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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Complete Boatpacker

What to Do When Push Turns to Shove —
And Your Stuff Still Won't Fit

By Tamia Nelson

July 6, 2004

To the first-time canoe or kayak camper, packing a boat looks easy. There's all that space. Just throw your packs in and head out. Right? Wrong. What goes in easy often comes out just as fast, usually when you don't want it to. And even an Old Town Tripper begins to shrink when you start to pile in the gear. Sea kayaks? Think keyhole surgery — only you're putting things in, not taking them out. There's an art to boatpacking. Don't tell that to a beginner, though. All of us were expert packers when we started out. Until we tried it, that is.

Experience is a great teacher, of course — but the lessons can be painful. Frustration is the novice paddler's first response when things go wrong. Indecision comes next. Then paralysis. It happens to old hands, too. Farwell, who loaded his first canoe back when Grummans were state of the art, still lapses into a sullen torpor each time the last pack won't fit into the last space.

It doesn't have to be like this. With a bit of trial and error, a couple of hours of free time, and a ruthless winnowing of your gear list, preparing for a trip can be fun, rather than frustrating. What's the key to making packing a pleasure? To begin with, know exactly what you'll be taking. Write up a checklist of everything you'll need, both on the water and in camp. Once you've done that, collect every item on the list and spread it out on the floor.

Ready? Good. We'll start packing up in a minute. First, though, a reminder: Waterproofing is Job One. Always. Its benefits go beyond keeping your gear dry. Waterproof packs also add flotation. That's a Very Good Idea. A swamped boat is like a runaway semi on a mountain road: tippy, hard to control, and all but impossible to stop. Each waterproof bag, box, or barrel in your boat means you'll have less freelance water sloshing around when things go wrong. Someday you'll be mighty glad of that.

And one more thing: Take the measure of your craft and choose your packs accordingly. A canoeist can usually find a place for almost anything that's smaller than her boat, but a kayaker has a lot less latitude. Kayaks have small hatches, narrow passages, and enclosed compartments. If a pack is too large or too rigid, it just won't fit. Period. Piling cargo high on the decks isn't an option — unless you like the idea of the wind dictating your course. (Rolling a boat with a heap of deck gear is no joy, either.) The remedy? Bring a tape measure with you when you shop for packs.

OK. You've written your script and set the stage. Now it's time for the…

Dress rehearsal

Pack up. Don't just throw things in the first bag that comes to hand, though. You'll be packing and unpacking most of your gear on each and every day of your trip. You'll often be tired. You can bet it'll be sluicing down rain, too, and that the wind will be blowing half a gale. And what if it isn't doing either one? Then the mosquitoes, blackflies, and bulldogs will be waiting for you. So efficiency counts. Pack like with like. Don't stuff your sleeping bag with the cook-kit, for example, or your spare clothes with the staple foods. And don't put things you'll need under way — rain gear, first-aid and repair kits, lunch, tarp — at the bottom of your biggest pack. Kayakers will want to give some thought to unpacking, too. Small bags in out-of-the-way corners aren't easy to retrieve, even for long-limbed contortionists. A lanyard can be a life-saver here. But don't risk entanglement. Wedge the bitter end of each lanyard between the packs near the hatch, or fit some small D-rings to serve as lashing points. Whatever you do, never run a lanyard through a hatch! You'll destroy the watertight seal.

A final warning to kayakers: If you use a bag that's larger than your hatches when it's stuffed with gear — or larger than the opening behind your seat (or between your foot braces), if your boat doesn't have watertight bulkheads — you'll have to load and unload it in place, piece by piece. This will try the patience of a saint. Ordinary mortals don't stand a chance. They're likely to lose gear, too. My advice? Get smaller bags.


All packed? Then you're ready to stow your gear aboard your boat. Do a dry run on the lawn first. After you think you've solved all the problems, take your boat and baggage to a nearby pond for a short shakedown cruise. Here are a few tips to help you prepare for your first sea trial:

  • Keep Your Ends Up. Stow heavy gear low and inboard. Unless you welcome the prospect of frequent submarine excursions, keep your bow and stern light. The ends of your boat are good places for featherweight gear or float bags. Heavier gear belongs amidships. The picture shows you how to keep your ends up. It's somewhat idealized, of course. In practice, you'll often have to choose between perfect trim and packing efficiency. Just do the best you can. (Note that the bird's-eye view omits the "top dressing" of light gear for clarity's sake.)

    Stow It!

