by Keith Bridgman
I couldn’t believe what I saw that morning during the first week of June
a few years back. My nephew’s Boy Scout troop was about to embark on a
multi day 60+ mile float trip down the Buffalo River in northwest
Arkansas. The troop had their own assortment of canoes, an impressive
blend of 15, 16 and 17 foot aluminum types. My brother had his Coleman
and two other adults who were tagging along had their 17 foot square
stern Grumman aluminum, and I was going solo in my venerable and since
retired 15 foot Coleman.
My attention was quickly drawn to one of the troop’s 15 foot canoes and I was all but horrified at what I saw. Two adults, the smaller framed of the two weighed in at probably 225 or 230, the larger around 250. The larger adult sat in front and the smaller one in back and between them was a pile of gear that rose over two feet, probably closer to three feet, above the gunwales and completely filled the length of the canoe. They packed a couple of large ice chests, tents, two or three large duffle bags, lawn chairs, food boxes and cooking gear enough to feed an army of lumber jacks …and that was just the basics. There was barely room for the guy in back to stretch his legs forward or see over the top of the pile. The only thing missing was Granny from the Beverly Hillbillies sitting on top in her rocking chair. The canoe was grossly overweight and unstable and at best only two or maybe three inches of freeboard was left. I should have said something, but chose not to, and when we shoved off, they didn’t go 50 feet before capsizing in calm water. They spent more time in the water during that first day, than floating, capsizing dozens of times and soaking what gear they didn’t lose. By the end of the day, they were waterlogged and spent physically, even after transferring some of their gear to mine and other more lightly loaded canoes.
The point is this; the near disaster that occurred on that first day could have been avoided had they followed a few basic principles of how to load a canoe and how to prepare for a trip such as this.
Stay with me as I discuss some of the tried and trued methods gained from over 25 years of experience. Not everyone packs the same, but there are some basic concepts myself and my canoeing partners have developed over the years that work very well and serve to make a trip such as this enjoyable and safe.
A brief word about canoes is in order. They come in all sizes and configurations, some designed for flat smooth water, and some designed for moving water, and some designed for white water. It all depends on the hull design. I won’t go into the details as space and scope doesn’t allow for it, but for the purposes of this article, I will speak in general terms. There is a wealth of information on the internet about canoes and the various designs and I would recommend you do a little research before embarking on your first canoe camping trip.
A 16 or 17 foot canoe is a much better choice for float camping. A fifteen foot canoe can be used with two paddlers provided you keep the gear to a minimum and understand the limitations of that size of boat, but, a 15 footer is better suited as a solo camping endeavor. I canoe camped with one for many years with few problems. Anything shorter than a 15 footer and you are greatly limiting yourself. That doesn’t mean you can’t use a smaller canoe, because you can, but, that also doesn’t mean you can overload a 16 or 17 foot canoe and get away with it, because you can’t. It just means that longer canoes have more flexibility and generally speaking, they are a more stable platform.
Okay, having said all of that, let’s talk about gear and grub. Although a canoe allows for more carrying capacity than a backpack, you should think in terms of backpacking when you compile your gear, especially if you will be traveling to a location where portaging is likely encountered. Canoe camping should be kept as simple as possible, but still maintain a reasonable amount of comfort and safety. If I were allowed only one thing to say about what to leave behind, I would say,
”…Stay away from the proverbial large ice chest because you really don’t need it and they take up a lot of room and add a lot of weight”.
I know there are countless adventurers who use one all the time, but trust me on this one. Life is a lot simpler and easier if you leave it behind. If food must be kept cool, opt for one of the lunch box models to store a few eggs and/or pre-frozen bacon that should be eaten in the first day or two. Anything longer than a couple of days and the ice melts anyway. Eggs can be kept longer provided the air is cool and the box is shaded. Even better, if you must have eggs, take along the powdered variety…they really aren’t bad and don’t require refrigeration.
You can find a wide variety of food stuff at the grocery store that are light and easy to fix and can be easily carried in a small water tight bag, plus they are a lot less expensive than the freeze dried backpacking meals you can buy at the outfitter stores. The “just add water” to the Lipton Cajun Rice and Beans, or Chicken and Rice combo packages are great. Take along a couple of ‘Chicken in a Can’ containers and toss the contents in with the combo’s as it simmers in the pot and you have a mighty fine meal that will easily feed two hungry adults and serves up in just a few minutes. There are the just add water biscuits mixes or muffin mixes or cornbread mixes that can be cooked in a small Dutch oven over coals from a campfire or inside one of those folding reflector ovens. A small bottle of squeeze butter and I mean to tell you that is some good stuff eaten out on the river bank. Pancake mixes that require only water and syrup for breakfast are really pretty good, and lunches should be quick and easy snacks…granola, trail mix, peanut butter and crackers, jerky, a can of tuna or chicken…you get the idea. Get a little creative, and you can come up with some good, easily toted meals that will feed you for several days that can be stored in a single large zip lock bag. Remember to always pack out any trash that can’t be burned, and burn only paper products. If you can pack it in, you can pack it out.
