I have done more than a few wilderness canoe (and hiking) trips over the past 20 years and my experience has given me insights that could benefit aspiring explorers or even a later version of myself. Most of what I’ve learned is applicable to both backpacking and canoe trips which share very similar characteristics. Something you should know about me before reading on is that I have slowly been evolving into an ultralight proponent, a slippery slope that involves interesting techniques and expensive gear. Of course the reasoning behind it (for me anyway) is a healthier body and a more pleasant backcountry experience. Often I read things on the Internet or in a book somewhere and I think to myself how there are just as many opinions on how “things should be done” as there are people. This has kept my from pontificating my own ideas on wilderness canoe tripping till now.
Reviewing my trips and going through some video made me realize that I can contribute to the conversation from a slightly different point of view than most other folks. What makes me unique to many other wilderness trippers is my practicality and willingness to embrace modern technology. I don’t consider myself an expert at bushcraft or DIY at all! I’m a country born, city living weekend warrior – nothing more and nothing less. I make enough money so that I don’t have to do everything the hard way and this has some big advantages in the realm of wilderness tripping as you’ll see in the following tips, tricks and gear recommendations.
Despite growing up on a small farm in rural Manitoba, I was never a DIY type. My Dad wasn’t either. We were happy to pay other people to do the stuff we didn’t feel qualified (or motivated) to do on our own free time. The most DIY project I ever did was build a cedarstrip canoe with a friend and I tapped out before it was completely finished. That being said, I’m perfectly capable of learning how to do things, I just take a very practical approach to life. For example I am perfectly capable of fixing up my own basement, but why waste time down there if I can be out enjoying the Rockies to the west? I’d rather pay someone else to do a better job, quicker than myself.
If you want to learn how to start a fire with nothing but a rock and some rawhide there are other places than this blog to learn how. The advice I’m going to give here is for the average working professional who wants to escape the concrete jungle and live wild for a few weeks without suffering more than absolutely necessary. Some of the items I’ll write about are not cheap – it has taken me many years of full-time employment to “afford” a lot of this gear and there are obviously cheaper alternatives that will work 90-95% as effectively.
The Most Important Tip
If I could summarize all my wilderness experience into one concise tip it would be the following;
“Don’t overthink it.”
That’s it. I believe that as a modern society with access to way too much information (and money), we tend to overthink and overanalyze everything in our lives including what we do for fun. Planning is a good thing, overthinking is a waste of time, money and most importantly pleasure. I see people stressing out about what to wear, what to eat, how long to take, when to go, how to go, what to buy etc. Stressing out about all this is a waste of time and energy. Relax! It’s not rocket science. It’s a canoe trip. You need food, safety gear, shelter, maps and a canoe. That’s really all there’s to it in the final analysis. Everything else is gravy. Everything else is little tweaks here and there to make your tripping life a bit easier but you will never have a “perfect” trip and you will always be learning new things for the next one. That’s just part of the fun! Don’t overthink it. Get out on the water and enjoy your time off and away from the concrete jungle. Just don’t forget that bucket of sunscreen and a crap ton of bug spray!
Planning your Trip
Any wilderness canoeist will tell you that the planning is at least half the fun. I can’t begin to tell you how often I’ve been portaging a mucky portage with 8 billion biting insects attacking me wondering why I don’t just plan trips and not bother actually DOING them! Planning is fun. My imagination goes wild as I research potential routes, look at video and photos from others and put detailed distance and routing information into spreadsheets and planning software like PaddlePlanner. Planning is also very necessary to having an enjoyable and safe trip. This is one step of the canoe tripping tips ‘n tricks where I don’t follow my own sage advice of “don’t overthink it”. I somewhat overthink the planning part of my trips – because I enjoy nothing more on a bone chilling January day than dreaming of my next adventure and the endless possibilities that it holds. I would suggest at a minimum to come up with a table with day-by-day plans and options for bad or good weather.
Detailed plans not only help you get excited for a trip that might be months or even years off, they help you remember important gear, navigate the route when you’re on it and comfort loved ones by letting them know you’re being as safe and prepared as possible.
A detailed set of plans also ensures you don’t carry too much gear along – something that happens more often than not having enough. This can be a safety issue as packs are heavier than necessary, making portages more unbalanced and bodies stiffer and more prone to injury. I used to finish my trips with almost half my food untouched (we do a lot of fishing). Now I finish with at most 2 days of extra food which is acceptable for emergency situations. Carrying too much fuel for cooking is another common mistake. There are many sites on the Internet to assist you with proper fuel planning. Keep track of what you used and didn’t use on trips to assist yourself the next time you’re planning one (this is something I always forget to do).
One of the most overlooked and important tips or bit of advice I can give for your next wilderness canoe trip is to whip yourself into the best shape you can. Trust me, I’m not a pillar of health by any stretch of the imagination but I do try to keep myself fairly fit and healthy with daily walks of 10 km or more and my mountain activities tend to keep me in reasonable cardiovascular condition. It should be fairly obvious why this is important for any wilderness trip but here’s just some of the reasons it might pay off to lose that extra 10 lbs the past winter might have accumulated;
- Trips are more fun when you’re fit and relatively healthy. Simple as that. My least favorite trips were when I was the least fit. Not worrying about 1000 meter portages, hard paddling or long days is a very freeing thing.