    There's more to proper weight distribution than keeping your ends light. You'll want your boat trimmed so that it floats level, too — with you (and your partner) aboard. While it's often suggested that paddlers trim their boats a bit "down by the bow" at some times (when bucking strong head winds, for example), and down by the stern at others (with a brisk following breeze, say), it's usually best to start the day on an even keel. Then you can make fine adjustments in trim when you're under way, either by moving your seat or by shifting a trimming weight. (A two- or three-gallon water sack is handy.) Why? Winds often shift unexpectedly, and few paddlers hold the same compass course for hours on end. If you load for a head wind when you launch, you may find yourself fighting for control just as soon as the wind backs or you round the first bend in the river

  • Run a Tight Ship. Keep your gear tied down or otherwise confined. Loose gear can easily become lost gear. It can also be hazardous to your health in a capsize. A canoe or kayak is a lively craft. Lash or stuff your load so it won't shift, no matter how violently your boat rolls, pitches, or yaws. There's such a thing as too tight, however. Make sure that your knots or patent fasteners can be undone in a few seconds, even under load. Anticipate capsizes. Will you be able to empty your boat in a hurry if you have to? And be sure that you can get at bailers, painters, spare paddles, bilge pumps, water bottles, and map cases without a struggle. When you need a spare paddle, you need it right now, not next week. Hook-and-loop (Velcro®) tie-downs work well in such applications, as do plain, old-fashioned slip hitches.

  • Make It Short on Top. Kayakers, who always seem to have just one more bag to stow than they have room for, find it hard to resist piling gear on their decks. Like I said before, this is a bad idea. Not all deck cargo is proscribed, however. The stern deck is the logical place for your spare paddle, and a well-secured deck bag is no problem if it's small enough. Nor is a pack frame, lashed securely behind the cockpit. (Be sure it doesn't prevent you from getting at your spare paddle.) But that's about it. And what about canoeists? They, too, need to keep it short on top. If packs rise more than a few inches (a foot, at most) above the gunwales of a canoe, they're too high. That's why traditional canoe packs are comparatively squat.

  • Have a Place for Everything. Just as it's important to pack individual bags and boxes efficiently, keeping like with like and making sure that anything needed under way is at the top and not the bottom, it's equally important to stow your packed bags thoughtfully. Emergency gear must be accessible at all times. That goes without saying. But you won't be happy if you have to unload the boat to get your lunch, camera, or binoculars, either. Remember this when you stow your gear.

  • Get Something for Nothing! Who can resist this come-on? No kayaker, that's for sure. When space is tight, you have to search out odd corners and hidden places. Short folks can often stow a small bag just forward of their foot braces. Hanging seats sometimes leave hollows on either side that are just the right size for a water bottle, a pack of flares, or a chart-case. But don't overdo it. If any bag gets in the way of a wet exit, it has to go. How will you know? With a friend standing by, load up, roll over in waist-deep water, and then…swim for it. You'll test the security of your watertight hatches and bags, into the bargain.

  • Use Air Freight. If you're lucky enough to have any empty space after loading your boat, fill it with flotation, even if this means that the float bags will only be partially inflated. As your trip unwinds, your food packs will shrink. Then you can take up the slack by further inflating the float bags.


Gear all stowed? And not an inch to spare? Maybe it's a sign. Before it's too late, take a moment to…

Lighten Up

Just because you have space doesn't mean you have to fill it all with gear. There's a lot to be said for traveling light. Everything you bring with you has to be pushed through the water, carried over the portages, and loaded and unloaded at least once every day. The less you take, the less work you'll have to do, and the higher your boat will float. Keep this in mind when you're looking longingly at your dutch oven.

Still can't bear to part with anything on your checklist? Then listen to the wisdom of Dolly Parton. Once upon a time, after an explosive, if unplanned, finale to her act — there are some stresses too great for any seam, however strongly stitched — she summed up her plight in a few well-chosen words. "It's like my daddy told me," she quipped. "He said I was askin' for trouble, always tryin' to stuff ten pounds of…er…stuff in a five-pound sack. Looks like he was right, don't it?"

If you've reached the point where your seams are showing the strain, maybe it's time to take a little out of the sack. Just ask Dolly.

Needs versus wants — it's an old, old story. Packing a canoe or kayak for a camping trip isn't rocket science. First, determine what's absolutely necessary, and make sure those items go along for the ride. Then look at everything else on your checklist with a critical eye. Take each item in turn. Ask yourself if you can live without it. If the answer is Yes, leave it at home. And try hard to say Yes. Ounces become pounds after the second mile of a long portage, or after the third breaking wave in a storm.

The moral of the story? When in doubt, leave it out. That's the real secret of successful boatpacking.

Copyright 2004 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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