The canoes and kayaks are a remarkably versatile craft, and they can open the door to a variety of adventures for you. One of our particular favourites is to pack up the tarp, bung in the bivi and cram in the camping kit, before heading off for a weekend of paddling and camping fun with our paddling mates, partners, kids dogs etc.
Don’t worry we know we used the ‘Bush’ word above but we’re not going to insist you grow a beard and then bang on about every little detail of a ‘Ray Mears’ style survival camping epic, after all half the fun of going on camping adventures is discovering how you like to do things. What this article will do, we hope, is to give you a few pointers to help make your first forays into wilderness canoe or kayak camping fun and enjoyable. First of all, before you head off on a multi-day canoeing adventure in the middle of some wild and woolly location, it’s well worth making sure you’ve got the basics covered with a few practice day trips on more familiar and local waters. These will give you a good idea of how far you can comfortably paddle in a day, the best way to load your boat and give you great practice at navigating, portaging, launching and landing etc.
Failure to plan is planning to fail as the saying goes. Putting some extra thought into your camping adventure before you go will help make your trip smoother and will help to eliminate many simple problems that could otherwise cause you problems. Talk through what you want to get out of the trip with your paddling partners for the trip and then decide on a location. If you’re planning on camping for a few nights in different locations then using OS maps and resources such as Google Earth to work out and identify possible camp spots will avoid any last minute camp-spot scrambles in the dark!
The weather conditions will play a part, so check the forecasts in advance and discuss what sort of conditions that you are all happy to put up with, or decide on an alternative plan, just in case. The Internet is an invaluable source of good, reliable forecasts. We usually keep an eye on the BBC website or www.metcheck.com but there are loads of others.
Backwoods & Camp Cooking
Maybe it was being in the Scouts, but we love cooking in the open, there’s just something about rustling up a backwoods banquet that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, and not just from the camp curry! It’s easy to get swayed by the lure of freeze-dried food or pre-prepared food in foil packets, but resist, just because you are cooking outside doesn’t mean that you must live on boil in the bag type meals. It is often easier, cheaper and certainly a whole lot tastier to prepare fresh meals. These can be cooked right there on camp, or with a bit of planning, you can cook things like stews, sauces, chillies and curry at home and them freeze them ready to be reheated on the camp fire or stove. An old sea kayaker trick is to get cuts of meat vacuum packed by the butcher and then frozen. These then act as extra cold blocks to keep your perishables fresh but then defrost ready for you to have fresh meat during your camping trip.
Pack some seasoning and a few spices, as these are great for adding a little zing to your dishes and can turn bland dishes into something far more appealing.
If you are cooking on an open fire then use the heat from the embers rather than putting food directly into the yellow flame, as the flame will result in whatever you cooking getting blackened by soot.
One of our favourite ways of cooking on an open fire is to use a Dutch oven. These can be used to prepare fantastic slow-cooked meals, and even to bake bread. It’s basically a large iron pot that you sit on hot coals and then lay coals on top. They’re a bit bulky and heavy for carrying in a kayak, even a sea kayak, but if you’re on an open canoe trip they’re brilliant.
Tasty Camping Tip
Check out the following websites for great camp trip recipes:
How to Light a Fire
A good fire requires good wood, so you’ll need to head out into the woods to collect a supply. Cooking on a fire with poor quality wood can be very slow and frustrating. The most common mistake is using wood that is not dry enough. It goes without saying that you should never cut wood from a live tree, what you’re after is dead and fallen branches and any driftwood you may be able to find. Avoid cutting any dead branches from around your campsite, or along the waterfront, in fact anywhere it may have a visual impact on anybody else who may travel your path. If the bark has fallen or is about to then this is a good indication that the wood is dry enough to burn. Deadwood that’s suspended off the ground, caught in other branches, for instance, is better as it’s usually dryer than wood found directly on the ground.Successfully starting a fire (without the aid of petrol or a blowtorch) is a right of passage for outdoor folk. Start small in both the size of the fire and the size of wood that you’re using. Begin with a bundle of small twigs; add any other available tinder (dry pine needles etc). Light these with either matches or a lighter, or with your flaming tinder (see below). They’ll burn quickly, so add more twigs and small sticks as they do. As these catch alight too, slowly increase the amount, and size of wood that you’re adding. Be careful not to suffocate your fire and always keep plenty of space for air to be drawn in as you add more wood. If you’re using a fire pit don’t be tempted to builds a massive pyre. What you’re aiming for is a solid base of really hot embers as these are best for cooking on. We sometimes carry a very small amount of charcoal briquettes with us as when added to a fire they produce a good bed of glowing embers.
