Ease Your Expedition

Seven Simple Items of Convenience

There are many pieces of equipment which most paddlers agree are "standard necessities" on a comfortable expedition: food, water, shelter, a warm sleeping bag, proper paddling apparel, a comfortable PFD, essential safety gear, and so on. Recently, I spent some time thinking about the top seven items which I really appreciate on an expedition but which may not seem like obvious, "must-have" pieces of equipment to other paddlers. Read on to see which unusual items I consider to be most valuable and versatile for their weight. Perhaps these seven items will add an extra measure of comfort, safety, or enjoyment to your next expedition.

Polarized Sunglasses: See Better, Paddle Smarter

I'm amazed how many paddlers still have not discovered the wonder of polarized sunglasses. Unlike ordinary sunglasses, polarized sunglasses are designed to minimize (not just dampen) reflective glare. Their effectiveness varies depending on the intensity and angle of the sun, the clarity of the water, and a few other subtle factors, but in many cases, they can turn the otherwise opaque surface of the water into a transparent window. Instead of seeing reflections and currents on the surface, you'll literally be able to see through the water, to the rocks and obstructions below, almost as if you're wearing X-ray glasses!

Why is this an advantage for paddlers? Whether you're dodging snags on a river, shooting through rapids, avoiding wing-dams, ogling sunken ships, or scouting a safe approach on the shore side of a dumping surf, polarized sunglasses will greatly enhance your ability to see past the glare on the water's surface and spot important features or obstacles below, before they endanger or damage you or your kayak. Obviously, if the water itself is dark and cloudy (like the muddy Mississippi or the sediment-rich waters of the Atlantic), they may not offer much of an advantage over ordinary sunglasses, but in clearer waters like wild streams, the Pacific, or the Great Lakes, the difference they make can be quite astonishing.

At one time, it seemed you needed to shell out at least $45 or more to purchase a decent pair of polarized sunglasses, but now you can find them for as cheap as $10 or $15. The polarization on a cheap pair is never quite as good (sharp and clear) as that on a high-end pair, but it's close, and still far better at dissipating glare than any ordinary lens. Best of all, it likely offers the same UV protection for your eyes as any other pair—an important measure of protection for a paddler, whose eyes have to deal with the intensity of the sun and its reflection off the water.

Mesh Head Net: Repel Pests without Spraying or Swatting

By necessity, paddlers inhabit wet and sandy spaces. But wet and sandy spaces are also havens for annoying insects like mosquitoes, gnats, and sand flies. Bug repellant can provide effective protection—especially highly concentrated Deet formulas—but it is potentially unhealthy, stings your eyes (especially if you begin to sweat), and often smells bad enough to repel humans as well. I reserve my bug repellant for emergency situations only, when I'm being viciously attacked by biting flies or bloodthirsty mosquitoes. For more casual occasions, I use a no-see-um mesh head net (the spring head net manufactured by Outdoor Research) to keep the insects away from my face so that I can catch a quick nap in the afternoon shade or make lunch without having to swat wildly around my head every few seconds.

A head net can also be of great comfort when you're paddling in a marshy back-channel of a river or a flooded lakebed lined with tall grasses and low-hanging trees, where ticks may be lingering and waiting to drop into your hair. Don the head net, and you can paddle without having to shake out your hair every few minutes. It does wonders for keeping that "creepy-crawly" feeling at bay. Best of all, a mesh head net weighs next-to-nothing. Mine includes a metal hoop to help keep the mesh away from my face (for better ventillation and comfort, as well as greater protection from biting insects that might bite through the mesh), though the same benefit can be achieved by wearing a brimmed hat or basebal cap underneath a basic mesh head net.

Ibuprofen: Reduce Aches, Pains, and Inflammation

Expeditions and sore muscles go hand-in-hand like wind and waves. High mileage days can leave you back, arms, and wrists aching. They can also give rise to inflammation in your joints that, left unattended, can easily result in stiffness or trip-ending complications like tennis elbow or tendonitis. Ibuprofen, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), can do wonders for reducing these effects by keeping inflammation, aches, and pains in check.

Although you should never pop pills like candy, it is perfectly safe (on a high mileage trip with plenty of good food and hydration) to take the edge off aches and pains by taking one or two Ibuprofen pills (200 - 400 mg) each morning, and perhaps another one or two at late in the afternoon. Warning labels advise against consuming more than 4 to 6 pills (800 - 1200 mg) in any 24 hour period without consulting a doctor. I adhere to that limit pretty faithfully, rarely taking more than one or two pills (200 - 400 mg) per day (usually just two pills in the morning) unless I am suffering from a injury which involves visible swelling around the joints. As an over-the-counter drug, Ibuprofen is very safe and the dosage warnings are quite conservative (common injuries like tendonitis are regularly treated with a regimine of 2,400 mg per day!), but don't overdo it. Just a couple of Ibuprofen should make a noticeable difference in the ordinary aches and pains you will encounter from day-to-day. Combined with adequate stretching each morning, it may even significantly reduce the likelihood of repetitive-stress type injuries like tennis elbow and tendonitis.

