Canoe expedition Quetico Provincial Park

A Few Tips for Canoe Camping

There are a few things that will make or break a trip. It’s very easy to look at stuff before you leave and think that you will or won’t need it; but a few days into the bush you might find yourself cursing its presence or ready to sell your soul for it. Without motorised transport carrying your gear for you, packing the right stuff becomes all important.

This is the amount of gear needed for two people on a nine day trip – a pack for food; a pack for camping gear and a pack for everything else. The smaller pack housed all the fishing gear (including reels and a depth finder) for two people chasing five fish species – that’s a far cry from some tackle lists!

I know that I’m one of the most frugal sorts: once I fished for four days subsisting only on a couple of pears (where the fish were I don’t know). One time dad and I spent weeks sharing a fork – I’d overlooked cutlery. For a few days I carted water from the bottom of a ravine to my ridgeline camp in a plastic specimen bag with a small hole in it. So by now I’m starting to learn what I need and what I don’t when I head bush.

Things get really tricky when you’re travelling solely on foot. This is where compromise really has to be made


Rule number one: if you’re going to spend any amount of time in the bush and enjoy it you have to have proper meals. Leave pot noodles to uni students – after a full day on the trail you want a real feed.

Spending any proper time in the bush requires proper eating. A good feed is really looked forward to when you’re out and about so don’t skimp on the equipment to make it

Don’t kid yourself with that ultralight cooking equipment. Have you ever tried to cook a meal for two (or one of me…) in those tiny little pots? Think more along the lines of what you use to cook a meat and three veg feed at home; then choose cookware that can do that job but save on space in a pack. And remember that there won’t be a clean spot to sit or prepare stuff – so plates and something like a chopping board are useful.

Always make metal a minimum in the selection of cooking and eating utensils and stainless steel as the best. Plastic is too easy to break or melt; I don’t trust that flimsy looking titanium gear; and aluminium gives you Alzheimer’s.

My essentials for any trip would be:

  • barbie plate
  • billy can/pot to boil water
  • pot
  • egg flip/scraper
  • plate
  • mug
  • knife, fork, spoon
  • matches! In every pocket!

Additional people will need more stuff; but that is the one person minimum required cooking gear for enjoyable cooking. You can find (or create) all the equipment you need if you think about it; without being dictated to by camping shops.

When you start testing stuff in the field you soon realise you can’t buy what you want. This barbie is big enough to fit a full rump steak; can braise or shallow fry; doubles its width for pots and pans and either stands alone or rests on stone fireplaces – and fits neatly into itself


What you need for sleeping in depends on how mobile you want to be, the space you have and the conditions you’re likely to encounter. A swag (and don’t get me started on those ridiculous roll-up tents they call swags these days) is pretty big and awkward if you’re going to be carrying it far.

Fine for a quick overnighter but for long trips the swag just takes up way too much room

A good tent doesn’t take up much room and keeps the weather out. I’m not a fan of dome tents because the poles always break. Traditional designs stand the test of time. As a rule of thumb a four man fits one person and their essential gear and a six man the same for two.

Always take a couple of tarps with you – one for a ground sheet and one to tie up as a shelter for any additional gear.

Hammocks take up less room than tents but you will still need a tarp to keep any bad weather at bay. Again – a second tarp is useful for gear. If you’re travelling somewhere where flat ground is very limited the hammock comes into its own, but be prepared that it’s a bit of an acquired taste to spend an entire night in.

Sleeping on the ground in the open is fine if you trust the weather, and we’re blessed with the best in Australia. Without a swag you’ll want the ground sheet.

Being cold is uncomfortable. You don’t need to go overboard; so a thin blanket might be enough during summer while a proper sleeping bag is needed in colder weather. Never forget that you lose heat to the ground! If it’s cold you need to get a layer of warm air underneath you (even with a sleeping bag) so things like Therma-rests are handy; but even a nest of leaves or grass will make a difference if you’re caught out. I should know – I’ve nested…

There might not be an essentials list for this category, but basically you need to address the following:

  • stay ‘off’ the ground
  • stay warm
  • stay dry
  • keep your gear dry.
An overnight camp set up. Fuel for fires is kept dry and off the ground. The awning tarp was nice with the small tent so that there was somewhere dry to stand and move around; but purely to keep gear dry they are best set up low to protect against wind blown rain

Other Handy Bits

Plastic bags come in very handy. Sealable zip-lock bags keep things dry. Little ones keep safe stashes of matches. Bigger ones protect maps, notebooks and the like. They can also carry water. Big rubbish bags keep clothes and sleeping bags dry while also keeping everything separate in packs. They are fragile though so guard them.

Dry bags are tougher than plastic bags but correspondingly weigh more. The next step for canoe trips is the use of sealable barrels. Again – it’s what you’re willing and able to carry.

A trick I learned in Canada was to use sleeping bag bags (bags with drawstrings) to separate stuff in packs. One for dry goods; one for cooking utensils etc. It makes it a lot easier to find stuff.

Travel Companions

The work involved in making a successful trip can’t be overlooked. With that in mind, it’s important to consider your own capabilities. I do a lot of solo travel because I’ve realised I can do it – which in my opinion is the biggest barrier to overcome. I also have considerable energy reserves. You need this to tackle adventure on your own.

Consider this: you wake up on or before daylight. You have to make brekky, then clean dishes and pack camp ready for another days’ travel. You’re in a canoe, and want to cover about 20 k’s with a couple of short portages. When you find a camp site; you have to unload the gear and make camp; collect firewood; store dry fuel for the breakfast fire; cook a feed and wash up. In amongst all this you want to catch some fish; take some good photos and admire the scenery.

That is a lot of work for one person. If you aren’t ready for it you aren’t going to enjoy your trip. The workload doesn’t decrease by much when you travel with others; but routine roles develop so you don’t have to think about everything. The simple presence of another human sharing the circumstances with you makes the work seem less. And the experience always seems better when shared.


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