BLOG 25. Tools You Need and Toys You Don’t! By Cliff Jacobson
Anyone can enjoy canoe camping without spending a lot of money. Indeed, the more stuff you bring on a canoe trip, the more stuff you’ll have to portage. But it takes experience to learn what you need and what you don’t. The result is, that many people spend their camping dollars on things that are fun to have but not essential. Top choices include LED lanterns; bulky Gore-tex parkas that are better for mountaineering than canoeing; sleeping bags that are too warm for summer camping; quick-boil stoves that can’t be used for real cooking; folding saws that fit in a fanny pack but won’t cut thick logs, and pricey butane torch lighters.
These things are nice, but not at the expense of what you need to stay warm, dry and in command. Here, in no particular order are the things I value most on my canoe trips:
1. A lightweight rain tarp is the first thing that goes up in my camp. It provides a protected place to cook and relax. It’s If it’s raining and the tent has a separate fly, the tent is loosely pitched under the tarp then moved to the proper spot. This procedure keeps the sleeping compartment dry during set-up.
|Twin rain tarps in the BWCA. These are from Cooke Custom Sewing|
2. A roomy tent with one or two attached vestibules (for gear storage) and two covered entries. Why two entries? Open both and the airflow will exhaust the bugs; if a zipper fails on one door, you have the other. Don’t forget a plastic groundcloth for inside the tent.
3. A full-size folding saw and hand-axe. The Boundary Waters are among the hardest places to make fire on a rainy day, because all the good wood on campsites has been picked over. Saw an arm-thick branch off a dead, downed tree and split it with the hatchet to get at the dry heartwood. In minutes, you’ll have a cheery flame. Try this procedure with a flimsy triangular aluminum saw and discount store hatchet then switch to a full frame saw and a Gransfors™ axe (any model!) and you’ll say wow!
|An axe, saw, fixed-blade knife and Leatherman tool, covers all|
4. A powerful gasoline stove: You’ll use about 0.1 Liter of fuel (gasoline) per person per day. You can easily check the contents of your fuel bottle to see if you’re on track. With a butane stove you won’t have a clue—and, you’ll have to carry out spent fuel containers. If a butane cartridge springs a leak when it’s disconnected from your stove (it happens!) and empties its contents while you paddle, you won’t know until it’s too late. Butane stoves lose efficiency as the temperature drops; gasoline stoves don’t! A typical butane canister costs about five dollars and burns for about 45 minutes. A gasoline stove will consume about a dollar’s worth of Coleman fuel in that time.
5. If you rely exclusively on instant freeze-dried slop (just add boiling water), an insulated butane stove (like the “Jet boil”) that heats fast may be right for you. But, if you prefer “real” food, you’ll want a more versatile cooker.
6. An insulated trail mattress that inflates and deflates fast, and a lightweight, summer-rated sleeping bag. Tent temperatures typically run about 10 degrees warmer than outside so a 40 degree-rated bag is usually warm enough. If it gets below freezing, put on a knitted hat and long johns. Or maybe just wax your skis and leave your canoe at home.
|Get a trail pad that insulates and inflates and deflates quickly. This one doesn't!|
Note: I’ve always used a down sleeping bag on my canoe trips and I’ve never gotten it wet. If you pack as I suggest in my books, you won’t either. Down bags are lighter, more compact and have a much wider temperature comfort range than synthetics. They don’t smell when used over the long haul and they last decades longer than synthetic bags. For example, I recently replaced my tired 40 year old Trailwise down sleeping bag—the down was fine, the nylon shell wasn’t. Down bags are more expensive than synthetics, and worth it!
7. A good orienteering compass with a built-in declination adjustment. I used to prefer the Silva Ranger; now I’m won over to the Suunto MC-2. The woods are filled with novices who have expensive GPS units and don’t know how to use them. A good compass, plus navigational knowledge, should be a prized essential. A compass remains the tool of choice for navigating the small lakes in the BWCA.
8. A waterproof GPS. For several decades I found my way around the Canadian north just fine with only a map and compass. Now I’m spoiled: I love my GPS, but I ALWAYS carry a compass! Warning! It’s essential to understand traditional map and compass navigation before you commit to a GPS. Those who question the wisdom of this advice WILL, one day, become lost!
9. A lightweight rain-suit. Gore-tex is nice but a simple, polyurethane-coated suit is lighter, more compact and less expensive. Why pay for pockets you won’t use or for zippered closures at the ankles? Primitive man learned long ago that water doesn’t flow uphill! Leg closures simply restrict ventilation.
10. A fixed blade knife that’s strong enough to split kindling and long enough to reach to the bottom of the peanut butter jar. If you have to split kindling into fine slivers to obtain ignition, you’ll want a knife that won’t break or fold in your hand when you hammer on the spine with a piece of wood. The best inexpensive sheath knife I’ve found is the “Mora knife” (Mora kniv) which you can find on line. Choose the carbon steel—not stainless—model! It comes to you razor sharp (really!) and costs about 12 dollars. It’s not pretty but it is an amazing knife for the price.
|Using the sheath knife as a light axe--just pound the blade on through!|
11. A folding stool with a built-in back-rest. This is pure luxury! Friends will laugh at your extravagance, only to wish they had one once they try it. I think I’ve tried every folding stool on the planet but my favorite is the one in the Piragis catalog, for which I personally campaigned.
|Folding stool: Note attachment to pack at right|
In summary, toys are nice but not at the expense of eliminating tools you really need. This said, I sometimes don’t follow my own advice and bring things I shouldn’t. The judgment call comes during the first portage, after which I wish I’d left them at home. But the wonderful thing about canoeing, is that the only one you need to please is yourself. So best forget this blog and simply do what makes you smile.