Saturday, July 8, 2017

Isle Royale Hiking Gear Checklist

Aboard the Isle Royale Queen IV
I've been asked from time-to-time about what to pack for a hiking trip to Isle Royale.  I have a checklist that I refer to any time I'm planning a hiking trip, and I've re-organized it below into a few categories: 1) Essential items,  2) Clothing, and 3) Optional things that are nice to have if pack space/weight allows.

The list may seem lengthy at a glance, but don't be intimidated! This kind of thing is open to interpretation based on personal preference and experience. Some of these items are going to vary depending on the logistics of a person's trip. For example, if you are taking the sea plane instead of one of the ferries, you will not be able to pack stove fuel--you will have to obtain it after reaching the island, or use an alternate means of cooking.

If anyone notices anything I've missed, or has other items they've come to swear by, feel free to say so in the comments!

Essential Items

  • Good Hiking Boots (See the "clothing" list below.)
  • Tent - Light-weight, backpacking type.
  • Sleeping bag/pad. If you are a cold sleeper, make sure your sleeping bag is warm enough to handle unexpected dips in temperature--even in summer.
  • Stove and Fuel (This serves 2 purposes--cooking, and boiling water for drinking should a problem arise with your water filter.)
  • Water Filter--Chemical treatment, such as water purification tablets, is not enough to purify the water at Isle Royale due to the presence of certain parasites. The NPS recommends at least a 0.4 micron filter at this park.
  • Cookware and eating utensil, such as a long-handled spoon.
  • Food--Consider meals and snacks to keep on-hand while hiking. I keep all of my food in a stuff sack, and use a gallon Ziploc baggy for garbage. Actually, take a few Ziploc baggies with you-they come in handy.
  • Water bottle
  • Matches
  • Head Lamp
  • Toilet Paper. The outhouses are generally well-maintained, but be prepared for the occasional empty one--especially in the island's interior, where they may not receive as much attention as those closer to the water. Also expect a spontaneous jaunt or two into the woods.
  • Trowel. This is a small shovel for digging what is known as a "cat hole" in the woods. Real talk: This is a small hole to poop in. Sometimes things happen at inconvenient times and it's not possible to wait until an outhouse appears. What can you do? For proper Leave-No-Trace technique and etiquette regarding cat holes:
    • Tip: If holding onto a tree for balance while going to the bathroom (a technique possibly used more by women when executing the tricky maneuver of urinating in the woods), make sure the tree isn't dead first. Once I accidentally dislodged a long-dead husk of a tree because I didn't look at it carefully before grabbing hold of it. I almost fell backwards into a puddle of my own urine when the tree trunk suddenly lurched out of the ground.
  • First Aid Kit containing basic stuff for cuts, stings, blisters, etc.
  • A small pocket knife/Swiss Army knife - sometimes you need to cut stuff.
  • Map and compass
  • Plastic garbage bags-one or two of these in the event you are caught in rain. They're handy to stuff important pack contents in so they stay dry, or put over your whole pack if needed.
  • Rain gear. This falls in the "clothing" category (see below), but I also feel it's an essential item.
  • Sunblock
  • Insect repellant. This depends on the time of year of the trip and one's propensity for getting bitten/stung by things. Mosquitoes and black flies can be very bad in this region, so I feel this is a must for Isle Royale.
  • Warm layers for chilly nights and unexpected weather changes are a must. (See the Clothing list)
  • Toothbrush/toothpaste/deodorant and other small toiletries. Standard stuff. I suppose these technically aren't essential, but your hiking partner(s) will appreciate them.

Chickenbone Lake


Like any hiking trip, when going to Isle Royale, one should be prepared for a variety of circumstances. This is especially relevant when traveling to an island in the far northern reaches of Lake Superior--an enormous body of water with an ever-changing mood and the ability to alter the weather surrounding it at the drop of a hat.  All bets are off in a place like this.  I have been to Isle Royale in  September on two different occasions and the weather was strikingly different each time.  The first time it was sunny and warm, with beautifully warm overnights.  The second time it was foggy and rainy, with overnights below freezing.

