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Planning a Multi-Day River Trip - Post 3 - All About Gear

In previous posts I discussed how we plan and enjoy river trips with kids, In this post I'll cover details about gear and packing.

A couple years ago I told my partner I was working on our Allagash packing list, and he said, "I already did that: Canoeing stuff, sleeping stuff, eating stuff." Good job, dear, but let's use my list this time.

Primary things to consider:

  • Keeping things dry

  • Fitting it all into the boat, while considering people-comfort

  • Being prepared to portage every single item

  • Organizing in such a way you don't have to unpack every bin or bag to get what you need

  • Food safety and organization

  • Making room for a few extras

  • What do you already have that will work?

Gear Selection

We have, piece-by-piece, acquired quite a collection of expedition gear over many years. We're lucky to have it, but you certainly don't need to buy lots of expensive gear to make this happen. Basic tote bins, lids secured with a couple straps, can be used for the kitchen gear. Dry food can go in a trash bag in a tote bin. Sleeping gear and clothing can go in multiple layers of heavy-duty trash bag. With careful meal planning, a basic hard-sided cooler (secured closed) will work fine.

If you want to start your own expedition gear collection, I'd recommend starting with an extra-large 100+ liter dry bag or a 100ish liter dry box. For reference, here's the specific expedition gear we use for a short river trip with kids:

  • Two NRS Bill's Bag 110 liter dry bag backpacks

  • Two NRS Outfitter Bag 65 liter dry bags

  • Two NRS Canyon 100 liter dry boxes (Okay, one is from way before NRS bought the patent, but they are the current manufacturer.)

    • One holds all dry food, the other holds kitchen equipment & miscellaneous stuff

    • Coleman stove, griddle, and grill grate go in a separate 'dirty' bag. Ours is a dry bag but it doesn't need to be.

  • Yeti cooler

  • Garmin InReach satellite communicator

Wet Gear is Dangerous

When canoe camping you need to do everything you can to keep your sleeping gear and spare clothing dry. Maine evenings are chilly and a wet or even damp sleeping bag will ruin your night. A guide friend of ours has clients tie up gear in a trash bag, then a small dry bag, into a larger dry bag also lined with a trash bag. If, while packing, you start to feel ridiculous, add another layer just to be sure.

In our packing system, sleeping gear and clothing get special treatment. Each of the two tents is assigned a 110 liter and a 65 liter dry bag. Each dry bag is lined with an extra large heavy-duty trash bag. Sleeping bags go into their own trash bag, which is twisted shut and placed into the trash-bag lined dry bag. Each person has a personal bag, usually a nylon stuff sack, for clothing and toiletries. Like the sleeping bags, the personal bags get their own additional trash bag inside the liner bag. The liner bag gets twisted shut, then the dry bag is closed up tight. We twist instead of tie because it creates less gaps for water to get into, and the bag is easier to get into when unpacking.

You don't need to go to those lengths for every piece of gear, just the ones that are your last line of defense against the cold. You absolutely should try to keep most things dry, but if you over-complicate it, you'll get sloppy. Keep in mind, you have to unpack and repack everything in the boat, every day.

Gear Specifics

I'll post my packing list below, but first I want to give some detail and advice about a few important pieces of gear.

Canoe - Every canoe has a setting and situation its best at, and you could really get caught up in figuring out what's 'ideal'. I'm more of a make-do-with-what-you-have paddler. There are two major considerations. The first is length. We have done trips in a 16' boat, but it's really tight. It's much easier if you can get ahold of a 17' or 18' boat. The next consideration is material. Fiberglass boats are wonderful for lakes, but if you have rocks in your path, plastic is the way to go. On my first canoe trip as a kid, we busted a hole in my father's fiberglass canoe and spent the next three days bailing water. A more recent trip with friends got more exciting with each rock-induced crack in their fiberglass hull.

Bow and Stern Lines - Make sure you have a good quality bow and stern line on the canoe, tied securely. You'll want floating rope that is comfortable on the hands, at least 1/2" or more in diameter. The general rule I’ve heard on length is 1.5 to 2 times the length of the boat, although we make ours a bit shorter. More like 3 to 4 feet longer than the boat. Any longer than that and the rope starts getting in the way and becoming a problem. Don't use the bow and stern lines to tie your boat to your vehicle. Protect them since they can be an important tool in an emergency.

