Top 10 Tips I Forget Not Everyone Knows

Quite regularly, I forget how much time I spend camping, canoeing and portaging compared to most other people. I want to say this in the least obnoxious way possible, but sometimes I don’t realize that certain things that are (by now) habit for me turns out to be a helpful tip to someone else. And it’s that very avoidance of being obnoxious that I don’t go around shouting all these things out at people. I mean, there’s some obvious knowledge to convey to beginners. I’m not talking about that kind of stuff. What I’m talking about is the stuff that makes some of your friends – the people with whom you’ve been on countless trips over the years – that say to you “Man that would have been helpful to know a lot sooner. Why are you holding out on us?” (While other friends might just respond with “Duh?”)

So here is a small list of random things that you may or may not know. But just in case, I’ll run them down anyway. Each of these things were realized by or conveyed to me at some point and I thought they were simple but brilliant, wondering why I hadn’t thought of that sooner. Some I’ve known for a long time, others not as long. (As much as I don’t want to be obnoxious, I don’t want to be embarrassed either, so I won’t tell you which I learned when.)

1 – Stabilize. Often.

See how the pack aligns along my back? Pull those stabilizing traps.

See how the pack aligns along my back? Pull those stabilizing traps. Most backpacks have them, not just packs with barrels.

Stabilizing straps are the little ones that are on your pack’s shoulder straps, sometimes called “load lifters”. When tightened, they pull the top of your pack closer to your back, making it vertical and so more properly able to distribute the weight on your waist and shoulders. Or to put it another way, they make your pack more comfortable to wear. These are not necessarily meant to be set once and forgotten. To allow taking your pack off and putting it back on more easily, loosen these straps before you take it off. As soon as you get it back on, connect your belt clip and whatever else you have do, then yank on those straps. (Ever wonder why they’re often a different colour than the other straps?) You’ll notice immediately that you’re much more comfortable, as most people who don’t (regularly) tighten them often hunch over, fighting the pack from pulling you from behind. Bonus tip: You know that strap that goes across your chest (on some packs)? It’s normally called a sternum strap. It’s there just to keep your shoulder straps in place. It’s not supposed to be pulled tight. That just makes it harder to breath, and so uncomfortable. (Also, if you’re helping a woman fit their pack, let them do the sternum strap themselves. Trust me, it avoids the risk of some rather awkward explanations.)

2 – Folding can stuff it!

Don't spend time folding. Stuff that sack instead.

Don’t spend time folding. Stuff that sack instead.

You can save a lot of time stuffing fabrics into bags rather than folding them neatly, especially when fighting larger items in the wind, or keeping them out of dirt. They’re called “stuff sacks” because you stuff, not because they hold stuff.* In fact, when you stuff, you’re not wasting any space in the sacks as everything will be pushed to all areas with no gaps that folding might cause. Larger items, like tents, flys and tarps can be folded once or twice for them to be manageable, then rolled. But don’t go crazy trying to be too neat in your folding. Often a good rule of thumb is to fold an item to the size of it’s bag, then roll it and stuff it. If these items don’t fit into their original bags, get a new bag that they’ll fit into properly. No sense wasting time, having sore hands from the dexterity involved, and more importantly, your losing your sanity. (Sorry to all those compulsive folders out there. If wrinkles are the worst hardship of camping, you’ve had a pretty great trip.)

*Actually, I don’t know that for sure. Maybe that was the original intended meaning, but not how we use it now.

3 – Pee downhill.

I don't have any pictures of me peeing, let alone downhill. You get the idea though.

I don’t have any pictures of me peeing, let alone downhill. You get the idea though.

Most people know not to pee into the wind. What’s not in songs or on t-shirts is that gravity does the same thing as wind. This advice is for keeping your shoes dry (and not gross) in the moment, but also other places. A steep hill, wet (saturated) soil and flat rocks can allow liquids to travel down enough of a distance for a surprise inconvenience. I remember once seeing a mini yellow river make it’s way right into the middle of camp that we had to deal with for the rest of our stay. Obviously, the culprit was well hydrated. There’s a chance that culprit may have been me. I don’t remember. But either way, I know not to do that now. Usually. (*Note: If you practice Leave No Trace, this shouldn’t be  much of a problem as you’re supposed to be “going” at least 200ft away from a water source, so perhaps the camp as well.)

4 – Pillows are anything soft.

There are always alternatives to bringing pillows. Save space by thinking "multiple uses".

There are always alternatives to bringing pillows. Save space by thinking “multiple uses”.

