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Technique Tips



By Phil DeRiemer


              To do a self-contained trip is to experience the ultimate freedom that a kayak can offer. Easing into river time where the outside world slips from your thoughts and you become focused on the moment.  You challenge yourself to see how little you can do without, while experiencing the river on a much more intimate level.  Group size can be small,  camps out of the way, and your choice of rivers as remote as you’d like. You can make your experience a  relaxing  two day flat water cruise, or an intense twenty day exploratory suffer- fest.  Regardless of the type of trip  you choose, here are a few  variables to consider that will help determine the outcome of your experience.


  • Difficulty of run (this includes water level).

  • Length of run.

  • Remoteness

  • Weather/climate

  • Food/water

  • Group size and make up


You will keep coming back to the above items as you plan your trip.  It affects the boat you take, the amount and type of food you eat, the clothing and other equipment you bring, as well as your pace.  Let’s look at each of them and how they should be considered.

Difficulty of the run: You want this to be a great first experience. Let your skills be your guide.  If  you have never run class V, perhaps doing it with a fully loaded kayak isn’t a good starting point.  Under this should also be mentioned the type of run, is it big water or creeky,  pool /drop or continuous?

Length of the run:  I suggest if you are doing a self- contained trip for the first time that you ease into it with a shorter trip.  This gives you a great chance to shakedown your systems,  fine tune your equipment choices, and see how much you really like it. If you are doing runs of similar difficulty, terrain, and climate,  but one is longer than the other, the only real difference in what you carry will be the amount of food.  Your kayak, no matter how big, can only carry so much. Where possible, you can arrange for food drops or caches  to stretch out the length of your journey. 

Remoteness:  The game gets more serious when you take it into the back country.  You are further from everything; outside help, the nearest road, and a long walk out should you bail on your trip, or lose gear.  Some changes I might make on a remote trip include; a beefed up first aid kit, more than just duct tape in my repair kit, maps, good boating shoes should I turn from boater to hiker, some extra food and water bottle(s) and the number of breakdown paddles for the group.

Weather and climate:  This is big.  It not only comes into play with regards to food and shelter, but it could determine your pace.  If you’re doing a run where the water could come up in hours or within the time you are on the river, then you had best pay attention to the weather before and during your trip. Clothing gets tricky too. If you are going to elevation it is easy to get fooled by hot days that could turn cold at night, so plan accordingly.

Food:  I’m not a nutritionist so I won’t even attempt to tell you what to eat, but I can suggest some things to consider in choosing your foods. This is probably the single heaviest group of items in your kit, so where possible, go for the lighter choice. At the end of a long day you are usually not too fired up about cooking.  Keep it simple from that stand point; one -pot –glops and pastas. You can get by on lean rations on a shorter run, but If you are hard at work on a longer run, you need calories, and if you are in a cold climate, then you need more calories. 

My earliest travels abroad to paddle not only included  a mountain of gear, but one enormous duffle full of freeze dried food.  Upon our arrival to our destination country, while we didn’t find freeze dried, we did find packaged food that was more than adequate for our needs.  Ask around if others have been to the area you intend to travel, that could save you hauling unnecessary supplies with you.  Finally, you can have a lot of fun with the food on a trip. I’ve done runs where I went lean and mean, but others where I was fat and happy.  From soup to steaks, or water to wine.  Your imagination, size of kayak, and willingness to carry it are the limits. 

Learning to do without.  Because of the limitations involved, self-contained trips are all about doing without. This can range from  what you eat, wear, and sleep in, to what you can expect of you and your kayak.  Obviously the Dutch oven is out, as might be the cold beers and wine at the end of the day.  If you are doing a run that you know has sandy beaches, maybe you can do without a sleeping pad. A tarp may do where you were considering a tent (there are some amazingly light weight silicone impregnated nylon tarps). Try to make your equipment as multi- purpose as possible.  If your paddle jacket can serve as your raincoat, or you can get by with using your river shorts in camp you’ll shed important ounces and hopefully  pounds from your load.  At the same time, it feels good to the body and soul to slip into something warm and dry on a cold or rainy multi-day.  Treat yourself where possible. The items  listed below are just suggestions to get you started

Boat:  By now the topics discussed above have probably helped you narrow your choice of kayak.  Unless you’re willing to take a small boat and unload at every play spot (providing you can get all you need into it in the first place.), you may want to set aside any thoughts of throwing intentional ends, or blunts and bring a bigger boat.  I have one boat that I do most of my self contained trips out of.  In choosing my kayak, I know that the performance will be changed because of the extra weight I will be carrying.  For this reason I go with a boat that is forgiving, predictable, and comfortable. Because I don’t know when or where I will be jumping out to scout, portage, or help someone in a bind, I also wear shoes in my boat.  On this later point, I do know of at least one story where a kayaker hiked barefoot eight miles out of the Grand Canyon of the Stikine after a bad swim that washed their boat away with their “walking” shoes stowed safely behind the seat.


