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

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Boundary Waters

Waterproofing Your Next Trip by Roger Hahn

Nothing ruins a good canoe trip faster than a wet camp and wet campers. Yet it happens every week in the Boundary Waters area. We all know it rains, and rains hard, up here but we try to kid ourselves into thinking we'll somehow escape this most natural phenomena.

You might get lucky and escape our rains but you'd better not count on it. In fact, I'm going to suggest just the opposite. That you plan on rain, for every day, and learn to count your blessings when it doesn't.

If you plan on rain occurring every day of your trip you'll be prepared both physically and mentally for it. And you and your gear will weather the rain quite nicely. I promise.

As an outfitter for the past two decades I was asked many times how I dried my gear out on the trail. My answer was pretty simple. I didn't. Because I didn't let it get wet in the first place.

I know that sounds bold but, nevertheless, it's true. The only thing I would have to dry at night were the damp wool socks I had worn during the day. I simply tucked those down in the bottom of my sleeping bag and they were warm and dry by morning.

Plastic, Plastic, Plastic

Let's talk plastic! There is only one way that I know of to be completely weatherproof on a canoe trip in our region. And that is the abundant use of plastic. In fact, the way to a rain-proof trip is to simply put every item of equipment into some sort of plastic bag.

Yes, this generates quite a few plastic bags. But I use mine again, and again, and even go so far as to duct tape them to make them last another trip. Of course, every single plastic bag should be packed out with you and properly disposed of once they have outlived their usefulness. (Burning plastic in your fire pit is a serious no-no in the wilderness. So pack it out!)

Another alternative are the more recent ''dry bags'' that are made by numerous companies in every size and shape. These bags are reusable and can be used for everything from food to clothing to camera equipment. You can buy a large size, equivalent to a Duluth pack, and sizes to accommodate all of your canoeing gadgets, no matter their size.

Most of us use some sort of Duluth pack on our canoe trips. These are an excellent choice as they are one big compartment which can be lined with some heavy-duty lawn bags. If all of your gear, and food, is inside a Duluth pack you are home-free as far as rain goes. In fact, you'd be well advised to use two lawn bags to ensure complete waterproofness.

A lot of folks use their framed backpacks for canoeing, too, but this presents a big problem for waterproofing due to the multitude of compartments. If you do use a framed pack be sure to treat each compartment individually and waterproof all of the items inside. (An extra-large lawn bag, as a cover, can be used for added insurance on those days of constant rainfall.)

An internal frame pack, that many own today, is easier to waterproof than a framed pack. Just be sure you also waterproof those side and top pockets that often carry personal items, books, and camera gear. (Again, use a large lawn bag as a cover during heavy rains.)

Most Duluth packs are made with a second layer of fabric on the bottom to protect the contents when it is sitting in a puddle of water in the bottom of your canoe or on the ground. Many I've seen actually have a special waterproof fabric sewn in to this bottom layer to prevent any leaking. (Try to avoid those old leather Duluth packs if you can help it as they start out heavy and get heavier in the rain. They also take forever to dry once they are wet.)

A Nice Dry Camp

Now, what about your campsite itself? Well, let me state the obvious first. Your tent should be relatively new and you should set it up a week before your trip and re-seal all of the seams. You can buy seam sealer at your outdoor store and it only takes an hour to do most tents. Make sure the tent is completely dry before you put it away or it will be stuck together in a glob at your first campsite!

I would also recommend buying a spray can, or two, of fabric waterproofing and give the exterior of the tent a liberal dose after sealing the seams. This makes the tent much more resistant to rain soaking in to the fabric and the tent will be drier when it comes time to break camp.

Of course, every tent should have a good ground cloth to go under it. This protects the floor of the tent from damage and from moisture. Be sure your ground cloth, which can simply be cut from a roll of plastic, is cut to size so that no edges stick out from under the tent. If the ground cloth is too big it can actually catch rain and direct it back under your tent.

Cliff Jacobsen, one of Minnesota's most prolific paddlers and writers, likes to use his ground cloth on the inside of his tent. This most certainly prevents moisture from coming up through the tent floor. However, it does leave you open to damaging your tent floor. So I would recommend a ground cloth on the outside and the inside for the most complete protection from moisture.

[PHOTO: Woman cooking uner rain tarp)]Another essential item for a waterproof campsite is a good quality tarp (tarpaulin) or two. As with the tent, you should do some prep work prior to your trip and make sure your tarp, or rainfly (as I call them), is in good repair and properly waterproofed. Bring plenty of tarps and plenty of rope so you can make a nice wind and rain protected camp. You'll be able to cook under the tarps, store your gear under them, and sit in your camp chair out of the rain and read a book or write in your journal. (Bring 200 feet of parachute cord. It's inexpensive and you can cut it to the various lengths you'll need to tie up your rainfly.)

*Editor's Note: Dan and Karen Cooke, of Cooke Custom Sewing in Minneapolis,, make the best tarps I've ever seen. They are lightweight and reinforced where they need to be. They will last you for many, many years and make camp life much more comfortable.

A stove, of some sort, is an essential piece of gear for a waterproof camp. I rarely have a campfire anymore except for atmosphere and I can cook comfortably, in the rain, under my tarps. One thing I can guarantee is that by the time you are done rooting around out in the woods, searching for firewood, you will be soaked by the rain, your own perspiration, and by the wet underbrush. While I'm sitting snugly under my tarp sipping hot chocolate.

