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Paddling Articles In the Same Boat

The Things We Carry

A Paddler's Vade Mecum —
The Secrets of My Getaway Pack

By Tamia Nelson

June 14, 2005

Could anything be better than a day on the water that you hadn't counted on? It's the best kind of surprise. Maybe a lousy weather forecast changes for the better at the last minute. Or the boss decides that the quarterly report is good enough just the way it is. Or the foreman cancels all mandatory overtime. Whatever the reason, you've been given that most precious of gifts: free time. You can already hear the music of the water. But there's always a catch somewhere, isn't there? Let's see…

How Things Can Go Wrong

It's Friday morning. You're in your car on your way to work, creeping along at the speed of a winded jogger past the latest five-car pile-up on the overpass, while the air conditioner circulates the usual summertime blend of gasoline fumes and hot tar. Then a chirpy voice on the radio tells you that a dry cold front is moving across the state. The thunderstorms that were forecast earlier aren't going to happen, it seems. The weekend is looking great. Suddenly, you can see a canoe trip in your future — and the future is now. Only one thing still stands in the way. Work. But just as you settle into your cubicle, your boss stops by to tell you the Friday afternoon department meeting is cancelled. She's leaving early to beat the traffic on the expressway. And it looks like you'll be right behind her.

You are. You make it home in record time. That's when things start going wrong. Your gear is scattered all over the house. Your tent poles aren't in the stuff sack with the tent, and the fly has a blown seam you forgot to stitch up. A truckload of lumber is now stacked against the cradle in the garage where you store your boat, and one of the locking knobs on your roof rack is broken. Worse yet, you can't find the replacement you ordered after your last trip. Your spare paddle is missing, too, and you don't remember that you loaned it to a friend till you've searched for it frantically for nearly an hour. Then real disaster strikes. You look in all the kitchen cupboards and you can't find any coffee. You must have drunk the last cup in the house before you left for work.

Despite all this, you struggle to get it together. And you succeed. With the sun only a hand's breadth above the horizon, you finish loading your boat on the car and packing your gear in the trunk. You even find your spare paddle, stepping right on it on your last trip out the door. It's just where your friend dropped it off a couple of nights ago, in the shadowy corner under the jack pine. Luckily, it isn't broken, so you throw it in the back seat. A few minutes later and you're easing cautiously out of your garage. In your mind's ear, you can already hear the loons calling across the lake. Then a car pulls up the drive, blocking your escape. One look at the couple in the front seat tells you all you need to know. It's Ronnie and Mildred, your old high-school buddies. The vision of Lonely Lake that's kept you going all afternoon vanishes in an instant. Its place is taken by images from the video diary of Ronnie and Mildred's trip to Disney World, the centerpiece of their last unannounced visit. You wonder what new treat is in store for you tonight. If only you'd been quicker.….


Can you see yourself in this picture? I can, and I'll bet you're no different. Most of us are inclined to put things off, and the list of deferred tasks often includes many of the small chores needed to keep our paddling gear in top shape and ready to go. This is only human nature, I suppose. But we pay a price in missed opportunities nonetheless. So…

What Can You Do About It?

That's an easy one. Get organized. Or, in Baden-Powell's timeless words, "Be prepared!" Begin with your next postfloat check. Clean and dry your gear as soon as possible. Make repairs promptly. Stow your boat and accessories where you can get at them quickly and easily. And that's only the beginning. Unless you live right on the water, you'll have to get yourself and your boat to the put-in. If you go by car, keep your gas tank topped up and don't neglect scheduled maintenance. Mechanical breakdowns are never fun, but they're particularly trying when they happen on weekends, long miles down some out-of-the-way forest road.

Or do you haul your boat to the water behind a bicycle? OK. You won't need to worry about gas, but your bike needs regular attention, too. That's the reason for pre- and post-ride checks. Don't skimp on either one. Trailside repairs aren't anybody's idea of a good time, and not many bicycle shops offer road service.

Is that all? Not by a long shot. What about the dozens of items that you bring along on even the shortest weekend adventure? Tracking everything down at the last minute can really slow you up. Remember Ronnie and Mildred. Minutes count. That's why it pays to keep everything together in one place: a dry corner of a shed, say, or a shelf in the garage, or a basement closet. Or you can go one step further and do what I do — make a…

Getaway Pack

It's simplicity itself. All that I need for a spur-of-the-moment getaway goes in my favorite pack, a roomy frameless rucksack, lined with a waterproof dry bag. With my Getaway Pack, my boat, clothing to suit the season, my life jacket, and a couple of paddles (single- or double-blade, depending on the trip), I'm good to go at an hour's notice, anytime from mid-May to mid-October, for an afternoon or a long weekend. To borrow Colin Fletcher's wonderfully apt metaphor, my Getaway Pack is a house on my back. And here's the layout:

