With each stroke of the paddle, I moved the kayak smoothly down the Homosassa River, in western Florida. It is early morning, it’s about 40 degrees (F) and the only other activity on the water was a few other kayakers.
If it wasn’t for the houses that line this section of the river, I could almost believe that I was in a time long gone by.
Spanish moss draped the branches of the live oaks standing sentinel along the banks, giving it an almost “Jurassic Park” feel.
As I continued my journey, I glided silently past a heron sitting on a palmetto, undisturbed by my passing. I was alone with my thoughts when a manatee came up for air and then swam beneath my kayak.
Waterways like this were our highways long before pavement crisscrossed the landscape. Plying the rivers was how people traveled and transported goods. Rafts, canoes and kayaks were used in the backcountry as a means of transportation and a way to ferry supplies to out-of-the-way homesteads. Light, non-motorized watercraft gave access to new lands, opening up new hunting and fishing areas.
Today these watercraft are used mainly for sport, but they do have their place in a self-reliant lifestyle or a survival situation as well. When you have to move quickly and silently or when you have more gear to transport than you can reasonably carry on your back, traveling by water is a viable option.
I grew up paddling a canoe. I have done whitewater rafting, and about three years ago I started kayaking, using this craft to get into areas even my canoe couldn’t really get into. As a kid I would spend endless hours fishing or exploring hidden coves using the canoe. My first fly fishing lesson was while I was in a canoe. When I grew older, it was the canoe that transported me to remote areas to hunt ducks and geese. The canoe could hold two people, the shotguns and other gear needed for the hunt and get us into position quickly and silently. For me, the canoe was an invaluable piece of gear.NOT ALL CRAFT ARE THE SAME
There are still areas of the country that are not easily accessible by land. There is a saying in Maine that goes, “You can’t there from here.” In some cases, that may be true. In a backcountry setting, your travel from Point A to Point B may be blocked by a river, lake or pond. Anyone who lives in or has visited Alaska can attest to that statement. Getting supplies to your remote cabin, whether in the woods of Maine or the far reaches of Alaska, can mean transporting them by water, but what craft is best? That is the million-dollar question. The only thing I can say is that there is no such thing as one size fits all.
There is no craft that will be perfect in all situations. You will need to do your homework and find the one that will best suit your needs. There are many different types of non-motorized watercraft out there. There are rowboats, dinghies, rafts, drift boats, canoes and kayaks. This piece will concentrate on those craft that are the most typically used by those looking to venture out into the backcountry: canoes and kayaks. As you will see, even these can be broken down into sub-categories.WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES?
While all kayaks are canoes, not all canoes are kayaks. So what is the difference? In the simplest terms, canoes are watercraft that are propelled by the use of paddles, as opposed to rowboats, dinghies and other similar boats that are propelled using oars. Generally, canoes are propelled by single-bladed paddles, where kayaks are propelled using double-bladed paddles.
Yes, there are other differences, but these are the basics. With that said, there are canoes, such as the Old Town Discovery 119 Solo Sportsman (which is actually a hybrid canoe), offering a combination of the attributes of a standard canoe and a kayak. This craft works the best when using a double-bladed paddle.CANOES
A good canoe is the staple watercraft of any backwoods homestead. Canoes, depending on the size and design, can carry a great deal of gear, are stable (if weight is distributed properly), light (depending on the material they are made from) and can go just about anywhere. The ancient Polynesians traveled across the Pacific in large canoes, which just proves how reliable they are. Canoes are propelled and controlled using paddles.
“WHEN YOU HAVE TO MOVE QUICKLY AND SILENTLY, OR YOU HAVE MORE GEAR TO TRANSPORT THAN WHAT YOU CAN REASONABLY CARRY ON YOUR BACK, TRAVELING BY WATER IS A VIABLE OPTION.”
Originally, canoes were constructed from natural materials. Early canoes were dugouts, made from hollowed-out logs, or bark canoes carefully crafted by fitting sheets of bark over a wooden frame. While handcrafted wood canoes are still available, they are usually priced well out of the range of most people. Today’s canoes can be made out of aluminum, fiberglass, plastic or Kevlar. The material they are made from, and their size, will often determine how heavy they are. This is important, as there will be times that you will have to carry your canoe. Believe me, even the “light” ones are heavy after a day of paddling.CHOOSING THE RIGHT ONE
There is a wide variety of canoes. There are canoes designed for recreation, whitewater, racing and hauling freight. You name the waterborne task and there is probably a canoe for it.
So what do you look for when selecting a canoe? Well, the first thing you need to do is ask yourself, “What do I plan on using it for?” For our purposes here, I will not discuss whitewater or racing canoes. Instead, I will concentrate on recreational, expedition and wilderness tripping canoes. All of these canoes are designed to move people and supplies; the amount of each is where they differ.RECREATIONAL
These are probably the most common type of canoe available. They are easy to paddle and are perfect on flat, calm water. These canoes are very stable and hard to flip. Recreational canoes generally run 13 to 16 feet in length and have a width of over 36 inches. They are capable of carrying some loads, but are not the best for the job.EXPEDITION
These canoes are made for long trips and carrying heavy loads. They are capable of handling open water and rough conditions. These canoes are long, measuring 18 to 20 feet in length. While they can handle large loads, their greatest drawback is that they are difficult to get into tight places or in shallow water, especially when fully loaded.WILDERNESS TRIPPING
I would say that this is the overall perfect canoe for the typical roles a prepper would need to fill. They measure 15 to 18 feet and are designed to carry big loads while being stable. They are perfect for getting into some tight areas, as well as hauling a deer or transporting a wood stove to camp. Two good examples are the Wenonah Minnesota II, which is a two-person canoe, and the Wenonah Prism, which is a solo canoe.SIZE
Generally speaking, the longer the canoe, the more gear it can carry and the wider it is the more stable it will be. The depth (the distance between the top edge of the hull, or gunwale, and the bottom) will also determine the amount of gear it will carry. The previously mentioned Old Town Discovery 119 Solo Sportsman measures 11 feet, 9 inches long and has a width of 32 1/2 inches and will carry a maximum load of 354 pounds. The Wenonah Minnesota II has a length of 18 feet, 6 inches and a width of 35 inches and is intended to carry two typical adults and a moderate amount of gear. The Prism measures 16 feet, 6 inches and is 30 inches wide and suits one person with enough gear for a medium-length trip.
