Remote River Man
My river exploration equipment
Since so many people ask about the specific gear I carry on my river journeys, I have decided to devote an entire web page to the subject. A small proportion of the gear that I use on my trips has been sponsored (please check out the Sponsors page), but most of it I buy myself. I decide what I need for a particular environment, and use what works for me.
This page is a work in progress, so please be patient. I hope to eventually have every major (and not so major) bit of my exploration gear featured here, with accompanying photos or video of the goods in action.
Sevylor XDS K2 inflatable expedition kayak
This is the perfect kayak for what I do - it weighs under 18 kilograms, is easy to inflate with the sturdy hand pump, and fits into a duffel bag about the size of a large backpack. I use a 4-piece collapsible paddle with it. The K2 model is a two-person craft, but I take out the extra clip-in seat, put the remaining seat in the middle and use the extra space for my pack, food bag and video camera bag. I have found I can wedge my tripod into the front, and film myself as I paddle - a stable "kayak-cam". The seat is comfortable, there's a handy footrest and it tracks well through the water - you can get quite a nice paddling rhythm going. The separate inflatable floor is quite rigid when fully inflated, and provides not only a bit of insulation against colder waters but also a padded buffer zone between you and those big rocks. It comes with a patch kit, but I have never had to use it. This is a sturdy, reliable little boat that has performed well for me in a variety of conditions, from the swamp lands of Los Esteros del Ibera in northern Argentina to a major month-long expedition along the Quall and Ecstall rivers in British Columbia, Canada.
When I have to portage with the Sevylor I generally have my backpack, my food bag, the kayak bag, and my smaller video camera bag. This makes for three return trips, taking the backpack and camera bag the first time, coming back for the food bag, portaging that, then backtracking to collect the kayak itself. Because of the amount of gear I take overseas on my adventures, I expect to be hit with an excess baggage fee when I bring along the Sevylor - but having tried (not always successfully) to access local dugout canoes or other craft for a remote river journey, there is great piece of mind in having your own portable craft ready to go anywhere on earth, just waiting for the ideal stretch of water.
I have also used a packraft to explore rivers, but the Sevylor can do some things a little better, like paddling upstream, handling high winds, and paddling in a straight line with no gear in it (the packraft zig-zags through the water a bit when there's no counterbalancing backpack at the front end). Being longer than a packraft it also holds more gear, too. Of course these advantages must be weighed against the packraft's extremely light weight (under 3 kilograms), which makes it an attractive option for certain specific river conditions. Certainly on long stretches of open water without current, the Sevylor is definitely my first choice. It handles rapids with aplomb too. Check out the Sevylor website: www.sevylor.com/kayaks-C41.aspx I believe the newer version of my boat (which is 5 years old now, but still going strong) is called the SK200DS.
The Bug Dome - the ideal one-person tent
When I take a tent (instead of a hammock with rainfly) with me on river journeys, I usually opt for the Bug Dome made by Wilderness Equipment and supplied to me in Australia by Sea to Summit. It's roomy and you can sit up in it, and it has excellent ventilation - a vital component in the sort of hot and humid locations I get into. A feature I really like is the fact that you can be inside it in a torrential downpour, but still have a great view of the world outside your tent. In warm weather I just leave the fly attached at the two bottom corners so I can get the breeze and enjoy the stars, but still have insect protection. If rain starts up later in the night, it's a simple matter of jumping outside, pulling the fly over the top of the tent, connecting the other two corner clips and hopping back in, totally safe from the storm. The whole process takes 5 seconds. Ventilation is a double-edged sword, of course, and in situations where it is going to be very cold and windy, you may be better off with a more enclosed 4-season tent. Since the bulk of my solo river journeys are tropical, it has proven ideal for my purposes. For more info, visit www.seatosummit.com.au or www.wildequipment.com.au
