Early in this nation’s history, before we had the spiderweb of pavement we rely on now, waterways were the highways. The Great Lakes, rivers such as the Ohio, Missouri and Mississippi, and the Erie Canal all served as transportation pathways-of-least-resistance.
In critical times, waterways can still provide you with a viable, safe route to get to your sanctuary. And your best mode of transportation on those waterways when the situation forces you to “get outa Dodge” just might be a canoe or kayak.
Why by Boat?
Every time there’s a mass exodus from urban areas due to an impending disaster, the highways are clogged to the point at which traffic can be at a standstill for miles. In this age of letting rioters have their way, roads can be blocked too, sometimes by mobs actively burning and looting and at other times by groups passively lying down in the middle of roadways.
In troubled times, roadways can be hot spots for criminals waiting to prey on unsuspecting travelers who might stop for gas in unfamiliar surroundings or whose vehicles have become disabled out of cell phone range and miles from assistance.
A boat can keep you a safe distance from carjackers and thieves. You don’t have to worry about waterways being blocked by rioters, clogged with abandoned vehicles or otherwise impassable due to debris strewn across them or bridges being out after an earthquake. And wildfires can’t reach you out on the water.
At your journey’s end, you might have a safe haven in an area that’s impossible to reach by automobiles and hard to reach on foot. In many cases, you don’t need a water route that stretches for hundreds of miles. Maybe you only need to get to a small lake and paddle out to an island. Maybe the river winds to a secluded landing where roads don’t reach.
“A canoe usually has more space and a greater weight capacity than a kayak. That can be important if the links in your supply chain are farther apart.”
Traveling along freshwater routes, you’ll have a virtually limitless supply of water—as long as you have the means to filter or purify it. You might also be able to catch fish along the way to extend your food resources without exerting more energy to do it. And you can troll for fish as you paddle, so you won’t be expending more time doing that either.
Why a Canoe or Kayak?
There are several benefits to a canoe or kayak:
They’re easy to transport. You might not be lucky enough to have access to your waterway escape route in your backyard. You might have to travel a bit to get to it. A canoe or kayak doesn’t require a large vehicle or a tow hitch. Place one on top of your car, and it’s much easier to maneuver than towing a boat in the event you have to evade danger or skirt obstacles.
You don’t run out of fuel. Yes, you can grow tired from paddling, but you can always continue at your own pace. And, if you’re lucky enough to be traveling with a current, you won’t have to do much paddling at all.
You can go where no other boat can go. A canoe or kayak can travel in places with only a few inches of water and in waterways clogged with weeds. You have no propeller that could get tangled up, and you don’t need a boat launch to get a canoe or kayak into the water.
You can portage around obstacles. It’s easier to portage a canoe or kayak overland between lakes and around obstacles such as rapids, dams or waterfalls.
It increases your options if things don’t go as planned. If you need to bug out, and you’re initially traveling by car, why not put a bicycle on the back and a canoe on top? If your car breaks down, gas stations close or roadway escape routes are blocked, you’ll have more ways to adapt to those situations.
Sure, they’re not perfect for all situations. Traveling via a canoe or kayak can be quite slow compared to using a motor boat. You can lessen that downside with a flat-back canoe that can be fitted with a small outboard or electric trolling motor.
“While a canoe or kayak atop your car is a good ‘plan B,’ if you’ve decided to use one as your primary means of escape, you should have a detailed plan.”
And, yes, you’re limited to how many people and how much gear you can carry, and you must have a certain amount of physical strength to get the craft on and off your vehicle and then to paddle it.
Decision: Canoe or Kayak?
If you see there are benefits to having a canoe or kayak when bugging out, which do you choose? Let’s look at some of the advantages of each.
It’s usually easier to get in and out of a canoe. Yes, there are sit-on-top kayaks that are easy too, but they’re less favorable when it comes to carrying gear.
A canoe usually has more space and a greater weight capacity than a kayak. That can be important if the links in your supply chain are farther apart.
