Gear for Ultralight Canoe Camping
Many people have the image of a heavily loaded canoe, where a paddler/camper can bring everything. Others think of floating down streams, often exchanging long serene glides over flat water, with moments of terror as rocks, eddies and small flumes throw the canoe wildly off course. Still others think of paddling to a small island and setting up a base camp for paddling around a larger lake, unencumbered by gear and lazily fishing for anything that cares to bite. And there are those that think of traveling across waterways, down rivers and up streams, constantly moving from one camp to another.
A 12' custom canoe with a 250# capacity is all that is needed for most paddling. A longer 9' double-paddle is used. The rest of the camp gear is behind the paddler under the hump. The spray decks keep water out of the boat. Note the raised area just before the cockpit. It directs water away from the paddler. The low profile and center seating keeps the winds from causing bad directional problems.
These are all parts of canoe camping. It is an outdoors experience different from hiking. It is basically using the same ultralight camping gear as used for hiking, with the addition of a couple small dry-bags and compression/dry bag. Yet, the pack and gear has changed little.
My basic ultralight pack is one purchased from Gossamer Gear, the MiniPosa… it is the same one used for a lot of my hiking. An old tarp that was cut down a few years ago making it lighter, though it wasn't ever heavy in its original 18oz form… it's the same one I use for hiking. The pad is a bit of a luxury at 13oz,and, is the same one I use for hiking longer trails. The 800FP down bag keeps me warm at 32F and weighs 1pound, 11oz. Using an old SVEA 123r, it is possible to cook meals, and sometimes on cold mornings, warm my shelter. Again, this is all the same gear I use for hiking, it is all ultralight gear… well, 'cept maybe for the old SVEA.
Canoe camping has grown in popularity over the past 15 years. There are more people on the waterways and is probably due to the increasing age of the population generally and other factors: lighter weight/easier handling of boats(in and out of the water,) less large and bulky gear needed to be carried (UL has gone more mainstream,) and the decreased cost of "plastic" boats($300-400 kayaks.) For older people and younger children, canoe camping means a possibility of high mileage days in relative comfort; of still being able to enjoy wild scenery; of the low possibility of being overtired at the end of a day. Older folks can avoid the pain of blisters, aching knees and/or other injuries often associated with hiking long distances. For people with foot problems canoe camping offers a solution for getting out, sometimes the only solution.
Canoe camping is a skill beyond all the ultralight hiking and camping skills you know. Skill with paddling come mainly through practice but it helps to know a few basic strokes. A basic forward paddle, the long sweeping paddle needed for turns, a back paddle, and how angling a paddle affects the boat and your grip. How to get into and out of the boat without getting wet (this is the one I have trouble with.) These are basic skills that only require a few minutes of practice to have successful results with.
Camping requires practice, too. (I won't try to reiterate what others have written on how to lightening a pack.) Most of the skills needed are well within any beginners reach. Sometimes, when racing down a stream filled with white water, boulders, rocky shelves and falls, canoe camping can be more challenging than hiking a trail. Different from climbing a rocky peak, it can be as dangerous, perhaps more so, since more people die from drowning than falling off a mountain. A few special concerns, since you are near water.
Always, use a personal floatation device/life preserver. Canoes and other small boats, by nature, are not very stable. Accidents happen in a second. Have a PFD handy whenever you go paddling. Wear it if you feel the least uncomfortable on the water.
Cold water and wind, the energy expended while paddling, can leave a paddler open to hypothermia even in 50 degree weather. Know the signs and avoid it. Have a sweater or rain jacket handy. If you are paddling and you get cold, you will be doubly cold when you stop to camp. My gear includes a good fleece or wool sweater. Both types of sweaters get wet, both retain keep enough insulating value to make them worth it. Leave the sweater under your seat or sit on it when you don't need it. Other than during summer, you likely will.