- Trips are safer when you’re fit. One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that the most important time to be fit is when the trip starts going south. Say you’ve been paddling for 12 hours and you’re looking for a campsite. The weather is coming in and you’re hungry but there are no sites to be found! This when it pays to be fit. Pushing on those few extra portages or paddling against the wind when you’re already tired.
- Think about the weight savings. If you even only lose 5-10 lbs for a serious wilderness trip, that’s 5-10 pounds your knees don’t have to support for each step on each portage. That’s 5-10 pounds you don’t have to hydrate or lift each time you get out of the canoe. Might not seem like much, but it adds up for hundreds of moments on a trip making you less tired at the end of each day and less prone to injury.
- You need less food if you’re fit. This is a bit counter-intuitive but larger folks generally need more sustenance to keep their bodies moving. Think about it. What requires more fuel – a Prius or a Hummer? Carrying all that extra fuel only makes you more hungry which means you need more fuel. It’s a vicious cycle that can be mitigated by simply requiring less food in the first place.
I’m sure there are many other reasons to be as fit as you can for your next trip but these are a few of the more obvious ones. Something that I’ve also realized over the years is that we pay hundreds, if not thousands of dollars to have lighter gear (such as a Carbon Tec canoe) but we could easily save similar amounts of weight simply by going on a diet for a month before our next trip.
Navigation (Printed Maps)
I’m going to go off the generally accepted script a bit. Let’s talk “maps”. Or rather, in my case, let’s NOT talk maps. You want to know how many times over the past 5-10 years I’ve been forced to use a paper map for critical navigational purposes? Zero times – that’s how many. This includes hundreds of trips in the Canadian Rockies, on and off trail, as well as many multi day canoe trips in the remote Woodland Caribou Provincial Park. I know it’s not very “woodsy” of me to say this out loud and slightly offensive to the more traditional trippers out there but I believe that the days of paper map navigation are pretty much over. The age of pre-planning trips using satellite maps, GPS apps and excellent trip planning sites like PaddlePlanner are here – and have been for a decade or more.
Portages and campsites should be marked in the tripper’s GPS beforehand as much as possible to make their trip much safer and more efficient than fussing about with folded bits of paper as the light fades rapidly in a light drizzle and strong winds. The best part is that you don’t even need a dedicated GPS unit anymore. Your best option for a GPS is likely what you’re reading this article on, namely your smartphone.
Ok, ok. I’ll relent a little bit with a standard disclaimer that 90% of folks will never need to use. Every wilderness traveller should bring paper maps with their route preplanned on them in case of technology failure. Portage and campsite maps are another key bit of gear to bring along if they exist for your area. You should obviously know how to use and read paper maps with a compass, which will sit unused and forgotten in the bottom of your map case. I fully understand and appreciate that for some more traditional trippers, the art and science of planning and using a compass and paper maps is an essential part of their overall experience. To each their own!
To those who say that GPS units and phones can break down and therefore shouldn’t be relied on, paper maps can easily get wet, lost and burnt. This is why you should employ a backup strategy and carry both paper maps and a GPS with you on every wilderness trip. Navigation is obviously one of the most important aspects of any trip and you should definitely know how to use the tools before heading into the middle of nowhere.
I’ll detail my iPhone GPS mapping techniques further in the next section but suffice it to say that I spend by far the majority of my pre trip planning on route plotting including the paddle route, campsites and portages. I have found over the years that with a good portage map and some topo maps I can get by on just those if I lose my GPS functionality for some reason and have to go into emergency navigation mode. Unless you are scouting truly uncharted lands and waterways there is almost always some sign of previous passage or obvious landmarks to follow even in more remote parks such as Woodland Caribou or Atikaki where I like to paddle.
Carrying some marked up satellite maps on uncharted or rarely travelled routes is always a good idea too. Obviously you should carry your paper maps in a waterproof map case which should also contain your compass. I carry my notebooks in the same case which allows me quick access whenever I want to journal. I tie my map case to the thwart in front of me so I know I always have it. In WCPP I use the park portage map to know the length of each portage before I start it, but other than that I navigate exclusively with my iPhone and have for the past 5 years.
I often travel with my brother-in-law who didn’t appreciate my GPS when I first started relying on it about 10 years ago. He loves reading topo maps while he paddles – it helps him concentrate on the route and on the land as he paddles through it. “The GPS makes it all too easy”, was a phrase I heard often as we straightlined quickly through confusing islands for a distant portage trail following the blinking arrow on my screen. Then he realized that he could do both topo navigation and use a GPS and he hasn’t looked back since. The amount of times we’ve found desperate portages or campsites during bad weather because of my pre-planned GPS routes has finally won him over. He still follows the route along his topo map (he’s usually out in front while I hang back and fish) but relies on my GPS to set us straight when we’re going astray from our intended route. Everyone wins and we stay safe and travel efficiently when we need to.
It’s surprising how often I hear or read the phrase that “gear doesn’t really matter”. I disagree vehemently with this sentiment. In my experience, having the proper gear does matter. A lot. Just because I like to keep things simple, doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate good gear! The best gear is usually surprisingly simple – it just works, and it works for many years. When I started canoe tripping I could barely afford the fishing lures we brough, never mind buying a canoe! If you’re just starting out you’ll have to decide what’s most important to you to start investing your hard earned money towards. My suggestion would be start with gear that keeps you safe first (shelter, clothing, stove) and move towards more luxury items (canoe, paddle, high end stuff) later.