Note that Ibuprofen may put you at higher risk for conditions like hyponatremia, and some experts recommend Acetominophen (Tylenol) as a substitute for Ibuprofen in endurance-type activities. To be safe, ask your doctor which type of NSAID and what doseage is appropriate for you. In my experience, Acetominophen is not as effective, so I prefer Ibuprofen, and pack at least 8 tablets along on every trip.

Utility Rope: Easy Portages, Dry Clothes, Secure Moorings

Kayaks can be awkward to portage, particularly because, unlike canoes, everything has to be packed in smaller, more numerous dry-bags, rather than in one large, comfortable "portage pack" with a convenient harness. Even so, you can greatly speed up and smooth over your portages if you carry at least six feet of 1/4" - 1/2" diameter rope (I prefer braided nylon or polyester rope).

When the time comes to portage, remove all of your heaviest dry bags from your hull. Run the rope through all of the handles, D-buckles, or other attachment points on your dry bags, then tie it end-to-end to form a large rope loop. Divide the weight of the dry bags in half, with half the weight on one end of the loop, and half on the other, then bend down and drape the middle section of the rope (both halves) over your neck and shoulders and stand up. Voila! An instant portaging harness to help you haul your gear more efficiently and take the strain off your arms! (If the rope digs into your shoulders, place a PFD, sweatshirt, or raincoat underneath to distribute the strain more comfortably.) Now you can march down the portage route like a pack-mule and deposit your heavy gear in one load. When you come back for the kayak, it will be much lighter without the weight of the gear.

Better yet, if the portage route is soft and smooth enough (grass, sand, mud, or dirt) to drag your kayak instead of carrying it, you can use your utility rope to form another helpful harness. Tie one end of the rope to the front bow toggle, and tie a large bowline in the other end (big enough to stick your arm through and fit around your shoulder). Now you can place the bowline over your shoulder and drag the kayak more comfortably and efficiently down the path, without having to stoop or carry!

At camp, string your utility rope between a couple of trees to create a handy clothesline for drying your PFD, your paddling clothes, and other wet gear. An hour of sunshine and a fresh breeze can do wonders to help keep your gear feeling and smelling fresh.

Finally, if you're camping in an area that is subject to high winds, rising waters, flash floods, tides, or other factors which may threaten to carry away your kayak at night, a utility rope can greatly enhance your safety and peace of mind by ensuring your kayak stays put. When you find a suitable campsite, use the utility rope to tie off the front bow-toggle to some secure, fixed object like a tree, a boulder, or a stake driven into the ground. Tied properly, your kayak should stay put, come hell or high water.

For advice about tying reliable knots, see A Knot for All Occasions.

Wide-Brimmed Hat: Sun and Rain Protection

A lot of paddlers have discovered the joys of a wide-brimmed hat, but many still omit this luxury and choose to rely on their rain-hood instead. Why is a wide-brimmed hat better? Because unlike a rain-hood, a wide-brimmed hat does not cover your ears or impede your hearing—an important feature when you need to communicate effectively with your partners in adverse conditions or to hear an upcoming dam, rapid, waterfall, or dumping surf before you reach it.

Better yet, a wide-brimmed hat protects you from sun as well as rain. In fact, the sun is by far the greater concern, as many paddlers end up suffering from mild to moderate exposure during expeditions because they forget to apply, or re-apply, sunblock throughout the day. Ideally, a wide-brimmed hat includes a rim that goes all the way around the hat (not just in the front, like a baseball cap) so that it shades your ears, cheeks, and neck as well as your face and eyes. When you stop to nap on a beach, you can place your hat over your face to block the sunlight and to block pesky bugs as well, making for a more comfortable nap. If you're caught out in cold weather, a hat helps cut down the chilly effect of the wind as it blows over an exposed head or wet hair.

My paddling-hat-of-choice is the Seattle Sombrero manufactured by Outdoor Research. The outer shell is waterproof-breathable Gore-Tex (bright yellow for visibility and to reflect heat) and the lining is a thin, micro-fleece material that absorbs sweat and can be dipped in cool water to help cool my forehead on a hot day. The brim can be folded up at the sides and kept out of the way by velcro, but when it is folded down, it shields my face very effectively without impeding my hearing or peripheral vision. It also includes a chin-strap to keep it from blowing away in high winds. Suffice it to say, this great hat goes with me everywhere I paddle!

