By Conor Mihell
An early season sea kayaking trip is like a pilgrimage for me. I know no better way to welcome the paddling season than to chase the last of winter's ice and set out for a week on Lake Superior. Spring came late this year on Lake Superior's north shore. By late April, my paddling buddy Craig and I were itching to get out. We ignored a dauntingly windy marine forecast (not to mention the snowdrifts that lingered in our yards) and set off to paddle the coast of Pukaskwa National Park, north of my home in Sault Ste. Marie. Besides all-important flasks of Bailey's and Jameson's, we packed along a few secret weapons to stave off the weather.
Therm-a-Rest Altair 0o F sleeping bag ($459.95-489.95) The venerable Seattle-based manufacturer's first entries into the sleeping bag market are durable, functional designs. This 750-fill power down mummy bag is comfortable in single-digit temperatures, though cold sleepers might shiver a bit at its minimum temperature rating. Therm-a-Rest has cleverly integrated a pair of stretchy straps to secure the bag to a sleeping mattress. Though some paddlers are afraid of using down in damp environments, pack it with care and take the time to air it out on sunny mornings and a down bag like the Altair is pure luxury.
Therm-a-Rest NeoAir XTherm sleeping mattress ($149.95-219.95) As if the proven, 40-year-old technology of their original self-inflating mattresses wasn't enough, Therm-a-Rest's NeoAir series of pads ups the comfort level while making substantial reductions to weight and bulk. Our winter-rated XTherm pads rolled up the size of a Nalgene bottle yet offered a cushy 2.5-inches of insulation from the (still frozen) ground. Reflective inner layers make this one of the warmest sleeping mattresses we've ever tried. The only downside: NeoAir pads don't self-inflate, so you'll need to empty your lungs (or rig the stuff sack with an adapter) to fill it with air.
Outdoor Research Advanced Bivy ($320) OR's classic, field-proven, full-Gore-Tex bivy bag uses a two-pole system that opens like a clamshell to keep the breathable top fabric off your face (even allowing enough space for reading). The advantage of using a bivy is the ability to set up camp virtually anywhere; the downside--you'll want a tarp overhead if the weather is adverse. Ultralight tents now approach the two-pound weight of the Advanced Bivy but they cannot compare to OR's quality construction and durable fabrics.
Terra Nova Bothy 4 ($55) Initially we wondered how we'd use this compact, dome-shaped shelter that sets up instantly with two take-apart paddles. Bothy bags are common kit in Great Britain, where sea kayakers use them as emergency shelters for warming hypothermia victims in adverse weather. We were amazed at how Terra Nova's value-priced yet well-made Bothy 4 blocked the wind and created a warm, cozy environment for a lunch break on a drizzly day. Just make sure you go a size up--the so-called four-person model was ideal for two.