Way back at the turn of the century (I love how old that makes me sound) I participated in one of my first wilderness canoe trips. We did a loop from Wallace Lake through the infamous Obokowin Portage and back through Aikens Lake before it was clearly mapped out and well traveled like it is nowadays. What a miserable trip!! This is the trip where I learned how important gear can be on wilderness canoe trips. Sure, we survived with our Canadian Tire $9.99 “raincoats” and rubber pants but it wasn’t without near hypothermia and a great deal of (unnecessary) suffering. I remember fiddling with paper topo maps in the pouring rain and 8 degree temperatures as we paddled into dead end bays in huge chop only to have to turn around and try the next bay over. We had a heckuva time following the swollen Broadleaf River and finding its portage trails too. In the following section I’ll detail some of the key tripping gear that you’ll need and why I think having good gear matters in each case.
Since we’re primarily talking canoe trips here, we should address this important bit of gear first. My first suggestion on this topic is to rent canoes from local outfitters until you decide what you want to spend your hardwon cash on. I rented for many, many years before finally deciding on a gorgeous Souris River Quetico 16′ Carbon Tec 39 lb canoe in 2014. Damn – I love my canoe! To be honest, renting makes the most sense if you only do 1 or 2 trips a year. Even for me, renting would have made more sense but I really wanted a smaller 16′ boat that I could solo trip in, so I bought one.
If you’re buying, what kind of boat do you need? In short you need the best canoe that you can afford, suited to the type of canoeing you’ll be doing. Many articles exist already on choosing a canoe, a good resource can be found here but there are many – just Google it. Don’t forget the most important thing though! Don’t overthink it. There are a lot of choices out there but if you’re paddling flatwater you want a lightweight, stable boat that tracks well. If you’re paddling whitewater you want a tough boat that can handle some abuse.
You might think that any bit of gear that propels you through the water is good enough. You’re right. It is good enough – but will you enjoy all the options the same? No. You will not. I paddled for many years with the crappy aluminium and plastic or cheaply varnished wooden paddles that outfitters love to give clients because they’re cheap and almost indestructible.
Finally, in 2016 I decided I’d had enough of the shitty paddles I’d purchased with my expensive canoe. I went for something more elegant, beautiful and most importantly functional than any paddle I’d used before. My gorgeous 60″ oiled Badger Cherry Tripper model paddle is worth every single penny I paid for it. I know it seems like overkill to pay $150-200 for a paddle when Canadian Tire has options costing $25 but trust me when I say that a handmade, oiled hardwood paddle will change your mind within a day of paddling. I’ve done hundreds of hours of paddling with my Badger Tripper and have zero blisters over all that time. I’m an office boy working in downtown Calgary. My hands are pretty soft when I start a wilderness canoe trip. Zero blisters. Enough said.
The technology in the newer iPhones is not to be underestimated – they are amazing pieces of outdoor gear tech and should be used by anyone who can afford one and isn’t nostalgic for traditional non-tech gear. The newer model iPhones have amazing advances in technology. They not only have very accurate and dependable GPS capabilities but have excellent digital cameras and 4k video. They take slow motion video and timelapses. They can take wide angle shots and moderate telephotos. They can do macros. They even take great selfies! They are completely waterproof (up to 2 meters) and can be dunked underwater without consequence.
Navigation on the iPhone
Let’s start with navigation (GPS) on the iPhone. I don’t use a standalone GPS unit or video device on any of my wilderness trips anymore, whether in the Rockies or on the water. I use my iPhone, and have been using an iPhone since they put GPS chips in them (at least the past 5 or 6 years). I’ve written articles on this before but they got outdated pretty quickly as mobile technology is still evolving very fast. To keep this relatively brief I’ll point you in the right direction and you’ll have to do some of your own research. I highly recommend fiddling with the various app settings before relying on it to keep you on route and alive in the wild. Google phones will have versions of the same apps and functions as the iPhone but I’m not familiar with them. I’m also assuming a modern iPhone – any model after the iPhone 7 with newer models getting better and better. Currently I use an iPhone 11 Pro and absolutely love everything about it.
Contrary to common belief, you do not need a cell signal to use your phone’s GPS. I always put my iPhone in airplane mode when wilderness traveling to preserve the battery – this doesn’t affect bluetooth or the GPS antenna. My phone will last at least 2-3 full days in the backcountry on one charge assuming I turn it off at camp when not using it. Charging your device while tripping is super easy with solar chargers or USB charge bars. Also contrary to popular opinion, the GPS unit in the iPhone is extremely reliable and accurate – plenty good enough for today’s wilderness tripper. There are bluetooth devices available to boost the GPS signal in your phone but these aren’t necessary IMHO. I’ve used my iPhone to navigate almost weekly in both mountainous and forested terrain over the past 5 or 6 years and never gotten lost because of coverage issues. Sometimes it takes a minute or so to grab a GPS signal when there’s cloud cover or thick forest but the phone always finds a satellite eventually.
I use the Gaia app to plan and record trips. Gaia easily handles GPS tracks and separate waypoints (as generated for campsites and portages by PaddlePlanner for example). I use PaddlePlanner to map a route before downloading the GPX and uploading it into Gaia online (i.e. in a browser on my home computer). I then sync the Gaia app on my iPhone to the online Gaia route. A VERY IMPORTANT step to remember is to download the topo maps covering your route area onto your iPhone BEFORE losing cell phone or wifi signal. If you forget this step you can still follow the downloaded track on your phone, but you’ll have no topo maps to follow in case of variations. I purchased Canadian topographical maps for my Gaia app which cost me something like $4 for the entire Canadian set – a trivial amount.