Sure a camping pillow might be ideally designed to hold your head up in comfort, and they make some really fancy ones now. But really, anything you can stuff something soft into and keep your head a few inches off the ground can be used as a pillow. The stuff sack that holds your extra clothes is perfect for this. I keep mine in a compression bag which keeps it small but tight. Before I go to sleep I simply loosen it a bit for better comfort. In fact, I find this even more comfortable and soft than a blow up pillow. If I could find a way to stuff something big and flat enough to use as a sleeping pad, I’d do that too. The bag your sleeping bag comes in is also good, especially if you want a bigger pillow. You have to take out the sleeping bag anyway, so throw everything you have that’s soft in there until it’s comfy for you – extra tarps, rain gear, clothes, even the TP. I almost forgot about PFDs! They’re very good pillows. Turn them inside out to avoid the buckles and zippers, or just throw it in a sack. Just remember, nothing smelly should go in the tent, so avoid using those items to stuff your pillow. (Other people can be soft enough to use as a pillow as well. Just make sure you know them well enough before you try it. Or that they’re sound sleepers.)

5 – Hang Your Food In The Open.

In a dense forest, find an opening in the canopy to hang your food bag.

In a dense forest, find an opening in the canopy to hang your food bag. (It’s on an elbow, and if you look real close you’ll notice it’s upside down, but nobody’s perfect. )

They just told you that your food needs to be hung from a tree. You wander away from camp, into the forest looking for a branch but you now realize there’s no branches within a reasonable height for you to throw a rope over. All the trees in there are tall, skinny, with branches way too far up. You wander around deeper and deeper into the woods, cursing whoever is making you do this, thinking why are all the good branches back at camp, but still nothing. (It’s weird and yet instinctive, but we almost feel like we have to hide the food bag further into the forest. But that’s where the critters come from.)

Yeah… here’s the thing: Under the canopy, trees drop their lower branches as they grow taller. They’re useless to them unless they can get sunlight. With all that tree competition for light, they’re all tall and skinny – and branchless except for at the very top. To find a suitable, reasonably low branch , you need to find an opening in the forest canopy. Those trees will have lower branches. Look closer to a shore or in gaps where trees can’t grow together densely so the ones that do can spread out a bit. Wandering further into the forest is just going to find you more skinny tall trees.

Note: Ontario Parks recommends hanging your food at least 6m (20ft) above the ground.

6 – Marketing Right Side Up.

The tent, its fly, the water filter and even the camp chair all hint which side is up by whether or not you can read the logo.

The tent, its fly, the water filter and even the camp chair all hint which side is up by whether or not you can read the logo.

Ever wonder whether something is upside down or backwards? A sure-fire tip is that if you can read the manufacturer’s logo, you’ve got it right. No need to roll it all out and check which side is up. It’s not a coincidence. The tent maker’s are going to want you to recognize their tent, so if you throw the fly on and you can read it clearly, it’s on right. Same goes for bags, clothes, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, tarps, pots, or anything you have to put together or unravel.

7  – Pool the TP

With their friends off somewhere, it's safe to have some fun at their expense. With the TP in one spot, it's safe to assume their not at the privy.

With their friends off somewhere, it’s safe to have some fun at their expense. With the TP in one spot, it’s safe to assume their not at the privy.

They’re smaller and not as foolproof, but as a non-critical need or backup, ziplocs (or their generic brand equivalent) can keep things nice and dry like little, cheap dry bags. Just make sure you zip them up good. I often use double zip freezer bags, which give you a bit more reliability and are more durable so you can re-use them often. A perfect use for them: I use a big bag to hold all the group’s toilet paper. That way it’s waterproof but can be kept easily accessible. The real tip here is that in bigger or unfamiliar groups, for some people knowing whether someone’s already using the privy can be a little awkward. I’m asked about this quite a bit, and I’ve heard of several less than reliable ways of indicating “Occupied!” Think about it. You have to look, but you don’t want to see – or be seen. And some people might not want to have that conversation, especially shouting it from camp. (“Hey Dorothy! Are you putting up the bear rope or doing what bears do in the woods?”)

What’s easier is simply knowing that if the TP bag is missing, you know someone’s using it. The down side is when you walk away with the big bag, everyone knows what you’re doing with it. Then again, these are the kinds of things you kinda got to get over in the backcountry. Let’s call it the lesser awkward.

8 – Dry Bag = Water Bag.

A collapsible bucket is a great idea to carry water and save space. However to save even more space, use one of your dry bags.

A collapsible bucket is a great idea to carry water and save space. However to save even more space, use one of your dry bags.

