By Rob Kesselring
(Reprinted with permission of the Boundary Waters Journal)
I love the Boundary Waters in every season and every style. Snowshoeing, skiing, dogsledding, hiking, canoeing, day outings, 2-week trips, groups of nine, solo trips, commercial trips, family trips, men’s groups, women’s groups, glamping, base camping, fishing, birding, exploring, relaxing, I have done them all and enjoyed every trip. Everything considered, midsummer ultralight canoe camping is my favorite way to prowl the BWCAW and Quetico. I have been advocating this style for decades, but over the last several years I am usually paddling the Arctic midsummer, and have needed to do most of my Boundary Waters canoeing in the shoulder seasons. The Coronavirus made the summer of 2020 different. I was holed up in Minnesota and able to make the best of the pandemic by squeezing lemons into lemonade and making two ultralight canoe trips in the BWCAW with expert Canadian paddler Sue Plankis, and they were spectacular journeys.
What makes a canoe trip ultralight? First, it is not the same as ultralight backpacking and ultralight trail hiking. These days, there is a lot of interest in hiking long iconic trails such as the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, even Minnesota’s Superior Hiking Trail. These trails are almost endless. Finishing them is a major accomplishment, and hikers often need to average 20 miles of hiking day-after-day to reach their goal. Every gram of gear, every crumb of chow in their backpack is scrutinized. Some of these trails pass over arid landscapes. Water at two pounds a quart displaces all but the necessities in their packs. These hikers eat fatty, high protein uncooked gruel, sleep on bubble wrap and shiver through cold nights wearing everything they brought. Suffering is part of their challenge. It is as if they are prizefighters in a ring. They know they will be bruised and battered but only hope to be still standing when the fight is over. Ultralight canoe camping in the Boundary Waters is different. It is not about deprivation, suffering, or even challenge. It is not about fighting nature. It is not about barricading yourself from nature either. It is about embracing nature. When canoe country campers surrender some of the stuff they only think they need, they often discover that less is more.
What defines ultralight canoe camping in the Boundary Waters is the capability of carrying the canoe and all the packs comfortably in one portage pass. For brevity, I will focus today on a trip with two adults and a tandem canoe. Ultralight canoe camping is even easier with bigger groups because campers will only need one of particular items regardless of the group size. I have never been able to solo ultralight canoe camp. Maybe it is possible, but I think I would have to cut weight like an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, not how I roll.
Here is a simple formula to plan an ultralight canoe trip. Determine how much additional weight you can comfortably portage while carrying your canoe. Next, discover how heavy a pack your partner can comfortably carry. These calculations will determine your outfit’s maximum total weight — not counting canoe, paddles, PFD’s and the clothing you are wearing. For example: at my age and fitness level in 2020, I could carry my canoe and a 40-pound pack. My partner could comfortably carry a 38-pound pack. For our trips last summer, we could bring 78 pounds of food and gear, minus the empty packs’ weight. That adds up to plenty of provisions and equipment for a ten-day comfortable summer BWCAW canoe trip.
The weight of the canoe is the most significant variable. The heavier the canoe, the lighter my pack must be. The canoe we took last summer weighed 34 pounds. With the pack and the canoe, I was carrying 74 pounds. The first canoe I owned was a Royalex Old Town Tripper with skid plates. It weighed about 72 pounds. If I had taken that canoe last summer, I could only have comfortably carried another two pounds. That would have meant only a total of 40 pounds of food and gear for the two of us for ten days. That would be Spartan tripping indeed. Instead, I would have opted for double-portaging and a more traditional trip. In my prime, I could have carried the Tripper and a 30-pound pack, and Sue in her prime could have carried a 50-pound pack. We would have been fine, but time waits for no man or woman. You don’t have to be Hercules to ultralight canoe camp, but if you are not Hercules, you might need to invest in a lighter canoe, and purchase more lightweight (and more expensive) gear and lighter provisions. I will be specific on cutting weight on the canoe, gear, and provisions later in this article.
If packing a total load with a pack and canoe of 74 pounds does not exactly sound ultralight, remember an ultralight Appalachian Trail hiker covers 20 miles a day. Last summer, some days, we paddled 20 miles or more, but our average total portage distance was less than a mile. Carrying 74 pounds for one mile is easy, but 20 miles? No.
Last summer had we camped with a heavy canoe, chow, and gear, we would have brought three packs instead of two and double portaged, and we would have walked three times as far. Just as importantly, we would have spent three times as long on the portage trail. We would have needed to either spent more time traveling or gone a much shorter distance. Both of those outcomes would have needlessly diminished the time we had to explore and the joy we experienced last summer at early-afternoon campsites.
