Beyond the Pup Tent: 6 Unconventional Outdoor Shelters

This post is part of a series brought to you by RAM. For more information about RAM Series trucks visit us at: What’s this?
Since the first dude crawled into a cave and grunted, "Dude, this rocks," shelter has been one of the big three human needs along with food and clothing. These days we think shelter, and we think house, something fixed and immovable, but for most of our human history we were wanderers.  Portable shelters are part of our genotype. From the felted yak fur gers of Mongolia and the huge tents of the Bedouin to the five-pound ultra-light pouches of modern backpackers, portable shelter has morphed into something very different.  At some point, people went from comfort to efficiency. Don't get me wrong. Super-light backpacking tents are awesome for tucking into your pack for a week-long trek into the mountains.  Five pounds can make a pretty cool portable cave for a few backpackers who drill holes in their toothbrushes and turn their socks inside out for two days of wear.  But for comfortable long-term shelter, crawling into a nylon igloo is pretty stifling. There are other options, many of them considered anachronisms, but they're still relevant. Today we're going to talk about a few of the more unconventional shelters a man can make in the outdoors. These aren't survival shelters--that's another topic for another time; these are shelters you might willingly choose to make for yourself.

Shelter Materials and Equipment

When it comes to making shelter, there are two types of things you need: things to make the shelter, and things to keep the shelter where you put it up. Shelter Materials Canvas Canvas is often considered an anachronism, associated with leaky, musty army pup tents found in Grampa's attic and set up hastily in the backyard.  The facts about canvas are much more subtle. Canvas is durable.  It can take a lot of abuse, can be bone-dry, and is often a superior material.  Throw a log on the fire and send a bunch of sparks downwind into your ultralight tent and you'll quickly see why. The canvas used for shelters is often treated with fire resistant chemicals, so you can do more with a canvas shelter when it comes to heating, either with a campfire or a small, collapsible stove. However, canvas is not light--at all.  Traveling with a canvas shelter usually means an ulterior method of propulsion, like a canoe, dogsled, pack horse, or toboggan.  They are most assuredly not for ultralight camping. Synthetics Nylon is a material, not a cloth.  The weaves and fabrics made of nylon number in the hundreds, and all nylon is certainly not created equal.  The coarser the weave, the more durable the fabric is against abrasion. Since most shelters do not require that sort of abrasion resistance, the heavier, courser weaves are almost never used except possibly as a reinforcement. A wonderful discovery for the outdoor enthusiast showed up when I was a kid in Boy Scouts.  We had a lot of nylon gear, but if we accidentally sliced it, the tear would run like a three year-old's nose in February.  The wonderful discovery was rip-stop nylon.  By weaving a heavier thread through the fabric, any tear would stop at that thread (hence the name).  Small tears are easy to patch.  Long rips, you're toast.  Thanks, rip-stop.  You changed my world. Another wonderful discovery is much more recent.  Ultralight nylon cloth was covered with a super-thin layer of silicone, and siliconized nylon was born.  At 1.1 to 1.9 ounces per square yard, it doesn't take a genius to see that a nine by nine tarp would weigh well under a pound.  The upside: waterproof and super light.  The downside: sewing siliconized nylon is like sewing two lasagna noodles together after dipping them in olive oil.  The stuff is so slippery that all but the most skilled sewers can experience frustration. Both canvas and synthetics have their time and place, and a smart outdoorsman uses both as appropriate. Shelter Equipment Stakes With the kinds of unconventional shelters we'll be discussing today, you need stakes and lots of 'em.  The free-standing backpacking tent has a distinct advantage here, but that advantage is blown away quite literally.  It sucks to watch the drama unfold as a good gust of wind takes your tent down a hillside and over a cliff like a giant synthetic tumbleweed. There are stakes for every sort of ground: snow and ice, sand and silt, rock and scree.  Snow stakes are large, flat-surfaced, and are designed to resist forces when they are fixed in place.  This is accomplished either by driving them down into crusty snow or burying them.  Snow stakes can be made of skis, shovels, trash can lids--basically anything that's flat with a place to tie off. Sand stakes are similar, but sand is so dense you don't need anything so big.  Sand stakes work better as they increase in surface area, of course.  I made my own because I wanted something lightweight, and I wanted to be able to make various sizes: long for high tension lines, short for staking down a non-stressed tab.  I use these when pitching my lean-to on my favorite river. We've all seen metal tent stakes.  Small aluminum spikes work fine when the ground is firm and subsurface rocks non-existent, but they will bend into a pretzel when you hit a rock but choose to keep pounding away. Good for ultralight, but worthless in many situations.  Steel stakes are better and are generally larger. In many cases, the stakes that come with your tent are an afterthought, so consider replacing them before the trip.  There are good stakes with some better brand tents, like Mountain Hardwear or MSR. Cordage Darren's Outdoor Law Number 43.2: You can never have enough rope.  43.1 is The more you need a piece of cordage, the less the odds you have it with you.  43.3 is You did read 43.2, didn't you? All tents need cordage to stake them out properly, and as with stakes, sometimes the cord included with your tent is awful, stiff nylon rope that takes a knot when you don't want it, and won't when you do. Do yourself a favor and toss it.  Now. Good parachute cord is available in many sizes, colors, patterns, and materials.  The cord with reflective tape woven into the sheath if wonderful, especially if you're walking around camp at night with a headlamp. I have 100 feet of cord in my kit at any time, usually 50 feet of regular 4 or 5mm cord and 50 of 3mm reflective.