And speaking of dry bags, did you know  the same premise that keeps water out of dry bags, water can also be kept in? (I know, genius stuff, right?) For example: Looking around for something to carry water to douse the campfire at the end of the night? Dry bag. Campsite pretty far away from water and don’t want to make to many trips? Dry bag. They usually even have handles to make carrying easier. (Warning: If your dry bag is made from rubbery or other smelly materiel, that will stink up your water, so don’t use it for drinking water.) I know what you’re saying: But if I’m trying to use it to keep things dry, won’t that wet the inside of the bag, defeating the purpose? Sure. But most bags are flexible enough to turn inside out. Do that before you fill it. Bonus related tip: How do you dry-out a dry bag if the insides get wet? Turn it inside out.

9 – Roll out the air.

Start from the bottom and roll your gear towards where the air comes in.

Start from the bottom and roll your gear towards where the air comes in.

I do this so often it’s second nature and forget it can be construed as a tip. If you need to get the air out of little bags, Ziplocs, airmattresses or other types of gear that might trap air, leave the seal open and roll it from the bottom towards the air opening and then seal it. This keeps air out of your gear, making them smaller and easier to pack, or fit back into their containers. (Another good reason not to fold, from point #2.) This also saves you from having to do that air-purge hug with the air mattress that we all do. For more fragile things like Ziploc bags, it also saves them from a potential pop when stuffed into your pack. Some tents can trap a little bit of air. If you roll from the back towards the door, all the air goes out. Another bonus, regarding tents in particular: If you roll from the back, holding it up with the door zipper open, often gravity can sweep some of the dirt, pine needles and leaves out.

10 – Rocks Rock.

The key to a food bag rope is bringing with you fancy rocks from home. Wait... That can't be right.

The key to a food bag rope is bringing with you fancy rocks from home. Wait… That can’t be right.


Another tip about hanging your food: You’re supposed to hang your food 6m high, which means throwing rope up at least that far. Being light weight, on its own, the rope rarely cooperates. You can fix that by tying a rock or stick (or something) to the end, which will give you enough momentum to get the rope over, and most importantly, back down.

I know, I know… You know that one already. Because of this, I’ll give you two bonus tips. First, when you tie your rock, criss-cross the rope around the rock before you tie it. This will keep the rock from slipping out after you’ve tossed it over the branch. This is even more important if you don’t get it over the branch on the first throw (I for one am horrible at that for some reason), and the rock rolls away out of sight.

Secondly, if you’re having a hard time finding a suitable rock, check the firepit and borrow one – just please put it back for the rest of us – and maybe not if you’ve already got the fire going. You could also use a suitable sized and weighted piece of gear as well. Just tie it well so it doesn’t go flying off where you can’t find it, and obviously choose something that is tough enough to survive the fall. (Sometimes several falls.)

Bonus bonus tip: Keep your rope away from the elbow of the branch, where it meets the trunk or where the branch splits in two. Often when you go to pull down your rope it will get caught there. Once your rope is up and over, you can move it back and forth on the branch by holding both ends of the rope rather than pulling the rope down and throwing it over again, or frustratingly trying to do that little rope flick thing with just one end (which usually pulls down the other end anyway).

Ther you have it. Some random tips that I forget that not everyone knows. Were there any surprises?

5 Reasons Not To Use Butane Canisters

I really don’t like sounding like a grumpy old man, but every now and then a subject comes up where you have a list of complaints about and you just can’t help the way it sounds. Funny, but for a guy who thinks of himself as quite the opposite of grumpy, I do have a few of these subjects that get me grabbing my cane and waving it at the kids on my lawn. Today was one of those days, when I found myself discussion butane canisters on facebook with Christine from Camp Smarts. I was simply writing what I didn’t like about butane canisters, ran out of room with my comment, and figured I’d write it out a lot easier here (and introduce it by saying I’m not a grumpy old man).

UPDATE: I found out what happens to those gas canisters when you send them to your local waste management center.

First, I should probably mention I don’t hate butane canisters I regularly use them myself. They’re compact and easy to use. You just screw on your camp stove and you’re ready to go. No filling up, no priming, no fuel spills, and you can buy them at pretty much any outdoor store. For some stoves, the canister can even act as a stand to make it a little lighter and more compact. Oh, and I’ll keep using the term “butane”, but I also mean propane or any of the non-refillable fuel containers.

A sit on top stove. Dont tell, but I'm mixing stove and canister brands.

