There is no greater sense of anticipation than when you get to the drop-off point, the van pulls away, and it’s just you, your crew, your gear, and the water. The entirety of the trail awaits. It may turn out to be buggy or rainy. Or maybe it ends up incredibly hot, sunny, and dry. Every canoe trip is different, and each one is an incredible adventure in its own right regardless of the conditions you encounter. What’s important, though, is that you prepare as best as you can. Training and more specific information will be given at camp, but what you can do now is make sure you have the right gear for your trip. Each of you going on a Canadian canoe trip will get a gear list with the essential and additional items you should bring with you to camp. The information here is meant to accompany that list and help you narrow your choices for the essential gear.
A few words about this guide: the examples posted below are not specific items that you have to get—they are just suggestions of what would be appropriate and are meant to give ideas of what to look for. The gear below is mostly brand name, but that’s not to say that they are the only options. There are plenty of store-name brands that provide equipment that is just as good if not occasionally better. The major-name brand items should be considered guidelines for when you go to your local outdoor retailer and should provide some recommendations for shopping on your own.
With the exception of rain gear, there’s no personal gear more important than your sleeping bag. Physically, it keeps you comfortable at night. But psychologically, it’s the safe haven that’s waiting for you at the end of each and every day. Having a good sleeping bag is as good for the mind as it is for the body, so take care in making your selection.
Most sleeping bags will come with a temperature rating ranging generally from -40°F to 40°F. The temperature indicates the lowest air temperature or a temperature range that the average person could comfortably sleep while sleeping on an insulated pad and wearing a light layer and a hat. Because all of our trips take place in the summer, you can eliminate any ‘winter’ sleeping bags from consideration. My general rule of thumb is this (and requires a little research). Find the average low temperature for the location you’re going to for the time of year that you’ll be there, then subtract 10 to 20 degrees off that (if you prefer to be cooler when you sleep, closer to 10; warmer, closer to 20).
There’s two choices when it comes to insulation: down or synthetic. Each has its pros and cons.
– It’s the best insulating substance around comparable to its weight.
– It packs up extremely small, smaller than any synthetic insulation that’s been developed.
– If it gets wet, it loses a lot of its insulating power. And when it does get wet, down can take a long time to dry out.
– Down is more expensive, but it does last a long time.
– Synthetics are specifically designed to provide excellent insulation when wet and are designed to dry much quicker.
– They are also more budget-friendly and are easier to maintain (most are machine washable).
– Synthetic material will break down over time regardless of how well you maintain the product, so you may find yourself replacing products with synthetic insulation more frequently.
– Synthetics don’t pack down quite as small as down.
When weighing the two options, follow your personal preference and your own knowledge about how you trip. If you know you want a packable, long-lasting sleeping bag and are conscious of keeping your personal gear dry, choose down. If you want a sleeping bag that can handle getting wet and you know that you might not go on many trips aside from what you do at camp, a synthetic may be a more budget friendly option.
There are a variety of styles of sleeping bags to choose from, but the two most common are the traditional rectangular shape and the ‘mummy’. The ‘mummy’ style is so named because the foot end of the sleeping bag tapers in toward the legs. In general, the rectangular bags are bigger both when packed and when laid out. And because they are bigger, they’re less efficient for insulating purposes. For camp, I recommend a mummy style. The only reason I would go with a rectangular shape is if you cannot find a reasonable mummy-style sleeping bag or if you are adamant about a larger bag.
Sleeping bags come generally in two sizes as well: regular or long. If you’re on the taller side (anything over about 6’1” or 6’2”), consider a long sleeping bag. If you get the chance at the store, try it out.
Another note on style. Check out the zipper. Check what side it’s on if you have a preference. Check that the inside of the zipper is covered so that it won’t bother you when you’re sleeping. And check the general quality. You don’t want a broken zipper on the trail.
