What Is Canoe Camping and Why Would I Want To Go?

Canoe camping with lots of gear

The term “Canoe Camping” may be fairly new, but it’s one of the oldest forms of travel known to man. People have been camping out of their canoes for centuries, but canoe camping is going through a major surge in popularity over the past couple decades. More people are getting into the wilderness and bringing back one of Americas oldest traditions.

So let’s get down to the basics: What is Canoe Camping? Canoe camping combines the traditional backpacking or camping hobby with the recreational sport of canoeing. Instead of hiking with all your gear loaded in your pack everything gets strapped down and loaded into a canoe. Load all your gear into dry bags or canoe barrels, navigate down the river, and setup camp along the way.

Canoe camping combines all the fun of backpacking and camping with the leisurely act of paddling down the river. There’s less worry about trail weight since you won’t be hiking for miles with a heavy pack strapped to your back and it’s accessible to people of all ages and most physical fitness levels.

You might want to check out my ultimate guide to canoe camping if you need help planning your route, picking out gear, shuttling to the launch/take-out points, and almost every other aspect of canoe camping. It’s a massive guide where I go over everything you need to start canoe camping so it’s definitely worth a read.

What Is Canoe Camping?

Canoe camping is a canoe lovers answer to backpacking. It’s a combination of two common outdoor activities: backpacking/camping and canoeing. The idea behind canoe camping is simple! You go canoeing down a river, enjoying nature as you go along and find somewhere to set up camp along the way.

All the joys of camping come together with your love of canoeing down a river. You get the challenge and self-sufficiency aspect of camping with a scenic jaunt down the river. It’s one of the most enjoyable ways to experience nature and you’re not limited by what you can carry in your pack. It’s the camping trip of a lifetime!

How do you camp from the back of a canoe? You don’t actually camp from the back of your canoe. The canoe is used to carry all your gear from one camp site to the next. Slowly make your way down the river at about 3mph and once you reach your predetermined destination you pull your canoe to the side and pick a camp site.

Setup camp like you would on any other backpacking or camping trip. Pitch your tent, cook some dinner, filter water from the river, relax for a while, and then head back to bed. Pack up your gear in the morning and keep heading down the river.

A Brief History Of Canoe Camping

Native American Indian In a canoe

Canoe camping is one of the oldest forms of travel and exploration. It can be dated back to the early Native tribes that would fashion up their canoes with food, shelter, clothing, and everything they need to move across the landscape via navigable waterways traveling across wide ranging territories.

They would fish, forage, and visit other tribal communities where they could have never gone on foot. A canoe loaded with gear can only go 3mph, but they wouldn’t have been able to carry everything they need on foot. They built their communities around natural waterways, and could travel across the entire country from the back of a canoe.

In the early stages of America, fur trappers and explorers followed the same waterways that once belonged to the Native American Indians. They could haul pelts and supplies across unchartered territory where it would be almost impossible to travel on horseback or by foot.

Modern canoes might look different than the burned out trees the Native Americans mad into canoes, but they serve the same basic function. They’re still the right craft to explore beautiful wilderness that few men have traveled before.

Who Can Go Canoe Camping?

Unlike traditional backpacking, almost anybody can go canoe camping. It’s the perfect alternative for people that aren’t capable of hiking a traditional backpacking route, but still want to experience the thrill of navigating through the wilderness and setting up camp out in the wild away from modern campgrounds.

Almost anybody can go canoe camping! It’s extremely popular among families with young kids and older people that can’t handle the mileage of traditional backpacking trips. You don’t have to be physically fit to paddle down a river or across a gentle lake or reservoir.

Let the current push you along the river, paddling at your own pace. Most experienced canoers can maintain a 3mph pace, but you don’t have to be an athlete to keep to move along at 2mph. Beginners and older people should plan their route to avoid portages where you have to carry the boat/gear on land and keep a pace that suits your skill level.

I recommend keeping your route short if you’re a beginner or just getting back into the hobby. Limit your time on the water to 4-5 hours per day or 8-10 miles, and keep trips 1-3 days long. This gives you more time to relax at camp and you can always increase your travel time as you get stronger and gain experience on the water.

