Planning and Packing for a Thru-Paddle

Katina_Vacation-2011-123So you’ve decided to dip your paddle into the waters of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. Maybe you’re looking to buy or build a new canoe or maybe you’ll be sticking to a trusted old kayak. However you choose to traverse this extraordinary trail, you’ll be outfitting that boat with camping gear and food—all of which will need to be transported between lakes and rivers or carried over connecting watersheds by way of 63 portages.

Katina_gearGenerally speaking, the gear you take for a 5-day trip is no different from what you’d pack on a 50-day trip. You’ll still have your shelter, sleep system, kitchen set-up, extra paddle(s) and safety equipment, much like you’d take on any extended paddling trip. But unlike weekend or even weeklong overnight trips, the first thing you’ll want to evaluate is the amount and weight of the gear brought along.

With more than 50 miles of portaging, you likely will not want to consider tucking in the fold-up camp chairs and don’t even dream about dragging a cooler. As early as NFCT’s Map 1, the Raquette River’s Deerland Carry is a rooty and rocky footpath, where you will find yourself carrying everything for more than half a mile. And yes, I know there are some paddlers who spend a relaxing evening sipping an excellent craft beer—or three—around a finely honed campfire, but they tend to be section paddlers who are able to take on additional weight in exchange for some creature comforts. This article is focusing upon paddlers who will be living a nomadic life for a period of weeks, or even months, within the confines of 18-feet or so of space.

Katina_Vacation-2011-046Of course what one views as a luxury item, another might consider essential. How much you carry, what kinds of gear and gadgets you include and how much you want to trade weight for wellbeing is a personal choice. For example, over the years, I’ve moved away from creating a “pillow” using unworn clothes folded and placed into my fleece pullover, to an actual, real (albeit, small) pillow. I no longer consider this a luxury item.

Still, packing light can serve you better in the long run. And while lighter gear is helpful, it isn’t critical. Plenty of paddlers have successfully completed their trips utilizing gear they already own. And, unless you have a very forgiving or scent-impaired friend, you probably should consider using only gear that is rightfully yours. By the end of the trip, it’s almost certain that just about anything exposed to water—which is everything from your socks to your dry bag—will smell pretty nasty.

Portage Carts

Choosing to tackle the trail without the use of portage carts or wheels is certainly possible for those possessing the strength and stamina. Others won’t be able to imagine doing the trail without them. This piece of equipment is likely to be critical for kayaks that can’t be easily shouldered for any real distance. Canoes are fitted with yokes used for portaging and a cart becomes an individual preference.

Keep in mind that you will be adding 7 to 17 pounds of weight to your gear load when your wheels will need to be carried on unwheelable portages.

Katina_DSCN1036_0035Even if you bring a cart, don’t turn your boat into trailer, forcing it to bear all the weight of the packs. The wheels likely won’t last to the end of the trail. Do you really want to work the wheels over a slightly rugged 1.3-mile trail in New York when you will surely want them to perform along the remote Spencer Rips logging roads in Maine? If water levels are low on New Hampshire’s Upper Ammonoosuc or Maine’s South Branch Dead River, you may find yourself relying on those wheels even more. Paddlers should still consider shouldering a bag even when using a portage cart.

Unless a carry is completely wheelable—or a paddler is able to single portage (carry all their gear in one pack while transporting their boat)—most paddlers will need to make multiple trips. Keeping your kit compact makes portaging more efficient.


A sometimes-neglected packing list item is shoes. Even though you are spending the majority of time on the water, the number and length of significant portages should cause you to consider comfortable hiking footwear. While the longest official carry is the 5.7-mile long Grand Portage in Québec, the reality is that you may find yourself doing many more miles of walking due to low river water levels. There are times when your trip might feel more like a backpacking expedition than a paddle trip. Think about what type of shoe you can comfortably wear covering unexpected long distances by foot. Your water shoes may or may not work.

Gear Bags

Katina_Harvey Lake_AllagashMost paddlers choose waterproof dry bags or plastic barrels, but canvas Duluth packs, backpacks, pack baskets and wannigans are other options. I own several sizes of soft, waterproof SealLine® portage packs and dry bags, a rigid blue barrel and one very small Duluth bag (which was the only item I could justify buying without selling off my firstborn). Years ago, I also was given a very attractive looking reed pack basket, but that only adorns our cabin wall.

Knowing that I double portage, even on my solo trips, means that I can organize my gear into different colored bags: a green kitchen bag that can include wet gear like a tarp; a blue dry bag for things that NEVER should get wet like the sleeping bags; and a food barrel. The rigid blue barrel helps keep food from getting crushed and it’s easier to stash a bottle or two of craft beer amidst those Ziploc bags.

On shorter trips, however, we’ll carry the food in the kitchen bag and omit taking the food barrel along altogether.

Food Planning & Resupply

With NFCT trip durations ranging from under 30 days to more than 50 days, quantity of food carried and resupplying requirements will vary by individual. Through-Paddlers pack a few days to a week’s worth or more of food at a time. Always plan on carrying food even though you pass through 45 communities along the trail.

