16 Gear Picks for Paddle-Packers

Enhance your next canoe or kayak journey with quality camping gear

By Conor Mihell

July 2, 2020


Photo by Conor Mihell

When it comes to adventure, I'm lured by the freedom of canoeing and kayaking—descending wild rivers, exploring wilderness lakes, and feeling tiny against the vast horizons of the sea. I've lived most of my life in the North Woods, adjacent to the Great Lakes, where paddling is the best way to navigate the watery backcountry. While backpacking is a minimalist's pursuit, paddle-packing provides the luxury of space. Enhanced by quality camping gear, journeys by canoe, kayak, and raft foster a sense of living, rather than merely surviving, in the outdoors.


A canoe trip often involves overland travel to avoid unnavigable rapids or to link nearby lakes, so it's best to store gear and food in backpacks. Regular hiking backpacks work, but dedicated portage packs lack rigid frames and thus fit better in canoes—and hold way more stuff. Handmade in Minnesota's canoe country, the 85-liter KONDOS Outfitter Special pack includes a supportive hip belt, a sternum strap, and a padded back panel. $245, kondosoutdoors.com

Sleeping bag

Might as well take advantage of the extra space to add some comfort to a paddling trip. The four-inch-thick THERM-A-REST NeoAir Topo Luxe pad pairs nicely with the OHM sleeping bag, a 32-degree, semirectangular bag that's roomier than a mummy and filled with premium high-loft, water-repellent down. Pad, $140; bag, $360 to $380; thermarest.com


When packing food for a canoe trip—or packing all your gear for white-water rafting—waterproof and airtight storage is critical. The rugged SEALLINE Pro Zip Duffel is guaranteed to be waterproof for up to 30 minutes when immersed. It carries well, with removable shoulder straps. Available in three sizes, ranging from 40 to 100 liters, the duffel also includes many lash points to secure it to your boat. $200 to $300, seallinegear.com

dry bag

Even the sleekest sea kayak will hold at least two expedition-size backpacks stuffed with gear—the key is making good use of space. Some things (tent, durable food items) can be stuffed directly into the boat, but critical gear like clothing, electronics, and first-aid supplies should be protected in dry bags. The OUTDOOR RESEARCH Graphic Dry Sack (in sizes ranging from five to 55 liters) is watertight and streamlined, perfect for sliding into kayak hatches. $19 to $37, outdoorresearch.com

Dutch Oven

Die-hard ultralight backpackers may roll their eyes at the items in my kitchen kit, but they'll never know the joy of fresh-baked cinnamon buns on the trail. The secret weapon is my 10-inch GSI OUTDOORS Hard Anodized Dutch Oven, a versatile piece of cookware that bakes scrumptious meals over a campfire or stove, functions as a boiling pot and a frying pan, and easily serves four. $80, gsioutdoors.com


There are two important details to consider when choosing a tent for a paddling trip: First, canoes, kayaks, and rafts can accommodate bigger shelters; second, because you'll be camping adjacent to water, your tent may be exposed to high winds. The HILLEBERG Allak 3 tent has you covered. This 41-square-foot, eight-pound, three-pole dome is a marvel of backcountry engineering. Crafted out of strong-yet-light gossamer Kerlon fabric, it withstands anything short of hurricane-force winds. $1,185, hilleberg.com

camp chair

Get off the ground with the BIG AGNES Mica Basin Armchair, a durable camp chair with a clever all-metal frame. $130, bigagnes.com

Compression Sack

Packing a kayak is like doing a puzzle: Arrange larger items (food, clothing, sleeping bag) horizontally, keeping heavier loads near the boat's center, and slide long, narrow, light items like sleeping pads and tent poles into the sides of the boat. The 10-liter OUTDOOR RESEARCH Airpurge Dry Compression Sack will minimize the size of a typical three-season sleeping bag. $50, outdoorresearch.com


I appreciate the multifuel capabilities of the MSR WhisperLite Universal stove, which runs on liquid fuels like white gas and can be easily converted to butane-blend canisters. $140, msrgear.com

Water Filter System

Since most of my paddling adventures take place on freshwater, I have no problem staying hydrated. But all backcountry water sources should be treated. The PLATYPUS GravityWorks 6.0L Water Filter System operates hands-free (unlike pump-style filters) and has plenty of volume; good for groups of up to eight. $120, platy.com


An elements-proof four-season dome is great if you’re dreaming of Arctic canoe trips or planning to sea kayak in Greenland. But most paddlers will do fine with a lighter—and substantially cheaper—three-season tent. The Big Agnes Blacktail Hotel 2 tent ($250) is ideal for paddlers. It’s also more spacious and slightly heavier than the typical backpacking tent (fine, of course, when your boat does most of the schlepping), with an immense 28-square-foot vestibule that offers plenty of covered storage.


Camp pancakes are the ultimate test of any skillet. In this regard, MSR’s Ceramic Skillet ($40) scores top marks. A dozen flapjacks cooked on a temperamental gas stove came out with minimal frustration and no charring—credit to the deep-sided, eight-inch pan’s fusion ceramic coating (which offers a durable cooking surface, sans nasty fluoro-based nonstick chemicals). At barely six ounces, it’s light in your pack and doubles as a wide-bottom saucepan for prepping everything from oatmeal to stew.


The MSR Thru-Line inline water filter ($40) offers yet another example of how procuring safe drinking water in the wild has become simpler than ever. This hollow-fiber microfilter retrofits into typical hydration reservoirs, affording you the convenience of filling and sipping on the go or allowing gravity to do the work at camp. Suitable for most wilderness destinations, it removes virtually all bacteria, protozoa, and particulates.

Sleeping bag

Every sleeping bag is a compromise between comfort, efficiency, and space. Big Agnes makes a valiant effort to bridge the gap with the Torchlight 20 sleeping bag ($300 to $320), an expandable, down-filled backcountry bed that provides extra wiggle room—shoulder-to-ankle panels can be opened to create an extra 10 inches of sleeping space, with minimal thermal efficiency loss. What’s more, the Torchlight’s 600-fill DownTek insulation adds water-repellency to the down’s natural loft, offering peace of mind in wet climates.  


Biolite’s new HeadLamp 200 ($45) packs an impressive amount of lumens into a tiny package, with adjustable lighting power and, to save you the frustration of accidently running down the battery in your pack, a foolproof locking mechanism. The waterproof headlamp slips easily into a pocket and weighs less than two ounces. Its USB rechargeable lithium-ion battery easily held a charge throughout a weeklong trip of mine, even in the darkness of winter


Canoe trippers have long appreciated the versatility of a belt knife for everything from spreading peanut butter to slicing rope and preparing kindling for a fire. The Helle Utvaer knife ($224) is a functional work of art, handcrafted in a Norwegian forge. The Utvaer’s distinctive Scandinavian style lacks the gaudy machismo of military-inspired tactical knives, and instead speaks to the traditions of wilderness travel. 

This article appeared in the July/August 2020 edition with the headline "Pack to Paddle."