Search this site or the web        powered by FreeFind
  Site search Web search



Boundary Waters named by USA Today as one of the Top Ten Places to Extend the Summer

This article has been provided in partnership with:

Boundary Waters

Keep Your Essential Gear Handy by Steve Volkening

Most well-prepared paddlers to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness or Quetico Provincial Park are probably familiar with some version of the Ten Essentials List. This is the basic ''Don't Leave Home Without It'' survival gear necessary for any canoeing or backpacking trip. This important equipment is usually brought along, but is often not readily accessible. It may be buried in the bottom of one's large canoe pack or split up among the packs of several other members of the group.

Whenever I am in the Canoe Country, whether as part of a group or just away from base camp on a solo day trip, I like to be prepared and self-sufficient. I keep a handy supply of basic emergency gear in a separate thwart or dry bag. That way, in case I get separated from the group or I am out alone on a day trip with my large pack safely back in camp, I have what I need. It weighs only a pound or two and takes up nearly no room. It is securely attached to a thwart or seat, so it is no bother during portages. It is not often that one encounters a situation when these things are desperately needed, but if they are, you will be glad you had them within easy reach.

Bag It!

It doesn't really matter what type of bag you use as long as it is waterproof and can be securely attached to your canoe. Either a specially-made thwart bag or a dry bag work well.

Both Cooke Custom-Sewing ( or Duluth Pack ( make great thwart bags. As the name implies, they attach to the canoe's thwart by leather straps or nylon webbing and buckles. Each has a clear map pocket and are just big enough to store your essential gear. They also conveniently keep your things out of the bilge water on the floor of the boat. Duluth Pack even makes a bow bag for the paddler in the front. It attaches to the front lift handle.

Dry bags, sometimes called river bags in the larger sizes, have been used for years by rafters and white water canoeists. They come in a wide range of sizes, are usually made of PVC, and have a watertight, roll down closure. Most have a D-ring on the handle, so you can clip it to the thwart or seat with a carabiner or bungee cord. Mine has a clear vinyl side so I can quickly locate items inside it. Some are completely transparent. L.L. Bean and Seal Line (available through the Campmor catalog at make good quality dry bags.

Editor's Note: I like to carry a small day pack; about the size of a book bag. Inside I use a River Bag to keep everything nice and dry. And I then have room to stow clothing items I shed during the day and to stash interesting pieces of driftwood, antlers, or stones that I like to collect.

The Essentials

  1. Fire Starting Material - I never venture into the wilderness without a small zip lock baggie containing waterproof matches and some form of fire starter. A number of commercial fire sticks or pastes work well to start a fire even in wet conditions. I use cotton balls saturated in petroleum jelly. 20-25 can be crammed into a 35 mm film canister. They never fail to start even the soggiest wood.
  2. Space Blanket/Emergency Survival Blanket - It weights only 4-6 ounces and keeps out the wind and rain. Some can reflect back up to 80% of one's radiant body heat. In a pinch, it can be used as a rain fly or emergency shelter.
  3. Mini Flashlight or Lightweight Headlamp - No one plans to be caught out away from camp in the dark, but it sometimes happens. Having a light can help you find your way back or at least come in handy when setting up a temporary camp.
  4. Water Supply - In the Boundary Waters, you are surrounded by water. Still, I always carry a 32-ounce Nalgene bottle of treated water and a supply of iodine tablets. Paddling and portaging can be thirsty work, and you need to stay hydrated.
  5. Map and Compass - It is sometimes said that you don't really get lost in the Boundary Waters, just temporarily uncertain of your exact location. Carrying a map and compass, and being able to use them, are a necessity. The clear vinyl map pocket on a thwart bag keeps it handy. I also throw in several index cards and a short pencil for making notes about the route, to sketch pictographs, or add to the list of wildlife I observe. High-tech paddlers are increasingly bringing GPS units, but a map is still necessary.
    Editor's Note: If you like to strike off on your own, like Steve does, you should always have your own map and make sure the other members of your group know the general direction you are heading in.
  6. Food - Paddling burns up a lot of calories. It's a good idea to bring along some sort of lightweight and nonperishable food. What you bring is a matter of personal preference, as long as it is high in energy. I usually bring 2 or 3 Power Bars and a bag of dried fruit or gorp.
  7. Mini First Aid Kit - In a small zip lock bag, I carry a few adhesive bandages, disposable antiseptic wipes, some aspirin, a clean handkerchief, and a small amount of sun screen and insect repellent. This will handle minor scratches and scrapes, but no serious medical problems.
  8. Raincoat - In a heavy storm (especially if it begins to lightening), I pull over to shore. The space blanket can be used as a rain tarp if it really pours. For a light rain, or if added warmth is needed, I always have a Gore Tex rain jacket. It's the bulkiest item of the ten. But, it can keep you warm and dry. If the bugs are bad, it can also be zipped up and the hood cinched down to keep you from being eaten alive.
    Editor's Note: I always recommend that you carry a complete rain suit ... in other words, pants, too! With good boots, rain pants, and a rain jacket you can weather most days and avoid hypothermia.
  9. Backpacker's Trowel and TP - In case you need to "heed the call of nature", it's good to be prepared. Be sure to follow the Leave No Trace technique and go at least 100 feet from the water or trail and be sure to bury your waste and your toilet paper.
  10. Miscellaneous - I confess to a bit of cheating here. I always carry a multi-tool on my belt, but if I didn't, I would be sure to throw it in the bag. I also always have a length of parachute cord tied to the bow. Its good to have for a variety of uses.

Your experience will guide you in what other items to add. Talk to other canoers or professional outfitters for their suggestions. There is nothing magic about having exactly ten things. You may want to leave some things out or bring different items. The key is not to bring too much, but to still have what you need. Part of the fun of a trip to the Boundary Waters is the planning and packing before you reach the water's edge.


--article courtesy of

Packing Light Orienteering
Hitting the Road Top Ten Gadgets
Fashions GPS
Wilderness Survival Prep Portaging

Banner 16
Your Banner Could be Here