Leave white water to the younger crowd. A portage around class III and greater runs is a bit of work, but much safer, usually. Especially if you are not really equipped for the conditions you might encounter along these stretches. Longer flat-water boats do not maneuver well enough to handle these conditions. Floatation bags are usually not carried. Helmets are not usually carried on ultralight camping trips. Longer flat-water paddles are harder to handle in close quarters than short, light paddles; you can feel the loss of leverage/power needed for the short, quick maneuvers needed for white water. Or you might simply lack experience. In colder weather special wet suits/dry suits and other types of specialized equipment are often needed, just to stay warm. The more specialized canoe equipment is often unavailable to a ultralight camper. He just doesn't carry the extra weight. Pack-rafts are becoming popular, but make sure you have a repair kit handy.
After a long paddle, using the different muscles for a portage lets you continue on. Portaging uses legs and feet, instead of torso and shoulders, and, an opportunity to get off your rump. I feels good to stand and walk on solid ground for a change, but, it also leaves you open to getting cold easily by expending energy from all parts of your body, leaving little left to keep you warm at camp. Total exhaustion is an easy avenue to getting cold.
Staying warm while wet can be difficult and the calories burned can be very high. Especially if you manage to dump the canoe and are dripping wet. Bring more food than you think you need. Food fuels the body to generate heat and maintain energy. A longer paddle will burn between 4000-5000 calories a day, or about the same as a 10 hour hike. Hiking and canoeing are different activities, but can be as strenuous.
Judge weather and temperature accordingly. Lightning can be deadly if you are caught out on an open lake. Head to shore when you hear thunder approaching. Pull over and get out. Standing under a lower tree will provide some cover from the wind and rain, and, you will not likely be struck by lightning. Often storms are preceded with a blast of cold air and you can find yourself paddling hard, yet cold and wet from spray, not daring to stop to get a rain jacket on. Think ahead of the weather. Paddling will involve about a 10 minute delay to being on shore, safe from an electrical storm. Thinking ahead is necessary to stay out of trouble.
Avoid ice choked water. Sometimes, ice can form bridges, dams and shelves over otherwise open water. A current can drag a paddler under it with severe results. Snow and rain itself is not usually a problem, but sliding under ice can be deadly. Thin ice near shore can cut flesh and damage a boat. Currents can pull as well as push around eddies. Eddies will often spin your boat towards the center. Upwells can make your boat unstable and try to send you swimming. Avoid getting sideways in the middle of a heavy current against any obstacle, you are sure to get wet getting away from the pin.
During rainstorms in a canoe, there is no cover. Be prepared to bail the boat if you get stuck in a sudden downpour. Sponges, pots, and pumps can all be used. Often trees will mediate the downpours when hiking. You can do close to the same in a canoe, pulling up, under a larger pine, for example. Expect to get wet in a canoe and know how to stay warm when wet. On a serene paddle across a calm lake, it is just a relaxing paddle. Wet, cold and windy paddling is often just miserable work. Setting up a quick ultralight camp lets you dry out and explore an area a little. Take a break if the weather is against you, it is sure to change.
Windy weather can raise large waves on a lake. The winds and waves can conspire to push the boat in odd directions near shore and around points. Avoid paddling in these conditions, if possible. Sometimes, you need an extra day to dry out after such a run. Sometimes the sun is shining and warm, but a 30knot wind makes paddling difficult, at best. You'll be better off in camp. Do not be afraid of being blown off a lake. It is a mark of good judgment, never shame, if/when it happens. Know when to quit and simply wait out a storm.
So, what gear do you need for canoe camping? Basically, NEEDED gear is simple. A standard hikers backpack, a canoe/PFD and a paddle. For ultralight canoe paddling, again, it is the same gear, but smaller, lighter boats are used. My ultralight pack will weigh about 20 pounds, but I double this load with a canoe and boat gear.