The Macpac Cascade 90-litre expedition backpack
I started exploring remote rivers seriously in the early 1980s. Back then I carried an external-frame backpack (remember those?). I recall the rectangular aluminum frame of my old Camp Trails pack snapping in half on a 400-kilometre solo trek along the eastern tributaries of the Drysdale River in Australia's Kimberley in 1984. I survived the trek (barely) but the pack didn't. I have since sampled a variety of modern internal frame packs, and after many years I've made the Macpac Cascade my first choice for expeditions that require heavy loads (and that's all of my trips these days!). The harness system is really superb for distributing the weight where it needs to be, and their durability is legendary. They come in 50, 65, 75 and 90-litre sizes - I need a big pack so I carry the 90-litre model, in a Size 2. I have dragged it through swamps, crashed it against rocky outcrops, had it bouncing around in the back of open trucks, subjected it to torrential rains, Canadian rapids, mud, bulldust, and a swarm of African driver ants (note to self: don't leave soggy, rained-on food bars in the outside pockets overnight). Macpac is a New Zealand company that may not be as well known to Americans or Europeans as other brands, but it should be. In Australia and New Zealand they are renowned for their reliable high-quality gear. I also use their Latitude 700XP sleeping bag. You can check out their range of packs, tents, sleeping bags, outdoor clothing and other goodies at http://www.macpac.com.au/
Hat for sun protection - the Mullet Cap by Sea to Summit
A hat with a decent brim and good neck protection is absolutely essential for river exploration, especially in the tropics. Pictured above is the mullet cap, made by Sea to Summit. The two front corners of the removable (with velcro) neck flap can be snapped together for additional protection from sun, sandstorms or cold wind. It's a lightweight, easy to pack hat that works. Personally I wouldn't mind if the brim was even a centimetre or so longer, and maybe 2 cms wider on each side - then it would be perfect. But it's still my favourite headgear for river journeys.
Once while portaging heavy gear uphill over a gravel riverbank in British Columbia, I fell face-first onto the ground (it's kind of a tradition for me to manage at least one head injury per expedition, for some reason...). The hat brim prevented direct contact with the ground and a much more serious injury from occurring. I still bloodied the inside of the hat, scraped some skin off and had quite the headache for the rest of the day, but I was glad I was wearing the thing. Aside from the occasional urge to do a dubious Rod Serling, hillbilly or Clint Eastwood imitation, my brain does not seem to have been adversely affected. http://www.seatosummit.com.au/
Exploring remote rivers with the super-lightweight Alpacka Yukon Yak packraft
In situations where I find it necessary to combine substantial overland trekking with drifting or paddling down rivers with a manageable current, the Alpacka packraft really comes into its own. Weighing in at under 3 kilograms (with another 1kg or less for the 4-piece paddle) it makes virtually every river, swamp, creek or lake on earth accessible to the fit and very determined explorer. In May 2010 I took my Alpacka Yukon Yak down the remote King Edward River in the northern Kimberley region of Western Australia - one of the most beautiful and pristine rivers on earth, culminating in a spectacular waterfall - below which there's a very good chance of running into a large explorer-and-packraft-eating crocodile (I hiked out from there). The main difficulty for inflatable craft on northern Australian rivers is the prevalence of pandanus palm trees which line all non-rocky waterways, and are covered with spiny leaves that can rip apart a blow-up craft in no time. I did my best to avoid collisions between my raft and the spiky pandanus by judicious portaging, cautious dragging through the tight spots, and careful study of the terrain ahead. In the midst of the pandanus swamps I often ran into dead ends among the many braided channels, and had to backtrack. In some cases it was possible to deflate the raft, cart it through a tiny gap in the swamp (and I mean barely big enough to squeeze my own shoulders through) and re-inflate at a more open locale further on.