Keep your camping gear to the basics. A small tent with rain fly that will sleep two, a ground pad to cushion against the rocks and provide some insulation, and a season appropriate sleeping bag is about all you need for protection against the nighttime elements. Keep in mind a two man tent really only sleeps one comfortably. The sleeping bag should be stored in a dry bag…not a garbage bag! Garbage bags are for garbage not sleeping bags. They will not protect your gear. I recommend you invest in three quality dry bags which can be purchased at almost any sporting goods store or outfitter at very reasonable prices. You need a large one with enough capacity to stuff two sleeping bags. You will want a medium size one for either extra clothes for the season and/or clothes – sleeping bag combination, and a small one for personal items such as wallets, keys, camera and things like that. The tent and ground pad can be stored in a standard duffle bag or simply tied into the canoe and covered with a small tarp. The idea here is to avoid duplication of effort. Anything you can share with your partner means one less item that has to be packed… for instance, one dry bag for both sleeping bags. I try to keep my gear so it will fit inside two medium sized bags and maybe one smaller bag. Winter or cold weather tripping will require some extra clothes. Remember, before purchasing any dry bag…large bags can be rolled down to a smaller size while smaller ones will only hold so much and won’t get any bigger once full, and all bags, in order to remain water tight, can only be filled to about 75 or 80 percent of capacity, so shop accordingly.
Small portable camp stoves come in all sorts of varieties and one should be taken along with enough fuel to last for a few days. Stay away from the standard car camping bulky multi-burner camp stove. Again they take up a lot space and really are not needed. A portable single burner type can fit inside a small bag and is easily stowed. Even though I do most of my cooking over the campfire, I usually take one of those single burner stoves that screw into the top of a propane bottle when I go on a float trip mainly for use when it rains. It’s a little bulkier than other types, but it does a nice job and one full bottle of propane conservatively used will last as much as 4 or 5 days. I find I end up using it to fix a quick breakfast or heat up water for some coffee in the morning or cleanup chores. A simple mess kit or even a small cast iron skillet will work well for most cooking chores, and a small Dutch oven is a nice luxury to take along as long as there is no portaging required. Dutch oven cooking is an art, but some of the best biscuits and cobblers I’ve ever tasted were cooked in a Dutch oven. A small coffee pot is almost essential. Condiments should be kept simple. Salt and pepper, maybe a small squeeze bottle of butter, or better yet some of those prepackaged butter packs you get at some fast food places work well. Syrup for hot cakes is easily toted. Top off your cooking gear with a large wooden spoon, small spatula and a small fork and spoon, and you should be set. All of this can be stored easily in one large zip lock bag stuffed inside a small duffle bag. Oh yeah…if you do use a Dutch oven or cast iron skillet…it must be seasoned properly before use and never clean it using soapy water. One that is seasoned properly has an almost Teflon like quality to it and can be cleaned with a simple wiping or at most a light scrubbing with clean water.
About a water supply…Even in the backcountry, drinking creek water is a no-no. Don’t do it without treating it first unless you want to come down with a bad case of the Hershey Squirts. For extended trips, it is difficult to pack all the water you might need so treated water becomes a must. There are numerous water purifier devices available and the old reliable iodine tablets work quite well as long as the water is reasonably clean to start with. Take a personal canteen or water bottle and one larger water container like a gallon jug and add to it as needed the treated water you produce during the trip. Some people opt to tote one of those five gallon water cans. That’s fine provided you are willing to handle all the added weight and bulk. A good purifier is a lot lighter and very safe. A good model that gives you a lot of bang for the money is the Pur Hiker. I tend to use the hand pumped filtering system to fill a gallon jug, then, I add a couple of iodine tablets. After it sits for a while I’ll add a couple of those tablets to clear up the water then filter it again into my canteen just to make sure. I’ve never gotten sick doing this.
As far as canoeing gear, I prefer a wooden paddle for several reasons. They are light, not as cold on the hands in cool weather, they respond well and have smooth touch to them, plus they have that traditional look about them. Even so, most any paddle will work even the newer synthetic ones, but you have to use one that fits. I stand a little less than six foot in height, and I use a 4 ½ foot wooden paddle. I have used 5 foot and 4 foot paddles but the 4 ½ foot size seems to be the best combination of length and comfort for me. If you use a paddle that is too short, you will not be able to apply enough leverage to maneuver the canoe easily, one that is too long and it becomes unwieldy, difficult and cumbersome to use. Sometimes in windy conditions, a longer paddle will provide more torque and leverage, but they are a little more difficult to move around when you must transfer the power stroke from one side to the other. To find the right paddle a good rule of thumb to follow is to place the end of the paddle on the ground and if the handle comes to about the middle of the sternum or breast bone, it should be just about right.