The basic canoe is required to go paddling, but what constitutes a canoe? A kayak works. An 80 pound "duck" boat works. An old rowboat works. There are too many definitions for what a canoe is, let alone the combinations with gear used for any one definition to be used. The definition I use for canoe camping is anything that will float, can be paddled and can be carried (portaged.) From pack rafts, kayaks, canoes to row boats, all have been used. Of course, the boat should carry you and your camp gear. Insure you have the capacity to carry at least 250 pounds in a solo boat.
My personal favorite is a low profile solo canoe, about 12'6"(4 meters) long. This is paddled using a double paddle or "kayak" style paddle. Small at 12', easy to maneuver through small streams and waterways of the Adirondack's in New York, it is light enough to be portaged at 21 pounds. Sitting near the bottom, "kayak" style, and the low profile means high stability and the winds are mitigated. I have used canoes as light as 8 pounds (skin on frame boats) and as heavy as 95 pounds (older aluminum canoes.) Rowboats are often wider and somewhat heavier, but these are better on fishing trips. They work well on larger lakes with short portages, too. Packrafts are easy to carry at about 6 pounds, but don't handle larger bodies of water well, nor winds. So, don't feel limited if there is no actual traditional canoe available. It is all canoe camping.
A ultralight canoe and related gear should weigh less than 25 pounds, but, you don't need to go ultra light. The portaging equipment, paddle(s), PFD, spray decks or skirt, and, 25' of mooring/dragging line brings the weight up to 24pounds from the 21pounds I mentioned for the boat weight.
On most water, a paddle is needed, obvious until it is forgotten as I did once. The traditional canoe paddle is what most people associate with paddling. There are many styles available. On smaller streams or when headed upstream, paddles are often traded for a 7-12' pole for polling the craft. A kayak paddle or double ended paddle means you can stroke on both sides of a canoe, alternately. In some cases, webbed gloves or "hand paddles" can be used effectively (pack-boats.) Rowing lets you use the more powerful legs to assist locomotion, but facing backwards. On some boats a lever system lets you row facing in the direction of your travel. On narrow streams, it is often possible to grab sticks, branches or scrub to move forward, mostly used through swamps and bogs. Some boats are propelled by leg or hand power turning a propeller or paddle wheel. (It is not my intent to recommend one method over another.) Some form of propulsion is needed when on the water.
On some streams the water is too shallow for boats. Headed upstream, against the current, you may need to drag the boat behind you as you wade through these shallows. This is called "lining". Some boats have special eyelets mounted near the bottom of the bow to allow this. This is actually more work than hiking, but is often the easiest way through some sections.
Here is a picture of my boat showing the cockpit. It is ready to be portaged to the water. The seat back is built-in, the cushion is my PFD. Paddles, water bottles are handy. The camo spray-decks are laced on and my pack is just visible behind the seat.
Of course, any boat needs a PFD for every person. The life preserver can be a simple pad, vest, or jacket. In most states a life preserver is required. In New York, it is required to wear a life preserver in cold weather. With the proper selection of boat, paddle and life vest, these can be integrated into a general camp system (using the life vest as a sleeping pad, the boat as a shelter "base", and/or the split paddle as pole for a tarp staked over the boat.) On most sites a simple tarp shelter is good enough. Bugs are always a problem near water, though, bring a piece of netting to rig over your head and shoulders.
Portaging with a canoe means carrying more weight than is normally carried when hiking. Minimally, this includes the weight of the canoe, life jacket and paddle. Spray decks, poles, sails, masts, etc all need portaging too. Keep it simple, for maximum weight reduction. The most common portaging option is the yoke. Usually set at the mid-point of a canoe, this means arranging paddles and life vest so they do not fall out as you hike. Often, a strip of Velcro is used to secure the paddles ahead of you on a crossbar or thwart with the PFD clipped behind you. Using the yoke means that you carry the entire weight of the canoe/gear and pack. For most trips, a 10 pound base pack, 8-10 pounds of food, 2-5 pounds of water, and 25 pounds of canoe/gear means a total load of 45-55 pounds. This is good for a week long canoe trip. Hiking 55pounds down a trail is always work, though certainly possible.
