Canoe & Kayak Camping

Canoe & Kayak Camping

It is summer time, and canoe camping is one of the most fun excursions you can take this time of year.  You have probably been floating in a canoe and had a blast, right?  You probably love pulling out your tent and sleeping bag to go camping, right?  Why not combine the two?

However, combining these two activities can add some complications.  The different gear that you bring, keeping it dry, and finding the right places to set up camp add difficulties that you would not have with camping or floating individually.

There are several questions to ask yourself for this venture.  Will you travel alone or with a group?  How much gear will you have? How many days will you camp?  How rough will the water be?

I personally love canoe camping, but have made some missteps over the years.  What is intended to be a laid-back trip can turn stressful or even dangerous if you are not prepared.  In this article, I will cover the things you can do to ensure you have a great time on your next canoe camping trip.

Canoe or Kayak?

One of the biggest decisions you will need to make is if you want to take a canoe or a kayak on your camping trip.  Kayaks can have an open or a closed design.  You sit low in the kayak and use a paddle with blades on both ends.  Canoes are always an open design, and you sit on a higher seat with a standard paddle.

Canoes are more stable and spacious, so moving around is much easier.  This makes canoes ideal for children and dogs, plus you have more storage space. Unfortunately, everything is exposed so it is more prone to get wet.

Kayaks protect your gear using enclosed compartments.  They are more restrictive for movement, but they handle rough water better and are easier to maneuver. This means dry gear and less chance of being capsized.

I personally prefer the space that I get from a canoe.  I am a big guy and need to be able to move around or stand up to scout whitewater. However, in rough water I am glad to have the kayak to stay off the rocks.  Pick whichever you like the best.

Best Canoe for Camping

There are several variables to consider when selecting a canoe for camping.  The depth, width, length, and materials will all affect your canoes ability to provide a positive camping experience.  Take the time to do your research and find the best fit for your needs.

For canoe camping, you will want to find a canoe that can handle whitewater but is also deep enough to store plenty of gear.  Generally, the categories you will find in canoes are touring, recreational, multi-purpose, and river models.  Shorter canoes will handle rough water better, and wide canoes are more stable but less maneuverable.

The materials used to make your canoe will affect the weight, strength, durability, maneuverability, and price.  In the past, the two main materials used were aluminum and fiberglass.  However, we now also have stronger Kevlar canoes and durable Royalex canoes.  These newer materials offer advantages, but they are more expensive as well.

There are a few other design elements that can affect your canoe’s performance.  The hull shape and water entry line will affect handling as will the rocker or upward curve from the front end.  Side flares can affect how much weight you can take and can also affect your ability to fish.

As for specific models, the Old Town Saranac 160 is ideal for taking the family.  It can handle plenty of weight while still maneuvering just fine.  The Mad River 156 is versatile and stable as it handles just as well on a calm lake as it does in whitewater.  The Wenonah Argosy Tuf-Weave is a hand-made canoe that is incredibly light and nimble, but a bit more expensive.

Best Kayak for Camping

When selecting a kayak for camping, there are several different types of kayaks to consider.  Whitewater kayaks are designed for rough water, while recreational kayaks are made for lakes and ponds.  Touring kayaks are designed for long distances, while fishing kayaks are more stable for casting. 

There are modular kayaks that break down into pieces, folding kayaks that fit in a backpack, and inflatable kayaks that can be deflated for storage.  There are even sit-on-top kayaks for beginners to get more comfortable with the process of kayaking.  For camping, recreational and touring models work best.

As is with canoes, the dimensions of your kayak affect several factors.  Longer kayaks are faster and keep a straighter line, while shorter ones are more maneuverable.  Wide kayaks are more stable, and deep kayaks have more storage space.

Again, the materials used in your kayak’s construction will affect weight, strength, durability, cost, and maneuverability.  Plastic kayaks are inexpensive and functional, while inflatable kayaks are made from soft shell material and composite kayaks are lighter.

