© 2020 Cliff Jacobson

United States

BOUNDARY WATERS CANOE CAMPING: GETTING STARTED!

I discovered the joys of canoe camping at the age of 12 in a rustic scout camp set deep in the Michigan woods. It was 1952, before the dawn of nylon tents and Kevlar canoes. In those days, we paddled wood-ribbed Old Town and Thompson canoes with solid ash beavertail paddles that reached to our eyes. No one had money for camping gear, so we used what we had and practiced our skills. There wasn't a first-class scout among us who couldn't start a one match fire in a driving rain, prepare a three course meal in a tin can cook-set, or rig a rain tarp so it wouldn't pool water or blow down in big winds.

I took canoe camping more seriously than my friends, and my outfit reflected it. By the time I was 16, and an Eagle Scout, I had accumulated enough then state-of-the-art gear to wage a personal expedition. It all fit neatly into a medium size GI issue haversack and consisted of:

  • One army issue wool blanket sleeping bag with cotton-poplin cover.

  • One army issue OD waterproof poncho.

  • Scout hand axe, with all steel handle and wooden side-scales, in a heavy duty leather sheath I made myself.

  • Ulster brand carbon steel boy scout knife--razor sharp, with well-oiled joints and scout insignia.

  • Five by seven foot canvas pup tent and light plastic ground cloth.

  • Primus M71 single burner gasoline stove.

  • Cookware: number 10 tin can with baling wire handle, carbon steel skillet purchased at a garage sale, and an issue scout cook-set.

  • Military flashlight--the kind with the angled head.

  • Assorted first-aid materials in a cotton sack.

These items, plus a rag-tag assortment of surplus woolens and a home-sewn cotton-poplin parka, comprised my camping kit. Spartan though it was, it served me faithfully into adulthood. Indeed, I can recall only one time when I was cold and wet.

Granted, the advantages of modern camping gear over the stuff I used as a boy are real. Pile pullovers, Goretex™ parkas, waterproof dry bags and chemical fire-starters may save the day in a rain or canoe capsize. Buy what you can afford, but keep on learning. In this sport, knowledge is more important than gear!

Case in point: some years ago, after a lengthy rain, I paddled my canoe quietly along the shore of a lake in Minnesota's popular Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Every camp I passed was without fire--the tech-weenies had all retired to folds of nylon and Qualofil™. Rounding the bend, I came upon a smiling scout troop gathered by a roaring fire that was protected by a large, cleverly rigged tarp. In the background were two ancient canvas tents. Everyone was singing and having a grand time.

If possible, make your first trip to the Boundary Waters with someone who knows the ropes. And speed the learning curve by reading every book on canoeing and camping you can find. You can "do it wrong" for years--the reason why studying the ways of experts is so important. Don't start buying gear until you have a tight grip on the parameters of the sport. A few well-planned trips and some selective reading are all it takes. Read again the contents of my boyhood kit and you'll see how inexpensively you can get by and still have a good time. If it's your first trip, should you rent equipment or bring your own? If you've done your homework (are well read), you should be able to round up most of what you need from home. A lightweight (under 50 pounds) canoe is the best way to spend your rental dollars. Just be sure the canoe comes equipped with a comfortable carrying yoke.

For purposes of discussion, let's divide what you need into two categories: the "essentials"--tents, packs, sleeping and cooking systems, and "toys"--mini-flashlights, pot lifters and the like. Toys are fun, but they seldom justify their cost. I suggest you avoid them until you've had some experience.

Here's how to get what you need and cut financial corners.

 

THE ESSENTIALS

TENT

 

It rains a lot in the Boundary Waters so you better have a tent that keeps you dry! To check the foul weather performance of a tent before you buy it, pitch the tent on level ground and examine the fit of the rainfly (the sheet of waterproof nylon which covers the canopy). The fly should--indeed must (!)--cover every seam and zipper! Exposed zippers or stitching will leak in prolonged rain no matter how well you seal them with glue (seam-sealant). It won't take you long to discover that simple A-frame tents rank best in deterring rain, while domes, umbrellas, and other geometrically sophisticated tents that have multi-seamed floors and sidewalls, rank worst.

Always use a plastic groundcloth inside your tent. The groundsheet will prevent pooled surface water which wicks through floor seams and worn floor fabric from soaking your sleeping bag. Do not place the plastic sheet under the tent as advised by some tent makers--rain water may become trapped between it and the floor and be pressure-wicked by body weight into the sleeping compartment. You'll really have a sponge party if this happens.

COOKING TARP

Scenario: It's supper time and raining heavily when you pull into camp. First order of business is to set up the tents and get out of the weather. If the rain persists you'll skip supper and munch on granola bars. A hot meal can wait till morning. Right? Dead wrong!

 

Let's re-program the scenario to read... It's supper time and raining heavily when you pull into camp. First order of business is to erect the large rain tarp and get out of the weather. Build a fire (if permitted) just beyond the open edge of the tarp, then formulate your battle plan. If you have a crew of four, two can pitch tents while one tends the fire and helps with supper. In no time, there will be soup and a cheery, protected place to share the joys of the day.

