The Complete Beginners Guide to Canoe Camping

There’s something to be said for drifting away on the water for a while. Sure, backpacking is pretty cool, but it’s a lot of work. You have to carry everything you have on your back.

With canoe camping, it is easier to pack. It’s also more family friendly due to the easygoing nature of fitting a kid or a dog into a canoe. In this article, I’m going to share with you how to plan a canoe camping trip. I’ll go over just about everything, which you can see in the table of contents below.

I have led three canoe trips, in addition to going on a canoe expedition in the Adirondacks of New York. Those trips inspired me to get my American Canoe Association certification, meaning I am certified to teach flatwater canoeing. That course changed my life.

Now I truly believe that canoe camping is the most relaxing form of backcountry travel there is.

It’s important to note that this won’t be about whitewater canoeing. Instead I’ll be teaching you all about flat water canoeing. Essentially you will be looking for rivers or lakes without rapids. This creates an even safer environment for your first canoe camping trip.

Let’s get to it!

How To Get Started With Canoe Camping

  1. Trip Goals
  2. Guided vs. Unguided
  3. Choosing a Trip Location
  4. How to Canoe Camp Abroad
  5. Length of Trip
  6. How Fitness Affects Canoeing
  7. What a Portage Is
  8. How To Portage
  9. Water Sources and Treatment
  10.  Shelter
  11.  Food Preparation
  12.  Safety Summary
  13.  Prevent Invasive Species

Packing List

  1. Packing Tips
  2. Canoe Camping Gear
  3. Campsite Gear
  4. Campsite Kitchen
  5. Food 
  6. Clothes
  7. Personal Gear
  8. Other Misc.

Summary and Closing Thoughts

How To Plan A Canoe Camping Trip

Trip Goals

The first step in planning a canoe camping trip is figuring out your goals. If you are going alone, your goals will differ from when you plan a trip for a group. Planning a trip for a group demands that everyone feels satisfied with the outcome of this trip.

If your motivation for this trip is purely to take it easy and relax, then the trip you plan will be mellow. You will try to shoot for a trip with minimal portaging and easy mileage. This is the ideal trip for a family.

Then again, if your motivation for this trip is to experience an expedition, it will be much longer. For example, there are historic canoe routes that have been used to travel throughout the United States for many years.

You may decide to travel for 100 miles or more on such a trip. It can still be flat water, but you will need to make sure the other members of your party are willing to be on the water from 9 am to 5 pm every day.

Taking breaks will be fine, but ultimately you will spend more time in a canoe on this kind of trip than at a campsite inland. Conversely, if you opt for the more mellow option, you will have more time to explore around your camp. You can also take time to get set up with plenty of daylight left. As long as you plan around what kind of trip everyone wants then you can go from there.

Guided trip vs. Unguided

A guided trip means you will hire professional wilderness guides to show you the way. Instead of planning the trip by yourself, you can pay them to take care of all of the various factors for you.

The benefit to this is you may feel safer. You can also ask them any questions you have about the local scenery as well as how to canoe. They will talk you through absolutely any concerns about this trip. After staying in touch with your guides, you will be able to fly to their location or drive to them if they are local. Locally guided tours are just as valuable because you can learn more about your home region.

The con to hiring a guide is you may need to be in a tour group. This can be a hit or a miss because you may love the people you meet or quite frankly get sick of them. You can hire a private guided trip but that costs extra money.

A medium to this will be choosing not to hire a guide, but instead to talk to an outfitter about the trip. For any of these trips you plan, consider calling a local outfitter to ask them questions. They will likely point you in the right direction by telling you what guidebook to purchase, the maps you’ll need, and the best time of year to plan your trip. Plus that information comes for free.

How To Choose A Canoe Camping Trip Location

After your party has decided their motivation for this trip you can start looking at places that will match that motivation.

You may decide to keep it local. I recommend this kind of trip for anyone who has never been canoe camping before. It is also a good idea to stay local if you are teaching someone how to canoe camp for the first time.

Staying local means you can probably drive to the location for your trip. As long as your car can handle a canoe you’re all set. You can borrow a canoe from a friend or even rent one from a local outfitter.

If you have a group that is experienced with flying, planning a canoe camping trip abroad is completely feasible.

How to Canoe Camp Abroad

When you decide to fly across the country to go canoeing, some things are simplified while other things seem daunting.

I remember my first time flying abroad to go backpacking. I thought to myself, does anyone actually carry a backpack through an airport? The answer is yes.

Normally when you go canoe camping you can bring way more than you bring when backpacking. When you fly out of state, you will need to bring much less. I recommend one carry on and one checked bag per canoe camper.