Unconventional Shelters

Now that you have the needed materials and equipment, what can you do with them? Well many things that a great deal of campers who've only used a regular tent don't know about or have never tried, but are quite useful. Let's take a look at a few. The Tarp The simplest shelter of all, the tarp is incredibly versatile when pitched as appropriate for the conditions.  The trick is to understand the weather patterns, prevailing winds, and the odds of inclement weather. The most common and the simplest set-up is when you put all four corners of a tarp off the ground.  Take each corner and tie it off to a tree or other tall structure, or use poles to elevate the corners.   Raising the center of the tarp is necessary to allow the tarp to shed rain, or else raise one corner and lower the opposite to allow the tarp to drain.  Water will run down the line attached to the lowest corner, which is sorta cool if you're trying to collect water. The tarp can also be configured quickly in the case of inclement weather.  Sure, you can set up a tent, but in the ten minutes it takes to get the tent up, you'll be cold, wet, and miserable.  Instead, you can get a tarp rigged up in a few minutes and remain dry while you do so. The fast way is to keep a line on one corner--tie that to a tree or something else taller.  Stake out the opposite corner tight, facing the wind, to make a ridge, and tack down the corners on each side of the ridge. [caption id="attachment_18631" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="A quick pitch in case of inclement weather."][/caption] This fast pitch takes less than two minutes (I timed it this afternoon).  You can support the "roof" of your shelter with a canoe paddle. If you don't have a paddle, use a trekking pole, or the high-tech solution, a stick. A less secure but less claustrophobic pitch is to stake down one edge of the tarp to create a wall, then angle the tarp over another line or a branch. It's more open and requires a little more room to set up, but it's a standard, a portable front porch from which you can watch the world go by.  The higher the ridge line, the more headroom you have.  You'll notice that I tied the ridge line off to a tree and our coach light.  Improvisation is the name of the tarp game. Another common pitch out in the West is what I call the tent pitch.  It gets you out of sun and rain, but doesn't do much for bugs.  Just throw a line between two trees, throw the tarp over and stake down the sides.  Voila, an instant A-frame.  Great where there are few bugs, or if you have a bug net, or if you don't care about being a feeding station for whatever critter sucks blood in your area of the world. If there are no trees, you can use poles or paddles or hiking staffs instead. [caption id="attachment_18618" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="The Over the Canoe Pitch"][/caption] One I use fairly often is the OTC (Over The Canoe) pitch.  Like the quick pitch for getting out of the weather quickly, this pitch is somewhat claustrophobic but is bomb-proof.  A canoe with with a lot of curvature in the shear line and higher stems is best.  Stick a paddle in the middle (your spare, most likely) to raise one side of the boat and throw the tarp over the whole thing.  You are out of the weather and ready for a nasty blow, and you're out of the weather in the time it takes to drive four stakes. Of course, all this quick set-up stuff means you keep your tarp on the top of your pack, not buried in the bottom under your sleeping bag.  You should be able to find it quickly, and with a few lines already attached, you can pitch it in minutes. The Lean-To The lean-to is basically a tarp on steroids.  While you can rig a tarp in a lean-to style and get close, a lean-to is its own creature. A lean-to is a three-sided tent with a small flap that makes a little roof.  It can be pitched differently depending on the conditions.  It can be battened down tight for a blow or left open and airy for shade from the sun.  I believe it is the most versatile outdoor shelter available to humans. The most famous lean-to is the Whelen, designed by Army Colonel Townsend Whelen.  Whelen asserted that the only two times a Whelen was inadequate was when the temperature hit 20 below or the bugs were especially heavy.  I must agree with the good colonel. A few years ago I found myself on a late October solo canoe trip. The weather took a sudden turn for the worse, and I went from shirtsleeves to sleet blowing in my face and the winds building to over 30 miles an hour.  