There are additional design features that affect the performance of your kayak. Flat hulls are more stable and better for straight tracking, so they are ideal for camping.  Large cockpits are better for fishing and easier to enter and exit.  Foot pegs give you more paddling leverage, and hatches give you more watertight storage.  Skegs work like rudders and help with straight tracking.

For specific models, the Wilderness Systems Tsunami 125 has plenty of storage space for camping and is perfectly designed for touring.  The Eddyline Samba has good storage but is better for rough water in the open ocean.  The Riot Polarity Tandem is very stable and can hold one person or two.

Canoe Camping Gear

In addition to the craft itself, there are a few other items that you should pick up.  Obviously, a paddle is going to be needed for both a canoe and a kayak.  For a canoe, a telescoping paddle is very convenient.  For a kayak, a two-bladed two-piece paddle still allows for easy break down and packing.  Both types of paddles should be floating models.

Life vests are needed for this kind of trip, but you should be selective about the model.  The old bulky orange vests are a far cry from the ideal vest for your trip.  There are several models that are form fitting, light, and allow plenty of arm and head movement.  These are ideal for a canoe or kayak camping trip.

For kayak camping, a spray skirt is a good idea.  This will keep water out of your kayak if you hit rough water.  For transporting your canoe or kayak, a roof rack on your vehicle will keep it from scratching the paint.  It will also make the craft more secure on your drive to the water.

Pick up some dry bags for your gear.  It you want everything to be in good shape when you get to your site, these are a must.  You can also purchase a trolley to transport your craft from your vehicle to the water.  This will conserve energy and keep you from potentially dropping your craft.

Planning your Canoe / Kayak Camping Trip

As a beginner, you should be conservative and deliberate when planning your first trip.  Make sure the forecast has clear skies for your planned dates and stick to just one or two nights on your first trip.  Pick a route with calm waters so you are not stressed out at the end of the day.

One variable you must consider is the entry and exit point.  If you are on a fast-moving river, you will need a way to get back to your vehicle at the end of your trip.  Plan out a quiet, secluded location for your camp site using local maps with waterproof covers.

Keep your driving distance reasonable so you are not tired when you get to your location.

If you are fishing, look at the local fishing reports.  These will tell you the best spots to cast a line, and the species of fish that are biting.  Be sure you check local regulations and purchase required fishing licenses and stamps. 

Canoe Camping Checklist

To pack for your canoe/kayak camping trip, you will need to get a list together.  Look at the amount of storage space you have in your kayak, and plan accordingly.  Consider the weather you expect and the amount of time you will be spending on this trip.  Below is a standard list to get you started:

  • Sleeping bag and sleeping pad
  • Tent
  • Water and filter/iodine tablets
  • Food
  • Fire starters or camp stove and fuel
  • Clothes and towels
  • Cooking gear
  • Knife
  • Hatchet or saw
  • Cordage and bungee cords
  • Flashlight
  • Phone and spare battery
  • Canoe or kayak
  • Paddles
  • Life jacket
  • Spray skirt
  • Dry bags
  • Repair kit
  • Maps
  • Weather radio
  • Compass
  • Sunblock
  • Bug spray
  • Fishing gear
  • Rescue signaling gear
  • Emergency blanket
  • Duct tape
  • Umbrella

As you start to gather your gear, divide it into categories and place it all in dry bags.  For example, place cooking gear in one bag, clothing in one bag, and food in another bag. Also, be sure to bring along a large backpack so you can carry your gear from the water to the camp site.

One of the most challenging aspects of packing for your canoe/kayak camping trip is loading the boat.  These crafts handle differently when loaded with gear, so placing the weight in the right places is essential.  You should have your weight evenly distributed and keep it as low and close to the center as possible. Do not allow any gear above the top of the craft, and secure with cordage or bungee cords.

