Plenty of us have considered a big backcountry paddle, putting in to some wild waterway for a soul-saving weeks-long canoe journey. But how do you know what to bring? Canoe tripping allows for heavier packing, sure, but there's still going to be some whittling down to do, especially where long portages are a concern.
I've been on a couple of extended paddling trips myself, in the Adirondacks of New York and Canada's Algonquin Provincial Park. Not knowing any better at the time, I just packed like I was camping…only in a canoe. That meant that my gear wasn't always adequately protected from errant splashes (or drenching rains, in a few instances), and, while paddling from lake to river to lake, most of my gear was packed away in large backpacks, where it wasn't very accessible (though handy on the portages). I still had an amazing time spotting wildlife and camping under the stars far beyond the reach of automobiles, but a trip is always better when you've got your gear sorted out.
Canoe & Kayak recently turned to Mark Scriver, a 30-year veteran canoe guide and guidebook author, to identify his top 15 pieces of gear for a long whitewater canoe trip. Here are some of the surprising ones:
Barrel Pack—A barrel pack, like this Granite Gear Vapor Flatbed, replaces a large dry bag (or, in my case, a backpack) with a 60-liter plastic barrel (sold separately) that's easy to access, completely waterproof, rugged and, with the pack as harness, easy to carry on a portage. As a bonus, it helps keep scents in and bears out, and serves as a handy camp chair.
Standup Paddle—Scriver says he brings along a standup paddle in addition to his regular canoe paddles for flatwater stretches, and even class 1 or 2 whitewater (don't try it at home, folks). Not only does it help stretch his legs, it gives him a higher viewpoint for scouting upcoming ripples and underwater hazards, and for scoping wildlife.
Satellite phone/inReach/Spot—It's fairly surprising to hear this kind of advice from a seasoned canoe tripper—usually the sort to try and get as far off-grid as possible—but Scriver's reasoning makes sense. He's not talking about GPS devices for navigation (I get the feeling he prefers a map) or a sat phone for emailing and keeping tabs on Facebook, but real life-saving devices like the DeLorme inReach and Spot Satellite Messenger that could your last hope if you get in a tight spot. "Leave it off unless you need it," Scriver says, and we agree.
Pelican 1400 case—Scriver recommends Pelican's shockproof, waterproof 1400 case for keeping binoculars, your camera and an extra lens close-at-hand, worry-free.
Drysuit—Most paddlers heading out for a backcountry paddle trip will simply don rain jacket and waterproof rain pants—and then, only when it's raining. Unless they're heading into serious whitewater—we're talking Class III+ with standing waves, boat-swallowing holes and strainers—they simply don't consider capsizing. Sciver is smarter than that, reasoning that a drysuit "gives you an extra margin of safety if you capsize or if you're doing a rescue." Plus, on the inevitably cold, rainy days, a drysuit is much warmer than any rain suit.
Lime Press—Scriver is something of a backwoods gourmand, and suggests you try being the same. After all, freeze-fried food is, in the end, freeze-dried. And your personal barge…errr, canoe allows you to bring along real food. So try spicing up your dishes with lime (and fighting scurvy, Scriver jokes), or just whip up some stiff margaritas.
A couple of additions I would make are:
Chunky Rubber Sandals—Sandals or open-toed shoes are great for putting in and landing, as well as for portages. Get ones that have a chunky rubber soul, and webbing straps that won't stretch when they get wet. Chaco and Teva are the industry leaders in this category, and both make great options, though professional river guides have told me they prefer the durability of Chacos.
Waterproof Map or Map Case—This is pretty straightforward. If you're navigating by map (and you really ought to be), it's a heck of a lot easier to have the map out and available to help you discern a dead-end bay from an outlet, and an island from an isthmus. Do yourself a favor and protect it from splashes and raindrops with a waterproof case from SealLine, because if you ruin your map, you're lost and out of luck.
To check out the rest of Scriver's list of top 15 pieces of gear for a canoe paddling trip, click through to Canoe & Kayak.