Canoe barrels are an incredibly helpful piece of gear that all canoeists (and aspiring canoeists) can benefit from. If you’re unfamiliar, these are waterproof barrels for canoeing that protect your food and gear from rain, submersion in water and woodland critters.
In this post, I’ll go over some helpful background on what canoe barrels are and how they work. I’ll go over canoe barrel harnesses and tools to help keep your barrel organized. Plus, I’ll provide some tips for making portaging with barrels more comfortable.
Finally, I’ll answer some common FAQs about canoe barrels (are they really waterproof, are they bear-proof, when to use them, how to make them more comfortable and more).
What is a canoe barrel?
A canoe barrel is a waterproof, plastic barrel that is taken on canoe trips to keep food, gear and personal items dry. The barrel will keep water out of your stuff when it’s raining or if the barrel is submerged in water (if you were to flip your canoe).
Although there is a wide variety of general outdoor barrels, dry barrels for canoeing specifically come in three sizes: 20 L, 30 L and 60 L. The 60 L is the most popular size, however there are some good uses for the 30 L (like carrying food on a short trip or carrying a first aid kit on a really long trip). I’ve never seen someone using a 20 L barrel.
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How does a canoe barrel work?
There are three parts to a canoe barrel. First, there is the large (usually) blue plastic barrel. This is a single piece of plastic that is very durable. Next, there is a black lid that fits snuggly on the blue barrel. Where the black lid fits onto the blue barrel, there is a white O-ring (which is part of the lid). This creates a waterproof seal.
Although the lid is tight-fitting on the barrel, it isn’t yet secure. The third part is a metal ring that secures the lid to the barrel.
The top of the barrel and the bottom of the lid both have a lip that sticks out, and the metal ring fits around them. When tightened and secured, the metal ring keeps the barrel and lid together. creates a waterproof seal between the barrel and the lid.
Most barrels will also have plastic handles on the side, which makes it easier to move the barrel. (Despite the handles, heavy barrels are still awkward to move.)
You can also get a little metal fastener to lock the metal ring when it’s closed. This prevents the metal ring from accidentally opening.
Finally, you can also get a barrel harness for your barrel which helps for carrying it on portages.
Canoe barrels are often used for storing food on canoe trips. If you’re interested in learning more about backcountry cooking, I encourage you to check out The Voyageur’s Backcountry Cookbook, my guide to all things cooking on canoe trips!
Buying a Canoe Barrel
If you are going to buy a canoe barrel, 100% buy this one. I’d estimate that 2/3 of all the barrels I’ve ever used have been by them, and all my canoeing peers use this brand. They are excellent, high-quality barrels that last a long time.
Canoe Barrel Harnesses
A barrel is a pretty awkward and inconvenient thing if it doesn’t have a harness. And the harness will likely cost the same (or more) than the barrel itself. The barrel has two handles on it, but it would be super annoying to carry it over a portage like that.
The barrel fits inside a harness, turning it into a backpack. Then you can portage it just the way you would portage any other pack.
I’ve seen and used a lot of terrible canoe barrel harnesses over the years before finding one that was comfortable. I’ve been using this one for 4 years now and it is by far the best one I have ever used.
What to look for in a barrel harness
In my mind, there are two things that distinguish a good barrel harness from a bag one. One is how comfortable and supportive it is. You want one that has good back and shoulder padding and a decent hip belt.
The second is how to barrel is supported inside the harness. You can see in the picture below that this harness supports the entire barrel base. This means the barrel won’t shift around inside the harness.
There are other (worse) barrel harnesses that don’t do this, and instead have a single strap under the base of the barrel, and four narrow straps along the sides. With these harnesses, the barrel can slide around more, making it awkward to carry.
You can stop your barrel harness research right now. Just buy this one from Level Six. It may be the highest-rated piece of gear I have ever purchased. I’ve been using mine since 2017 (I think that must be almost 200 nights of canoe trips at this point) and it is still in fantastic shape.
I cannot recommend this barrel harness (the one pictured below) enough. (Mine is the older version, which is black and purple, pictured in the second photo.)
Organizing your Canoe Barrel
I love to keep my barrel super organized. I mainly achieve this with various stuff sacks, but there are also a ton of accessories designed specifically for organizing your canoe barrel.
Compression Sacks / Stuff Sacks
I use these small bags to organize my clothing and compress any gear that is compressible. My sleeping bag goes into a compression sack, which saves a lot of space in the barrel. I keep all my socks / underwear and sleep clothing in one stuff sack. Then I’ll have another stuff sack for the rest of my clothing.