Tip: You can download different map layers onto your phone and select between them on your travels. For example, if you’re following an unmapped route that you plotted in Gaia (i.e. not a regular PaddlePlanner route) beforehand, you can download both the topographical map and a satellite map for use in the field. This feature has come in very handy for some explor8ion trips I’ve done off trail in the Rockies when we’re trying to find navigable terrain on route and have no idea what lies ahead.
Photography and Video on the iPhone
Many folks might not realize this but iPhones take amazing photographs and even more amazing video. For a device that fits in your pocket and doubles as a GPS this is what makes the iPhone a no-brainer backcountry tool for me. Imagine taking photos of portages and campsites along your route and when you get home you can view on a map where each photo was taken! This is very handy when you forget how nice that site actually was, or how muddy that portage landing can be. The newest iPhones not only have a 28mm (equivalent) camera lens, but also a very wide angle 18mm lens and a normal telephoto, 50mm.
I primarily shoot with a DSLR on my canoe trips but am taking more and more casual shots with my iPhone since it’s always in my pocket and is so easy to grab in comparison. The vast majority of photos on any trip are what I call “memory snaps”. Memory snaps simply capture a moment that you want to recall later and aren’t necessarily meant to be works of art. When I make photo books of my trips afterwards, the vast majority of the printed photos are shot on the iPhone and not my $4,000 fancy digital camera and associated large lenses!
You might think that you can’t shoot in low light or RAW format on the iPhone but you’d be wrong. If you purchase 3rd party camera apps such as Camera+ or ProCam you can change many more settings on your phone camera than you’ll ever use. The iPhone takes beautiful panoramas, blurred portraits, close-up macros and even reasonable night shots. I expect that within the next few years we will not need to carry huge, heavy, expensive DSLR cameras into the backcountry. Technology already exists for phones to take extreme telephoto shots without a protruding lens. Neat eh? Even if you don’t use the camera on your phone, there are apps available to assist you with more traditional photography such as when / where the sun will rise or set and where you should point your lens for the Milky Way or specific constellations. There are apps to assist with exposure values and depth-of-field calculations as well.
Nevermind photography on your phone – what about video? The video capability on my iPhone is the one function I use most on my trips. 4k video with many built-in features make it very easy to use. Almost all the footage from my 2019 WCPP canoe trip on the following YouTube video was shot on my iPhone X. The underwater fishing shots were taken on a GoPro and I could have done those with the iPhone too (it’s waterproof). If you’re worried about dropping your phone in the lake, there are many floating devices that are built for that purpose and will attach to your phone and keep it from sinking to the bottom.
Other uses of the iPhone
In case you think the iPhone is “only” good for GPS, photography and video, it does far more than those 3 things. Want to know which local herbs and berries are edible or what type of forest you’re portaging through? Download a copy of a local guidebook to your iBooks app. (Sure beats carrying a book around for two weeks!) Want to learn a better way to fillet a Northern Pike or a Lake Trout? Download and cache a video in YouTube and watch it live as you hold your fillet knife on a sunny lichen covered rock in the middle of nowhere. Sitting under a star-filled sky and wondering what constellation you’re looking at? Load up an app. Want something to do while stuck in your tent for 2 days during a period of really bad weather? Watch a cached Netflix show. Can’t sleep at night if you’re out solo? Listen to some calming music. I understand that most of us are trying to disconnect from technology and the busy world when we head into the wilderness, but there are some awfully handy functions built into a device that is sitting in your pocket that you might as well take advantage of!
You might not like the idea of using an iPhone in the wilderness but there is an argument for safety here too. I’ve read many trips, including from the intrepid Canadian adventurer Adam Shoalts, where folks get into tricky navigation errors that cause epic or near-epic situations. Every time I read these stories, I can’t help but think how very easily avoidable they are nowadays. All you need is a phone with your route roughly marked based on satellite and topo maps and you should never again paddle into a dead end bay during a nasty wind storm. It’s that easy.
Some people seem to relish the idea that they could get lost in the wild. For these folks the possibility of getting off route is part of an exciting adventure. But what about loved ones back home? How excited are they about any of us getting hypothermia or swamped or lost in the bush? And let’s be really honest for a second here. How much fun is it really, when you simply want to get through that last portage before camp and you can’t find the right stream? And how much fun is it really when you finally do find the portage only to realize there is no campsite in the next weedy lake? I’d rather suffer the adventures that are inevitable on every wilderness trip, like weather events and huge waves than suffer easily avoidable ones like getting lost.
After the previous section you might think this section is not needed. Do we still need to carry a separate camera system if we have our trusty smartphone and it’s great little camera? Depends. I love photography so I do things with my dedicated camera that the iPhone can’t do (yet). Give it a few more years and I might not carry a separate DSLR anymore. If photography wasn’t a major hobby of mine I wouldn’t bother carrying an extra camera. I’ve used many brands of mirrorless digital cameras over the years and recommend everything from Olympus to Sony. I bring a minimum amount of gear including extra batteries and three lenses, a wide angle prime (18mm f/2.8), normal zoom (24-105mm f/4) and a telephoto (70-300mm) lens. I might throw in a macro lens if I’m in the mood to carry it.