A packing list:

Besides the paddling gear you will use on your trip, here are some suggested items to consider.  What you bring is based on personal wants and needs as well as climate.

Sleeping Bag: Synthetic is probably the better choice for the watery world. Down is lighter and more compressible. Bottom line, if it’s wet, your miserable.

Sleeping Pad  Here I often use a ¾ length ultralight  thermarest and put some of my day gear under my feet.

Shelter: Tarp/ bivy sac/Tent/ Nothing (depends on the climate)

Cook Pot


Knife (usually my river knife)

Bowl (my bowl is also my cup)

Fork, spoon or spork


Camp Clothes:  Could be as simple as a dry shirt or as luxurious as a full set of dry clothes.)

Extra insulating layers (light tops and bottoms to fine tune your warmth.)  If cool at night, bottoms are nice to have.

Dry bags: There are some great ones available commercially, but if you want a cheap alternative, use trash compactor bags inside stuff sacks.  The thicker plastic of the bags will last you for many trips.  You simply tie them off at the top to keep water out.  The stuff sacks help prevent the accidental tearing of a hole in the plastic bag as you slide them in and out of the boat. Be aware that this system provides no floatation.

Break down paddle: Number depends on difficulty of run & size of group.

Sponge (Before shouldering your boat for a portage it’s nice to get every last drop of water out.)

Water bottle(s)

Water purification system: Chemical treatments are lighter than pumps but require a “treatment period”.

1st aid: What you carry is up to you.  Think about where you are going and  how long you’ll be out.  I really recommend carrying at least duct tape, tincture of benzoine and steri-strips. If you’re going to carry those then you need some way to irrigate a wound.  Will you need antibiotics?

Repair Kit (this may be as simple as duct tape or mastic tape, but could include a sewing kit or more.)

Throw Rope (70 ft ideal)




Repair kit (optional or mandatory- you decide)


Stove/ fuel (This is weather dependant, if you can’t count on dry wood, then a stove becomes essential if you plan to cook.)



Leatherman type tool

Additional clothing:  This is weather dependent.  If you anticipate bad and/or cold weather then being comfortable both on and off the river is important.  I will often splurge and bring a rain coat, extra layers of clothing , and perhaps a change of footwear.

How to Pack:

Four of us once did a twenty two day trip on Baffin Island in the Arctic.  While we had scheduled a food drop, we were forced to carry upwards of twelve days worth of food and supplies  in our boats at the start of each leg.  Two of us had stock plastic boats that required that we cut a foot off of each end of the pillars, along with trimming an inch off the width just so we could get all of our gear in. We spent most of a day in an airplane hanger packing and sorting our gear so we could figure out how to fit it all in. Packing was like a Chinese puzzle; first one piece, then another, all in essentially the same sequence each time we loaded or unloaded.  The kayaks weighed in excess of ninety pounds. Portaging was probably the most dangerous part of our journey as stepping over and around boulders and walking on uneven ground could have easily resulted in a fall and a broken leg.

You may never suffer a momentary lapse of judgment such as we did and venture off on a three week-long journey, but If you’ve never done a self-contained trip before, you can burn up a lot of time at the put-in figuring out how to make it all fit. If you get a chance at a dry run at home that is best. 

The majority of your gear is going to end up in the back of the boat.  If you have an adjustable seat you may want to look at moving it forward so that your boat will be more balanced from front to back.  When packing, I try to run the day through in my head and figure out what I am likely to need and in what order.  I then combine this with the desire to keep the heaviest things, such as food, as close to the back of the seat as possible. This keeps  the ends of the boat light, which translates to more control in the water.  Some items such as food for the day, water purification, film, and perhaps an extra insulating layer I will carry in a small “daybag” dry bag so I don’t have to get into the main store of food and equipment each time to retrieve something..  This adds up to time saved at each break.  If you have access to the front area of your boat; be it foot pegs or a bulk head, this can be a good place to store light, bulky items such as; cooking pot (I put it in upside down so water drains out.), or a compact sleeping pad. 

Many dry bags/ stow floats are conically shaped like the back end of your kayak.  For this reason I rarely use stuff sacks inside a dry bag.  This allows the contents to conform better to the shape of the storage system.  A breakdown paddle usually goes in the back of the boat , either all of it on one side, split between the two sides, or shared amongst the participants.  Either way try to tape the pieces together so they aren’t bouncing around in there when you take your bags out.

Wherever  you store your throw rope, make it the last thing to be loaded so it can be the first and fastest item to remove. 

Clip it in: If you can’t afford to lose it, make sure it is secured in the boat somehow, this includes you breakdown paddle.  Besides swims, I have seen boats get away on scouts and portages.  If they are in the water long enough they can begin to unpack  themselves on their downstream run.

On the water:

              With your boat loaded you are going to notice a difference in how it handles. While it won’t be as bad as strapping a sack of potatoes to your back side and going ice skating, it will require an adjustment.  It will spin out more readily when you don’t want it to, and be more difficult to turn when you do want it to.  You will learn the new handling characteristics shortly, but in the mean time, take this difference into consideration about what you do and don’t run.  One good thing about the extra weight is it gives you remarkable punching power, so as you’re getting pushed toward that hole that you would have missed in an empty boat, take comfort in knowing you just might make it through.