Single portaging alone has many advantages. Psychologically, double portaging is a downer. I am a football fan. When the quarterback on my team completes a pass for potentially a first down, I hate to see a penalty flag. It’s almost always a holding call on the offense. Instead of going forward, we go backward and start all over. Exactly how I feel after a rugged portage. Elated to finish it, until my elation is dashed by the thought I must go all the way back, pick up another load and do the portage all over again. I am not whining. On far north canoe expeditions, I have sometimes triple portaged. My 2004, 760-mile pan-arctic Canadian trip included three portages, each over two miles long. We needed stout canoes, arctic clothing, and provisions for five weeks. A two-mile portage is six miles of black flies, muskeg, and sweat. There is no choice up there. You must do multiple portages. In the BWCAW, there is a choice. Not only do you go farther and faster with the ultralight single portage style, it also can be more fun and satisfying.
I know there will be some pushback from readers. Readers will claim they enjoy the portages, and double portages allow them to triple their joy by seeing the same landscape three times. Double-portagers can rationalize their behavior however they want, but it sounds like sour grapes to me. I have yet to hear anyone as I zip once across a portage say to me, “Oh, I feel sorry that you only get to experience this slippery, muddy, bug-infested portage once.” Usually, at the end of their first run, they are sitting on their packs, panting and looking woefully back down from whence they came dreading a repeat. They look up at our two packs and us in wonder, not with disgust but admiration. Or worse, they don’t even see us because they are huddled around a map trying to figure out a way to shorten their trip’s loop by cutting out a few portages and a few lakes that only a few days ago they were looking forward to exploring.
I am exaggerating a bit here and I remember doing wonderful family Boundary Waters summer canoe trips where it was necessary to double-portage. But I do tire of the single portage naysayers that believe my way is some masochistic, tortuous, camping style of deprivation and discomfort. How surprised they might be that ultralight camping has far more benefits than just dividing the portage distance by three.
One logistical advantage of single-portaging? Last summer, when Sue and I decided to do our first trip in July, our friends shook their heads a few days before we wanted to go. “It’s jam-packed up there; you will never get a permit,” I assured them there are always a few permits available. But they said, “You won’t get the entry point you want.” What I knew was the entry point doesn’t make much difference. No matter what entry point we start at, in a day or two we can paddle anywhere.
Here are just a few more tangible benefits of an ultralight Boundary Waters canoe journey. Many of the most interesting routes in canoe country include circuitous streams with tight bends, beaver dams, and shallow water. My two ultralight canoes are less than 17-feet long and are easy to maneuver. Fully loaded, they weigh a wee bit over 100 pounds and later in the trip when food is consumed less than 100 pounds. Horsing a fully-loaded 18.5-foot canoe over a beaver dam is a chore and often, especially upstream, necessitates removing a pack or two. Last summer, even traveling sneaky little seldom traveled routes, we never needed to remove a pack. Our draft was so slight in shallow water that we could paddle where others would have dragged, and in super shallow stretches, we could jump out and line without having to pull out packs. Picking routes heavily encumbered canoeists feared to tread kept us away from the madding crowds and closer to wildlife. Sometimes we did encounter heavily loaded travelers attempting these backwater routes. We had plenty of warning of their approach – paddles banging, paddlers cursing, scary splashing sounds. But they were always startled when they saw us weaving silently past them. That is one of the special joys of ultralight travel; instead of ripping through the bush, you become part of nature’s fabric. Instead of freaking out the songbirds and waterfowl and sending tail flapping beavers swimming for cover, wildlife tolerates your passage and sometimes even behaves in friendly ways.
By traveling light, you have less stuff. You can break camp fast and get on the water. Early summer mornings are cooler, calmer, feature dramatic lighting and empty portages. Last summer, we were always on the water before 7:00. Some days we were already looking for a campsite at noon. There were many vacant at that hour, and in 18 nights, we never had to struggle to find a site. Many of our camps were picture-perfect, five-star, rock slab points.
Although ultralight canoe hulls are not fragile, they are not as rugged as heavier lay-ups. Like birchbark canoe paddlers of ages past, we approach a portage landing carefully. Pausing before we touch bottom, we pop out of our canoes into the warm summer water. I put one pack on my partner, and she grabs the paddles and the PFD’s. I slip into my pack and flip my featherweight canoe on my shoulders. At the far end of the portage, I place the canoe on the water, remove and set my pack in the canoe, turn and remove my partner’s pack and place that in the canoe, climb in and go. Our packs never touch the ground. There is no chance of leaving gear behind or having another paddler mistakenly take one of our packs, and no chance a snooping bear will decide to open our food pack without utilizing the buckles. Ultralight canoeists, as if we are ghosts, move through the portages dazzling even the bears.