The following are specialized scenes that a phone or point ‘n shoot can’t capture quite the same as a larger format DSLR can;
- Astrophotography – night photography is something I enjoy on the few rare nights that the Milky way is visible, the moon isn’t visible and the skies are clear. A fast, wide-angle lens is key for these captures.
- Wildlife – a zoom lens is necessary for wildlife photography which is in abundance on most canoe trips.
- Macro – a zoom lens with macro abilities is the most useful for flower / bug shots.
- Low light – sunrises and sunsets are better captured by a DSLR than a small sensor camera.
One other suggestion I’d make for the average photographer who doesn’t want to carry lots of expensive camera gear around, is to buy an all-in-one ultrazoom model such as the Sony RX10 or Panasonic FZ1000.
As any experienced tripper knows, the most dangerous aspect of wilderness travel isn’t an angry bear or navigation errors – it’s the weather. A good shelter protects you from bad weather which is all but guaranteed on any wilderness trip over a few days in length. And remember – weather includes wind, rain, hail and even snow. Again, I’m going to buck the trend a bit with my opinion on shelters. As a general rule, I no longer use or like using tents for shelter. There is a much better option available nowadays and it’s called a “pyramid” or “mid” for short. Pyramid tents like the Hyperlite Mountain Gear UltraMid II that I’ve been using for the past 4 or 5 years are extremely expensive (yes – those prices are in USD!!) but also very useful and practical for a host of reasons;
- Very, very lightweight and small. 1.17 lbs and about 5-7 litres in volume when packed. For a large 2 person shelter.
- Single walled and 100% waterproof. There is no tent fly to set up and no need for an extra tarp.
- Easy to repair – simply buy some extra repair tape and stick it over any holes that form.
- Very wind resistant due to the pyramid shape. There is not “wrong way” to face a mid when setting up. I’ve used mine on icefields in the Rockies in 80 kph winds in winter with no issues.
- Doesn’t require tent poles. Simply use your paddle to prop up the tent. Saves weight and volume.
- Tent pegs are not required. Works with rocks or logs or anything with some weight. I prefer lightweight pegs when possible but often on Canadian Shield they don’t work.
- Doesn’t require a floor (but can have one). You know how handy it is to put muddy gear inside the tent without getting it dirty?
- Doesn’t require bug netting, but can have it if needed. In the Rockies I often don’t need either a tent floor or bug netting making for a very light and small shelter. Having the option if obviously very handy.
If I haven’t convinced you yet, obviously a good tent will also do the job, just as they have for many years. Some recommendations for tenting would be to make sure it’s waterproof before leaving on your trip. Over time most tents will wear down, especially at the joints. It’s easy to apply waterproofing yourself at home, just Google for details.
Another very important bit of gear for any wilderness canoe trip is a cooking device. In the old days we used to bring a good ol’ Coleman camp stove along! I’m dead serious. Even as little as 4 years ago we brought these huge, heavy stoves along – cursing them and their bulky fuel canisters over many long portages over the years. As I did more and more light and ultra light hiking back in the Alberta Rockies I started applying these techniques to my canoe tripping. I’ve tried white gas stoves such as the MSR Dragonfly or Whisperlite and while these are great stoves they have major drawbacks including finicky lighting, liquid gas and bulky, spill-prone containers.
Nowadays I’ve converted my regular canoe partners on a tiny wonder – the GSI Pinnacle. This stove is not only very small, lightweight and functional, it’s kind of cheap too. The reason I like this particular stove is that it separates the fuel canister from the flame so that a windscreen can be used. I always carry an MSR PocketRocket for my backup stove – it uses the same fuel and is even smaller than the Pinnacle. It’s amazing how much of a difference going to these tiny stoves has made on our portaging comfort!
One other note on cooking, I know many folks like to cook over a campfire. This is great, but isn’t always practical or even legal (fire bans are common in the backcountry nowadays). Having a tiny stove like the Pinnacle or PocketRocket could make your life much easier (and safer) than relying 100% on open fire.
You might think that “any old pack” will do the trick when it comes to carrying all the gear you need on a canoe trip. Once again, I would argue that you are both right and wrong. Any old pack will definitely work, but there are some miracle packs out there that make life a whole lot easier if you can afford them. Unfortunately I am once again going to recommend a product from Hyperlite Mountain Gear. Unfortunate for your bank account that is…
I am not a gear ambassador for this brand, but have been using their gear for many years and simply haven’t found a better option. When it comes to their packs you can’t go wrong with any of them. I use the 3400 and 4400 Ice Packs because of my mountain activities but for canoe tripping or hiking purposes the NorthRim or WindRider are probably better options. What makes the HMG (or similar brand) packs so amazing? They are 100% waterproof. Yep. 100%. No need for bulky, finicky rain covers which don’t really work. No need to worry about a tarp over your gear when paddling on a windy, rainy day. No need to worry about a boggy portage landing. Even if you flip over in a rapid or large waves, your pack will float and your gear inside will remain perfectly dry!
You will never go back to a regular pack after using a waterproof one – I guarantee it. It is so darn liberating to simply put the pack down wherever you are without worrying about getting the gear inside of it wet. Just like the pyramid tent and the iPhone, using a waterproof, indestructible pack takes a lot of hidden stress out of a canoe trip. There’s another advantage to a waterproof pack – it doesn’t gain weight when it’s raining. Canvas and other packs can get many pounds heavier just from rainwater saturating the fabric. This can’t happen with an HMG pack.
