Canoe camping vs Backpacking

I am an experienced wilderness backpacker and canoeist as separate hobbies, but have never done canoe camping. I have an upcoming trip to the BWCA and am wondering what I am not thinking of, when modifying my backpacking setup for canoe camping.

My main points I am thinking of are -
Dry Bags - My backpack is mostly water proof, but all critical things will be in a pack liner and my pack will be in a contractor garbage bag to minimize it sitting in the bottom-of-boat-water

Rain gear - SoCal rarely requires rain gear, but I will bring a goretex jacket and pants. (plus NRS thin neoprene fingerless gloves for the 50* morning paddles if needed). Long term forecasts are unreliable, but its looking like 20-40% chance of rain any given day based on recent trends. Temps from 48-70 forecast.

Food - We are not fishing. I know its much more practical to have 50lbs of stuff in a canoe vs a backpack, so what are some semi-luxury cooking items you bring? A full skillet and eggs? etc.

Shelter - I imagine it would be useful to bring a 2nd tarp to hang in case we get an extended rainy day? I hammock and will have my primary tarp for sleeping, then Im thinking a 2nd one for day-shelter. Decent idea?

Bugs - I have a head net and permethrin treated clothes. I usually dont use Deet but can make an exception for the northlands. Any particularly useful anti-mosquito tips?

What am I not thinking of, when taking my hot-and-dry setup to the cool-and-wet BWCA in a couple weeks? or what items do you value in the BWCA/Quetico that may not be typical in a SoCal backpacking setup?

Edit - I have a 15lb baseweight 3 season backpacking setup, so weight and hiking philosophy are well understood. I have no concerns about weight or volume, just gear or conditions that are off my radar.


I don’t spend much time camping out of a canoe or kayak anymore. I’ve grown accustom to the AC in the travel trailer. But in the swamps of Florida we carried way more that we should have since we launch the boat and it stays launched. Canoes can carry a lot. But up in the border lands of the north they paddle in places where you carry the canoe and the gear between lakes. A little more back packing thinking and less travel trailer thinking makes portages more bearable.

Be prepared for the bugs, but this time of year they’re usually less.

The tarp is an excellent idea. Bears aren’t a huge problem, but I like to cook away from where I’m sleeping.

Finally, if there isn’t a burn ban, I enjoy a campfire, so I carry a way to process wood.

The thing that screws me up the most going from the SWs’ hot and dry to somewhere wet is footwear. I never have the right footwear for wet and muddy.

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Even for working in the woods for the day, I can’t imagine not using bug spray with as much deet as humanly possible. Ticks are bad in NH and they carry Lyme. I check bottles for the highest percentage.

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Kona coffee and hand grinder.
I require cream and they make some small non refrigerated cartons of it. Small deBuyer skillet.
Merino wool t shirts, clothes that dry fast.
I would take grass fed beef jerky and macadamia nuts. Don’t forget a beanie in case it gets cold or windy. Make sure your phone is tethered and backed up to the cloud and download maps. My husband just finished 100 miles in the Alps and he swears by camp shoes / slippers and says they worth the weight.

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If you can live out of a backpack, you’re going to love living out of a canoe.

For me, the first question is are there portages. If there are, are they cartable. That will determine what I bring. Even then I don’t necessary pack light by some people’s standards. Usually with my group it is one load by cart, two loads if we carry.

Next question - how long are you going to be out. That will determine how much food you need.

Next question - what are you paddling. I can actually fit more in my solo boat than in the shared space of a tandem, but I prefer to paddle tandem. For someone like me who doesn’t pack light, its
a good idea to load the boat in advance to make sure everything will fit.

Loading boats at Churchill Dam

I use two large dry packs - one for my tent, sleeping bag and cloths, and one for food, cooking gear and everything else. In my solo boat the lighter bag goes in the bow, the heavier in the stern. I double bag the important stuff like my sleeping bag and clothes. I can deal with being wet during the day, but at night you need to be dry. If the weather calls for it, definitely bring a rain fly.

Loaded and ready to go

If there are portages, it is freeze-dried food on the jet-boil (boy, do I get sick of that after of few days). If you are bringing fresh food you need a cooler and cooking gear which can take up a lot of room. Cook on the fire and you can go light on the stove, but then you need to collect wood. Group meals and shared gear take up less space.

Jonathan cooking dinner

If I am in my solo boat I have a small soft-side cooler that will work for 3-4 days if I am careful. It’s nice to have at least one tandem boat so you can bring a full size cooler. Yeti’s are great, but they take up a lot of room. We use an old Coleman.

For me the luxuries are a large camp chair and my Dutch oven. I have a Helinox folding chair that works fine, but you can’t beat a full size folding chair for sitting around the fire. Dutch oven is great for cooking just about anything. It doesn’t take up a lot of space, but it is heavy. And if I bring the Dutch oven I tend to bring charcoal briquettes since it is easier to cook with. And of course you need to bring food to cook in it.

Dutch oven cooking

You can see why i need to test fit stuff…

I’m off to the Allagash the last week in September - can’t wait.


Carts are not allowed in BWCA.

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We like using our large Yeti soft cooler with a small Yeti soft cooler inside it for priority item$ (frozen steaks or salmon, only opened at cook time) The small bag has its own ice pack.

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The gear required for a trip in the BWCAW is often not that much different from that required for backpacking. That is because many, if not most trips in the BWCAW require portages. Often, lots of portages. So you will be carrying all of your gear over the portages as well as your boat, paddles, and PFDs.

