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Wilderness Canoeing
  |  First Published: June 2010



This is the first in a series of articles aimed at providing a few pointers for those intrepid anglers who would like to incorporate some wilderness canoeing in with their fishing. I have been on six expeditions over the past five years and have developed a head full of ideas and experiences worth passing on to like minded paddlers.

PREPaRATION

Without doubt the single most important factor is preparation. Once you are in the river, it’s too late to remember a vital piece of equipment left in the shed.

The importance of preparation was brought home to me in a very telling manner at the start of our latest trip last Easter, when I realized that I hadn’t collected a helmet and lifejacket before departure. Every year we meet at Terry McClelland’s house in Mareeba, and the very first thing we do is go through the selection of helmets and lifejackets to find a good fit and put them with our kit.

This year Terry was off fuelling up his car when we arrived and I somehow missed this vital step. As luck would have it, there were spare helmets still in the canoe trailer. While we were waiting on the river bank for the car shuttle to be completed, in paddled another group from Mareeba who were getting out where we got in.

Fortunately one of our crew, Brad Weaver, knew the other paddlers and was able to organise a loan of a lifejacket for me. I was very relieved, as I wasn’t looking forward to six days on the river without a lifejacket!

Disclaimer:

The products covered in this article have all been paid for in full, with no special discounts or sponsorship deals. They are simply what I have bought and found to be ideal for what I do. It certainly pays to shop around though, as the variation in price can be substantial.

EQUIPMENT

Lists are the only way to go and the Fact Sheet nearby has my list, which is a good starting point to build your own. Memory just doesn’t cut it, as the above scenario demonstrates.

The overall aim of expedition canoeing gear is minimum size and weight. Each person has one barrel to hold all of their gear and food. This includes tent, clothes, cooking and eating utensils, and food for the duration of the trip.

I have been camping since I can remember and have a very comprehensive camping outfit, but I had to virtually start from scratch and buy all new ultra-light gear for canoeing.

The equipment is basically the same as you would carry when backpacking. While many items on the list are givens, some are worth further explanation.

Bailer

A bailer is an absolute must. The best and cheapest is a square shaped plastic container between 4 and 6L in volume, cut so the handle is still intact. Tape or glue the lid on and tie about 2m of cord to it. One front and back of the canoe is even better.

Chair

The first trip I didn’t take a chair then went to a tripod style, and by trip three I had the full blown aluminium camping chair with side table on the right and multi pocket pouch on the left.

Others continue to bring various versions, but one thing I can attest to is that my seat is never vacant. I get up to do anything and others are very keen to keep it warm for me! It’s a bit more of a hassle carrying it but well and truly worth the effort.

Crocs

I’m talking about the wearing kind, not the biting ones! I have tried a wide range of camp shoes over the years but crocs are my pick. They are good on sand, stones and rock, they’re light, and they dry in a flash. What more can I say?

A lot of the time, bare feet are fine on sand bank camps, but at night you should always have something on your feet. We wear runners in the river, so a second pair of dry shoes is needed around camp.

Dry Bags

Dry bags are probably the most important pieces of gear on the trip. Even though the barrels are supposed to be water tight, most times they are not, so I store everything I don’t want wet in dry bags. They come in different sizes and colours and I have about 15 of them from 5L to 30L in capacity.

EPIRB

I take the digital EPIRB out of my boat, which is a bit big, but the cost of a compact is prohibitive for one trip a year. It is not uncommon to go four or five days without sighting another human being on our trips, so the EPIRB and a satellite phone are our emergency backups.

Gaffa Tape

The quickest and easiest way to repair a hole in a canoe is with Gaffa tape. It’s simply a matter of emptying the canoe, turning it over to dry in the sun and taping the hole on the outside and the inside of the canoe.

We use plastic fantastics, as fibreglass canoes just won’t stand up to the punishment they would get on the rivers we paddle. We have still managed to hole a few canoes and had one last three days with Gaffa tape.

Duct tape is great to take for other purposes. but it isn’t up to repairing canoes.

Ground Tarp

As most campsites and lunch stops are on sandbanks, a small ground tarp about 1.5m by 2m is an absolute necessity to keep food and equipment out of the sand.

Head Torch

A head torch is a definite must. There is no room for camp lights, so everyone needs a hands free head light. The best we have been able to come up with to date is an LED Lenser H7, which runs on three AAA batteries and has variable light intensity and beam.

It has a maximum light range of 160m and lasts 55 hours on low and 30 hours on high. Its practical beam range is more like 50-60m but the wide beam and ability to have a truly variable light intensity, rather than the three clicks, is great.

Hiker Fly

My super light and compact Outer Limits Hiker Fly has been used on every trip. When it’s raining and you are trying to cook dinner it is an absolute saviour. Last trip it rained almost every dinner time and we overlapped two Hiker Flies and it sheltered all nine paddlers through dinner and after dinner drinks.

Leatherman

My children gave me my Leatherman Wave for my birthday about six years ago, and it is without doubt my most valued piece of camping equipment. I wear it at all times when camping/canoeing, except when sleeping and it gets used hundreds of times on each trip.

I have had it completely replaced once and the scissors fixed since then, all under warranty. If I had the receipt (which I didn’t) it would have been fixed for nothing, but without the receipt it cost just $15 postage and handling, both times.

Lifejacket and Helmet

A lifejacket should be worn at all times, so make sure it is comfortable. Find one with a couple of zip pockets on the front to hold sunscreen and snacks.

A helmet is vital for running water but can be clipped aboard in the big calm waterholes. Note the word: clipped. An easy way to lose a helmet is to just toss it in the bottom of the canoe when not in use.