The most significant way to switch from a more traditional camping style to an ultralight style involves canoe selection. I suppose if you are strong young, and fit, you can be ultralight with an aluminum, Royalex, Fiberglass, or heavy lay-up Kevlar hull. Most of us need to get our canoe weight down close to 40 or even better, 30 pounds. Wenonah pioneered ultralight skin-coat canoes that made ultralight canoeing possible for everyone 30 years ago. I purchased a Wenonah MN II when they first came out and have been single portaging ever since. The 42 pound MN II is still an excellent choice to get started in ultralight canoeing, and many are available on the used canoe market for a reasonable price. Just be careful if you are buying a used Kevlar boat that you go by actual weight, not catalog weight. Sloppy skid plates, an extra layer of Kevlar on “outfitter editions,” even layers of varnish can add several pounds. Weigh any canoe before you buy it. Even a few pounds can make a significant difference. For 13 years, my go-to canoe for the Boundary Waters is a Savage River, Deep Creek. It is a graphite-kevlar lay-up, 16 feet 9 inches long, and weighed 31 pounds when new. It was 11 pounds lighter than the MN II it replaced and made a big difference, not so much in carrying but in the act of throwing it on my shoulders. Standing on slippery rocks with a 40-pound pack on my shoulders, there is remarkable ease when your new canoe is 25% lighter than the old one. It may not seem much different in the showroom, but after a long day in the bush, it sure will. This past summer, I paddled a new beautiful Northstar Polaris Ultralight Kevlar Hybrid. I weighed this canoe at 34 pounds, which is precisely what my Savage Creek weighs now. (Canoes like people tend to gain a little weight over the years). You cannot go wrong with either of these boats. New the Savage River is a little lighter. The thin gunwales make it easier to load and the black carbon “look” is distinctive. The Northstar is tighter, I think faster, and the gunwales are more durable. Both are incredibly seaworthy and maneuverable. There are other manufacturers of ultralight canoes, but without paddling them, I cannot recommend them.
Some buyers cannot resist the temptation to order adaptions to the hull. It is a big mistake, but understandable when they are paying over 100 dollars a pound for a canoe. A push on the hull, and it may seem flimsy. Maybe it would be a good idea to order another layer of Kevlar? Don’t do it. The ultralight canoe is crucial to ultralight Boundary Water’s canoeing. It only seems flimsy, and the reason it is so expensive is that it is so light. My Savage River canoe is over 13 years old and has been my pal on more canoe trips than most people do in a lifetime. It now has a few patches and skid plates, but it is a long way from dead. The Northstar appears to be even more durable. One caveat, ultralight canoes are engineered for lakes and accomplished paddlers. These are not boats for banging down Wisconsin rivers and not for people afraid to get their feet wet. If you want a canoe you can climb into on dry land, sit down and scootch your way into the water, stick to something made out of recycled beer cans.
An ultralight canoe is the easiest way to cut the most weight, but there are many other strategies. Shelter is the second easiest way to cut weight. The Eureka Timberline SQ Outfitter tent is a proven Boundary Water’s warrior. Water-tight, easy to pitch, heavy-duty poles and zippers. This tent is comfortable and will outlast you. It weighs 9 pounds 14 ounces. My choice for a tent is a Nemo Dragonfly 3. This tent is comfortable, easy to pitch, about the same interior space as the Eureka, but not as durable. The Nemo weighs 3 pounds 12 ounces and costs about the same as the Eureka. I took my Nemo on both ten-day BWCAW trips last summer, and it is a great shelter. It saves me 6 pounds 2 ounces over the Eureka. Tent “footprints” remind me of the car salesman that tries to convince you to buy an optional undercoating for your new car. Ground cloths are just added weight in the pack, clear your tent site of debris, and pitch the tent. The floor will outlast the zippers anyway.
Ultralight tents, all brands, use a lot of no-see-um bug netting. No-see-um netting is more a fabric than a screen. Tentmakers use it because wider mesh screening is more difficult to sew. Even with huge panels of no-see-um netting, all nylon tents can be sweatboxes. On a hot day, it is best to pitch them in the deepest shade at your campsite. In any case, if you want to take a mid-afternoon nap, you may want to open up the doors. No insects or a breeze that is a Sophie’s Choice.
I have tried shelters other than tents – leans, hammocks, and modified tarps. Many are lighter than tents, and some are cooler. For me, so far, they all have comfort or set-up issues that make them unsuitable for traveling far and fast in the Boundary Waters.