I don't recommend trying to blast through serious rapids with a 35 kg pack strapped to the front of a packraft, but a lot of people do run Class 3 or even Class 4 rapids in these boats (with a spray skirt, no weight other than their own bodies, and a lot more whitewater experience than I'll ever have). On the King Edward River journey I bounced off a few submerged paperbark tree trunks, skimmed/bounced over the top of a few hidden rocks, dragged it across the shallows (carefully) and was constantly impressed with the durability. At the end of each day I kept saying to myself "I'm amazed I haven't wrecked this raft yet", but it kept surprising me. I never even had to use the patch kit. I was also extremely impressed with how solidly the pack tie-down straps held my heavy Macpac Cascade 90-litre pack in place. Some serious thought (and testing) has gone into the design of these Alpacka packrafts, and for a solitary explorer of remote and untouched rivers like myself, they open up a whole new world of possibilities. Check out Alpacka rafts at http://www.alpackaraft.com/
Communications - Solara Field Tracker 2100 and Iridium 9555 Satellite Phone
'Remoteness' isn't just about the geographical number of kilometres I am from the nearest human being, it's about realistically assessing how many days or weeks it will be before help can arrive, in the event of an emergency. It's not always the dramatic stuff that gets you - a badly turned ankle, eye injury or mundane tropical illness is far more likely than snakebite, a piranha frenzy or an encounter with a hungry puma.
Being an explorer of isolated river systems carries a responsibility - to have the ability to communicate effectively with the outside world if and when needed. For me, that means a reliable satellite phone and a Solara Field Tracker 2100 (with two-way texting and GPS tracking of my position, so those back home can keep abreast of how I'm going out there). Both these small handheld units make use of the very reliable Iridium satellite network and are available from Landwide Satellite Solutions in Australia. If you ever need to know anything about remote area communications, these are definitely the folks to ask. http://www.landwide.com.au/
Solara Field Tracker 2100
This is one of my favourite bits of exploration gear. It's waterproof, rugged, lightweight, has a sealed battery compartment and an antenna built into the unit for protection. Here's how it works: find yourself a spot with reasonably open sky (away from thick forest canopy etc), turn it on, and in a minute or so the Iridium satellites lock on and it's ready to use. It immediately sends your current position to those back home, who can check your journey's progress via the map on the Solara website. It also gives you your current latitude and longitude by GPS and tells you how accurate that position is (usually within 4 metres or so, in my experience). There is also an emergency alert button on the side for use when things get really serious. The beauty of the Solara, however, is that it also allows for two-way texting. You write a brief text (or select a pre-made one from a number of useful shortcut options), hit send, and your text is whisked off to those back home who can then (once again through the easy-to-use Solara website) reply by text at their leisure. I find it works extremely well for keeping in touch while in isolated areas, and has two advantages over a satellite phone - it's cheaper to text on this unit than it is to call on a sat phone, and it also doesn't matter what time you send a text - there's no waking someone up at 3am by mistake because you messed up trying to work out the time zone (yes, I've done this with a sat phone). It's convenient both for the sender and receiver.
This handheld yellow wonder worked superbly on my 7 week trip to the central Guyana jungles, but it has worked equally well for others on polar explorations and epic open ocean rowing voyages. Anywhere, any time, hot, cold, humid or dry, as long as you have an open sky. One of the most useful optional extras is a small foldable solar panel, which I personally found to be quite efficient. The place to get a Solara Field Tracker 2100 is from Landwide Satellite Solutions in Sydney, Australia - check out their website at http://www.landwide.com.au/ They have some great satellite phones too.
Canadian blackflies, Bornean leeches, Australian mosquitoes, African tsetse flies, Argentinean ticks - my explorations bring me into contact with all manner of crawling beasties. Over the years I have developed some very effective ways to keep them at bay. I do a lot of animal tracking at night with a headlamp - a sure method of attracting every single flying insect in the area. In these cases I wear what I call the "insect-proof jammies" - a shirt and long trousers made by the Original Bug Shirt Company based in Canada ( http://www.bugshirt.com/ ). Their outfits offer full body protection (except for the hands, which you can hide up in the sleeves if things get bad). Or you can just wear suitable insect-proof gloves with them. I have worn this bug outfit all over the world, and it has worked well. Aside from the anti-nuisance benefit, it is also crucial for health in parts of the world where serious disease-carrying mosquitoes and other nasty insects are prevalent. This clothing is ideal for hanging around motionless in the dark in remote jungles, waiting for nocturnal animals to come out (a strange habit of mine, but often fun).
