Backcountry Canoe Tripping Equipment
Canoe tripping, like other recreational activities, involves a certain amount of equipment. However, the amount that is absolutely necessary may be less than you think. All you really need is food, clothing, shelter, and, of course, a canoe. When shopping for equipment, you should always keep these basic categories in mind and resist the temptation to acquire gadgets of doubtful necessity. It also helps to remember that “what you take is what you carry.”
Good equipment can be expensive, and if you are not planning to do a great deal of canoe tripping, you may prefer to rent the necessary equipment. The following sections are designed to give you an idea as to the equipment that we feel is essential to a safe and comfortable trip. Naturally, there is always room for personal preference, but this can be determined only by experience.
Canoes suitable for tripping fall into the 4.5 to 5.5 metre (15-18 feet) range. The longer and wider the canoe, the more weight it will be able to carry safely. There are many different materials, ranging from the traditional canvas-covered cedar to a wide variety of modern synthetics, used to construct canoes. However, it is the design and the quality of construction, rather than the material, that makes the difference between a poor canoe and a good one.
A narrow, “round-bottomed” canoe is fast, manoeuvrable, and in the hands of an expert, a joy to paddle – but it will feel tippy and insecure to a novice. A canoe with a reasonably flat bottom, and a beam (width) of somewhere close to 95 cm will prove to be a more stable and secure craft for the average canoeist.
Remember also that you are going to have to carry your canoe across numerous portages in the course of your trip, and therefore the weight and balance are important. Your canoe should be as light as possible, somewhere in the 20 to 30 kilogram range; anything more means needless work on the portages. The centre thwart (crossbeam) must be positioned properly at the balance point, to enable you to carry the canoe on your shoulders. It must also be solidly constructed since it will bear the weight of the canoe on the portages.
And, of course, never forget that you are dependent upon your canoe to get you there and back. On the water, canoes are strong craft capable of carrying heavy loads. On land they turn into flimsy shells that are easily damaged. Never carry a loaded canoe across a portage.
Paddles come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and materials. Personal experience will eventually determine which you prefer. However, one rule of thumb that many people find useful is that the paddle should be at least the height of your chin. Wide paddles may pull more water, an important feature for the racer, but will prove to be more tiring to use on a long trip. Paddles should be used only for the purpose for which they were designed. Even then a paddle may break, and having an extra one is recommended.
Under Canadian law you are responsible for equipping yourself, for operating your boat safely, and for ensuring the safety of those on board. For canoes and kayaks not over six metres in length, you are required to have the following: One Canadian-approved personal flotation device or lifejacket of appropriate size for each person on board; one buoyant heaving line of not less that 15 metres in length; one manual propelling device (e.g., paddle) OR an anchor with not less than 15 metres of cable, rope, or chain in any combination; one plastic or metal bailer (at least 750 ml) OR one manual water pump and hose which can reach bilge and discharge over side of vessel; a sound-signalling device (e.g., whistle) or appliance; navigation lights that meet applicable standards if craft is operated after sunset and before sunrise or in periods of restricted visibility. For more on boating safety.
In Algonquin, a tent is a necessity as protection against both rain and insects. Modern canoeists use lightweight nylon tents with a floor and collapsible aluminum poles. Another common design element in canoeing tents is that the tent is breathable, allowing moisture from your breath to escape (rather than condense on inside walls and roof during the night). Protection against rain is achieved by suspending a waterproof “fly” over the tent proper.
Given these basic features, there are still many different tent designs on the market, ranging from simple “A” frames to complex, self-supporting domes. The choice of the design is largely a matter of personal preference. But it is wise to choose a tent that may be easily pitched in a small place. A well-cared for tent will last for many years. When packing a tent, make sure to whisk out any twigs or stones, as a sharp twig can easily puncture a tightly rolled tent. If you have to pack a tent when it is wet, be sure to give it time to dry before putting it away for long periods.
After a day’s paddle you want a good night’s sleep, and need it if you intend to continue the next day. From mid-June to mid-August, almost any sleeping bag will provide enough warmth, although its weight and bulk must be considered. For early spring and fall, frost can be a real possibility at night, and in such weather, the design and construction of a sleeping bag are important.
Warmth results from the thickness (loft) of the sleeping bag’s insulation. The ideal insulator must be light and easily compressed to give a small, light package when rolled, and a thick layer when fluffed up. Waterfowl down and some synthetic fibres are the best materials available now. Down compresses more readily and is lighter than the synthetics, but is very expensive and has the added disadvantage of matting and losing all of its insulating qualities when wet.
Nylon, being light and strong, is an ideal cover for sleeping bags, but how the inner and outer shells are connected are important. Any place where the two layers are sewn directly together will result in a cold spot. To prevent this problem, the chambers that hold the fill in place are overlapped in better quality bags. The zipper is another potential cold spot and should be backed by an insulated flap.
