Packing Light for Northern Tier

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    bill berklich


    Locale: Northern Mid-West

    Have squeezed BPL for light weight gear and insights on Philmont last year (I stepped off wit 5 days of Phil-Food, 4L water, Crew and personal gear at 38lbs thanks to BPL)I'm hoping to find similiar help for Northern Tier.

    I know it's not a "light weight" experience but I'm looking for guidiance on what to bring, what NTier provided gear is like, and what "glad I took that" and "wish I had that" items.

    NTier July '15

    Adam Rothermich
    BPL Member


    Locale: Missouri Ozarks

    I went in 2001 (it sure doesn't seem that long ago…) so things may have changed. When I went we were issued Eureka Timberline tents. Obviously there are much lighter shelters though I'm sure the Scouts have their own requirements so you may still be limited. I would definitely bring something with full bug netting, the mosquitoes were out in force after dark. We also had a heavy dining fly which was great on the day it didn't stop raining on us. A couple of 8×10 silnylon tarps would be much lighter.
    We had some pretty heavy Coleman dual fuel camp stoves. We also used the food they issued which was heavy and bulky as well (MRE lunches, large group-sized dinners) and the food was packed into a giant plastic box before being putting into the pack. I think the plastic box was to keep everything from getting crushed but the food pack was so heavy the first few days that I couldn't carry it on portages (I was a scrawny 14 year old at the time). I'd say if they let you bring your own canister stoves and pots you could probably save some weight. And if you can pack your own food I'm sure you'll be much better off. I hated tuna at the time and guess what we were given for lunch :)
    As far as clothing, expect to be wet most of the time. They recommended jungle boots when I went because they had drainage ports and ankle support. A couple of the portages were pretty rocky so the ankle support was nice and the drainage was a must-have when beaching and launching the canoes. I'd pick something more comfortable than jungle boots if I did it again. I wore swimming trunks pretty much the whole time. In the canoes you'll have two people paddling and one sitting in the middle on the floor. Where all the water you picked up launching the canoe will be. I think I rotated three pairs of swimming trunks during the week, I would probably have been fine with two. Sun protection is important too. We wore full-brimmed hats and used lots of sunscreen (and bug spray). I'd consider wearing a long-sleeve fishing shirt next time over applying sunscreen a couple of times a day. Again, I'd probably bring two and rotate them. It got chilly in the evenings, I brought a cheap 30 degree bag and wore light base layer tops and bottoms to bed. I'd store these with your sleeping bag and only wear them in the tent to keep them from getting wet. We got quite a bit of rain when I went so good rain gear was a must, however when my brother went a few years later they were in a drought and had wildfires to worry about.
    I think one thing to note is that when I went, everything was shared by everyone. Obviously you have your personal gear like clothing and sleeping bag but it will likely end up in one big bag with two or three other people's gear. IIRC each canoe carried three people and two big bags. On the portages one person would carry the canoe and the other two would each carry a bag. The bag could have camp gear, food, or other group gear. Since you aren't just carrying your own gear one person keeping their weight low won't make a huge difference in the overall scheme. It would be more beneficial if you can convince your whole crew to get on board with the lightweight philosophy. Since you're a few years out that may very well be doable. When I went, it was just my father and me from our troop on a crew of boys and dads from two or three other troops so a coordinated approach to gear wasn't a viable option. If you're going with the same crew you went to Philmont with you are probably in a very good position to "trim the fat" from the group's gear.


    Ryan Slack


    Locale: Minnesota

    Hi Bill, got your PM and thought I'd reply here. I'm not sure exactly what has changed since I worked there (last in 2009).

    As stated above, getting your crew on board with lightweight approach makes a big difference in lowering the weight of your personal gear. Yes, the three people in each canoe will pack their personal gear and a tent into one plastic bag-lined"gray whale" portage pack, which is a large Granite Gear. An adult can fit completely inside one, yet many crews barely fit everything in there. Making sure you share gear like toothpaste, sunscreen, fishing tackle, etc. goes a long way here. Also having compact sleeping bags (I haven't seen it lower than 35 degrees at night, more commonly in the 50s) and minimal "extra" clothes helps. Don't skip the sacred dry socks and dry camp shoes…most scouts depend on these to prevent painful fungus.

    Clothing I wore/carried:
    Athletic t-shirt
    Long underwear top
    Baseball cap
    Stocking cap
    Running/hiking/thrift store dress socks (wet)
    Thick warm socks (sacred/dry)
    Wet boots/shoes
    Moccasins or old sneakers (dry)
    Running shorts
    Wind pants
    Rain jacket

    If projected lows below 50 or lots of rain, may add thermal bottoms
    If projected lows below 40, add light fleece or thermal jacket

    *I usually didn't pack a sleeping bag. I slept in a silk liner bag 90% of the time–which I don't recommend for clients–so that may tell you that I'm a bit of a warmer person. I was never cold with the above, but keep in mind that scouts are tired and wet at least on their lower body much of the time from portaging. Doing it again I would probably wear a button-down sun shirt instead of t-shirt.

