’t believe in the mission or goals of your team or they aren’t willing to accomplish them, then they shouldnt be part of your expedition. I also think it goes without saying that if a person doesn’t have the skills or isn’t physically fit enough, then they cant be part of the trip. I list listening and speaking, because during any expedition there will be gives and takes, and without the ability to listen to others and speak your mind, the person puts up walls around themselves, which will eventually give way to some sort of conflict from the built up tension. My fourth attribute for team members takes into account on how well a person will fit in with the rest of the group. If the person just won’t jive with their fellow members, then they shouldn’t be on the trip. For example, even if someone is the best wild river canoeist that you know, has been on many Canadian artic rivers, and that is where you are headed, if all the members on your team can’t stand sarcastic humor, and he has that type of humor, he probably won’t be a good addition to the trip, because his humor will rub the rest of the team raw, and make the trip less enjoyable for everyone.

Pre-trip Shakedown

After you have come up with a mission statement, goals, and potential team members, its time to head out on a shakedown trip. Shakedown trips should be, at least, a weekend long in conditions that are close to those that you are expecting on your expedition. And you should try to do the same mileage, eat the same food, and use the same gear that you will when youre out and about. So, if you plan to paddle 37 miles a day, go out and paddle 74 miles. Watch and see how everyone acts, make sure that everyone can keep up, and afterwards talk to all the members of your potential team to address problems and gather opinions on how to improve systems for the expedition. Plan this trip several months up to a year in advance, so that you can give people time to train, get in shape, and prepare for the big trip. You may also find that those who couldnt keep up will just drop out on the shakedown.

Further Planning

After you have all the team members of your trip determined its time to assign further planning details to everyone. Most trips will need to raise some money for gas and travel and transport, meals, equipment, and thus they need someone to act as a treasurer. Someone will need to get maps for everyone and plan the actual logistics involved with accomplishing the goal, some one will need plan menus and food, someone will need to make sure everyone has the proper gear and will have to produce gear lists, and someone will need to lead all these details. Get everyone together after the shakedown trip, and brainstorm on everything that needs to get done before the day you leave, and then assign each of these things to team members. Then make up a timetable that will achieve all the planning at least a week before the trip. The leaders job is to keep a weekly or daily watch on these jobs to make sure they are getting done according to a timetable.

Good Luck

As you can see, these few steps are easy to achieve and when done they put your trip on better footing before you leave. I’ve found that when I didn’t follow these steps, I ended up arguing or in disagreement over them when out in the woods, but if I did these before leaving, then the trip went smoother and everyone was able to enjoy the expedition much more. Had I spend any amount of time planning with my friend for our Mississippi River trip, I doubt that it would have ended as it did. And I doubt it would have cost a friendship.

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