How-To Pack for a Self-Support

Alrighty, you’re heading out on a self support paddling trip and the age old question arises of what to bring. This how-to guide of packing for a self support paddling trip will make sure you have everything you need and nothing you don’t to get down the river safely.

Packing up for the Middle Fork of the Salmon.

Packing up for the Middle Fork of the Salmon.

Before we get to the specifics we need to address the area where you will be paddling. What does the weather look like? Are you in a desert, a jungle, high in the mountains? You are going to need to be prepared to deal with your environment so do some research before you set off. I’ll discuss the different environments and what specifically you’ll need to look at before packing below.

Loaded up and on the water

Loaded up and on the water.

Your survival depends on three things: food, water, and shelter. Let’s start with the necessities that you’ll need for all self support river trips and work down from there.




Lighter(s): Bring three. Once on upper cherry both my partner and I forgot to bring a lighter. Freeze dried food isn’t quite the same cold and crunchy!

Fork. I always forget one. Don’t be like me trying to use two sticks for chop sticks much to everyones amusement.

Tyler’s Dad, Bill Bradt, paddles down the upper river.

Tyler’s Dad, Bill Bradt, paddles down the upper river.

Your food can be anything you like it to be but weight will play an important factor. Bring more than you think and give yourself a day of extra food for every five days out. This is what I like to bring for food:

Breakfast: Instant oat meal – spice it up with some dried coconut, sugar, powdered milk, nuts and raisins.

Lunch: dried fruit and nuts, Snickers, sardines and crackers. Cheese and salami. Remember a lot of time lunch is on the go. A couple snickers in your lifejacket pocket might give you just the edge you need to make it through a tough day. I always bring a minimum of two Snickers per day, you won’t be disappointed.

Dinner: Freeze dried food. Mountain House makes some of the best, check out their selection here:


There are many different options for water. All work quite well however the lightest weight option are purification tabs:

Luckily for us we’re surrounded by water. Look for side streams and springs along the river and depending on where you are you may never have to purify your water. To be safe I can’t recommend not treating your water but I do it all the time and have had generally great success.

Water storage: I prefer to bring collapsable water storage. This ensures it’s never more bulky than it needs to be. Heading out on a long portage? Fill it to the brim. Running something gnarly? Dump it out and stuff it in the back. It’s as versatile as water storage gets.

Collapsable water storage:


Tarp or Tent?

90% of the time a simple tarp will do the trick like this one from Kelty:

If you’re in an area with a lot of bugs a lightweight tent split between you and a buddy will be a little better. In Madagascar Benji and I shared this small two person tent and it was undoubtedly the way to go. Bug free and dry:

A ground cloth and sleeping pad are also both important pieces of equipment. Here are the ones I use:


Ground cloth: A small tarp is suitable for a groundcloth, tent footprints work well too:

On a recent expedition in the Amazon Jules and I opted for a tarp and hammock system which enabled us to camp in the damp overgrown jungle for about 20 days with reasonable comfort. ENO makes an almost identical system to the one we had:

I almost always carry an ENO double nest on expeditions or simply in a small overnight kit for the unexpected night out. This hammock has saved me numerous occasions plus it works well as a sheet for bug protection and can help keep you warm in a pinch:

Sleeping Bag. The weight of your sleeping bag will be dependent on what sort of temperatures you’re expecting to deal with. A three season bag will get you through most of it though.

Clothing for Camp.

Clothing for Camp.


Bringing a dry set of fleece for camp is crucial. I promise you wont remain happy in your paddling fleece for very long on an extended expedition. Here is the stuff I use and it works like a dream:



I find it good to wear some shorts over the fleece bottoms, keeps them slightly separated from the dirt and elements. You wont find a better pair than these:

Rain Jacket:

It turns out you can’t beat a sea kayaking splash top for a rain jacket. NRS makes a really nice light weight one. Buy it a size larger than you would normally wear:


Wool socks are the best.

Flip flops: Usually considered a luxury item but I find flip-flops to usually be worth their weight. It’s important to let your feet dry out after a long day on the river and with a pair of light flops your camp will be a lot more comfortable.


A good headlamp goes a long way. This is the one I use, it’s rechargeable and have grown to love it:

I usually carry a small goal zero charger for GoPros or the headlamp if it accidentally turns on in the bag:


Your favorite stocking cap will do. Here’s mine:

Tooth Brush and small tube of toothpaste:

This is another thing I always forget. Don’t be like me borrowing tooth paste and sticking my finger in my mouth pretending to brush my teeth.

Dry Storage.

Dry Storage.

Dry storage:

Of course none of this stuff does you much good unless it’s dry when you get to camp. Watershed dry bags and stow floats are the best out there. You wont regret the investment.

Stow floats:

Camera or lap bag:

Food and trash:

Your weight distribution will also play an important factor. I love putting things in front of the footrest that are already sealed and dry. Mountain houses. Cheddar dogs. A bag of wine. Put lighter stuff towards the end of your boat and heavier things towards middle. Don’t forget that your left/right balance is important as well. A well balanced boat makes for a happy padder.

Here’s the checklist in a more concise form to get you out the door without running back to the house because you forgot something:

Lunch on the Sandratsio, Madagascar.

Lunch on the Sandratsio, Madagascar.










Water Purification

Water storage


Tarp or Tent


Ground cloth

Sleeping Bag





Rain Jacket



Flip Flops


Dry storage

Jungle camp on the Caqueta River, Colombia.

Jungle camp on the Caqueta River, Colombia.

Tarp/Hammock system in the jungle, Colombia.

Tarp/Hammock system in the jungle, Colombia.

There you have it! Everything you need to set camp and survive most any overnighter. My next How-To I’ll help you to dress for success on the river to make sure you don’t just survive your night on land but you also survive your day on the water. Good lines and happy paddling!

Bill Bradt Runs Tappin Falls on the Middle Fork of the Salmon.

Bill Bradt Runs Tappin Falls on the Middle Fork of the Salmon.

Camp on the Samana, Colombia.

Camp on the Samana, Colombia.


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