I've had folks question the wisdom of carrying a stove and fuel on the portages. In my opinion, the extra work involved in carrying a stove and fuel is nothing compared to searching for firewood, cutting up firewood, huffing and puffing to maintain a damp fire, and cleaning up all the soot on pots and pans. I'll carry my stove anyday. (A quart of white gas weighs only 2 pounds so take a little extra.)

If you own your own canoe you might also consider a set of canoe covers for your craft. They will improve your paddling efficiency, keep all of your gear dry, and keep your lower extremities dry, too.

Editor's Note: Cooke Custom Sewing,, in Minneapolis, will design and create a custom canoe cover for any canoe. I've had one on my Bell solo canoe, and my Bell Rob Roy, for years and I'd sure hate to paddle without them.

Now, as to waterproofing yourself. It's rather simple and not too expensive. The only thing is that you shouldn't miss any pieces of the puzzle or you'll be wet and miserable.

Dress for Success!

I can't tell you how many people I've seen come to the Canoe Country with footwear that is not waterproof. In a water environment such as ours this strikes me as silly. And trying to keep your feet dry, even when it is not raining, is a lesson in futility.

Tennis shoes and light hiking boots are not waterproof. Period! And the only way these should be brought on a trip is if they are your ''wet shoes'' and you have Gore-tex socks inside of them to keep your skin dry. That way this particular pair of shoes will stay wet for the entire trip and you can change into your ''camp shoes''.

I recommend one of the following for footwear; L.L. Bean's ''Maine Hunting Shoes'' (''Bean boots'', well oiled uppers), leather ''work boots'' (well oiled), some good Gore-tex boots, or one of the many new water shoes (not sandals, too many roots to stub toes on) on the market. Like any shoe, whatever you choose should be well broken in before the trip. Remember that we're going for total waterproofness so your footwear will have to survive days of rain and innumerable dunkings as you get in and out of your canoe! (During our warmest months, July and August, you might get by with some sandals or water shoes but you might have damp, cold feet for a few days. I have also seen folks come back with their feet duct taped due to the rubbing of wet sandals on their feet all day.)

Socks should be anything BUT cotton. Wool is great but get them with some nylon in them so they hold their shape. Many of the new hiking and sport socks are made of quick drying synthetics so they work well. Just be sure you check the labels for cotton and remember the adage that says ''cotton is rotten''. Two pair is all I take as I put the dry ones on at night and dry the damp ones in my sleeping bag. (Trust me, they will be damp from perspiration no matter what you do.)

Pants should also be anything but cotton. The new lightweight nylon pants, that zip off into shorts, are perfect for most of the summer. They do not absorb sweat, or rain, and therefore dry rapidly. For spring and fall you may opt for some light wool, synthetic, or fleece pants.

Briefs, for men and women, should be of non-cotton materials, too. Many companies make these synthetic briefs now and they wick away your sweat, don't smell, and can easily be washed and dried overnight. Women should look for bras, or ''sport bras'', of the same material. These briefs and bras can also double nicely as a swim suit. (Remember, cotton is rotten!)

Belts are handy for holding up your pants and for attaching your Leatherman or other gadgets. I like the kind that look like rock climbing webbing as they are durable and dry quickly.

T-shirts, or undershirts, should be of synthetics, too. Start with a lightweight model that you can strip down to on a warm afternoon of portaging. Running stores, and catalogs, sell a lot of these garments and they are terrific. You'll never feel clammy and wet in these wicking shirts.

Shirts must also be void of cotton content and can be made of materials similar to the undershirts. Long sleeves are good for sun and bug protection. The lightweight, nylon shirts (Ex Officio is the most well known brand) offer sleeves that easily roll up out of your way. The materials they are made of are generally non-absorbing synthetics but check the labels to be sure. Cabelas, Bean, REI , and many other companies now offer these ''safari'' style shirts.

Personally, I live in a fleece vest most of the summer. It is lightweight, dries quickly, and warms my torso while allowing me freedom of movement and good ventilation for the arm pit area. If you keep your torso warm your arms can stand considerable coolness.

A vest, and your rain coat, may be enough layers for most summer canoe trips. But in the spring and fall you'd be prudent to bring a light fleece jacket, fleece stocking cap, and neoprene gloves as well. Your gloves are going to get wet and neoprene is the only thing to combat it.

Rain Wear

Clearly, a good quality rain suit is the single most important piece of equipment you will take on your trip. Yes, this means both jacket and pants on every trip. It should be good enough to last through a week of rain, roomy enough to fit over all your layers without ripping, and be re-waterproofed before you leave home.

Your rain suit does not have to be expensive. But it should be waterproof, sturdy, roomy, and in good shape. If buying a breathable product make sure it is made of the shiny nylon material and not the soft, cloth-like fabric which will absorb water after a good rain. The shiny nylon material repels water considerably better.

My favorite outfitting rain story is the one about two guests, from Missouri, who had watched the weather channel, from home, and decided to leave their good rain suits at home. Of course, when they got out of their car at my place it was pouring. Cats and dogs everywhere! They had no choice but to buy some rain suits before they left on their trip the next day. And, yes, they used them on the trip, too. We still laugh about it but I suspect it's funnier to me than it is to them.

If you have a waterproof jacket, waterproof pants, and waterproof boots you are DRY. And warm. And comfortable. Which means you'll never have to cut short a canoe trip again! Ever. Enjoy!

--article courtesy of

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