Katina_foodTypical paddling foods fall into three main categories: (1) Pre-packaged/freeze-dried “backpacking” food, (2) off-the-shelf grocery or convenience food items and (3) make-your-own recipes and portions. As you pass through towns and villages, a fourth option is also available—restaurants and diners—but at no time can you completely rely on restaurants for noshing your way across the entire distance of the trail.

As early as NFCT Map 2, you will find yourself in an area without any services between Long Lake and Saranac Lake, a distance of 42 miles. Your food bag should also include an extra day—or more—of food in the event you become unexpectedly wind bound and unable to make your intended destination. Early season paddlers should confirm store hours. Several general or grocery stores are seasonal and don’t open until mid- to late-May.

Jackman, Maine (NFCT Map 10) is the last town with a large grocery store. You’ll either need to purchase enough food to get you through the Allagash Wilderness Waterway or consider sending yourself a mail drop with food in Rockwood, another 30 miles ahead. There is a general store located along the Northeast Carry between Moosehead Lake and the Penobscot River, but it is small with limited and expensive supplies. They do bake fresh bread there, so you still might wish to consider a stop for that. And they sell cold beer.

None of these options alone are the perfect strategy for outfitting the food needs that an expedition requires, but with a little forethought and planning, you should be able to pack ahead and/or purchase food along the trail that keeps your food bag at a reasonable weight.

Stoves & Stove Fuel

DSCN1009_0053All types of stoves and stove fuels are permitted along the NFCT, including the use of twig stoves. However, the ability to purchase replacement pressurized fuel canisters or liquid fuels, such as white gas or denatured alcohol, is limited. If your stove relies on specific brands or types of fuel, it is recommended that you contact local outfitters, hardware or general stores in the towns located along the trail prior to departure to confirm availability.

Another option is to ship fuel (ONLY non-liquid fuel and propane or isobutene pressurized canisters can be sent via domestic ground mail) ahead of you in mail drops. A final option is to pack enough fuel to last the entire trip.

What’s in Your Wannigan?

This is the gear set-up that worked for me (for two people) during my 2011 through-paddle. At that time, I did not use compression bags for any of my gear and the sleeping bags were not ultralight. Our original 1980’s vintage orange full-length Therm-a-rests also took up space. The volume of the portage bags I used might exceed your needs, but this gives you an idea of how I organize my gear and what is to be found in each. Kayakers will want to use compression sacks and smaller dry bags that fit into the bulkheads.

Stern Paddler Thwart bag

  • Sunscreen, sunglasses, bug spray, trowel, toilet paper, headnet, headlamp, snacks, water purifier, camera or phone, identification and a small amount of money (all things you want to keep handy and easily accessible at a moment’s notice.)

Small 10L dry bag (doubled as the gear bag for the bow paddler)

  • Lunch
  • Rain gear
  • Bow person’s personal items (e.g. sunscreen, sunglasses, camera, binoculars, snacks, identification and money, etc.)

SealLine Map Case

  • Map(s)
  • Guidebook
  • Compass
  • Passport (once in Quebec)

Dry Bag #1/Dry Goods (115L SealLine Boundary Pack) This is a bag that should never need to be opened during the day.

  • Sleeping bags
  • Pillows
  • Two deluxe, full-length Therm-a-rest sleeping pads
  • Clothes
  • Camp or portage shoes
  • Personal items (book, devices, toiletries, etc.)
  • First aid kit *

Dry Bag #2/Kitchen bag (70L SealLine Boundary Pack)

  • 8′ x 12′ Tarp with parachute cord and stakes
  • Stove and fuel, matches and/or lighter
  • Cook kit (nesting cook pots with lids, bowls, cups, sporks and other small kitchen utensils, dish rag and soap, knife or Leatherman)
  • Collapsible saw (on short trips, did not take on the NFCT)
  • Tent (if the tent was too wet, I’d strapped it to the thwarts or on top of the kitchen bag for portaging.)

30L Food Barrel with harness

  • Food/Garbage
  • Bear rope

Loose Items

  • Extra paddle(s)
  • Bailer and sponge
  • Water bottles
  • Map case
  • Portage wheels

(* I had more room in the dry bag for the first aid kit, but if we had needed to use it more frequently, I would have moved it into one of the other more accessible bags.)

The Checklist

KatinaDaanen_twocanoesMy list represents cumulative data from a variety of gear lists and is intended as a reference only. You may pack quite a bit less—or perhaps more. Not on the list, early or late season paddlers should consider including a dry suit and perhaps an ice axe. View my checklist here.

Even with the best planning, you might still face challenging times on the Northern Forest Canoe Trail. Yet hardly a day will pass that doesn’t impart some remarkable and unexpected experience—an evening breeze clearing away voracious bugs or finding yourself coasting along the current of a powerful river. You will amass an accumulation of fiery sunrises and sunsets while surviving drenching rains.

You won’t possibly be able to define exactly how it feels to be there, except to say there is no place you’d rather be.

Katina Daanen is the author of The Northern Forest Canoe Trail Through-Paddler’s Companion. You can read about her 2011 through paddle and subsequent trips on the NFCT on her blog kdaanen-nfct. You can also follow her 2016 adventure hiking the Appalachian Trail.