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Gear for Ultralight Canoe Camping

Many people have the image of a heavily loaded canoe, where a paddler/camper can bring everything. Others think of floating down streams, often exchanging long serene glides over flat water, with moments of terror as rocks, eddies and small flumes throw the canoe wildly off course. Still others think of paddling to a small island and setting up a base camp for paddling around a larger lake, unencumbered by gear and lazily fishing for anything that cares to bite. And there are those that think of traveling across waterways, down rivers and up streams, constantly moving from one camp to another.

canoe camping

A 12’ custom canoe with a 250# capacity is all that is needed for most paddling. A longer 9’ double-paddle is used. The rest of the camp gear is behind the paddler under the hump. The spray decks keep water out of the boat. Note the raised area just before the cockpit. It directs water away from the paddler. The low profile and center seating keeps the winds from causing bad directional problems.

These are all parts of canoe camping. It is an outdoors experience different from hiking. It is basically using the same ultralight camping gear as used for hiking, with the addition of a couple small dry-bags and compression/dry bag. Yet, the pack and gear has changed little.

My basic ultralight pack is one purchased from Gossamer Gear, the MiniPosa…it is the same one used for a lot of my hiking. An old tarp that was cut down a few years ago making it lighter, though it wasn’t ever heavy in its original 18oz form…it’s the same one I use for hiking. The pad is a bit of a luxury at 13oz,and, is the same one I use for hiking longer trails. The 800FP down bag keeps me warm at 32F and weighs 1pound, 11oz. Using an old SVEA 123r, it is possible to cook meals, and sometimes on cold mornings, warm my shelter. Again, this is all the same gear I use for hiking, it is all ultralight gear…well, ‘cept maybe for the old SVEA.

Canoe camping has grown in popularity over the past 15 years. There are more people on the waterways and is probably due to the increasing age of the population generally and other factors: lighter weight/easier handling of boats(in and out of the water,) less large and bulky gear needed to be carried (UL has gone more mainstream,) and the decreased cost of “plastic” boats($300-400 kayaks.) For older people and younger children, canoe camping means a possibility of high mileage days in relative comfort; of still being able to enjoy wild scenery; of the low possibility of being overtired at the end of a day. Older folks can avoid the pain of blisters, aching knees and/or other injuries often associated with hiking long distances. For people with foot problems canoe camping offers a solution for getting out, sometimes the only solution.


Be sure to check out part 2 of this article!

15 Responses to Gear for Ultralight Canoe Camping

  1. Martin Rye March 27, 2014 at 3:28 pm #

    A detailed read Jim and one insightful post. Packrafts are all the rage, but that canoe has grace and a sense to me of the old way, proven, and enjoyable. I’m sure packrafts are too. But who am I to judge. If I was looking at light style canoe travel, this post is a excellent starting point.

  2. Herb Ellis March 28, 2014 at 6:09 am #

    Did you build your canoe from plans? What’s her beam and depth at bow and midpoint? At 20l lbs. she is lighter than my kayak!

  3. Paul March 28, 2014 at 2:38 pm #

    Excellent read and many good ideas I think. I am a classic canoe tripper but the portages seem to be getting longer and the load heavier as I approach 70. Anything that lights the load is welcome; except getting rid of my Svea.

    • Editor March 28, 2014 at 3:53 pm #

      You and Jim would get along (svea nerds).

  4. Marco March 28, 2014 at 6:52 pm #

    Thanks Guys!
    Herb, I sent the specs via email. Yes, it is a home built cedar strip canoe. I used 3.2oz aircraft grade fiberglass on the hull, two layers on the bottom with 1/8″ nylon rope as skid plates. Everything was clear, selected cedar. I think that was the tenth or eleventh one I built, I lost track.
    Paul, yeah, been there. The most concession I give to weight these days is a couple of UL stools at about 14oz when the wife goes. I think they are in the pic of the tarp set up as a lean-to. When she is with me I have to carry the 40 pound Minnesota II (18-1/2′.) Last time was 6 miles or so.
    Philip, By now you should know that only the most reliable, maintenance free pieces of gear go with me 😉 I finally had to replace the valve after close to 40 years of use. It still worked, but it was taking a rather large amount of pressure to turn it off the last couple years. I changed the jet, too. I believe there was a piece of sand in it from about 20 years ago; the needle just sort of made a new jet, but it was slightly off center.

    • Greg Makuch December 3, 2015 at 7:35 am #

      I’d love to get the plans as well. Thanks!

  5. Jonathon March 29, 2014 at 11:37 pm #

    I’ve been looking into purchasing a kayak to do some camping along the shores of the Great Lakes, but I’m having trouble determining what I should look for in a boat and I don’t trust an outfitter to not oversell me. Are there any books about kayaks & canoes that you could recommend that might help me out?

    • Marco March 30, 2014 at 5:31 am #

      Jonathon, There are literally hundreds of books on small boats. Mostly, I read builders guides, so no, I cannot say there is any one book I can recommend for purchasing Great Lakes kayaks.

