After years of backwoods camping and struggling to learn lessons the hard way, I have curated a list of my top 10 things you must have on your backwoods camping trip. Obviously, there are more than 10 items you need to bring but frankly, don’t invite me unless you have these packed and ready to go!
Portable Coffee Maker
The first and most important thing for me is how I will get the energy to do all the long hikes and portages. Coffee is something I tend to take for granted when I am at home, however you quickly notice the difference in taste when you are stuck in the middle of a cool damp forest on a fall day, when you are clinging to a cup of instant coffee. There are many ways to bring the power of coffee with you into the forest ranging from instant to a portable espresso pump. I personally prefer the latter, but I also have a soft spot in my heart for percolators and Moka Pots. My top recommendation is the AeroPress espresso maker, that allows you to pump out an americano while sitting on a log next to a smoky softwood fire, frankly it hits different. The versatility is unmatched, being able to flip from a French press to an americano or even a drip coffee is extremely handy, especially in a small compact device.
All jokes aside about the importance of coffee, even more important is fresh potable water. You cannot go camping in the wilderness of northern Ontario, or the mountains of BC without having a method to purify water. There are various different systems for this ranging from drip bags, iodine pills to LifeStraw bottles that you can use on the go. Personally, I use a LifeStraw bottle, however it has its limitations, frankly no one wants my spit coffee… My next camping purchase will definitely be a filter bag, where you can fill the bag up and let it slow drip to fill a vessel for clean potable water, usable in cooking and that sweet coffee nectar we talked about.
I also recommend having a few purification tabs on hand just in case you need a back up source, but there are some downsides, mainly being that there could be debris still in the water, and the effect iodine has on the body. In a pinch you can grab any water source and drop a tab in for some clean water that you can use for cooking and drinking, you may just have some sticks in your soup.
Lightweight Sleeping Bag
Lightweight sleeping bags are key but they also depend on the time of year and the average nightly temperature. Its hard to strike the right balance with a sleeping bag, if its too cold then you need a thicker bag that can help keep in warmth as the temperature falls at night. If it is a summer trip you are planning then you might want something thin as a sheet to allow breathability especially if its humid at night and stuffy in the tent. I personally use a lightweight bag at all times of year, but I bring extra clothes and sweaters to sleep with if needed, however I am more comfortable sleeping in the cool air. A good summer sleeping bag might be rated down to 7 degrees Celsius but I would recommend a buffer of about 5 degrees, as its not an exact fit for everyone. A solid winter sleeping bag might go down to -40 degrees Celsius but it will be big and bulky and obviously not ideal for the summer months. At the end of the day, if you have extra room in your pack, it might not be a bad idea to upsize the sleeping bag first, but only if you can afford the weight and space.
Cooking kits are a pertinent part of the experience, not everyone is willing to lug in large pots and pans so they have kits that latch together. I personally use a small kit that comes with a cute tea pot and a mini stove… giving you everything you need, but the functionality is questionable at times (The plate is the size of a Starbucks Cookie). A small kit is very handy and even if the plates are too small you can eat right from the pot or the frying pan that comes in the kit. Also note that the stoves that come with the little kits are subpar, yes they work but they may not have the best heat control or perfectly level feet. I have always used the stove that came in my kit and have yet to really have any issues.
An alternative option is bringing break resistant plates and just carrying in a large high wall frying pan for the cooking… this enables a little more campfire cooking and more surface area for larger group meals.
Tents come in all shapes and sizes, but the key for me has always been a lightweight tent that can keep you dry but not break your back on the way into the site. Larger tents are typically made for car camping, so they have heavy poles and canvases with extra headroom and fly material. Backwoods tents are often time lighter but they also need a special degree of care because the poles and material are designed to be lightweight, so they are not as durable. My current tent falls into the heavy category which I am looking to change, but for now it does the trick. My next tent will be a tensile style tent where I can ratchet it up into some trees and keep my self high and dry, while also taking care of my back. Obviously, you back will take a beating compared to car camping as you likely won’t have an air mattress, so ideally if your tent is really a hammock you will be comfy all night.
Bonus Tip: Use leaves under the ground sheet to boost comfort under your tent, a little extra time spent at set up is worth a lot in comfort if you are willing to find some loose leaves and ferns for ground cover.
Footwear will make and break your entire experience, bad footwear will get wet and not dry the entire trip, offers no ankle support, and can cause blisters. I recommend a solid set of hiking boots that are lightweight and water proof so you can keep them dry the whole trip. I also believe in a good water show for portages because getting in and out of the canoe on dry land is difficult. Set your footwear according to the type of trip you are doing, if it is mostly hiking, then shoot for solid hiking boots, if its mostly paddling, then go for a water type shoe. Despite what most people think you will struggle to get them dry overnight and you might need them every day… once your feet are wet you will struggle to get them dried out and will end up hurting your feet over the course of a trip. The key to solid footwear is always going to be comfort over long periods of time. Whichever boots or shoes you buy, break them in at home before you head to the woods, make sure they are what you need as finding that out in the woods is no fun for anyone.
