I always enjoy making canoe journeys in wild country. Particularly when you travel as a single tandem pair, or even solo, there is a feeling of isolation and giving yourself up to the wilderness. The canoe is quiet and has a natural pace to it. During canoeing expeditions you become part of the landscape you are travelling through. It's always a real wilderness adventure.
You are very exposed, however, when travelling in the wilderness in a single canoe. Your canoe is both your means into, and out of, the wilderness. You are entirely dependent on your boat as a means of transport.
If you lose your canoe for whatever reason and end up on an isolated shore, you will then have to rely on your bushcraft and survival skills along with any equipment you may have on your person.
Comparing other modes of self-propelled wilderness travel, the risks of losing your main camping equipment and other supplies are different. When you hike there are times when there is the chance you might lose your backpack - river crossings are the most obvious circumstance - but there is more of a risk you'll become separated from your camping equipment when travelling by canoe.
When you are hiking, you have the option of re-tracing your steps. If you are marooned after being separated from your canoe, however, there are likely to be no trails from where you are. There may not even be trails anywhere nearby. There could easily be tens of miles of dense forest between you and the nearest hunters trail or ATV track, never mind a road.
Don't get lulled into a false sense of security by thinking there are likely to be other people around to spot you or raise the alarm. Take responsibility for yourself. Even in popular canoe camping areas, there are times of year when there is hardly anyone around. You can go literally days without seeing another canoe.
If you are taking only a day trip from a wilderness cottage or cabin, you can still travel many miles in a morning. You can be a long way away from anyone even in half a day. In this circumstance you will likely be travelling light, probably without camping equipment. You are then even more dependent on what little equipment you have with you.
So, the equipment you keep on your person while making a wilderness canoeing trip bears some serious consideration.
Below is a list of bushcraft and survival items I like to have on my person while canoeing in wilderness. Some of these items are used on a day-to-day basis during a wilderness canoe trip. I avoid doubling up wherever regular use will not diminish the item's usefulness in a survival situation. Other survival equipment I carry for use only in a wilderness emergency.
You won't be able to hire much of this equipment from a canoe outfitter and it's unlikely you'll be able to purchase all of the equipment you need in any single wilderness outfitter. It's best to assemble your wilderness canoeing bushcraft and survival equipment ahead of time.
1. Buoyancy Aid (also known as a Personal Floatation Device, or PFD): A buoyancy aid is an important piece of personal survival equipment whilst canoeing under any circumstances. For wilderness canoeing expeditions, choosing a buoyancy aid with decent-sized pockets will allow you to stow survival kit in the buoyancy aid itself. Assuming you're always wearing your buoyancy aid while on or near water, you'll always have this survival equipment to hand. For more information on choosing a BA (PFD), please see 'Canoeing', by Ray Goodwin.
2. Whistle: You should have at least one very loud whistle on your person. The whistle in the picture is a Fox 40 whistle. Some people don't like attaching a whistle to the outside of their buoyancy aid as it creates extra potential for snagging while in the water. An alternative would be to put it inside one of the buoyancy aid's pockets. Nevertheless, you should make sure you have a whistle with you whenever you are making a journey in wild country. It is a very effective and efficient means of signalling for help.
Right-Hand Buoyancy Aid Pocket
The following items fit in the right-hand pocket of my buoyancy aid (personal floatation device):
3. Mosquito Head-Net: A mosquito head-net is an essential item on many canoe and camping trips. Biting insects can make your life a misery. At best they are irritating and at worst they can drive you to distraction. If you are using cutting tools or undertaking other tasks that require your full attention, it's best if you are able to concentrate without being distracted by mosquitoes or other biting insects. A deep cut or other injury is always more serious when you are in remote country than when you are closer to medical care. Also, if you are distracted or in a rush to get away from a biting swarm, you are more likely to leave or lose important items of equipment.
4. Insect Repellent: For the same reasons as above, a portable tin, tube or similar of your favoured insect repellent can make life more bearable.
5. Fishing Kit: This is a compact yet effective fishing kit. It is what I take with me when I carry a travel fishing rod but it also functions very well on its own, without a rod. In addition to various hooks, jigs, lures, weights, spinners, etc., in this pouch I also keep a gill net and some snare wire. Gill nets are illegal in many jurisdictions and this is carried for emergency use only. The snare wire has multiple uses in addition to making snares.
The emphasis of this 'food acquisition kit' is very much on catching fish. The reasoning being based on the scenario of being stranded next to a lake or river. In the survival scenario that you were there for any great length of time, fishing would be a very likely source of sustenance. Remember all fresh water fish are edible. You'd also want to stay relatively close to the water most of the time; there you'd be much more easily spotted from the air than if you were under the tree canopy.
6. Flashlight or Torch: I find the Surefire 'Outdoorsman' flashlights excellent for wilderness use. They are reliable, no-compromise torches that perform very well - just the attributes you need if you are to depend on a piece of equipment. The brightness of these torches combined with the push-button switch at the back of the unit makes them a good signalling device too.
Moreover, the Surefire 'Outdoorsman' lamps have rubber O-rings which help keep water out of the torch. This is ideal if the torch is living in your buoyancy aid. Added to this, the model that I carry - the Outdoorsman E1L - runs for a good amount of time on a single CR123 lithium battery. I carry a couple of spare batteries taped together in a small plastic bag (not shown).
