top of page
  • Writer's pictureCliff Jacobson


Updated: Jan 27, 2021

Boundary Waters Canoe Area. These canoes were on land but not tied up. A big wind blew them into the water and over a falls. They were all rentals.


We've all observed unskilled campers and paddlers do dumb and/or dangerous things. Admittedly, what is dumb and/or dangerous, is largely a matter of perspective. For example: canoeing procedures that work on calm lakes and easy streams can get you into big trouble on a wild river where rapids and portages aren't marked and help is days away. Capsize 100 yards from shore in the Boundary Waters in mid-July and you'll probably be fine as long as you're wearing a life jacket. Do it on a northern lake (water temperature 40 degrees), and you may die! So before you roll your eyes at some of the things listed below, please think "perspective, perspective, perspective!" 1. STARTING A CAMPFIRE WITH A PROPANE STOVE It was nearly dark and drizzling (icy rain) on Ontario's Steel River when I saw two canoes (two men and two pre-teen children) cruising our way. I hailed them, shouting "Don't go any farther; long rapids start around the bend. Best camp here with us. The men gratefully accepted our offer. The kids were wet and shivering so we waived them up to our protective tarp and cheery campfire. The men pitched their tents then began to build a fire. I offered to bring over some dry, split wood plus some burning wood as starters. They smiled politely and said "no thanks." I watched as they worked: They piled up a bunch of wrist-thick logs, teepee style--just logs, no tinder or kindling. Then, they removed the propane tank from their trail stove and connected a blow-torch nozzle. They lit the torch and set it under the logs. A few minutes later, when the logs were on fire, they removed the torch. Yes, they got a fire going real fast. But if that butane tank had over-heated, I think we would have had a bomb!

2. USING A BENT-SHAFT CANOE PADDLE BACKWARDS Just about every canoeist has seen someone using a bent-shaft paddle backwards. When cheerfully "educated," most just smile and say thanks. But a significant number become indignant and reply, "I tried it that way, but I prefer it this way!" Well, it's a sport and everyone can do what they please. Using a bent blade backwards isn't dangerous, but it sure is dumb. Many years ago, on the road to California, I stopped to get a state map at a rest area in Montana. There was a photo of a canoe with two paddlers on the cover of the map. I showed it to my wife, Susie who then burst out laughing. The paddlers were using their bent paddles backwards! And this was on the cover of a state highway map!

3. OVERLOADING YOUR CANOE. No comment. This is dumb AND dangerous!

4. TYING STUFF ON THE DECK OF A KAYAK Kayaks were not designed to carry external loads. A rough water capsize can be problematic at best, deadly at worst. Flash back thirty years. My friend Martha Showeiler was leading a kayak trip on Lake Superior for her local college. One man had a folded lawn chair tied to the back deck of his kayak. A large wave capsized the boat; the chair remained partially attached which prevented a wet re-entry. Fortunately, Martha was nearby. She cut loose the chair and the man safely re-entered. Lake Superior is bitterly cold and they were quite far from shore. Without help, the man probably wouldn't have survived that capsize.

5. KNOWING JUST ONE KNOT Most people know just one knot--the "overhand Granny.". Tie it tight and you'll cuss to get it out. Many campers just give up and cut the cords, then they leave them hanging from trees at campsites. The right knot can save the day. At worst, it will smooth the way. Wilderness travelers should know at least these three knots: Two half-hitches, Sheetbend, Trucker's hitch. Plus, quick-release slippery loops for all. 6. WEARING DARK BLUE CLOTHES IN BUG COUNTRY Bugs are largely attracted to dark colors. Navy blue and black are the worst. Light colors, including "powder blue" are largely neutral. Ironically, navy blue is the top selling color for outdoor clothing.