#1 Enabling the Jerks:

The first reason is actually not the fault of the canisters, rather an example of how jerky behaviour gives something a bad name. The problem is that too many people are disposing of the butane canisters by simply chucking them in the woods. The problem is that they don’t burn, so people can’t just toss them into a fire and forget them. They also don’t sink, so you can’t just dump them in the lake. They don’t crush up either, so stomping them into the ground behind some bushes doesn’t really work either. This is a litterer’s worst nightmare – there’s a lot of effort in casting off these things out of sight. So what do you do? Throw them into the outhouse of course. I’m a little saddened how many times I come across this. Less gross, but I’m sure just as annoying, I’ve also come across a couple of situations where there was a pile of canisters left at campsites, all different types and ages. People see the pile and figure that’s what you do with them. Somebody will just come by and take them. This is why Ontario Parks no longer sells non-refillable fuel canisters at the park stores, strongly discourages you from using them, and is regularly considering banning them entirely. You would too if you were the one you has to go in there and get them out, especially when considering from where you might have to get them.

Does this mean responsible people shouldn’t use them? No. If everyone carried them out with them this wouldn’t be an issue, and realistically, most people do. But enough people don’t, which is why I no longer recommend using them anymore, and hope my example might deter some from using them.

This is not a dump, for canisters

#2 Recycling

Ontario Parks wants you to bring your canisters home with you. Unfortunately, those canisters are not refillable or even recyclable, which means they need to be disposed of properly. And because they contain gas, they’re also not supposed to go into your regular garbage, but rather be deposited at your local dump’s hazardous waste center. I assume that everyone is more than happy to do all this, but it’s not that environmentally responsible. We’re supposed to – in order – Reduce, Resuse then Recycle. And I’m not certain the metal gets recycled at all once it gets processed at the dump.

#3 Content Management

You can’t see inside them, and you can’t open them up, so the only way to know how much juice is left is to pick it up and maybe shake it a little and guess. They have these stickers that you can put on them that will act as a fuel gauge, but they don’t always work. Admittedly, the more you use them the better you get at guessing. The real problem happens when you have 1/4 or less left in the canister. Your choice there is to waste the remainder and toss it (not literally), keep it hanging around for a trip that you don’t need as much (and know for sure it’ll be enough), or bring it with another and carry it around empty for most of the trip. My point is it’s an unnecessary juggling act, where if you used a refillable solution you could just top it off before each trip.

Do I have enough to make another pancake?

#4 The last bit of fuel is like the last bit of beer

Priming white gas stoves might be a pain, and have those eyebrow burning mishaps on occasion, but it’s the best way to maintain enough pressure to use even the last of your fuel efficiently. How many times were have you been using the last of your canister and it’s taking forever to boil some water, then finally run out, grab the new can and it seems like it’s suddenly 10 times better? It’s because they work on pressure, and the less fuel you have the worse it performs. In fact, using up the last of the can is useless, sputtering out dribbles.

#5 Trust

I’ve never personally punctured or broken a canister on a trip, but chalk that up to my over-paranoia than the craftmanship put into those cans. I have had a few puncture in my trunk (where you’re not supposed to keep them… I know). What’s easier to do is to pop the valve. You really have to be careful when jamming stuff into your backpack, and pay particular attention to making sure no pointy items are close to the canister – or can get shifted close to the canister. Alternatively, have you seen those refillable bottles made for white gas? Nice thick openings, made with tough metal and hard core lids that even have a child proof mechanism to prevent it from opening unexpectedly. Why’s that you ask? They’re made to be used often. The opposite is true for the butane canisters. They’re made as cheaply as the company can get away with – which to be fair is usually good enough – but I feel much more confident shoving stuff tightly into or not being so gentle with my pack.

Refillable white gas bottle and fuel. Most outdoor stores carry both.

A couple of additional thoughts that don’t quite make the list, but also worth considering – let’s call them “bonus points”:

  • Butane isn’t the optimal fuel for cold temperatures or high altitude, and in either situation you really want a device that you can control the pressure to get the proper amount of fuel coming out. Height shouldn’t be a problem in Ontario and you can get by in fall and spring cold, but if you’re planning on camping with snow on the ground or high enough for there to be snow on the ground in summer, the butane canisters are no good.
  • Stove manufacturers really encourage you to use their fuel, and their canisters. I’ve been told by many people how true this is, and many others have told me it’s completely false. Jetboil will tell you there’s a subtle difference in the thread of their valves making it damaging to use some other company’s canister, as does Primus and MSR. I’ve cheated and mixed and matched products, and while I’m sure I did some minute bit of damage to my stove that I’ve yet to notice, didn’t have the optimal cooking stove experience I could have, or made puppies cry somewhere, but I didn’t seem to have any problems.
  • They’re also awkwardly shaped. Is it just me? I find packing them inefficient, especially when I have to wrap them up with a towel or something to keep them from getting pierced by something. Those cylinder shaped reusable bottles are much easier to pack. Maybe this is a minor point.
  • There are also plenty of other options, including alcohol or twig burning stoves. Some can even be made at home out of discarded household items like pop or beer cans (seen below). They’re very light and require no priming at all.