The helmet’s main role is to protect your head from trees when negotiating running water. If you hit your head on a tree branch when walking, generally you bounce off, but in a canoe the boat just keeps going and you wear the full impact of the collision.

Map

Everyone should learn how to read a map correctly and know where they are at all times. GPSs are certainly taking over but there is nothing like a map of the right scale to give you the full picture.

Purchase a 50,000:1 scale laminated topographical map of your journey. Sometimes it is necessary to buy two maps, glue them together, and then have it laminated to get the whole journey on the one map.

We have at times, on shorter trips, managed to colour photocopy the section being undertaken, on a single A4 page, and then have it laminated.

Paddles

This year we went to carrying two single paddles and one kayak blade in each canoe and found it fantastic. The double blade kayak paddle could be used by the front or back paddler to get through the long holes easier and we could switch to single blades for better manoeuvrability in the rapids.

Satellite Phone

I hire a sat phone every trip, which comes in a Pelican waterproof case. We have it as an emergency back-up but also use it to give a progress report to family or adjust pick-up times when necessary.

It costs about $135 for a one week hire and $2 per minute for calls. But the peace of mind it provides is worth every cent!

Seat Foam

Every year (after the first) I buy a foam hiking mattress, which I cut up and tape double thickness onto my canoe seat. There is a most excruciatingly painful condition called ‘canoe bum’; a result of sitting for hours on a hard flat surface. I got it so bad on my first trip that I couldn’t sit on a hard surface without extreme pain for weeks after returning from the trip. It’s the best ten bucks you will spend!

SteriPEN and Waterbottles

Until this year I have always used water purifying tablets, but the taste is terrible. This year I lashed out and bought a SteriPEN Journey and it was worth every cent. It purifies a litre of water in 90 seconds using ultra-violet light, and the water tastes beautiful.

I also bought a SteriPEN Pre-Filter, which screws on top of a wide mouth Nalgene water bottle. It filters water borne particles down to four microns, so the ultra-violet light will kill all bacteria. Larger suspended particles can cause shadows which prevent all the nasties from being zapped. Nalgene water bottles are the best I have found. They come in 400mL, 500mL and 1L sizes, in a variety of shapes, and have a very easy to use, screw lid that never leaks. I have used one daily for the past six years as my everyday water bottle and it’s still going strong.

Tent

There are as many different tents on our trips as there are tent groups, so tent selection is a very individual thing. When choosing a tent it must be waterproof (must have a fly), light, compact, have ventilation and be easy to set up.

I have a DMH Derwent three person hiking tent that weighs a mere 2.8kg. I have used it for three at a squeeze but for two it is very comfortable. The great thing about the design is that it has an entrance on both sides, which makes it easy to get in and out of, without climbing over others. The ventilation is also excellent, and it has never leaked.

Trangia

While cooking on an open fire is viable and the preferred method, a backup is necessary for wet weather. A Trangia is definitely the way to go. Trangias would have to be the best designed and built piece of camping equipment on the planet!

The Swedish designed and built masterpiece has been around since 1925 and comes in at least a dozen different models, comprising of different sizes and materials. I did a heap of research before settling on a model that is designed for four people, with aluminium on the outside and stainless steel on the inside.

The aluminium helps spread the heat evenly and the stainless interior is easier to clean. Most have metho burners but I would highly recommend the gas burner models. The gas burner can be bought as a separate unit but it’s expensive. It was not available as part of a kit when I purchased mine, but now comes standard in some models.

Wash Basin

I copped plenty of flack from the crew when I pulled out my collapsible basin the first time, but our first night in estuarine crocodile country brought a flood of converts. The option of washing up on the water’s edge in the dark or using the warm water and detergent on the left and rinsing on the right quickly silenced the critics.

Water Containers

I take two 5L collapsible water bottles, but Terry brought a 10L solid plastic container this year, with handles on the top and side. It is certainly a better option, even though it takes up a stack of room. It can also be used for added buoyancy during the day and filled at night to save trips, and stress levels, continually going to the water’s edge.

Next Topic

Enough rabbiting on about gear for now. In case you haven’t already twigged, I’m a bit of a gadget nut, so I’m sure I’ll digress back to equipment at various times in coming articles. Next up I’ll digest the topic of food.

Fact Box

EQUIPMENT LIST

Billycan and hook

Binoculars

Bushman insect repellent

Camera

Canoe, bailer and cord

Carabiner x 10

Cooking utensils

Collapsible chair

Collapsible shovel

Collapsible washing up basin & detergent

Collapsible water bottle - 10L x 2

Cord

Cord netting

Cigarette lighters x 2

Crocs

Cups x 2

Dry Bags

EPIRB

Eating utensils

Electrical ties

Filleting knife

First aid kit & strapping tape

Gaffa tape and duct tape

Ground tarp

Head touch

Hiker’s Tarp

Leatherman

Leader

Lifejacket and helmet

Lures

Map (laminated) and GPS

Mattress (Hikelite 3/4)

Metho pump spray

Non-stick fry pan

Opera house traps

Paddles

Pillow

Plates and bowls

Rain coat

Rod & reel x 2

Satellite phone

Seat foam

Sleeping bag and inner

Solar shower

Spare batteries

Spear grass sock protectors

SteriPEN or water purifying tablets

Stretcher

Sunscreen x 2

Teatowel

Tent and door mat

Toiletries & toilet paper

Trangia and gas bottles x 2

Water bottles x 3

The split (centre of WC 8) in the canoe, caused by a sharp limestone rock, was repaired using Gaffa tape and lasted the remaining three days of the trip. Note the piece of foam camping mattress taped to the seat to prevent canoe bum.

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