I've argued elsewhere why I choose a relatively expensive flashlight model but I've had plenty of torches and flashlights that have broken or failed on me and I know the value of a good one. We are so lucky to have such bright, lightweight, compact and tough hand-held illumination available these days.
Whenever I hear people argue for cheap torches, I gain a wry smile on my face and think of Bill Mason's description of how, out of sheer frustration, he flattened a malfunctioning flashlight with the poll of his axe (I looked it up - it's on page 55 of 'Song of the Paddle').
Left-Hand Buoyancy Aid Pocket
The following items fit in the left-hand pocket of my buoyancy aid (personal floatation device):
7. Tape: This isn't a piece of survival equipment as such, although it could be put to various uses. It's included in this list for completeness as it lives in the left-hand pocket of my buoyancy aid. I primarily use it for creating a bridle for the canoe. For more about how to do this see chapter 7, 'Lining, Tracking and Poling', of Ray Goodwin's book or check it out within the free sample chapters available here.
8. Matches (in a waterproof container): While I always carry a Swedish Firesteel, or 'fireflash', (see #11 below), a match is sometimes more efficacious (I don't get to use this word very often) in some circumstances. The humble match can light materials that can be difficult to light with sparks alone. But they must be kept dry. In the waterproof tub, I also pack some cotton wool. This stops the matches from rattling as well as being an extra aid to fire-lighting.
For more information on technique for lighting fires with matches, please see my article How to Light a Campfire with One Match.
9. Field Dressing: A large, absorbent military dressing, packed in a waterproof wrapper. This complements my small pocket first-aid kit or 'cuts kit' (see #16 below). Again, with this item, the waterproofing is important.
Not shown. Water Purification Tablets: I carry a compact packet or bottle of water purification tablets that are suitable for dealing with the pathogenic organisms found in the areas through which I travel. This often means iodine tablets. I recognise that Chlorine Dioxide is arguably a preferable treatment but because it has to be carried in two separate containers, it takes up too much room to fit in my buoyancy aid. A bottle of iodine tablets is more compact.
Trouser Pockets and Belt
The following items are stowed in my trouser pockets or on my belt. These are items are tend to need to have to hand on a day-to-day basis as well as being valuable assets in an emergency or survival situation:
10. Paracord: A hank of paracord can be invaluable. Genuine 550-lb breaking strain cord is best, not just because of its strength but also the multiple strands inside the protective outer sheath. It's always worth having some in your pocket.
11. Swedish Firesteel, or 'Fireflash': These sparking devices are now well-known amongst outdoors people. They have no moving parts to break and are a very reliable means of lighting a fire as long as you have some medium which will catch a spark. The heat and the size of the sparks produced by a Swedish Firesteel means that you are able to light the widest range of materials with this sparking device. The manufacturer claims that you can get 12,000 strikes from one fireflash. Great for day-to-day usage, and great to have during a wilderness survival situation.
12. Folding Knife: While I carry a strong fixed-bladed knife on any serious wilderness expedition, I like to have a folding knife too. They are handy for day-to-day tasks and act as a back-up to your main knife. The model illustrated in the picture is Fallkniven TK4, which can also be used to create sparks with the Swedish Firesteel. A good alternative place to keep a folding knife is in a pocket of your buoyancy aid.
13. Sharpening Stone: A small, portable stone that can be used to sharpen both knives but that will still slip into a pocket is ideal. A diamond-ceramic combination is good because while the diamond face will remove metal from your blades relatively aggressively, the ceramic face removes it slowly but creates a finer edge. The two in combination thus allow you to re-sharpen then finely hone your edges. The model illustrated in the picture is Fjallkniven DC4 (inside its slipcase). These stones don't require any lubrication - neither oil nor water - which adds to their ease of use in the field.
14. Belt Knife: I've emphasised belt here as this is where it should be. It should be kept on the outside of your clothing. Unless you have a separate rescue knife, this knife will act as your rescue knife and should be available to cut yourself free if you are entangled.
A good quality, well-made and well-tempered blade should not break under use in the wilderness. A strong knife of at least 4mm thick steel is recommended. It should have a full-tang for strength, a plain edge (serrations are unnecessary as your knife should be razor sharp) and be sharpened on one side only (that is nothing on the back of the knife).
The important point with a knife for wilderness canoeing is that it should not fall out of its sheath, even if you (and it) are upside down. Losing it while being tumbled around in moving water would be a grave loss in a wilderness setting.
15. Folding Saw: In addition to a strong knife, a folding saw should be carried. This is not only for typical tasks of bushcraft or campcraft but also again for safety and rescue. A folding saw will easily saw through wooden thwarts and other fittings in canoes if someone is trapped. Again, carry it in a way that is both easily accessible but also secure. I carry mine on my belt, alongside my knife.
16. Pocket First Aid Kit: This is the small pocket first-aid kit or 'cuts kit' that I describe here. Here the importance of the waterproof packet (an Aloksak) cannot be overemphasised. Any submersion will quickly ruin elastoplasts and other self-adhesive dressings as well as their packaging.
As a final point it should be noted that most of the items in the buoyancy aid are only needed while on or near the water, or at night-time. All the items in my pockets could be needed at any time of day. This organisation is intentional. It means that everything naturally tends to be in the place it needs to be at the time it needs to be there. Keeping your kit organised shouldn't be a constant struggle to get everything back in place.
I'd be interested to know your thoughts on this bushcraft and survival equipment or its organisation. I'm sure other readers would too. Please let us know in the comments below...
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