Marmot Trestles 30 – 33 degree lowest rating, synthetic insulation, $99-$119 at REI
TNF Furnace 35 – 35 degree lowest rating, down insulation, $169-$179 at REI
Kelty Mistral 40 – 40 degree lowest rating, synthetic insulation, $65.99-$85.99 at Campmor
Sleeping pads are in some regards just as important as the sleeping bags. Sleeping without a pad isn’t just taking a chance at being uncomfortable; if you don’t use a sleeping pad, you will also lose a lot of crucial body heat to the ground. I made the choice on one trip to not bring a pad, and in the end I (and my back!) regretted that decision. When it comes to buying a pad, there is really just one type you should consider: self-inflating packable pads. Foam pads are durable but don’t pack well. Inflatable pads (that you manually inflate) tend to be bulky and break easily. Cots are simply too big and heavy.
This still leaves a few options to choose from, and you can’t really go wrong with any of them. Look for pads designed for backpacking. Look for brands like Therm-a-rest, Big Agnes, and any outdoor store brands (REI, Gander Mountain, etc.). Choose a length (full length, ¾ length, etc.) and a shape (rectangular, mummy, etc.) that meets your needs.
Thermarest ProLite – $79.95-$105.95 at REI
REI Trekker – $70-$80 at REI
When it comes to the rain gear you have on the trail, the choice you make will directly affect your health and safety. Good, high quality rain gear is essential. It is your first line of defense against the elements, and the quality of your gear can make or break your trip. This includes not only the coat but the pants as well. You must have both.
There are literally thousands of different products you could buy that could be considered ‘rain gear’, so let me start out by telling you what you don’t want to buy. DON’T BUY: ponchos, gear made out of PVC, insulated rain gear (winter or cold weather soft or hard shells), gear labeled ‘water resistant’ (instead of waterproof), and windbreakers. These will not be sufficient for the trail, you will get wet, and your health and safety could be put at risk.
I cannot stress this enough: good, high quality rain gear is essential. And while nothing beats the convenience of shopping at home, I recommend you get to an outdoors store to do your shopping for this. It’s a good idea to touch and try on the jacket to make sure it fits, and it helps having a knowledgeable salesperson with you to answer your questions about the gear (places like REI, Cabela’s, and Gander Mountain have great sales reps that can answer these questions for you).
When you look for rain gear, start with the materials it’s made from. It must be a waterproof material, but it must also be breathable. Getting wet from sweat is just as bad as getting wet from rain, so whatever suit you choose must be able to manage both. The first truly waterproof material was Gore-Tex™, and it continues to be the premier waterproof textile. What sets it apart is that it is made of extremely thin layers of different materials that each provide a protective layer against either abrasions, moisture, or heat loss. Several different varieties of Gore-Tex™ now exist, differentiated mostly by how many layers are used in the fabric. Gore-Tex™ can be expensive, though, so you may want to consider alternatives like H2NO™ (by Patagonia), NeoShell™ (by Polartec), and Hyvent (by North Face). These alternatives have been criticized for not being quite as breathable as Gore-Tex™, but they have been proven to be just as waterproof.
Next, look at the construction, including the zippers, seams, pull cords, hood, and length. Rain gear needs to be fully waterproof. Zippers and seams are weak parts of the gear that could allow water through. Check the zippers not only on the front but also the pockets and any vents under the arms or on the sides. Check the seams by looking on the inside of the jacket. Most manufacturers use seam sealing tape which should be clearly seen. If it isn’t, ask your salesperson how the seams are waterproofed. The pull cords should cinch in tight to keep water out of the bottom, and the sleeves should have elastic or Velcro to keep to sleeves tight at the wrist. The hood should be convenient to access, fit not too loose or too snug, and allow for decent range of motion of your head. Also be sure to check the length and width. It shouldn’t be too narrow. You may be wearing layers and even a PFD underneath the rain coat. At the same time, don’t choose a jacket that is too bulky or big to move around in comfortably. Finally, the length of the jacket and pants should be long enough to cover you in whatever position you are in. Try on the gear and do the ‘crouch test’. Crouch down low. If the lower back shows, the coat isn’t long enough. If the ankles are exposed, the pants aren’t long enough.
