Nahanni - gear plans

So what kind of gear do you pick for a cross country backpacking and packrafting trip in a Canadian wilderness? I have of course pondered this off and on all winter and have made some plans. Now, as has been said in military matters, no plan will survive the first contact with the enemy. That might be true, but on the other hand I look upon the wilderness more as a friend, so I hope to do slightly better.

By Jörgen Johansson 

Overall I will use more or less the same gear as on last years backpacking an packrafting trip to Virihaure. However, some thoughts have to be given to the special circumstances for the Nahanni trip, compared the backpacking trips I normally take. In my case these would be:

- Only 10% of the total distance will be backpacking, the rest will be packrafting.
- I will travel through bear country
- Most of the time people and habitation will be a very long way off

The first 50 kilometers or so, from N Canol Road to the Moose Ponds I will be backpacking across a river valley, through a tundra pass and down into another valley where I will inflate and travel downriver.

I have calculated that the whole trip could take as little as 14-15 days but I am bringing food for 18 days. Generally a trip from the Moose Ponds down the Nahanni in a canoe is considered a 21 day jaunt. But this includes some side trips/day hikes and also the fact that portaging a canoe takes a lot longer than portaging with a packraft and light gear. I plan to adapt the length of my trip to circumstances. On the lower river it is possible to travel great distances in short time, if needed.

Most difficult to predict is how long the hike in, to the Moose Ponds, will take. I should be able to walk 50 kilometers in two days even if there are no trails, but it might take a bit longer. However, crossing the South Macmillan river valley might prove more ardous than expected. I will have at least one substantial river crossing there, according to the map. But the whole valley is soggy and even if I know little of the vegetation in that area, I do suspect it can be very dense and unyielding.

To begin with I was planning this as an unsupported hike, carrying all food and gear from the start. However, that would have meant a pack weighing over 25 kilos, and I am not to keen on that in difficult terrain. It might bog me down and completely ruin my trip, forcing me to hurry down the river by the end of the 18 days. So I decided against it, especially since there was an alternative.

I have nothing against resupplying along the route, so I have arranged for a food package to be available at Rabbitkettle Warden Cabin. This is the first out of two manned cabins along the river, the second being at Virginia Falls. So this means that I will start out with 16-18 kilos on my back and food for a bit more than one week.

Had I started out packrafting and then switched to backpacking after having eaten some of my food, I could easily have made an unsupported trip. Something to consider for future trips where really big loads could be managed comfortably if one starts from a trailhead by a river and travel that for a week. One could then walk across to another water shed and follow another river etc.

Bear country
Travelling in bear country means that I have to be able to store all my food and garbage in a safe way. Since the beginning of the trip will be in areas where full size trees might be scarce, bear bagging is not a 100% option. Besides, it is not always a hikers favourite pastime to find a suitable tree late at night when you are dead beat. So I will bring a line for bear bagging, but I will rely mainly on two Ursacks with Kevlar ropes to keep the bruins out of my breakfasts.

I will also not cook in my tent, which otherwise is my habit in inclement weather. Instead I will cook under a 210 gram Cuben fiber tarp (2,5*3 m) to be pitched a goodly distance from where I sleep. In fine weather I will of course cook with the sky as my ceiling, although not close to where I plan to sleep.

For shelter I will bring my trusty Gossamer Gear The One. I think this is the ideal solution for this trip. It is comfortable and its 490 grams will give me an excellent shelter from precipitation and insects. Its combination of weight and comfort is insurmountable, IMHO. I have written this before but I will happily repeat it: A tarp combined with a bugtent will almost always weigh more than 490 grams and give less protection. And when the weather is nice, you sleep like in a tarp, with the foretent sides rolled back, but the bugnet in place (see photo).

In a national park you are not allowed to bring firearms, but you are urged to bring bear spray. Frankly, I had not planned to do so, since the risk of a bear encounter seems small in the Nahanni. It is a big park with few people and the bears are not used to humans. Trowing rocks and rattling pots should be enough for almost all eventualities. That is good enough for me. You cannot protect yourself at all times for all eventualities.

However, my Canadian friends that are dropping me off on N Canol Rd do encourage me to bring bear spray, and I am beginning to waiver. Maybe I will pick some up in Whitehorse.

Long way from anywhere
Being several days, or maybe up to a week, away from houses and people have made me take some extra precautions. I will bring a SPOT II messenger from which I will send daily OK messages to friends that are ready to act on my behalf should things to awry. I can of course also send SOS messages and have bought an evacuation insurance along with the SPOT.

Wanting to be able to close major wounds has made be bring a special super glue used for veterinary purposes. You probably can use ordinary super glue from the hardware store as well, instead of self-suturing yourself in the backcountry, but the VetBond is reputedly less aggressive to your skin.  I have also brought some extra pain killers and a couple of doses of antibiotics. All in all around 100 grams more of medical gear than I bring for backpacking in Scandinavia. No big deal, and I will probably not use it, but worth the extra weight should I need it.