Malaria tablets are a good idea in areas where the disease is prevalent, but they don't guarantee you won't still get malaria. This happened to me in Papua New Guinea many years ago. Doing all you can to not get bitten in the first place(even once) is the way to go. Soak your clothing (especially socks) in a permethrin solution, and cover exposed skin areas with A DEET-based repellant. Any of the ones with more than 25-30% DEET are serious overkill however. Keep in mind DEET is a powerful chemical. It can melt plastic sunglasses and eat holes through nylon groundsheets. If you're sleeping under a mosquito net, get one that is also pre-treated with permethrin. Untreated nets invite mosquitoes to camp out on the outside of the net, waiting patiently for you to emerge to obey the call of nature. I have used a Bug Bivy (made by Outdoor Research) both outdoors and also indoors, on beds in hotel rooms that don't have mosquito screens, or that look like prime flea or bedbug habitat. It's a small, basic bivvy bag with just mesh and a floor, but provides a barrier between the bugs and I. I permethrin-soak that too.
LIFESAVER BOTTLE - the best portable water purification system on earth
There was a time when my water purification 'system' consisted of some haphazard filtering through an old bandana, and then plopping in some chlorine dioxide tablets. Not any more.
When I travelled to the deep dark jungles of Gabon in 2010 to seek out wildlife and venture up little-known rivers, I knew clean drinking water was going to be a main priority. I would be too far from civilization to carry an endless supply of plastic bottled water (and I've never been a big fan of the modern trend of carting infinite numbers of plastic bottles into wilderness anyway), and I knew that slurping water straight out of lowland African jungle creeks was an invitation to all manner of pathogens and assorted waterborne diseases.
Fortunately on this trip I carried the Lifesaver Bottle, a really efficient water purification filter housed in a bottle, that, unlike other bottles or filters, can filter viruses too. This thing is truly amazing - you put 750 mils of filthy/dubious water in the bottom end, pump a handle three or four times, and fresh, clean water comes out the top end in an instant. No horrible chlorine or iodine taste, no waiting 2 to 4 hours for tablets to work. I will never use another water filtration device on any future explorations - this product does exactly what it claims to do, and does it without fuss. Strangely, even though it is available here in Australia, not many Aussies have heard of it. In Australian dollars I think it cost me about $340 dollars, but it's well worth every penny. The doctor bill from having tapeworms, amoebas or other critters removed from one's gut would be rather more expensive, I suspect.
Most people get stomach problems while travelling overseas not from the food they eat, but from the water they drink. If you want to stay healthy, the first priority is clean, pure drinking water. The Lifesaver Bottle worked without a hitch for me in Africa, and I'll be taking it to Mongolia, Venezuela and wherever else my river journeys take me in 2011 and beyond. It's light enough, small enough and portable enough for a seriously weight-conscious guy like me to pack. It's sturdy and reliable, and the filtered water tastes just fine. Very impressive indeed, and just perfect for the remote river explorer...
There are plenty of demo videos and loads of technical info about the Lifesaver Bottle on the internet, so I won't repeat all that here. Check it out at http://www.lifesaversystems.com/, or in Australia, http://www.lifesaverbottleaus.com/
I'm not easily impressed by outdoor gear, but I was certainly happy with how the Lifesaver Bottle helped me get through equatorial Africa disease-free and without stomach upsets or more dangerous long-term waterborne nasties. I reckon the Lifesaver Bottle will eventually make just about all the other water purification products obsolete - it really has no equal.
Sea to Summit Traverse XT1 sleeping bag
During my August 2013 expedition to coastal British Columbia I used this excellent bag for the first time, and I'm definitely hooked - I have never had a better all-round sleeping bag in thirty years. Highest quality goose down, intelligently designed shell, new Ultra Dry Down technology that helps the down repel moisture, great shape, perfect hood, smooth zipper action and the ability to unzip the foot end all make this ideal for what I do. It weighs only a fraction over a kilogram, and is extremely warm for its weight. Check out all the technical specs at: http://www.seatosummit.com.au