I pulled off the river onto a small island with a thicket of protective trees upwind of me and pitched my lean-to as quickly as I could.  It was a sandy island and I needed to use sand stakes, but I got it up and taut, back facing the howling wind.  A small fire of dry aspen stripped of its bark by considerate beavers cheered things up.  Inside the lean-to, all was calm and wondrous.  I pulled out my stove, fried up a lamb chop with some stewed dried apples, a nice bar of chocolate and a cup of tea, and I was in paradise.  If I stuck my hand above the ridgeline, I could feel the icy bullets smack into the back of my palm. So you see, I'm partial. With a Whelen, you can also stick a canoe up against the front for a little more shelter when it's blowing like stink.  Despite my bias, canoes are not necessary, but they sure come in handy once in a while. [caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="Lean-to tents are available in high-tech 1.1 ounce sil nylon, such as this one, complete with a bug net."][/caption] If you want the functionality of the lean-to and you travel to where you need a .410 to keep the mosquitoes at bay, consider a lean-to with bug netting.  Synthetics are very light, and the huge door makes for great ventilation.  If the weather threatens, batten down the hatches and ride it out. The Big Gun - The Campfire Tent The campfire tent is clearly not ultralight.  It has its place, and its place is in my canoe before May and after September, and often in-between.  It was modified from the original Baker tent design by the late (and great) Bill Mason, a modern day evangelist who was responsible in part for the resurgence of a generation of paddlers.  Built for him by a company in northern Ontario, the tent has become something of a legend in wilderness tripping circles for its versatility. There is nothing lightweight about these tents.  If a modern backpacking tent is a youth hostel, the campfire tent is a 4-star hotel.  The ventilation, headroom, floor area, and the ability to heat it up in cold weather make this a shelter to live in. The cotton canvas transmits light beautifully, and it will not leak once the fibers swell up. The old adage about not touching the canvas or it will leak is somewhat true, but mostly you forget about and live your life.  If you must poke something, de-lint your belly button.  Probably could use some attention. [caption id="attachment_18639" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="Campfire tents are extremely versatile; you can open them up as wide as a screen porch or lock things down and insert a portable camp stove, turning your tent into a snug, cozy den no matter what temperature outside."][/caption] The downside is that set-up is more difficult and takes more time.  Since the walls are vertical, guy lines are critical to keeping the tent storm-worthy.  Site location is also critical, so don't expect to set this tent up in a driving rain.  Jump under your tarp and wait it out.  In the meantime, figure out in your head how you're going to set up your campfire tent in one of a thousand ways. Why a giant tent?  In our climate (there is a fair amount of rain and snow), you can be storm-bound in a tent for days.  If you need to spend a few days laying over and waiting for the weather to clear, would you rather wait in a 4-star hotel with a view of the lake or a bunk bed in a youth hostel with a view of the inside of your tent? There is also the question of livability.  Homo sapiens, with a few exceptions, don't like to be confined.  If you're on the go and moving daily, perhaps this is too big of a project for you, but if you're staying in place a few days here and there, it's worth it.  There's nothing as luxurious as watching a storm roll across the lake while playing cribbage with your partner or reading something by Calvin Rutstrum.  If you don't know who CR is, you're missing out.  But that's for another day. Resources: Frost River - for the Whelen lean-to and Campfire Tent, made right here in the U.S. (in Minnesota).  My favorite shelter when there are no bugs. Cooke Custom Sewing. For the best tarps in the outdoors, and for the super-light nylon Lean-To Plus with mosquito netting. For reference, the tarp in these pictures is a 10 x 10 1.1 ounce tarp that weighs just over a pound.  All of CCS's stuff is also made in the U.S. (also Minnesota).  My favorite shelter when there are bugs.  Dan tests everything he makes. Sterling Rope. Cool stuff about how cordage is made.

