Packing for a Wilderness Canoe Trip
My first canoe camping trip was more like the world’s strongest man competition than a camping trip. We packed tons of food, gas stoves, gas lanterns, more clothing than needed, heavy tents, camping chairs, children and dogs into heavy rented canoes and paddled to a remote campsite. Portaging was impossible. Luckily the campsite was on the same lake as the entry point and we just made day trips. After almost 20 canoe camping trips I now know what I NEED to pack.
Load carrying capacity
Even if you want to bring all the gear and clothing you own or empty the pantry and kitchen for some wilderness gourmet cuisine you will be limited by the load carrying capacity of your canoe. Overloading can be dangerous. Stacking a heaping mound of gear between the gunnels of the canoe can raise the center of gravity and make it tippy. Not to mention the overload can make paddling more difficult and reduce freeboard to the point that even the smallest ripple of a wave could wash over the gunnels.
My cedar strip canoe has a maximum load in the “optimum” range of 450lbs. So with 2 paddlers of about 160 lbs each, 2 canoe seats about 5lbs, 2 PFD about 5lbs, two paddles about 5lbs, that only leaves about 105lbs total for gear. I found that carrying about 50lbs of gear per paddler, for a one week trip, is on the lighter side but is a good goal.
Number and difficulty of portages
If you do not plan to portage your canoe and gear, then, hey load it up. Portages can slow you down and depending on heat, insects and trail conditions, can be quite miserable. I usually double portage, which means to get the canoe and all my gear to the end of the trail, I walk it 3 times. I’ve never packed light enough or been strong enough to single portage. If the portages are long, steep, mucky, or unmaintained you will definitely be wishing you packed less. You will also want to have your gear organized into packs that are easy to carry, usually means shoulder straps, so that you are not stumbling and fumbling dropping things along the way.
Length of trip – number of days
The amount of “stuff” you take is obviously tied to the number of days you will camp. Food can make a major contribution to weight. Meals should be planned carefully, I usually have a tendency to overestimate the amount of food we need. I plan each meal and pack only what is necessary for that meal. Then if I feel like it, and think I want to carry it, I throw in a few extra pleasures, like some candy, high octane adult beverage, cookies or other snacks. We fish but I don’t count on having fish for dinner, I usually do, but only plan a few meals of fish. Those meals usually include some side dish like pasta or rice, so If I get skunked, I don’t go hungry.
If you carry a cook stove, estimate the amount of fuel you need. If you don’t already know about how much fuel you need from practical experience, you can estimate by timing how long it takes to bring a small pot of water to a boil. My Coleman Dual-Fuel stove will burn for about 2 hours on a full tank. So if each meal takes 15 minutes to cook, that’s about 8 meals per tank.
I sometimes pack too much clothing. I often camp during the time of year and in locations where there maybe snow or heat waves. I’ve experienced both. The advice to layer applies here, so does thinking about multiple use. A packable rain jacket over a fleece jacket and long sleeved synthetic T-shirt can keep you quite warm. Zip-off pants that convert to shorts are a favorite of mine. One complete change of clothing is necessary. I usually include and knit hat, gloves, and a pair of lightweight synthetic long underwear.
I’ve never gone on a trip longer than 8 days but I think that 14 days would be close to the limit before you need to think of a food re-supply plan.
Obviously you will be exposed for several days, rain gear, hooded jacket and pants, is essential. By the best you can afford. Avoid the heavy stuff unless you plan to follow a crab boat into the Bering Sea. The term “packable” will usually indicate it is lightweight and durable. I bring a knit hat for cold weather and a ball cap for warm. Neoprene gloves can be nice if it turns cold since your hands may likely get wet. The cold weather rating of your sleeping back is something to consider. I have one that is rated for 20F. There have been times when I which it was lighter and times when I wish it was warmer. Besides adding a bit of comfort, a foam mattress pad will insulate you from the cold ground beneath the tent floor. Sunglasses, sunscreen in a small bottle, chap stick I found necessary for sunny weather. Chemical hand warmers helped keep the inside of my sleeping back warm one night in late May when the temperatures fell to the single digits.