      From a UL perspective, kayaks tend to be heavier than canoes of the same length because of the enclosing over deck. For example the Perception Essence 17.0 Airalite weighs about 50 pounds with no skids or accessories. Depending on your experience with small craft, kayaks for lakes are usually about 23-27″ wide, about 17′-18′ long. They have some sort of skeg and/or rudder. They tend to be less stable than canoes, but there are many that are quite a bit wider (and more stable,) especially in the shorter lengths. They also tend to greater seaworthiness. Of rather special concern with the largest lakes is storm worthiness and wave resistance. My little UL canoe would not fare well in the great lakes, except on ideal days, and I would modify it accordingly. I would suggest you try a couple at some local dealer. Often you can rent one for a day. Evaluate at least 4 different boats and see what will suite. Pay special attention to sitting comfort. Cockpits can be too large or too small and is often ignored.

  6. andy December 3, 2015 at 4:37 am #

    Orukayak makes an excellent folding kayak weighing 25 pounds for $1100 and a touring kayak 30 pounds for $1500.

  7. Jon (Gandalf) December 3, 2015 at 10:26 am #

    Great read Jim.

  8. James Schifferns December 3, 2015 at 11:46 am #

    Mine is a Pygmy Arctic Tern, 17′ and weighs 39 pounds. No skeg, no rudder – doesn’t need either. She is ocean worthy all though I’ve never tried it in anything but calm seas.

  9. Marco December 3, 2015 at 3:39 pm #

    Well, UL is UL. I based the base design what I need to do. There really aren’t any plans. I sort of made them up as I went. I have built 5 so far as take-offs of the original (Nimbleweed was the name.) I varied the depth of the hull a bit and made it slightly wider at the waterline. The bottom seating really adds a LOT of stability. Originally it was fairly flat across the top with “racing” stems and no rocker. No rocker was used so it tends to hold a straight line very well. I used 3/16 strips (before sanding and fairing.)

    I modified this to about an inch deeper (was 9.5″, now 10.5″) with “standard stems, increasing the length to have about the same waterline length at about 13’6″ and a 12’8″ waterline length. The overall width was about 28 on the first one which I changed to 26.5″ in the rest I also used 1/8″ strips for the hull. Four of the five use the same stem template. As a symmetrical boat, it has a fairly low cruising speed (around 4-5 knots) but is very efficient (about 4.5-5.5 pounds of pressure to hold that speed in a dead calm.) It rapidly loads up at about 6.5 knots and needs a good 15-20 pounds of paddle pressure, so, they are more of a long distance cruiser.

    Anyway, the 13’6″ boats are also have about 1″ of rocker. This is fairly even across the bottom of the stems (about 12″ in) across the whole bottom. This decreased some straight line tracking but improved overall maneuverability despite being a longer boat. A full seat was added, roughly at about 10″-11″ behind center and about 3/4” high. My legs get sore after 5-6 hours in the first Nimbleweed. The seat fixed that.

    Extremely light, the last one I built was about 16.8 pounds, including floor kicks, seat, and nylon skirt and a paddle. With a 20 pound pack behind me, the whole outfit goes about 37 pounds for a week out.

  10. Kevin December 3, 2015 at 8:16 pm #

    Very good article. I canoe trip in the BWCA and Quetico – usually with friends or family and so only go ultralight when I solo.
    You mention a weight of 2 – 5 lbs for water. Why do you carry water? With all that water under my canoe, I never carry any. I just filter and treat as I go, and get more when I set up camp.

  11. Marco December 4, 2015 at 2:37 pm #

    Kevin, Mostly I head into the Adirondacks in NY for my hiking/canoeing trips. Generally, there are portages between the lakes and streams I follow. I usually carry two bottles when I pack up in the morning (something more than 2 pints or a a full Liter.) This weighs in at a little more than 2 pounds. I use this for drinking in the boat rather than playing around with pumps, hoses or battery operated devices (a Steripen should not be immersed in water.) Some of the portages are a matter of yards, some can be 12-15 miles. So, I also carry a 2.5L Platy (usually empty) for at camp at night and also use it to carry my drinking water on longer trails. I do a lot more hiking than canoeing so the empty bottles are always in my pack.

    For example: I do the St. Regis canoe area in NY one or twice per year. Once I get on St. Regis Pond, I have hiked over to one of the peaks to spend the night (St. Regis Mountain has a fore tower on it.) There are three or four hills up in that area to climb…some really don’t have trails. So, I have my bottles with me. If I were to just stay on the water, I could likely do away with them. So, your point is well taken.

    All together, for water, it comes up to about 2 pounds usually, but up to 5 pounds for longer carries, and up to 7 pounds for a full day of hiking on the 10-12 mile portages with my boat.

  12. Marco December 4, 2015 at 2:40 pm #

    BTW; I have been meaning to get up on the Boundary Waters with one of my boats.

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