  • Good Hiking Boots. The terrain varies from rocky, to muddy, to gnarled labyrinths of tree roots. Sometimes it's all three at the same time. Sometimes you have to walk through water or in a downpour. Make sure your boots are waterproof, comfortable, and have good ankle support.
  • Wool socks - a few pairs of these. Whether they're a lighter or heavier weight will depend on the person and the season.
  • Long underwear - I recommend these for cold people (like me), but this will also depend on the person and the season.
  • Warm layers - either a puffy jacket or fleece, and I always have a light-weight wool hat and micro-fleece gloves with me. I use them often, especially at night and early in the morning. Those familiar with the Great Lakes know that even after a hot day, once the sun sets it can get cold quickly, especially if there is a breeze coming off the water. If you're lucky, or visiting in the dead heat of the summer, you may not need them, but be prepared.
  • Rain gear - light weight and breathable pants and jacket. The pants often come in handy even when it's not raining. Hiking in the early morning sometimes means walking through very wet, dewey brush, which will quickly soak through pants, socks, and boots that are not waterproofed well. You may also find yourself hiking in wet conditions after it has rained. Rain gear can also double as an extra layer in a pinch if you find yourself getting chilly while hanging around camp.
  • Do I need to list underwear, or are we all adults? If you can get away with bringing just a few pair to save pack space, and are able to do some clothes washing here and there during your trip, all the better. Light-weight, quick dry material is the best option for this.
  • Shirts-I like to have one short-sleeved and one long-sleeved shirt with me. Long sleeves are good to have for bug reasons, in addition to weather.
  • Pants-I feel the convertible types are good because they are light-weight and provide the option for shorts if it's hot, or if I want to wade into a lake or stream. This is entirely a personal preference and also may depend on the season. I used to bring two pairs of convertible pants with me because I worried about "something happening" to one of them and felt safer with an extra. I got over that and now I bring just one pair. 
  • Hat - something with a brim to keep the sun off your face and head is a good idea. And it's good to have one if you are bothered by your hair getting gross after a few days. Not all of us look like people in an REI catalog, with perfect braids and no sign of back sweat.

Moody Lake Superior near Huginnin Cove
Optional Things that are Nice to Have

  • Pillow. This is a gray area. Personally, I consider this an essential item, but others do not. I tried going without a pillow on my first trip, but the pile of clothes in a stuff sack under my head did not work for me, and I have since used stuffable and inflatable pillows that pack small. 
  • Trek poles. This is another thing that can be a gray area. There seem to be two camps: those who swear by trek poles, and those who think they're a waste of space. I like them and think they're helpful and would be really bummed out if I left mine behind. (David--counterpoint?)
  • Sunglasses - sometimes I need them, other times I don't. 
  • Camera - Anyone who has ever read this blog knows that I really feel that this is not optional in any way and really belongs in the "essential" list. However, there are people out there who don't care about taking pictures. And technically, you don't physically NEED a camera to spend a week hiking on Isle Royale. You might just need it for your soul.
  • Book - If you like reading, it's nice to have a book to read at night in your tent or shelter. Or the simple Kindles that are small and don't weigh much are a good option. 
  • Towel - If it's warm enough to get in any of the lakes for a swim or just to cool off, it's good to have a small, packable towel. It's also good to have in the event of being caught in the rain, or if you are the type to do any kind of bathing at your campsite.
  • Camp shoes - a light-weight pair of shoes to give yourself a break from hiking boots when you are relaxing at your camp. I bring a very light pair of Crocs that I can stuff under the hood of my pack, or strap to the outside. Crocs or light-weight sandals are also good to wear in the water if you're afraid of stepping on sharp rocks.
Comments/Questions? Did I forget something? Let me know.
Get packing!