There's lots of other alternatives to butane canisters and white gas.

Stay tuned for more stove updates. I’ve got quite a few of all different styles I want to test out this summer. Any suggestions on ones I should try, or want to share your favourite stove, I’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

2011 Outdoor Adventure Show

Last weekend I got a chance to go to the Ontario Outdoor Adventure show, and like every year it was a lot of fun – and very popular. It’s a great chance to see the outdoor community and check out what’s going on this year, new products and see some demos. For me personally,  I like to meet people in the canoeing and camping industry, and this year was particularly interesting because it gave me a chance to meet some of the people I follow on Twitter, putting faces to user names – even if I didn’t always get a chance to speak with them directly.

The major attraction of the show has got to be the film screenings and presentations by famous outdoorsy people. This year’s “Special Guest Appearance” was none other than Survivorman himself, Les Stroud. He’s got a new book out (“Will to Live: Dispatches from the Edge of Survival“)and apparently is going out on tour with his band.

The highlight of the presentations was – of course – Kevin Callan. He was promoting his soon-to-be released book “Top 50 Canoe Routes of Ontario” due out at the end of March. He said it’s kind of like a “Best Of” album, with a few new routes as well (previously unreleased tracks?). He’s also featured in the Classic Canadian Adventure Contest, where the winner will go on a 7-day series of adventures along side Kevin. This provided him the opportunity to plead with the audience to sign up. He suggested it would be quite a fun time with someone with similar interests – a paddler or hiker for example – but could be a nightmare if someone else wins, and so enthusiastically encouraged those in attendance to make sure they signed up. Kevin then went on to show pictures and tell stories of his trips, all to our great amusement.

Now the best part of Kevin’s presentation came from next door. Turns out they had scheduled Kevin at 1:30, but at 1:15 in the next room was Les Stroud. Kevin’s introduction mentioned this, and once Kevin came out we all made sure to hoot and holler loud enough to remind the other audience they were in the wrong room. That was fun, and Kevin seemed very humbled by the gesture.

“Kevin vs Les stroud…having my audience cheer me on louder and louder every time Les stroud got a cheer while presenting in the next presentation room was the highlight of my day – actually the highlight of my year. Thanks”

Status update from Kevin Callan’s Facebook page

That being said, here are some things I liked about the show, followed by some gentle critiques.

What I liked

  • Everyone I met and spoke with. There are some really great people who love the outdoors and have some great stories.
  • I really enjoyed the paddling demos, particularly on Stand Up paddling by Swift Canoes. I’ve seen videos but never up close. It looks like a really fun way to paddle about and get some exercise. (Check out this icy version of the sport)
  • Seeing a Pack Canoe up close and in action was certainly interesting. If I get a chance, next trip I’m paddling solo, trying to keep up with a group, I will definitely try it out using a kayak paddle as demonstrated.
  • Ontario Parks really does a great job. From putting on entertaining shows, offering on-the-spot trip planning, education material, and even a place for Kevin Callan to hang out when not on stage, they’re kind of the anchor at these exhibitions.
  • I also got a chance to check out a new Delorme Earthmate PN-60w – a GPS with SPOT combo. Basically it gives you the benefit of a satellite locator and emergency communicator with a link to a hand-held GPS, but by using both, you can send texts and e-mail via satellite (even update Facebook, Twitter and The functionality sounds great, but I’m not sure it’s a better GPS than the Garmin I have now. One definite advantage is that – as the Delorme guy I spoke with emphasized – their devices come with everything you need to get started, with no extra fees for maps, for example . That’s a practice I’d like to support.

