The pack barrel’s story goes back to the mid-1980s when a group of canoe guides from Ottawa, including Wally Schaber (one of Bill Mason’s canoe buddies), experimented with packing their food and gear in olive barrels picked up at delicatessens and yard sales.
The intention was to see if the watertight containers would keep everything dry while paddling extreme northern rivers in Quebec. They did. Now you can pick up 30- and 60-litre barrels at most outdoor stores, specifically made for canoe tripping.
The plastic olive barrel is today’s waterproof version of a Wanigan — a traditional packing system that basically resembles a big wooden box, carried by a tumpline. However, the barrel is more modern, fits better in the canoe, and is (arguably) more comfortable to carry. The pack barrel is carried by straps and harness system, not a piece of leather strapped across your forehead. Keep in mind, you’re lugging a round plastic container to your back. If you go on the cheap when buying a harness, you’ll regret it. Make sure there’s plenty of cushioning between your back and the barrel. Ostrom Outdoors used to make the best system around for pack barrels, but they’re no longer in business. Level Six and Harmony are available and seem to get good reviews.
When purchasing a barrel, make sure the O-ring seal and the metal snap-ring that fastens the lid on is not damaged. Also, get a barrel that come with handles. This makes it a lot easier to get the barrel in and out of the canoe. Also, watch out for used barrels. Some are fine, and they’re a bit cheaper then brand-new ones. But there have been issues in the past where merchants have sold used barrels that previously stored hazardous chemicals. Recreational Barrel Works is a company that sells brand new barrels and are highly regarded by paddlers and retailers.
You can also pick up smaller surplus olive barrels by visiting any place that buys olives in bulk (i.e. large-chain grocery stores, delicatessens, restaurants...). Either ask for them or wait until garbage day and pick them out of their recycle bin. Two of them, resting side by side in a regular canoe pack, works well. I also place my sleeping pad between the barrels and my back for more comfort. They have a screw-on top with a rubber washer, making the container waterproof. But the opening is a little too tight for my liking.
There definitely is a love and hate relationship with pack barrels. The one thing I despise about them is that when used to store food, you’re always having to look through the entire contents of the container before finding what you’re looking for. It helps to organize everything in separate colour coded bags. For example: breakfast is blue, lunch is yellow and dinner is red. That way you’ll at least know which bag to start with prior to searching for the elusive peanut butter.
Some canoeists have opted to use barrels for keeping their food safe from critters. They’re a great system to keep everything dry and relatively odour-free, and they can come in handy when travelling in the far north where there are no tall trees to hang your food from. But in no way should they be considered “bear barrels.” In the last few years there has been numerous reports about campers who have placed their food “bear” barrel right beside their tent and been woken up to a bear smashing it to pieces. Remember, if a bear can break into an automobile with one swing of the paw, then a thin plastic barrel is no match for it.