Cooler - I don't usually advocate for buying expensive gear, but I have to admit our Yeti cooler (gifted to us) is one of my favorite pieces of gear. It really does keep food remarkable cold for several days, and allows us to have fresh food for longer. The easiest way to handle ice is to freeze a couple 1-gallon jugs of water. They serve as ice for a few days, and you'll have fresh drinking water if needed. Our guide friend has a chest freezer, and he uses it to freeze food inside layers of ice, directly in the cooler. Since he's a guide, his meals have to be top-notch. My standards are much lower.

For a ten-day canoe trip (no kids that time), we used dry ice in the Yeti. It was still cold 8 days later. If you go the dry ice route, though, keep in mind that everything in the cooler will be solidly frozen for the first couple days.

Pro tip: bring a cotton towel along. Soak it and lay it across the top of the cooler, keeping it wet always. The relentless sun will put most of it's energy into evaporating the towel water and not your ice.

The kids know they are not to open to cooler themselves. If they need something, they ask us and we grab it quickly. I usually grab all cold food for a particular meal all at once, then we don't have to open the cooler again.

Garmin InReach - I talked about this in the first post, but its worth reiterating it's importance to me. It's an enormous comfort to know we can get help if needed, and our families are grateful to get the occasional, "all good" text from us. There are other brands and versions of satellite communicator that are worth checking out, too. Teach older kids how the communicator works, and make sure they know where you're keeping it.

PFDs - Here's an area where I'd advise investing in the good stuff. The higher-end PFDs are simply more comfortable, and that's critical when trying to convince a kid to like something. I look for PFDs that are short in the torso. They end up being thicker, but there's a huge benefit to not having the PFD ride up to their ears.

Same advice goes for adults. Get a comfortable PFD and WEAR IT. Trick out your PFD with fun gadgets like a dive knife. The cooler you look the more likely you are to wear it. A PFD has no value unless you're wearing it securely.

For reference, here's the law: In the state of Maine, children 10 and under are required to wear a U.S. Coast Guard approved life jacket or life vest at all times while on a boat. State regulations require the life vest should be a TYPE I, II, or III USCG approved life jacket, be in good condition, and fit the child properly.

My Packing List

This is the packing list I used for a recent 4-day, 3-night trip. We had two canoes and 5 people (two adults, three kids ages 7, 10, and 13). It may seem like an insane amount of stuff, but you can pick and choose depending on your cargo space, family size, and willingness to suffer. It also depends on the forecast. If you're looking at a long stretch of hot sunny days, you probably don't need that rain wear or extra blankets. We could get by with way less stuff, but I've done this enough that I know what works for us.

The items in green are the ones that absolutely must stay dry.

Day Bags (2 dry bags, around 15 liters each, one on each boat)

  • Sunscreen

  • Bug spray

  • Pocket knife (not to be confused with the dive knife that attaches to the PFD)

  • Water bottles x 5 (everyone has a bottle easily accessible to them)

  • Bug head nets (I never take my kids into the wilderness without bug nets. Bugs can be really awful, and a bug net might just save the trip)

  • Bug Bite Thing (Simple but genius invention I can't recommend enough. Immediately removes the itch and pain from bites and stings.)

  • Snacks (Individual bags work best. Trying to pass a big bag of trail mix around between two boats is a good way to feed the fish.)

  • River map (The Northern Forest Canoe Trail maps are excellent)

  • Garmin InReach

  • Emergency pack (hand warmers, e-blanket, compass, lighter, whistle, etc.)

  • First aid kit (including adult and kid ibuprofen, Benedryl, and itch cream)

  • A spare fleece (In case someone goes overboard and is now cold and wet)

  • Checkpoint and campsite cash (Many Maine rivers are accessed through the privately-owned North Maine Woods. There are access fees paid at road gates, and campsite fees paid, sometimes mid-river, to whatever organization is maintaining the campsites. Credit card machines do not work in the wilderness.)

  • Tip money for car shuttling service (we generally do around 20%)

Camping Gear

  • Tents x 2 (Generally two 3 or 4-person tents)

  • Camping mats x 5

  • Camp pillows (Some people forgo a pillow and use clothing stuffed into a bag. For me, a pillow is well worth the space it takes up.)