It’s another bit of gear that until you use it, you don’t realize what you were missing. I make my clothing and sleeping bag even more protected by using HMG stuff sacks and pack pods which are also 100% waterproof. Using stuff sacks and gear pods also helps with organizing and sorting gear in the HMG pack which doesn’t have extra pockets (keeping it lighter and simpler). Another benefit of the HMG packs? They’re much tougher than most other fabrics, they don’t rip easily and won’t puncture when snagging on that stubborn tree branch on the next portage.
Of course you need more than just a large backpack on a canoe trip. You probably need a daypack, a camera case, a food pack and food barrel too. All of these are waterproof on my trips. I use the following packs and configurations;
- HMG 4400 Pack – clothes, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, electronics, e-reader, batteries, headlamp, tent, assorted camp gear such as camp chair, hammock, extra camp stove etc. This only works if your gear is small and light.
- HMG 3400 Pack – food items that aren’t odorous such as granola bars, packaged food.
- Plastic Food Barrel (30L) – used for foods that have odor or need to stay cool including eggs, cheese, wraps, oil, fish batter etc. Also used for stove, fuel and cookware.
- MEC Scully 30 – day pack with any gear I might need throughout the day including fillet knife, rope, bear spray, day food, waterproof jacket / pants etc.
- Pelican Case 1300 – camera gear including camera, batteries and lenses
- MEC Dry Bag 5-10L – fishing tackle bag with extra lures, line etc. Doesn’t need to be waterproof but these are tough bags and they work well.
- Other – Depending on the trip we sometimes carry an extra SealLine Boundary or MEC DryPack
You thought we were almost done the gear section?! Not even close my friend. Not even close… It’s time to talk furniture. This includes sleeping bag, sleeping matt and camp chair. My gear is light and minimal but I even manage to sneak a hammock in there.
First let’s talk sleeping. I highly recommend going with a half bag solution rather than a full sleeping bag. I use an ultralight, ultra packable down half bag from Feathered Friends as my 3 season sleeping bag in the Rockies and on canoe trips. The reason I like this solution is that it can be quite cool (sleep pretty much naked) or very warm (sleep with all clothing and jacket on). This sleeping bag packs to the size of a large grapefruit and weighs in at less than 250g! The other component to a good night’s sleep is a sleeping mat. I’ve been using a Therm-a-Rest NeoAir UberLite for the past year and am amazed at how light, small and comfortable it is. Again, not cheap but an important part of why my large gear pack weighs well under 40 lbs fully packed and fits everything from my tent to my camp chair!
We used to bring huge, heavy camp chairs along – the kind you can buy for $20 at Canadian Tire. The kind that were guaranteed to break 1/2 way through the trip. Combined with our Coleman camp stoves, these were a huge burden on long portages. Heck! These were a burden on short portages! Nowadays I’ve been using something like the Helinox Ground Chair (the Therm-a-Rest version) with a Therm-a-Rest Z Seat as a backup or the second chair when traveling with a partner. The Z seat also works as an ultralight option in combination with the food barrel.
The most luxurious camp item that I never leave behind is my Therm-a-Rest Slacker hammock. Considering how many hours you end up at camp, this is a no-brainer item IMHO. I’ve spent countless hours reading, napping and simply enjoying a warm breeze off the lake in my hammock. When I bring it on group trips it’s a very sought after item – bringing me a lot of extra snacks from interested parties looking to bribe some time in it from me.
Jeez. For a guy who started this article with a firm, “don’t overthink it”, this is starting to feel like overthinking it! I didn’t realize just how much gear and associated knowledge I’ve gained over the past 20 years of tripping. Oh well. This is all part of each trip for me so I’ll lay it out and let you glean from it what you will.
It’s now time to talk hardware. Hardware includes essentials like an ax and bush saw, water filtration and fishing gear. I won’t detail ALL my hardware as I’m assuming you’re capable of picking out your own headlamp or favorite e-reader. This is the stuff that I consider important and worthwhile to spend some time and money on.
Let’s start with the cutting hardware. For my 40th birthday my lovely wife bought me a gorgeous Boar Exclusive sheath knife made by Karesuando Kniven in Sweden. This bushcraft knife has been carried all over the place by me – I rarely hike or canoe without it strapped on my hip. Having a knife that requires almost no maintenance and keeps a sharp edge for many years is an obvious good thing.
I debated a long time about which ax to purchase. Eventually I settled on a Gransfors Bruk Mini Hatchet for its size-to-usefulness ratio and the obvious quality of its build. I’ve easily chopped through 6″ trees and logs with this tiny hatchet. A warning though! This ax is extremely sharp and due to its size it can bounce around when chopping. Only experienced folks should use this tool – it’s definitely NOT made for children or even young adults.
The last item in my cutting hardware sheath is a late edition and I’ll never do another canoe trip without it. My Bob Dustrude Folding Bucksaw is light, packs small and packs a HUGE punch when it comes to clearing up campsites, portages or simply gathering logs for the fire. It straps easily to the front of my large pack and stays there comfortably until needed.
Let’s move on to my favorite gear of all for any canoe trip – fishing gear. My love of canoeing was born of a love of fishing. When I was a young farm lad I would bike many miles to go fishing in the local streams and rivers and my highlight of the year was an annual fishing trip with my father into the Whiteshell Parks area of Manitoba.
