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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

It's Only Natural!

Making Your Own Luck—
Outfitting for Discovery

By Tamia Nelson

April 23, 2002

If you paddle to get closer to nature, you know how important good luck can be. Chance encounters—a bear crossing a river, say, or a moose foraging in the shallow margin of a pond—are often the ones you'll treasure most and remember longest. But Luck doesn't love everyone equally. She has to be wooed. How? By being prepared, of course! Louis Pasteur probably said it best. Dans les champs de l'observations le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés. My rather free translation: "Luck's a lady only if you're ready for her."

Seems obvious enough, doesn't it? But how many folks do you know who've missed chances because they weren't prepared? A lot, I'm betting.

OK. As a paddler with an interest in the natural world, you'll want to be ready to welcome Lady Luck anytime she shows up. And being ready means always having the proper gear, because you never know when Luck will come calling.

It makes no difference if you're going out for a few hours or a few days—or a few months, come to that. There are some things you always ought to have with you. Period. After all, you wouldn't leave your paddles behind, or your boat, would you? Well there's more to a voyage of discovery than transport. You need tools, too.

A naturalist's field kit doesn't have to be expensive, heavy, or high-tech. In fact, the basic list is short and simple. Here it is:

  • Small rucksack or knapsack
  • First-aid kit
  • Raingear
  • Drinking water
  • Field journal, pencils and pens
  • Map(s)
  • Compass
  • Watch
  • Hand lens
  • Pocket ruler
  • Knife

See what I mean? Simple and short. It's common sense, really. You won't discover much if you're wet or thirsty, and you'll be hard-pressed to make good notes on credit-card receipts. Now let's take a look at each item in turn.

Rucksack or Knapsack

Whatever bag you choose to haul your kit, make sure it's sturdy and easy to carry. With so much gear being produced for the recreational market today, you shouldn't have any trouble finding just what you need. Can't make up your mind? Then carry both. I do. My favorite rucksack is an old Cold Warrior, and so is my field knapsack—a handy canvas satchel that's perfect for my "discovery kit."

The satchel's a naturalist's dream come true. Just big enough to accommodate a standard-sized clipboard, it holds all my basic field kit, including the folded poncho. It also has a flap-protected full-width outer pocket, while a webbing sling and handle make it a snap to carry. But it still slips easily into the main compartment of my rucksack.

You'll probably have your own favorite, of course. But whatever you use to carry your stuff, be sure that you can close it up tight. If not, you'll find out just how easy it is to lose small items when you're on the move. And once you've made your choice, put all your kit in the bag and keep it there, ready to go. That way, you'll always be ready to make the most of Lady Luck's surprise visits. (Be sure to dry everything after each trip, though.)

First-Aid Kit

This shouldn't require any explanation. A single blister can spoil your day, after all. So learn basic first aid and carry what you need. Your kit doesn't have to be elaborate. Band-aids, alcohol swabs, gauze squares, an Ace bandage, a few aspirin tablets…. You know the particular weaknesses your flesh is heir to. So carry what you need. (CAUTION This is a first-aid kit. On long trips, or on any trip to a truly remote area, you should have a comprehensive medical-surgical kit in every boat—and you should know how to use it. You can't dial 911 "north of fifty" and expect an ambulance to pull up at your door five minutes later.)


I carry a surplus poncho. It's cheap and sturdy, and it doubles as a shelter of sorts for note-taking in the rain. It can even be used to make a serviceable blind. But it's not a good choice on the water. If you've ever tried to paddle into the teeth of stiff blow while wearing a poncho, you'll know what I mean. (A poncho makes a pretty good sail in a following wind, however.) As for swimming with one—forget it! So wear your paddling jacket and pants when you're in your boat, but take a poncho, too.

Drinking Water

The rivers and lakes you paddle won't always be safe to drink, and you can't drink sea water. But paddling's sweaty work, and you'll need to quench your thirst regularly. I always take at least one one-quart bottle with me, even in cool, wet weather. In hot weather I carry more, often a whole lot more.

Field Journal, Pencils and Pens

If the First Law of Discovery is Be Prepared, the second is Write it Down. But you can't do that if you don't have something to write in (and with).

It doesn't have to be fancy. I've used pads of lined paper from the shelves of the local supermarket, spiral-bound stenographer's notebooks, and hard-backed surveyor's field books. The field books are the sturdiest—and the most expensive—but any of these will serve you well. Just keep it dry. (Ziplock bags work fine.) And then use it!