If you’re not traveling alone, a canoe might be preferable, especially if your crew includes children or pets. The same holds true if members of your party have infirmities and can’t paddle their own kayaks.
It’s easier to haul a deer in a canoe. In addition to fishing, hunting can provide bonus food along your route. You shouldn’t count on it, but any way to extend your food supply is welcome. A canoe’s open cargo area and usually larger weight capacity make it easier to haul bigger game.
A big advantage with a kayak is that most of the single-seat models are lighter and easier to get on and off a vehicle by yourself.
Because they usually have a narrower profile, kayaks are normally paddled with a double paddle. There’s a technique to being efficient with a double paddle, but it’s usually easier to master than a single paddle, as compared to a canoe and its J-strokes, back strokes, draw strokes, side-switching and other maneuvers.
For many years, we had a tandem kayak (a two-seater). Although it couldn’t haul as much gear as a canoe, it featured a flip-down rudder that enabled steering with the foot pegs. It was especially handy in windy conditions or in a strong current.
Choosing a Boat
Short canoes or kayaks are easier to turn and manipulate through tight areas. They’re also easier to portage overland. Longer boats track better in the water, meaning it’s easier to keep them going in a straight line with fewer corrections needed with your paddle.
“Traveling along freshwater routes, you’ll have a virtually limitless supply of water—as long as you have the means to filter or purify it.”
Canoe. Choose a canoe that can safely handle the number of people and the necessary gear you’ll carry. However, don’t get one bigger than you can handle. For example, an Old Town Penobscot 174 is more than 17 feet long and has a weight capacity of 1,500 pounds. That’s excellent for two or three people and their gear, but that canoe weighs 83 pounds. Because of its weight and length, it might be difficult for one person to get it on or off a vehicle (if that should become necessary). You can try lifting one end onto the rear of your vehicle, then lifting the back end and walking the canoe into place. Nevertheless, having it slip off one side or the other as you do this can be a problem (I know that from experience).
Choosing the construction is up to you. Polyethylene canoes are light, rugged and maintenance free. They can soften or warp a bit over time, and you shouldn’t store them where they’re exposed to lots of direct sunlight. Aluminum canoes, such as the Grumman models, are very durable too. A solo Grumman model is 12 feet, 9 inches long and weighs just 50 pounds, but it can carry up to 545 pounds. Aluminum can get hot if left on a sunny shoreline, and these canoes can be a bit noisier when you clang a paddle against them. Canoes that are a mix of Kevlar and fiberglass are extremely light, but you should avoid models made for racing, because they’re extremely narrow and “tippy.”
Speaking of “tippy”: Canoes with round bottoms, while often faster, are usually more tippy. Flat-bottom canoes are usually more stable. That’s what you want. In addition, many canoes have a ridge along the center bottom that acts as a rudder to keep the canoe tracking straight in the water.
Kayak. If you’re choosing a kayak, try to pick one with enough room, front and back, to stow a pack and a sleeping bag. Many have hatches to access storage areas forward and aft. They can make things easier, although a large pack might still have to be stuffed by your feet or behind your seat.
Pick a kayak that includes foot pegs. You’ll get the most power paddling if you can brace your back against the seat and your feet on the pegs.
“A big advantage with a kayak is that most of the single-seat models are lighter and easier to get on and off a vehicle by yourself.”
Life jackets are essential. Make sure everyone wears one. Get one for your dog too. A bump on the head, a strong current or extremely cold water can mean trouble, even for a strong swimmer.
Seatback rests. Kayak seats have back rests, and so do some canoe seats. You can also buy seats with backrests for your canoe; they’re worth the money when you’re traveling great distances.
I like to keep a boat cushion in my canoe too. In windy conditions or a strong current, you’re going to want to get off your seat and kneel in the bottom of the canoe to present a lower center of gravity while paddling. A boat cushion makes it much more comfortable when kneeling.