Adventures with Fido: How to Camp with Your Dog

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When John Steinbeck traveled with Charley, his standard poodle, the result was one of my favorite books. Fifty years after its publishing it's still a great read, and it wouldn't have been what it is without Charley. The companionship of a dog can be one of the most rewarding experiences for a wilderness traveler.  As opposed to humans, they are quiet, low-maintenance, and easy to please. Dogs cannot be jaded; everything is new to them.  If you don't believe me, watch your dog at a rest stop.  The pet exercise area is like a giant olfactory newspaper, and my dogs must read every article, especially the ones left behind by an interesting female. But like anything, the key to a successful trip is preparation, and then more preparation. There are many more considerations in your wilderness trip prep work when taking a dog, and failure in one of them can create drama.  You are responsible for the health and safety of your companion.


You don't need a dog with a Ph.D, but be honest with yourself.  Does your dog listen to you?  When you give a command, does she* listen and respond?  I spent a long time training Gracie, my Black Lab, to respond to the important voice commands.  She doesn't roll over or play dead, as they are cute tricks but have no value other than entertaining kids.The important commands that need consistent responses are: Whoa:  I use this for stop, freeze, don't move.  Useful for bird dogs so they don't flush a bird when they're on-point; it's also useful when they see a squirrel and start chasing it across the street.  Whoa can save a life. Come:  Self-explanatory. Down:  Lay down, don't move until I tell you it's okay. Okay:  We're cool.  As you were. Leave it:  Whatever is in your mouth, drop it.  If you're sniffing a dead crow, don't even think about it. Whatever words you decide to use, you need a dog that will stop, come back, lay down, and drop the thing in her mouth. Non-essential but useful is also the hurry up, which is basically urinate and defecate quickly.  Useful at rest stops. Of course, you don't need all these commands if you're going to keep your dog on a leash all the time, but that takes away a lot of the fun for both you and your dog.


Whether it be toward humans, other dogs or any wildlife, an aggressive dog has no place in the wilderness.  It doesn't matter if it only happened once.  If your dog is aggressive, leave her home.  There are too many ways this can go wrong.  I don't need to list them.

Breed and Temperament

Let's be honest.  We are asking a lot of a dog to do the things we want her to do.  If a dog hasn't seen a porcupine before and won't whoa, you better have your Leatherman pliers and a day off trail to spare.  My experience is that most smaller terriers don't handle things well.  Not that yours won't, but a Jack Russell that sees a porcupine will most likely bark bring it on! in dog language and go for the throat.  That's what they were bred to do, and they do it well. The dogs I have known who handle wilderness tripping the best are usually smart and compliant.  Retrievers of all sorts tend to do very well, as do Chesapeakes. Pointers and other sporting dogs can do well, but a lot of that is individual temperament.  Our German Shorthair, Winnie (R.I.P.), was great, but she was a very chill GSP.  Some are more high-strung.  Standard poodles tend to do very well with a good short clip.  With a show cut, other dogs and animals will mock them.   Our Great Pyrenees puppy Alice is yet unproven, but she does appear to be a burdock magnet, so consider coat maintenance when taking longer-haired dogs. Border Collies can be wonderful.  My friend Dana has a great BC who listens better than most teenagers.  Others would try to herd every animal in a five mile radius.  Again, individual differences.

Behavior Issues

Barkers Sound carries a long way over water.  I can recall camping on an island in the Boundary Waters and a dog barked constantly for hours.  It seemed like she was just across the channel, but in fact the campsite was almost a mile away, within earshot of a dozen campsites.  Non dog-owners would have wanted to shoot that dog; I wanted to shoot the owner. The dialogue went thusly: Dog:  Bark bark bark! Owner: You shut up! Dog:  Bark bark bark! Repeat for three hours. If your dog is a barker, leave her home.  If she becomes a barker, train her to not bark. I'm not a trainer, but it's possible.  Yappers (Yorkies, Maltese, Shih Tzus etc.) are likely to drive everyone nuts. Wanderers If your dog is a wanderer, you'll want to find a way to put her on a leash at night before bed time, and bring her into the tent when you turn in.  A friendly dog might visit the neighbors, and that can be a disaster.  Let the neighbors come to you.  If she steals a nice piece of hard-earned cheese off a rock near the campfire, you'll hope for a friendly chastisement.  You may end up with an earful of profanities.

Physical Capabilities

Just as a low-rider doesn't do well off-road, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that a Basset Hound would be a poor choice for backpacking over rough terrain.  Larger dogs are more suited for that sort of hiking.  For smaller dogs, consider smoother trails or canoeing. Like a person, dogs need training.  Don't use a backpacking trip as a weight loss program for your 90-pound Lab.  It's bad because your dog won't tell you she's out of shape...she'll just suffer, stoically. You will both lose weight naturally.  This is the time to increase, not decrease caloric intake for both of you.  If your dog is on a low-cal diet, consider mixing a little more caloric food in her regular chow.  Do it slowly: a radical change in diet creates a lot of stomach distress.  Gracie can't use words to tell me, so she lets her gas do the talking.  She can clear a room with one SBD.

Backpacking dogs should at least partially support themselves.  They should be able to carry about a week's worth of kibbles packed in a dog pack.  Again, don't make the trailhead the first time she puts on the pack.  Get it a month or two out, get her used to it, and gradually add a little weight.

Dogs are not wild animals, and some dogs may need something to keep them warm in spring and fall.  A small fleece blanket works for Gracie, but Alice doesn't need anything. In fact, she's a furnace and can add heat to your tent.  My buddy's Border Collie finds a way to slip into the foot of his sleeping bag without waking him up.  Smaller dogs may want to share, so consider a larger bag rather than a mummy. A canoe trip won't require the aerobic capacity that a long backpacking trip would, but you might need a dog PFD.  Canine personal flotation devices are a must for non-swimmers, of course, but even dogs that can swim could use a little help.  A friend has a Staffordshire Terrier (Pit Bull) that loves the water but swims like a U-boat.  Dogs can get tired too, and like people, they can drown if they don't monitor their fatigue level, and most energetic dogs don't realize they're tired until they're really tired. In some areas, I prefer to give my dogs water that has been purified.  This may sound overly cautious, and it's true that most dogs can drink stuff that would send us to the ER.  But in some urbanized areas, there are pathogens in the water that you wouldn't drink, so why subject her that same stuff?  Amoebic Dysentery can give your dog the runs.  Not good for disposal etiquette. Whether it's filtering or a chemical treatment, just consider it. So that's the dog stuff.  What about the owner stuff?

