Personal Gear and Clothing for the Far North

Wash day in the Far North: Extra rope and clothes pins make for a unique clothesline. Photos courtesy Brian Johnston.

I wear one set of everyday clothes and bring one change of clothes. This way I have a back up set of clothes for wash day or the loss of a clothing item. I’ve never found the need for more than two sets of clothes—it’s easy to rinse or wash clothes on a regular bases. I wear my “everyday clothes” every day and wash them often. A good trip is one where you only wear your extra clothes on wash day.

I pack quick-dry materials, and clothes dry fast in the far north because it is a desert climate with lots of sun and wind. My clothing system starts with a light base layer. For hot days, a short sleeve shirt, light shell, and light pants are ideal. For cool days, I add a light fleece layer. For cold days, I start with long underwear or pull on over pants.

Whatever the weather, when I exit the tent I’m dressed for the day, except for my footwear, which I wear in the morning and while paddling but change out of once in camp.

 Far North Paddling Gear

Bug jackets and bug nets are a must for surviving the Arctic’s black flies and mosquitos.

Paddling Clothes

This is the everyday set of clothes, worn from the moment I step out of the tent until I make camp at night.

Bug net or jacket—I prefer a simple MEC head net because it is easy to take off and stuff in my pocket once I lose the bugs out on the water. Another good option is the Original Bug Shirt (I take one as a backup). I don’t take insect repellent, preferring to cover up with light weight clothes and tuck clothes in.

Shirt—a lightweight, quick drying, synthetic or wool, short or long sleeve shirt.

Sweater or fleece—a lightweight, breathable layer that wicks moisture and is comfortable to paddle in all day. I wear it for extra warmth when it’s still cool in the morning or late in the day when my body slows down heat production.

Light shell jacket—in every photo, I’m wearing this. For wind or warmth, it also offers bug and sun protection. Anoraks, cycling shells and wind shirts are common (anoraks originated in the far north), and I like the hoodless Kokatat Destination shirt and the hooded Marmot Ether Driclime Jacket.

Underwear—I use Tilley boxers, lightweight, easy to wash and quick drying.

Pants—quick dry for wind, sun and bug protection. Pockets are common, and some have a double (reinforced) seat and knees. Look for comfort; you will be living in them every day.

Over pants—I find these more comfortable and practical than rain pants. Look for long ankle zips or full side zippers so you can fit them over boots. I use Mountain Hardware over pants and the Wintergreen Guide pant.

Long underwear bottoms—great for days on end of cold weather or all-night paddling. I like lightweight wool or synthetic.

Socks—a combo of a liner sock with a wool sock because the water is cold but walking on land warms up the feet. Consider waterproof socks like Sealskin if you wear non-waterproof footwear.

Wide-brimmed hat—a wide brimmed Tilley hat (great with a head net) or ball cap (better for windy days and hoods), because there’s not much shade in the treeless north.

Eyeglasses strap—a simple eyeglass strap. You don’t want to lose your glasses to the river.

Bandana—don’t leave home without one! For sun cover, bug protection, runny noses and even hot pots.

Far North Paddling Trip

Sun gloves protect the back of your hands from sun exposures. Shown here next to a wolf track.

I also keep the following handy in a daypack so I can stay comfortable in all paddling conditions (hats and gloves take up so little space I bring multiple kinds of each for different uses):

Rain Jacket and Pants—I like Gore-Tex Paclite rain shells, they’re waterproof, breathable and packable.
Fleece or wool hat—
for cold days or late-night paddling
Peaked cap—fits under a hood and offers some rain protection for eyeglasses.
Sun gloves—try Kokoatat’s Destination Hand Cover or REI sun gloves to protect the back of your hands.
Bug proof gloves—ideal for portaging through the worst bugs. Try Manzella silk weight windstoppers.
Pogies—good for added warmth, but you can still feel the paddle. Also work for sun protection. I use Heather McNie canoe pogies.
Neoprene gloves or mitts—for cold, raining days and whitewater.
Work gloves—for tough portages, or alder and willow thickets.
Hooded shell—ultra lightweight for weather protection and to trap body heat. I pack a Patagonia Houdini, mostly as a safety item.
Neck scarf—to soak in water and wear to cool off.
Skullcap—stays warm when wet.

Paddling Tops and Wet Suits

There are various paddling tops and suits available for early season, solo travel, mountain rivers, whitewater, ice crossing (frozen lakes), warmth, safety, and so on. I’ve never used such an item in the far north but if you do, look for warmth and safety as well as for a comfortable fit and breathable material. For canoe tripping the non-latex gaskets such as those found on paddling suits (not dry suits) are more practical.

Common options include:

  • Wetsuits—cheap, but questionable comfort level
  • Dry suit—latex gaskets are not for everyone
  • Paddling suit—non-latex gaskets are well suited for canoe tripping but not for continuous and repetitive immersion
  • Paddling top—upper body protection only, dry or semi dry
  • Paddling pant—lower body protection only, dry or semi dry, might be suitable for wading
  • Fuzzy rubber or similar top or bottoms—comfortable


 Far North Paddling Trip

A wide-brimmed hat provides sun protection in a land of near 24-hour daylight and no shade.

In-camp Clothes

I reserve these clothes for in-camp—most of them rarely see the light of day. Sometimes, after I set up the tent I change a shirt or don extra clothes while I wash my everyday outfit, but usually I wear them when I’m weather bound.