In my home, my vehicle, my workplace, I am trapped under a roof. I am not fond of tarps in the wilderness. They have their place when it is raining. But I am not the kind of camper that pitches a tarp just because it might rain. Tarps block out the sun and the stars. They screw up the campfire draft. They droop, so you have to crouch. Under a tarp, you will miss the dive of a Sharp-shinned hawk as it zeros in on a Boreal Chickadee. No moon shadows, no shooting stars, no dreamy cumulus clouds, one more thing to pack up in the morning, one more scab on nature’s landscape… However, I always have a sil-nylon tarp ready to be deployed at the top of my pack, rigged with coiled p-cord. I have also checked out the trees and know exactly how to string the tarp. Nature does not usually surprise, especially when it comes to rain. You can see it coming, hear it coming, and even smell it coming. If you are aware of the weather and prepared, you will have plenty of time to string your tarp and remain reasonably dry. A tarp is essential gear. The difference in weight between an 8X10 1.1-ounce tarp and a 10×12 tarp of the same fabric is less than 8 ounces. I think the cordage in my tarp sack weighs more than the fabric. I call the cordage p-cord, but really it is not. P-cord or paracord is nylon sheathed loose filaments. It stretches as humidity changes and is stretchy by its nature as well. I broke my right hand in the BWCAW over twenty years ago when I strung a tarp so tight with stretched actual p-cord that when I released the line, a young Aspen tree belted my hand like a swinging baseball bat. Ever since, I have carried Cooke Custom Sewing yellow polyester cord. It has a 450-pound break strength with braided inner strands, not loose filaments. Herein hides a critical concept for the ultralight canoe camper, p-cord weighs the same as high-quality polyester cord. Just as high-end chocolate weighs the same as stale old bargain basement candy. Choose the best.
A crinkly, blue plastic tarp costs a fraction of a sil-nylon tarp, weighs more, tears easier. If a blue plastic tarp is all a canoeist can afford, it will work. I may never be able to afford a Porsche Boxster or a lake cabin on the North Shore, but with a little saving, I can own the best camping tarp made in the world. Dan Cooke (CCS) sews them. Of course, a high-quality tarp deserves care. One of the reasons burning paper is against the law in the BWCAW is because burning embers of paper can be carried by the wind and start wildfires. Sparks from wood are much less likely to travel far. Hot embers from burning paper will likely put pinholes in a sil-nylon tarp. These holes can be easily closed with sil-nylon seam sealer, but it is best to prevent them by never burning paper beneath a sil-nylon tarp. Last word on tarps: no one ever complains that a tarp is too big.
Sleeping bags are another way to cut weight. To use a “3-season” sleeping bag in the summer is a mistake — too hot, too heavy, too bulky. Some nifty ultralight down bags weigh only about a pound. I quit using sleeping bags for summer camping years ago. Last summer, I used a double-sized ultralight duck down quilt. It weighs less than a pound and a half. A quilt has two advantages. Two close friends can share the same quilt, and nobody is confined in a tube. Just because you are in the wilderness does not mean you need to be lonely.
Down insulation has three advantages. It is light. It is compressible. It has a wide temperature range of comfort. The last attribute is especially helpful during the summer in the Boundary Waters. With a quilt, early in the evening, campers can be half under it, or less, and then pull it completely over themselves as the night air cools. I have spent nights in African jungles cooler than most nights last summer in the BWCAW. A summer weight quilt saves at least four pounds from two 3-season bags and at least a half-pound from a pair of ultralight down bags. Note, not all summer nights in the Boundary Waters are hot. When a cold front moves through, you need to be prepared. The clothing section will cover that. Last word on sleeping systems: Keep them dry. Even in the summer heat, down is slow to dry. If you lack total confidence in your shelter, stuff your bag in its sack during violent thunderstorms.
Inflatable pads for sleeping keep getting lighter. I only need an uninsulated 3/4 length one. These new pads are not like the old battle-axe Thermorests of days gone by. These new space-age pads are featherlight but susceptible to punctures. My pad never leaves the tent
There are three possible cooking systems that work well for the ultralight canoe camper. A weight problem only arises if you choose to use more than one system on the same trip.
1. Cooking over a campfire.
For years as a guide, one of my trademarks was always cooking over a campfire. My meals included breakfasts of old fashion steel-cut oats, elaborate one-pot dinners, fish fries, opening night steaks on the grate, and my signature bread, freshly baked bannock. These dishes require a bed of coals only reasonably achieved with a big campfire. To reliably build a big campfire, you need a saw and axe. I like the Boreal 21 saw available from the BWJ marketplace and a light axe head with a 32″ handle. About a total of six pounds in weight investment. This remains my favorite system for big groups. I only have two reservations about this system. On a scorching hot day cooking supper over a hot fire is a sweaty ordeal. Making a breakfast fire is time-consuming at a time when you want to be packing up and blasting out of camp.
2. Cooking over a twig stove such as the Littlbug. Pine cones, birch bark, and twigs work fine as fuel. I like this system best in Quetico and used it there on two short ultralight trips in 2019. In Quetico, twig fuel is abundant, and it’s handy to have the Littlbug pot rest. I still deal with blackened pots, and similar to a campfire, I need a tarp system. In the BWCAW, I need to find a campsite where trees are conducive to rigging a tarp because, by rule, the twig stove must be on or directly in front of the USFS fire grate. Weight: 19 ounces.
