Paddle and Pack

Posted by Kevin Estela on Apr 18th 2024

Canoeing and Kayaking in the Backcountry

The year is 1994. I’ve been hounding my father about learning how to kayak. That word was not well known back then, and the activity was far from as established as it is today. Little did I know that those initial lessons would create a passion for paddlesports, and my love for kayaking would transfer over to the canoe. While guiding canoeing and kayaking trips, I grew fond of the open boat and the carrying capacity it offered. I’d later utilize the canoe on countless trips into the backcountry for work and play. This time of year, my interest in canoeing goes into overdrive. I love backpacking, but I’d rather float my gear into the field than haul it over a trail. When you get behind the paddle, how you travel is up to you, including how fast or slow you travel. In our fast-paced world, there’s an appeal to canoe travel that doesn’t require electricity, fuel, or dedicated trails. In this week’s blog, I’m sharing some tips and tricks for the aspiring paddlers.

Basic Equipment

Canoe, Paddle, and PFD. That is generally all you need at the most basic level. When I worked at Mainstream Canoe, these were the big three concerns for each paddler. Typically, the person in the bow carried a shorter paddle, sized by sitting in a chair extending a horizontal arm holding a paddle vertically propped up against the floor. The paddler in the stern did the same with their arm but from a standing position. The stern paddler needed the extra paddle length for steering. Regarding life jackets, the most basic personal floatation device (PFD) that fit correctly was more effective than an expensive jacket that was too large or too small. As a general rule, when you wear a PFD, you should be able to pull up on the shoulder straps, and the main floatation shouldn’t extend past your chin. If you were to end up in the drink, you want the jacket to keep your head above water and you must consider if your PFD is designed to turn you face up. The type of canoe you use will also be determined by activity. Some are designed for whitewater, some for flat water, some for multiple passengers, and some for lightweight portages (carries). Recently, on the grounds of Sorinex in South Carolina, I had the opportunity to paddle an Old Town Discovery 158. This Crosslink 15’8” canoe weighs 85 pounds and is built like a tank. It is one of the canoes we used at the old canoe shop, and paddling it again reminded me of countless trips downriver.

Nice To Have Equipment

Once the basics are covered, you can consider the accessories that make life on the water more enjoyable. A good dry bag will protect your belongings from the occasional splash or an accidental swim. By far, the best around are from Watershed Bags. These bags have the most robust seal, and there are countless ways to fill them with additional accessories for every activity. Water bottles, carabiners, fishing gear, spare boat line, a couple “warmie” items like a puffy jacket or fleece socks, and snacks are all commonly carried on the water. Clothing items also can make or break a trip. Good water shoes or active sandals like those from Chaco and Keen are better than barefoot. A sharp knife meant for use around water also makes sense, and there are options from Spyderco (H1 Series) and Benchmade (Water Line) that fit the bill. Your canoe can carry significant weight, but that doesn’t mean you should load it down. Some canoes will carry up to 1000 pounds (combined paddler and gear weight), but that weight will still need to be hauled around once you get off the water. Perhaps the best equipment to have overall are the lightweight options. A sil-nylon 10’x10’ tarp like the Aegis from Kifaru helps you create an area shelter for canoe camps. Carbon-fiber paddles from Werner are significantly lighter than their aluminum or plastic counterparts. Avoid purchasing gear just for the sake of purchasing it. Remember the fundamentals and always ask yourself if what you purchase will actually be used or if it is carried more for show than for go.


It’s easy to get excited about your next trip, but we must always consider safety. Before any trip, you always want to have a safety plan. This includes knowing where you can get off the water in an emergency, who to call for help, having a spare key for your vehicle stored OFF THE WATER somewhere secure, an awareness of the environment, how to self-rescue if you end up overboard, etc. Following simple tips will save you a lot of aggravation, including how to properly secure your boat to your roof rack if you are transporting it yourself. We used an overhand loop on one crossbar and ran the running end to the other. It was tightened with a trucker’s hitch, a rolling hitch, and two half-hitches. Safety extends to knowing how to lift a boat onto your shoulders properly. Thinking back to my time at the canoe shop, the last guy working for the day carried each boat from the river to racks. Even with good form, it was a workout; without it, it could destroy your back. Learn to use leverage and the correct form, otherwise, the end of your day will be a painful one.


If you have open water, you have access to anywhere you want to travel with a canoe. Canoes have a very shallow draft, allowing them to travel over and through water where boats with more depth could not. There’s a reason why I’m still canoeing 30 years later. Boating is an incredible activity that can be shared with others, including the closest members of your family. Once you get out on the water and realize your freedom under the power of a paddle, you’ll want to pack a bag and make your getaways further away and longer in duration. Perhaps you view canoeing as a dated or old-fashioned activity, or maybe you’re like me and view it as timeless and one you’ll look forward to from one year to the next.