A wet sleeping bag makes a miserable bed, so before you pack it, make sure that it is waterproofed. Many sleeping bags are sold with waterproof nylon stuff sacks for this purpose. Failing that, a plastic bag or a tightly rolled groundsheet will do the job. When in use, your sleeping bag should be fluffed and aired every day or two so that it does not become clammy with moisture. After your trip, sleeping bags are best stored lightly rolled in a breathable sack or hung over a coat hanger.
There is no virtue in tossing and turning the whole night on the cold, hard ground. The underside of your sleeping bag, compressed by your weight, offers little in the way of comfort or insulation. An air mattress or form pad will provide you with comfort and sufficient insulation. The best (and most expensive kinds) are self-inflating pads of open cell foam contained in an air-tight, valve fabric shell. Traditional air mattresses fold into a compact volume but are heavy and liable to puncture. Closed cell foam pads are warm and comfortable but also bulky.
A careful choice of clothing can greatly reduce the weight and bulk you will have to carry. Loose fitting clothes permit freedom of movement and proper ventilation, and they are also the most comfortable. Light colours are best since insects seem to be attracted to dark colours, especially blue.
A typical outfit might consist of a t-shirt, long-sleeved shirt (for protection from sunburn and insects), a heavy wool shirt (or down vest) for warmth, and a windproof, water-repellent outer shell. These would all be worn at once for the greatest warmth, and could be peeled off as the day grew warmer. For your lower body, a long pair of pants (something that will dry easily), and a pair of shorts (or a bathing suit) will suffice. Long underwear is useful for extra warmth or as sleepware on cooler nights. A wide-brimmed hat is ideal protection against the sun.
Protection against the rain is important, particularly late in the season when temperatures begin to drop. A rainsuit, consisting of pants and a jacket, is the best way to get complete protection. Unfortunately, a waterproof suit also prevents perspiration from escaping so try and find one that has good ventilation.
The choice of footwear poses a real problem for the canoeist. Ankle-supporting leather boots are a must for portaging or any other walking in the bush, and many people take no other kind of footware on a trip. However, boots can be uncomfortable to wear in a canoe, and when they get wet (and they are going to) they take a long time to dry. For this reason, some people take running shoes along for long paddles or relaxing around camp at night.
The etceteras are a number of little things that you should carry but which are easy to forget. A first aid kit is indispensable; at the very least yours should contain gauze pads, bandages, surgical tape, antiseptic, and any personal medication that you may require. Insect repellent, toilet paper, handsoap, toothbrush, and other personal items should be on your list.
Sturdy nylon rope for hanging food out of reach of bears, rigging a clothesline, and numerous other camp chores is also important. Extra matches in a waterproof container and a pocket flashlight will come in handy. A small pocket knife is also a valuable tool; the large belt knives may look impressive, but since you will not be tackling anything more dangerous than a piece of salami, they are unnecessary. A simple repair kit consisting of electrical tape, safety pins, a short piece of wire, and a small pair of pliers will enable you to handle most problems that might develop with your equipment. People using fiberglass canoes may want to include a proper fiberglass patch kit; those using canvas canoes may wish to add canvas and waterproof glue to their repair kit.
Today, most canoeist prefer to cook over small, lightweight stoves (under one kilogram, including fuel), the kind that backpackers have been using for many years. They eliminate the time spent, and damage done, in searching for firewood, and the trouble and delay involved in trying to get a fire going on a cold, damp morning. A stove makes it easy to prepare soup for lunch, or brew a cup of tea at the end of a long portage – something few canoeists without a stove would think of doing. A final bonus is that they burn with a clean flame and won’t blacken your pots.
Gasoline or butane stoves are most commonly used by canoeists and backpackers. Butane stoves, with their disposable fuel cartridges, are more convenient to use in the summer, but difficult to start in colder temperatures or in restricted fire zones; and please remember that the empty cartridges have to be packed out and disposed of at your local hazardous waste facility. Gasoline stoves are better for year-round use and require less expensive fuel (naphtha). It is a good idea to experiment with your stove at home before starting out on your trip. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions when using your stove, and never use it in your tent.
Utensils should be few and simple. Most canoeists carry nesting cooksets of two or three pots, and a bowl, cup and spoon per person, a pouring spout or a small funnel, scouring pads, biodegradable soap, a dish cloth, and an ample supply of matches in a waterproof container.
All your gear must be carried on your back over every portage, unpacked, and repacked at every campsite, and lifted into and out of the canoe many times a day. Therefore, your choice of pack, and how you pack it, can make a big difference to the ease and efficiency of your trip.
