The Load-Out: 9 Top Canoe Packs & Barrel Harnesses

Paddling Buyer’s Guide

If Jackson Browne was a bourgeois for the North West Company, here are nine bags and barrel harnesses his roadies would have loved.

Ostrom Wabakimi Internal Frame Canoe PackOstrom

Wabakimi Internal Frame Canoe Pack

$340 CAD | 96–117 L |

If you’re packing for a trip more than a week long—or, if you’re like me and decide you need to bring too much stuff on a spring overnighter—the beastly Ostrom Wabakimi supplies all the space you need. In fact, when fully loaded, the pack is so large it makes it impossible to portage a canoe because the floating lid extends so high above your head it touches the hull of the canoe when on your shoulders. This design isn’t without purpose, though—the lid extends straight up to keep the weight directly over top of the pack.

The Wabakimi is Ostrom’s internal frame pack, a feature that’s of great benefit on a pack this size, providing structure and shape and transferring the weight off your shoulders and onto your hips. To step up the comfort even further, when you order your pack, Ostrom custom fits the frame, shoulder straps and hip belt to your measurements. Need the pack to fit more than one person? The frame can be adjusted to three torso sizes by moving the shoulder straps up or down and Ostrom can also supply you with different sized hip belts and shoulder straps that you can switch in and out. This level of custom fitting is an offering not found with traditional one-size-sorta-fits-all canoe packs.

Rounding out the Wabakimi are all the expected features like grab handles and compression straps, as well as handy extras like shallow side pockets.


Frost River Old No. 3 Canoe PackFrost River

Old No. 3 Canoe Pack

$400 | 85.88 L |

Traditional to its core, tossing Frost River’s Old No. 3 pack in your canoe—cedar canvas only, please—will make you feel like you’re headed into territories unknown in a time gone by. Whatever personal illusions you’re trying to uphold, the quality of this bag is no artifice.

Why is it called the No. 3? No idea. Frost River makes 20 canoe packs in all manner of shapes and sizes, but all are made of double layer wax canvas, making them tougher and more water-resistant than any voyageur could have ever dreamed.

The shoulder straps made of harness leather, foam padding and buckskin make for a comfortable carry and the whole pack is finished with solid brass hardware. Frost River keeps things simple with three leather strap buckle closures, a leather hip belt and an interior map pocket—because you surely still carry a map, right?

Recreational Barrel Works Expedition Canoe PackRecreational Barrel Works

Expedition Canoe Pack

$174.95 CAD | 105–125 L |

“That’s a big pack,” one of my colleagues said when I humped the Expedition Canoe Pack into the office. The largest of Recreational Barrel Works’ packs, the Expedition is also the highest volume pack on this list. The pack’s many thoughtful features make its bulk more manageable. Features like seven grab handles, side and top compression straps, and optional tumpline and internal frame.

Despite the pack’s volume, portaging a canoe is still possible because the lid extends down over the back of the pack, leaving enough room between the top of the pack and the hull of the canoe to allow the canoe to sit on your shoulders. However, this design means the weight of the items stored in the lid pocket hangs off the back of the pack, pulling the pack away from your body. Included load adjustment straps help with this, pulling the weight of the top of the pack closer to your body and allowing the hip belt to do its job of transferring weight onto your hips.

Without the option to move the hip belt up or down on the pack, the Expedition Canoe Pack fits medium to long torsos best. Useful features include daisy chains on the lid, two shallow side pockets and Easy-Snug hip belt adjustment buckles for one-handed adjustment. Recreational Barrel Works also sells a waterproof liner.

Algonquin Outfitters Medium Ballistic Canoe PackAlgonquin Outfitters

Medium Ballistic Canoe Pack

$189.98 CAD | 95 L |

Algonquin Outfitters’ Ballistic Canoe Packs have been trialed by fire—these are the packs the outfitter rents out on hundreds of backcountry trips every year. And so, this utilitarian pack has a no-frills padded back, simple hip belt and six side compression straps.

The Medium Ballistic is unpretentious and still comfortable to carry. Somehow with only simple adjustability on the hip belt, chest strap and shoulder straps, it fits everyone in the Paddling Magazine office well enough. Also available in small and large, this medium is the perfect size for weeklong trips.