Canoe Camping Is Great For Families

Family With young kids on a canoe

Canoe camping is extremely popular with families that have young children. I would wait until your kids are old enough to enter kindergarten or about 6 years old. I’ve been with people that decided to take their toddlers and preschool aged children with them and the parents were scared to death the entire trip.

They were worried about toddlers falling in the water and preschoolers don’t have the attention span required to sit in a boat for hours at a time. It’s fun for the first 30 minutes, but watching mom and dad paddle gets old fast. They also need to be watched at all times, while you’re in camp and that’s not fun for anybody.

With young children, I recommend camping at a campground and going out on a rental canoe for an hour or two. The kids get a similar experience to canoe camping without needing to stay engaged longer than their attention span allows.

Once a child is in kindergarten (5-11 years old), their attention spans stretch out to a usable length making it the perfect age for their first canoe trip. You should still keep your time on the water limited to less than 4 hours, and take lots of fun play breaks along the way.

After a child reaches middle school (11-17 years old) they have the mental stamina and physical ability to go on longer adult canoe trips. There are millions of boy scouts in this age range that go on successful canoe trips every year. You have to temper travel plans based on the the child’s age, but most of them can handle whatever you throw at them.

Teenagers can handle more physical challenges than most adults, but they don’t have the experience to make smart safety judgements. That can put them in dangerous situations so make sure there’s always a trusted adult present.

Canoe Camping Is More Exciting For Younger Kids

Personally, I think canoe camping is way more fun than traditional camping or backpacking for children in the 5-11 year old range. Kids seem to love canoeing since it’s more engaging than regular camping or backpacking. Paddling down a gentle river gives you a constantly changing environment, and there’s always something new and exciting to do.

You’re paddling down the river for a few hours in the morning and then setting up camp in the evening. There’s so many fun activities to keep young kids engaged. Pull off to the riverbank to cook lunch, stop for a quick swim, bring a fishing pole to toss out a line, catch frogs along the river bank, and give your kids a chance to explore the shoreline throughout the day.

Keep your time on the water short to keep kids engaged and try not to spend more than 4-5 hours on the water. I recommend finding a place every 8-10 miles to setup camp. That gives you plenty of time to setup camp, purify/filter water, make dinner, build a campfire, and your kids will have time to play and explore the surrounding area.

Just make sure you designate one parent to watch the children while the other finishes camp chores. Alternate the chores and try to keep children excited about setting up camp. Young kids probably won’t be able to setup a tent on their own, but they can help gather tent poles, driving in stakes, and set up sleeping pads/bags. Try to explain what you’re doing and give them a chance to help so they feel like they’re part of the process.

Once you’ve setup camp it’s time to gather firewood, build a fire, and cook kid friendly dinners. Macaroni and cheese over the fire, hot dogs on a stick over the fire, campfire sandwiches (aka hobo pies), tin foil dinners, and smores are always a hit with young children.

Tips For Canoe Camping

If you’re brand new to canoe camping, I’m sure you have a lot of questions. Everybodies confused at first, but I promise it will get easier once you[‘ve gone on a trip or two. Here are a few tips to make sure you have a successful canoe camping trip. You should definitely check out my detailed guide to canoe camping that will go over each of these topics in depth instead of going over a brief summary.

1) How To Plan A Canoe Camping Trip

Canoe camping for the first time can be a challenge, but most of the work is done in the planning stage. Planning a canoe camping trip is harder than most other family vacations. You can’t just pick out a destination, make reservations, and improvise once you get there. I guess you could, but I doubt you’d be successful.

You have to plan everything out before you ever step foot on the canoe. I recommend starting out by picking a popular river, lake or reservoir close to home. Most popular tourist spots will have outfitters that rent canoes, paddles, and life jackets.

They should also be able to help walk you through the surrounding area since you will have to make camping reservations or purchase a camping permit to camp on public land. Figure out a route that doesn’t have any major portages (more than 200 yards) where you would have to carry the canoe from one area to the next and then settle up your camping arrangements.