Try to remember that on canoe trips, it isn't necessary to carry that weight the majority of the time. It is certainly possible to do 35 miles on a mixed day: hiking around 7 miles and paddling the rest. But, portaging is always more effort than hiking. Do not mistake enthusiasm with ease. Carrying 55 pounds for 10 miles will always be hard with a boat. The boat will pick up wind, twisting it and the hiker out of line with your walking. Even with a 12' boat, it is work in a 20mph cross wind. Packrafts are lighter and more easily portaged, once deflated. They just get stuffed in or on the pack. Sometimes, it is just as easy to carry them inflated. Fortunately, most portages are short, usually less than a mile and often a matter of 100 yards or less. Two people can often just carry a larger canoe over their heads, each carrying a pack. The trick is getting it up, together.
There are ways around carrying the whole weight if the trail is good enough to support wheels. On some canoe trails (an example is the Northern Forest Canoe Trail-740 miles between Old Forge, NY and Fort Kent, Me) there are many portages and some of the longest can be wheeled. My twelve foot boat used in this example, has a detachable yoke. Both wheels and the yoke were brought to do this on the trail. The weight penalty for the yoke was only 10oz. The weight penalty for the wheels (the stern mount detachable type) was 2#2. Total for both was 2#12 where at least one item was not in use. Sorry, no easy way to do dual purpose with the wheels set up, yet. A light boat, with a light pack and a short, quarter mile portage makes some trails possible to do without a yoke or wheels. Centering the boat over one shoulder is possible for short trails, but it's tough on your back for longer ones. Some portages are accomplished by simply dragging the boat over the trail, though it isn't something to try with an inflatable pack-raft.
Stern wheels are a good portaging system. The problem is they only support half the weight of the boat and gear. For light boats, they work well, though. The front spray deck is loose to allow access to the front grip.
I am a fan of wheels. Canoe wheels come in two basic varieties. The first is a set of stern wheels, attached to the boat. This allows you to carry a pack on your back and wheel about half the weight of the boat/gear in one hand.
The other type of wheel centers on the canoe allowing it to be pulled or pushed. Usually the heavier option, center wheels can often carry the entire weight of the boat, gear and pack. This was used a lot with my family.
Sounds like a plan, right? Well, not really. Portaging up hills to mountain lakes and ponds over rough trails is difficult. On the best uphill trails, ALL of the weight is against you, regardless of what type of wheels you have. And, coming back downhill, it will push you down the hills. On a rough trail, even the light duty, rear mounted "tag-along" wheels still get stuck on rocks and in gullies. And the longer "tag-along" means sharp turns are often more work than carrying the canoe, sometimes.
The center style wheels are nearly impossible to handle on rough trails because they tend to whip the bow sideways whenever they hit something, due to the mounting position. And center wheels do not allow as much freedom of movement, up & down. For many good trails larger wheels are better than smaller, but they add weight. There are many home built "carts" that can be used. Using a pair of bicycle wheels mounted on a wooden frame, these are often the heaviest option. But, these let large amounts of weight to be carried in the boat. Family camping is certainly possible: one larger boat with center wheels and a second small boat with tag-along wheels. Often, trails are not wide enough to allow center wheels. The ones you can use on trails, often only 24-36" wide, make the boat top heavy and difficult to handle on sloped trails. Pick your trails with advanced knowledge of the conditions you expect to encounter. Without such knowledge, bring a yoke; a narrow canoe can go almost anywhere that is walkable.
Pulling the spray deck tight, too stop water from getting into the boat. This helps to keep the paddler and his gear, dry.
Dealing with Water in the Boat and Pack
A big trick to canoe camping is keeping everything dry. In a low profile boat, the use of spray decks is highly recommended. A spray deck is a covering over the top of the boat, designed to deflect water from entering the canoe. Rain is deflected, too. A pack raft greatly benefits from spray decks. The spray decks keep direct sunlight off your legs and gear. And provide a dry area for reading maps, etc while paddling. On larger canoes, often these are skipped and are rarely purchased as an add-on when a canoe is bought. On longer camping trips they are worth having since they provide a lot of protection for you and your gear. Any open boat suitable for portaging can make use of a spray deck.
