This is Phase III in our Ultimate Guide to Canoe Trip Planning and Execution. Phase I can be found here and Phase II can be found here. In the upcoming weeks, we will add the following phases:
Phase V: Base Camp
Phase VI: Conclusion – Happy Campers
You’ve planned your route. You’ve done all your shopping and you’ve got your checklist in hand. It’s the day before your big canoe trip and it’s time to pack up all your gear.
When it comes to packing and the luxury of space, canoe camping is somewhere in between car camping and backpacking. A canoe is obviously smaller than a car, but much bigger than a backpack. There are two main differences between canoe camping and other types of camping that need to be taken into consideration when packing:
- Your gear could get wet. This happens either from water getting into your boat when you run rapids, or in a worst-case scenario, your canoe tips over and everything is submerged.
- Portages. If you are canoeing on a chain of lakes or if you encounter rapids that are too daunting to run, then you’re gonna have to get out of the canoe and carry everything on your back on land.
These issues essentially boil down to waterproofing, and packing efficiently.
As I’ve written previously, portage packs are the most efficient kind to use on canoe trips. The length of your trip and the number of people in your party will determine the number of portage packs you need. A typical large Duluth-style pack (like this one) will fit gear for 2-3 people. You’ll need a second portage pack (like this one) just for food and camp kitchen items. Even if your party size goes up, you’ll typically just need one pack designated as a kitchen pack.
Portage Pack 1: personal belongings
If your pack is not waterproof (many aren’t), then line the inside with a large, heavy-duty black trash bag. In this pack go your tent, tarp and poles, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, camp chairs (a luxury!), and stuff sacks full of your clothes. To be on the safe side, we pack all our clothes inside waterproof dry bags such as the eVent Compression Dry Sack. Basically, anything that is not kitchen related should go in this first portage pack.
Portage Pack 2: food and kitchen
A typical food pack can hold two large plastic containers, like the large one in the photo (or multiple smaller ones like the smaller one in the photo). We found ours at The Container Store. In these containers you can pack all of your kitchen items, such as pots, pans, a small stove, plates, utensils, and of course, food. To save space, remove your food from any bulky packaging such as boxes and pack it into Ziploc bags. You’ll also want to avoid bringing canned food as those are heavy and will take up the same amount of space even after you’ve consumed the contents. Remember that you are going to be carrying your trash with you as you go. Put your lunch items – both food and any gear necessary to make it – in the top container inside the pack. This way you won’t have to be digging around and unpacking an entire pack just for a quick lunch stop.
Throughout the day, you should not have to go into the portage packs except for lunch, unless you can avoid that too. This means that any items that you’ll need as you’re paddling should be packed in either external pockets of the portage packs, or better yet, in something called a “thwart bag.”
A thwart bag is just a fancy term for a small pack that holds personal belongings that need to be handy while paddling. There are stowaway packs like this one that can conveniently be strapped to your seat. Personally, I like using a small, waterproof dry sack that I can strap on to my belt loop when I’m walking with it, such as this one. If the bag isn’t designed to be strapped underneath your seat (and the seat has to be the webbed kind, and not the bucket kind for a stowaway bag to work), then the bag will likely be rolling around in the bilge water by your feet. So, a waterproof one is ideal. I’ve used a small Timbuktu bag in the past, but my stuff got soggy soon after we ran our first rapids.
The thwart bag is ideal for snacks, sunblock, a camera, GPS, maps, a headlamp, first aid kit, and other personal belongings. I like to put electronics, such as a GPS or a smartphone, inside a waterproof Pelican case. A friend of mine once used a large Pelican case and put all of his personal items in it. You’ll likely be checking your map throughout the day, so put it inside a transparent gallon-size Ziplock bag. You’ll also want your water bottle (and water source) handy. A Camelbak is a good option. So is a LifeStraw, especially if you’re going on a longer trip during which you can’t bring gallons of water with you.
COORDINATING WITH YOUR PARTY
Since different people will be responsible for bringing different things, communication is crucial during the packing stage. If your trip is on the short side, like 1-2 nights, then people can pack their things individually and you’ll just have to confirm with them that they are bringing the communal items they initially agreed to bring. This is where the checklist comes in handy. On such a short trip, especially one with no portages, then bring a cooler full of fresh food and cold drinks!
If your trip is a long one (a week or more), or if your party is a large one (four or more) then coordination is even more important. At the very least, all kitchen and food items should be in the same 1-2 packs, and not spread out over multiple packs in three or more different canoes. If you can’t pack everything together, designate one person to be responsible for packing the kitchen for the group. Then drop off all the communal items and food at that person’s house before the trip, and she or he can do the packing. You might also designate one person to buy all the food, to be reimbursed later. This kind, organized person should maybe be relieved of base camp kitchen chores for a day! If the members of your party are coming from different cities and you won’t be together until you’re at the outfitters, then you can pack everything into portage packs onsite.
And those are the basics to packing and waterproofing for a canoe trip. The inventory checklist is a real lifeline during this stage. It took three phases to get through the planning and preparation steps of a canoe trip. In the next one, we’ll finally get to paddling on the water!
Stick around for the following articles in our Ultimate Guide to Canoe Trip Planning and Execution:
Phase V: Base Camp
Phase VI: Conclusion – Happy Campers