Once you determine that the fabric and the construction are suitable, then it comes down to your personal preferences—color, brand preference, general look and feel, etc. Try on many different suits, and find the one that you like. You can mix and match jackets and pants, too, to find exactly what you’re looking for. Again, avoid insulation. It can rain when it’s 80 degrees out, and you don’t want to be stuck wearing an insulated winter coat. And while we’re speaking of heat and construction, check for any vents under the arms or on the back. A coat with these will be better accustomed to handle rain in warm weather and will keep you from getting too sweaty.
Again, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of different products out there, so take these suggestions as just starting points. The price range is very wide, so consider not only the quality of the product, but how often and what situations you will be using them in. In general, the higher the price, the better the gear; the lower the price, not necessarily the better the bargain.
Columbia Watertight II – $50 at Campmor
Marmot Spectra – $119.93 at REI
Mountain Hardware Ampato – $174.93 at REI
TNF Dryzzle – $199 at REI
Marmot Precip Pants – $100 at REI
REI Crestrail Pants – $89.50 at REI
It’s true: over 90% of the mileage we cover on canoe trips is on the water, and it’s your upper body that does the majority of the work. However, those times when you are moving on the ground require excellent footwear. For our trips, that means boots, and for a few good reasons: (1) boots are structurally stronger than shoes and offer better ankle support; (2) boots generally have better traction on wet rock, through mud, and up and down steep inclines; and (3) with the right pair and when used correctly, boots keep your feet comfortable, dry, and healthy and keep you moving on the trail.
In many ways, the same rules that apply to rain gear also apply to boots. When looking at boots, start by looking for the ones that are waterproof. There will be plenty of times where you may need to step into the water or walk through mud or marsh. Check that waterproofing by asking questions: is it just the base, or are the tongue and ankle also waterproofed? What kind of material do they use to waterproof the boot? Then weed out any “boots” that aren’t any taller than a normal tennis shoe. A good boot should cover the ankle and offer support.
With those criteria in mind, start looking for the right boot for you. There are countless brands that offer a wealth of shapes, sizes, colors, etc. Find the waterproof, well-constructed pair that you like and go with it.
NB: These boots are what we would call your ‘trail shoes’. These are what you will put on every day when you pack up the campsite and hit the water. When you are in a campsite, you will have another more comfortable pair of shoes, such as Tevas or Keen sandals, Converse (a favorite of Joe Milligan’s), or any old pair of tennis shoes you may have. Unless you are truly adamant about it, there’s no reason to buy anything new to be your ‘campsite shoes’.
I’m going to bundle all of the rest of the apparel into this category. Rather than specific items I’d recommend, there just are few general principles you should know and understand when shopping for trail clothes:
1) Dress in layers. As the day goes on, the air temperature and how hard you’re working can change tremendously. Sweat, just like rain, is moisture, and moisture is the enemy. Base layers should be little to lightly insulating and should be a wicking fabric. Mid-layers are for cooler weather so should offer a bit more insulation.
2) Choose fabrics well. Cotton is a big no-no for trial clothes. If it gets wet, it provides no protective layering and takes a long time to dry. Same with canvas and some polyesters. Instead, choose synthetics that tout “wicking” or “quick-drying.” You can also go with wool, which still insulates even when it gets wet. If you want something even more performance, some companies offer clothing made from fabric that repel insects or offer additional sun protection.
3) Pack smart. The trips that we take are not as demanding space-wise as say a hiking trip (where every single ounce of weight and each cubic inch matters), but packing space on our trips aren’t limitless either. Try to find clothing that packs up well. A warm, packable fleece is far better than a big bulky sweatshirt (and will be warmer).
Every trip is an adventure, and every adventure will be different. There’s no telling what you’ll encounter on the trail, and we can only wait to hear the stories you bring back. So start shopping, start preparing, and get excited. Your canoe trip awaits!
Sutton Stewart is a long-time counselor at Camp Chippewa and has spent 16 summers at camp. Over his time at Chippewa, he has been on a dozen canoe trips through Ontario and Manitoba and has led numerous other trips throughout northern Minnesota. He also spent a few years working in outdoor retail and grew up camping in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota. You can contact Sutton at this email: email@example.com.