Daisy Farm


DC said...

Nice list! I like it. Some responses / additions / comments:

Trekking Poles -- I fall into the "don't bother" category. Not because they aren't useful -- walking sticks are really useful, especially on Isle Royale's up-and-down paths. But I just look for sticks in the woods when I need them. I've never failed to find one yet, and it's a lot easier to throw them away when you don't want to carry them any more. :) (Plus, good ol' wooden sticks are the original Carbon Fiber.)

On the other hand, I 100% agree about the necessity of a camera. My current Fancy Camera setup weighs about 2 pounds, and it's worth every ounce.

Books -- I'd add these to "essentials". I bring a Kindle Paperwhite (a battery charge still lasts all week). It can hold dozens of books. I read one entire book just during one rainy day at Moskey Basin.

Mosquitoes -- We added head nets to our gear and haven't regretted it. They are not stylish, but they may save you from being driven insane by the bugs.

Paperwork -- Sounds silly, but there is a variety of stuff you need to print out and take along, like a trip reservation for the boat (or plane, I guess -- I've never flown to the island). You also need to pay your daily fee in advance and have some sort of receipt. This year, Isle Royale started accepting the various National Parks passes. An Annual Pass ($80) is cheaper than paying the daily rate for two people ($7/person/day) if you're staying for 6 or more days. So, now I have to remember to bring the credit-card-sized Annual Pass too.

We have a detailed gear spreadsheet with three columns: Need, Have, and Packed. It's a hand way to keep track of what we still have to buy, what is physically laid out on the floor in readiness to be packed (this is what "Have" really means), and what is physically in the backpack ("Packed").

Nina said...

Good call on the head net for bugs. Totally forgot about that. That should be in the essentials list just for the simple fact that it's tiny and weighs nothing and can be a life-saver if you find yourself there at a really buggy time.

Thanks for weighing in! I love reading about how other people prepare for trips. The preparation is a big part of the fun.

Andrew Betka said...

Wow, thanks a million! This is such a comprehensive packlist!

What are your favorite, tried and true brands for food? I know you love PB&J tortillas and David loves PB on rice cakes, so I'll heed your advice there, but how about freeze dried meals?

I'm excited to read David's counterpoint on trek poles :)

Nina said...

I like Mary Jane's Farm (get the chilimac if you can find it-it's really good) and Packit Gourmet.

DC said...

Andrew, that's me above. :) (DC = David).

I do eat PB on rice cakes (for lunch -- easy to eat on the go), but we usually make freeze-dried meals for dinner. Good ol' Mountain House is reliable if a bit boring (although last year we discovered that the Chicken & Dumplings is amazing -- best freeze-dried meal I've ever had). Backpacker's Pantry and Alpine Aire are usually fine.

Todd K said...

I would like to comment about trekking poles and camera. In the past I used to carry a full frame DSLR and 2 different lenses, which would add at least 6 lbs to my pack. I always had to stop and unpack my camera anytime I wanted to take a picture because the camera was to big and awkward to always carry over miles of trails. I switched to a smaller camera (Sony Rx100 Mk5), and I use a monopod as a trekking pole. It allows me to have my camera ready at all times and it doubles as a trekking pole. I never miss a shot and it saves a lot of weight.

Anonymous said...

Great list! A few more things come to mind; some from experience!

- Clothes should not be cotton. Clothes invariably get wet or damp. Cotton takes forever to dry.
- $ - You'll want money on the boat trip to the island and at Rock Harbor / Windigo.
- Day Pack - something light and packable for the boat to the island and for day hikes.
- Extra light - lights can fail so I bring an extra headlamp or penlight.
- Rain Tarp - I don't cook in my tent so a small cooking / dining tarp is nice when it rains. It can also be used in a shelter to keep sleep stuff clean or block the wind.
- Alarm (Watch, Clock, iPod...) - If you need to catch an early boat or plane.
Bob W