I won’t go into paddle stokes and how to handle a canoe except to say that both passengers provide steering and power. We’ve all seen a single person effortlessly run a straight line for miles always stroking on one side using the standard J-stroke. That kind of skill comes with practice and time in the field. For the most part, novice paddlers and even experienced ones will tend to swap sides on a regular basis while paddling. One of the fallacies I have noticed that novice paddlers have is thinking the guy in back does all the steering while the guy in front simply provides forward motion. There are a couple of useful strokes the front passenger can do to help steer the canoe, especially in moving water. A front brace, which basically is locking the paddle with the blade canted away from the side of the canoe to provide a breaking action, or using a wide sweeping motion to one side or the other will cause the canoe to swing in that direction. Strategically used, these two simple strokes assist the guy in back by providing him a better angle to make a turn more cleanly or set the canoe up for a run through some faster moving water. The two paddlers need to work together and not against each other. Many times I have seen two people, more often that not a boyfriend / girlfriend or husband / wife combination, be ready to whack the other one across the forehead with their paddle because they were unable to work together. By the end of the day they were so frustrated, what started out as an enjoyable outing turned into an argument and name calling ordeal. If possible, a few practice runs on a small calm lake will generate a lot of confidence in handling a canoe.
One more thing about canoe handling; always look ahead and anticipate any required maneuvering before hand. A loaded canoe does not respond as quickly as an empty one and requires more effort to turn. Watch for submerged rocks and if you must duck under overhanging limbs, always duck forward, never to the side, as this will almost always result in a potential capsizing situation…and don’t grab hold of any limbs while running through any kind of moving water. It is a quick way to take a swim. Should you find yourself in the water, always try to place yourself upstream from the canoe. A capsized canoe catches a lot of water and can easily pin you in a precarious situation if you are caught between the canoe and an obstacle.
Canoeing is a patient and relaxing sport, if you think not, then, you miss the point all together. Unless there is a storm brewing and you must get off the water soon, there is no hurry. Enjoy the day and slow down, take nice and easy strokes and work together. One more thing; sit in the middle of the seat and keep in mind where your rear end is, especially if you sit in the front. The front seat tends to be wider and it is easy to forget where the center of the seat is located. The rear seat is narrower, and centering your posture is easier. Sitting off to one side, even just a little, can throw the boat out of balance and cause it to list to one side or another. A level canoe paddles and tracks much more cleanly than one listing to one side.
Okay…now let’s talk about packing a canoe. Basically, just use a little common sense. Keep the heavy stuff low and in the center of the canoe. Avoid allowing the gear to stack higher than the gunwales of the canoe. Leave enough leg room to allow for easy entry and exit and for a comfortable stretch of the legs. Evenly distribute the gear so the canoe sits level and does not list to one side. Pack gear you might need during the day such as raingear, lunch snacks, sunscreen…things like that…near the top.
If you paddle solo, you should move your gear more toward the bow of the canoe using the same principles already discussed. This will make the canoe less likely to be affected by a cross wind. That’s about all there is. If you keep your gear to a minimum, a 16 or 17 foot and even a 15 foot canoe will handle the load with no problem. Loading and unloading will be a breeze and will create a more relaxed experience. It is a good idea to loosely tie in your gear to keep it from getting away should you capsize. A rule of thumb should be to use enough rope to allow for the lifting of a capsized canoe out of the water without having to lift all of the gear along with it.
Remember, things not to take include large bulky ice chest, large folding chairs, large boxes of heavy food stuffs, food that requires refrigeration, large bulky tents, and large bulky camp stoves. You can add to this list anything you might think of that fit into the big and bulky category. Think portaging! Do I really want to carry this stuff by hand across country should the need arise?
Things to consider include a small 8 or 10 inch Dutch oven or collapsible reflector oven, a small single burner camp stove with extra fuel bottle, one of those small collapsible chairs that fit into a light carrying bag are nice. Seatbacks for the canoe are nice but not absolutely necessary, but if you use one, make sure it is sturdy enough to support your weight as you lean against it and it doesn’t dig into your lower spine. After two or three days of that, you might find yourself throwing it into the river. One of those large, bedlike air mattresses is a pretty nice luxury and fold into a relatively small package, but most require some kind of pump to inflate it, a few come with a built in battery operated pump. A better option is one of those self-inflating sleeping pads.
A must carry list includes, dry bags for gear and cloths, add water - dehydrated food packages, water purifier, paddles that fit, extra paddle, life jackets, float cushions, rain gear, wide brimmed hat, 15 – 20 foot of rope for guiding the canoe around obstacles, mess kits or paper bowls and plates that can be burned in a campfire, matches or lighter and personal gear enough to last the entire trip. Strive to accomplish while packing for a trip to limit your gear to where all will fit inside two medium sized bags and one small bag, or one medium and one large bag.
Canoe camping is a great way to enjoy getting out into the wilds. Just keep it simple and use a little creativity and common sense. Take a dry run someplace like a small lake or the local camp ground with all the gear you want to take on a float trip and see what you really use and what you don’t use, then eliminate what you don’t use. Gear enough for two people should fit nicely inside the dimensions of the canoe with room to spare, but avoid allowing the gear to rise above the gunwales after it is all loaded. If it does, you need to rethink what you are taking. Part of the fun is the preparations before hand. Most of all, be careful, keep it simple…then get out and enjoy yourself.
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