If you customize your tarp by adding extra loops and ties, as illustrated in my books, it will be easy to pitch on any terrain. Or, buy one of the excellent customized tarps manufactured by Cooke Custom Sewing. Piragis sells a lot of 'em.

STOVE

Stoves simplify food preparation, even if you camp where fires are permitted. Stoves which burn naphtha or unleaded gasoline are much more efficient than those which use propane/butane or alcohol.

Keep your stove in a rigid or padded container so it will survive the rough handling which often accompanies a canoe trip. Gasoline is best kept in aluminum fuel bottles which are available at camping shops. Most stove problems are caused by varnishes which are released by old fuel left in stoves. So empty your tank (burn it dry!) after every canoe trip. Generally speaking, Coleman fuel should be used within six months after the cans are opened. Tip: keep fuel containers full or nearly so to reduce the air supply for oxidation. Tip: some stoves don't have effective windscreens and will blow out in a storm. You can make a windscreen for any stove from thin aluminum sheet metal or heavy metal foil.

Tip: If your stove has a removeable jet or a jet that contains a cleaning needle, coat the threads of the jet with anti-sieze compound. This will reduce the possibility of the jet becoming welded to the burner threads.

COOKWARE

Two nesting pots, a Teflon™-lined skillet, plastic bowls, insulated cups and spoons are sufficient for a party of four. A tea kettle is more stable than a coffee pot and allows you to pour with one hand. Tip: the low cost porcelain glazed, steel pots which are available at every discount store, are great for canoe camping! Some have wire bails which simplify use on fires.

EDGED TOOLS

You need a knife, folding saw and hand axe. Before you discount the hand axe, consider how you'll make fire when the woods are soaked with rain and the only wood available are a few well-drenched logs which you have no way to split.

Saw the wet logs into 12 inch lengths then use this procedure to split them: Set the hand axe lightly into the end grain of an upright log section and hold the handle tightly with both hands while a friend pounds it through with a chunk of log. Since the hatchet is used for splitting, never for chopping, there is no danger of cut hands or toes. Continue splitting the dry heartwood in this manner until you have enough kindling to make the fire. My books, Canoeing & Camping, Beyond the Basics and Camping's Top Secrets, shows the procedure. By the way, have you tried one of the wonderful Gransfors® axes? They are awesome!

Knife: Cutting line, slicing meats, chopping vegetables and spreading jam and peanut butter are routine chores on canoe trips. You can get by with a standard jack knife, but you'll be happier with a medium sized sheath knife, giant folder or short fillet knife. Reach deep into the peanut butter jar with your Swiss army knife and you'll discover why you want a thin (less than one-eighth of an inch across the spine) flat-ground blade that's 4 to 5 inches long. It's easy to make a fitted, holster-style Native American sheath for your fixed blade knife, Swiss army knife or multi-tool. In a future article I'll show you how.

CLOTHING

You don't need specialized clothing for canoe camping. Wool, acrylic, polypropylene and fleece are the recommended fabrics for cool weather; cotton is fine for blazing August heat. Several thin garments, one layered over another, are warmer and more versatile than a single, heavy coat. Granted, specialized outdoor attire helps you "look the part", but for typical summer canoeing, what you already own is probably good enough.

Good raingear is important, and a two piece coated nylon suit is best. Do you need expensive Gore-tex®? Not really. You'll find sturdy rainwear at low prices in discount stores and industrial supply centers--the same place construction workers shop.

A lightweight breathable nylon windbreaker is an important garment. I wear mine as a windshirt, for extra warmth, and to deter biting insects. When rains come, I wear my raincoat over my windbreaker. Some paddlers rely on one Gore-tex® jacket for both wind and rain--a big mistake because any garment you wear all the time will soon develop holes (sparks from campfires, when you lean against a rock or tree, etc.). Save your rain coat for rain and wear a porous nylon shell for wind!

I carry three hats--one for sun, one for rain, and a warm stocking cap. Your sun hat should have a broad brim or "desert neck flap" to protect your ears and neck. Be sure to bring sunscreen, lip balm and moisturizing lotion for your hands. Some people who have sensitive hands wear gloves when they paddle.

FOOTWEAR

Sneakers (with lots of holes to let water out!) with wool socks are fine for warm water canoeing and camp use. Sandals are popular with paddlers who prefer cold, bug-bitten, stone-bruised feet. Leather boots are okay for camp but they get wet and stay that way during your trip.

On my northern Canadian trips, and for chilly spring and fall trips in the Boundary Waters, I wear Chota® Nunavut mukluks. These rubber-reinforced, knee-high neoprene boots are warm, lightweight, very flexible and surprisingly tough. If you "wet 'down" the outer surface (step in water occasionally) they're reasonably cool on hot days. I can't say enough good things about these boots!