    Finally, don't allow every person to bring "extra" hydration packs, daypacks, fishing kits clipped to their Nalgenes, etc. You will have to hand-carry paddles and bottles anyway, so at most have one tiny daypack pack per boat for sunscreen, camera, rain gear, etc. (but this can easily be nixed). Whoever carries this will ALSO have to carry one of the other two packs or a canoe.

    For group gear, it's up to you what you want to bring your own or use from the base. Figure out what tent configuration works for your crew: I have seen crews carry their own tents but if each adult brings his own two-person mass-market tent, it won't save much. Northern Tier will provide two-person and four-person tents, so in a crew of two advisors and six youth it usually works best (within the regulations on youth/adult cohabitation) to get two 2-person tents and one 4-person model.

    One could bring group pots, stoves, etc…but I have very rarely seen this done. This is because the style of food and cooking is fuel-intensive and heavy by nature. I simply recommend asking your interpreter if there are any pots or pieces of group gear that you could get away without, and then thanking him or her for removing one cursory pot out of the 4-6 you carry. If you get a talented dessert gourmand or fish-fryer for an interpreter, you may not mind.

    I'll try to keep an eye on the thread; let me know if you have any further questions.

    Jeff Creamer
    BPL Member


    First let me reiterate what a great time you are going to have at NT. First and foremost, pay the extra fee for the Kevlar canoes. Don't question it or waste time doing research. Just call them and request the Kevlar. You will carry that boat for many miles depending on the route you choose. The difference between 45 lbs and 70 lbs is even greater by the end of the week.
    Overall, you just don't need much stuff. Day clothes and sleeping clothes and that's it. I wore a lightweight short sleeve top with a long sleeve shirt over it that I could wear for sun/bug protection. Bottoms I had zip off pants/shorts that stayed long most of the time. Camp shoes are important because your boots will be wet. Invest in good socks (wool) with liners (to keep the sand and grit out). Also invest in good boots. I wore OTB self draining boots and they were worth every penny. A good wide brimmed hat is also nice (I took a Tilley airflow and it was great foe sun and rain).
    Finally, the only gear supplied by NT that I would try to replace was the tents. They were heavy and three have to be fit into one portage pack carried by a single individual (called the gray whale in NT slang).
    Have a gret time and let us know about your trip. NT was my favorite of all the high adventure scout camps.

    PS. Bear trap loop is very challenging. It was great and very scenic, but I wouldn't do it again.

    John Myers
    BPL Member


    Locale: North Texas

    Northern Tier can be really fun. One of the nice things about it is that you can custom tailor your trek to your liking.

    Our group had no desire to do portages. We found a route that had only one short portage. That enabled our boys to do the things they wanted to do and reduced the importance of the weight of our gear.

    That being said, my son and I still packed light. My favorite piece of gear was my Hennessy hammock. Reasonably light, super comfortable for sleeping and many more options for places to set up.

    My son participated in a lot of scouting events and always said NT was his favorite.

    Have fun and be sure to post a trip report when you get back.

    Todd Kunze


    Locale: North Coast

    What size tarp did you use with your HH? Was it a regular diamond shaped one? Did it provide enough rain protection?

    Brad P


    Just wondering if anyone has any updates to this info?  We’re going next year.

    Is it worthwhile for me to bring my Locus Gear Hapi Grande and inner for 2 people?

    I was thinking about getting a fanny pack for my GoPro, batteries, lip balm, etc.  Good idea?

    Any suggestions for the required dry bags?

    BPL Member


    Also wondering the same.  Our Troop is scheduled for 10 days on water out of Ely at the end of June so whatever we can do to make things lighter and simpler, the better.


    Our scouts already know how to pack light and survive – we regularly hold “Shoebox” campouts and they tend to be scout favorites.  Everything they need for the overnight and two days of hiking has to fit in a normal shoebox, including food. Adults bring the backpacking stove(s) and water filtration equipment.  Any guidance on anything NT supplies that we really don’t need or can replace with our smaller, lighter gear is appreciated.  The suggestion on dining flys, for example, is great!



    Brad P


    The more research I’ve done, the more it looks like it’s probably best to just go with the NT tents.

    I’ve purchased a fanny pack but will also get my own life vest with pockets.

