Gear Strategy for River Canoe Camping
Canoe camping trips on rivers are somewhat different than in flatwater environments like the Boundary Waters or Quetico. Bending Branches’ long-time President and owner, Ed Vater, takes us through his gear list for river canoe camping.
The right canoe camping gear is a balance between not overpacking and not having what you’ll need in the various environments and situations you’ll face on your trip.
Ed said, “We have anywhere from three to six guys who go on each trip. Everybody is pretty passionate about their gear. It’s always a process of seeing what works and refining your kit. It seems half the day you’re packing it or unpacking it, so it really has to work. A fun part of my journaling is what’s working and what isn’t so I can make a list for the next trip.”
Over his several decades of river canoe tripping, Ed Vater has streamlined his gear strategy to include specific items he always includes on his week-long trips:
Canoe and Paddles
Ed has two primary canoes he likes for solo canoe paddling. His Wenonah Rendezvous is a “tumblehome” canoe that’s made for moving water. While it’s not designed for whitewater, it can handle substantial rapids.
“It’s very seaworthy, can handle rough conditions and maneuvers nicely,” said Ed. “It effectively feels wider without you having to reach for the water so much. It’s narrower at the top so you’re less likely to nick your knuckles on the sides.”
Ed’s Winona Rendezvous has a tumblehome shape and rocker that’s ideal for river paddling
His other river canoe is a Wenonah Wilderness. “It’s very similar but has less rocker. The ends aren’t swept up as much, it’s got a straighter keel line and it’s a little sleeker so it’s slightly faster. It’s not as good if you’ve got bigger rapids.”
The canoe he chooses for a particular trip is determined by the river he’ll paddle and what he expects in terms of rapids. These are both midrange boats that feel a little unstable empty, but once loaded with gear feel secure on the water.
Ed always takes two paddles on his canoe camping trips so he has a spare. “I’ve been on many trips where someone has lost or broken his paddle. Maybe someone fell on it on a portage, or dropped the canoe on it. So you need a spare!”
“My go-to paddle is the Black Pearl 11 (bent shaft) because it’s so light and efficient. I’ll paddle all day and my butt will hurt, but my shoulders and rotator cuffs are okay. But for lots of rapids and big boulders I use the Expedition Plus with the durable edge wrap. That’s much better than a composite for that kind of rough service.”
Ed uses the Black Pearl 11 for most of his paddling, while the Expedition Plus comes along for rocky river conditions
Ed might use one of two different seats, depending on the situation. He said, “To me, a padded seat is really, really important—essential on long trips. And so I either use a padded seat from Cooke Custom Sewing, which is lighter, or I use this Level Six.”
Ed's Level Six seat with its built-in insulated compartment
The Level Six Voyageur Seat Pack has a built-in insulated compartment and is heavier, so it wouldn’t work for a Boundary Waters trip.
“I'm not much of a beer drinker, but my brother and the other paddling guys are. I most often use the insulated compartment just to store my sunscreen, folding saw, First Aid kit— my little basic things that I might need quickly in the boat.”
Food and Water
Ed and his canoe trip buddies often paddle where they need to carry their own water, even though he brings a reliable water filter.
“A recent trip we did was the Green River through Utah, one of the top 10 famous paddling rivers,” he said. It’s got this ultra-fine silt that will instantly plug a filter. It’s not that the water is polluted, it’s just got this kind of clay that comes through. I’m also really passionate about swamp tours—paddling in the Deep South in the middle of winter. Almost all the water down there is silty and hard on filters.”
Ed’s food and beverage kit, plus padded canoe seat/insulated pack combo
“We carry the water in 2.5-gallon cubes. We'll have them under our seats and work as a team to deplete the water in a balanced way as we make our way down the river.”
Ed likes to carry one water bottle for water, and another for trail mix. Each trip member has their own blend of trail mix they like to bring along.
