red tandem canoe with a wooden paddles and a dry bag on a lake shore

How To Load a Canoe

Whether you’re paddling solo or tandem, canoes are proven crafts for efficiently carrying gear.

Most canoes have room in the bow, stern and midsection for packs, dry bags, small coolers, kitchen boxes (wannigans) and more. But whether you’re heading out for a simple day-trip on your local meandering river, or a multi-day foray into the Boundary Waters, packing canoes correctly takes some TLC for the best time out on the water. Following are a few pointers to help you load and launch with ease.  

Day Trips vs Multi-Day Trips

For simple canoeing day-trips, you likely won’t have much gear. Pack what you do have within easy access while you’re paddling, including utilizing any rigging in front of your cockpit for items like water bottles and binoculars. Other gear can be kept handy in PFD pockets, pouches on a spray deck (if applicable), between your legs and behind your seat. If you’re heading out on a multi-day trip, loading your boat correctly becomes even more important, affecting everything from balance and trim to access and organization.  

Trial Run

If possible, test-pack your canoe beforehand to ensure all your gear fits. Not only will this help you determine what you might have forgotten (or what needs fixing), but it will help you see if it all fits. Also, pack your gear into the containers and bags you’ll be using to make sure it all fits. (Hint: Keep like items together, with designated bags for cookware, food, clothes, etc.) Remember that if your trip involves portaging, you’ll have to carry everything, so get rid of any gear that’s not absolutely necessary.  


Pack heavier items like food and water near the midsection—in front of the stern paddler and behind the bow paddler—and as low in the canoe as possible. Place medium-heavy items on top of the heavier gear, and pack lighter items (i.e. sleeping bags, clothing, etc.) toward the ends. Keep your gear as low as possible (below the gunwales) to maintain a low center of gravity and so it doesn’t catch the wind; and centered from side-to-side to keep your canoe stable and balanced. Also, make sure your boat is trimmed correctly (balanced from bow to stern) for the best performance; if you find yourself doing a wheelie, adjust more weight toward the bow. To check your trim before setting out, see which way water flows in the bottom of the canoe. 

Dry Bags/Waterproof Containers

Keep everything that needs to stay dry in a dry bag, wrapping important items like sleeping bags in a plastic bag for additional protection. Most dry bags are made from lightweight nylon or poly-based fabric with a rubberized waterproof coating, and fasten via a zip or roll-down closure. Hint: Color code or label them for organization. Many canoeists also like tough and abrasion-resistant Duluth-style canoe bags, which are often made from treated canvas; while not waterproof (line the contents with trash bags), they fit well inside canoes and are designed for easy carrying on portage trails. Tip: If you’re using a regular backpack, line it with a heavy-duty plastic bag beforehand. A variety of hard-shell waterproof containers also work well for canoeing, available in an array of sizes, materials and shapes. Many are made from plastic with rubberized seals on the lid to keep water out. These are good for packing fragile items like lanterns and stoves, as well as cookware and even food. 

Securing Gear

Secure your gear by tying either short lines or straps from your gear to the thwarts, or use one long line. In the rare chance you flip, this will make it easier to collect. In rapids or other waves, such tie-downs will also protect your gear from falling out while also providing extra flotation. Hint: Use cam straps, quick-release knots or bungee cords to make it easy to remove for portaging, emergencies and arriving at camp.  


Keep items that you need handy within easy reach while you’re paddling (i.e. water, snacks, sunscreen, bug repellant). Good spots include the pockets on your PFD and the space immediately in front of you and by your hips. Also, know where such items as your lunch and extra clothing are for when you need them, as well as safety essentials like your first aid kit, spare paddle, paddle float, bilge pump, signaling/communication devices plus navigation equipment and maps. 

More Tips

Keep those maps, compasses, permits, guidebooks, GPS units and other important electronics stored in a waterproof case or bag (see-through bags work great for maps). Load your spare paddle so it's within easy reach, with easy access via such tie-down options as Velcro straps, bungee cord/elastic bands, cam straps or rope with quick-release knots. 

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.