On kayaks, there is a built in deck, so a spray skirt is used, instead. This is often attached to the paddler, completely enclosing the paddler/cockpit. Some canoes often skip both items, simply supplying a grated deck for supporting gear off the bottom, with a tarp draped over. The traditional Adirondack Guide Boat is like this. In any case, water will likely get into the canoe body, even if it is when the paddler is getting into or out of the boat. In every case, paddling a canoe means you will encounter water. The gear in it will be subjected to water, too. Sort those items that must stay dry and make provision for them to stay that way.
Some places, both online and at various boat shops, offer dry bags that are packs. These are designed more for complete safety against water than ease of carrying, though. An ultralight paddler will reject these on weight, alone. On longer portages, ie, in excess of a mile, they get uncomfortable to carry. Using a more familiar light weight pack feels much better on the back. Carrying a light non-waterproof pack and using two dry bags works almost as well as the dry-packs. A single pack liner, like a garbage bag, will leak after a couple days, unless care is used loading and unloading it. Snags, abrasion, sand, sharp corners on gear can all leave the bag punctured and prone to soaking water. Even trash-compactor bags do not fare well. Water is the enemy! For the light weight canoe camper, it is easier to use separate dry bags, insuring that the sleeping gear and food will remain dry. Other gear should be selected for addition into the food bag or another dry bag, it is usually not much. My kit is simply two or three dry bags in my pack.
Begin by separating items that are allowed to get wet and those that need water protection. The sleeping bag, cloths and evening/morning jacket go into one dry bag. This is usually a dry bag/compression bag. Food goes into another dry bag, along with those items that need to stay dry: water treatment(Steripen), spare set of batteries, pills, spices, etc. This is a plain dry bag. For most of the rest of the gear, it doesn't matter. Stove, pot, fuel bottle, water bottles, tarp, bear line & rock bag are a few items that occasional immersion will not hurt. My pad is often closed cell foam and makes up part of the frame of my pack. Does it matter if this gets wet? Not really. (It also adds a little floatation.) Depending on the duration of a trip, other gear can be added, of course. If your flashlight isn't waterproof, toss that in. A book doesn't generally fare well if it gets wet, add that, too. This weighs a bit more, a few ounces due to the dry bags, but is well worth it to keep essential items safe the from water. The worst case is to carry a third dry bag for odd items. Again, the boat usually carries the extra weight the majority of the time. I much prefer the PU coated bags to silnylon. Silnylon bleeds moisture if it remains wet for any length of time. Nothing like soggy oatmeal for breakfast!
Choosing a good campsite is often a hit or miss selection. The campsite you find may be on or just off the beach. Seeing a campsite from the water can often be more of a problem than selecting it, unless you have a good map marking the location. Sometimes campsites are labeled but don't count on it. At any rate, and assuming a site is found, it may be too unprotected to do a paddler much good in a wind or rain storm. A storm that lasts two or three days is not uncommon. (Again, I won't reiterate what others have written about how to set up a good campsite.) Assuming a site is found, the paddler is often confronted with decisions. In good weather, no decisions are needed. In poor weather, there are some things a paddler can do.
Poor weather, cold and/or windy, means avoiding camps on the beach, open fields or near the water, if possible. Beach campsites are usually open to rather severe changes in the weather. Unless the weather is good, it's likely condensation and winds will conspire to leave the tarp or tent wetted in the morning. And, that is not the only problem. A down bag, the ultralight hiker's choice, can easily be degraded by water from dripping condensation and humidity, even under a tarp. Drying it out will be difficult, because the bag will likely not be aired out during the day, it will be packed for paddling. Of course, stopping for more than a toilet stop, it is certainly possible to dry a bag out. Synthetics may appear better for this, but, carrying them on a portage, with the higher volume requirements and greater weight, can be annoying. I try to spend a few extra minutes in camp, insuring my bag will be as dry as possible before packing it. Heat will generally dry things better than none. Draping the bag around your shoulders helps quite a bit to dry it out in the morning while drinking coffee.
