11 Must Haves for Paddle-Packers


When it comes to adventure, I’m lured by the freedom of canoeing and kayaking—descending wild rivers, exploring wilderness lakes, and feeling tiny against the vast horizons of the sea. I’ve lived most of my life in the North Woods, adjacent to the Great Lakes, where paddling is the best way to navigate the watery backcountry. While backpacking is a minimalist’s pursuit, paddle-packing provides the luxury of space. Enhanced by quality camping gear, journeys by canoe, kayak, and raft foster a sense of living, rather than merely surviving, in the outdoors.

KONDOS Outfitter Special pack

A canoe trip often involves overland travel to avoid unnavigable rapids or to link nearby lakes, so it’s best to store gear and food in backpacks. Regular hiking backpacks work, but dedicated portage packs lack rigid frames and thus fit better in canoes—and hold way more stuff. Handmade in Minnesota’s canoe country, the 85-liter KONDOS Outfitter Special pack includes a supportive hip belt, a sternum strap, and a padded back panel. $245, kondosoutdoors.com

OHM sleeping bag

Might as well take advantage of the extra space to add some comfort to a paddling trip. The four-inch-thick THERM-A-REST NeoAir Topo Luxe pad pairs nicely with the OHM sleeping bag, a 32-degree, semirectangular bag that’s roomier than a mummy and filled with premium high-loft, water-repellent down. Pad, $140; bag, $360 to $380; thermarest.com

SEALLINE Pro Zip Duffel

When packing food for a canoe trip—or packing all your gear for white-water rafting—waterproof and airtight storage is critical. The rugged SEALLINE Pro Zip Duffel is guaranteed to be waterproof for up to 30 minutes when immersed. It carries well, with removable shoulder straps. Available in three sizes, ranging from 40 to 100 liters, the duffel also includes many lash points to secure it to your boat. $200 to $300, seallinegear.com


Even the sleekest sea kayak will hold at least two expedition-size backpacks stuffed with gear—the key is making good use of space. Some things (tent, durable food items) can be stuffed directly into the boat, but critical gear like clothing, electronics, and first-aid supplies should be protected in dry bags. The OUTDOOR RESEARCH Graphic Dry Sack (in sizes ranging from five to 55 liters) is watertight and streamlined, perfect for sliding into kayak hatches. $19 to $37, outdoorresearch.com

GSI OUTDOORS Hard Anodized Dutch Oven

Die-hard ultralight backpackers may roll their eyes at the items in my kitchen kit, but they’ll never know the joy of fresh-baked cinnamon buns on the trail. The secret weapon is my 10-inch GSI OUTDOORS Hard Anodized Dutch Oven, a versatile piece of cookware that bakes scrumptious meals over a campfire or stove, functions as a boiling pot and a frying pan, and easily serves four. $80, gsioutdoors.com

HILLEBERG Allak 3 tent

There are two important details to consider when choosing a tent for a paddling trip: First, canoes, kayaks, and rafts can accommodate bigger shelters; second, because you’ll be camping adjacent to water, your tent may be exposed to high winds. The HILLEBERG Allak 3 tent has you covered. This 41-square-foot, eight-pound, three-pole dome is a marvel of backcountry engineering. Crafted out of strong-yet-light gossamer Kerlon fabric, it withstands anything short of hurricane-force winds. $1,185, hilleberg.com

BIG AGNES Mica Basin Armchair

Get off the ground with the BIG AGNES Mica Basin Armchair, a durable camp chair with a clever all-metal frame. $130, bigagnes.com

OUTDOOR RESEARCH Airpurge Dry Compression Sack

Packing a kayak is like doing a puzzle: Arrange larger items (food, clothing, sleeping bag) horizontally, keeping heavier loads near the boat’s center, and slide long, narrow, light items like sleeping pads and tent poles into the sides of the boat. The 10-liter OUTDOOR RESEARCH Airpurge Dry Compression Sack will minimize the size of a typical three-season sleeping bag. $50, outdoorresearch.com

MSR WhisperLite Universal stove

I appreciate the multifuel capabilities of the MSR WhisperLite Universal stove, which runs on liquid fuels like white gas and can be easily converted to butane-blend canisters. $140, msrgear.com

PLATYPUS GravityWorks 6.0L Water Filter System

Since most of my paddling adventures take place on freshwater, I have no problem staying hydrated. But all backcountry water sources should be treated. The PLATYPUS GravityWorks 6.0L Water Filter System operates hands-free (unlike pump-style filters) and has plenty of volume; good for groups of up to eight. $120, platy.com

This article appeared in the July/August 2020 edition with the headline “Pack to Paddle.”