Trail Etiquette

You love your dog, clearly.  Not everyone does, so if you're backpacking, the etiquette is to step off the trail and control your dog.  An overly-friendly Lab can knock a backpacker off her feet, causing embarrassment at best and injury at worst.  So control your dog. A dog that runs back and forth on a trail is fine, if you're in a low-use area.  On some trails you'll see a lot of people, and some of them came to the woods or water to escape civilization.  Some of them don't like dogs.  Assure them your dog is under control and not aggressive.  I would stress the under control part first.  "Oh, she's harmless..." is subjective, and if the other hiker or paddler has had a bad experience with a dog in the past, "she's friendly" means nothing, whereas "she's under control" means everything.

About Poop

If you came across a hiker taking a dumper in the middle of the trail and walking off, you'd be mortally offended and likely grossed out.  Dog feces are not pleasant for anyone.  No one expects you to carry out the poop, but you should handle it as you would your own, depending on the environment you're in.  If you're in cathole country, dig a small hole and put your dog's little gift into the soil. Now I can hear some of you saying, "Does a bear, well, you know..."  Yes, a bear is an arboreal defecator.  You can choose to take your dog off into the woods and make a steamer, but you are bringing a different type of poop to an area that is not used to it.  If a gentleman takes a dog as a companion, a gentleman deals with the ramifications.

Dog First Aid

A dog can be injured just as surely as you can.  Your dog is not necessarily a good judge of what she can and can't do.  Winnie was cautious and trustworthy. Gracie is fearless, and she pays for it sometimes. Scrambling over rocks may be fun for you, but it's an invitation to an injury if you're not careful.  If your dog does hesitate, this means you should wake up.  Dogs can be smarter than you. The most common injuries are to a dog's foot pads.  They are not thorn-proof and a little thorn can cause a lot of pain.  Dog's feet have a lot of innervations, just like ours.  There's no walking it off. Whether it's a thorn or a fishhook, a lot of the first aid for dogs is the same as for you.  The big difference is pain management.  Dogs do not tolerate human NSAIDS or pain relievers.  Your veterinarian can prescribe a few good pain relievers, such as Rimadyl and Tramodol. Rimadyl is the equivalent of Ibuprofen for adults.  It can help with aches and pains and is good thing for your older dog the morning after an overly exuberant climb.  Tramadol is a synthetic opiate, so it's more powerful but can make your dog drowsy.  For aches and pains, my vet recommends Rimadyl.  For more chronic pain, Tramadol works well.  When Alice strained her shoulder we put her on Tramadol for a few days.  It helped her stay a little more relaxed so she would heal better. Then there are other critters, large and small, that can be a threat. Larger mammals such as bears and moose generally avoid humans if we avoid them, but a curious dog can be killed with a moose kick in seconds, especially if there are calves.  Porcupines, as previously mentioned, can be nasty.  Skunks and raccoons can transmit rabies with just a nip, and skunks have other capabilities that are unnecessary to explain.  Small mammals can scratch the nose of a curious dog. Ticks can be a problem in tick country.  We do tick inspection every night, and it might take a little bit of searching, especially with deer ticks, the carriers of Lyme Disease. Wood ticks are easier to find.  Treat them as you would with a human.  If they're not embedded yet, it's easy.  I throw them onto the fire grate, where they sometimes make a satisfying pop. Consider immunizing your dog for Lyme.  It's a controversial subject, but I have done it for years with no ill effects.  Your dog, your call. The big thing to remember when it comes to first aid and your dog is that if your pooch gets hurt when you're out in the wilderness, you will have to find a way to get her back home. Keep that in mind when you're planning your trip, thinking about the terrain you'll be covering and how far out from civilization you'll be, and calculating whether to take a risky detour.

All this shouldn't discourage you from taking your canine companion on a wilderness excursion.  It just requires more planning and a little more awareness of your dog's capabilities.  In finding that out during your pre-trip planning, you just may end up growing closer to your loyal pooch. Some of my best wilderness expeditions have been solo trips with a well-behaved dog.  Sometimes they're the perfect companion...they watch, they learn, they love, and they snuggle you at night. They'll sit and watch the glowing coals of a campfire and fall asleep on your feet. There's nothing better than that at the end of a long day. Do you take your dog camping or on other wilderness expeditions? Share your tips for navigating the great outdoors with a pooch at your side! *I use she because a) I hate the he/she thing, and b) all my dogs have been bitches.  My experience is that they tend to be smarter and lower maintenance once the plumbing has been removed.