This is the simplest tool you need, rather than a hatchet or knife (which you should still have) the folding saw is a great tool for obtaining wood and getting your fire started. Always search out fallen branches and cut them down into manageable pieces to keep your fire going, the more surface area the better when it comes to firewood. Also be sure to target hardwood if possible as it gets hotter and burns a bit slower with less smoke if its good and dry (I know that’s a jackpot, but worth a search).
The folding saw is lightweight and perfect for packing as it doesn’t damage anything in your pack when folded up. A knife with a rock can serves as a hatchet if needed but there is no substitute for a saw. The saw is versatile in creating a notch in tress for tarps, cutting up sticks for poles and creating heaps of firewood quickly from fallen branches.
Rope is an essential part of any backpack kit, its seems self-explanatory but most people don’t know what good rope is. Twine is the enemy in more cases as it frays up easily and is not as strong as its nylon and paracord counterparts. I am not an expert on the tensile strength of ropes but from personal experience a paracord that is about 2mm thick and has a core and outer braid always does the trick. With paracord you can easily melt the tips into nodules and into points if needed to treat a hole on a tarp or branch. The higher tensile strength allows for you to use it for hanging a food barrel and for tarps that might collect rainwater.
Rope is also a key part of getting creative in camping when you want to lash something or support a structure. Also, it helps in an emergency situation if needed to support a brace or be used as a torniquet, should it come down to a serious accident. Needless to say, you need to learn a few knots in order to use the rope you bring…
This one might be a bit more obvious but if you have the space available then you need to bring additional tarps… you literally cannot have enough of them. I have seen all to often when people bring one or two tarps, and the conversation happens in a rainstorm… “I wish we had one more tarp”. You can easily use them under your tent to prevent rain build up, you can build a shelter around your fire, add some walls if its windy, and you can even cover your dry wood. A good friend of mine even tried to use a tarp as a sail on his canoe to speed up our paddling… which didn’t work because you need a ridge board on a sailboat. Additional tarps can also be used as a storage mechanism to keep animals away from your food or cooking gear without needing to string up a full barrel every time. I have even used a tarp in the past as a way of making a sink to do my dishes, so you know they are versatile.
First Aid Kit
This one should really go without saying, however its so important its worth mentioning every time. You need a first aid kit with you! When you are doing any sort of backwoods camping you are hours and miles away from medical support, so you need to be able to deal with any issues on site. The kit does not need to be extensive, but should cover some of the basics including bandages, sanitizer, gauze and even some rudimentary medication like Tylenol and Polysporin. The chances of an incident happening are low but if it does you need to be able to address the problem in the field and then go get help. I also would recommend depending on your group, bringing a satellite phone, as it could be a vital form of communication with medical assistance if needed. I also lump bear spray into this category although it could be its own, if you are camping where there are aggressive bears you need to have bear spray and be ready to use it should you come across a bear.
Lightweight Paddle (Bonus)
I know this was a top 10 list but this bonus piece of gear could be the difference between a pleasant paddle down the lake versus a painful scream boat of shoulder pain and frustration.
A lightweight paddle can make or break how your shoulder feels after a long day of paddling on a canoe trip. Rental paddles often times are waterlogged and weigh a lot more, they also have bumps and dents that do not move smoothly through the water, increasing resistance. It seems minor but a long paddle could have over 10,000 strokes (average of 1,000 stroke per mile for beginners). A well-crafted paddle will be lightweight and keep you stroking consistently so that you don’t loose any gained momentum. A well-shaped paddle will also make it easier to control the direction and power you are delivering to your canoe and keep you going in the right direction. Additionally, I recommend learning some keystrokes for paddling that will make it easier to control the boat. It can be difficult to control your canoe in choppy water and you might find yourself in a rough spot as small lakes can turn over quickly. With a solid lightweight paddle and a repertoire of paddle strokes you should have no problem mastering your portage trip and making it more enjoyable than painful!
Hopefully this top 10 things you need for backwoods camping list helps you get started out into the wilderness. I always recommend to beginners that you bring someone with some experience because there will be a lot to learn, and they probably learned the hard way. Its important to remember that once you leave the access point you are alone with your gear, so make sure you trust what you have bought and make sure you know how to use it. Outdoor backwoods camping can be a rewarding past time, but it takes practice to gain more enjoyment than the frustration of learning hard lessons about what you wish you brought or wish you knew before you left. As always if you have any questions about this stuff, you can drop us a comment and we will try to help in any way we can to get you set up for success. Good luck out there and make it home safely with some wicked pictures from your drone!