Not So Much

  • All kidding aside, I would have liked to at least have had the option of seeing both Les Stroud and Kevin Callan. It was a weird scheduling conflict. I think anyone interested in seeing either one of them would probably feel the same.
  • I’d like to see more exhibitors, specifically ones with an outdoor theme. It always seems like there’s a couple of companies there just to fill the place up. (If you went, you know what I mean.) I go to these things mainly to see gear and supplies for paddling, camping and canoeing. What I expect to see is things you either would like to see up close, don’t normally have access to or even just stuff you don’t see everywhere. Ostrom Outdoors is a great example of the latter.
  • Speaking of which, I don’t really want to deter people from buying barrels and harnesses (and would recommend they stop by Ostrom’s first for that), but I think a very courteous thing to do after you buy one, would be to go take it to the car. There are an awful lot of new barrel owners to dodge in such a large crowd. Think Three Stooges and a two-by-four and you get my point.

I’ll be posting more soon on some of the people, places and things I was able to discover at the event. Hope to see everyone at the Toronto Sportsmen’s Show in March.


Kevin Callan Postcript

I am a big canoe nerd, which has altered my perception of celebrity. As regular readers know, I’ve included in this year’s New Year’s resolution to get a picture of me and Kevin Callan, and this was the perfect venue for that. In fact, after his presentation I saw a bunch of people do so. His canoe was on display with some outdoor gear, making for the perfect back-drop. He must have taken 10 pictures with pretty much whoever asked. I was sitting in my seat waiting for the next presentation (on Parkbus – more on that in a different post). Didn’t even think to ask myself. Oh well, maybe next time.


Gear To Bring Portaging: Sleeping Bag

What To Look For:

Anything you bring portaging should be as light as possible, compactable, durable and resist water, and the sleeping bag you choose is no different. The dilemma as always is paying the price for the ideal, or saving some money at the expense of something you can live with. That said, try to steer clear of ones that are too heavy, overly bulky or that don’t have some kind of water resistant outer layer. You’ll also want to make sure it’s durable. Many people roll their bags and latch it to the outside of their packs to save space, increasing the likelihood of a tear – which can completely ruin a trip. Consider getting a compression sack, as it will greatly reduce the size of the bag.

There are enough sleeping bag choices to make you go crazy – material, style, construction, fill, loft, temperature rating etc. To make it easier, you may want to speak to someone at a knowledgeable outdoor store and explain to them what you will be using the sleeping bag for and what qualities you feel you need and those you can deal without. (eg. “I can deal with a heavy bag, but I can’t stand a cold sleep.”)

Why You Need It:

It gets cold at night even in the summer, and an unexpected cold spell can be extremely uncomfortable without a sleeping bag. Remember that even if you think you can do without it, sleeping bags can be a useful first aid tool to get your body temperature regulated quickly.

How You Can Live Without It:

Again, I’d recommend bringing a sleeping bag regardless, but I suppose blankets might seem like an alternative. However, they’re not as efficient, and are not usually designed for the rigors of the outdoors like bags. You’ll also want to make sure that it can keep you warm, can dry easily and isn’t too heavy.

On The Cheap:

If you’re only traveling in summer, you can get away with a smaller bag. Of course, if you have something that will keep you warm, it’s doing its job, and you can deal with whatever issues it has (weight, bulk, pink unicorns etc.).

What Will Make Them All Jealous:

The ideal sleeping bag is probably something no one will be impressed with, because it will draw no attention at all. It’ll be light, small and compact in a compression sack, popping out to full size when needed. You’re friends won’t hear about it either, because it’ll be warm enough that they’ll be no complaints over breakfast about the cold wet night before.

Gear To Bring Portaging: Compression Sacks

I love these things. Compression sacks are handy bags that you stuff full of compressible materials (clothes, sleeping bags etc.) then yank on the built in straps to shrink them into a tiny little ball. It saves so much space – often a quarter or more of it’s size – and it also saves you from having to fold and pack.

What To Look For:

Another item that you get what you pay for, check the durability of the material and the straps. I prefer the cylindrical style (as opposed to rounded) because they fit in your pack better.

Why You Need It:

Space is precious for portageurs and backpackers. Compression sacks add greatly to your available space. At the very least you should get one for your sleeping bag because they take up a lot of space and compact significantly. You can also get one for other items, like towels, clothes and any other fabric items. You can go two ways: buy one bigger sack that will hold everything or a couple for different items. I prefer the second option. I have a small sack for my clothes and another for my sleeping bag, because two sacks are easier to pack into a cranny in my pack. When I go to sleep, I loosen the smaller sack so it’s not too tight and use it as a pillow.

How You Can Live Without It:

Not being a necessity, you can easily get along fine without one. If you’re an exceptional packer, you may not even think they’re necessary at all. Straps and even rope can also be used creatively to shrink sleeping bags and clothes at least somewhat.

