An Expert Guide to Canoe Camping

Published on 02/20/2024 · 11 min readEmbark on a unique adventure with our expert guide to canoe camping, covering essential tips, gear, and strategies for a memorable journey on the water!
Nicole O, Camping Expert
By Camping Expert Nicole O

Photo by trek6500

Tl;dr: The gear you need for paddling camping trips is pretty similar to what you need for general camping. If you're already into camping or backpacking, it is easy to combine that hobby with paddling camping trips. Planning takes a little bit more effort due to the logistics involved, but it is so much fun that it is totally worth the effort!

Planning a paddling trip can be daunting at first. As someone who backpacks and camps a lot, the logistics seem a little more complicated when it comes to being on the water than being on the safety of land. To be honest, I was nervous and frazzled before going on my first kayak camping trip, despite having spent hundreds of nights out backpacking. I had an absolute blast on my first trip, and I have fallen in love with paddling since then and gone on many more trips.

So, I am writing this guide to help make planning a multi-day paddling trip simple and fun so you, too, can enjoy some good ole paddling on the water and reach some amazing destinations.

What are Canoe and Kayak Camping Trips?

Canoe and kayak camping trips are a great way to get outside and explore the world by water. Paddling trips involve packing up a canoe or kayak with the necessary gear and hitting the water. Instead of returning to your car, you spend the night at a campsite near the body of water you are paddling on. This can allow you to spend more time out in nature (and all the benefits that entail), go on trips that are too long to do in a single day, and hone your paddling skills.

What to Consider When Planning a Canoe and Kayak Camping Trip

Where do you want to go?

First, you have to pick a place to go and learn about your route. Depending on where you live or plan on going, this can affect your packing and trip a lot, so you'll want to make sure you have a good idea of what you're getting into. For example, suppose you know your route requires a portage (this is where you have to carry your canoe or kayak on land around an obstacle). In that case, you'll probably want to pack lighter, or if you're kayaking or canoeing in salt water, you'll need to pack more freshwater since you can't filter saltwater. Also, make sure to know how to properly store your food for the area you're in. So, once you figure out what paddle trail you're taking, you can really delve into planning.

Where do you want to camp?

Photo by aiok

Another thing to keep an eye out for while you're planning is campsite availability and types. Some bodies of water that are popular to paddle down might have campsites set up for paddlers with potable water taps, shelters, and picnic tables like you'd see at a regular campground. Make sure to call ahead and see if you'll need reservations. Other times, you'll be staying at undeveloped primitive campsites (often just sandbars), so you'll have to be self-sufficient, like having your own shelter/tent and maybe even bring a water filter if you'll be out for multiple days. It's a little harder to plan how many miles of paddling a day for your kayak or canoe camping trip if you're new to this hobby. Again, this is a very general idea since every group has a different pace, and weather can affect this too, such as the wind blowing or the river's current.

How do you plan a shuttle?

Generally speaking, a lot of kayak and canoe trips, especially if you're going down a river, require a shuttle so you don't have to paddle back upstream (which can oftentimes be not just absolutely exhausting, but straight up impossible depending on the current) So to solve this problem, people "put in" at one location and "take out" at another.

If you're going on a trip with multiple people, sometimes it is easiest to shuttle yourselves if there are enough cars with the capacity to load up the people and kayaks/canoes from the put-in spot to the take-out spot. However, if you don't have that option, look into local shuttle services or even call guide companies and see if they offer shuttle services.

Pro tip: ask for a reverse shuttle, where you leave your own vehicle at the take-out spot and have the shuttle service drive you and your gear back upstream to the put-in spot so when the trip is over, you arrive back at your vehicle and don't have to wait on a shuttle service.

How many miles a day can you paddle on a kayak or canoe camping trip?

Most people on slow-moving rivers aim for about ten miles a day. Most river guidebooks will have camping itineraries planned around a similar number. You can totally paddle more than that if you want to, but for time to enjoy the river, take breaks, sleep in a little, and just have a nice, mellow time, ten miles a day is a good number to shoot for on your first trip. Plus, I'd rather get to camp an hour before sunrise than an hour after sunset, if you catch my drift.

What type of weather should you go out in?

Lastly, it is absolutely necessary to check the weather. If you often go camping/hiking/backpacking or do anything else outdoors, then you already know this step. It is even more crucial on a paddling trip to double and triple-check the weather. A thunderstorm can be scary anytime you're outside, but if you're on the water, you need to immediately get off of it and get to land, so I would avoid planning trips if I knew lightning and thunder were in the forecast (here are some tips for camping in the rain just in case) Or if it's extremely windy, that can make the water a lot rougher to paddle in, and depending on your experience levels/comfort levels with rougher water that can make a trip become very unpleasant.

Since you'll usually end up at least a little wet depending on how careful you are canoe/kayak, a lot of people strongly prefer going out during pleasant summer months, so it is warm out and not a big deal if you're dealing with water.

