Stocking the Right Gear for Backcountry Camping

You don’t have to own a big-box store to compete in the canoe camping market.

Stocking the Right Gear for Backcountry Camping

Loading up a canoe and paddling out into remote wilderness is a dream for many outdoorsmen and women. But going off-grid requires plenty of gear. Stock the right items and your customers will have no reason to go anywhere else before their next adventure.

Hardcore canoe campers, myself included, love nothing more than heading into the deepest wilderness for a week or more, enjoying not seeing another human being and living only on what they brought with them and what they can catch on a fishing rod. I know, because my oldest son, brother-in-law and I take an annual week-long trip into the wilderness of Canada’s Quetico Provincial Park, many miles from the nearest cell tower, convenience store or electric socket.

Interestingly, the wide variety of specialized equipment required to spend a week or more on a trip like this is staggering (literally, if you’re carrying it on your back over a long, steep portage). One thing I’ve come to realize over the past few years is that few outlets carry everything needed for such a trip, forcing those who are gearing up for such an adventure to visit several different stores or shops to find what they need.

That’s where you come in. With a little knowledge of what products it takes to truly “rough” it on a canoe trip, you can stock the right gear to outfit these solitude seekers. At the same time, many of these products are also perfect for less hardcore campers who just want to enjoy a weekend at the nearest state park now and then. And that means more profit potential.

It’s All About Weight

Before looking at particular products, it’s important to understand that everything canoe adventurers take with them on their wilderness adventures must be hauled in the old-fashioned way — on their backs. Consequently, the weight of each piece of gear is extremely important. Every pound, or even ounce, you can shave when selecting an individual piece of equipment yields an easier time packing gear in and out.

To truly understand this, envision a typical portage. Many of these steep, rugged and sometimes muddy lake-to-lake trails follow the routes of fur traders who used dugout canoes to carry their goods to rendezvous in the spring. Many are long — up to three-quarters of a mile — and some are very steep with treacherous footing.

In September, our party took five large packs weighing 50 to 60 pounds each, a canoe, fishing rods and equipment, paddles, life jackets and a waterproof bag containing dry clothing and emergency equipment for each of us into the wilderness. At every portage (we did four to get to our campsite) each of us first grabbed a pack and handful of equipment that we carried to the lake on the other end of the trail. We then hiked all the way back, where two of us grabbed the other two packs and the rest of the equipment and one hoisted the canoe to make the trip over again.

Obviously, in a situation like that, every ounce counts. That’s why most of the items we will be looking at are on the lightweight end of their product categories.


Balance is important when traveling by canoe, and balancing a canoe with two or three people and lots of gear in it requires specialized packs. These are called Duluth packs, which are made specifically as portage packs for canoe travelers.

Duluth packs can be made of heavy canvas, leather and/or Cordura nylon, and they all have one thing in common — they have a flat bottom so they will pack snuggly in a canoe and can be set down by the trail without falling over. They open from the top for loading, and have straps with either snaps or buckles to hold the top flap closed. They also have comfortable backstraps for carrying and, because of their weight when full, many have waist/hip straps also.

While most canoe country outfitters rent Duluth packs to customers, many canoe travelers realize that buying their own will pay off fairly quickly. The packs we used this year were made by Granite Gear. Other companies that make Duluth packs include Duluth Pack Mfg., Frost River Trading Co., SealLine, North49 and Earth Pak.

Camping Gear

A good tent is probably the most important piece of camping gear for canoe campers. Since campers can save a lot of weight in this category, many are willing to pay the extra money for ultralight expedition-type tents. Our Marmot “three-man” tent weighs less than 5 pounds and comfortably sleeps two grown men with quite a bit of gear.

Retailers should try to carry at least a few tents with rainflies, since precipitation is a frequent camping companion and rainflies help keep you and your gear dry. Tents with two doors allow campers to enter and exit without bothering their tentmate. And rainflies that form vestibules outside the doors provide a couple of handy spots to store boots, clothing and other equipment that won’t fit in your tent. For normal spring, summer and fall trips, tents comprised largely of mesh material are great since they can let in a nice breeze when the rainfly is removed.

