Lose the Mothership! A Rant

5 items to help you enjoy the simplicity (and luxury) of self-supported canoe tripping

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Look, I've taken my share of raft-supported trips – Grand Canyon, Snake, Salmon – a bevy of big boats floating ponderously along, freighting the appalling mound of gear necessary to support the rowdy crew, and the attendant swarm of pilot fish inflatables and kayaks and canoes all feeding off of the mother ships. Great fun, right? Kids and adults bashing their way down the river, lots of toys to entertain, epic water fights, tables and chairs, fire pans, toilets, volleyball nets, gin and tonics, you name it.

Here's the downside. Those trips, fun and decadent as they are, take an endless amount of finicky maintenance. Some days it seems like half your time is spent rigging and de-rigging boats, schlepping gear to and from kitchen sites, putzing around with repairs and improvements, rigging showers and shade canopies, cleaning, topping off, anchoring, yada yada yada. Know what I mean? It can be noon before the flotilla finally sets off from camp, and then you need three hours of daylight to set back up somewhere downstream. Okay, maybe that's a bit exaggerated, and some raft trips can be pretty efficient, but you get the picture.

The problem, increasingly, is how to manage some luxury, and the bulky gear that has become required on more popular floats (think toilets and fire pans and water jugs), without the time/energy-sucking vortex of rafts. The unfortunate, but necessary, fact is that more trips every year require portable toilets and fire pans. And admit it, it's nice to have a table, a two-burner stove, comfy chairs, and a cold beer at the end of the day.

So when Marypat and I set off for a week on the San Juan River in southern Utah, a permitted float that requires the usual round of toilet/firepan/potable water freight, we were determined to pull off a self-contained tandem canoe outing with all the necessities, including enough decadence to keep us comfortable, and still snap on a pretty snug spraydeck.

The upshot, it wasn't that hard. We were light-years more efficient than a raft trip ever is in camp, and we traveled at a much faster rate, which gave us hours of exploration time for side canyons. We camped responsibly, with comfort, in a heavily-used river corridor. The gear we fit in the canoe included: two beach-style folding chairs, two-burner stove with stove stand, roll-up table, 6 gallon water jug, portable toilet, firepan and enough cold drinks for a week in a soft-sided cooler.

Here's some featured gear than helped us pull it off, some tried-and-true standbys, some newfangled:

York Box: Basically, the modern, plastic version of the old wooden 'wannigan' cook-boxes. It carries those bulky, crushable, sometimes fragile items like pots, fuel canisters, first aid kit, repair gear, and so on in an easy-to-access, hard-sided container. Mine is 27"x17"x17", which fits nicely between the gunwales of a tandem canoe, and turned the long way, between the tubes of my inflatable canoe. The overlapping lid makes it waterproof in all but a full-on capsize, and webbing straps are useful to secure the box to a thwart.

Intel: NRS Canyon Camping Dry Box; $160; www.nrs.com

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Lightweight Stove Stand: I found my aluminum-tubing, collapsible stove stand at a local discount store and have used it for years without complaint. Saves room on the roll-up table, packs down to nothing, and weighs about a pound. The closest I've found since is the Coleman product listed below.

Intel: Coleman High Stand; $22.99; www.coleman.com

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Water Jug and Gravity Filter: I like the flat-style, 6-gallon jug with pour spout. Again, I bought mine originally from a local discount store, and you can probably find them at yours. The taller, flat style packs well in a canoe without extending too high. The Platypus gravity feed water filter is far and away the easiest and most compact filter for refilling the jug at a side stream or spring.

Intel: Water jug (find it!); Platypus 4-liter Gravity Feed Filter – $119.95; www.cascadedesigns.com

Related: Field Tested–GravityWorks Water Filter by Platypus

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Camp Toilet: The best product I've found is the Cleanwaste Portable Toilet system, which packs into a 25"x15"x6" carrying case and slides into the load nicely. The biggest benefit is that the waste decomposes when treated with their patented "poo powder" and bags can be dropped in the nearest dumpster to your take-out. Sturdy, simple, effective.

Intel: 7 lbs., 25"x15"x6" packed; $73.45 (waste bags extra); www.cleanwaste.com

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Compact Firepan: To be completely honest, I can't even remember where I picked up the battered firepan I've been using for a couple of decades, but it's a hinged 18"x13" (when folded), metal pan with a lip and the upper part doubles as a windscreen. We made a cordura carrying bag for it and it slides into the York Box. In a pinch, I've also used a pizza pan or oven-drip pan made of heavy aluminum foil available in grocery stores, and have had them last for several trips. Outside of that, search for camping fire pans and see what you can find. Oil pans from your local auto parts shop are one good option. There are plenty of products out there, but the trick is to find something light, compact, and inexpensive.

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