Beginners should plan on canoeing for 4-5 hours per day at a 2mph pace going 8-10 miles per day. Experienced canoers can maintain a 3mph pace, but most people overestimate their paddling speed.

Start off with an easy trip close to home and consider going on a beginner loop or around a lake where you won’t have to worry about shuttling back to the launch (aka put-in) after the trip. Most canoe rental outfitters offer a shuttle service from campgrounds, so you can go that route, but it will add another step to the planning process.

2) Go To A Popular Park Close To Home

It’s always better to start off on a short trip at a popular park close to home. I recommend going to a lake or reservoir within 2 hours of home for your first canoe camping trip. That makes setting up travel arrangements easier since you won’t have to fly and you won’t have to deal with a shuttle since you can start and end the trip at your canoe launch.

Calm lakes are great places to learn how to paddle and deal with a capsized canoe, but try to avoid areas with heavy boat activity. Power boats can create large wakes that will throw around a canoe. That’s not a big deal with experience, but it can be dangerous if you don’t know how to deal with capsizes. That’s why you should always canoe with a partner until you feel comfortable in the water.

Going to a lake for your first trip will let you set up your camp early in the day and give you more time on the water to practice. Just leave your tent set up, go out for a few hours in the morning, head back for lunch, and then go back out if you’re feeling up to it.

Paddling fatigues muscles that you’re not used to using so you’ll probably be sore and ready to call it a day after a few hours on the water. You can hang out around camp swimming, fishing, and reading a book if you’re still sore the next day. You’re probably excited to finally go canoeing, but try not to overdo it.

3) Rent Your First Canoe Instead Of Buying

If you’re new to canoe camping, I highly recommend renting your first canoe instead of buying one since canoes are ridiculously expensive! You’ll be spending over $1,000 for a cheap camping canoe and up to $5,000 for a canoe that you would get from a rental company. Canoe rentals usually cost $40-$50 per day and they throw in the paddles and life jackets for free.

Starting out with a cheap canoe will ruin the experience for you. They use cheap uncomfortable seats and they’re usually unstable. If you’re set on purchasing a canoe I recommend asking canoe rental companies if they sell their used canoes at the end of the season. You can usually get a canoe that would cost $4000-$5000 for about $1500 if you go that route, but I wouldn’t buy a canoe until you’ve tried a few rentals and get an idea of what you like.

There are 100s of different styles to choose from and they all handle a little bit differently. You have different lengths, beam widths, depths, bottom hull profiles (flat, round, arched, Vee’s, Keels, etc.), profiles (flared, Tumblehome, Straight side), Rockers (heavy, moderate, straight), Entry Lines (sharp, blunt), stems (square, rounded), fullness(more or less capacity), and symmetry (symmetrical vs asymmetrical).

And then you have to figure out if you’d like a tandem or solo canoe. You can’t get a feel for what you like without trying a few different styles. That’s why it’s so much better to rent a few times, before dropping serious money on a canoe.

4) Picking Out Canoe Camping Gear

Canoe camping isn’t a cheap hobby! You need all of the regular gear that you would normally take backpacking and then a canoe, paddles, life jacket, and dry bags or canoe barrels to keep everything dry. Most people carry well over $3000 worth of their own gear when they go canoe camping.

The nice thing is you don’t have to buy the lightest gear since you don’t have to worry about trail weight in your pack. So you can skimp in certain areas to keep costs down, but you still need a regular camping/backpacking setup plus all the canoe specific gear. Beginners should slowly build up their camping gear list and then go canoeing once they have most of the necessary gear.

You should definitely check out my printable 3 Day canoe camping gear checklist. It should have almost everything you need for a 3 day canoe camping trip. There’s also lines for you to write in anything that I forgot.

5) Balance Out The Canoe and Pack Light

When you’re packing your canoe focus on minimizing the load and try to balance all of your gear with heavy items in the center and lighter gear up around the edges. You can carry more than you usually would on a backpacking trip, but packing light will keep the canoe up out of the water making paddling/turning easier. Plus there will be less to carry when you face portages and need to carry everything by hand.