Drinking water is often the heaviest item that you will load into your craft, and it sloshes around as well.  Keep it at the center, and pack as little water as possible.  If you bring a water treatment system like a filter or iodine tablets, you can treat and drink the river or lake water through which you travel.  This means less weight in your boat.

Each craft will have a maximum weight limit, so be sure not to exceed that limit.  Pack light like you would on a backpacking trip.  Keep the items you will need while paddling as close to you as possible.  Your first-aid kit, phone, sunscreen, bug spray, maps, GPS, snacks, and drinking water should all be water tight and within reaching distance during your journey.


Before you ever head out on a canoe / kayak camping trip, you should become comfortable with your boat.  Take it out on stable water and be sure you are ready before you take it on rough water.  It is also a good idea to load all your gear into your canoe or kayak and take it out on the water in advance.  This will let you get used to the weight before your trip.

There are certain precautions that you should always take before and during your canoe / kayak camping trip.  As is with any excursion into the wilderness, you should have at least one other person that knows the route you will be taking and when you should be home.  This could be a friend, family member, or possibly the local forest ranger.

Life jackets are an absolute must, and they should be worn at all times while you are on the water.  Hypothermia can become a life-threatening issue in temperatures 60F or lower.  You should have several tools to start a fire in case you need to warm up and dry off quickly.  Read up on hypothermia and know the symptoms so you can treat yourself accordingly.

Canoe and Kayak Camping Tips

Fishing is a great idea on these types of trips for a few reasons.  Not only is it fun and a great way to pass some time, but it also can provide a food source.  This means less food that you must carry and pack in your craft.  It reduces weight and will give you a nice sense of accomplishment when you roast your fish over the fire. A clamp-on rod holder is a good idea.

Keep a spare paddle secured in your craft with Velcro or cordage in case you capsize and lose your primary paddle. 

As a beginner, consider wearing gloves and knee pads.  This will prevent the blisters and scrapes you could get. Eventually, your skin will toughen up to handle these injuries.

Be sure your craft has a bowline, so you can position it properly and secure it to the shore.

If you capsize near the shore, grab your paddles and move to the bank to dump any water in your craft.  When further from the shore, swim under the canoe and push up to flip it over.  If you have a partner, have one person hold the craft while the other climbs back in.  Move to the shore to dump any water in the craft.  If there is another craft, you can pull the capsized boat onto the center of the other craft, flip it, and then place it back in the water.

Bring an umbrella.  Umbrellas are perfect to protect you from both sun and rain.  Just attach an umbrella holder to the side of your craft.

Use duct tape for insect control.  Biting insects like deer flies and horse flies are attracted to the shine of sweat or water on your skin. By folding a loop of duct tape sticky side out and placing it on your hat, you will attract the flies and they will get stuck to the tape.

If you bring anything breakable, attach it to the underside of the seats in your craft. This is by far the safest spot in the boat.  Whether you have eggs or a set of reading glasses, they will make it to your destination just fine.

Bring larger bags for your tent.  The bag that comes from the factory always requires a tight roll on your tent to get it to squeeze inside.  To reduce the time and effort you put into packing up camp, buy a larger bag so you can quickly and easily stuff the whole thing inside.

In Conclusion

As you can see, there is much more involved in a canoe or kayak camping trip than there is in a normal camping trip.  However, you can also have much more fun with your adventure. You get to navigate a gorgeous stretch of water, but also get to sit around the campfire and sleep under the stars.

In order to ensure you enjoy your canoe or camping trip, it is vital that you take some much needed steps in advance.  When purchasing a craft and accessories, be sure you purchase the products that will best fit your needs.  Consider the type of water you will traverse, the amount of time you will spend on your trips, and your comfort level on the water.

Pack appropriately and take all needed precautions so you can have a safe trip.  A canoe or kayak camping trip can be a greatly enjoyable experience, but only if you make it through safely.  Start planning today, and go get your paddles wet.

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