On The Cheap:

This isn’t usually the type of thing you can borrow or get at a gear swap as easily as the more expensive items, but you can certainly try. I’ve seen plenty of sales for previous year’s models, and you can check for overstock or seasonal deals on various web pages. Buy one that that fits your exact needs, as they increase in price with size and materials used – if you already have a dry bag or use a barrel, you don’t have to spend the extra money for a watertight version.

What Will Make Them All Jealous:

A water tight compression sack that folds the top like a dry bag can be very useful, and like dry sacks with clips you can easily loop it and attach it to packs when necessary.

Gear To Bring Portaging: Packs

What To Look For:

Anything that carries your gear comfortably will get you by portaging, but there are advantages to specific types of packs. Backpacker style packs will be the most comfortable, being designed to carry the most gear with the most comfort. They’re made with internal frames and usually have lots of neat little nooks and pockets to store gear in different accessible spots. These will do you fine, especially if that’s all you have. Their disadvantage is that they are not designed for canoe travel, and are rarely water proof. There are however, many specific types of packs for canoes, each type being designed to fit inside and get into and out of a canoe easily.

First, is the traditional canoe pack. It is a big, square shaped (usually canvass) pack that is strapped to your back and often has a tump line to fit on your forehead for added support. These are based on the old heavy wooden pan boxes used earlier in the century, deriving from voyageur sacks, them being adapted from the aboriginal carrying methods. (These are options too, if you’re up for it). The benefit to these are the cost (sometimes) the space and the durability. They are not the most comfortable though.

Next there are the water tight packs which ride on your back like a backpack with the more common shoulder straps. The benefit of these are that they are like having a giant dry bag and will usually float after a spill keeping everything dry. However, these too are not as comfortable as a backpack.

Finally, there is the barrel pack – the new pack of choice of most portageurs. This is a harness that holds a barrel in which to put all your gear. It has the same advantages of both the water tight and canoe packs, and it will definitely float. It’s also the most durable. Some will tell you it’s also bear proof, but while I would imagine it might be more resistant than the other options, nothing short of metal is really bear proof.

Ideally, or when the situation dictates, your group can bring a variety of types and pack your gear into the most appropriate pack – fragile items in the barrel, water weary in the water tight and the heaviest in the more comfortable packs.

Why You Need It:

Each pack has their own advantages and disadvantages, but whichever you choose you’ll need something to keep your gear in to haul over the portages. What you don’t want is a bunch of little bags or loose items because it makes things much too difficult to carry over. Some people have even tried carrying their gear inside the canoe, but find out very quickly how difficult that is. Besides, carrying a full canoe can damage it even for a short period.

How You Can Live Without It:

Take 123 trips over each portage.

On The Cheap:

Again, this is where renting can keep your budget down. It costs somewhere between $10-$15 to rent a pack per day, so only after tripping for 20 or so days makes buying cheaper. There’s also borrowing which is even cheaper. Be weary of buying cheap packs though, because you often get what you pay for, and the last thing you want is to be in the middle of nowhere with a torn or broken pack. One definite cost saver is checking out seasonal sales or gear swaps. For barrel packs, save some money and buy a used barrel. A new used 70L barrel will cost somewhere near $60, whereas if you can find a surplus used barrel $10. Just make sure to inspect it so you know it’s water tight, and the lid can open and close easily. You may also have to clean it to remove any scents depending on what the barrel was used for originally.

What Will Make Them All Jealous:

The Cadillac of packs is the Ostrom Voyageur barrel harness. It has different sizes for proper fitting, padded shoulder straps, back panel and hip belt and adjustments up the wazoo. It will cost you a bit ($199 for just the harness), but with how it’s designed and the material used makes it worth it. The other high end option is the Seal Line Pro Pack, which is a water tight and huge (115L), but has extra back shoulder and waist straps that are padded for comfort.

Gear To Bring Portaging: Canoe Safety Kit

What To Look For:

Most Provinces and States require that every boat – including canoes – to have a boat safety kit of some kind. You may want to check with the park you’re visiting to make sure you comply to the local laws. Usually, a canoe safety kit requires a bailer, a whistle (pealess), a flashlight (waterproof) and a heaving line with a float. Usually you can get everything in a small self contained/water tight container that doubles as the bailer for about $10.

Why You Need It:

Aside from the fact that it makes good sense, if you don’t have one and you meet up with a ranger, you’ll get a fine.

How You Can Live Without It:

You shouldn’t, but there are other alternatives to buying a kit, as long as you have all the required equipment. The best part about having a kit is that you will always know where all those things are when you need them.