Winds and condensation can be difficult to predict. Mostly this is caused by the interaction of the water and land temperature. Generally, the tendency is to drift any mist or water vapor towards a water body at night because the water is warmer than the air. During the day it will be from the water to the shore or camp. The larger the body of water, the more likely this is to happen. Prevailing winds, mountains, and ridges all will influence this air flow. Camp at least 10-15 feet above water level, if possible. Chances are, there will be more condensation the closer to the shoreline the camp is set up. Pack up and leave early, before the winds can change. The goal is to stay as dry as possible at night. Your clothing should be hung out to dry, but drifting fog and mist can sometimes leave them wetter than when they were hung. Monitor them, and depending on conditions, you may want them under cover when you go to bed at night. And, it will save you a quick trip out to get them when you realize it is raining. Have a bandana ready to sop up dew when you break down camp. Dampness has a way of permeating everything inside a dry bag, so, avoid putting wet stuff in one. Build a fire before sun up, if it is possible. Of course, that also means preparing for a fire the day before. If building fires are OK in the area you plan to go, the heat will often drive any dew away, or, keep it down to tolerable levels. The slight change in temperature caused by a fire can often prevent a lot of condensation.
On lakes, it is often calm around dawn. Waking, making breakfast and packing early is great for taking advantage of the ideal paddling conditions found then. But this means packing in the dark. Plan to break camp early, you can make a full breakfast after paddling a couple hours. But, I need my coffee, soo… for me, this doesn't happen too often.
The calm weather conditions hold for the evenings, also. So, sacrificing one ideal paddling condition, or the other, is often needed.
In evenings, general wind flow will be from land to water and doesn't contain the same amount of water vapor. This means canoe trips will often go in phases, long paddling days of 35mi or more, using the morning & evening calm, followed by shorter days of around 20 miles. Or, a more constant pace of around 30 miles per day can be maintained by sacrificing one of the morning or evening paddles. Be aware that finding a campsite in the dark can be difficult, as can be setting up in the dark and finding fire wood. I often stop a couple hours before sundown to cook supper, set up camp and hanging a bear bag. Hanging a bag after dark can be a challenge. I prefer the mornings for paddling.
It is certainly possible to put as many as 30 or more miles per day on a trip. Or simply enjoy the slower pace of floating down a calm river. Many of the watersheds, marsh lands and waterways the wife and I have enjoyed are very different, even in the same general area. The size of the water can vary between small streams you cannot turn the boat around in and open lakes, all in an hour or two of paddling. To us, all of it is just a pleasant canoe trip.
Finished cinching my pack and grabbing the bow hand-hold, I am prepared for this, the last, portage. Portaging for a quarter mile makes me sweat, even though the air temp is only 42F and my trail cart works well. Paddling down-stream in wind is small effort, as I think of the landing, the last for this trip. Ahhh, I can finally see it. Setting up my last camp further up the landing is like any other camp, with few challenges… lots of practice this trip. It'll rain tonight, or, at best, I will have that blasted Adirondack style mist in the morning, again.
Today is my last full day, I think. My boat is covered with interlocking scratches, some of them deep. I think she'll be fine, as I stroke her bottom, feeling the roughness of her hull. Funny, I started the trip with a boat, now it is a "she." Anyway, we are at the end of our journey… wow, I really just got started, I think! I don't remember the two months on the watery trail, each day different from the one before, each day like the one before. I avoid thinking of each grating contact that made her scratches… ignoring the pain of each tooth jarring impact with stumps, trees and rocks. I remember the blue sky, the waves, the wilderness, the rain, cold nights and warm fires… Well, today I'm paddling home.
This post was contributed by Trail Ambassador Jim Marco who plays in the Adirondacks.