Now, on portages in the BWCAW you do have the option to make multiple trips over the portage trail to get all of your gear across. But I would not be inclined to take more gear than you could easily manage in at most two trips. Obviously, single carries are more efficient but they require you to travel very light. A double carry will require you to cross the portage trail three times but on the return trip when you are empty handed you will have the opportunity to rest and take in the surroundings much more easily.

As for coolers, forget them unless you are taking a trip that requires at most three days and two nights. Ice is very heavy and there is no resupply option for ice within the BWCAW. As for a second tarp, obviously it would be very nice to have if you had a rainy day in which you didn’t want to do too much paddling. I have a Mountainsmith Mountain Shade tarp that is a catenary cut that weighs just under 2 lbs but provides a very generous amount of sheltered space. Those can be found on-line for under $50. You can find much lighter tarps of Cuben fiber or sil-nylon but they will be much more expensive.

I don’t know if you ever take a light weight folding chair like a Helinox backpacking. In my younger years when I did quite a few trips in the BWCAW and Quetico I did without. But I would stay home rather than go to the BWCAW without one these days.

I took mostly freeze-dried foods, a lot of instant mashed potatoes, hard cheeses, summer sausage, beef jerky, pancake mix, and the like, but yes, I did take eggs because they do not require refrigeration. A nice thing about tripping in the BWCAW is that a supply of fresh water is always close at hand.

I don’t know if you have read up on bear-proofing your food supply. There is an on-going debate about what method(s) to use and I won’t open that can of worms. As for myself, I never had a bear encounter in the BWCAW but I did find squirrels to be a problem. These days I would take a blue barrel for my food supply, toiletries, and cooking gear, primarily to protect that stuff from rodents.


PBlanc’s info is good. If you canoe will take a backpacking pack then take it. I’ll be taking my Ospery to Canada in about 3 weeks for a trip that is maybe more portaging than paddling (but I love the area). Skip the DEET and look for a repellant that uses Picardin. Also, look for a backpacking Thermocell unit. I’ve found that they do work.

Oh, yes, I second the camp tarp and a packable chair.

Good thoughts so far. As part of my standard kit with about a 17lb base weight, I have a saw for wood, Helinox Zero chair, 1/8" foam pad (that makes for an excellent 3oz cooler (steak for night 1, precooked sausage for night 2), probably dry meals for nights 3 and 4), camp shoes, Luci light, grill tongs, and plenty of luxury items. I have 2 tarps so will bring a dedicated camp tarp if needed.

Footwear is still somewhat unknown for me. Im just planning on my Solomon trail runners and flip flops for camp shoes. Boots or water proof shoes dont seem to help here.

Good call on the Picadrin. Although I grew up in MN I have since forgotten what buys are like being in SoCal for a few years now. The worst we have are small biting flies but they pale compared to mosquitos.

Our route has 3 portages, nothing too long, so Ill see if my friends have a propane stove and a cowboy pan. Leftover steak quesadillas the next morning are sooo good in the back country.

I dont have a bear can, is a proper tree-hang adequate to prevent critters in your food (more so mice and squirrels than bears)?

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The 3 times I’ve been to the BWCA, I did a bear hang and had no issues.

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That is a great idea - I have a couple of lunch-box size soft coolers that would fit inside my larger soft-sided cooler. Keep them closed up and cold until you use them. Maybe a frozen can of beer or two. :wink:

I know, they are a pain to lug around, but is nice to have a cold beer, and fresh food.

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This is the best lightweight cooler around - GOODNIGHT EVA 1/8" FOAM PAD - Mountain Laurel Designs
1/8" closed cell foam used as a backpacking sleeping pad protector / warmth booster.

The 1/8" is R0.4 per layer. I will commonly freeze precooked sausage and refrigerate steak and a beer. I roll them together 3 or 4 times, then fold the ends in, then roll more. Overall there are probably 5-10 layersinsulating the core, resulting in R2.0-4.0 insulation which is pretty darn good.

I can have frozen sausage the 2nd night in hot weather (80+) using this system. For only 3oz its a phenomenal ultralight cooler.

Edit - they are 40% off right now too with coupon code GETLESS40
A great deal

I’ve been going to the B-Dub for almost 40 years. When we were strapping lads we would muscle whatever we felt like across the portages including full kegs of beer. After a broken back 8 years ago I changed all my gear to lightweight backpack equipment. From there it’s just deciding which luxuries would make the cut and a then allow for B-Dub weather, critters etc… If you are a backpacker bring what you bring backpacking and decide what other luxuries you would want for your trip. After Labor Day the bugs are next to nothing. 48-70 is very nice temps but make sure you plan for that to fluctuate more than they are predicting.

Cans and glass bottles are not allowed in the BWCAW, so no beer unless you like it like it very flat.

As for fresh meat, I do know folks who froze steaks and such solid, wrapped them in paper, and ate them as they thawed. One Canadian Mountie told me that on Northwoods trips he would take seven steaks, stack them up and freeze the whole lot solid, wrap them securely, and eat one every night for a week as the ones on the outside thawed.

To be honest, not much of a beer drinker anyway. I would miss my gin and tonics though. I can get that in plastic bottles. Maybe someday I’ll get out to the Boundry Waters - long way from here, but is must be nice since so many of you travel to get there.

I beg to differ. No bwca trip would be complete without the luxury of beer. Stainless growlers are a fantastic way to bring in beer. Some brands put their beer in plastic bottles as well. If wine is your thing REI sells soft reusable wine flasks. Just because we enjoy the wilderness doesn’t mean we have to be uncivilized. Cheers!! :beers:

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Better food and more furniture.
I remember resting after a portage somewhere in the BWCA after about 6 days. The weather was warm. I pulled out a bottle of gin and poured some straight into a few cups with some small clean pebbles in the bottom and a splash of lake water. “Gin on the rocks.”