3. Cooking over a butane canister with a screw-in tiny stove head and sometimes a diffuser. I used this system on both trips last summer. A 16 oz. canister is just right for ten days. Upside: quick, simple, light, especially because I can use my super-light titanium pot. If necessary, I can cook in the tent vestibule. Downsides: only suitable for two people, fossil fuel, canister disposal issues, tippy, not traditional. Camping 18 days in high heat last summer, I was happy with this carefree system. We did gather sticks and enjoyed a magical campfire one evening. Still, most nights, I appreciated the solitude of being under the stars and listening to night noises unfettered by the smoke, smell, sounds, and light of a campfire. Just sprawled out on a slab of granite on a warm night can be just as magical as circled around a campfire. Weight: variable depending on stove, but under two pounds.
Cook kit and Chow: In this article, I will not detail menu selections, but I will drop a few hints. You can easily stick with the prohibition on bottles and cans and find excellent food items at the grocery store. Remember, water surrounds you in the Boundary Waters. Minimize carrying any food that contains water. A home dehydrator is the ultralight camper’s best friend. I also pare down packaging. For example, the pre-cooked bacon that needs no refrigeration is a great calorie and protein source, but you do not need the cardboard container. Even the foil cardboard seal on the top of the plastic peanut butter jar should be removed during the packing phase. It’s not so much the ounce or two, but why carry something in and out that has no utility? Figure on a pound-and-half of weight per person per day. I can do a little less than that on arctic trips, but up there, you can more easily supplement your menu with land foods. Ultralight canoe camping is not trail hiking the Continental Divide where supper might be sucking goo out of an aluminum pouch. I eat well in the Boundary Waters and buy almost all my food at a grocery store resorting only to freeze-dried entrees when weight is an absolute premium.
Most campers bring a packload of pots and pans, silverware, cups, and cooking implements — more to carry, more to clean, more to keep track of. Unless they are outdoor’s gourmands, less is more. We do fine with a small kitchen, and we always remember the mantra, if we did not bring it, we don’t need it.
As an ultralight canoe camper, this is what I bring. One pot with lid. Fire: stainless steel with nylon overcoat. Gas stove: titanium pot. Two titanium Sierra cups (nest inside pot). Two stainless steel tablespoons, plastic serving spoon, and flipper. Maybe leather gloves as they have multiple uses beyond cooking. A small cut scrubbie sponge, a thin cotton tea towel from Walmart, and a very small secure screw-top container of Dawn. A few years back, I carried biodegradable Camp Suds, which is likely one-tenth as polluting as Dawn, but I also discovered I needed ten times more of it to clean the dishes. I just use the Dawn very sparingly and dump any wastewater away from the lake and on soil where plants will absorb it, not on rocks, where it will run-off.
Starting at the top. However, you choose to travel in the summer; you will need a hat. The summer sun and the reflection from the water are intense. I prefer a white wide-brim cotton hat with a chin strap. I see many canoeists wearing baseball-style caps. This type of head covering does not protect ears and is likely to blow away. I soak my Tilley hat in lake water, and the evaporation keeps my noggin cool. It is heavier than most hats, but it’s always on my head. It also floats and is guaranteed for life. I think I am on my fifth Tilley.
Sunglasses are also essential in summer. I prefer quality polarized glasses with a croakie to prevent losing them overboard. With a large group, I carry a spare pair of sunglasses in the first aid kit.
I wear a synthetic fabric t-shirt. My favorite is the Nike brand in gray. A white shirt is cooler but challenging to keep looking clean. I also bring a Patagonia fleece top. Instead of fleece in the past, I brought a Pendleton wool shirt, equally warm and less bulky than a fleece, but the fleece top doubles as my pillow. Whenever you can use the same gear item for two purposes, you are on the trail to becoming an ultralight canoeist.
In life and in canoeing, almost everything important happens above the waist (well, almost everything). Nobody gets hypothermia because of cold feet. When that northwest wind blows and turns August into April, it’s the core and the head I need to keep warm. In addition to the fleece, I always carry a hooded nylon windbreaker. It is just a thin nylon, black pullover anorak. It is not the least bit water-resistant, which is a useful attribute. Over the top of my t-shirt and fleece, it’s as warm as wearing a parka! If I am out in the whitecaps, I will also have my PFD on under the windbreaker. Whenever I am buying raincoats or windbreakers, I make certain a PFD will fit underneath the garment. It adds important insulation.