Carriers and carts. For transporting a kayak, I have a Thule kayak carrier that attaches easily—without tools—to my car’s roof rack. It folds when it’s not in use. For a canoe, all you usually need is four foam blocks and a set of ratchet straps. For getting your boat from your car to the water or to portage it between waterways, some canoes have a yoke in the center that’s made for carrying the canoe (inverted) on your shoulders. But also add a heavy pack, and it’s going to be extremely hard work.
There’s nothing handier than a kayak cart. Mine is from the Brooklyn Kayak Company, and it cost $54.97. It consists of a metal frame and two wheels. Center your canoe or kayak over the cart, secure it with the included nylon strap, and off you go, pulling your boat (pushing is better going downhill) with all the gear loaded inside.
Duffles and bags. When I was young and poor, I put all my gear in trash bags to keep it dry and then lashed the bags to the thwarts of the canoe so they wouldn’t be lost if I capsized. These days, I use a Frogg Toggs dry bag and waterproof duffle—and I still strap them to the thwarts. I keep small electronics, such as a cell phone and GPS, in a LokSak with a double seal.
If you’re going to tote your gear in a backpack, a soft-sided model or one that allows you to remove the rigid frame is better when it comes to stuffing it in your kayak.
Water. I usually carry several options for making safe drinking water. One I especially like is made by Grayl. It operates like a coffee press and not only filters, but also purifies, the water. I also carry plain, household bleach in a small, 4-ounce plastic bottle.
“In critical times, waterways can still provide you with a viable, safe route to get to your sanctuary. And your best mode of transportation on those waterways when the situation forces you to ‘get outa Dodge’ just might be a canoe or kayak.”
Cooking. For cooking, more often these days, I use a homemade stove—made from an empty can of peaches—that cooks a meal with just a handful of twigs for fuel. I also use an alcohol stove quite often, because I can find fuel (Heet gas additive) in any gas station or convenience store.
Food. In addition to what you might catch or hunt, include ready-to-eat foods, because you might need to eat on the water if there isn’t a good or safe place to go ashore.
Navigating items. It’s usually easier to paddle along the shorelines of lakes or large rivers. The waves are usually smaller; you’re often able to block the wind; and you’re less apt to get lost. In addition, staying close to shore is better should you have a mishap. If you must cross open water, a map, compass and GPS are just as important as they are in the woods, especially if you miscalculate and you’re caught out after dark.
Make a Plan
While a canoe or kayak atop your car is a good “plan B,” if you’ve decided to use one as your primary means of escape, you should have a detailed plan. Pick a definite destination and plot and practice your route. It’s easy these days with the Internet: For instance, search “canoe routes, Minnesota,” and that’ll take you to that state’s Department of Natural Resources, where you’ll find much of the information to get started.
Figure the distances in each leg of your journey and calculate realistically how much distance you can cover each day. This requires experience that comes only from time on the water. Acquire all the maps of the areas you’ll travel.
Have contingency plans in case you confront unexpected circumstances. You can’t wait too long to evacuate. After all, you’re not going to plop your canoe in the water during a hurricane or a flood.
Old Town Saranac 146 Canoe—Lots Of Value!
If you’re on a tight budget, you can get an inexpensive, entry-level kayak that might be all you need. I found one at Walmart for $148. Or, you can spend well more than $1,000 and get something you’ll have more confidence in for years to come.
Taking the middle ground, one canoe that I think provides excellent value is the Old Town Saranac 146 that sells for a suggested $699.99.
As its name denotes, the Saranac 146 is 14 feet, 6 inches long. It’s a flat-bottomed, polyethylene canoe that weighs 79 pounds and has a weight capacity of 750 pounds. As a result, it would be large enough for two people and gear. And, once it’s on the water, it’s small enough so that you can handle it fine on your own.
It features two molded seats with backrests, a center bench seat with storage, carry handles (front and back), cup holders, storage trays, fishing rod holders and paddle rests. It comes in red—if you want to be seen—and green if you don’t.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the March, 2021 print issue of American Survival Guide.
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