Level Six Bad Hass Adjustable Barrel HarnessLevel Six

Bad Hass Adjustable Barrel Pack

$140 CAD | 30 L and 60 L barrels |

Durable, waterproof and small critter resistant, barrels are a popular choice for storage on canoe trips. Level Six’s Adjustable Barrel Pack hugs 30- and 60-liter barrels snuggly like a beer can in a koozie.

Somehow the length of the back pad and shape of the shoulder straps allow this harness to quickly fit different torso lengths. The hip belt is split, allowing it to fold and shape to your waist and sit on your hips. And we loved the double forward pull waist belt straps we’ve become accustomed to finding on contemporary hiking packs.

To reduce stress on the shoulder straps lugging the barrel in and out of canoes, Level Six sewed in extra grab handles either side of the back pad.

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Granite Gear Traditional #3.5Granite Gear

Traditional #3.5

$179.95 | 57 L |

Developed for Boundary Waters tripping, Granite Gear’s portage packs are lightweight and no-frills. This pack has just one large compartment, no lid pocket or side pockets. Without an internal frame or even back padding, we had to pack smart so it kept its shape and weight was properly distributed.

The perfect size for a weekend outing, the Traditional #3.5 can easily be nestled anywhere in your canoe. Super size me to the #4 for 98 liters of storage and side compression straps.

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North Water Quick Haul HarnessNorth Water

Quick Haul Harness

$147.08 | 30L and 60L barrels |

Fit your North Water Quick Haul Harness to 30- or 60-liter barrels for easy portaging—well, easier, it’s still a portage. North Water’s harness has many of the essential features you’d expect on a modern barrel harness—grab handles, a padded hip belt, an adjustable chest strap and load adjustment straps—and a couple special additions.

The daisy chain encircling the lid of the barrel provides five places to clip Nalgenes, dry boxes, map cases and PFDs to make those single carries achievable. The harness can also be used on other cases and objects, like wanigans; purchase the Quick Haul Extenders for particularly large goods.

Our favorite feature, which is either a happy accident or the brainchild of a designer in the know, is that the load adjustment straps suspend the yoke of the canoe just enough off your back to provide a more comfortable carry.


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Watershed Big CreekWatershed

Big Creek

$154 | 21 L |

Day-trippers and ditch kit enthusiasts will be pleased with the size, waterproofness and comfort of Watershed’s Big Creek drybag. Watershed’s patented Ziploc-style seal combined with roll top closure provides worry-free tripping in rain and rapids.

New this year, the Big Creek is made with Watershed’s upgraded material, Kryptothane Plus, which is thicker and more UV-resistant. If you’re using the Big Creek on a day trip, the comfortable and adjustable harness system will make you forget the pack is even there on portages. If being used as a ditch kit on a multiday trip, we found the Big Creek stacks nicely atop a barrel for seamless single carrying. It’s just the right size to pile atop two barrels in the canoe or stuff behind the stern seat, if you’re not running with float bags. Just want a drybag? The shoulder straps can be removed.

SealLine Pro Dry PackSealLine

Pro Dry Pack

$439.95 | 70 L |

Skip the trouble of having to use waterproof liners or drybags within your pack; here’s a massive dry pack with a roll closure seal that makes it easy to keep your camping gear dryish.

SealLine’s 70-liter Pro Dry Pack is a perfect size and shape for tents, sleeping pads, chairs and tarps. It’s portage-ready thanks to its sophisticated harness system. The breathable back panel and supportive full-length framesheet in addition to a hip belt and chest strap are really quite good. The harness can also be adjusted to three different lengths to accommodate a variety of torsos—possible, but it takes a fair bit of finagling for larger hands to get behind the panel to thread a buckle through a loop and reaffix the Velcro.

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Cover of the 2023 Paddling Trip GuideThis article was first published in the 2023 Paddling Trip Guide. Subscribe to Paddling Magazine’s print and digital editions, or browse the archives.

People you’ve got the power over what we do; You can sit there and wait; Or you can pull us through; Come along, sing the song; You know you can’t go wrong; ‘Cause when that morning sun comes beating down; You’re going to wake up in your town; But we’ll be scheduled to appear; A thousand miles away from here. —Jackson Browne | Feature photo: Michael Hewis