On The Cheap:

Once again, the outfitters have you covered. Since the laws were enacted, the safety kits are usually part of the cost for renting a canoe.

What Will Make Them All Jealous:

They have some really fancy safety equipment out there. Instead of a the basics, you can get a pump to make bailing much easier and efficient, waterproof flashlights with bright pulsating LCD bulbs for signalling, a throw bag to send rescue lines with ease, and lightweight carrying bags for easy storage. Much like everything else, it becomes a preference issue as to how fancy you want your equipment to be, versus the added weight and space.

Gear To Bring Portaging: PFD

What To Look For:

You need to find a PFD that fits properly. It should be snug, and not be able to rise above the head and should allow comfortable breathing. Once you zip, strap and/or buckle it up, you should be able to paddle unrestricted. Put it on and mock paddle, making sure you can move with ease and it doesn’t chafe or hurt. Modern jackets have a “V” shape to them, so that you don’t feel restricted and feel like your just wearing a puffy jacket.

Why You Need It:

You need a PFD – period. And wear it – always. I know, you’re a manly man and an Olympic swimmer who can still manage to portage all day, get surprised and fall out of the boat, getting knocked on the head by a rock in a strong current or rapids and still be able to swim yourself out of that situation. Well it will be easier to do in a PFD, and if you buy a bright yellow one, everyone will be able to see your great swimming skills more easily. Buy a pink one with glitters to show off your fashion sense, or a dark one and paint a skull on it to show what a rebel you are if you must. Just wear it.

How You Can Live Without It:

In the worst case, you won’t.

On The Cheap:

This is something I definitely would scrimp on, considering it can save your life. Again there’s good news though: Most canoe rentals come with a life jacket, and the outfitters will help you size one specifically for you.

What Will Make Them All Jealous:

I’m not really sure how impressive PFDs are to anyone, but you can certainly put some money into a well fitted modern lifejacket. They come with buckles or zippers or straps to match your preference, and often have pockets for convenience. This can really be an upgrade in comfort to rental.

Gear To Bring Portaging: Paddles

What To Look For:

Having a paddle is just as important as having a canoe, and there are almost as many paddle options as there are for canoes. Don’t sweat the details though, you just need a good canoe paddle that will hold up through the trip. Ideally, your paddle should be the proper size for you height. Here’s the good news: Generally, paddles come with the cost of the canoe rental, and the outfitters will help you find the right size.

Why You Need It:

Paddling with your hands, while possible and certainly more of a workout, is not as efficient – to say the least.

How You Can Live Without It:


On The Cheap:

Use the ones included in the canoe rental. Usually, they’re lightweight aluminum shafts with plastic blades and “T” shaped grips.

What Will Make Them All Jealous:

I don’t like the standard rental paddles, myself, mainly because I prefer a pear shaped or fitted grip with a longer blade, because both make longer trips much more comfortable, so even when I rent a canoe I’ll bring my own paddles. You can get some really fancy paddles, custom made and sized to your personal preference. They can be pieces of art. But just like the canoe, the most impressive are those that have clearly been used to paddle to far off regions. When it doesn’t look like they’ll make it through another trip, they make great family room art.

Gear To Bring Portaging: The Canoe

After reserving your campsite, getting your canoe will be your next most important task.

What To Look For:

If you have one, well, your done. Consider though, the right type of canoe for portaging.

Why You Need It:

Without a canoe, you’ll exhaust yourself swimming.

How You Can Live Without It:

Consider going backpacking.

On The Cheap:

If you can, borrow a canoe – as long as it’s the right kind.  Renting is usually your best next best option. For about $30-$50 per day, you can have the right canoe for tripping for two people. Generally, you pay more the lighter canoe, so if money’s an obstacle, consider trading effort for money. You could try and buy one cheap at a used, defect or seasonal sale. It seems like a good investment that will pay for itself after so many uses, but unless you know it will fit your needs, and will not end up next to the next to the dusty Bowflex, stick to renting. This will give you a chance to try out different types of canoes, and if you do wind up going on enough trips to justify buying your own, you’ll know the specific things that you’d like for your own canoe.

What Will Make Them All Jealous:

There are almost as many canoes and options for them as there are for cars. You get yourself a super light weight carbon fiber canoe with treated aluminum trim, a personally fitted yoke and fancy seats and a custom paint job, people will notice. Of course, even more impressive is a beautifully custom made cedar strip canoe, but the tradition cred and attention you’ll receive comes at the cost of a little more weight. Personally though, I’m more impressed seeing someone in an obviously well traveled canoe.