Successfully starting a fire (without the aid of petrol or a blowtorch) is a right of passage for outdoor folk. Start small in both the size of the fire and the size of wood that you’re using. Begin with a bundle of small twigs; add any other available tinder (dry pine needles etc). Light these with either matches or a lighter, or with your flaming tinder (see below). They’ll burn quickly, so add more twigs and small sticks as they do. As these catch alight too, slowly increase the amount, and size of wood that you’re adding. Be careful not to suffocate your fire and always keep plenty of space for air to be drawn in as you add more wood. If you’re using a fire pit don’t be tempted to builds a massive pyre. What you’re aiming for is a solid base of really hot embers as these are best for cooking on. We sometimes carry a very small amount of charcoal briquettes with us as when added to a fire they produce a good bed of glowing embers.
Handy Bush Craft Hint – How to use a flint and steel
Getting the Spark
- Hold the flint in your left hand, the steel in the right.
- The aim is to shave off some steel off with the flint, so a sharp edge is needed on your flint. Make sure this is the case.
- Keep the flint still and aim to lightly scrape the sharp edge at an acute angle with the steel by moving the steel vertically down.
- Take note well timed flick of the wrist is required here, not brute force.
Catching the Spark
Place your tinder on top of the flint, about one or two millimetres back from the edge that you are striking. Tinder needs to be fine and bone dry. Real bush crafters will often use a ‘char cloth’. This is a swatch of fabric, usually cotton, that has been converted by heating at high temperatures, in a low oxygen, setting (in a tin) into a slow-burning fuel of low ignition temperature, which makes it ideal for catching a spark and igniting.
- When a spark is caught, it will glow a dull red… Gently blow on it and it will glow brighter and get hotter.
From Ember to Flame
- Make a small pile, like a bird’s nest from suitable material – straw is great for practice with
- Place the glowing charcloth, or tinder into the pile, put your back to the wind, raise the pile and blow gently into it for as long as you can.
- If you run out of puff and need to take a breath, lower the pile nest to waist level, as this will allow you get lung full of clean air, not smoke, but still keeps air moving through the tinder.
- Keep up the blowing until the pile produces flame and then start to add larger pieces of tinder and then wood to build your fire… Try not to burn your eyebrows off!
Cooking with Fire
Although modern camping stoves are very efficient and quick they don’t exactly invoke the romantic image of the wilderness camper. There are environmental issues to consider when building and using a fire, but when managed correctly they can fulfil the green, efficient and romantic roles superbly. After all, nobody looks forward to sitting around the blue flame of a hissing gas stove, sipping a dram, swapping stories and singing ‘campfire’s burning’ do they? A wood fire is certainly special, but we always stick a small, lightweight gas stove in too, as a backup and for making a brew as soon as we hit camp.
Fire Pit or Fire Box
For environmental reasons and efficiency, we like to use a firebox to contain our fire. A firebox is a lightweight folding metal box, which contains the fire and usually has a handy grill on top. Many have legs, or they can be used rested on rocks prevent damage to the ground.If you’re opting for an open fire then you’ll need to prepare a fire pit.
If you’re opting for an open fire then you’ll need to prepare a fire pit. Ideally, you’ll use a folding spade or entrenching tool to do this, but it can be done with a paddle if need be. Start by cutting a rectangular shape on the ground and then carefully removing the top layer of turf and placing it to one side. Now dig out a pit about a foot deep, again carefully placing the soil to one side. Make sure that there’s no chance of your pit and fire damaging any roots. Line the sides of your pit with rocks or two large logs, and then set about building your fire. Carrying a metal grill to lay over the fire is a useful, or you simply sit your pots in the embers once ready. Once your fire has burned right down, pour some water into the pit to make sure it is entirely out. It is possible for fires to sit smouldering away under the earth before bursting forth and causing huge damage. Add some of the soil, pour in a whole lot more water and then stir, just like porridge. Once you’re sure it’s all stone cold put the removed solid back in the hole and then stamp down, finally replace the turf and then pour some more water over the whole thing. The idea is to leave as little trace as possible. We have to say a firebox is a much less work.
Packing You Gear
If we’re on a canoe trip then we usually take a large 100-litre dry bag, with carry straps, to carry all the equipment we need for camping, then a smaller bag with all our daytime equipment in, such as waterproofs, spare clothes, snacks, first aid kit etc. If we’re in a touring or sea kayak then we’ll split this into smaller dry-sacks to fit into hatches and then keep daytime gear in a deck bag in front of the cockpit.
You need to have a plan when packing, rather than just bunging it all in and it’s best to make sure that you pack the things that you’ll need first near the top so that they’ll be easily accessible when you arrive and need to set up camp.