    I’d rather take our remote canister stoves that we used at Philmont rather than the white gas stoves that NT provides.  Canisters stoves are a lot safer than white gas when operated by scouts and a lot simpler. I haven’t seen anyone post that they took their own stoves and it’s not mentioned in NT literature.

    How is coffee handled? After all, a properly caffeinated scoutmaster is the number 1 safety item in scouting.


    David Thomas
    BPL Member


    Locale: North Woods. Far North.

    Jeff was adamant about springing for the Kevlar canoe.  I am too.  45 pounds is SO much lighter than 70 pounds.  Just do it.  Not only did 25 pounds just go away, but it was the absolute worst 25 pounds because it’s in addition to the 45 pound minimum and it can’t be shared.

    I didn’t see anyone mention a mosquito headset.  So I will.  MOSQUITO HEADNET!  And given the warmth and exertion of the days I’d also consider mosquito netting pants to wear over swim trunks.

    And just to put it out there:  Everyone knows about Boundary Waters wilderness canoe trails.  The OTHER national, wilderness canoe trail system is here on the Kenai Peninsula of Alaska.  It’s not as massive as BW but you can go out for a weekend, a week or two weeks and not run out of lakes and trails.  Moose, bears, loons, eagles, trout and (in August) silver salmon.  After the first lake or two, I usually see only one (or no) other parties each day.  There’s also a through-option of getting from the canoe trails down the Swanson River that I’m sometimes a trail angel (river angel?) for and set up a shuttle (and/or come along).

    Brad P


    I’ve been reading blogs and there are definitely different opinions on the boats.  The pro-aluminum folks say the rudder and durability are worthwhile.  I certainly don’t want to pay for a damaged canoe or struggle paddling.

    On the other hand, you’re 100% right about the weight savings during portaging.

    The headnets will be mandatory gear for our crew.  I tried ordering Railriders Eco Mesh Insectshield pants but they didn’t have my size in stock and the web site hadn’t been updated.  I’ll order in March when they’re back in stock. I’ve looked at the Sea to Summit insect mesh pants, too.

    David Thomas
    BPL Member


    Locale: North Woods. Far North.

    If you get (or discover) damage while on a trip, you’d be surprised how good a patch 12 inches of 4-inch Gorilla tape is.  Apply it and forget it.

    If my canoe was for lakes and portages only, I’d have spent my own money to purchase for Kevlar over Fiberglass or Royalex or (good grief!) aluminum.  But I frequently do the 30 miles down the river and it’s pretty rock- and beaver-dam-infested.  So for me it was going from the 70-pound Royalex Mad River 17-footer to a 56-pound Royalex Mad River 15.5-footer which is still a huge improvement.  You just leave too many rocks behind with green Royalex smears on them to consider Kevlar in that river.

    Or, you could build a wooden stitch-and-glue canoe.  I’ve built 4 S&G sea kayaks (three singles and a triple, all Pygmy Boatworks designs) and they are a bit lighter than Kevlar (yes!) and much, much tougher.

    All of mine are “working boats” and I’ll run them up on barnacle-covered beaches, drag them over the rocks, etc and they hold up fine (as long as you store them inside out of the sun between trips).

    For trips with just me and the dog, I’ve pondered building a 12- to 14.5-foot “Rob Roy” design S&G canoe.  24 to 35 pounds and just $200 in materials.  When you get the canoe small enough, you can use a kayak paddle and then every movement is a power stroke instead of every other movement propelling you.

    David Thomas
    BPL Member


    Locale: North Woods. Far North.

    But back to gear:

    Two home center items I won’t take a canoe trip without:

    Kneeling pads for gardeners.  Not the ones you wear on your knees, but the ensolite-like CCF pads about 6″ x 15″.  Or, more UL and cheaper, buy a $7 Walmart CCF sleeping pad and cut it into eight 24″ x 6″ kneeling pads which allows a wider stance on your knees.

    And a really soft, squishy sponge, about 3″ x 5″ x 9″.  They’re sold for masons to wipe down tile installations after grouting and are really light, squeeze really small and are far less effort to remove a pint or two water from the bottom of the boat than anything else.  Just leave it tucked under a pack at a low spot and it’ll catch all the drip and rainwater until you need to squeeze a pint of water out of it and stow it again.

    BPL Member


    Thanks for the suggestions about pads and sponges.  I’ve been canoeing for 40+ years and am an instructor for our Council’s Voyageur program.  I never get on the water without them, a painter, and a set of paddling gloves.  Wide brim hat, long sleeve shirts (even in summer when you can get them wet and keep cool), and polarized sunglasses really help, too.  Agree on bug netting and a personal PFD with pockets, and a properly sized, light paddle really helps.

    I was looking more for specifics on what BSA supplies, or doesn’t really need to, for their hosted trips that we could or should substitute with lighter or better equipment.