Your Packing List

So this list is going to be very similar to what you'd bring on a car camping trip, but there are some key differences. The obvious key differences are having a kayak or a canoe and the necessary paddles. Besides those, I’ll share a good general paddle camping gear list:

Personal Flotation Device (PFD)

Photo by Max Topchii

Bringing a life jacket is absolutely necessary for any trip on the water, no matter how good of a swimmer you are. Always wear one on the water!

Sunscreen

Sunscreen is always important when you're outside but even more important in the water since UV rays bounce off the water, so you're hit from more directions. Pack a high-quality sunscreen that is water-resistant for your paddles.

Polarized Sunglasses

Polarized sunglasses can help you see through the water a bit more than regular sunglasses, which can be really helpful in seeing potential hazards like logs or rocks. It's also nice to just be able to enjoy the view through the water when you can!

A Wide-Brimmed Hat

As I mentioned, the sun can be intense on trips like this, so I always recommend a wide-brimmed hat. I strongly recommend one with a chin strap, too, since it can be windy when you're paddling, and losing a hat in the river is way too easy sometimes.

Sun Shirt

This one is more of a personal preference or weather dependent, but wearing a long-sleeved sun shirt like this sun hoodie can help you avoid sunburns and make applying sunscreen a faster process. Similar to a sun shirt, you may want to consider pants since it is easy to burn the tops of your legs.

Good Footwear

What constitutes good footwear can often be a personal preference. You'll generally get your feet wet either by getting in or out or through splashing yourself so a lot of people prefer just wearing sturdy sandals. I'd recommend something that straps on, though, so you can't lose them in the mud. However, if you're going on a route that requires a portage or if you just prefer sturdier footwear, bring a pair of lightweight hiking shoes.

Dry Bags

Photo by Nicole O.

Dry bags are waterproof bags that people use during aquatic activities. The most important things to have in dry bags, in my opinion, would be the sleeping bag, warm clothes for nighttime, and my electronics. Definitely grab a few dry bags of varying sizes before your trip so you can keep all the important gear safe and dry!

Sleeping Bag

A good sleeping bag is a must. Many people will prefer synthetic insulation over down insulation for their sleeping bag since synthetic insulation will still keep you warm even if it gets wet. Kayaks and canoes generally have more packing space than a backpack, so it's okay if it isn't the smallest or lightest sleeping bag.

Sleeping Pad

When sleeping outside, you always need something to insulate you from the ground since that's where you'll lose most of your heat. Make sure to pack a comfortable sleeping pad with a good enough r-value for the weather you'll be encountering at night.

A Shelter

Photo by TunedIn by Westend61

Bringing a tarp or tent is a necessity on a camping trip since the weather can be unpredictable. I would generally recommend tents over tarps for most trips since areas that people paddle in are often mosquito heavy, so you'll definitely appreciate a bug mesh to keep those suckers away from you at night.

A key feature to look for when you're buying a tent for a paddling trip specifically is if it's free-standing (which means it can be set up with just the tent poles and doesn't need guylines) since a lot of paddling trips will require you to set up in sandy areas, using stakes will create a lot of headaches for you or even just be impossible. A tent like the Big Agnes Blacktail tent would be great for a lot of paddle camping trips!

Water

Packing out water is always important for any outdoor adventure. The general recommendation is at least a gallon of water per person per day. If it's really hot out, you should bring even more. Depending on where you're paddling and how long you'll be out, you'll need to bring a water filter. You can't filter salt water, so if you're in brackish or saltwater, this doesn't apply.

Food and Cookware

When you're outside, you often burn a lot more calories, so make sure to pack lots of snacks. There's nothing worse than being hangry and still having days to make it back to civilization. You'll also want to pack a small camp stove and pot to make a hot meal if you're staying at primitive campsites. If you're staying at established campgrounds, they sometimes have grills available. Don't forget to pack the (surprisingly easy to overlook) camp utensils.

Rope

You may also want to pack rope depending on if you'll need to tie your canoe or kayak off at night while you're camping. In many areas, it's easiest to just "beach" your canoe or kayak and carry it on to land so you know it won't float away at night, but if that's not easy or possible, it's good to have some rope to tie it down. Bring at least two pieces for both the bow and stern.

Other General Camping Necessities

Just think about anything you'd normally bring on a camping trip, and you'll probably want to bring it on a paddling too. Stuff like your bathroom gear, headlamp, soap, camera, long underwear, fleece, first aid kit, a book to read, bug spray, portable batteries, and anything else you use to make your time outdoors a better experience. As I mentioned earlier, kayaks and canoes have more room than a backpack. You would have to lug up mountains. Take advantage of this and pack some more creature comforts. For example, I brought a full-sized pillow on some trips. Canoes often have room for a large cooler so you can have cold drinks and other perishable goods.

Happy Paddling

I hope this article helped you learn more about the basics of combining paddling and camping. Please feel free to reach out to me personally for camping gear advice or any of our other Curated Experts!

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