Expedition Planning 101: Gear Decisions

The trips I love head into vast and remote wilderness and stay gone as long as possible. My favorite destination is the Far North, especially northern Canada, where you can disappear for a month or more and hardly encounter anyone. It’s big, wild and clarifying country where wilderness immersion takes on new levels of meaning.

There are challenges to such trips. Pulling them off isn’t easy, and making them work without breaking the bank is the riddle. Several gear choices are at the heart of that success. Bulk and weight are key considerations. It goes without saying that “backpack style” travel is the norm.

I could recite a trip gear list, but I’d rather jump right over how many socks and tee-shirts to bring and go to the heart of several decisions that make a real difference in traveling safely, comfortably and economically to inaccessible terrain.

YOUR BOAT: Transporting a traditional canoe or kayak is expensive and cumbersome. That’s why I’ve gone exclusively to folding canoes, like the PakBoat line, for northern trips. They pack into a large duffel that can be loaded into a plane or train or vehicle. They go together in a half hour or less and they perform admirably – very little maintenance and they respond much as a traditional boat would.

COOKING: Stoves and fuel for a month or more make a cumbersome package, and empty canisters take up precious space. On remote trips, I prefer to cook with wood, using a lightweight fire pan (even a flexible aluminum drip pan can work) and a compact grill. Even on the tundra, driftwood is available and with some foraging you can manage enough of a fire to boil a pot. I’ll take a tiny stove (like the MSR Pocket Rocket) and a couple of fuel canisters as backup for awful weather or when wood simply isn’t available.

BUGS: Lightweight windshirt and pants are key to comfortable travel in insect country. Usually, a dot or two of 100% DEET repellant on the end of your nose and on cheekbones suffices. If it gets really bad, a headnet is a life-saver. I’m also a fan of the mesh bug shirts (some are treated with repellant, others are simply a combination wind/netting long-sleeved top with hood). Make sure your clothes/socks are heavy enough that mosquitoes can’t bite through them. And remember, bugs like dark colors – avoid the black clothes. There are no end of bug repellant devices out there. They have their place, but my strategy is 100% DEET and netting when things get bad.

SHOES: On trips like these shoes are key – they handle wading, slippery rocks, muskeg, portage trails and whatever else a day might throw you. I’ve used rugged sandal-style shoes (like the Keen Newport H2O) in conjunction with water socks, to good effect. They are durable and comfortable in most conditions. I also like closed-top, water shoes with good grip soles, quick drying material and stout lacing. In camp, wear a comfortable, dry set of sneakers. I know there’s a fan base for high-top, waterproof boots and shoes, but I find them heavy, cumbersome and slow to dry.

TARP/BUG SHELTER: Hanging out in camp, if the bugs are thick, is problematic. A lightweight tarp is essential, and some people cart along a large, screened shelter to hang out in. Problem is that the big, screened shelters are bulky and heavy. If portages are part of the trip, that’s an issue. I use a mega-mid style shelter (Black Diamond makes the Megabug netting shelter which accommodates 4 people pretty comfortably). There are also screened latrine tents for bug protection in that compromised, bare-butt state. In that case, you’ve decided to dig latrines rather than using cat-holes and you’ve added another item to the load.

WATER FILTER: I generally don’t treat water in the Far North. If I’m taking a filter at all, my preference is the gravity filters (Platypus makes several). In a pinch, throw in a bottle of iodine tincture to treat water when necessary (5 drops/quart). A little lemonade powder helps the taste!

FIRST AID/REPAIRS: On the tundra, 911 isn’t going to cut it. You need a very complete first aid kit to handle whatever comes along, and drugs to anticipate everything from soft-tissue infection to intestinal distress. Have your doctor help fill your drug list and make sure it’s all in a waterproof pack. (Adventure Medical Kits makes a Pro model that serves as a good base to start from). Same goes for your repair kit – make sure you bring fabric, spare tent zipper, netting, sewing supplies, duct tape, all-in-one tool, zip-ties, gorilla tape to address whatever comes along in terms of boat repairs, gear failure, clothing disasters. It’s always what you don’t expect.

EMERGENCY RESCUE: In the old days, we simply disappeared and everyone back home hoped they’d get a call in a month or two when we came out the other side. These days, there are devices that track and report our status. I don’t go in for the trip blog/computer travel style – that’s what I’m getting away from!! However, there are emergency beacons like the InReach, Spot, and others, which can periodically report your status and location to those who care and call for help if things go south. If you don’t use it much, you can get away with a single charge, but you may need to consider a solar charging station to be safe (they are getting more compact and efficient all the time).

The rest of the gear list … it really isn’t all that different from what you’d take on a three-day weekend.

Next Up: Part III Food and Menu Planning


Expedition Planning 101: Inspiration (Part 1)
Fear and Loathing on Montana’s Middle Fork Flathead
Four Wild Paddling Destinations in the Lower 48

Camp Chairs / Headlights / Portage Carts

Learn to Lead a Paddling Expedition

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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