A few years ago, I did an ultralight Quetico trip. I was getting close to my weight limit, so I pared down my wardrobe. Although it weighs less than a half-pound, I culled the windbreaker from my pack. I figured I could wear my Goretex Arc’teryx raincoat if the wind kicked up. This was a bad decision for two reasons. The wind did kick up, and I pulled on the fleece and the raincoat. I did okay, but when we stopped for lunch, I had a chill. I did not think it was worth the time to build a fire, and I just huddled in my raincoat out of the wind waiting to warm-up. I didn’t warm-up; I got colder. It wasn’t until I removed the raincoat that I chased the chill. That afternoon I paddled with just the fleece and the PFD. Although I wasn’t toasty warm, I was far more comfortable than I had been in the morning. Goretex does “breathe,” but not that much. It cannot breathe fast enough to keep up with the perspiration created by paddling. That lingering moisture robs the body of heat and made me cold. My windbreaker cost me about twenty dollars many years ago. My Arc’teryx raincoat retails for close to $500. The second reason for not wearing your raincoat as a windbreaker is cost. Goretex does not last forever. I figure it cost three dollars every time I put mine on. My windbreaker has cost me about a nickel a wearing, and it is still going strong.
A raincoat is an essential gear item for even a minimalist ultralight canoe camper. This article is about summer and heat, but there can be a few raw cold days. It is one thing to be cold and quite another to be cold and wet. In twenty days last summer, I think I only wore my raincoat twice, but I would not have traveled without it. Boundary Waters campers don’t need to spend $500 on a raincoat. For me, it’s worth it because I travel all over the world, including to some much rainier places than the BWCAW. In Patagonia in 2018, it rained 28 out of 30 days. Rained is the wrong word; deluged is better. A cheaper raincoat would have wetted through. I remained dry at least up top all month. For occasional use, a quality coated nylon raincoat will work fine in canoe country. Sized to fit over a PFD and a style as long as possible makes the most sense for a canoeist. Most expensive raincoats have a minimum of pockets – they just add weight and are a common source of leaks. Raincoats made of Goretex or a similar waterproof breathable fabric should never be worn around a campfire. Smoke clogs the fabric’s pores and is difficult to clean out. Standing by a roaring campfire under the tent, I wear my windbreaker and put my Goretex raincoat in a stuff sack.
For years, when summer canoeing, I never brought rain pants. They were a pain to put on, dragged in the mud, and got so damp and humid they gave me crotch rot. I can get by fine in the summer without rain pants. Just to be a little more comfortable, the last few years I have worn rain pants shorts. You won’t find them in a catalog, but all I do is buy inexpensive coated rain pants and cut them off above the knees. The shorts keep my pelvis but avoid all the other rain pants problems, including bringing a pint of water into the canoe when you climb in after a portage. The rain shorts are my only other pair of pants, and they do come in handy if I’ve been swimming in my canoe shorts and want something dry to wear around camp while my shorts dry.
For shorts, I own three identical pairs of LLBean swim trunks/shorts combo. I only bring one pair on a trip, and the only reason I own three pairs is I buy them when I see they are on sale. They seem to last forever. Quick-drying, ultralight, durable, and with zipper pockets. And not even the slightest suggestion in their design that underwear has any utility. Underwear is the bane of the ultralight camper. When I took my second daughter Mandy on her coming of age canoe trip many years ago, a neighbor asked, “How can you possibly carry enough underwear for a two-week trip?” I shut that inquiry down quickly, “We are not bringing any underwear.”
Footwear is another significant weight saver. I wear one pair of shoes, and that is all I bring. My Chaco Z2’s sport sandals are on my feet. They have excellent traction on wet surfaces and a sturdy footbed. Don’t confuse quality sport sandals with flip-flops. My choice of footwear often garners criticism. Sprained ankles? Stubbed toes? Lacerated feet? In warm climates around the world, people’s go-to footwear are sandals. Soldiers wear sandals into battle, Grand Canyon river guides wear sandals, Masai goat herders wear them on the Serengeti. Here is why. No blisters, no stink, no trench foot, quick-dry, excellent traction, you can kneel in the canoe wearing them, fashionable. Anyway for wet foot porters, no boot is high enough. In a run to the latrine in the middle of the night, no shoe is faster to put on. I also wear my Chacos swimming. I may not have anything else on, but I am wearing my Chacos. I paddled with a guy twenty years ago that brought leather boots. The only injury on that trip happened when he stepped on a broken bottle while swimming barefoot.
Decades ago, I was on a long trek in Southeast Asia near the Malay Thai border. My partner was wearing sandals. I was wearing leather boots. She needed to stop to pluck leeches from between her toes continually, and I kept saying,
“You should have worn boots.” When we got to our campsite, a “hide” up in the trees, we decided to first go for a swim in the nearby river. When I removed my boots, my socks were pink, and when I pulled them off, my toes and insteps looked like ground beef and were squirming with sneaky leeches. The leeches excrete two chemicals. One is an anesthetic so the victims cannot feel the leeches penetrating, and the other is an anticoagulant, so their victims continue to bleed. I was able to pull out all the little buggers, but I left copious amounts of blood on every rung of the ladder up to the hide. I wondered that night if a tiger might find the blood trail of interest. My feet were tender on the hike out, and ever since? I embrace the many virtues of sandals. At least then you can see the leeches.
