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7 top tips for an unforgettable NWT paddling experience

People dock their canoes on the shore in Nahanni National Park in the NWT

7 top tips for an unforgettable NWT paddling experience

The Northwest Territories is graced with many mighty rivers that flow unimpeded into seldom seen wilderness paradises, making it a top destination for most paddlers. But what makes our rivers so alluring—the remoteness, the ability to leave behind the daily stresses of the world by being hundreds of kilometres outside of cell coverage—can also cause them to be a little tricky to plan for.

But fear not! Whether you’re looking to raft alongside the towering—and truly humbling—canyon walls of the South Nahanni River with a group of friends, or let an expert guide lead you through rolling tundra hills on the wide-open Thelon, we have some tips from veteran outfitters to ensure you have an unforgettable experience on the unmatched rivers of the Northwest Territories.

2 people paddle down whitewater rapids in the Northwest Territories

#1: Be honest about your skills

Before you rush out and start planning a solo journey down the remote Coppermine River to the Arctic Ocean, rate your experience and tolerance for adventure.

If you’ve never travelled in a canoe, kayak or raft, definitely opt for a trip with a certified adventure outfitter. They’ll help you get acclimatized to your vessel of choice and ensure you have the skills necessary for a safe and comfortable trip before you set off. Even if you’ve paddled some before, it may be best to go with a guide if you don’t have backcountry experience.

A group of hikers view a waterfall in the Northwest Territories   - Photo credit D. Roberts

#2: Pack light, but pack right!

Bring a bug jacket and some bug dope. Take along lots of sunscreen, a hat and don’t forget your camera—but be prepared for 8 to 12 days without electricity! Get cozy with your own sleeping bag and a sleeping pad. Pack a variety of clothing layers to wear all at once for warmth, or sparingly on sunny days. Pamper your feet. Bring quick-draining water shoes for the canoe or kayak with good grip on wet rocks, and hiking boots for off-river expeditions. 

Really think about what you’ll need before setting out, because unless you’re paddling down the mighty Mackenzie River, with stops into friendly Sahtu communities along the way, there’s nowhere to purchase any new gear once your adventure begins.

A group of paddlers in canoes in the Northwest territories - Photo credit W. Waterton

#3: Be prepared

Camping? Remember, there’s nothing like experience. A paddling trip through remote mountain or tundra landscapes in the Northwest Territories is not the time to try out your new high-tech tent or stove! If anything goes wrong, and it probably will, you’ll be a long way from help. Make sure all of your equipment is tried and proven. Have some handy tools to fix anything: pack duct tape, matches, a sturdy knife, aquaseal glue, and some strong spare cord.

2 people enjoy a meal on the shoreline in the Northwest territories - Photo credit C. Field

#4: What to eat?

If you choose to head out on a weeks-long adventure, you may need to pack some dehydrated chilis and stews before the big trip. On guided journeys, most outfitters will pack real food for an army of hungry and picky paddlers. It can’t hurt to pack some nuts, dehydrated fruit or even some chocolate bars, which can provide a much-needed energy boost when you’re burning calories by the minute. And be sure to pack a fishing rod—there’s no shortage of mouth-watering fish up here.

A person plays a guitar while camping in the Northwest Territories. Photo credit C. Field

#5: Plan a pick-me-up

It’s inevitable that you will encounter some rain or wind on a particularly tough stretch of the river. To keep morale up, make sure you pack something special so you can smile at the end of a hard day. Celebrate with a fun dress-up evening, a special dessert, or even libations. 

A muskox in the Northwest territories - Photo credit P. Kane

#6: Be ready for wildlife

On the Thelon River, you might see arctic wolves or muskoxen close-up. On the Nahanni or Mountain or Keele rivers, you may spy a grizzly bear going about its business. At certain times of the spring or fall, you’ll gawk up at the migrations of geese or ducks. Or follow the flight of a solitary eagle. You will feel goosebumps on your arms, as you get to see these creatures undisturbed in their natural habitat.

If you are travelling through bear country, be sure your bear spray hasn’t expired and also be careful to clean up after yourself and pack out all evidence of your own travels.

A person canoes on a lake in the Northwest territories - Photo Credit D. Roberts

#7: Leave your cares at home

Once you find yourself on these wild waters, remember to breathe deep and just go with the flow. There’s no need to rush or compete. There’s no email to check. There’s no 24-hour news cycle out here—just 24 hours of sunlight. Let your day-to-day cares float away.

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