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A WHAT!?!? .......... A Wannigan


I was introduced to the wannigan by some friends on mine, the first time we went on an interior canoe camping trip together. (a camping trip into the interior of a wilderness park where you carry everything in your canoe for a few days. No cars, no roads, no electricity, no wifi...)

A wannigan is just a specially built box that is designed to take in your canoe on a camping trip. I'm told that it is a "traditional piece of gear". And I have no idea if that means it originated with natives, or with the Voyageurs, or other pioneers, or if that is just a fancy way of saying they've been around a while...

Regardless, it is a kitchen box, or grub box, that you take on your canoe camping trip. Some folks use it to carry food. We typically use it to care the bulky or odd-shaped stuff that does not fit neatly into a backpack, such as our stove, large utensils, fuel, dish washing stuff, brush saw, and so on. In addition to storage, it also can serve as a bench for sitting, or a table for when preparing/eating your food.

On our first wilderness camping trip with these friends, they loaned us a wannigan to try out. By the next year, I resolved to build my own.


In addition to copying my friends ideas, I did a fair bit of googling to check out other ideas on how other folks have built a wannigan. Here are some of the links that I browsed. The last two (both about the same one) in particular I took a lot of ideas from. I hope that these links don't go away -- the last two are to a canoeing forum.


Weight is a huge concern on anything that you have to carry on your back when camping. So a big decision here was to go with plywood or solid wood. I'm not sure which is better. Plywood is pretty dense, so it can be heavy. But it can also be quite strong even though it is thin.

I happened to have a few 100+ year old studs from a friend who pulled them out of a farmhouse that he was renovating. They appeared to be white pine, and quite light and straight grained. I thought that it would be kind of fun to build an old-fashioned piece of camping gear out of such old wood. And besides it was really light.

I resawed and planed the studs down to a half-inch of thickness, and laminated them together. It was enough for the sides. I used some old laminated pine panels for the top and some spruce (I think) for the base.

YES, I realize that pine is not the most robust of woods for outdoor use. However, if you read on you see that I designed feet for my wannigan, which keeps most of it off the ground. As well it is well coated in spar/marine varnish. Finally, it is only outside for a few days on a canoe trip. It is NOT left outside year round like a fence or deck.

Here is a 3D diagram of my design.

Even though this project is really just a big box, I still like to work things out in sketchup. (Well, a carefully designed big box, carefully sized, with a few important design features!)

NOTE: these dimensions suit the stock that I have, and our design goals. You will probably need to adjust these for your own project, if you decide to build one.

Measure twice (or more); Cut once.

On the inside, I added an inner lip, which runs along both sides, just an inch down from the top. This is sized to match a rubbermade tub that we have, which we bring along as a dish pan. This allows us to make it do double duty as a sort of drawer/organizer inside the wannigan. I've seen some wannigans where they built a wooden box for an inside organizer, but I think it makes more sense to use a dishpan; make it do double duty!

Note that the wannigan is usually packed full, so it does not really slide back and forth, but it does help with sorting and organizing stuff.

The other design feature was to add feet under the box. Our friends had problems that the bottom of their wannigan was rotting out and falling apart, and they blamed this on the fact that the plywood edges were just sitting on the damp ground. (That and the fact that it was not marine plywood.) By putting on a couple of feet, the wannigan is usually raised OFF the ground. This helps keep the bottom dry, and also helps with the wannigan fitting the somewhat curved bottom inside a canoe.
Once the stock was laminated into large panels, these were cut to size and the box was glued and screwed together. I just used simple butt joints, glue, and stainless steel screws.

A handle was then glued onto each end. It is a long-grain connection, so glue should be strong enough, but I still popped in a couple screws from the inside, as insurance.

The handle has a unique shape, borrowed from one of those references above, and explained in the next section...

Here is a closeup of the handle, as well as the lid. The handle has a piece in the middle which sticks up, and there is a matching notch in the piece that forms the end of the lid. This helps lock the lid in place when it is closed, so it does not slide off. This also removes the need to have four sides on the lid to fit over the wannigan sides.

Also, the bottom of the handle is planed at a slight upward angle, to give you a finger grip when you pick up the box.

Note that the end piece of the lid is a cross-grain connection, so it is screwed to the top of the lid.

Here is a shot of the finished box with some webbing straps. The yellow straps are to keep it closed, and the blue strap was supposed to be a tumpline. It did not work quite out the way we wanted... we tried a few different ways of carrying the box, and the best way seemed to be to re-tie the yellow straps so that they could be used as backpack straps of a sort. (Please check the references above, which also go into details of carrying a wannigan.)

Here is another view of the finished wannigan, showing the inside.


Another view, this time showing the feet under the wannigan.
And a side view of the feet. Another little design feature I incorporated was to run a shallow dado on the top of the feet. In this way I could then run the yellow strapping (not shown) through the dado, which prevents it from slipping off the ends of the wannigan.
An end view, showing a secondary strap. When I built the wannigan, I was not quite sure what the best arrangement would be for carrying it. So I also added this secondary arrangement: I screwed on some webbing and a metal ring on each end of the wannigan, and to that I clipped the black strap from an old piece of luggage. This is an adjustable strap, and the idea was that it could be used as a sort of carry or shoulder strap on short distances, and possibly and a supplemental tump line along with the yellow carrying straps on portages. The clips ensure that it is easily removed if it gets in the way.
Here is a staged photo (in my basement) showing a bunch of camping stuff inside the wannigan. This shows the interior, and how the dishpan is used as a drawer/storage inside the wannigan.
If you've come this far and are interested, here is a cutting diagram which I used when preparing my stock.
In closing, here is a photo from the first camping trip with our wannigan last year. We are just about to head out on a one week canoe trip -- note that not all the canoes are shown. In the red canoe is an older wannigan, made of plywood and falling apart from use, which belongs to our friends. In the white canoe is my wannigan, ready for it's first outing. Unfortunately this photo does not show one of the ways we use it when paddling -- we typically tuck the map under the straps so that the rear paddler can see it and refer to it as we go.

Wait: Weight!

Oh yeah, can't forget that. My wannigan, which is mostly made of pine, with some glue and screws, comes in at around 13-15 lbs. This is not a featherweight, I will grant you. In contrast a large plastic barrel pack weighs around 5lbs. But the way we use it, most of the stuff inside is bulky, but not particularly heavy. We found it quite manageable, and no worse than some of our other heavy gear!

And a little note about our usage: Due to the way it is conveniently arranged in the canoe we would usually tuck snacks for the day or lunch foods into the wannigan. Most of the other food is well packed away deep in barrel packs or the like, which lay down in the canoe and are not easy to access. In contrast, the wannigan sits upright and the rear paddler can easily pop open the lid.


We used this for two seasons of canoe tripping, and we ended up deciding that it was too heavy and bulky. Since I usually was carrying the canoe, this left my wife to carry the wannigan, and it was not fun. In part that can be due to the challenge to arrange the straps on it to carry it on your back. So, I took it back into the shop and ripped THREE inches off of the width -- it's new width was 11-1/4". We'll report back after this season's (2018) canoe trip to say if we like it better or not.


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