Handling Paddling Emergencies: One Man's Dry Bag

5-minute read

I think it was Mark Twain who once said: “An adventure is just an afternoon’s hike gone bad!” He was right. What starts out “well-planned” can abruptly turn into unanticipated circumstances, or even outright emergencies. Been there, done that? I will bet YES!

So, how do you deal with the unplanned things that can arise during a paddle? Whether it’s a bright, blue-skied Saturday morning, or a dusky trip up the wrong tributary – my solution is to always carry what I call “contingency supplies.” Because my “hikes” are most often on water, I use a dry bag.

What is a dry bag?

A dry bag is a heavy nylon, or plastic bag, made to keep things, well, dry!  They come in various sizes and can be bought at many outdoor retailers and online through reputable brands like NRS or Sea to Summit. They’re not very expensive, considering when – not if – the need arises for some of the items you pack. The special thing about these bags is their closure. Simply fold the opening over itself, and then buckle it closed. This makes it water-proof, buoyant and easy to carry.

Sea to Summit dry bags

What’s in my dry bag, and why?

My rationale for the things I’ve chosen are that they: serve basic needs, treat injuries, make minor repairs, are small in size, light weight and have simple, dependable functions. Over time I’ve added things as warranted.

The contents of my dry bag, in order of importance are:

  1. Cell phone: Kept in a water-proof case. I’m no fan of phones, but they provide navigation, emergency communication and weather forecasts. Of course, they also take pictures of your trip or pictures of an injury so emergency teams can respond appropriately.
  2. Compass: You never know if you’ll have phone service, or for how long. Look at the compass when you leave, and know that if you are lost, heading back in that general direction will take you somewhere recognizable. Also, orient yourself with the Sun (Note: NOT a dry bag item…)
  3. Utility tool: Something like a Leatherman works great. An all-purpose utility knife not only for cutting, but also a multiplicity of tools for minor repairs. Look for something compact and useful.
  4. Wipes: Ideal for cleaning scrapes and hands, as well as wiping whatever else needs to be wiped.
  5. Emergency Whistle: Three blasts clearly signal “Distress” to most people. These whistles are much louder than you could ever shout. (Try it…but just one blast…no calling wolf..OK?)
  6. Bug Spray: Nothing ruins an adventure like a swarm of mosquitos.
  7. Cord & Rope: I look for lightweight and strong. Perfect for tying up, towing, holding things together and to tourniquet a bleed.
  8. Flashlight: Look for small and durable with strong light. Bonus if you can hold it in your mouth while you’re working on something. I like the Maglite.
  9. First-Aid Kit: Look for these at your local pharmacy, or make one yourself. You’ll want bandages, antibiotic cream/anti-histamine cream, gauze and pain relievers at the very least.
  10. Lighter & Fire Starter: A small baggie of shredded paper and a Bic will do the trick!
  11. Space Blanket: These are disposable, light and made of paper-like material. Use them as cover for warmth, shelter and as a signal flag if needed.
  12. Five Feet of Durable Tape: Wrap this around a small bundle of fire-starter sticks. Great for minor repairs.
  13. Gloves: I roll mine with a thick rubber band, and use them for hauling and handling rough stuff.
  14. Personal Information Card: Include your name, a contact person, phone numbers, blood type and allergies/medications.
  15. Car Key & Cash: In an envelope - just in case
  16. Krazy Glue: Ideal for gluing stuff quickly - including clean, small surface cuts.
  17. A Snack: I prefer two granola bars - only for emergency eating!

contents of Mike's dry bag

All this will fit into a medium-sized dry bag, take up only a square foot of boat space and won’t weigh enough to sink the bag. However, after you’ve filled yours, make sure it floats!

I also throw in the boat a floatation vest, water bottle and a large beach towel. Can’t forget these!

“Have you ever actually used all this stuff?”

No, but remember this is a contingency list. I have used: 1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 9, 15 and (of course) 17…And the towel once, to cover a scared snake.

As the sayings go: “Be prepared”, “Better safe than sorry”, “A stitch in time saves nine”, “If Only”.

Keep paddling and having fun. I do hope you only have to open your dry bag for number 17… cheater!

PS - I once read some advice given by real and serious survivalists. What did they recommend, bringing for ultimate survival?

Their list, in order:

A water bottle, an axe, fire starting material, a knife, two goats and a bag of bean seeds. All seem reasonable, and I carry three of the six recommended. But I think it would be tough to get the goats to settle down as I row my Adirondack guide boat… So… no goats. 

PPS - Because the unplanned can occur on any trip, I keep my bag in the car when not on the water!

Mike Schmidt

Mike Schmidt lives an active life in the small town of New Smyrna Beach, Florida, near the mouth of the Indian River where it opens into the Atlantic. He rows and kayak paddles his guideboat on lagoons, mangrove backwaters and streams, with birds and dolphins for company. In the spring, he and his wife move to the hills of Vermont to live in an old log cabin, surrounded by forest and overlooking a small trout pond. He rows Lake Champlain, and its surrounding rivers and reservoirs and when not rowing, does sport shooting with a recurve bow and a shotgun, rides his bike, plays the guitar, works at playing golf, and spends time with his grandkids

(All photos courtesy of Mike Schmidt)

Do you have paddle questions our friendly Customer Service Team can help you with today? Contact them: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]

More for you…

Kayaking an Adirondack Guideboat

Canoeing Gear Ideas for Older Adults
Stay Healthy on Long Canoe Trips