Saturday, August 18, 2012

Paddling gear for trips: what worked well

Our recent trip along the coasts of Pukaskwa National Park and the Lake Superior Highlands was a great opportunity to test a variety of gear. In addition to our ongoing quest for a paddling shoe that fits, protects and lasts--the holy grail of kayaking, we're convinced--we've been assessing the performance of clothing, camping equipment, camera bags and other accessories.

On a wilderness trip, every piece of gear has to justify its weight and space in the hatches.
We put our gear to the test over the course of a 120-mile wilderness trip. Here's what we concluded.


Kokatat's Portage paddling booty.
Paddling booties: We've been on a quest for a booty that fits as well as the NRS Sasquatch Water Shoe but has a more durable sole. (We've each gone through two pairs of the Sasquatch in one season.) Sharon is sold on the Kokatat Portage shoe, which is roomy enough in the toe bed, has a strong and grippy sole, and has a snug enough cuff to keep feet in and pebbles out. We like the Portage's clean exterior (no loose cords to catch on foot pegs) and the internal lacing system that snugs up the boot. The sizing is unisex and only goes down to six. Ordinarily a women's size six or seven, Sharon was pleased to find that the unisex six fit well with a pair of wool socks underneath, with or without the addition of Gore-tex drysuit booties. Oddly, the larger size didn't appear to have a wider toe bed, and Alec found the shoe too tight. He is still wearing the NRS Desperado Shoe while he continues his search for the perfect paddling footwear. (Portage retail: $72)

Morning yoga--or something like it--in paddling gear.
Paddling clothing: We were confronted with the Lake Superior clothing conundrum. The air and water were unusually warm: daytime air temperatures were in the 70s, and the water was in the mid-60s. But there was potential for cooler, windy and rainy weather. Drysuits would be have been too warm, so the challenge was bringing the correct layers to cover the possible temperature range and keep us comfortable during long days on the water. On the warmest days, Alec wore his Kokatat Destination Paddling Shirt, which provides UPF 40+, and is quick drying and comfortable; Sharon wore a short-sleeved Immersion Research jacket, which is no longer produced. In cooler weather, both of us were dry and comfortable thanks to our Kokatat Gore-tex Paddling Jackets, which are still holding up after more than six year of serious use. Underneath, we wore short-sleeved wool or rash guard shirts to prevent chafing. Nearly every day, we both wore our Kokatat Surfskin pants, which have a thin, windproof rubber layer over fleece. Since we got them three years ago, they've been our go-to layer when it's not quite cold enough for drysuits. The Surfskin pants were terrific on all but the warmest days. Sadly, they aren't proving as durable as our other gear; the rubber is cracking in many places. They are a favorite clothing item, though, and we will replace them. (Destination Shirt retail: $73; Gore-tex Paddling Jacket retail: $409; Surfskin Pants retail: $120)


The MSR Twing, erected with paddles.
Wing shelter: A decent shelter can make all the difference between comfort and misery on a cold, rainy day. A better-than-decent shelter is durable, lightweight, packs up small, and is easy to erect. The MSR Twing satisfies all of these requirements. It is 6 by 8 inches packed, weighs just 2 1/4 pounds in its bag, and it provides 68 square feet of protection when erected (plenty of space for the four of us and some of our gear). During our one weather day, when 35-knot winds whipped the lake and our campsite, we lounged under the Twing--supported by two paddles--and stayed dry and comfortable. (Retail: $280)

Ground cloth: That red ground cloth under the Twing is another of our favorite items: the Grabber SPACE All Weather Blanket. This 5-by-7-foot, 12-ounce tarp is silver on one side, red on the other, and folds neatly into the bottom of a day hatch, where it keeps everything from rattling around. We use it nearly every time we paddle because it provides a clean surface for picnics, helps protect our drysuits from whatever we're sitting on, and can be used as a space blanket or signaling device. (Retail: $17)

Our Mountain Hardware LightWedge 2 tent on a particularly windy day, secured with rocks and boats.
Tent: We love our tent! The Mountain Hardware LightWedge 2 is roomy (for low-volume paddlers like us) and has a vestibule large enough to keep an Ikea bag worth of essentials protected. It's quick and easy for one person to pitch and take down, and weighs just over five pounds packed. We divided it into several bags and stowed them in various places in our boats. (Retail: $250)

Luxury: The Crazy Creek Hex 2.0 Chair.
Seating: OK, it's true. We could have sat on the ground (as we have in the past ), and we certainly would have if we hadn't been able to fit any chairs in our hatches. But the Crazy Creek Hex 2.0 Chair rolls up into a 4-inch-diameter cylinder and weights just 21 ounces, so we pushed them into the narrow spots next to our skegs and hardly knew they were there. And what a luxury they were! No matter what the surface, we had a cushioned seat and back support. (Note that in order to keep these chairs svelt, they aren't as padded as the old style.) We called them our "gravity wells" because once we sat down in them, it was difficult to get up again. (Retail price: $52)

Sharon prepares a meal on the MSR Dragonfly.
Stove: MSR continues to impress us with its effective, field-repairable gear. We've had our Dragonfly
stove for about a decade and see no reason to replace it with anything newer and flashier. Sure, it sounds like a jet engine, but it can boil a pot of water in a few minutes or simmer a stew so it doesn't stick to the pot. It can run on a variety of fuels, and it folds up into one of our medium-size cooking pots. In addition, it's efficient: Over the course of nine days, we used only 20 ounces of fuel for two cooked meals a day. (Retail: $130)

Other equipment

The Ortleib Aqua Cam bag.
Camera bag: You don't want to take any chances when you're carrying a DSLR camera and lenses on a wilderness trip. The bag must be waterproof, protect the camera from bumps, be convenient to hike with on land, fit nicely into a kayak hatch, and be easy to open and close. The Ortleib Aqua Cam fits all those criteria and is pretty darn stylish, too. It comes with adjustable foam pads that form two storage spaces on either side of the camera (we used these for a spare lenses on one side, and cleaning supplies and filters on the other) and a shoulder strap. The large version kept our Nikon D7000, safe and accessible throughout the trip. (Retail price: $115)

Alec naps on a rock, protected by his cag.
Cag: No review of gear we love would be complete without an homage to our storm cags. The ones we have are made of siliconized fabric. Waterproof and completely unbreathable, they quickly warm us up when we take a break on shore, and they can even be worn on the water and secured to the cockpit coaming. Although the company that made ours no longer exists, storm cags are still available from Kokatat, Reed and Seals. (Retail: $200-330)

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