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How to Pack a Canoe Pack

Posted by Alex Messenger

How to Pack a Canoe Pack

The beauty of a quality canoe pack is the beauty of pure function: it stands up to hauling a full camping rig in the rugged wilderness, time and time again.

Our canoe packs are large enough to fit a complete set of well-chosen canoe camp gear and allow you to haul it over necessary overland canoe-country portages. To do this, the design, materials, and construction of the pack all need to be top quality, which is why we use waxed canvas, premium leather and solid brass hardware. Our canoe packs are up for the job and guaranteed to last for years of hard use in the field.

Paddling into the BWCAW with a full load of Frost River USA made waxed canvas on the Freeman Resupply trip May 2016.

Which brings us to the big question…

How do I pack this thing?!… A giant empty bag vs. a mountain of gear can be intimating.

Some helpful first steps…. don’t bring too much stuff, get it organized, and make it waterproof. You’re bringing life-sustaining items out onto a lake (lakes are wet) so you’ll want to guarantee to keep your gear dry. Yes, waxed canvas is highly water resistant, and does a great job keeping contents dry from rain and shielded from the sloshing water in the bottom of a boat. However, care needs to be taken regarding the big main opening in case of a capsize. Pack liners and dry bags help gear secured, and protected, help keep a pack buoyant, and offer double insurance to keep your gear dry.

There is one universal truth in packing a canoe pack: everyone will have their own style, opinions and hard-earned lessons. To that end, we’ve picked a couple of our favorites.

Before you pack, find out what you’ve got with a gear explosion:

The gear explosion is vital. Start by clearing out a large space and laying out everything you plan on bringing plus all of the packs you’re considering to carry it. Arrange your gear by purpose (food, sleeping, cooking, emergency etc.), when you’ll need it on trail, durability (Is it crushable? Does it need to stay dry or can it get wet?) and packability/texture/softness. The gear explosion is most helpful for auditing your equipment, deciding what to bring and what not to bring, and helps you ensure that when you decide to leave your extra undies at home, you aren’t in fact leaving all your skivvies at home.

Packing should be done with a preference for comfort of carrying but with a mind toward how soon you’ll need the gear. Emergency equipment, communications, rain gear, cameras, daytime snacks, and other grab-on-the-go stuff should be kept accessible, either on the top of a canoe pack just beneath the lid, or in a day pack like the Nessmuk, Cliff Jacobson or a Summit. Bonus: take a #gearshot of all your stuff!Cliff Jacobson Signature Pack


Step two of the gear explosion is to play Tetris. If it helps, turn on the song from the game to really get your brain in gear. With all of the packs laid out and all the gear that needs to go into them in one spot, you can begin to determine what will go into each pack. Some folks concentrate all their food in one pack, sleeping gear in another and kitchen gear into another, like our Camp Cook’s Kitchen. Some folks make each pack a potpourri of varied equipment. However you choose to disperse your gear is fine, just remember that if you put all the heavy gear into one pack, that will be “The Heavy Pack”. It can be helpful to evenly distribute heavy items amongst all the canoe packs. To that end, it can be very effective to group the food into different meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, whiskey etc.) and then put one of each bag into various canoe packs. If you do this, keep the lunch and snack bags easily accessible during the day and be sure to not contaminate the tent, sleeping gear or clothing with food scent. As you pack your portage packs, place soft but firm items nearer to the back and place the awkward, pointy things away from the back (and make sure the pointy things aren’t threatening to poke through your pack… we can repair it if it happens, but object poking through packs are not covered by our warranty). Concentrate the weight of the pack as close to the back as possible, and not on the very top or very bottom of the pack. The worst place for weight in a canoe pack is far from the back, this will make back heavy and unstable pack. Keep it centralized and you’ll be golden!

