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