So, how do I bring enough? And what about the canoe?

The answer is finding an outfitter where you’re going. You can rent a canoe for however many nights you plan on camping. The same outfitter probably rents out water jugs, waterproof dry bags, coolers, camp chairs, and a variety of other amenities. This just means you will need to bring your essentials, which I will go over later in this article.

In the case that you go out of the country double check for Red Tape. Here are factors to consider:

  • Does the country have a military presence?
  • Are you allowed to access that part of the country during Covid-19?
  • Do you need any vaccinations?
  • Do you have a passport?
  • Does this area like tourists?
  • Should I hire a guide for this trip?
  • Is my language represented in this country? E.g do we share a language?

The ideal situation is to choose a popular canoe trip that plenty of other people already plan every year. Going to a tourist friendly country and renting from an outfitter you can trust will set you up for success. Make sure to read the reviews of the company before you go.

Length of Trip

Like with most camping trips, the longer you go the more you need to bring. You will also need to discuss with your group of canoeists how many miles you want to do each day.

Let’s say you see a beautiful section of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail in New England. You want to canoe for 50 miles on it. How many miles do you want to do each day? A comfortable mild day will be 10 to 15 miles. A long day will be 20 to 30 miles. You could do this trip in two to five days. Trace back to your motivation for this trip. Ask your group if they want to travel on the water all day for two days, or if they would rather take it slower so they can explore more areas on the river map.

How Fitness Affects Canoeing

Most of the time you will find canoeing is less physically demanding than backpacking or even cycling. That said, it will use a different kind of fitness.

One factor is how well you paddle. Whether you are on a lake or a river you need to dip your paddle deep enough into the water to propel yourself forward. A beginner without help from an experienced paddler may go much slower than more experienced paddlers.

A kid may paddle less than an adult because they get tired.

The fact that you are in the sun all day will make it so you need to watch out for heat exhaustion. If it’s really windy on an open lake, it will get hard at times to make any progress. You will need to paddle close to the shore so you can stay sheltered from that wind as much as possible.

When you paddle on a river I guarantee you will paddle with the current. Planning an upriver day trip doesn’t make any sense, and I promise you someone will tell you if you are going the wrong way. Going with the current will help you move. Another benefit to river paddling is that rivers can be more sheltered than open lakes. Sometimes they aren’t but that’s just something else to plan for.

By far the most physically demanding activity is portaging.

Portaging

canoe camping
Photo by Paxson Woelber

What a Portage Is

When you go canoeing in the many lakes and streams of the United States, sometimes they just don’t connect. This is naturally true for other countries as well. Unlike the open ocean where you paddle along the coast without stopping, there are obstacles inland.

Fortunately, if you examine your paddlers map you will find little trails connecting the two bodies of water. These are portage routes.

A portage, pronounced with a french accent, is a trail that connects two bodies of water. You may find a canoe trip that doesn’t have any portaging. This is one way to set yourself up for success if you don’t want to push your fitness too hard.

You can paddle a section of a lake, then end your trip before a portage starts. But where’s the fun in that? There are little ponds and streams that connect in the most remote little areas of wilderness. They might be right near a road, but the deeper you want to go the more you need to be willing to carry your canoe over a hard part.

Here’s the cool thing – you can find flatwater trips that don’t have any portages! You’ll just have to look online for them.

How to Portage

To portage, take either your bags or your canoe to the other side. Learn how to carry the canoe between two to three people. Make sure you put on close toed shoes for this because the trail can be slippery.

I personally like to have the person in the stern put their head under the boat, while the person in the bow rests the tip of the canoe on one shoulder. This is a method that enables the person in front to be the eyes while the person in back just helps carry the canoe.

After your canoe is at the end of the portage, leave it and come back for the bags.

Another method is to carry your canoe to the halfway point, turn around, and bring your bags to the halfway point. Then resume, bringing your canoe the rest of the way, then your bags.

It is for the reason that we portage you could do well by bringing condensed bags with only one cooler. A dry bag per person plus a cooler is typically manageable, making the dreaded portage easier.

Water Sources and Treatment

Something else that is wonderful about canoe camping is the easy access to water. Just make sure it’s flowing rather than stagnant.

Never, ever, ever drink water straight from the source. You first have to treat it. Here are four methods of treating water.

I recommend bringing a blue 5 gallon jug for your water. It is important to never put unfiltered water into this jug as it will contaminate the entire thing. Use these methods to ensure only purified water is in the jug.