Since I am a passionate fisherman I don’t have cheap gear on this front either. I believe in buying quality gear (as good as one can afford) and using it for many many years. Again – any cheap rod and reel will catch fish. But not all fishing hardware is created equal! At the very least you should bring two systems along. One can back up the other in case of breakage. I always have one heavy duty baitcast system for Lake Trout and Northern Pike and a spinning setup for Walleye, Bass and Perch. I highly recommend using a Fluorocarbon line for the spinning setup (it disappears underwater) and a braided line for the baitcast (it’s indestructible and has a very thin diameter). I use Shimano reels and try to use Shimano or St. Croix rods (the cheaper end of the model line) because I have good success with durability from them. I prefer cork handles on my rods for comfort when wet or very hot outside.
As far as what lures and jig combinations to use when fishing, that depends on personal preference and experience. In the lakes I travel through almost anything works if the fish are biting. Large white tube jigs for Lake Trout, deep and shallow diving Rapalas for Pike, large Walleye and Lake Trout and 1/8 to 1/4 oz jig heads with white or green tails up to 3″ long for Walleye. Spoons work well for shallower Pike and Walleye in most lakes. Don’t bring too much fishing gear as it’s heavy and unnecessary. I always bring way too much and am concentrating on bringing about 1/4 of what I think I need on future trips. Because you’re fishing from a canoe, most snags can be rescued and I find I lose very little tackle compared to other, more traditional fishing trips.
This is where we talk clothing. Get it? Hardware vs. Soft”wear”? Ok, it’s a lame IT thing, whatever. Again, do we really need to focus specifically on clothing for a wilderness canoe trip? What do you need? A pair of zip-offs, sun shirts and a rain jacket. Good to go! On a common theme for this article, how comfortable and safe are you going to be if you have subpar clothing that probably doesn’t work quite as well as advertised? How happy are you going to be when your rain jacket proves not to be waterproof 3 days into a 15 day trip filled with wind and rain?
I’m not going to get too detailed here other than to say you should avoid both the very low end and the very high end of the clothing market. The low end stuff is crappy and will disappoint you quickly and isn’t safe. The high end stuff isn’t built tough enough for our Canadian wilds and will not last long enough to make an $800 jacket a worthwhile investment. (No matter what clothing you buy, it won’t last as long as the manufacturer thinks.)
Some key clothing items I’ve used over the past years;
- Breathable, waterproof Shell Jacket – Gore-Tex is the king but there are others too. I like having pit zips for warm weather portaging in rain or wet underbrush.
- Waterproof pants – Instead of rain pants, I’ve started using Kokatat Hydrus Tempest waterproof pants with integrated waterproof socks. It is so nice to be 100% dry from my chest down while paddling in cold drizzle, portaging through endless bog and muck or even just jumping out of the boat to line some rapids or navigate a rock garden. This has been my favorite gear purchase over the past couple of years.
- Long and short sleeve sun shirts – I buy from BassPro, whatever’s on sale. Long sleeves are great protection from bugs, branches and sun. Vents on the back are very welcome in hot weather.
- Zip-off pants – any brand works. I like being able to zip off the legs for swimming or hot days. Don’t burn your knees!
- Layers such as fleece or down vests / jackets – I always bring a warm layer along, even in high summer. I sleep in a half bag and if nights get cold it’s sure nice having a comfortable fleece or down sweater to snuggle into!
Another piece of advice on the clothing front – don’t bring too much. You’re surrounded by a giant washing machine on a canoe trip, so use it. One long sleeve, one short sleeve shirt, one underwear, one t-shirt, one pair of pants and a couple of good pairs of socks are pretty much all you need. You can wash them anytime by dipping them in a lake. If it’s too cold to dry them out, it’s likely too cold to sweat and washing isn’t needed. Most folks bring way too much clothing along, taking up valuable pack space and adding weight.
I’ll briefly discuss footwear. I’m always surprised how many folks think they need huge, heavy boots on canoe trips. I’m fairly unique in my choice of footwear both on canoe trips and back home while hiking in the Rockies. A few years ago I stopped wearing hiking boots and only wear approach shoes (sturdy runners) now, even on extended backpacking trips.
There’s many benefits to light, comfortable footwear such as the La Sportiva TX3‘s that I use. First there’s the weight. A pound saved on the foot compares to 5 lbs saved on the back. Enough said. Then there’s the comfort. I never get blisters from my TX3’s. I’ve done 40km days with 2000 meters of height gain without getting blisters in my approach shoes. Then there’s the drying time. If my runners get wet, they dry out MUCH quicker than large hiking boots or those huge rubber boots some canoeists wear. Remember, I have waterproof pants with integrated socks, so my feet don’t get wet even if I’m in water up to waist deep in my shoes! That’s about all I have to say on the topic of footwear. Each to their own, but I strongly suggest getting rid of those heavy boots.
Phew! I think we’re almost done the gear section! This is an important one – covering what I bring for safety. It’s not much actually. I rely on good gear, good planning and good experience to keep me out of trouble. But there’s always that unforeseen circumstance, that slip on a rock or that lightning strike or falling tree that can surprise and injure. This is what I bring for safety;
- Bear spray – this works on more animals than just bears. I rarely actually carry it on my person, but do hang it on a tree at camp and sleep with it just in case.
- 3-9 day First Aid kit depending on the length of the trip. I use the lightweight ones from MEC.