As far as meals, Ed sees this as one of his specialties in camp. “Cooking is very much personal preference. I like to start, even on a 7-day trip, with fresh food for the first few days,” he said. For that, he likes Engel dry box. “It's light and compact, and it'll work either as a cooler or to store dry gear once you've depleted your food. It's compact and fits well in solo canoes where a lot of bigger coolers don't drop in.”
When he packs lighter, Ed likes his MSR backpacking stove. The fuel packs inside it. They use it for their instant (Starbucks) coffee each morning and their daily breakfast of oatmeal, chopped walnuts and fresh cubed apples.
Lunches are also easy—sausage, cheese, trail mix, apples. They bring a small cutting board or use a paddle to slice on.
Dinners depend on who’s along. “If it’s just my brother and me, we just use the Jet Boil for a one-pot meal. When my buddy, Cliff, is a long he brings a 2-burner propane stove that’s got great simmer control. He brings integrated pots and we can truly cook like we’re in the kitchen.”
“We don’t really ever bring backpacking meals, but buy stuff you can get at the supermarket and add fresh peppers, onions, seasonings and all that. I have a tiny ripstop nylon bag with the silverware.”
Ed uses a Plano tote to carry nonperishable food and other items he doesn’t want squashed in the canoe or in camp
In the canoe, Ed has developed a system of rigging that keeps his gear secure in the canoe, but is easy to release for any portages and when they reach camp for the day. He uses short pieces of light line and carabiners, as well as small devices called Bungee Dealee Bobs.
These handy bungees work well to secure loose items to the canoe, like the spare paddle
“You're continuously taking your gear in and out of the canoe so you want to be able just click it in quickly and go,” he said.
Ed always brings a large sponge along, too, to manage any water, silt and mud that makes its way into the canoe.
Dry Bags and Packs
Ed owns many different dry bags and has discovered meaningful differences between them. He said, “I’ve become a fan of Sea to Summit bags. They’re my favorite because of the ease at which they wrap. They’re stiff along the top of the bag and roll up really nice. My Seal Line bags high-quality bags, too, but I don’t like the roll top as much.”
Paddling boots, rain gear and dry bags
“I'm not a Boundary Waters tripper as much. So for me, a more durable bag is better than a really light bag. I can use these hard and long and they don't leak. I've had them for years now and they're as good as when I bought them.”
He continued: “I'm kind of fastidious about keeping my gear clean and dry, and I don't like having a lot of loose gear in the canoe. Having high-volume long bags, I think, is important. A 65-liter is the minimum for that bigger stuff. You don't want to be having to force it closed, but instead just drop the gear in the wallet with plenty of room to roll the top down.”
He uses a 50-pound fish scale to weigh his packs so he has an idea of where they’re at compared to previous years.
“The beauty of being in a canoe instead of a backpack is you can haul more gear. And so a tent that's one person bigger than you need is what you need. My brother and I share a Big Agnes 3-person tent for the two of us.”
Ed uses a very warm down sleeping bag, as well as an inner liner so he can sleep comfortably in both cold and warm temperatures. He’s a big fan of Big Agnes’ sleeping system with their combo sleeping bag/sleeping pad. The pad fits into a pocket in the sleeping bag so it doesn’t slip around at night and rolls up easily together.
Comfort is the name of the game for sleeping and sitting in camp!
He said, “Out of everything I own, other than the canoe and paddle, my bag/pad combination is dear to me. At my age, I don't want to be sleeping uncomfortably on rocks after paddling all day. They (Big Agnes) make multiple pads at different price points, and this is their most premium pad. I've used it at least four or five years without a leak. I have a patch kit, but I've never needed it.”
Both Ed and his brother like the Aeros inflatable pillow. “It’s just super soft and half the weight of a deck of cards. I always used to just roll up my fleece to make a pillow, but, again, if you're older, it’s about comfort.”
Shelter and Camp Gear
Another system Ed has developed over years of canoe tripping is what he calls “our own tarp village.” This prevents having to stay inside their tent or even in rain gear during continuous rain.