The traditional packsack for canoeing is the “Duluth” pack, a large, single-pocket sack of canvas with leather shoulder straps and often a tumpline which fits over the top of the head. Such packs are simple to use insofar as you are able to stuff your gear inside with a minimum of effort, and they are easy to load into a canoe. However, they are not comfortable to carry.
Frame packs, the kind used by backpackers for many years, are much more comfortable to carry (mostly due to the fact that the weight is supported by the padded hip belt rather than the shoulder straps). For canoeing, however, frame packs have serious disadvantages. The most important is that the large external frames make it difficult or impossible to place such packs right in the bottom of the canoe, where they belong for safety’s sake. Also, they often make it impossible to carry a canoe and a pack at the same time (because the frames project so high over the shoulders).
If you are looking for the ultimate pack, one that is suitable for canoeing, backpacking, or skiing, you should consider one of the big internal-frame rucksacks. Modern design, high-quality materials, and a sophisticated harness system combine to produce a range of packs that can handle heavy loads and are still comfortable to carry. A large, padded waist belt, connected to the internal frame, transfers most of the weight to the hips, providing greater freedom of movement and better balance. Although individual manufacturers may include a large variety of other features, any of these packs will do the job.
You should pack so that the most-needed items, such as snacks and rain gear, are easy to get at. Important items, such as the first aid kit, should travel in a location that remains constant and is known to all members of the party. Stuff sacks, in a variety of colours, make it easy to organize your outfit so that individual items may be found in a hurry. If you take the time to develop a system of packing that works well for you, and stick to it, the amount of time spent in packing and unpacking can be greatly reduced.
The voyageurs of yesterday depended on such simple fare as flour, beans, and salt pork; later, there was the era of canned goods which left piles of rusty tin cans at every campsite. Today, cans and bottles are banned in the Park Interior, but the choice of suitable food for canoe trips is actually greater than at any time in the past.
When planning a menu for a wilderness trip, there are a number of factors that should be considered. Because of the increased physical activity, appetites tend to grow; therefore, the food you take should be both high in nutritional value, and in sufficient quantity to satisfy the more ravenous members of your party. Since you will be carrying all your food for the entire trip, it should be lightweight and non-perishable. Ease of preparation and flavour are also important factors to consider. At the end of a hard day’s paddle you will look forward to a tasty meal that can be prepared with a minimum of effort.
Freeze-dried or dehydrated foods are the only practical solution for long trips. When buying these specialized foods you should be wary of such questionable statements as “serves four.” The addition of herbs and spices will transform these often bland meals into tasty and satisfying fare. Also, since freeze-dried and dehydrated foods tend to be expensive, most people prefer to combine them with other, more readily available, foodstuffs. Supermarkets, delicatessens, and health food stores are excellent sources of food suitable for canoe trips. Designing a menu and shopping for the groceries can be an exciting prelude to a wilderness trip – and one that the whole family can participate in. Experimenting with new foods at home, before trips, is advisable.
Many foods such as oatmeal and rice are best removed from their original containers and repacked, in the necessary quantities, in tough, re-sealable plastic bags. The more rebellious items such as peanut butter and honey should be repacked in unbreakable, reusable, squeeze tubes or other containers; placing the container in a plastic bag offers extra protection. Non-burnable food or beverage containers (cans and bottles) are prohibited in the Interior of Algonquin, so items that are normally purchased in these container must be repacked.
To avoid rummaging through an entire pack for the food you want, you will have to follow some method of organization. Some people prefer to pack each complete meal in a separate bag, others prefer to pack all the food for the current day in one bag and everything else in another. A little time spent in organization will save a great deal of time and confusion later.
Although lakes in the Park Interior appear pristine, two types of disease-causing micro-organism may be found in untreated water – giardia (also known as “beaver fever”) and cryptosporidium (also known as “crypto”). Both can cause intestinal illness if not removed from water. To treat water from a lake or stream to remove giardia and “crypto,” bring water to a rolling boil for at least one minute, or use a filter that has a pore-sized opening no greater than 1.0 absolute micron or that has been NSF-rated for “cyst removal.” A chemical disinfectant, such as chlorine, must be added to water following filtration to kill any infectious bacteria and viruses that may be present.
Canoe Trip Outfitting Stores
Many people, particularly those who may be relatively new to canoe tripping, prefer to rent some or all of the necessary equipment. There are many excellent businesses, both in and near Algonquin, which supply complete or partial outfitting services. The locations, names, and addresses of those businesses located in the immediate area of Algonquin are available in the Commercial Services section of this website.
Many people who are new to canoeing may wish to go on their first few trips with a small group of people. Package tours, consisting of a small group of novices and led by an experienced guide, provide an excellent opportunity to acquire the skills necessary to properly enjoy the wilderness. There are a number of private organizations that offer package canoe trips in Algonquin and elsewhere. Check Commercial Services for a list of providers.