Everything You Need to Know to Start Canoe Camping


Have you ever dreamed of grabbing your paddle, canoe and all your backpacking gear and visiting unexplored coves, islands and rapids? Canoe camping gives you access to places most of us will never get to explore. Here’s everything you need to start canoe camping this summer.

How Do You Start Canoe Camping?

It really isn’t that hard to get into canoe camping. All you need is a canoe, paddles and whole lot of dry bags. Honestly, you don’t really need much extra gear if you already go backpacking and car camping. The hardest part is planning your route and finding gentle streams to go down.

Planning out Your Canoe Camping Route

Planning out your route is by far the hardest aspect of canoe camping. In a gentle current most people can paddle about 8-15 miles per day. It all depends on how strong the current is.

Just remember that if you’re paddling into the wind it’s going to slow down your pace. If you’re new to canoeing pick a route that has a bunch of places to setup camp.

Map Everything Out

Finding a river and just going for the day might sound like a great idea, but you’re asking for trouble. You need to figure out your route ahead of time marking all the portages and campsites along the way.

It’s hard to figure out exactly how far you can go in a day so find a backup campsite a few miles back from your main destination. Make all your reservations a few weeks in advance and get all your required permits.

Water Levels Can Quickly Change

Water levels will change for a wide variety of reasons. Over the course of a month rainfall or lack thereof can make a river drop/rise a couple feet. Before heading out onto the river make sure it’s safe and the water is deep enough.

Nobody wants to drag their canoe loaded with gear through miles of muddy creek bed. Try to talk to local forest rangers to make sure the route is passable and you won’t have unexpected rapids along the way.

Getting to The Canoe Launch

Are you able to drive up to the launch location or will you need a shuttle? Do you have the right type of vehicle for navigating backcountry roads. Nobody wants to get stranded miles down a rarely driven dirt road(make sure you bring a spare tire).

Most people hire a transport service to drop them off at the launch location, leaving their vehicle at the other end of the river. These are the types of things you need to plan out before your trip.

Balance Out Your Boat

When packing up all your gear try to keep your weight close to even. Don’t pack all the heavy gear on one side of the canoe. Keep all your heavy items in the center between the main brace in the center of your boat.

Heavy items need to go where they’ll least affect your balance. Layer your lighter gear up and out from the center.

All the gear should be tucked low in the boat to keep the center of gravity below the water line. If you’re gear isn’t properly balanced the canoe won’t be stable and will continuously drift off path.

Never put heavy gear in the fore and aft(front and back) of the canoe. The first time you hit rapids the front or back will dip into the water and cause major problems.

Keep all your gear below the edge of the walls so they don’t catch wind and tie everything down with quick release knots. I always bring a bunch of carabiners, rope, cam straps and bungees to strap everything down.

Pack Light

Even though the water is carrying the load you still need to haul around all that extra gear. Steering and paddling an overloaded canoe can be difficult so try to cut out all the unnecessary junk. Plus there’s not a whole lot of room in your canoe.

You never know when you’ll have unexpected portages or run into a dry creekbed so pack light. All your clothes, sleeping gear and tent should go in dry bags and kitchen gear/food should be placed in water tight containers.

I typically just keep all my food in a bear canister(here’s how to figure out how much food you can fit in a bear canister). Some people build wooden containers to go in their canoe, but you can typically find a lightweight plastic container at Walmart for like $10.

Plan For A Capsize

If you properly plan your route you shouldn’t run into any unexpected rapids. Call around asking about the route so there’s no surprises. You never know when you’re going to capsize so plan accordingly.

Stow your essential gear in watertight dry bags(these will hold a ton of gear) and store them low in your boat. Remember that you want to have a little bit of air in the bag so they should float in a capsize.

Lash all your expensive essentials(phone, camera, gps ETC) in a small drybag securely attached to the seat. Always bring an extra paddle and a backup way to purify water.

What Should You Do if You Capsize?

Never Panic! If you’re near the shore get ahold of your paddles and swim towards shore dragging along the canoe. Out in the middle of the river you need to try to flip over the canoe without losing gear.

Swim under your canoe and push on the sides rolling it over. This is why you should never overpack. Once you’ve rolled it over tilt it side to side trying to get out most of the water.

Take turns stabilizing the canoe with your partner and climb back in. After you’ve got out most of the water paddle to shore and dump out the rest.

Stay Safe

I shouldn’t have to tell you to stay safe, but you’d be surprised how stupid some people are. Whenever you’re on the water wear a properly fitted floatation device. Modern life jackets really aren’t

You really can’t even feel a modern life jacket anymore(here’s one of my favorites). It’s like wearing a slim vest since the thing only blows up when its submerged in water.

Bring backups of all your essential gear. Keep all your maps, compass permits, route info ETC dry by storing it in ziplocks and attaching it to your seat. Make sure you bring along an extra paddle and a basic first aid kit for minor injuries. I always keep a pair of bike gloves in my bag and anti-chafing cream just in case there’s blisters.

Keep Your Map Ready

Who wants to read a map when we have phones and GPS maps! Local maps are going to offer more information about your route. Keep your map out at all times and keep an eye out for rapids.

I bought a cheap oversized laminator to keep my maps dry(this is the one I use). Print off guides to the local rapids and plan for the unexpected. If you see Class II Rapids or higher pull off to the side of the river and scout ahead.

You need to know where all the obstacles are and plan for the unknown. It’s going to be hard to maneuver a loaded canoe so plan ahead so you can react early.

On especially challenging routes you might want to stow your gear on shore and run the route dry. Come back for your gear once your through. It all depends on how comfortable you are in a canoe.

Practice Paddling With Your Partner

Before heading into rough water make sure you have a good grasp on basic paddling techniques. Sit up comfortably and paddle on the opposite side of your partner.

The front works as the motor while the back steers. In rapids the front paddler needs to be able to make fast adjustments to avoid obstacles.

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