The Belt and Suspenders Approach

Earlier this year, I was privileged to join a canoe trip that was sponsored by Bell Canoe Works. Notable personalities included world-class photographer Bob Firth, celebrity canoe designer David Yost, and our own C&K editor Robin Stanton. High-tech gear–abundantly supplied by Marmot and PUR–ensured that everyone would be warm, dry, and in command.


The conversation turned techy around 5 p.m., when dark clouds gathered on the horizon. Ted Bell looked on as I spread a plastic groundcloth inside my tent. He remarked that Marmot tent floors are waterproof so there is no need for this practice.


I thus launched into a fiery disputation on why every tent needs an interior ground sheet. When the flames cooled, I showed Ted a new product–a canary yellow Ostrom Outdoors dry bag designed to fit a large portage pack. Ted liked the bag, but he questioned the four-mil plastic liner bag I had placed inside. “Thought that yellow bag was waterproof,” he said.


“It is,” I answered. “Stuff happens on canoe trips; I’m a belt-and-suspenders man!”


Ted rolled his eyes and waited for the ensuing lecture, which came on with a bang. I concluded with the classic splash that appears in the equipment chapter of my book Expedition Canoeing (Globe-Pequot Press, 2001): “If a zipper looks weak, it probably is; if there’s a knob that can break, it will; if there’s an unsecured part that can be lost, bet on it. Go on the assumption that if something can fail, it will.” In his timeless 1917 edition of Camping and Woodcraft, Horace Kephart wrote that he went to the wilderness to “smooth” the way, not to roughen it. I figure he was a belt-and-suspenders man like me.


Here are some belt-and-suspenders procedures that will discourage failure:


1. Rig a rain tarp. Don’t tie the corners of your rain tarp to nearby trees. Instead, string a tight ridge line between two trees, then tie the leading edge of the tarp to the line. This distributes wind stress across the hem, rather than between two points. Remember those black clouds on the Bell Canoe trip? From them came an ocean of rain and gumball-sized hail. Our 20-by-20-foot CCS rain tarp held firm!


2. Use a plastic ground cloth inside your tent. Eventually, your tent floor will develop holes and allow groundwater to flow in. An interior ground cloth will keep you dry. Make the groundsheet a foot larger than the floor all around so that it curls up the sidewalls. Water that enters your tent while you sleep will be trapped under the ground cloth, and you’ll stay dry.


3. Protect your waterproof bags from abrasion. Abrasion takes its toll when you stuff gear into a bag. Eventually, holes develop. The solution is to use two bags–a tough inner liner (which need not be waterproof) to take the abuse of stuffing and a watertight outer bag. I prefer the “sandwich” method for packing things that must be kept dry.


Procedure: Place the item into a nylon stuff sack, which need not be waterproof. Set this stuff sack into a watertight plastic bag. Spindle and gooseneck the plastic bag and secure it with a loop of shock-cord. Then place this waterproof unit into an oversized nylon stuff sack. Note that the waterproof plastic bag is protected from abrasion on both sides.


4. Duplicate essential stuff. For example, I take two pairs of eyeglasses (plus sunglasses), an extra drinking cup, spoon, and fork for the crew; two maps, two compasses; three ways to make fire; two saw blades; two gasoline stoves; a waterproof Pelican box plus a dry bag for my GPS and VHF aircraft radio; and removable, clamp-on yoke pads for the canoes. If a yoke pad breaks, one is easily moved to another boat.


5. Spread good things around. Don’t put all your food or tents, etc., in one pack. Dividing your gear ensures that you’ll keep on going if a pack is lost in a capsize.


6. Two light packs are handier than one heavy one. Four light packs are easier to manage (especially after a capsize) than two bone-busters. Powerful people can double-pack with a tumpline.


7. Gear that doesn’t muster up doesn’t go! In their classic text The Complete Wilderness Paddler, Rugge and Davidson make light of a crewmember who brings a plastic rain suit that’s bound to fail. Elsewhere, they show how to rig a plastic rain tarp–yes, plastic!–and tie a canoe on a Volkswagen beetle that doesn’t have car-top carriers. Questionable practices like these encourage laughs, but they have no place on a canoe trip where help is an airplane ride away. A belt-and-suspenders approach is the best way to discourage danger.

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