“GETTING SUPPLIES TO YOUR REMOTE CABIN, WHETHER IN THE WOODS OF MAINE OR THE FAR REACHES OF ALASKA CAN MEAN TRANSPORTING THEM BY WATER, BUT WHAT CRAFT IS BEST?”
Kayaks were originally used by the native people of the Arctic regions. They had wooden frames covered with either seal or walrus skin and were built for ease of use and maneuverability. Today’s kayaks, while being made of modern materials, haven’t changed much over time. They are still light, fast and extremely stable. Their shallow draft makes them perfect for entering areas where even canoes may find the going difficult. Their drawback is that they are not designed for carrying large loads, like a canoe can.CHOOSING THE RIGHT ONE
As with canoes, there are many different styles of kayaks, with each having a specialty and as with canoes, you have to ask yourself all of the questions to find out which one is going to work best for you.
As this article is not covering whitewater or racing, I will stick with those kayaks that work best in flat water. There are basically four types of kayaks that fall into this group: sit-on-top, recreational, touring and inflatable. Of those four we will concentrate on the sit-on-top, recreational and inflatable. I will also mention folding kayaks.SIT-ON-TOP
Sit-on-top kayaks are the ones that I like the best. They are easy to get in and out of, and they generally are wider and more stable, which is why they are the ones used for fishing. Due to their design, the deck is mainly exposed, allowing you the ability to carry gear, or that deer you were able to harvest. There are drawbacks to these kayaks. First, due to the width and relative short length of about 12 feet, they do not move as fast or handle as well as longer kayaks. Another drawback is that because of the exposed deck, items you are carrying will tend to get wet. The answer to that problem is the use of dry bags.
Two very good examples of the sit-on-top kayak are the Hobie Quest 11 and the Hobie Mirage Compass. The Quest measures 11 feet and is 29 inches wide with a total carrying capacity of 300 pounds. The Mirage Compass measures 12 feet long by 34 inches wide and has a carrying capacity of 400 pounds. The Compass also has foot pedals that allow hands-free propulsion.RECREATIONAL
Recreational kayaks are generally sit-in, meaning that they have a cockpit. They fall somewhere in size between the average sit-on-top and the much longer touring kayaks. Storage is provided in enclosed compartments. This can be an advantage or a drawback. The compartments keep your gear dry but they also make loading and unloading a chore and restrict the size and shape of items that can be stowed.INFLATABLES
Inflatable kayaks are easy to transport and take less storage space and they are more resistant to damage, though they are still susceptible to sharp rocks and sticks and the errant fish hook. An example of a quality inflatable is the Hobie Mirage i12s. Fully inflated it measures 12 feet long, 36 inches wide and has a carrying capacity of 500 pounds.FOLDABLE
The last group I want to look at are the folding kayaks such as the Beach LT, made by Oru Kayak. These kayaks are designed to be folded for storage and transportation and unfolded for use. The Beach LT has a width of 28 inches and a carrying capacity of 300 pounds. They are not designed for constant, heavy use but are great for those trips that you make out and back to the cabin.
If you have access to navigable bodies of water, canoes and kayaks have their place in your gear collection. They offer you the ability to move quickly and carry more gear than you can on foot. They’re quiet, require only muscle power to get you around, and give an additional transportation dimension that can be lifesaving in emergencies. Rivers and lakes are less congested than highways, especially during an emergency, and in some cases, traveling by water may be your only option.IMPORTANT ACCESSORIES
The rule on my watercraft is that a personal flotation device must be worn at all times. All too often people die because they are not wearing a PFD when disaster strikes. They may carry one because the law says they have to, but it does no good if you aren’t wearing it.
With all the lines and straps involved in boating, a good rust-resistant knife is a must. Ideally, it should be a floating fixed blade knife with a bright orange handle or sheath. Knives should have a blade made with 420 C or 440 C or another highly corrosion-resistant stainless steel.
Floating First-aid Kit
I never leave shore without a floating first aid kit. There are many types and sizes available; just be sure the case is also waterproof to protect the contents.
If you run into trouble, a whistle and signal mirror can be used to attract the attention of other boaters, people on shore and aircraft or watercraft out searching for you.
Just in Case
In a watertight bag carry duct tape, a way to start a fire, compass, cordage, rations and water in case you need to spend the night away from camp.
The world of watercraft has its own language, one you will learn over time. Here are some useful boating terms to get you started:
The upper edge of the side of a canoe, kayak, boat or ship.
A door that provides access to storage areas. The hatch should have a snug fit to prevent water from entering the space below.
The means of propulsion for a kayak or canoe. Typically, single-blade paddles are used with canoes and double-blade paddles are used with kayaks. There are many types and lengths of both and each is available in multiple materials so it is important to do your research before making a selection.
A fin in the rear of the craft that allows you to adjust and maintain course.
A skeg is a dropdown fin that helps prevent a side wind from blowing you off course.
Similar in purpose to a skeg except it can’t be retracted. These are most commonly found on inflatable kayaks.
Old Town Canoe
Wenonah Canoe, Inc.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the October, 2019 print issue of American Survival Guide.