Packing a Canoe Pack Version 1: Cliff’s Way

This would be what canoe country guide and educator Cliff Jacobson calls a “belt and suspenders” method: Double bagging a canoe pack. Use one big heavy-duty plastic bag or dry sack for all contents, and pack all the individual contents inside into smaller plastic bags or dry bags. Heavy plastic bags of 4 mil work well, (so does a big dry bag of course)… a plastic garbage bag is going to be a disappointing, fragile alternative to a quality, dedicated pack liner.Pack Liner

Cliff goes on to advocate for a horizontal pack method, where long gear like sleeping bags, tents and sleeping bags parallel the top and bottom of the bag. This lets the pack adjust to the curve of your back. More information on this carry style can be found via

Packing a Canoe Pack Version 2: Double-barrel Dry Bags

A medium-sized dry bag is excellent for storing a single person’s personal clothing and sleeping gear for a canoe trip. It’s just the right size for a sleeping bag, the essential clothes, warm layers, sleeping layers etc.; in other words, the soft things. Recent, highly-technical sleeping pads fit nicely as well, but if you’ve got more traditional foam or self-inflating pads, they fit in with the scheme too, just not in the dry bag itself.

Once you’ve got a medium dry bag packed, it will take up roughly 1/2 of a standard canoe pack like the Old No. 7. Have two people pack their own dry bags with this method and you’ll have two soft, firm cylinders. Place them lengthwise into the pack, with the bottoms down in the bottom of the pack, close to the corners, and the dry bag handles toward the top, making two vertical columns. It can help to put a soft layer (tarps work great!) between the dry bags and the backstrap side of the pack to make it a bit more comfortable.

Next, fill in the voids around the dry bags with all the extra gear, keeping the dry bag cylinders upright as you pack larger pieces of other gear next, and work toward the smaller things. Keep heavier objects as centered and close to the back of the pack as possible and be careful not to place hard or lumpy objects between the dry bags and your back. This method resembles the feel of an external frame pack when complete and generally makes for a very solid, stable pack that’s surprisingly comfortable. Depending on the size of the pack and the gear, it may be incompatible with portaging a canoe at the same time if the pack gets too tall.

Packing a Canoe Pack Version 3: TableTop Method

Lay the pack on a table or the ground, on its shoulder straps. It seems strange, but you’ll be able to pack tighter than loading from the top down. Place your pack liner or gear in dry bags into the pack. Stack contents inside as the pack is laying down, and fill the space, like loading a shelf. Seek out voids between layers and along the edges, fill ‘em with small items. This method encourages a flat back and puts a different perspective on the whole experience.

Frost River waxed canvas and wool in a snowy spring campsite. Photo by David Hoole.

Other considerations

  • Tent. If space is an issue, consider breaking up the tent, rain fly, and poles to stow individually.
  • Consider carrying two medium packs rather than one giant pack. That way one pack gets sealed and left alone during the day. The other pack contains snacks, water, a filter, sunscreen, fishing tackle, and gets regular use throughout a day’s paddle. If you load the sealed pack to create a flat top, you can wear one pack and stack the second pack on top of the first. This system is easier than a pack on the front on rooty, rocky ground because you can see where you’re going.
  • Pack it, and reduce what gets hand-carried. If everything goes in a pack it reduces chances to lose items. In a perfect portaging world, paddles and fishing poles would be the only items to get hand carried.
  • Everyone should carry what they are responsible for and not leave stuff behind.
  • Keep rain gear handy at the top of a pack.
  • Stuff wet or dirty items between the pack liner and the pack: Grill top for camping in the Quetico or elsewhere that fire grates aren’t provided/mandated, wet rain gear, or that t-shirt that was still hanging on the clothes line when it started to rain. All this wet, messy gear can be isolated to keep other gear dry and clean. Be careful not to poke the grate through the pack liner though!
  • Keep the boat “ship shape”. Keep packs buckled down and secured when on the move. All that waterproofing is lost if your stuff escapes from an open pack. Have a spot for all your gear, and get it set before you leave on a portage. Portage trails are a lot less work if you’re organized, packed well, and carry a positive attitude along with your trusty canoe pack.

Canoe travel in the wilderness is rugged, strenuous, and not for the faint of heart. Please don’t try to hold us responsible if you aren't physically up for the job. Get fit before a big trip, clear it with the Doc if you’re concerned, and know your limits and the capabilities of your traveling mates. The benefits found in wilderness for humans is very important. Get out and experience it as much as you can. Introduce a friend to the woods, practice leave no trace camping, and get out into quiet, natural places whenever possible.

Paddling in to meet Dave and Amy Freeman on the May 2016 Wilderness Year Resupply. Photo by Alex Messenger