I have seen folks on canoe trips using just about anything to carry their gear. That includes shopping bags and suitcases as well as good backpacks and canoe packs. Even friends who have lots of camping experience haven't always had backpacks or canoe packs the first couple of years that they started doing canoe trips with me. As long as your gear is organized and packed in a way that keeps it dry you'll be fine. In fact a good sized duffle bag, like a hockey bag, can be a great starting point.
The more canoe tripping that you do, the more likely you are to start looking at backpacks or canoe packs. We've collected a few packs of the years, so here is a look at what we use.
Backpacks like this Osprey pack that are designed for overnight or extended hiking trips have some advantages over typical canoe packs when doing some longer portages. First off, hiking backpacks offer a lot more pockets and compartments than canoe packs do. This lets you organize your gear so that you can get at a specific item quickly and without having to dig through the full pack. They also have more sophisticated harnesses that are designed to transfer weight from your back and shoulders to your hips. The harness on a modern hiking backpack will likely also provide a breathing space so that your back doesn't end up soaked with sweat. Some packs are also designed to work with hydration packs such as a Platypus system. The downside of backpacks designed for hiking is that they are designed to shed water from the top down rather than to be waterproof themselves. This makes sense if you are hiking and can keep the pack in an upright position most of the time, whether it is on your back or leaning against a tree or rock. It doesn't work as well lying down or even standing upright in a canoe. Again, that just means you need to waterproof the gear you are carrying inside your pack rather than relying on the pack to keep it dry.
If you are planning on single carrying portages, then a downside to most hiking backpacks is that they tend to stick up behind your head. From a hiking standpoint, this design is intended to keep the pack narrow and the load as close as possible to your natural centre of gravity. Unfortunately that extra pack sticking up behind your head gets in the way of carrying the canoe - either by preventing the thwart from riding on your shoulders or even by being taller than the distance between the thwart and the floor of the canoe.
My own favourite hiking pack is a 30 year old Taymor Outbound internal frame pack. This pack is wider than most current hiking backpacks and has a large main compartment that can be zipped wide open. I still regularly use this pack on our larger group trips to carry the communal kitchen gear.
Old fashioned canoe packs, like this canvas one, weren't any more waterproof than hiking backpacks. They were consistently larger than hiking backpacks and stuck with simple leather shoulder straps for a long time after hiking backpacks started added padded should straps and hip belts. I think this was due to a combination of thinking that portages were short so you didn't need a fancy hip belt and an attitude of toughing it out like the Voyageurs of old.
One feature that was common on older canoe packs was the tumpline. A tumpline is a leather strap that runs across the forehead and was used to carry the pack either in combination with the shoulder straps or on its own. I know folks who still favour a tumpline today and it does work surprisingly well, in part because you don't have soft muscle running across your forehead to be pinched by the tumpline as opposed to your shoulders. However, the tumpline does put all the weight pushing down on the full length of your spine.
Modern canoe packs like the Sealline Pro Pack and the Eureka Stormshield Canoe Pack SS115 are made of waterproof material and are intended to be mostly waterproof on their own. I say mostly waterproof because neither one claims that the roll top closure will keep every drop of moisture out, especially not if the pack is fully submerged. However I can vouch for the fact that both of the packs shown here have kept their contents perfectly dry in very wet weather, including sitting in the bottom of the canoe in a few inches of water for most of the day. I have also tested the floatation of these packs by tossing them fully loaded into the lake (on purpose even!) and they will float at least long enough to give you time to recover them should you happen to capsize.
Both the Sealline and the Eureka offer padded shoulder straps and good waist belts. Neither pack has any sort of frame to it, but the Sealline Pro Pack does provide a perforated foam back pad. Both packs have straps for carrying gear on the outside of the pack, which is usually where I carry the tent. Both packs also have grab handles which can be quite useful when loading and unloading the canoe at a rocky shore or anywhere with a bit of a bank. I do like the fact that the Eureka pack has 2 grab handles on the 'front' of the pack which is usually the side facing me when I'm grab the pack from an awkward position.
One caution I will give is that even a waterproof canoe pack can be punctured and I have heard cases where this happened. Usually those stories continue on to tell about the cold uncomfortable night that was then spent with a wet sleeping bag and no dry clothes. The moral of the story is that it's a good idea to have a couple of layers of waterproofing for your most important gear.
An alternative to soft side canoe packs is hard barrels like this Eureka Stormshield canoe barrel. The yellow barrels are apparently no longer available but there are still plent of barrels out there, either specifically manufactured for canoe tripping or re-purposed from industrial use.
Plastic barrels are NOT bear proof but they are definitely a lot more critter proof than a soft sided pack is. I have seen mice or other rodents chew their way into a cloth pack overnight but while a mouse or chipmunk could eventually chew their way into a barrel I haven't had it happen yet.
We primarily use our barrel to carry the food and depending on the trip it will carry all of our kitchen gear as well. This barrel is a 60l barrel with the other common size being a 30l barrel. Despite the difference in the official size of a 60l barrel and a 115l canoe pack, I would say they are roughly the same size. I suspect that the volume of the canoe packs is measured when they are wide open and before rolling the top shut.
The biggest complaint about barrels is usually that they are really hard on the back when carrying them. That is where the barrel harness comes in. The only barrel harness that I have used is the Eureka harness shown here. With this harness, carrying the barrel is as comfortable as almost any other pack. The key is not just the hip belt but also the tubular back pads that cushion the round barrel and give a flat padded surface pressing against your back. There is also a thick lumbar pad that cushions the small of your back. North 49 and Granite Gear also make decent barrel harnesses.
Most canoe barrels come with a locking strap that seals the lid on to the barrel. When closed, the canoe barrel should be watertight and will float even when heavily loaded. Barrels are pretty commonly used on all types of canoe trips but are probably a bit more popular on whitewater canoe expeditions.
The barrel wasn't the first canoe pack that I bought but I've definitely been happy with it as the 2nd pack and it consistently gets used on all my trips.
©Loon Island Outdoors 2013