Hand Sanitizer: Cleanliness and Convenience

Many paddlers carry biodegradable soaps and I'm no different: Biodegradable soaps are easy on the environment and they make cleaning pots and pans a breeze. But I also carry a small bottle of evaporative hand sanitizer in my under-deck bag, where it is readily accessible before meals, after bathroom breaks, or whenever cuts and scrapes arise. Alcohol-based, the hand sanitizer is quick and easy to use. Just squirt a little on your hands or on your cuts (warning: it burns!) and spread it around until it evaporates. Presto! You've been sanitized!

What makes hand sanitizer ideal is that it requires no water and it's quick and easy to use. Often, campers short-change cleanliness because it's too much of a "hassle" to dig out their biodegradable soap or access purified water for cleaning their hands. But cleanliness is next to godliness especially on an expedition, where the risks of contamination from water, fecal matter, or other sources of germs are high. If you want to avoid getting sick, keep a bottle of hand sanitizer within easy reach. Always use it to wash your hands before you eat or after you "relieve" yourself. Use it to sanitize wounds to prevent infection. Use it to sterilize utensils that have fallen on the ground or have not been thoroughly washed. In a pinch, you can even use it to sterilize pots that have been rinsed out with river water, though it is best not to make a habit of this practice, as it is a poor substitute for properly washed pots with biodegradable soap and hot water (heated over a stove).

Trash Bags: Garbage and Other Issues

A lot of expeditioners give little or no consideration to dealing with trash, which is exactly why so many paddlers (unfortunately) become "litter-bugs" when they go on extended expeditions. But there's no excuse for leaving litter on the shore, tossing dead batteries in the water, or trying to burn up non-consumables (like aluminum cans or glass jars) in fire pits. It's not only annoying for the next folks who pass through after you, it's hazardous to the environment and the local wildlife. So please, clean up your mess properly!

To their credit, many paddlers do clean up their messes, but if they haven't planned ahead, they may find themselves cramming litter and other refuse into an empty dry bag or tucking it into the recesses of their hull. Before long, they'll begin to discover a very, very pungent odor as food particles and other remnants begin breaking down in the heat of the sun, lending a "garbage dump" smell to their entire kayak. To avoid this problem, take a few kitchen trash bags along on your trip: at least one bag for every 1-3 days you expect to be out. I keep an "active" trash bag tucked behind my seat so it is always accessible, reducing any temptation I might have to tuck trash elsewhere in my kayak. If I pass a proper receptacle, I dispose of the whole bag and start a new trash bag. Otherwise, I keep the bag until the end of the trip. It sounds simple (and it is), but if you don't take proper trash bags along, you will likely struggle with strange odors in your kayak or commit the cardinal sin of wilderness travel: leaving ugly traces of your presence behind wherever you go.

Trash bags can serve many, many other useful purposes on expeditions: If you happen to puncture or tear a dry bag, a couple of trash bags can provide adequate waterproof protection (but handle gently: even "heavy duty" trash bags tear relatively easily). You can make a more-than-adequate rain poncho out of a trash bag by cutting a hole for your head and two smaller holes for your arms. If you forget or lose your sleeping pad or find yourself in need of extra insulation from the ground, you can stuff trash bags with pine needles and dry leaves to create a very effective sleeping pad. If you combine the sleeping pad and poncho ideas, you can create a relatively effective "parka" to help insulate your body from wind and cold temperatures. If you're running low on water, trash bags can be used to catch rain with great success. If you want warm clothes in the morning, but your clothes happen to be damp, you can wrap them in a couple of trash bags and stow them in the foot of your sleeping bag at night. They'll soak up the warmth of your body heat (perhaps even dry out a little) without getting your sleeping bag all wet. You can make an adequate, semi-elastic compression-strap or tourniquet out of a trash bag (twist it up into a rope-like coil for strength and tie it over the injury or above the wound). With a little ingenuity, you can use a trash bag to rig an underwater trap for cornering fish for dinner. If something should happen to your tent, you can use several trash bags (preferably the "heavy duty" kind) layered between a sandwich of sticks and branches to build an adequate, rainproof shelter. The list of possibilities goes on and expands exponentially if you happen to have a roll of duct tape on hand; but the point is clear: Trash bags are worth their weight in gold.

Big Benefits at a Next-to-Nothing Cost

Notice that all 7 of these items are small, packable, lightweight, and relatively inexpensive—except, perhaps, for the polarized sunglasses and the wide-brimmed hat, which could be fairly expensive depending on your tastes. Regardless, total weight will very likely add up to less than a pound, and you will have no trouble stowing these items in the tiniest recesses of your cockpit or hatches. You could even carry them on-deck or stuffed in the pockets of your PFD. Yet the utility, safety, comfort, and protection these items offer should make a huge improvement to the quality of your expedition. Consider adding them to your repertoire of standard equipment to see if they work for you.

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© 2006, Wesley Kisting


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