Heavy items need to go where they’ll have the least affect on the boats balance. That means in the center of the boat tucked deep and tied down with quick release knots and carabiners. Lighter gear can go up on top and along the edges since it won’t have as big of an affect on balance.

Balancing your load isn’t all that difficult, but an unbalanced boat can be harder to maneuver. You’ll sit deeper in the water and drift off to one side due to uneven paddle strokes. This isn’t a huge deal on calm water, but the head/back of your boat can dip into water if you’re dealing with rapids.

6) Practice Paddling and Dealing With Capsizes

practice paddling a canoe

Basic paddling technique shouldn’t take long to master, but you can get into dangerous situations in heavy currents and rapids. Try to communicate with your partner, with the front rower setting the pace and the rear person steering the boat. The only time the front position steers is when you’re navigating through rocks, debris, and rapids. They have a better view so it’s important to call out navigational directions and help steer through dangerous water.

A capsized boat (flipped over) is one of the most dangerous situations you can get in as a canoer. It’s easy to deal with in gentle shallow water, but can be a serious challenge in rapids and strong currents. That’s why you should always wear a life jacket and practice dealing with a capsized boat in a controlled setting with a partner to pull you out of danger.

Flipping a capsized boat is hard at first, but you’ll quickly get the hang of it. You have to get under the edge of the boat, flip it right side up, and gather your gear back into the boat (hopefully it’s tied off). That’s the easy part, climbing back in is a challenge. With a tandem canoe you can use the second persons weight as a counter balance and climb in. Solo canoers need to use downward pressure against the water and roll into the center. It’s easy once you’ve practiced a few times.

7) Don’t Get In Over Your Head

Planning your route around difficult situations is the key to having a successful first canoe camping trip. Avoid rapids, areas with lots of boating activity, long portages, and routes without an easy shuttle back. Look into beginner loops at first and then go into rivers for experienced paddlers.

Paddling around a local lake isn’t anybody’s idea of a grand adventure, but that’s the best way to learn how to handle a canoe. Learn how to pack the canoe, paddle around, deal with capsizes, setup camp, etc. and then you can jump into more exciting trips.

You don’t want to overwhelm yourself planning a complicated trip when you don’t know the basics. All it takes is one or two beginner trips and then you’ll be ready for a more exciting destination.

8) Learn How To Read A Map and Compass

With modern cell phones and satellite phones with GPS functionality it can be tempting to ditch your old map and compass. I carry a Garmin inReach Explorer+ that I picked up used off eBay for a steal, but I always have a laminated paddling map and compass as backup.

You should never solely rely on technology when you’re in the wilderness, but paddling maps tell more than just your location. They also include portage lengths, areas with rapids, known rocks/debris, park owned comfort stations (bathrooms/showers), and the locations of nearby campgrounds. Plus it gives you a better understanding of the water ahead.

Satellite phones are definitely useful in areas without cell reception, but they don’t make up for an old fashioned laminated paddling map. It’s definitely nice to be able to call for help in an emergency and send relatives/friends “I’m Still Alive” texts with your location, but you’ll need to have a satellite phone plan. My plan costs $15 per month and I can shut down the plan in the off months.

9) Know When To Cancel The Trip

When packing for a canoe trip it’s important to plan for the season and the elements you’ll be facing. There are times where it’s not safe to go on a canoe trip. Sitting in the cold rain isn’t worth it and you can easily get hypothermia if you fall in the water on a windy 50°F day and can’t dry off.

Sometimes it’s not worth taking the risk and it’s better to cancel your trip. This is especially important for beginners to remember since you have less control of the canoe. You can still go camping wherever you made reservations so the vacation won’t be entirely lost.

If you decide to go out in cold weather it’s important to dress for the temperature. Wear warm moisture wicking fabrics like merino wool and wear fast drying shoes. Dressing in layers and having dry clothes to put on in an emergency is crucial in cold weather.

Extreme heat may not seem like as big of a problem, but you still need to watch out for heat exhaustion. I carry a water bottle and hydration pack with me at all times and have backpacking water filter to fill them up along the way. I keep a sawyer squeeze water filter in my personal dry bag to refill my water bottle along the way.