  1. Filtration: Buy either a gravity filter, pump filter, or single person filter like a life straw. The best one for canoeing in a group is the gravity filter. You fill a bag with water that has a filter built into the bottom, then hang it from a tree. Ideally, when you pour water into the filter, place a bandana over the top. This way the filter will be less likely to get clogged. Gravity causes the water to be filtered down through a straw rapidly, into the water jug that you bring with you.
  2. Boiling: Bring water to a boil over a stove. Once it reaches a rolling boil it will be completely sterilized. This is highly convenient for making pasta or other meals that need to be boiled. Just make sure you bring enough fuel for your stove.
  3. Chemicals: Iodine should be used with caution. Don’t drink water with iodine every day – otherwise you could get sick. In a pinch you can treat a water bottle with iodine pills. There are other chemicals available such as Aquamira. Then, if you are on a budget, bleach works well. Be very careful not to overuse it. Pour bleach into an eyedropper. Then add two drops of bleach for one liter of water. Let it sit for 20 minutes before drinking.
  4. SteriPen: A steri pen uses light to kill all bacteria in water. This is a good investment for the solo traveler because it treats one liter of water at a time.

Shelter

Some canoe trips have lean-to shelters at their campsites. This means you will have the option not to bring a tent. However, tents offer privacy. You may decide to bring one even with the presence of a shelter.

For every trip, bring tents that fit the needs of your group. I recommend buying anything from a one to three person tent. Four person tents are often bulky and heavy. It’s easier to bring more than one smaller tent because it is easier to store them.

Plan on bringing at least one tarp for an outdoor kitchen. If it rains, you can set up the tarp above a picnic table. Add some fairy lights to make it cozy.

Food Preparation

Count out how many meals you will need for your trip in terms of breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, desert, and drink mix.

After you go grocery shopping, repackage all of your food into plastic bags. This will reduce how much trash you need to carry out after the trip.

Unlike backpacking, you can bring a cooler for perishables. Throw in some fruits and vegetables to make every meal more healthy. My favorites are sweet potato, kale, broccoli, bell pepper, and onion. I also like oranges because they last awhile and are easy to carry.

I don’t recommend drinking any alcohol while on the water. It causes rapid dehydration which can expedite heat exhaustion, a condition that will require evacuation. Save the tasty beverages for camp, and please pack out the bottles and cans.

Canoe Camping Safety Summary

  1. Don’t drink alcohol while canoeing because it can lead to rapid dehydration.
  2. Wear sun protection at all times. This can include a sun shirt, light nylon pants, sunscreen, sun glasses, and a visor.
  3. Drink at least 3 Liters of water or one gallon per day to stay hydrated and prevent heat exhaustion.
  4. Take lunch in a shaded location for a reprieve from the sun.
  5. Be careful during high winds. It can be exhausting to paddle in them, so stay close to shore.
  6. If high winds cause white caps on the water, get off the water to rest. White caps are waves that are tall enough to crest at the top.
  7. In case of thunder, immediately land on shore. It is the law that any private landowner must allow you to land on their property in case of thunder/lightning.
  8. Know the weather before you go on your trip. Write it down in a notebook to keep with you.
  9. Leave your detailed itinerary with a trusted contact before you go. This should include where you are going and when you can be expected back.
  10.  Bring a first aid kit. Know how to treat basic cuts, scrapes, burns, stings, and allergic reactions.
  11. Wear a Personal Flotation Device (PFD) at all times on the water. This is often called a life vest. That isn’t technically accurate because a flotation device is not guaranteed to save your life. It is only designed to help you float, greatly increasing the likelihood that it will save your life. Make sure the PFD is nice and snug. Tug it up – if it rises above your chin or head then it’s too loose or too big.
  12.  Bring a throw bag and know how to use it in case of a rescue situation.
  13.  Bring a spare paddle for every canoe in case one gets lost.

Prevent Invasive Species

You may have heard of Leave No Trace (LNT). LNT is a list of guidelines that help us to leave every area better than we found it. When you arrive at your canoe campsite, if it looks like nobody has been there, that’s because they practiced LNT.

For canoeing specifically, something you need to do is prevent the spread of invasive species. Invasive species are highly aggressive plants that will pollute the water where you paddle.

For example, eurasian water milfoil clings to motor boat engines. Where they fall off, they grow exponentially, clogging the lake or stream.

To prevent invasive species, clean, drain and dry your boat twice.

Clean, drain, and dry your boat before you put it into the water and when you take it out. Trust me, some of these invasives are horrible. Do your part to protect the beautiful water sources that you plan on exploring.