The system isn’t dependent on finding the right trees the right distance apart. He likes the Deep Creek Shelter from Big Agnes that has its own pole and guy lines. He also bought the optional screen to use as bug netting in some situations.
“On one trip down the Peace River in central Florida we had one day where it just came down,” said Ed. “We sat in the shelter and drank coffee, played cards, journaled and told stories about our best trips and dreamed about our future best trip. And the afternoon we did all the same except for sipping whiskey. We were comfortable the whole time. If I was super tight on weight, I wouldn't carry it, but for a down river trip, the shelter goes on every trip.”
For a camp chair, Ed has found that a slightly heavier chair offers more back support. For him, that’s a higher priority than weight. He likes the Helinox Chair. He said, “I brought it once and everyone else liked it. They all bought one.”
For lighting, Ed and his canoe partners love the Luci Light. These LED lights are solar powered, so they lash them onto the top of a pack all day while they paddle to charge.
One of Ed’s favorite gear items—his Luci Light
In camp after dark they can be used flat or expanded for more light. They each bring one of these and can combine them for light needed to cook, play cards, socialize, wash dishes…however they’re needed. While he always brings a headlamp along, too, he finds he uses his Luci Light much more.
Cell Phone, Charging & Misc.
Cell phone service isn’t available in most of the wilderness areas Ed and his buddies paddle, but he likes to bring it along as his camera.
“I had always struggled with those little recharging cubes and them not having enough power. But I have a Makita impact driver and its battery pack is perfect to bring along to charge everyone’s phone for a week. It’s so slick.”
Ed always brings a Leatherman-like multi-tool that comes in handy for multiple tasks.
Apparel and Footwear
Ed likes Kokatat’s Nomad paddling boots. “If I’m going somewhere like the Green River in the desert, paddling boots aren’t really necessary. If you’re going to do a swamp tour in the South, they’re absolutely necessary and you’ll wear them all day because of the mud.
“Just getting in and out of the canoe, sometimes you have nice crisp bank and you step right on the dry ground. Other times you’re wading through shallow water for eight feet to be able to put your canoe in the water,” he said.
Ed spent quite a lot of money on his paddling rain kit. “If I wasn’t able to get an industry deal, I probably wouldn’t spend that much. But having rain gear that’s cut specifically for paddling is really nice. You don’t have water pooling in your lap when you’re sitting in your canoe.
“And when you’re in the Boundary Waters and it’s sleeting and driving rain and you’re comfortable—it’s doesn’t seem that expensive!”
He keeps his rain kit zipped up in a small bag, one of several he has of different sizes depending on what he brings along. “These little bags keep my life organized.”
Ed’s canoe camping journal, along with other miscellaneous important items
The Advantages of River Canoeing
Many people don’t want or can’t handle the strenuous work of flatwater trips with lots of lakes and lots of portages. Ed said, “People can put their gear in their canoe, go for a week and not be fried by the end of it. It’s more accessible for that reason. You don’t have to do three trips on every portage.
“Rivers are neat because every corner brings you something new. You don't have that big water feel, and your proximity to wildlife is often better. If you're lazy, the current's doing some work all day, so the river gives you some free mileage all day. You can do more mileage and see more things in a given amount of time, and if you're not portaging the gear, you can bring a little bit more comfort with you.”
Ed is a huge advocate for paying a shuttle service with a group of people on a river trip. Hiring a shuttle, no matter the cost, saves a lot of hassle and time. “You can paddle for at least one more day instead of spending that time moving vehicles. How much vacation time does that save us? It’s worth it.”
For northerners who want to canoe all year long, Ed is also a huge advocate of the many wilderness paddling spots in America’s southeast, like Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia and Mobile-Tensaw Delta in Alabama. There are thousands of acres of paddling that are prime spots in the winter—without bugs, the snakes are hibernating, are there are loop options so a shuttle isn’t necessary.
Ed Vater, long-time President and owner of Bending Branches
Do you have paddle questions our friendly Customer Service Team can help you with today? Contact them: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]
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