Hat—fleece or wool for cold evenings, chilly mornings, and weather bound days
Cap or pillbox hat—a nice change from wearing a wide-brimmed hat all day
Gloves or mitts—fleece or wool
Long sleeve shirt—wool or quick dry
Sweater—fleece or wool
Vest—synthetic, down fill, fleece, or wool to keep the body’s core toasty
Jacket—synthetic, down fill, fleece, or wool for cold or late evenings
Long underwear bottoms—wool or polypropylene. My everyday long underwear is lightweight so this pair may be medium weight.
Socks—fleece or wool
Extra clothes bag—an extra set of clothes that I save for wash day or when my main set wears out: bugshirt or head net; sun hat; bandana; underwear; pants; socks (liner and wool).


Far North Paddling Trip

Bundled up against Arctic rain.

Sleeping Clothes and Gear

All of my personal sleeping gear except the sleep pad, bivy, and pee bottle goes into one dry bag. I use an Outdoor Research compression sack.

Balaclava—lightweight, for cold nights. It stays on your head and protects your neck.
Lightweight top—silk, wool, or polypropylene.
Lightweight bottoms—silk, wool, or polypropylene bottoms.
Sockslightweight wool or polypropylene.
Hand lotion and lip balm—I keep them with my sleep gear to combat dry skin and lips.
Sleeping bag—down or synthetic. Plan for hot (30 degrees C) or cold weather (below freezing). I use a -7° C down mummy bag.
Bivy—for the worst summer arctic storm a simple bivy keeps a down sleeping bag dry if it’s misting in the tent or the tent floor leaks. And, if someone swamps in a rapid, it is a fast way to get a person into a sleeping bag and protected from the elements. Lastly, if a tent is lost, a bivy works fine in a pinch.
Sleeping pad and chair kit—I like a lightweight Thermarest. A backrest is a godsend when tent bound for daysit’s easier to read, write, and play cards. I only use this chair kit in the tent so it stays dry; I use a second camp chair for outside use.
Pee bottle—for buggy nights and weather bound days, this keeps your tent bug free and your clothing dry by peeing in the tent. I use a 1.5 L Nalgene Cantene wide mouth collapsible. Women may consider using a urinary device.


Tents for Far North Paddling Trip

Bug jackets and head nets are a critical part of staying sane in the midst of far north mosquitos.

Daytime Footwear

From the first tent exit in the morning until we make camp, I wear my paddling footwear, Kokatat Nomad boots. If my campsite has shallow or silty shorelines I wear them until I fill the pots and water bag. I use the same footwear all day regardless of wading in cold water or going for a short hike on a sandy esker.

I have seen just about everything for footwear, but the following are most common and functional (good for paddling, scouting, lining, and portaging):

  • Chota—mukluks, as well as the combination of Quetico Trekker and mukluk socks
  • Kokatat Nomad boots
  • LL Bean boots
  • MEC’s—Swellies, Burgeos, or Low Tide Boots
  • Neos Trekker overshoe—for example the Trekker or River Trekker
  • NRS footwear—the Kodiak Work boots or Boundary Shoe
  • Wading boots—just like people fly fishing use for walking among wet rocks. Sold by Chota or Cabela, etc.
  • Water shoes (by Merrell etc.)—some wear these with neoprene or Sealskin socks.
  • Waders—like Cabela’s Tundra Waders, these might be an option for wading whitewater sections but would involve changing in and out of other paddling footwear.

Crocs—they are light but limited for hiking, bug protection, and are not suitable for paddling footwear.
Sandals—similar to Crocs, are not suitable for paddling footwear.


In-camp Footwear

I prefer to wear Kokatat Nomad boots during the day and LL Bean boots after we camp. Bean boots are a little overkill for in camp but they shine for evening tundra trekking and bugs. In addition, they would work well during the day if I lost or destroyed my Nomad boots.

Most of my canoe tripping partners use light hikers for in camp footwear, which are easy to pack and suitable for evening exploring.

I have heard of others who prefer Crocs or sandals. Both are light and easy to kick off if you are frequently in and out of the tent but they are limited for hiking and bug protection.


Far North Paddling Trip

Bringing a change of clothes (“In-camp clothes”) lets you change into dry clothes, don extra layers or wash your paddling clothes at the end of the day.

Toiletries Kit

I pack two sets of toiletries: one that I keep in the daypack and the following which I keep in my annex pack:

  • Camp towel—to dry the tent floor or as a bath towel
  • Biodegradable liquid soap
  • Wet ones—for bathing when the winds are light are bugs ubiquitous
  • Nail clippers, nail file and tweezers—the last two are part of my mini Swiss army knife
  • Magnifying glass
  • Mirrors and scissors—part of my mini Leatherman tool, I use them for mustache trimming
  • Clothespins—six to eight for wash day
  • Extra eyeglasses, holder and repair kit
  • Extra toilet paper, lighter, hand sanitizer
  • Mosquito coils with aluminum foil—light in the tent vestibule during the worst bug conditions
  • Lighter—for toilet paper burning, I use a mini or micro jet torch, will work well in the wind.

I also pack my games (cards, dice, frisbee) and headlamp with this toiletries kit.

Traveling To and From the Far North

I live in rural Canada so I’m always traveling to the far north for canoe trips. For routes that use the same starting and ending location, I have a separate set of travel clothes that I leave behind with the air charter company. For trips that don’t end where I started, I travel north from home in my tripping clothes. If I leave a travel bag with the air charter company it usually contains:

  • Reading material
  • Shirt
  • Vest or sweater
  • Pant, zip off
  • Underwear
  • Socks
  • Footwear
  • Toiletries, in case I get stranded en route

Next: Packs, Barrels, and Wanigans



Brian Johnston, Editor of the Paddle Canada Canoe Program. Brian has paddled Far North rivers of all kinds: swift descents from the mountains into the Mackenzie Valley, subarctic rivers emptying into the Arctic Ocean, traverses from the Northwest Territories to Nunavut, and drainages into Hudson Bay.

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