- Spot X two way messenger device with yearly subscription. Read up on it – it’s worth it IMHO. I do a lot of solo travel in the Rockies and this makes my wife sleep better when I’m out wandering around in the middle of nowhere on my own. I use it on canoe trips to get updated weather reports and periodic check-ins with loved ones and the outfitter. Very handy for emergencies such as injuries, wildfires etc.
- LifeStraw Go water filter integrated water bottle. I’m always surprised by how many folks still use the pain-in-the-butt pump style filtration or finicky technical ones that require batteries to work properly. Buy either the LifeStraw Go or the Straw and never worry again about your water. Truth be told, I’ve been drinking straight from running water for 20 years and have never gotten sick from it. Science agrees with me on this – we are way too paranoid about wilderness water, especially in a country like Canada. Still don’t believe me? Even Adam Shoalts had to give up on his filter on his latest grand adventure and went 4,000km without one and never got sick drinking directly from water sources.
That’s it. I have friends who bring along a lot of safety gear, “just in case”. Personally, I plan and pack for the 99% scenario and hope my first aid kit and experience keep me alive long enough for a rescue in the other 1%. It’s a calculated risk vs. reward and for me, I don’t like the added weight and bulk of too many extra “just in case” items.
Most people who aren’t experienced wilderness trippers assume that wildlife is one of the biggest concerns and dangerous aspects of a trip. These people are wrong! If you are in a truly wild place, you won’t see very much of the local wildlife. You might startle a moose or catch a bear eating berries along your route but it’s pretty darn rare to run into anything dangerous or willfully aggressive to humans. We have seen bear and moose and I’ve heard wolves but we have never had an issue with wildlife in Nopiming, Atikaki or Woodland Caribou Parks. I have also hiked thousands of kilometers in the Rockies with no wildlife issues.
With a few smart precautions you can be assured of very few, if any, scary wildlife encounters on your trips;
- Be aware of your surroundings. Don’t wear headphones while moving through the wilderness. You need to be aware of what’s around you and where you are. Even at camp, I never wear headphones.
- Yell on portages. I yell all the time while hiking or portaging through any area with limited views such as forests, small streams or canyons. I’m so used to yelling “hey bear!” that I don’t even think about it anymore. I’ve startled dozens of bears off my trail over the years using this technique. Most wild animals want nothing to do with humans and if they know you’re coming, they get out of the area.
- Carry a knife and bear spray. This just makes sense for many reasons.
- Don’t have odorous food in your tent or close to your sleeping area. This is going to raise eyebrows, but I never hang my food when I’m not in designated campgrounds. I never have! Not in the Rockies where there’s Grizzlies and not in canoe country where there’s black bears. I just couldn’t be bothered to be honest. And over 20 years, I’ve never once had an issue. There’s more concern about critters like mice getting into our food packs, which is why we use plastic barrels and use tough packs like the HMG packs for food storage.
- Be extra cautious in well traveled areas or around fishing lodges. These scenarios will often produce habituated wildlife that is used to getting fed by humans – either willingly or not. I avoid camping close to fishing lodges when possible, for this reason. If you’re traveling in a busy area like Quetico the wildlife isn’t very “wild” and extra precautions such as bear-proof containers and hanging your food packs are necessary.
That’s about it for wildlife. Don’t bother them and they won’t bother you. I don’t have the “hunter” mindset that large mammals are my enemy, but rather have the natural mindset that I am neighbors with the local wildlife. They aren’t out to kill, eat or injure me any more than I’m there to do that to them. There are exceptions to this rule, but this covers 99% of reality in my experience.
Going it Solo
The latest trend in wilderness travel seems to be soloing. You should know that this takes the average wilderness canoe trip to another level and isn’t for everyone despite what social media might hint at. If you read Internet forums or watch enough YouTube channels you might be lulled into the idea that unless you do solo wilderness canoe trips you’re not “hardcore”. Frankly, this is bullsh_t. Some people can handle being alone in the wilderness better than others. I’m still figuring out if I can handle it myself. Going solo is quite dangerous and risky despite what soloists say. I travel solo very often in the Canadian Rockies but I can’t in good conscience claim this is safer than traveling with a companion. There are benefits and upsides to solo travel but again, these will greatly depend on your personality, fitness and experience.
I’m not going to say too much more about solo canoe tripping other than some obvious pointers;
- Safety becomes paramount with solo travel. You need to be almost paranoid about it. Slick rocks, long portages and bad weather are much riskier when solo. You must always have safety gear with you – including in my case the SpotX device.
- A good trip plan is even more critical when going solo. Someone needs to know where you’re going to be and when you’re planning to be there in case you go missing.
- Your first solo trip should be relatively short and easy. You’ll know pretty darn quick if you’re cut out for it or not.
Wrapping it Up
This article got much longer than I thought it would, there’s many things to think about when wilderness tripping. That being said, I’m going to end on the same note that I started with;
“Don’t overthink it!”
In this day and age of social media and Internet forums for every topic, it’s remarkably easy to forget the simplicity that should be inherent in a wilderness trip of any kind. All you need is a boat, a paddle, some food, clothing and a shelter. Those are the basics and everything else is pure gravy.
I canoe tripped for 15 years with heavy, non-waterproof, cheap gear and had just as much fun and excitement on most of those trips as my latest ones. Now that I’m a bit older and make a bit more money I can afford some decent gear and find myself enjoying the added safety and comfort that it’s given me. At the end of the day you only live once, so get out there and challenge yourself to live off the grid for a week or two or three and refresh your soul and mind.