Essentials of Canoe Camping – Nessmuk Style

Mankind has been sleeping “out of doors” for longer than history has been recorded. Not all of these occasions were for recreation so much as they were out of necessity. In more modern history, writers and outdoorsman such as Nessmuk, Horace Kephart and Mors Kochanski have been promoting canoe camping, woodcraft and self-reliance. Each of these outdoorsmen had his own idea of what was necessary for a successful trip into the backcountry waters. In this post, I’ll detail and borrow from Nessmuk since he was writing specifically about canoe camping (a.k.a. ultralight camping).


Nessmuk's Canoe
Photograph of Nessmuck’s famed canoe, The Sairy Gamp taken on our 2010 trip to The Adirondack Museum on Blue Mountain Lake, NY



Nessmuk was the pen name used by George Washington Sears when writing articles for Forest & Stream magazine in the 1880’s. His stories popularized self-guided canoe camping trips in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. Nessmuk referred to this action as “going through alone”, which meant traveling without a guide service. A slight man at 5’3” and 103lb, Nessmuk had a canoe crafted for him by famed canoe builder, J. Henry Rushton, that was 9 feet in length and a mere 10.5 pounds! Nussmuk named his canoe, The Sairy Gamp. With this craft, at the age of sixty-two and in frail health, he completed a 266-mile canoe camping trip of the Adirondacks (ADX). Nessmuk’s writings were to inform the general public that not just the wealthy, who could afford guide services, could take these adventures. The everyday man could easily get out in the wilderness, enjoy the beauty of nature and “go through alone”.


Nessmuk Food
My favorite Nessmuk-style knife shown here preparing meat and veggies for a Dutch Camp Oven stew!


Below, I’ve included Nessmuk’s canoe camping essentials list with a few modern updates:

  • Knapsack containing oiled cloth canvas to hold all of the items listed
  • Dittybag – small, over-the-shoulder bag made of chamois leather
  • Coat – fine woolen cashmere of medium thickness (adjust clothing for location)
  • Vest & Pantaloons – woolen material with zero cotton lining, preferably slate gray or dead-leaf colored
  • 2 – soft, thick woolen shirts
  • 2 – fine but substantial woolen drawers
  • 2 – pairs strong woolen socks
  • 1 – pair boots, lightweight but not thin
  • 1 – hat, soft felt with moderately low crown and wide brim color to match clothing
  • Soft, warm open-ended blanket bag (sleeping bag)
  • Waterproofed cotton cloth, 6’x8’ for shelter
  • Folding, two-blade Nessmuk style knife
  • Fixed bit pocket axe
  • Cookware including 5-piece tinware set (3 pots/pans, 2 lids), nested together
  • Make a fork and spoon for eating and cooking from beech or birch sticks and use mussel shells as spoons
  • Twelve fishing hooks (various sizes)
  • Four lines or six yards each (various 1lb test)
  • Three darning needles
  • Several common sewing needles
  • A dozen buttons
  • Sewing silk (patches)
  • Thread
  • Small ball of yarn to darn socks
  • Sticking salve
  • Shoemakers wax
  • Beeswax
  • Sinkers
  • A hook file
  • Vial of painkillers
  • Waterproof matches
  • String
  • Compass


Nessmuck Blade
Jeff White bush knives can be found at


Remembering that this list is from the late 1800’s, many of the items Nessmuk lists are still great options such as wool clothing. Wool retains its warmth even when wet. Check back soon for our future post on the Modern Canoe Camping Checklist.

Categories Bushcraft, Canoe, Fishing, outdoor cooking, Outdoors, PaddlingTags , , , , , , , , , , ,

2 thoughts on “Essentials of Canoe Camping – Nessmuk Style

  1. My mother in law knows one of Sears’ relatives ( they live in Shelburne, VT), and she was surprised that I knew the story! Have you read ” Under the Stars” Dan White? Great tales of early canoe explorations. You may also enjoy “The Tent Dwellers” ( afree download) about a 1906 canoe expedition in Nova Scotia.


    1. I tell you, it’s a small world. We just recently found out that his great-neice lives a mile away from us here in South Carolina. We’re always excited when people know of Nessmuck, French Louie or any of the other great paddlers of the ADX! And no, I haven’t read those books; but thanks to you, I’m downloading them right now! Thank you.


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