How to Plan a (Successful) Canoe Trip

"The way of a canoe is the way of the wilderness, and of a freedom almost forgotten. It is an antidote to insecurity, the open door to waterways of ages past, and a way of life with profound and abiding satisfactions. When a man is part of his canoe, he is part of all that canoes have ever known.” - Sigurd Olson
This post is part of a series brought to you by RAM. For more information about RAM Series trucks visit us at: What’s this?
Canoe tripping is part of the fabric of the North woods. It was the canoe that carried Native Americans throughout North America. Canoes brought the first Europeans into the interior of the frontier to trade and proselyte. And it was from the inside of a canoe that Lewis and Clark explored and mapped our new nation. So it is no wonder that the idea of paddling away from civilization and into the wilderness has always held great romantic appeal for men. What man has not sat at his desk, surrounded by the walls of his cubicle, and closed his eyes to imagine gliding through the water of a clear river, surrounded on both sides by emerald forests or vibrant fall foliage? But it needn't remain a mere fantasy. Canoe tripping is not only romantic, it's also a very practical way to camp. The utility of the canoe is undisputed. In the hands of a skilled paddler, it can carry amazing amounts of gear, navigate waters from tiny streams to vast oceans, and do it with a panache that is unquestionably manly. Last time, we talked about one of the advantages of car camping over backpacking; mainly, that with car camping you can pack more gear, allowing you to camp more comfortably and cook and eat more delicious grub. Of course the downside of car camping is that it lessens the feel of getting away from civilization and losing oneself in nature. Well, with canoeing, you can have the best of both worlds. You can plunge yourself deep into the wilderness, a la backpacking, while at the same time carrying 100 pounds of gear in your canoe. It is camping that is both rustic and luxurious, which makes it, in my humble opinion, the best kind of camping of all. By now I've convinced you that a canoe trip is in your future. But many men seem to find the idea of planning and executing a canoe trip intimidating. Loading a tent and sleeping bag in the car they can do. But heading down a river into the wilderness seems a bit more daunting. But it doesn't have to be. Planning a canoe trip is like a planning anything, you'll simply need to: • Decide what you want to do • Research what you need to know • Find the resources you need • Execute your plan The following elucidations are true for small groups or individuals, but here I'm focusing on group dynamics as well.

Step 1: Decide What You Want to Do

Where do you want to go?

Choosing the location is the first step, and it's critical. It's easy to romanticize getting into the wild on a month-long trip to the Northwest Territories with the guys from college, the ones you haven't seen in ten years. Don't. It's not romantic. At least one person in your party will die a grizzly death. Not grisly, grizzly. To start, shorter trips are better than longer trips. Flatwater trips are better than whitewater trips. Smaller bodies of water are better than larger bodies of water. Start slowly, or you may never start again. Somewhere like the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in the upper Midwest is a good place to start. That's my turf and I love it. Out west, some of the classic rivers like the Missouri across the northern states, the Green in Utah, the Rio Grande in Texas, or the Niobrara in Nebraska are good starts. Blackwater rivers and swamps in the south are gorgeous, especially in the off-season. The Ozarks have some wonderful rivers like the Current. There are lots of places to go that are both beautiful and beginner-friendly.

Who do you want in your group?

A friend of mine just went on a canoe trip. It was supposed to be a solo trip with a rendezvous in the middle of the trip. It didn't turn out that way. My friend ended up hauling out a friend who had misrepresented his abilities. Friend was unprepared, wore the wrong clothing, went hypothermic and joined the Liar's Club. It was a soul-sucking experience, not the rejuvenation he expected. Then his truck broke down on the way home. How do you avoid soul-sucking experiences? A good vetting process. Select a trip that is suited to the person in your group with the least amount of experience, or if a lot of people are experienced and one is not, make accommodations (put him in a canoe with a very experienced paddler). Better yet, convince Weakest Link to stay home this time. That isn't supposed to be humorous. No one will have fun if W.L. is holding everyone back. Assign a trip leader early on, or at least a team, all of which are of one mind on the goals and expectations of the trip. The trip leader doesn't set the agenda; the group does that. But early on, safety protocols are discussed and agreed upon by the group. When things vary from that protocol, it's the trip leader who says, "No, we're not cliff diving. We agreed on that early on." A trip leader can also say,"I don't feel comfortable with you swimming in the Lagoon of the Shrieking Eels." Before the trip, all agree that the trip leader's word is law. It's a hard place to be, and it has challenged friendships, but ultimately it has to be that way. Rule by consensus doesn't work in the wilderness.

