Your Essential Gear Handy
by Steve Volkening
Most well-prepared paddlers to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area
Wilderness or Quetico
Provincial Park are probably familiar with some version of the Ten
Essentials List. This is the basic ''Don't Leave Home Without It''
survival gear necessary for any canoeing or backpacking trip. This
important equipment is usually brought along, but is often not readily
accessible. It may be buried in the bottom of one's large canoe pack or
split up among the packs of several other members of the group.
Whenever I am in the Canoe Country, whether as part of a group or
just away from base camp on a solo day trip, I like to be prepared and
self-sufficient. I keep a handy supply of basic emergency gear in a
separate thwart or dry bag. That way, in case I get separated from the
group or I am out alone on a day trip with my large pack safely back in
camp, I have what I need. It weighs only a pound or two and takes up
nearly no room. It is securely attached to a thwart or seat, so it is no
bother during portages. It is not often that one encounters a situation
when these things are desperately needed, but if they are, you will be
glad you had them within easy reach.
It doesn't really matter what type of bag you use as long as it is
waterproof and can be securely attached to your canoe. Either a
specially-made thwart bag or a dry bag work well.
Both Cooke Custom-Sewing (www.CookeCustomSewing.com) or Duluth Pack (www.duluthpack.com)
make great thwart bags. As the name implies, they attach to the canoe's
thwart by leather straps or nylon webbing and buckles. Each has a clear
map pocket and are just big enough to store your essential gear. They
also conveniently keep your things out of the bilge water on the floor
of the boat. Duluth Pack even makes a bow bag for the paddler in the
front. It attaches to the front lift handle.
Dry bags, sometimes called river bags in the larger sizes, have been
used for years by rafters and white water canoeists. They come in a wide
range of sizes, are usually made of PVC, and have a watertight, roll
down closure. Most have a D-ring on the handle, so you can clip it to
the thwart or seat with a carabiner or bungee cord. Mine has a clear
vinyl side so I can quickly locate items inside it. Some are completely
transparent. L.L. Bean
and Seal Line (available through the Campmor catalog at www.campmor.com)
make good quality dry bags.
Editor's Note: I like to carry a small day pack; about the size
of a book bag. Inside I use a River Bag to keep everything nice and dry.
And I then have room to stow clothing items I shed during the day and to
stash interesting pieces of driftwood, antlers, or stones that I like to
- Fire Starting Material - I never venture into the wilderness
without a small zip lock baggie containing waterproof matches and
some form of fire starter. A number of commercial fire sticks or
pastes work well to start a fire even in wet conditions. I use
cotton balls saturated in petroleum jelly. 20-25 can be crammed into
a 35 mm film canister. They never fail to start even the soggiest
- Space Blanket/Emergency Survival Blanket - It weights only 4-6
ounces and keeps out the wind and rain. Some can reflect back up to
80% of one's radiant body heat. In a pinch, it can be used as a rain
fly or emergency shelter.
Flashlight or Lightweight
Headlamp - No one plans to be caught out away from camp in the
dark, but it sometimes happens. Having a light can help you find
your way back or at least come in handy when setting up a temporary
- Water Supply - In the Boundary Waters, you are surrounded by
water. Still, I always carry a 32-ounce Nalgene bottle
of treated water and a supply of iodine tablets. Paddling and
portaging can be thirsty work, and you need to stay hydrated.
- Map and Compass - It is sometimes
said that you don't really get lost in the Boundary Waters, just
temporarily uncertain of your exact location. Carrying a map and
compass, and being able to use them, are a necessity. The clear
vinyl map pocket on a thwart bag keeps it handy. I also throw in
several index cards and a short pencil for making notes about the
route, to sketch pictographs, or add to the list of wildlife I
observe. High-tech paddlers are increasingly bringing GPS units, but
a map is still necessary.
Editor's Note: If you like to strike off on your own, like Steve
does, you should always have your own map and make sure the other
members of your group know the general direction you are heading in.
- Food - Paddling burns up a lot of calories. It's a good idea to
bring along some sort of lightweight and nonperishable food. What
you bring is a matter of personal preference, as long as it is high
in energy. I usually bring 2 or 3 Power Bars and a bag of dried
fruit or gorp.
- Mini First Aid Kit - In a small zip lock bag, I carry a few
adhesive bandages, disposable antiseptic wipes, some aspirin, a
clean handkerchief, and a small amount of sun screen and insect
repellent. This will handle minor scratches and scrapes, but no
serious medical problems.
- Raincoat - In a heavy storm (especially if it begins to
lightening), I pull over to shore. The space blanket can be used as
a rain tarp if it really pours. For a light rain, or if added warmth
is needed, I always have a Gore Tex rain jacket. It's the bulkiest
item of the ten. But, it can keep you warm and dry. If the bugs are
bad, it can also be zipped up and the hood cinched down to keep you
from being eaten alive.
Editor's Note: I always recommend that you carry a complete rain
suit ... in other words, pants, too! With good boots, rain pants,
and a rain jacket you can weather most days and avoid hypothermia.
- Backpacker's Trowel and TP - In case you need to "heed the
call of nature", it's good to be prepared. Be sure to follow
the Leave No Trace technique and go at least 100 feet from the water
or trail and be sure to bury your waste and your toilet paper.
- Miscellaneous - I confess to a bit of cheating here. I always
carry a multi-tool on my belt, but if I didn't, I would be sure to
throw it in the bag. I also always have a length of parachute cord
tied to the bow. Its good to have for a variety of uses.
Your experience will guide you in what other items to add. Talk to
other canoers or professional outfitters for their suggestions. There is
nothing magic about having exactly ten things. You may want to leave
some things out or bring different items. The key is not to bring too
much, but to still have what you need. Part of the fun of a trip to the
Boundary Waters is the planning and packing before you reach the water's