A few other clothing items in my pack. A pair of ultralight Capilene long underwear for that rare cold night or cold evening worn under my shorts. If I am still under my weight limit, I will throw in an ExOfficio tech fabric long-sleeved shirt. It takes away the chill of night air and reduces high-value targets for mosquitoes. My fleece top does the same, so this shirt is optional, but it is nice looking evening wear. A pair of Fits or Darn Tough wool socks can turn a chilly night into a cozy night. I seldom need the socks for warmth, but last summer out on the big lakes, the ankle-biter flies were the worst I have ever experienced, and kneeling in the canoe, I was defenseless from their onslaught. I wore the socks for protection, and on the second trip, I even brought along nylon long pants. I also carry an old threadbare cotton t-shirt and an old pair of cotton boxer shorts to sleep in. These are two more optional items that I only carry if I can afford the weight, especially if I am with a large group. If there is some emergency in the night, I don’t want to out running around in the nude chasing a bear away from the food pack.
Paddling in the arctic, I have a fancy PFD with a Gerber rescue knife snapped on it, my InReach satellite communicator in a pocket, fire starters, a compass, a whistle, a hundred dollar bill, cordage, an M80, a fire stick, and a lighter. I feel like Batman when I strap that bad boy on. It is overkill in the Boundary Waters. I found a simple, no-frills PFD at Cabelas a few years ago that weighs almost nothing. It is my choice for ultralight canoeing.
Accessories on my body:
In my hat, a fifty-dollar bill. Around my neck, sometimes an REI whistle. It meets the legal requirements for watercraft in Canada’s Quetico, and an old Inupiat seal hunter in Alaska taught me it is the last defense if attacked by a bear. It worked once for me, so the whistle has sentimental value, but I don’t wear it in the BWCAW.
In the zippered pockets of my shorts are two critical pieces of gear. It’s probably some Freudian phallic progression, but I have noticed the older I get, the shorter is the blade on the knife that I carry. My go-to knife is now the Swiss Army brand. Not the absurdly fat giant one with a toothbrush and a magnifying glass, just a modest one with a half dozen options. I use the tweezers and screwdrivers almost as much as the blades, and the little saw could be a trip saver for major canoe or paddle repairs. If I were smarter, I would carry a Leatherman. Pliers have so many uses. Unfortunately, when I carry my heavy Leatherman in my pocket on portages, it tends to pull down my pants, not always a good thing. In the other pocket goes my Bic lighter. By weight, cost, and utility the best bargain of my entire outfit.
In the summertime, you can cut a lot of weight, not so much by what you have on your body but more so by what you are carrying in your pack. But you do need some essentials.
For ultralight canoeing, I like the simplicity of a SteriPEN. They make some super-lightweight options, but the standard model that takes 4 AA Lithiums is the best. I bring an extra set of batteries (lithium batteries are half the weight of alkaline and last way longer). We made it through each ten-day trip last summer on a single set of batteries, and we drank a lot in the heat. I always start with a fresh set of batteries. If I were an ultralight purest, I would just drink the water straight out of the lakes and rivers. I have endured Giardia twice, and I think a third time would kill me. Some people like filters, but whenever I trip with filter fans, they always end up using my SteriPEN.
First Aid and Repair
Gorilla tape is stickier and more durable than standard duct tape, but it is at least twice as heavy. Duct tape makes more sense on an ultralight canoe trip. I do not think it is a good idea to roll off a few feet and wrap it around a pencil. I take an 8-ounce roll. It will patch a hole in the canoe, bind a split paddle blade, a cracked paddle shaft, cover a forming blister, bind a splint, fix a hole in your tent, tarp, sleeping bag, or shorts. I bring a few Tagaderms for cuts and burns. They weigh the same as bandaids, cost about 20x more, and work about 10X as well. A small tube of Vaseline has multiple first aid and repair uses. One run of the antibiotic Zithromax (prescription), the tomahawk for infections, a run of Ciprofloxacin (prescription), the atomic bomb for infections, six tabs Vicodin (prescription) for pain. I don’t mess with any other pills other than regular medications. I make sure to take what I need but only enough doses for the duration of the trip. If I needed to take some pill every day to stay alive, I would bring two sets and store one set in each pack. Very important to bring any medical or hygiene supplies that may be occasionally needed. Ultralight canoeing is not deprivation.