Step 2: Research What You Need to Know

Once you have decided where you want to go, start collecting information. Maps, guidebooks, and online info is good, most of the time, but maps can be wrong, guidebooks out of date, and the internet is proof that even the dumbest person can present their opinions as facts. You don't know who they are, their experience level, or the nature of their preparation. Here's a hint about internet information: Generally, the more they talk, the less they know, especially if they had a bad experience. There's a local stream with mild whitewater that I paddle often, sometimes with friends with limited experience. There's also a local who insists that it is a horribly dangerous river and anyone who takes beginners there is negligent. I get an earful periodically, on how reckless and uninformed I am. He had a bad experience a few years ago (he swam). It's not about him; it's the river's fault. The best information comes first-hand. Use the telephone. Talk to people. You'll know immediately if they're credible. My experience is that we love talking to people about our favorite places to paddle, giving tricks and landmarks that may not be on the maps or in the books. Why we do this is puzzling, because it takes people to our favorite places. But we love these places, and want to share them. If you're planning a trip in a National Park, Wilderness Area, Scenic River or any other government controlled land, including BLM land, the local rangers and authorities are more than happy to give you information that is credible, often with maps and links sent for free. Their job is to get you into their domain, and they often have gear lists and other gear hints. Which leads me to...

Step 3: Find Resources

You need the proper gear to be safe and comfortable. Some of this information may be available from your previous contact, but outfitters are a great resource too. If you have no interest in using said outfitter, don't waste their time. They are in the business of outfitting, not being a free resource to people who won't use their services. For groups or first-timers, I would strongly consider using a guide or outfitter. This takes the burden of trip leader off one of the group, which is pretty sweet, and you have an instant expert who knows the area, the weather patterns, the local blueberry patch (this is key), and otherwise will enhance your experience. Spread across a group, it's a cheap expense and even experienced paddlers can enjoy this. I took a guided trip in Alaska a few years back with the whole family, and while we could have rented boats and done the trip ourselves, we used a guide service, and we didn't have to lift a finger. We focused on enjoying the scenery, not cooking ramen under a tarp in the rain. Hint: it rains a lot in Alaska. Instead, we ate salmon and green salads, halibut steaks, and stir-fry. Worth every penny. Choosing an outfitter or guide is easy, actually. This is where the internet is good. Customer testimonials are great, both on the outfitter website and in other places, and if you see ten great testimonials and one whiner, shun the whiner. My experience is that some people choose to be negative and miserable. His life is his own punishment. Ask about safety records. Ask about the training of their guides. Ask how long they've been around. Ask about the kinds of groups they service. Ask about their equipment. In short, you can't ask too many questions. If you choose to go without an outfitter, local specialty stores can help you the best. As the owner of a local specialty store, I am biased. The difference between a larger box store and a specialty store is the depth of knowledge. A box store employee has heard of the Boundary Waters. Our Assistant Manager has been to the Boundary Waters 30 times. He knows what to wear, how to pack, what to eat, where to go, and what works and doesn't work. It's a common conception that specialty store prices are more than box store prices. Not true. Don't learn how to set a tent up in the dark when it's raining. Nothing in your gear should have a price tag on it (a sure sign to me that it's going to be a very long trip). Dry runs are critical. Set up your tent in the backyard a few times. Maybe do it once in the dark with a headlamp. Know your gear. Don't find out an air mattress has a hole the first night you're out. Don't find out your camp stove doesn't work below 40 degrees when you're trying to boil some water. Don't find out rain pants don't fit over your regular pants during a downpour. Okay. Dead horse successfully beaten.

