Basically, you should prepare for everything. The river and the weather can change quickly and drastically from day to day or hour to hour. Each day will bring its own unique set of challenges, as the sun, rain, and wind can either be your best friends or your worst enemies.
Heavy rains will be the worst because nobody wants all of their gear to be constantly wet. Therefore, bring good rain gear, dry bags, and a high-quality waterproof tent.
Protect yourself against harsh sun by bringing sun screen, a wide brimmed hat, a breathable long sleeved shirt, capris, and sunglasses.
You should also prepare for extreme cold, especially if you plan on traveling during the cold Fall and Winter nights. Protect your extremities: bring a winter hat, gloves, and extra socks. Bring a warm jacket that also doubles as protection against water.
The Physical Toll on Your Body
We always thought that we would have plenty of time at night to journal, read, play instruments, and other things. However, after paddling all day, setting up camp, and cooking, we usually fell asleep about 30 minutes after eating. Our bodies were so exhausted that falling asleep by 8pm was a pretty typical occurrence.
Every morning we started our day before sunrise with a bowl of oatmeal mixed with dried fruit. If it was really cold, or weather was not permitting an early start, we made coffee. Every three hours we would take a food break, which usually served as our motivation to continue paddling. Our mid morning snack usually consisted of a granola bar and nuts. At lunch, we would sometimes pull off to a sandbar and rest with a Clif bar and apple, or sometimes even a PB&J, if we had bread. For an afternoon snack we would splurge with a chocolate granola bar or a Pop Tart. After 9-12 hours of paddling, dinner was the part of the day when we tried to make up for all of the lost energy. Some of our favorite meals: 1) a couple cans of Chunky soup, 2) rice and beans, 3) Velveeta shells and cheese with chicken chunks or 4) packaged flavored noodles.
The Upper and Lower Mississippi River
We paddled the River through the months of September and October, which is a particular slow time for the river due to low water levels. Other paddlers have told us that the River has a much faster current in the spring but that you may encounter more rainy days. If you do plan on traveling during the fall/winter, make sure to bring warm clothing/gloves/hats and to always keep them dry.
We also did not fully understand the drastic differences between the Upper Mississippi and the Lower Mississippi; in reality, they are completely different beasts. Due to the presence of numerous dams on the Upper, the River is slower (often times you'll feel like your simply paddling through a swamp or lake) and therefore our goal each day was to travel a measly 30 miles. On a calm day, you may paddle 4 mph, and on a windy or rainy day, you may paddle 2 mph. It took us 40 days to reach St. Louis and therefore pass the last dam on the river.
On the Lower Mississippi, the current really picks up speed due to the absence of dams. One's pace will basically double, as our goal on the Lower Mississippi became about 50-70 miles per day. The most we ever paddled in one day was 74 miles. Mileage is still dictated mostly by the weather, as we had four-day stretches where we canoed as much as 270 miles. However, we also had a four-day stretch where we only paddled 139 miles.
Dangers of The Mississippi River
Lakes: The Mississippi passes through numerous lakes during its journey south and two of these lakes particularly stick out in our minds: Lake Pepin and Lake Winnibigoshish, which are some of the widest portions of the entire river. While crossing these lakes, we experienced incredibly strong winds and some of our most dangerous moments on the water. The whitecaps produced from these winds make paddling difficult and dangerous, so be sure to stay close to the shore when you are on these lakes.
If you're not constantly looking out for them, wing dams can sneak up on you and easily tear apart the bottom of your canoe.