Pace – fast & furious or slow and leisurely
If you are not in a race, or a competition, or trying to prove something, then take your time. You can afford to pack a little more if you can afford to take more time to carry it and can afford to paddle a little slower. Add a luxury item or two. I have a 3” self-inflating mattress pad that adds a few pounds but feels so much better at the end of a hard day than sleeping on the ground. That it is worth it to me. Additionally I think that maintaining such a frantic and furious pace, not only deprives one of the wilderness experience, but leads to fatigue. That can cloud your judgment and cause accidents that should not happen. Go with the flow.
Tolerance for discomfort
If you have a high tolerance for discomfort then you can minimize the gear you bring. If you can tolerate sleeping on the hard ground then leave the extra mattress pad at home. If you can tolerate damp clothing or wet shoes for a week then leave the spare pair of shoes at home along with the extra clothing. If you can tolerate eating only MREs or meals that can be prepared with boiling water then leave your cookware at home. If you can tolerate eating only cold meals then leave your stove at home. If you can survive on minimal food, then just bring a pack of saltines and a fishing rod. If you can tolerate cramped quarters then bring a smaller tent. Note: I found that a 2 person tent is about right for one person and a 4 person tent is about right for 2.
If you are in great condition you can carry more, travel faster and longer, and in general do more. Come with me on my next trip, I could use you. I am 5’8”, 170ish pounds, and well over forty. I find a portage pack that is over 70 pounds is too much. About 50 is right. A canoe that is over 60lbs is also too much. Shorter travel days are better for me, 4 – 8 hours works good, depending on weather and wind. No matter what shape you are in you need to carry loads that are light enough, travel slow enough and take enough breaks to avoid exhaustion. A serious injury in the remote wilderness is not good.
Remoteness and familiarity with destination
If I am unfamiliar with the area I will be exploring or I suspect I won’t see another human for a week I tend to pack more stuff. Food for an extra unplanned day, more batteries for my flashlight and GPS, extra map incase the primary one is lost, extra clothing,extra paddle, more emergency survival gear(medical, signaling, fire starting, satellite phone). Try not to get too carried away, if the feeling of uncertainty creeps in. Think carefully about each additional item you pack and create scenarios in your head to imagine how you would use it.
Packs should be waterproof or lined with a waterproof liner. We sometimes use the large canvas military surplus duffle bags with shoulder straps. Clothing and sleeping bags are double packed in heavy duty garbage bags before packing into the duffle. Framed backpacks should be avoided in favor of packs that can form to the shape of the hull. One larger pack and one smaller backpack/daypack per person seems to work well for me.
My Packing List - bold items are my essentials
stoves & fuel
spare garbage bag
spare zip lock
paper towel - mix with meal pack
spare rod tips
Tricks to reduce volume/weight
partial cook kit – decide what you will need for cooking, leave the rest at home
accurate food calculations – plan and pre-measure portions, use individual ziplock bags for daily rations of trail mix
filling empty spaces – pack the coffee pot or water bottles with rope, clothing or granola bars, etc.,
evaluate each item – ask yourself if you really NEED it or REALLY want it, can you use something you’ve already packed in it’s place ( for a fish stringer I use a caribiner and length of para-cord)
If you fish, be practical about the tackle you bring. I ALWAYS bring too much, and most of the wieght is due to lead jig heads! For starters a good rule would be to lay out what you want ot bring than take 1/2 of it.
If you plan to cook a lot, learn to cook over an open fire, as long as ther is no fire ban. You don't need a huge fire to cook, and a small one is easier to control by adding small picece of wood. I found I can cook better (especially when cooking fish) over a campfire than a stove. The only down side is i usually pack a lightweight grill to set over the fire pit.
Weight reduction is accomplished in small increments. Look at every item and try to figure how to reduce it's weight. The ounces add up.
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