Tried and True: Gear for a Multi-Day Wilderness Paddling Tour

Pic Island
The Now: Conor Mihell gazes out at Pic Island, one of the most stunning landforms on Lake Superior's north shore, in August 2019. Photo: Conor MihellConor Mihell

This past summer, I celebrated the 15th anniversary of one of the most memorable wilderness journeys I’ve ever taken by doing it again. I was 23 years old with a newly minted undergraduate degree when I sea kayaked 350 miles along Lake Superior’s north shore in May 2004. This August I set out to do it again. While not much along the Canadian coastline of the world’s largest freshwater lake has changed — it’s still one of the best sea kayaking journeys in the world, as far as I’m concerned — it was interesting to ponder how much my gear has changed. Here’s a rundown of a few notable items in my hatches.

Conor Mihell in 2004
The Then: C&K Editor-at-large Conor Mihell in 2004. Photo: Conor Mihell

Tent: Lightweight, liveable backcountry shelters have come a long way in the past 15 years. Back then, my go-to solo tent for sea kayak touring was a Sierra Designs Clip Flashlight, a tunnel that worked for an intimate couple but was best for one (the venerable Clip Flashlight has been updated extensively – BUY ON SALE for $149). My new MSR Zoic 1 (BUY NOW for $299) feels more spacious — despite its one-person rating — and sets up faster, being freestanding. It also benefits from lighter weight fabrics, a mesh body and improved waterproof coatings on the fly and floor. At 3.5 pounds it’s lighter than my original Clip Flashlight, yet still durable enough for day-to-day use.

MSR Zoic
MSR Zoic 1

Sleeping bag: My Western Mountaineering SummerLite (BUY ON SALE for $405) bag is a work of art, hand-sewn in San Jose and filled with ultra-lofty 850-fill power goose down. It compresses to the size of a large grapefruit and keeps me warm to the freezing point. There are few joys that supersede snuggling into this bundle of coziness at the end of a long day. My love of feather-filled sleeping bags started with a comparatively bulky, 575-power down bag from Canada’s Mountain Equipment Co-op.I Iearned how to keep it dry in the wettest of weather and it rewarded me with many years of warmth — going on a quarter-century of use, this old mummy bag is still true to its temperature rating.

WM SummerLite
Western Mountaineering SummerLite

Provisions: Years ago, I took pride in subsiding on a diet of baked beans, bagels and day-old fruits and veggies, purchased off the discount rack. While I still love a can of beans, this summer I supplemented my provisions with Fourth & Heart ghee butter (BUY NOW for $2.99), FBomb Keto Krunch (BUY NOW for $27.99, six 1.75-ounce packs), Larry & Lenny’s Complete Crunchy Cookies (BUY NOW for $4.99 per 4.25-ounce pouch) — all three snack options deliver lasting energy with a blend of fat and protein and pack a lot of calories into small packages.

Keto Krunch
FBomb Keto Krunch

Communications: Perhaps the biggest change in my packing list is backcountry communication gear. This summer, I put a new Somewear satellite communicator (BUY NOW for $349 plus subscription)—a tiny, high-power unit that connects by Bluetooth with my phone to enable two-way communication, among other services. This palm-sized device stands in stark contrast to the old VHF marine radio I once carried; in fact, satellite technology has virtually rendered the latter obsolete (especially in remote places like Lake Superior, where hand-held radios don’t have adequate range). The Somewear device works with an app on your phone, allowing text communication. It also includes advanced tracking features, weather forecasts and SOS. The Somewear is remarkably adaptable and constantly upgrading based on user feedback—a distinct advantage over other satellite communicators.

Somewear Labs
Somewear Labs satellite communicator

Paddle: I was a dedicated Greenland-style paddler, until I discovered the powerful acceleration of a big-bladed Werner Paddle. But this summer, I rediscovered my love of skinny sticks with Gearlab Outdoors’ Akiak (BUY NOW for $348), a gorgeous carbon-fiber two-piece Inuit paddle that’s so much smoother than the old homemade version I used years ago. A Greenland paddle is like the granny gear on a bicycle: Your cadence is faster, with far less resistance on the body. On my three-week trip I fell into a rhythm of alternating days with the Akiak and days with my Werner Ikelos (BUY NOW for $490).

Gear Labs Akiak
Gear Labs Akiak

Stove: About the only piece of gear that hasn’t changed in my sea kayaking kit is a venerable 25-year-old MSR Whisperlite stove (BUY NOW for $89.95). This timeless stove is easy to maintain and burns clean, easily accessible white gas. Sure, mine has a few knocks and is stained with soot, but it still works as well as the day I got it. 

MSR Whisperlite
MSR Whisperlite

More Gear and Adventure at CanoeKayak.com:

— Conor Mihell reveals what’s in his pack for 2019

— Embrace the shoulder season with Gear for the Gales

— More paddling adventures in Ontario

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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