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Camping with a canoe: How to Get Started [New 2024]

Camping with A canoe

Camping with A canoe

Updated on 2/20/2024
Abigail ScottBy Abigail Scott
Hi, I'm Abigail 👋 Since embarking on my kayaking and boarding adventures in 2010, I've navigated rivers and lakes across North America and beyond. With over a decade of experience and countless waterways explored, I'm here to help enthusiasts like you embark on unforgettable water adventures!
Learn More about Abigail Scott


Camping in a canoe is a traditional way to explore the wild places of the United States. These versatile watercraft were built by Native Americans across the continent to travel across navigable waterways, fish, and visit other communities. When America was young, fur trappers and explorers hauled pelts and supplies across untracked wilderness in canoes, through regions where foot or horse travel was impractical or impossible.

The modern canoe looks very different from its dugout or birchbark ancestors, but they can still be used to explore many of the beautiful places in our country that have no path.

Canoe Camping: The Basics

Canoe camping: what is it?

A canoe camping trip is the water-lover's version of backpacking. Throughout the country, paddlers can find beautiful campsites on lakes and rivers all thanks to self-sufficiency, challenge, and exploration. No matter whether they are paddling for one night or ten, canoeists will pack everything they need into their boats. At night, they camp under the stars while paddling and fishing by day.

You can choose a canoe camping trip based on your expertise and your objectives. To get you started, here are a few tips.

Make a trip plan

If this is your first time out in a canoe, choose a lake or reservoir near you and plan a one or two-night trip. In still water, you won't have to worry about 'shuttling' vehicles, and if things don't work out, you can bail out quickly.

You become much more skilled on the water as soon as you start paddling anywhere with a current. A strong current will require you to know how to steer your boat, learn about ferry angles (or crossing the current), and be knowledgeable about righting a capsized boat.

To avoid becoming stranded or lost in the wilderness, using waterway maps and a compass is essential.

The importance of never traveling alone on the water cannot be overstated. Get in touch with a group of more experienced canoeists or plan a first trip with a friend or family member. Traveling safely and growing your skills require learning from others.

Don't think digitally

It is always a good idea to bring a map of the area in which you will be paddling. Wild areas often lack cell phone reception, and extreme temperatures can quickly drain batteries.

Compass and map skills are important for orienteering.

Elements to remember

Take into consideration the time of year and the natural elements you'll encounter when packing and planning your trip. When it comes to water travel, wind is a huge factor. Paddlers can quickly become exhausted if there is even a slight breeze, resulting in longer days and chilly temperatures.

A second concern is sun exposure, so make sure to check the packing list below and prepare for hours without shade. Always have water purification on hand during warm or hot weather trips. Lastly, be prepared for bugs. There will always be bugs where there is water.

Make sure the boat is balanced (keep it light)

Make sure your gear is balanced both aft and stern and on both sides of your canoe on your next camping trip. Having a poorly balanced canoe increases the likelihood of it tipping over and making it difficult to steer. Avoid weighing down the boat in the water by keeping your gear simple and light. It is easy to swamp a boat that is low in the water.

Put your paddle to the test

Take your canoe out for several days of flatwater paddling before you load it up for the trip. If you have a partner, practice front and back paddling positions together while learning to steer effectively on both sides. Many people assume that they are safe because they took a canoeing class at summer camp when they were 12.

Water is always a serious matter

Camping in a canoe requires this tip. An outdoor weekend camping trip on a river or lake can be dangerous if you are not prepared. Keep sober on the water, wear a life jacket, and don't take unnecessary risks. Stay safe by knowing where you are going and sticking to your plan.

Camping gear list for canoes

Packing for a canoe camping trip is very similar to packing for a backpacking or (basic) car camping trip. Here is the one biggest difference before we get to the checklist.

You need to keep all your gear dry to have a successful canoe camping trip, whether it's raining or if you flip the canoe. Canoeists have used 'wannigans' for many years to protect their gear from the elements. Wannigans are watertight containers, often wooden, that fit snugly inside the bows of canoes. It's more than just a fun word to say. Over the past few decades, the water-proof barrel with trump strap has become the standard.

The good news is that modern drybags, such as those made by NRS or Watershed, are lighter, tighter, and more versatile than ever before. A camping kit without one is incomplete. They can be expensive, but they're indispensable. In case you don't have room inside your tent, you can roll them tight and leave them outside. If you decide to portage them, their soft sides make them easy to mold to any shape.

Water-travel requires the following gear, in addition to a water-proof container:

  • Life-jacket
  • Throw-bag
  • Flotation devices (depending on state regulations)
  • An extra paddle is needed
  • Map
  • (Personal preference) Paddle gloves
  • Seat pad
  • Boat shoes/sandals
  • Plenty of sunscreen

The following camping gear is recommended for canoe camping:

  • Tent
  • Sleeping bag/sleeping pad
  • First aid kit
  • Headlamp/lantern
  • Stove/cookware
  • Personal mess kit/utensils
  • Water storage/purifier
  • Meals/snacks

Gear you need for yourself: 

  • Raincoat/pants
  • Baselayer
  • Mid-layer insulation
  • Puffy (if applicable)
  • Beanie
  • Gloves
  • Dry camp shoes

What to Look for When Choosing a Canoe

How many people do you need?

Each of the categories explained below offers either a single or double seated canoe. You should almost always choose a double if you have a dedicated adventure partner, children, or a dog. In addition to being unwieldy to maneuver alone, doubles allow you to bring more gear with you. Storage and transport can be more difficult with the added length.

The single canoe is for the light-weight, fast canoeist who doesn't mind going alone. In addition to being highly maneuverable, single canoes do not have a great deal of room for gear. As well as being more affordable, they tend to be easier to drive to the put-in.

Canoes with an open deck

There's a reason the traditional, open-deck canoe is a classic. These canoes are affordable, versatile, and durable, making them perfect for slow-paced rivers and lakes. Despite what Disney's Pocahontas taught us, these models aren't meant to crash through the rapids. Without large trucks or trailers, transport can be challenging, but YouTube is full of nifty solutions.

Various materials, such as wood, poly, and fiberglass, are available in this category. Depending on the material you choose, you will have to consider weight, cost, and durability. Others may opt for a square-sterned motor-mount for an easy return upstream. Check that you aren't on a stretch of water that is not motorized if you plan to use a motor.

Canoes with closed decks

The closed-deck canoe is a favorite of die-hard canoeists because it keeps the traditional one-blade paddle, as well as the crouched position, allowing the paddler to travel through more exciting waters. In closed-deck canoes, the bow and stern storage areas are covered, leaving room only for the paddler(s).

With one of these, one can access rivers that would quickly overwhelm the basic model when canoe camping with one of these. If you love canoeing, the investment will be worth it regardless of the cost.

IKs, or inflatable kayaks, are also known as duckies

These beauties are a favorite of western river runners, and bumping the occasional rock won't ruin the fun. IKs use a double-bladed paddle like kayaks, and may be made of poly-urethene (hypalon) or PVC. The lack of a draft makes them suitable for shallow, rocky water, but makes them difficult to paddle efficiently on flat water to cover multiple miles.

Transport may be the biggest draw. The inflatable kits deflate quickly and roll up small enough to be transported in a Honda Civic.