  • Bedroom
  • Wardrobe
  • Kitchen
  • Pantry
  • Medicine Chest
  • Hall Closet

Now let's look at the contents in more detail:

Bedroom  Except for a few weeks in late May and early June when biting flies attack in hordes, a tarp is my favorite minimalist shelter. In fact, even when the flies are out in force, a light mosquito net makes the tarp into a pretty fair bedroom. Both tarp and net go into my pack's inside back pocket, and the half-dozen nylon guys knotted to the tarp's grommets make it a snap to rig a roomy canoe shelter. A light plastic groundsheet protects the bottom of my two-and-one-half-pound polyfill mummy bag from rising damp, while a featherweight three-quarter-length Therm-a-Rest® mattress protects my bottom from bumps in the night. The sleeping bag travels in a waterproof stuff sack lashed under the flap of my pack, with the deflated Therm-a-Rest® wrapped tightly around it.

Wardrobe  An ultralight poncho keeps the rain off back and pack on the portage trail. It, too, stows in my pack's inside pocket. A change of socks and underwear keeps me comfortable, a fleece vest and hat keep me warm, a mosquito head net keeps me sane, and a pair of light moccasin pacs keep my feet dry in camp. A large cotton bandanna serves as headband, washcloth, and towel, among many other things.

Kitchen  At home I have a full batterie de cuisine, but on weekend getaways I get by with a one-quart aluminum billy whose lid is deep enough to double as a bowl, a metal pot-grip, a clip-together fork and spoon, and a one-pint steel cup. When open fires are unsafe or impractical, an alcohol stove also comes along. Simple? You bet. And cheap, too. With the exception of the billy and the cup, everything in my kitchen is military surplus.

Pantry  I keep staple foods for three days in my Getaway Pack at all times, replenishing them as needed immediately after each trip. Simple and good are the only rules here. Drinking water's too heavy to bring from home, though. So I get it from whatever floats my boat. A bottle of tetraglycine hydroperiodide tablets keeps most (but not all!) waterborne bugs at bay.

Medicine Chest  This has first-aid supplies for both me and my boat. The exact contents depend on what boat I'm favoring at the moment — not to mention the current state of my all-too-mortal frame — but I never leave home without duct tape and an elastic bandage, or without DEET-based insect repellent and SPF30 sunscreen.

Hall Closet  Here's where all those odds and ends that don't belong anywhere else end up. A matchsafe or butane lighter, a compass, and a knife are always in my pockets, as are a small waterproof notebook and a pencil. My sunglasses seldom leave my eyes from sunup to sundown, while my maps travel in a waterproof envelope tucked under the flap of the pack (and tethered with a lanyard), where they're often joined by a sketch pad. An LED headlamp (a technological marvel whose three AAA cells provide something like 40 hours of useful light), a pair of compact binoculars, folding reading glasses (for the fine print on the quads), and a small roll of toilet paper also call my pack home. A couple of water bottles round out the list — one in use, the other in reserve. And that's it.

Of course, it isn't enough to have a list. After all, most paddlers have this gear, and much more besides. But you won't be ready to beat Ronnie and Mildred to the punch till you…

Put It All Together

So pack your Getaway Bag. Today. And don't forget Murphy. Like it or not, he comes along on every trip you take. Make it hard for him to give you grief. Line all stuff sacks (even "waterproof" stuff sacks) with sturdy plastic bags. Then check the contents of your pack immediately after every trip. That's the time to replace the food you ate and anything else that you used up or wore out: toilet paper, water purification tablets, flashlight batteries, socks.… Be sure to fix what's broken, too. Not tomorrow or the next day. Right now.


Is my Getaway Pack perfect? Obviously not. Every boater will have her own ideas about what's essential — for her. Just adapt. (Make sure you always bring the Ten Essentials, though.) Kayakers with skinny boats may prefer a deck bag to a rucksack. Families will need more pots and a bigger tent. Couples can share some common items. Ring the changes to suit your own sensibilities. But don't sweat the little things, or quibble over half ounces. Take what you need, no more and no less. The important thing is to be prepared.

Time, free time, is too precious to squander. Don't let it slip through your fingers. Organize. Prepare. Be ready to grab your gear and head for the water at an hour's notice. Make your boat shipshape, have your wheels at the ready, and keep your Getaway Pack stocked and handy. It's your vade mecum (that's Latin for "go with me") — the passport that lets you cross the border from everyday to holiday whenever and wherever you get the chance. So the next time Lady Luck smiles, remember this: Ronnie and Mildred are on their way. There's not a moment to be lost!

Copyright 2005 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.

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