How To Launch a Camping Trip From Your Canoe or Kayak

Photo: Aaron Black-Schmidt/Tandemstock

Camping from a canoe or a kayak is just as simple and gratifying of an escape as it is from a backpack—only better, because water carries all the weight of your gear.

But there are a few keys to camping out of a boat, from planning your trip to packing gear and keeping it dry. Following are a few pointers to launch your overnight paddling adventure and get the most out of this memorable (and efficient) way to access wild, waterside campsites.

Guided vs. Private

First, decide whether you’ll need a guide or not. If you’ve never camped out of a paddlecraft before, consider joining a commercial trip to learn the ropes. A guided trip typically takes care of all logistics, including: route knowledge; paddling gear; camping equipment; meal planning, packing and preparation; safety procedures; and transportation. (Hint: Make sure to tip your guide.) The downside, of course, is the cost for these often expensive outings.

Going on your own (private) trip adds a level of responsibility, requiring everything from route knowledge and sound judgment to solid paddling and camping skills. Other factors include your group’s skill level and physical abilities, the weather and route conditions for that time of year, and how that impacts the trip’s difficulty. (Will high flows create any whitewater? Will tidal shifts cause problems with access or currents?). Hint: Research your route and always check the forecast beforehand. 


Leading your own trip involves everything from choosing your route and figuring out how long it will take to selecting partners, organizing gear, food and safety equipment, and ensuring you have the necessary permits and reservations if needed. Note: Paddling a loaded boat is heavier than an empty one, so plan your itinerary accordingly. Depending on your ability and fitness, mileage per day on a lake or in calm ocean waters can range from a few miles up to 15 to 20 miles on big days. Hint: Plan your route to avoid big crossings, which can be dangerous if conditions change.


Your trip and dates will determine what type of camping gear and clothing you’ll need. In addition to the necessary paddling equipment and a U.S. Coast Guard-approved Type III PFD, you’ll need overnight basics like sleeping bags, pads and tents, plus cookware, food and outerwear. The good news: Canoes and sea kayaks can usually fit it all. (Hint: See if it all fits at home first.) Make a detailed checklist of everything you need, from rainwear to a first aid kit, and triple-check it before leaving. Include a tarp for the kitchen area if it rains. When it comes to loading, split up community gear into different boats. 

Dry bags sit next to a kayak Photo: Georgy Dzyura

Dry Bags/Waterproof Boxes

Unlike backpacking, you’ll need dry bags to keep your gear dry. Make sure not to overfill them, and that they’re properly fastened (most have a roll-top or zip closure system). Go with an assortment of sizes also, with bigger ones for bulky gear like sleeping bags and tents, and smaller bags for day-paddling items that need to be kept close. Hint: For sea kayaks, go with smaller dry bags in the 15- to 45-liter range to fit inside small hatches. In canoes, larger dry bags fit well, as well as waterproof barrels or boxes (often called wanigans). Hint: Make sure your dry bags have shoulder straps if you have any portages.  


Canoes and kayaks can take you to some of the most beautiful campsites on the planet. If possible, plan your route so you know where you’re camping ahead of time and the distance involved (check with outfitters, liveries and other experts in the area for advice). Research if you need to pay a fee, make reservations or if the camps are first-come first-served, and what’s included at the camp, from picnic tables and fire pits to outhouses. If there aren’t outhouses, plan to follow Leave No Trace principles accordingly—bringing WAG Bags or digging catholes. Also, know ahead of time if campfires are allowed and if you need to bring a cooking stove. If you’re choosing a campsite on the fly, look for ones that are flat, protected and relatively close to shore. If sea kayaking, make sure it’s well above the high tide line. Most importantly, pull your boats up high and secure them to a solid anchor.


Your trip’s length will determine what kind of food you bring, from freeze-dried to fresh. Canoeists often bring coolers (hard or soft) that fit between the gunwales for frozen foods, meat, produce and dairy. Longer trips might mean bringing more dehydrated-type foods. Hint: If bringing a cooler, freeze everything you can that’s appropriate (meats, sauces, etc.). Sea kayakers working with a less storage space usually operate more like backpackers: relying more on noodle-, rice-, and grain-based dishes; canned food also works well. Your food selection will also determine what kind of cookware, stove and utensils you need (Hint: Use pots and pans that nest into one another to save space). No matter the craft, bring plenty of high-energy snacks along as well and keep them handy during the day while you’re paddling.  

Safe Launch

Make sure to leave a copy of your planned route and itinerary with family or a loved one, and pack a communication device to keep you covered for contingencies. Don’t overcommit to extended mileage on your first outing, so you have plenty of flexibility in setting up your campsite. And consider launching with a paddling partner (vs. a solo outing) so you have backup if needed. Keep your rigged load low (in general, with heavier items closer to you and lighter items toward bow and stern) and centered from side-to-side to keep your boat stable and balanced. With your boat trimmed well (i.e., balanced from bow to stern), and any kayak decks uncluttered (so not top-heavy or overloaded), set off and start paddling for camp. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.