    Thanks again and keep the suggestions coming!

    Brad P


    Kneeling pads for gardeners.  Not the ones you wear on your knees, but the ensolite-like CCF pads about 6″ x 15″.  Or, more UL and cheaper, buy a $7 Walmart CCF sleeping pad and cut it into eight 24″ x 6″ kneeling pads which allows a wider stance on your knees.

    Would this work better since it can strap to the seat? Anything not strapped down is at a risk of floating away.

    Crazy Creek Canoe Pad III


    Jay L
    BPL Member


    Some different perspective – my Troop goes to BWCAW about every other year.  We have never gone through NTier – we have our own canoes and gear.  Some of this may not matter depending on what NTier allows you to bring versus what you have to use from them.

    • I have never taken a bug head net to the BWCAW and have only wished for it once or twice.  This year I took a “buff” – it served nicely to keep the bugs away from head/neck/ears in addition to its “usual” uses
    • Wide brim hat as others have suggested.  With a “chin cord” to keep it in place, or to just flip it back out of the way.
    • As others have suggested, I use a long sleeve fishing shirt to keep the sun and bugs off.
    • I wear nylon, zip-off hiking pants.  They keep the bugs and sun off, and dry quick enough that I dont usually take rain pants (unless it will also be cool and I may need an extra layer)
    • When my hiking boots are “worn out” they become my canoeing boots.  Ive had Scouts (and adults) want to use old tennis shoes – bad idea, they get sucked off in the mud.  Ive also had Scouts (and adults) want to use “hiking” sandals – also bad idea, they were constantly picking small rocks out of their shoes
    • I would use whatever tents NTier provides – better to put the wear and tear on their equipment than ours.  Hammock is a great alternative.  Backpacking tents are not great – light weight fabrics dont stand up well to the abrasion.  Free standing tents work better – there will usually be at least a couple of stakes that you cannot get in.
    • Would not recommend an ultralight tarp, especially my own.  My silnylon tarp over my hammock was destroyed last summer when I didnt get it buttoned down before a storm.  The CCS tarp that NTier uses is heavier nylon (maybe 1.3oz?) and has grosgrain edging around the whole perimeter and along the ridge line.
    • We use only white gas stoves – two burner camp stoves for car camping and Whisperlite’s for canoe treks and backpacking.  Cant think of any reason not to use a remote canister if they let you
    • Since the kevlar canoes dont have a keel, they can be very tough to control in the wind.  It is even worse if they are not loaded well – get too much weight to the back, the front is even lighter and the whole thing is even more difficult to control.  The lighter weight is great!  I would not worry too much about damaging it – they are quite tough if you dont do things you’re told not to do.
    • Work with your Scouts to make sure they can start a fire in any weather.  Finding dry tinder and kindling can be tough.
    • I take my Helinox Ground Chair ( a Chair One would also be great) – logs and the ground gets old.  A Crazy Creek chair works too and can be strapped to the canoe seat.
    • Never bothered with a sponge – we portage often enough to empty the water in the boat.
    • I take a small day pack with first aid kit, camera, maps not being used, sun screen/bug spray, TP/sanitizer.

    For more info, be sure to check out the message boards at

    Brad P


    Thanks, Jay.  Some differences with NT are that they don’t allow chairs with backs to be strapped on to the canoes.  They also require boots, but they have to be non-waterproof boots.  There aren’t a lot of options for non-waterproof compared to waterproof.  Right now, I plan on taking Altra Lone Peak 4 mids.  I used the low trail runners at Philmont and they were very comfortable.

    I’m now convinced to use the NT tents and fly.  It will certainly simplify things.

    Does anyone know NT’s policy on hammocks?  I’m not a hammock user, but I’m curious.  A lightweight one for relaxing might be nice.

    I plan on taking a hooded sunshirt and treating it with Sawyer Permethrin.  I also will bring a treated Buff.

    I can’t think of a reason to not bring a head net.  It weighs nothing and takes up a tiny amount of space.

    David Thomas
    BPL Member


    Locale: North Woods. Far North.

    “a personal PFD with pockets”

    The biggest predictor of surviving a floatplane ditching is whether you have a PFD on already.  But after you’ve washed up on a beach somewhere, then what?

    I flew one time with the USFS for work (in a float plane) and they used orange inflatable vests with lots of pockets on it with cordage, space blanket, lighter, mirror, etc in the pockets.

    I converted some of our PFDs by stitching zippered organizer pouches onto them and outfitted them with fire starting items, cordage, trash bag, EPIRB and VHF radio.  Years later, when I was on a boat that sunk in the ocean, it was really nice having all that on my person.  Got on the VHF and got picked up within the hour.

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