  • Quick dry towels x 3

  • Sleeping bags x 5 (Consider avoiding down insulation and go with synthetic. Some modern down has a hydrophobic coating, but synthetic is the reliable choice for warmth when damp or wet)

  • Camping blankets x 2 (We have a couple blankets that pack small, just in case)

  • Dog bed (Okay, we don't actually bring a dog bed. We usually give her the foam kneeling pads from the boat and one of our fleece jackets)

  • Dog food

  • Dog leash

  • Dog poop bags (pay attention and pick it up!)

Camp Kitchen

  • Ice (frozen 1-gallon water jug)

  • Coleman Stove

  • Griddle

  • Propane x 2 canisters (or more for longer trips)

  • Backpacking stove (used as a back-up and good for making coffee without firing up the Coleman)

  • Lighters x 2

  • Grill grate (for cooking over the campfire)

  • Eating Utensils

  • Plates and Cups

  • Cooking utensils (tongs, spatula, can opener, wooden spoon)

  • Cutting board

  • Kitchen knife

  • Trash bags

  • Ziploc bags

  • Hand sanitizer

  • Cook pots

  • Cast iron skillet (for cooking over fire or on Coleman stove)

  • Strainer and dish cloth/scrubbie/scraper (throw food particles in the trash, not the woods.)

  • Collapsible wash buckets x 2

  • Dr. Bronner’s soap

  • Bleach

  • Coffee maker (stove top espresso maker. Only one of us drinks coffee)

  • Paper towel roll

  • Gravity water filter (fill with river water, hang it from a branch, and enjoy fresh water on tap)

  • Water jug (Ours is 5 gallons. We could probably get away with smaller since we have the gravity filter.)

  • Towel for cooler

  • Hatchet

  • Folding saw

  • Fire starter sticks

  • External power bank (for charging phones, GPS, etc.)

  • Solar charger for power bank

  • Solar shower (Fill with water, leave it in the sun while paddling, have a hot shower at camp. We only bring this for longer trips.)


  • Canoe paddles x 5

  • Spare paddle (always, always bring a spare!)

  • Canoe pole

  • PFDs x 5

  • Dog PFD

  • Dive knife (each adult wears one on their PFD)

  • Kneeling pads (closed cell foam pads cut to fit the canoe)

  • Throw rope bags x 2 (one per boat, and practice using them)

  • Bailing bucket (usually a cut-off milk jug)

  • Sponges

  • Dry bags (we use maybe 4 smaller dry bags, 15 to 25 liters, between day bags and packed items)

  • Lashing straps and rope

  • Spare carabiners (always handy)

  • Gorilla tape/fix kit (this was a life-saver that time we managed to rip off one side of both thwarts and the canoe handle.)

Camp Comfort

  • Tarp (We use a 20' x 30' on the Allagash because the picnic tables there have a crossbar to act as a centerline. We go smaller on trips where we have to string up the whole tarp.)

  • Paracord (enough for stringing up the tarp, plus a small assortment of spare rope)

  • Headlamps x 6 (I always bring extra.)

  • Cribbage, cards, other games

  • Books

  • Toys

  • Hammocks x 3

  • Folding chairs x 2 (We have two chairs that pack really small. They would be the first things left at home if we needed the room.)

  • Battery Lantern

  • Spare batteries

  • Bug Spray

  • Sunscreen

Clothing and Toiletries

  • Water shoes (My partner and I both prefer neoprene booties, the kids are fine with Keen sandals or booties)

  • Camp shoes (I always have a pair of knock-off crocs for around camp. I hate walking around in wet feet. A pair of sneakers or Bean Boots works, too.)

  • Underwear and socks (Wool. Can wear under booties or sandals if the water is cold)

  • Clothes (Non-cotton. We plan to wear them 2-3 times each on a trip)

  • Dry land clothes (We each have one set of clothes that is just for dry land and sleeping. These can be cotton. The other clothes get wet, dirty, and sweaty.)

  • Fleece pants

  • Fleece jackets

  • Rain jackets

  • Rain pants

  • Bathing suits

  • Sunglasses

  • Sun hats

  • Winter hats

  • Toiletries

In list form it looks overwhelming, but I'm guessing that if you're reading this blog, you've already got a camping bin and appropriate outdoor clothing. Much of the expedition gear can be rented at outfitters near your destination. There are also online rental companies that will ship the gear to you. Don't let not having the fancy gear stop you! Lewis and Clark did it, and you can, too.

In the next post I'll cover meal planning and food packing.


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