Attitude/ Decision making: Get yourself in, get yourself out.  I’ve always tried to follow this simple rule on all of my wilderness outings.  I suppose you could throw in a cell and/ or satellite phone for a little insurance, but you shouldn’t use them as the reason to push things a little further.  You are your own best rescue and that begins with making good decisions.  Along those lines,  another rule I’ve come to learn is “ bad experiences make for good judgment.”  It’s not my first choice, but I’ve made mistakes in many facets of my paddling and treat them as important learning opportunities.  I file them away and draw on them in hopes that I will not repeat mistakes.  The unexpected can happen, but a lot of incidents in the backcountry could be avoided with better decision making; be it water levels, running rapids without scouting and/or carrying, or doing a run that you aren’t yet ready for.  This goes for the people I paddle with as well.  If someone in your group is making poor decisions and something happens as a result, everyone is affected. Chances are you will put a lot of thought into the gear you take with you, why not the folks you paddle with as well.

Impact: This section isn’t just for those new to the art of self- contained kayak trips, but also an appeal to those that have been doing it for sometime to consider modifying their approach. The popularity of spending multiple days on a river camping out of your boat is growing each year. Runs once considered remote and unused are seeing more traffic than ever, and this increased use can have a negative impact. Each stretch of river has it’s own unique considerations with regards to group size, available fuels for cooking, human waste disposal, and other user groups encountered along the way. There are many rivers out there that have been run by rafters and kayakers alike for many years. These are often overseen by regulating agencies that not only control the number of people allowed on the run at any one time, but also the type of equipment that they must carry to deal with some of the issues I mentioned. While we may not agree with all of the regulations, some are in place to protect the beauty and eco system of the river corridor.  We all love the freedom that putting on an unregulated river provides; no permit, no specified launch date, no limit to where you camp, or how long you stay and who you bring.  Those freedoms could come with restrictions if we aren’t good stewards. It’s time we paddlers step up to the plate and take care of the resources we love so that others don’t feel compelled to do it for us.

One big consideration that dictates how I approach some of the issues of impact is to ask “what is the  environment in which I will be traveling like?” Is it arid or lush or somewhere in between? An arid environment is much less capable of breaking down wastes and recovering from use than a lush one. Please don’t see this as a license to run amuck in a lush area.

Before you put on, find out what the local restrictions and requirements might be for your planned area.  If there aren’t any, then think about how you might tread lightly. If this concept is new to you just type in “leave no trace” on the web to open the flood gates of available information. Here are some things to consider.

Cooking and warmth:  I have seen more changes in camps due to this than any other variable. If you choose to cook with fire, think about your wood source and the means by which you are going to use it. Driftwood should be your only source of wood, period. There is no need to start breaking branches off of tress.  You don’t need a massive fire ring to cook on, you are just trying to cook some food, not forge metal so keep it really small. Try to avoid leaving permanent burn scars on rock slabs, overhangs, and vegetation. If it’s fire season, don’t do it.  Use any existing fire rings over building another unless it is located such that it will cause scaring.  Lately I have begun taking a small light weight stove with me on some of the more popular over- night runs. You carry a little more weight, but you don’t have to round up wood in camp, your meals will be ready sooner and there is no evidence of a fire when you leave.

Human Waste:  Not all soils are capable of breaking this down.  The Pacific Northwest is going to be a lot better suited than an arid environment, so take that into consideration. Dealing with this is not just about hiding it, it’s about putting it where others don’t have to smell it, step in it or worse, drink it while it breaks down.  If you’re going to bury it, walk up and away from the river to find an out of the way spot. If you’re doing Upper Cherry Creek, camping on granite slabs with twenty of your best friends for three days while you wait for the water to come down, you’re going to be hard pressed to find enough suitable places in which to answer the call.  You might consider one of the many bag systems for carrying it out- Rest Stop or Wag Bags are two good ones. I see a game of rocks paper scissors to determine who gets to pack that one out.

Other user groups:  You may not be the only ones out there and not everyone is as excited as you about the sweet line you just nailed.  People out fishing and hiking are a couple of the other user groups you are likely to run into and they aren’t always happy to see us.  Let them enjoy their experience too, that could include piece and quiet.

Group size:  When a group is too small or too large, safety can be compromised.  In addition, your impact on the environment and other groups can be felt too. Give it some thought.


Camp Selection:  A big group leaves a big impact at a small site, and a small group doesn’t need a big site. Be sensitive to other groups that might be on the run at the same time. If there are choices, head around the corner from another group so you can all feel like you have the place to yourselves. Areas with fragile soils or archeologically sensitive areas should be avoided.


Enjoy the freedom and enjoy the journey.  Once you do your first overnighter, it will only leave you wanting more.

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