A good sleeping bag is the next most important piece of equipment for such forays. Backpacking bags, which are lighter and stow smaller than normal camping sleeping bags, are generally best since they leave more room in your pack for other important gear. A bag that is rated for temperatures down to about 35 degrees will suffice for most spring, summer and fall camping trips, although a 20-degree rating is better if the forecast calls for sub-freezing temperatures.

Just in case the weather changes drastically, many campers take along a sleeping bag liner, which will generally raise the bag’s efficiency several degrees in case they start getting a little cold at night.

Keeping a few different types of sleeping pads on your shelves will also help when outfitting canoe campers. These can range from the roll-up type to inflatable pads that stow in tiny containers about the size of a beer can. The roll-up kind is cheaper, but many serious campers opt for the more expensive inflatable mats, which are easier to pack and often more comfortable.

A camp pillow might sound like just a luxury, but if campers are accustomed to sleeping on a big pillow at home a camp pillow is a near necessity. Make sure that whatever pillows you choose to offer your customers are light, compact and comfortable, with light and compact being more important. I used a new inflatable camp pillow this year that when deflated fit into a bag smaller than my fist, and it served me well.

Cooking Gear

Eating camp cooking is one of the best parts of canoe camping. But those hoping to eat well will need to gear up with several specialty items.

A good camp stove is a must. We always take a back-up stove, too, since our lone stove broke on us one year and we had to cook everything over the fire. Retailers should stock some tiny stoves from companies like GSI Outdoors, along with some stoves a little larger (Coleman has several) for those who want more flame and don’t mind the additional weight. Gas bottles and gas canisters are also necessities.

Since we eat a lot of fish, we take along a lightweight griddle to cook our fish over the fire. Some people prefer a cast iron frying pan, and that can be another good item to stock, but they’re too heavy to pack into the backcountry. A pot or pan is also needed so you can boil water for coffee and instant foods. Carrying a good selection of pots, pans and other cooking implements in your inventory can help you make sales you would miss out on otherwise.   

Canoe campers also need something to eat their food out of, so it would be beneficial to stock bowls, cups and other camp eating utensils — again, the lighter the better. Cooking sets with items that save weight by serving multiple purposes are a good bet.

Safety Gear

When the temperature cools down in the wilderness, fire is man’s best friend. Campers need to have two or three butane lighters per person so everyone has one with them at all times in case of emergency.

Also, they need to take along some kind of fire starter material that will work even when wet. We take several packages of Stansport Fire Starter Sticks and store them in different places in case of emergency. Along with a butane lighter, they can enable even the worst fire builder to start a fire using wet wood in poor conditions, which might be a lifesaver in an emergency. We also all carry a few in our dry bags, which we’ll discuss next.

Retailers should carry a good supply of dry bags, as they are another critical piece of canoe camping equipment. On our excursion, each of us carry our own dry bag with us at all times. It contains raingear, dry clothing, a lighter, some fire starter sticks, bug repellant, sunscreen and anything else we think we might need on that day’s outing. We usually also have another dry bag or two back at camp to store other items we don’t want to get wet.


A good camp chair is a lot more comfortable than sitting on a log or rock, but big bag-type chairs are much too bulky and heavy to pack into the backcountry. Some companies make very small, light camping/backpacking chairs that would be prudent for retailers to have on hand. 

For outfitting canoe campers with fishing equipment, carry light to ultralight spinning outfits with reels to match. Monofilament line from 6- to 10-pound test will cover most people’s needs. We carry our rods in a sturdy rod case when traveling to keep them safe, then take them out and rig them up once at the campsite.

Other things that canoe campers will be shopping for include:

Lightweight rain gear – whether a complete rain suit or just a jacket.

Warm Jacket – Fleece jackets are very popular, since they are very warm and dry easily when wet.

Headlamp – Always a necessity for getting around camp in the dark. Extra batteries are a must.

Waterproof Phone Case – With the quality of photos today’s cell phones can take, many campers want to carry theirs with them daily. But it’s impossible to do so safely without a waterproof case.

Tarps – Small- to medium-sized tarps are light, take up little space and are always handy for something in camp.

Needle Nose Pliers – Campers are happy to have these when it comes time to get their lure out of a big pike’s mouth. They’re also great for working on stoves or other gear.

Fillet Knife – If fish will be on the menu — and it should be — this is a necessity.


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