Testing the Waters for My Forthcoming Book
Years ago, when people actually went with me on canoe camping trips, I wrote a primer for newbies explaining what they needed to bring with them in order to survive. My instructions were widely ignored and many of them died. Most succombed to hypothermia and other natural causes. Others died as a result of ritual sacrifice.
The latter were chosen because it had become such a pain in the butt carrying extra gear, food, ice and toilet paper for them.
A few friends recently mentioned that they might want to try canoe camping. I think it’s one of those bucket list things because they said, “Spending a weekend on the river with you is the last thing in the world we’d want to do.”
In the original Canoe Trip Primer I said something to the effect that, “You know how to dress for cold weather. You know how to dress for warm weather. Pack for both.”
Apparently, that was not enough information. People were still showing up for canoe trips with nothing but shorts, sandals and T-shirts — T-shirts that should have been imprinted with an arrow pointing upward and the message “I’m With Stupid.”
In the interest of preventing more deaths from hypothermia or ritual sacrifice, here are a few free* tips for canoe trip preparation:
♦ Leave the cotton at home. Especially blue jeans. Cotton takes forever to dry. And you don’t even have to fall into the river or get caught in the rain to get it wet. Cotton will wick moisture out of the air. One exception — cotton T’s are OK for hot-weather trips.
♦ Stick with wool and synthetics. Merino wool socks and underwear aren’t scratchy like your grandpa’s wool, don’t hold odor like cotton or synthetics and keep you warm even when wet. They’re pricey, but worth the investment. Sometimes you can find lightweight merino wool sweaters at thrift stores. They can be used in lieu of long-sleeve undershirts. Nylon and other synthetics are your best bet for pants, shorts and windbreakers.
♦ Hats and, if there is any chance of cold weather, gloves. In addition to a hat to keep your head warm at night, you’ll need something lightweight to keep the sun off your noggin during the day. Work gloves come in handy (pun intended) for cooking and keep your hands warm in cooler weather.
♦ Rain gear. Trash bags and duct tape are the way to go if you want to be the entertainment. Back in the day, ponchos were popular. But they only keep you dry if you’re standing around with your arms down at your sides. Any activity that requires you to raise your arms, such a paddling a canoe, will send rivulets of cold rainwater directly to your armpits and down your side. Rain suits made of breathable material work best. A vinyl rain suit will make you sweat so much you might as well be standing neck-deep in the river.
♦ No canoe trip wardrobe is complete without proper footwear. Sorry, Crocs and gym shoes won’t get it. While on the water, you’ll need water shoes or good sturdy sandals with adequate toe protection and tread. In colder weather you’ll need boots for wading while getting into and out of your canoe. Your garden variety Wellingtons work fine. The authors of one book on wilderness canoeing recommended canvas high-top gym shoes for wearing around camp. Bad advice. Tread designed for gym floors will land you on your butt on muddy or moss-covered terrain. And, once wet, canvas won’t dry for weeks. I recommend waterproof or water-resistant boots.
♦ Shelter. Cheap tents leak, but that’s all most of us can afford. However, they will keep you dry in a light rain and reasonably dry in moderate rain. Supplement by stringing a small tarp above the tent.
♦ There are two schools of thought when it comes to sleeping gear. You can bring a good ground pad (preferably self-inflating) and a sleeping bag — or you can get so drunk that discomfort isn’t an issue and just pass out on the ground. Pillows are bulky and might get wet, but that’s one luxury I allow myself.
♦ By the same token, there are two schools of thought when it comes to ice. You can use blocks, which will keep for up to a week in an extreme cooler. Or you can use cubes, which might last a day. Of all the advice I’ve ever given, this has been the most-widely ignored. I don’t know how many canoe trips have been spoiled by having to stop along the river each day and wait while people hike to town for bags of ice.
♦ Bring more than enough food, but don’t go overboard. Like Joe, who brings economy-size packs (the size of the U.S. economy) of pork chops and other animal parts. Decide ahead of time whether different people in the group will be responsible for different meals or whether it will be each man for himself.
♦ Radios. My policy has always been that it’s OK to bring a radio as long as I get to test it first to see whether it’s submersible.
♦ Water. Man cannot live on beer alone. Believe me, I’ve tried.
♦ Toilet paper. The alternative “leaves” to be desired.
♦ Sun screen, hand sanitizer and bug dope. Or go with people who drink a lot so the mosquitoes get drunk and pass out after biting them.
♦ To carry all this, you’ll need waterproof bags, which is a misnomer. Even the manufacturers advise that any bag can leak, especially when submersed. Back in the day, we used double garbage bags tied with twine. That worked to a point — generally the point of a stray twig or disgruntled camp mate creating a pinhole in the bag. Back then, real river bags were expensive, around $50. These days you can buy one for, well, $50. Or you can “supersize” for upwards of $100, but you might need a towmotor to carry it. Being old and decrepit, I prefer to go with several smaller bags, which sell for around $20 apiece. It’s easier on the back. I pack my tent in one, sleeping bag and ground pad in another, clothes in a third bag and bowling ball in a fourth bag.
♦ To keep all this in your canoe, you’ll need tie-downs. Old school purists swear by ropes and fancy knots. This is time-consuming compared to cam buckle straps. Besides, ropes require more maintenance and, in cold weather, it’s nearly impossible to untie a frozen knot. For my money, NRS offers the most reliable tie-down straps on the market. They range in lengths from one foot to 20 feet. Nine-foot lengths seem to be the most useful for securing bags and coolers in a canoe. I also like having a few one-footers for small items, such as binoculars, camera and day bag. I would avoid using ratcheting straps for two reasons: The excess weight of the ratcheting mechanism and they can be overtightened and tweak your thwarts or gunwales (canoe jargon for crossbars and rails.)
♦ You also might want to bring a canoe.
* Most free advice is nearly worth it. However, if you want more advice on canoe camping from me, it will cost you. Now that I’m retired, I’ve started working on a book on the fundamentals of canoeing, camping and enjoying life in spite of the misery associated with those pursuits.