Pencil or pen? Use whichever you prefer. But beware: most ink runs when it gets damp, so pencil's best in wet or humid weather. Use a relatively soft lead, too. It's hard to make fine lines with a soft pencil—though a chisel point on the working end helps—but you're much less likely to tear damp paper.


You'll need them to stay found. You also need them when you're making notes. Where is just as important as What and When, after all. Topographic maps are best. Protect them from water. (You might even want to make multiple photocopies. Then you can take notes directly on your map.)


Another must-have. And be sure you know how to use it. (We'll be doing a series on navigator's tools later in the year.) A map without a compass is like an ax without a helve.


I know. You go paddling to escape the demands of the workaday world. But it's often as important to know the time of day in the backcountry as it is in the office. So get a waterproof watch with a one-piece, pass-through strap and wear it. Cover the dial if you like. Then you'll only see it when you want to.

Hand Lens

These little magnifiers are cheap, light, and easy to use. And they'll open new windows on even the most familiar landscapes. William Blake was right. There's "a World in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower." Isn't it time you got your passport to this hidden world? Read Small is Beautiful and see for yourself. I think you'll agree.

Pocket Ruler

No angler would leave home without a tape to measure the size of a lunker, and every paddler should have a ruler, too, particularly if she's interested in the natural world. Science begins with measurement, and the paddling naturalist is a scientist. You can never tell when you might want to take the measure of a track in the sand—or even a scat on the shore. (You can learn a lot about animals from their scats. They're almost always worth examining, if only to confirm exactly what bears do in the woods. Never handle them, however. Some may contain parasites.)

You'll find a wide selection of plastic rulers in any stationery store or supermarket. Keep the one you choose with your field journal. And if it happens to be transparent, as many are, stick a bit of brightly-colored tape on one end. You'll see just why this is a good idea the first time you drop it.

A more exotic alternative is set of engineer's scales. I have one. It looks a little like the small fans flourished by Victorian ladies in their drawing rooms. Instead of a fan, however, the case conceals a selection of plastic rulers. In addition to both centimeter and inch rules, it has a number of map-scales, ranging from 1:12,000 to 1:250,000. It also has a photographic scale printed on the case, with boldly-drawn inch and centimeter graduations. This is perfect for showing the scale in photos of tracks, scats, or flowers.


Another no-brainer. I always carry a sheath knife when paddling, but I also keep a well-sharpened pocket knife with my field kit. It's been used for everything from removing splinters to sectioning buds. I wouldn't leave home without it.

* * *

That's the basic kit. Now here are a few other items to consider:

  • Binocular (or monocular)
  • Field guide(s)
  • Camera or camcorder
  • Sketchpad and pencils or paints

Binocular or Monocular

I really should list these with the basic kit, I suppose, but since there are times when I don't carry them, they ended up here. Good binoculars are expensive and more or less heavy, but there's no better tool for enlarging your world. To learn more about them, read The Far-Seeing Eye, Part 1 and Part 2.

Field Guides

You can't tell the players without a score card, can you? Still, our library of field guides takes up more than 15 feet of shelf space, so it's impossible to carry every guide we might want. Instead, we often take "theme" trips, concentrating on a single aspect of the natural world and carrying only one or two of the most useful guides.

Too much trouble? Then leave the guides on the bookshelf and make careful notes about anything you can't identify. Once you get back home, take out your journal and start "keying out" your finds. There's probably no better way to learn to see—and to take good notes, into the bargain!

Camera or Camcorder

Not very long ago, naturalists did most of their work with a shotgun. Their motto? "What's hit is history. What's missed is mystery." Now the Age of the Collector is over. Today, almost all collecting is done with a camera. And a very good thing that is, too. The choice of cameras is extraordinarily wide. Use whatever meets your needs and fits your budget. Don't forget a really waterproof bag, though!

Sketchpad and Pencils or Paints

What the canoe is to the jet-ski, the sketchpad is to the camera. Drawing and painting aren't for everyone, but anyone can learn to do either if he wants to. I think it's worth the effort—and the rewards can extend far beyond the finished picture.

* * *

Is that all? Of course not! It would be easy to add even more items to this list. Too easy, in fact. We've carried everything from pH paper to Secchi disks with us when we've ventured out on the water. If you begin by assembling the kit I've just described, however, you're already outfitted for discovery. And that's what really matters, isn't it? See you on the water!

Copyright 2002 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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