In the top of our smaller daytime dry bag we’ll pack the first aid kit, waterproofs and snacks, further down are lunch and spare clothes; the items that may need during the day but not necessarily in a hurry. In the top of the larger dry bag will be the water and pan (and gas stove if we’re using one), so there is always a chance for a last cuppa Rosie before we get underway in the morning and then first thing when arriving at camp in the evening, next in is the tarp or tent, so we can get it up in a hurry if we need to. Then come things like sleeping bag, sleeping matt, bivi bag, spare clothes and food. Choosing what to take with you is never easy and the only experience, over a few trips will tell you what you need. As we try to take as many multi-functional items with us as possible and make a mental note of the gear that we end up using a lot during a trip, and the things that rarely make their way out of our dry bags This allows us to plan and pack more efficiently for future trips, leaving excess gear behind.
Camp Set Up Hint
Keep you head torch and fire-lighting kit at the top of one of your bags, especially in the shorter months, because if you arrive at camp at dusk, or after dark, it will be the first thing that you’ll need in order to find everything else, and it’s no good having your stove handy for a brew if your method of lighting it is at the bottom of your bag. Head torches are much more practical for outdoor living than hand-held variety, as you can still use both hands to put up tents, erect tarps light the fire etc. Be sure to always carry spare batteries and a spare bulb for your head torch too.
Choosing and Setting Up Camp
Once you’ve completed your day’s paddle and reached your chosen camping spot then it’s time to utilise a different set of skills. Firstly unload your dry bags or barrels secure and then the canoes or kayaks well above any high water or tide line. Or carry them to camp to use as wind breaks, or to set up tarps from. Next set about getting out the stove and get some water on for a hot drink, it really is amazing how much a hot drink can improve flagging morale. Now look for a good place to pitch the tent or stretch out the tarp, look for sheltered places with the flat ground to sleep on and no obvious dangers, large dead branches in the trees above or very close to the high water mark are both obvious no no’s for instance. Sandy beaches can be inviting, and can definitely be comfy, but we find that it ends up in everything, from zips to cameras to sarnies, so we prefer hard-packed flat ground or large flat rock shelves. If everything has gone to plan your tent or tarp should be up by the time the tea water has boiled, so sit down and enjoy your cup of cha. If you have the option of an open fire, prepare the fire pit, or break out your fire box, and collect some wood ready for when it gets dark, be sure to collect sufficient as searching for wood in the dark is no fun. Once this is taken care of you can now start to prepare dinner, hygiene is important when outdoors, so be sure to wash your hands before starting to handle food, and before you eat. We tend to carry a bottle of disinfectant gel, as it’s a quick, easy and efficient way of keeping hands clean in the outdoors. With dinner was done it’s time to swap boating tales around the campfire if you have one, and maybe enjoy a wee nip, a glass of vino or maybe one last brew before hitting the sack for a good nights kip. One boating acquaintance of ours always insists on bringing along a vintage bottle of port on canoe trips, for just such occasions!
If you’re paddling a canoe it can be used as a great wind shelter, simply prop the canoe up on its side by lashing the handle end of the paddle to the centre yoke and digging the paddle blade into the ground. You can even tie your tarp to it to make a great shelter for the night! Kayaks can be used for a wee bit of protection from the wind too.
Pitching a Tent
Tents come in all shapes and sizes and you really need to have practised putting up your chosen model before your trip. A riverbank, in the rain and dark, are not the place to try pitching it for the first time! Choose the flattest area possible and avoid and natural hollows, they may look inviting and offer protection, but in the wet, they will be magnets for water. Make sure you’re tents outer layer or fly sheet as it’s called is pegged out tightly enough, so that it doesn’t touch the inner tent, even in strong winds. If possible make sure that you’re tent is properly and securely pegged down. If the terrain doesn’t allow then use heavy rocks to tie guy lines to instead.
Knocking up a Tarp
Tarps are brilliant and they can be erected in all manner of different ways. They can make great shelters to sleep under, but more commonly they are used as a communal area to shelter from the elements. Think of your tent as your bedroom and your tarp as the kitchen come living room (and bar). For a really simple tarp. Tie a rope between two trees. Now lay the tarp over the line and then secure the four corners by pegging them out with a guy line and peg. There you go a shelter. You can use kayak and canoe paddles and even boats to make more elaborate tarp shelters.
The ‘Ray’ Way
If you’d like to learn more about wilderness camping and bushcraft then we’d highly recommend going on a course. There is now a wealth of companies offering such courses and the skills you’ll learn will come in handy on future paddle-camping adventures. Oh, and did we say that they are incredible fun too?