Step 4: Execute Your Plan

Of course, you've written down all this and have a plan, and you're ready to go. A few last things to remember: 1) Leave a float plan with your family, friends, and local authorities. If you are scheduled for three days and we're coming up on day five, you want someone to know you're behind. Not to worry them, but to allow locals to start searching. They generally don't start for a few days after the return date, especially if the weather has been challenging. 2) Consider a PLB of some sort. A Personal Locator Beacon is a nice little piece of insurance in the case of severe injury. Severe injury is defined as potential loss of life, limb, or eyesight. Cracking open a PLB because you're cold and hungry will earn you a visit from a helicopter, and helicopter fuel is expensive. Unnecessary rescues tax the system, leaving people with real emergencies exposed, and unless you have a roll of hundreds (about 250 of them) you're not fond of, avoid pulling the pin. Most PLBs have a "I'm okay" button, also called the DWH ("Don't worry, honey.") Pushing that button every morning sends a text or voicemail saying "I'm alive and loving it." It can also send a link to Google Maps, showing exactly where you are. For larger groups, a satellite phone is great, especially if the expenses are shared. I prefer PLBs because I don't go the Spanish River to order a pizza. 3)  There is water involved. Pack accordingly. The odds of things getting wet is significantly higher on a canoe trip.  This means you'll want to protect your gear with something besides Hefty garbage bags.  You can double them or triple them...but all it takes is one stray stick or an ember from your campfire and your waterproof system is severely compromised.  The answer to this is dry bags, and lots of them. Dry bags are tough, and you can bet your sleeping bag they'll be dry if used properly.  Dry bags function with a roll top system, where you fold the mouth of the bag over itself and secure it with buckles. The two guidelines are, first, don't fill them too full, as that makes the second guideline impossible.  The second guideline is to roll the top down at least three times, and make sure the flaps are all lined up nicely. Use lots of sizes and lots of colors.  I am not so meticulous that I have a system for all my colors, but I do have certain bags that are color-coded.  First aid is bright orange and I have written FIRST AID on the outside with a big Red Cross on it.  If I am incapacitated, I want the dumbest person in my group to be able to find it. The other is color coded bright green, and it is the toiletries bag.  Blue is often clothing, unless I have more clothing than I have blue bags.  Your system may be different.  I actually hope it what works best for you. Unless you want to carry everything in your arms, when you're done packing everything that must be dry in bags or other dry storage, you move on to loading them up in your packs. 4)  You will have to carry stuff. Most canoe trips require a portage.  This is pronounced either POOR-tuj (American pronunciation) or pour-TAJ (like in the Taj Mahal, the Canadian pronunciation).  Some Americans are Canuckophiles and end up pronouncing it pour-TAJ, myself included.  It just happened, eh?  A portage is necessary when you either go from one lake to another, or along the side of a river when it becomes impassible, due to a rapid or a dam. Portage packs are different than backpacks.  A backpack is narrower, and may be taller and longer, usually with a really fancy suspension system that shows that its primary purpose is carrying stuff all day.  Portage packs are usually larger, shorter, and have a less sophisticated suspension system.  The idea is to carry a lot of stuff a relatively short distance.  Considering the voyageurs of the fur trade era routinely carried two 80-pound bales of beaver fur, there is no sniveling here.  Don't complain about the weight, just suck it up.  You'll be happier later when you are baking your business in a reflector oven while you're backpacking counterparts are enjoying their dehydrated beef stroganoff that looks like the dog just got sick on the driveway. You will sometimes have to carry a pack and a canoe.  If my then 16 year-old daughter can carry a 70-pound pack and a 45-pound canoe, so can you.  Well...she is a rugby player and incredibly strong...even so... 5)  The trails you will be on will be unlike most hiking trails. Backpackers are mostly used to relatively defined trails.  Canoeists are used to mossy boulders, spruce roots, irregular scree along a riverbed and other less-than-hospitable trails.  Good footwear is essential on these sorts of trails. What good footwear means is a religious discussion.  Some prefer sandals with heavy soles (Chaco, etc.), some a sacrificial pair of always-wet boots, some use a specialized shoe with a neoprene sock that goes to the knees.  My theory? You're going to get wet, so plan on wet feet.  I use a pair of hunting boots (Red Wing or Filson boots are great), usually the 12-14" tall variety.  Good wool socks.  So long as you air your feet out periodically (usually at lunch and then dinner), you won't get prune toes and your ankles with thank you. I do take good care to make sure my boots are well cared for post-trip, and I do pull the insoles each night to let things air out.  They go nowhere near a fire.  Ever. I anticipate comments that will tear my system to shreds.  That's fine.  It has worked for me for 25 years.  Experiment with your own system. 6)  It's easy to get lost. In a place such as the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, the lakes are amazingly similar.  Good map and compass skills are necessary, but so is deduced reckoning, often called dead reckoning.  It consists of being aware of your surroundings and making sure that the thing that's supposed to be there actually is.  If the trail is supposed to be at the end of a bay and it's not...consider for a moment you may be in the wrong bay.  Do not forge ahead.  Back up to where you last knew where you were.  If that's the put-in, so be it. Even though the route is picked for you by the current, rivers are tricky too.  Your ability to know how many miles you've gone is incredibly difficult.  The bridge where you are sure you parked your car may look like a bunch of other bridges.  You may think, "I should have been at the take-out by now," only to find you passed it hours ago. This is where hitchhiking skills and begging come in handy. GPS? Sure. It's useful to know where you are and where you're going. A GPS can also lead you down a path of surety that is not at all sure.  Just because there's a blue line on the GPS screen doesn't mean the water is navigable, and it won't show that the lake at that end is a mud pit when the water is low.  And the water is always low.

Step 5: Have a Wonderful Experience

You've done your homework, so you're confident and have no reason to fear. Fear comes from a lack of preparedness, so have a wonderful experience. Take only pictures, leave only footprints, and avoid Spam. Have you ever been on a canoe trip? Share your tips and experiences with us in the comments!

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