In August, when the sun starts heading for Australia, a solar-powered Luci-light is worth the few ounces. A ziplock freezer bag for the few hygiene items works well. I never hang this bag from a tree. Critters have no use for toothpaste or lip balm. If you are under 50, you can skip the next item. For those of us with one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel, a pee bottle will increase the likelihood of restful sleep. Ultralight has its limits, you will want a separate drinking bottle. I bring a one-liter Nalgene bottle with a wide mouth to accommodate my SteriPEN. I do not count on my iPhone for maps and bring Fisher maps for the scope of my trip. There may be better maps but I started with Fisher and have a complete set.
Cell Phone? I have been camping for a long time, and my methods have evolved. I once said that I would never carry a cell phone into the wilderness. I have changed my mind. The iPhone always goes with me now. Here is why: It’s my waterproof camera. It’s my video camera. It’s my notebook. It’s my bird guide, complete with recorded bird songs. It’s my reading material. It’s my calendar and timepiece. It’s my compass. It’s my collection of back-up maps. It’s my star chart. Sometimes when I am in cell range, it is even a telephone. All those features in a tiny package combined with a little solar panel make it an everlasting tool. Maybe what I like most about my iPhone is the simplicity. The clutter in the tent is gone.
Leave it home
For an ultralight canoe camper, what you don’t bring is almost as important as what you bring. In the summer, a screen house is unnecessary and a burden to carry, pitch, strike, and stow. Chairs are heavy, take time to set up, and rob you of the challenge of finding a natural chaise lounger. I bring a 20-inch square piece of ensolite as a seat pad. It is plenty comfortable and doubles as an extender to my three-quarter length sleeping pad.
Although problem bears seem to be on the upswing, I do not carry pepper spray. A bear killed my best friend, so I do not just scoff at the risk. However, I think I am more likely to be injured by an unintentional discharge of the bear spray canister than by a bear. A shrill whistle, shouts, and as a last resort, moving camp (easy for the ultralight camper) are better bear avoidance strategies. In 103 Boundary Waters canoe trips, I have never once lost a morsel of food to a bear; I wish I could say the same about rodents. Last word on bears, bear spray canisters are heavy and dangerous save them for far north trips where the bears are bigger and meaner.
Shovels? Machetes? Dutch ovens? Latrine privacy screens? Firearms? Hatchets? Books? Ipads? Lanterns? Canoe seats? Thwart bags (possibly my biggest pet peeve) — none of this stuff is suitable for summertime ultralight canoe travel.
Beyond the essentials: the Essence of Ultralight Canoe Camping
I am not sure of the right word for the next item. Exception? Indulgence? Frill? All those words imply some sacrifice in traveling ultralight, which is not what I believe. Maybe encumbrance is a better word, but that implies negativity in the other direction. What I am getting at is, if you are as careful with gear and provisions that I suggest, and you are reasonably fit, you will be a bit below the comfortable weight limit, and that will enable you to bring along an optional item. The key here, both for lightness and simplicity, keep it to one pursuit. Here are some examples: quality binoculars (birding) OR rod and reel and a half dozen lures (angling) OR book and a hammock (reading) OR high-end camera (photography) OR some fancy food (cooking) OR pastels and a sketchbook (art). The secret is just one optional pursuit. The reason for only one thing? Weight is not the most significant reason. Simplicity is not even the biggest reason. Focus is.
To use an old hippie word — canoe trips are “happenings.” You plan and plan and plan, but you never know in advance what is going to happen. Every day and every night, the wilderness is the teacher. As a camper, you are the observer, the listener, and often an active participant. Nature never waits. You need to be ready to learn, or the lesson might fly right by without even your awareness. That is the trouble with bringing too much gear or having too many expectations — fishing AND birding AND photography AND reading. Trying to accomplish all these pursuits is another way of blocking being present with the wilderness. While traveling, I occasionally focus on one optional pursuit and just allow adventure to fill in the gaps.
My earliest canoe trips were with the Dene first nation people of northern Canada. They packed some heavy gear but not much of it. I cannot say it was “ultralight canoe camping,” but the focus was never on bringing extra stuff (especially food!). We were never bored, never distracted. We were just there, and that was enough. I have never lost that concept of merging with nature rather than protecting myself from nature, and, for me, it has made all the difference.
To reiterate from my opening paragraph, I sometimes enjoy base camp glamping in canoe country. Complete with a screen house, a folding table, a cooler with ice, chairs, a dutch oven, 2-burner propane stove, lantern, spacious tent, a mini-bar, the whole enchilada. A campsite that resembles a lakeside cottage can be a wonderful holiday. Been there, done that, and I would do it again. I am not trying to convince you that, however you choose to camp on the continuum with a bubble wrap pad on one end, and a 3-room tent with a solar shower on the other, is wrong. I just want to share that traveling far and fast in comfort but with a minimum amount of gear and extraneous stuff, suits me best and brings me closest to the wilderness experience I cherish most. I believe in canoe country’s busiest season, I become almost invisible, and I like that. You might too.