7. CELL PHONE OR GPS MAP--NO PAPER MAP My friend, Larry Rice, once joined a group that canoed Canada's South Nahanni River from its source at the Moose Ponds to the Liard River, a journey of about 350 miles. The Trip leader told everyone that to "save weight and bulk" they should leave their maps and GPS units at home. He said he had the South Nahanni topo map downloaded into his unit, and that's all they would need. My wiser friend naturally brought his maps and GPS. At the end of each day, Larry spread out the big map on the ground and everyone crowded around it to see the day's route and what lay ahead--impossible on the leader's GPS. Frankly, I can't think of anything more stupid than canoeing a remote river on the strength of a GPS alone. This "leader" has a lot to learn!

8. PORTAGING WITH A PACK ON YOUR BACK AND ANOTHER ON YOUR CHEST. A chest pack obscures your view of your feet and the near trail ahead--a recipe for a fall. I've seen it happen several times; once, the result was a broken toe; another time, a sprained wrist. It has been a long-standing rule on my canoe trips that "chest packs are not allowed!" The safe way to double-pack is with a tumpline!

Falls follow if you can't see your feet!


This rule rings large for every experienced paddler. But most people (indeed nearly all BWCA paddlers) don't get it. They will, when a big wind comes up and turns their untethered, beached canoe into a kite in the black of night. See photo at the start of this blog!


When I was a forester in Coos Bay, Oregon many decades ago, we were taught to be wary of dead leaning trees which, in high winds, could come crashing down on us. We called them "widow-makers." Today's trend in managed wilderness areas is to leave things as natural as possible, so "leaners" are often left to fall on their own. Best look around before you pitch your tent. If a spot looks unsafe, it probably is. Pitching tents and tarps close to a campfire may spark holes in your stuff... and you!


Most people bring tent stakes that are identical--the ones that came with their tent. These are usually short (too short!) aluminum rods or "U-pound 'em" tri-corner metal or plastic stakes. They work fine for most sites. But trek to the wilds where campsites are "unimproved" and you may camp on sand one night, rock the next; then gravel, shallow soil, deep soil or swamp. Best bring a variety of stakes for the changing ground you may encounter. And always bring more stakes than your tent needs so you can rig extra storm lines when a wind blows up.

L to R: 12-inch long aluminum arrow-shaft stakes (soft ground, sand, swamp, gravel); U-staple (soft ground--double the hold of a single stake); twisted skewer (very soft ground); rock stake (rocks/BWCA), tri-corner stake (very hard ground--U pound 'em).


Many years ago, Clayton Klein, co-author of "One Incredible Journey" (Verlen Kruger's 7,000 mile canoe trip to the Bering Sea) canoed an Arctic river with his son. The two had done a lot of canoeing in Michigan and thought they were ready for a far northern river. They weren't! They brought lightweight cotton clothing, cotton hoodies, and a cheap tent that they purchased at their local hardware store. The pair shivered in their hoodies and their tent blew down and broke poles in the first big wind. They became so miserable that they left a note in a cairn promising God that if they survived, they would never canoe a tundra river again.

A few years later, they had second thoughts and planned another Arctic trip. They returned their damaged tent to the hardware store (the owner said the poles were defective) and got a new, identical one. It, like the first, broke in the first big wind! In time, they learned the ropes--not by doing--but by studying the ways of more competent wilderness travelers.

Experience breeds competence only if you "do things right." And unless you study the ways of experts (apprentice, books, videos, seminars, outdoor clubs etc.) you may just reinforce mistakes. Witness the many paddlers who have canoed the BWCA for decades and still don't know what they're doing!

Some years ago, a man at Canoecopia asked me a question. When I answered, he smirked and asked: "Cliff, what was your longest canoe trip?" "Thirty-one days," I replied. "Well, he huffed; I've been out 42 so I know more than you!"


*My flagship book, CANOEING WILD RIVERS, 5th Edition, contains a wealth of advice on "how to safely canoe difficult rivers."

*My teen book, "JUSTIN CODY'S RACE TO SURVIVAL" mixes a fictional wilderness survival tale with practical outdoor tips everyone should know--a first for books of this type. Adults love it too!

My 90 minute video, THE FORGOTTEN SKILLS details the most important camping skills. If you can do them all you'll be a hero to your friends!

12 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page