Some other gear
I will do all my cooking on a Bush buddy stove, since firewood should be more than plentiful because I am travelling in forested country almost all the time. The Nahanni is also notorious bringing down trees and dumping them in big piles of driftwood on its gravel bars. Also, I will not be cooking in my tent, for which I find the Bush Buddy less suited. My guess is that I save about 500-800 grams by not using the ordinary Primus Micron gas canister stove, that I prefer.

There are restrictions on building fires in the Nahanni National Park (which it will take me some days of hiking and paddling to enter, by the way). Most people travel along the river and build their fires on gravel beaches, which is ideal from many aspects. And all remains of the fires will be washed away by the river in the next spring flood. However, in order for all parties travelling the river on the same season to come to virgin gravel beds and have an undamaged wilderness experience, fires must be built on some sort of metal surface that you have bring along. Professional outfitters bring big iron pans with grids, I will bring my Bush Buddy.

For the river travel I will bring a lightweight Ursuit MPS drysuit. However I have yet to make up my mind if I should also bring neoprene shorts and socks. I suspect that on some parts of the river the drysuit will be overkill, and in fact very sweaty. For these parts of the river I might wish for something lighter. And since your feet and butt tend to get wet in a packraft I will probably bring the mentioned items.

Since I will spend quite a bit of time in the Rock Gardens I will also bring a helmet. Not only for paddling, portaging among rocks has its pitfalls as well. And the PDF-solution with inflated water bottles from last year feels a bit skimpy when travelling for several weeks on a big and sometimes rugged river. So I am bringing a Stormy Seas VL 100 inflatable PDF with its unbeatable Quasimodo look that has become quite a fad...

Other things I bring for a wet trip, that I would not bring for ordinary backpacking are micro fleece longjohns and runner shorts for under pants instead of the ordinary merino ones.

Apart from this I will be wearing my old Icebreaker Kent Merino shirt and BPL Thorofare pants, with the BPL Merino Hoody and BPL Cocoon Hoody for extra warmth.

Today I got a message from my friend Per in Calgary that the food box he has put together for me was shipped to Fort Simpson yesterday. From there it will be flown in and wait for me at Rabbitkettle.

Somehow it all begins to feel real now...


  1. The idea of secondary paddling clothing sounds very good. Probably adds a lot of comfort. Maybe I should consider that too... And the gear in general looks good too. Apparently you are not going to bring helmet or a real pfd?

    I'll be posting my gear list for the upcoming packrafting trip in Lapland soon and those are included in my list. Hopefully you could comment the list when I get it online...

  2. korpi,
    Good that you reminded me. I will bring a helmet and a PDF (Stormy Seas inflatable)that is not perhaps considered a "real" one. I will add this to the text.

  3. Jörgen I agree about the use of The One, certainly that would have been a lighter option for me in Lapland this summer. I suppose the tarp/bugnet set up does allow for more variability especially if you try to keep the number of shelters you own to a minimum. Looking forward to your reports. I assume you have watched the Andrew Skurka video of his Alaska Traverse and how he dealt with bears.

  4. It's looking very exciting, Jörgen. Can't wait to start following your SPOT trail.

    Take the bear spray though. Better safe than sorry. It doesn't weigh that much. And really, you never know...

  5. He Jörgen

    great overview of the gear for the trip. I'm really jealous. Such a trip is still on my to do list.
    Do you carry an extra repair kit for the packraft with you. Your selfmade life vest sounds interesting. Would be great if you can write something about that after your trip.
    I cannot find any helmet in the gear list. Do you leave this security item at home???

  6. hrXXLight,
    Yeah, I carry extra repair gear, Aqua Seal and Tyvek tape, that should help me manage most situations. There is a film on Alpackas homepage about how they repaired a grizzly shredded packraft...
    Helmet will be used this year. I will publish a gear list for Nahanni when I know exactly what I took. Still some last minute decisions...
    The homemade PFD can be glimpsed in a photo here:
    It is simply two bugnet bags connected with string across shoulders, under armpit and groin. Two inflated water bottles are inserted front and back. Better than nothing in low risk situations, nothing I would bring to the Nahanni.

  7. Jörgen, is your Cubben-tarp home made or bought?

    And what´s in your medical kit for lets say a shorter trip, and in this instance, a longer one. Im intrested in knowing What (meds/items), how much and why?

  8. Stefan,
    Cuben tarp is certainly homemade. I will try to answer your question about medical kit more in detail in a later gear installment. However, my usual kit was upgraded for the Nahanni trip with VetBond (a crazy glue specifically suited for closing larger wounds)and a couple of doses of antibiotics.


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