Chota® Quetico Trekkers (worn with "Brookie" waders on cold days) are among the best portage boots I've found. Recently, I wore them on a three mile portage (nine total miles carried) on the MacFarland River in Saskatchewan. No blisters or sensitive spots. Amazing!

L.L. Bean Maine Hunting Shoes, which have leather tops and rubber bottoms, have been the traditional solution to dry feet in the Boundary Waters, and they're still a good choice. A low cost solution--and a great all round one for kids--is to combine 16 inch high Tingley® rubber overshoes with sneakers. Tingley's (about 25 bucks) are waterproof, light and compact and they stick to wet rocks almost as well as special wet shoes. Many veteran Arctic paddlers wear them on tundra rivers.

SLEEPING GEAR

What you select depends on how classy you want to travel and how much money you want to spend. At the top of the list are expensive down bags, while at the bottom are discount store "gumbo-fill" specials which are no better than paired blankets. Frankly, a set of airy acrylic blankets, sandwiched "boy scout style", makes a perfectly good summer bed.

A Thermarest® foam pad will smooth the lumps and add considerable warmth to your sleeping system. Tip: make a full length fabric cover for your sleeping pad. I make one side pure cotton, the other side, soft itch-free merino wool. The porous fabric feels good against my bare back on hot sweaty nights and it keeps the pad from sliding around as I sleep. I place the cotton side up on hot nights; wool side up when it's cold. The cover protects my sleeping mat from punctures.

PACKS AND PACKING

What you need in the way of packs depends entirely on your tripping style.

If you choose calm water routes with no portages, you can simply place everything into plastic-lined duffel bags and portage them with a tumpline. However, if you'll be paddling whitewater or will do much portaging, you'll need "dry bags" and/or genuine packsacks.

"Dry bags", like those used by western rafters, are strong and waterproof and they stow well in a canoe. But they are expensive and they don't carry very well. They can also puncture at any time, leaving you defenseless. You can build a reliable waterproofing system inside any pack (more on this later), so why pay extra for protection you don't need?

Soft packs, like the traditional ""Duluth" models manufactured since 1911 by the Duluth Tent Company in Minnesota, remain the standard for canoe tripping in the Boundary Waters and beyond. Duluth packs are roomy and strong, and they use space efficiently--four can be easily stowed upright in a typical 17 foot canoe. This upright feature means that pack contents stay dry when the canoe takes water from rain or waves. That's because the weakest part of a waterproof bag is its mouth, which is beneath the flap of the upright Duluth pack, out-of-contact with accumulated bilge water.

Generally speaking, packs with rigid frames don't fit well in a canoe. Exceptions are models with flexible internal frames (stays) which can be set upright.

This simple procedure will make any soft pack waterproof:

  1. Insert a heavy (I recommend 6 mil) plastic bag into the pack. The bag should be twice the length of the packsack to provide ample sealing space. This is the waterproof liner.

  2. Nest a sturdy fabric bag (a second 6 mil bag will do) inside the waterproof liner. This abrasion liner won't tear when you stuff gear into the pack. Note that the delicate waterproof liner is protectively sandwiched between two layers of tough material--the outside pack fabric and the inside abrasion liner. Use this "sandwich method" to protect everything you want to keep dry.

  3. For example, to waterproof your sleeping bag, first stuff it into a nylon sack, which need not be waterproof. Then place this unit inside a strong plastic bag (the waterproof liner). Twist, fold over, and secure the waterproof liner with a loop of shockcord, then set the sealed bag into a second nylon stuff sack to protect it from abrasion.

TOYS

A butane lighter, flashlight, Sierra cup for a ladle, Leatherman® or other multitool, duct tape and parachute cord, plus some first-aid items will suffice for short trips. Extended stays require a battery of supportive toys--everything from instant epoxy to leather replacement gaskets for the stove.

KEEP YOUR CAMP SCRUPULOUSLY CLEAN!

 

Hungry critters will stay away if you keep your camp scrupulously clean. Crumbs and leftovers should be swept up immediately; biodegradable wastes should be burned, packed out or buried under a thin soil cover, 150 feet from water. Don't throw garbage down Forest Service latrines--bears will destroy the latrines to get at food!

Critters won't get your food if they can't see it or smell it! Along popular canoe routes, animals have learned to identify packs and tin cans as sources of food, even though they have no odors. The solution is store these items away from camp, where animals can't see them--in the woods, along the shoreline etc. "Treeing" food packs will deter a camp bear only if you don't use the same tree as everyone else! Black bears are creatures of habit--their behavior is conditioned by past experiences. They are also excellent climbers and are adept at getting food packs out of trees. One rule that always applies is to never keep food in your tent!

It's impossible to describe all you need to have, and need to know, in an article of this length. So don't neglect your studies. Read some good books on canoeing and camping before you take to the Boundary Waters and keep abreast of new developments by reading current outdoor catalogs and canoeing magazines. After all, it makes no sense to own good gear if you don't know how to use it!

You'll find a wealth of information about canoeing the Boundary Waters in my book,  BOUNDARY WATERS CANOE CAMPING, 3rd Edition.