You can sometimes find a boat cleaning station at local boat launches. Take advantage of these when you can.

To learn what else you need to do for Leave No Trace, visit their website. They have a great blog which covers things like how to LNT your campground and how to poop in the woods.

Packing List For Canoe Camping Trip

In this section I will cover exactly what you need to bring to set yourself up for success.

Packing Tips

  1. Don’t bring too much.
  2. Don’t forget the first aid kit, your sandals, a group tarp for an outdoor kitchen, water filtration, and the rain gear.
  3. Group gear is equipment for the whole group, such as kitchen materials. Adjust how much group gear you bring based on how many people are coming with you.
  4. Carry all gear in dry bags or waterproof blue barrels to waterproof everything.
  5. You can waterproof your camera with a camera case, such as Pelican brand.
  6. Consider storing your first aid kit in a red colored dry bag.
  7. Water collects in the bottom of the canoe, too. Be aware of it.
  8. Do a practice portage around your neighborhood. Unpack and repack the gear into a canoe. When you find you have too much stuff, leave it at home.

Canoe Camping Gear

  • Pfd – Personal Flotation Device / Life jacket
  • 2 Paddles per canoe
  • Throw bag
  • Crazy creek camp chair or foam pad to kneel on while canoeing
  • Water jug, 5 gal

Campsite Gear

  • Camping Tent
  • Ground sheet
  • Tarp for outdoor kitchen
  • Sleeping bag, waterproof stuff sack with a trash bag
  • Sleeping pad per person
  • Day pack
  • Camping Waterproof bag for all electronics – phone, camera, etc.
  • Map/Compass/GPS just in case
  • Guide book if applicable
  • First aid kit, waterproof container
  • Knife
  • Water purification – filter, chemicals, boiling
  • Poop kit: Toilet paper and trowel in plastic bag, hand sanitizer, bio soap

Campsite Kitchen

  • Lighter/matches
  • Mess kit – like one large mug with metal spork per person
  • Fry pan/spatula
  • Leather gloves – grab your cooking pots or adjust the fire with it. Good for cooking over an open flame.
  • Stove
  • Windscreen
  • Fuel bottle
  • Measuring cup
  • Stove – either a Coleman 2 burner (suitcase) stove, or a single burner camping stove.
  • Dishwashing – use biodegradable soap at least 200 feet from the water so it doesn’t pollute. Bring metal scrubby and pot scraper too.

Food

  • Backpacking Food
  • Cooler with perishables

Clothes

  • Sun shirt
  • Visor
  • Long pants, lightweight like nylons
  • Fleece jacket or wool shirt
  • Sandals/Crocs for canoeing
  • Close toed shoes for portaging – hiking boots that can handle slippery rocky trail
  • Stuff sack for clothes
  • Pajamas – throw into the bottom of your sleeping bag for the end of the day!
  • Stuff sack for dirty clothes. (Unless you only wear one outfit)

Misc. Personal Gear

  • Toothbrush, toothpaste, bio soap
  • Sun screen
  • Bug spray
  • Headlamp and extra batteries
  • Duct tape – store on a sharpie pen or nalgene water bottle in case of emergency
  • Spare rope – extra paracord for tarp etc
  • Identification with medical info
  • Different colored stuff sacks to organize gear

Other misc:

  • Book, journal, pens, cards
  • Headlamp and batteries
  • Bug net
  • Face wipes (I have a lot of tips for staying clean and fresh while camping)
  • Compressible or blow-up pillow
  • Hat and/or gloves if it’ll be cold
  • Camera

Summary and Closing Thoughts

Canoeing is about exploration, taking it slow, and getting the whole family outdoors. You wouldn’t believe how many people take their families canoe camping every year, even with young kids!

Just make sure you set yourself up for success by remembering how to be safe. Always tell a trusted contact where you are going and when they can expect you back. Bring the essentials, especially rain gear, because you never know how the weather will change at your camping destination.

Not only is it important to watch the weather, but try your best to only canoe within your fitness level. Factors such as wind, rain, and sun will impact how far you go every day. Remember, canoeing is supposed to be chill. Take it easy and try only 10 to 15 miles per day.

The more you practice canoe camping the easier it will become. Remember, you can bring more than you would normally take backpacking.

If you feel really uncomfortable sleeping on a foam pad or sitting in the canoe, simple adjustments can make the difference. Bring an inflatable sleeping pad for at night, and use the foam pad to kneel on while you paddle.

Whether you are canoe camping solo or canoeing with a family, this adventure will make many memories for the years to come. You will be able to access some of the most beautiful places in the world.

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