A barrel bucket is a fabric bucket that is the same area as the inside of a canoe. You can put things inside the bucket, and then put them in the barrel, knowing they won’t fall down to the bottom. There are different sizes for barrel buckets depending on what you’re using it for. Check prices here.
Barrel Coolers are similar to Barrel Buckets, except that they are insulated and closed with a zipper. They are super helpful for keeping fresh food and meat cool. On shorter trips, you can make perishable items last longer by putting an instant cold pack inside each day. I don’t do this personally, because it takes up more space and adds weight, but other people really like it. Check prices for barrel coolers here.
Barrel Pocket Organizers
Finally, barrel pocket organizers are helpful for keeping track of small items, like bottles of vinegar, spices or small utensils. When you’re cooking, you can take the pocket organizer and hang it from the outside of the barrel. This makes it easily accessible while you’re cooking. Check prices here.
Canoe Barrels FAQ
Are canoe barrels waterproof?
Assuming you don’t have a defective or damaged one, canoe barrels are excellent waterproof barrels and ensure the food / gear inside stays dry. They are entirely waterproof.
The O-ring inside the lid is a gasket that keeps water out. So when the barrel lid is secure on the barrel (secured by the metal ring), the barrel is entirely waterproof.
The waterproofing of your barrel comes down to the metal ring and the O-ring. If the O-ring is damaged or deformed, it may not form a perfect seal and may let water in. Likewise, if your metal ring is broken and doesn’t secure the lid to the barrel properly, it won’t be waterproof.
It’s important to periodically test your barrel’s waterproofness and replace the O-ring / metal ring if necessary.
How to test if your canoe barrel is waterproof
You can test the barrel’s waterproofness by closing it and submerging it in water. Barrels, especially empty barrels, float so it can be difficult to get them totally underwater.
I’ll put a few pieces of paper inside the barrel then submerge it upside down in a pool or bathtub so that just the top of the barrel is underwater. If the papers come out wet, my barrel isn’t waterproof anymore.
Are canoe barrels bear-proof?
Canoeing barrels are often referred to as “bear barrels” because many believe barrels to be bear-proof. It’s true that it is harder to smell food in a barrel than in a backpack. It’s also true that it is harder for a bear to open a barrel than a backpack. However, canoe barrels are not entirely bear-proof.
Just this season my friend woke up to find his barrel being dragged away from a determined black bear. (He didn’t get the barrel back.) There are also images online of barrels broken apart by bears.
On canoe trips, you can leave all your food in your barrel. If you are in an area with a lot of bear activity (i.e. Algonquin Provincial Park), you can either do a bear hang or a canoe float. In areas with less bear activity, walk the barrel(s) at least 200 feet from your campsite and fire pit. I like to lean paddles against the barrel in the hope that the bear will not over the paddles and be startled away.
In addition to being better with bears, canoeing barrels are better with small critters too. Although unlikely, a determined racoon, squirrel or chipmunk could into a dry sack. But they are unable to get into barrels.
When should I use a canoe barrel vs a dry sack?
Any food or gear that comes in contact with food should be kept in a barrel (which is also why they are often called “food barrels” or “canoe food barrels”). This is because, as mentioned above, a barrel is significantly better for keeping food safe from animals.
When it comes to other gear and personal belongings, this comes down to preference. Since 2014 I have always carried my own gear in a canoe barrel and will continue to do so.
Barrels are nice because it’s easy to open and close them, and it’s easy to find things inside of them. I do like that dry sacks come in such large sizes though. The biggest size for canoe barrels is 60 L, whereas you can get dry sacks that are 115 L. For my most recent autumn canoe trip, 60 L just wasn’t enough space for all my gear.
Some people don’t like using canoe barrels because they are uncomfortable to carry. However, if you get a decent harness for it, I find canoe barrels much more comfortable to carry than huge lop-sided dry sacks.
How to make portaging barrels more comfortable
A common critique of barrels is that they are uncomfortable to portage, and usually this comes down to one of two mistakes:
- Choosing a bad harness: As I mentioned above, there are good barrel harnesses and there are bad ones. Go for one with solid shoulder straps and a good hip belt, as this will redistribute the barrel’s weight to your hips. I recommend this harness.
- Wearing a life jacket while portaging: Harnesses are designed to be comfortable on your back, not on a bulky life jacket. It only takes a minute to take off your life jacket and clip it to the barrel and carry it with you. I promise this will make it WAY easier to carry.
Canoe Barrels: Final Thoughts
If you do canoe tripping regularly, it is incredibly beneficial to have your own canoe barrel harness. I hope this post has been helpful in answering your questions about canoe barrels!