How to Go Canoe Camping

While camping from a canoe is similar to car camping, it also shares many similarities with backpacking. This article will provide the information that you need to make your first trip successful.


  1. Image titled Go Canoe Camping Step 1
    Select a river. When choosing a river, it's a good idea to find one that has a reputation as a good camping river. Many rivers are unsuitable for camping as the flood plains tend to be uneven and have high riverbanks. Pick up a river guide in your area and read about the river. Easy sloped banks, sand bars, and flat level camp sites will make your trip more enjoyable.
  2. Image titled Go Canoe Camping Step 2
    Select your tent. The upside of camping with a canoe vs. backpacking is that it affords you the ability to take a great deal more camping equipment. The downside is you may be tempted to take too much. You should pay particular attention to your tent, a comfortable tent is very nice on the river; however, if you go too large you may have difficulty finding a place to put it. A tent between 7' and 11' (2.1 - 3.4 meters) square works pretty well. Large cabin tents may be a bit much for many sites. On the flip side, tiny tents like clip flashlights or similar lightweight hiking tents can be very cramped and tight. Try to get a self standing tent instead of one that needs to be staked down. Tent stakes don't work well in sand. Don't worry about the weight of your tent. Pick one that will give you the comfort you desire without overdoing it.
  3. 3
    Select the menu. Camping is about good food and drink. Whether you're 10 miles (16 km) back country or at a KOA, one of the great pleasures of camping is preparing and eating hearty, robust foods. Like car camping, the weight of your gear isn't that big a deal, so you'll be able to carry a cooler or two. Plan your meals in advance so you know what you'll need, you won't be able to hop in a car and run to a grocery store if you forget something. Plan each day for breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert and a few hors d'oeuvres and snacks. Doing dishes on the river isn't fun so keeping it simple can make it more enjoyable. Some ideas may include:

    • A cold breakfast of cereal and Parmalat milk with toaster pastries or bagels.
      Image titled Go Canoe Camping Step 3Bullet1
    • Lunch: Cold sandwiches in pita or wraps
      Image titled Go Canoe Camping Step 3Bullet2
    • Dinner: Steak, keilbasa, or hot dogs cooked on a grill.
      Image titled Go Canoe Camping Step 3Bullet3
  4. Image titled Go Canoe Camping Step 4
    Plan for beverages and keep your cool. Pack breakfast juice, soft drinks for the day, harder beverages for whenever. Also plan for water; some rivers contain potable water so you might be okay to take from the river, but it is always a good idea to bring drinking water and a filter pump. Try to cool anything that needs cooling before putting it in your cooler. Meats that you won't be eating on the first or second day can be frozen. A great tip for some of your water is to freeze 20oz water bottles and put them in your cooler. They keep your other stuff cool and when they melt you have drinking water. Four days is about as long as a run of the mill cooler can keep things chilled, try to find block ice, 1 or 2 blocks will last longer than ice cubes. Don't drain the water unless you're resupplying your ice or the trip is over, you'll only be replacing cold water with warm air and your ice will melt faster.
  5. Image titled Go Canoe Camping Step 5
    Prep the kitchen. You'll want some kind of gas stove (whether propane or white gas) for cooking vegetables, heating water for coffee or tea or just to have warm water to wash dishes. A roll up table or two and a stove stand make cooking much easier and much more enjoyable. Paper plates and bowls help keep the clean up low as they can be tossed on the fire after you've finished your meal. Bring as many paper goods as possible and only bring a cup, a coffee mug and silverware that require cleaning. For pots and pans you can bring anything you have. Bring some pots designed for camping or, if you have some, pots and pans you've retired from the kitchen. Avoid cast iron on the river as it will most likely get wet and start to rust which may ruin it. For coffee, try a manual drip coffee maker; there are many styles to choose from, some very inexpensive, which will give you a cup of coffee as good as you get from home without electricity or having to resort to 'backpacking' techniques.
  6. Image titled Go Canoe Camping Step 6
    Bring clothes and personal items. While summer camping is usually warm, you should bring extra clothes just in case. Most years you'll only need a bathing suit and T-shirt, but a pair of sweat pants and sweat shirt can really be nice if the weather turns cool.
  7. Image titled Go Canoe Camping Step 7
    Choose your bedding. On the trail, it may be prudent to bring a therm-o-rest on which to lay your weary bones, but you have a canoe, so bring that queen sized air mattress and the electric pump to fill it.
  8. Image titled Go Canoe Camping Step 8
    Use dry bags. A good dry bag is best for keeping your stuff dry in rough conditions. They're specially designed to keep things dry even if submerged. Don't trust ordinary trash bags, they'll only keep it dry if it's a light rain and they are easily punctured. If the rain is severe or you dump your canoe, everything will get soaked. You'll be glad you made that $20 or so investment when you're soaked and your bedding and extra clothes are still dry.
  9. Image titled Go Canoe Camping Step 9
    Pack "common" items in a trunk. A dry trunk is just a plastic trunk or container of some kind into which everyone puts their "common" camping items. Common camping items are things like pots, pans, coffee pot, mug, cup, camp saw, stove stand, paper towels, paper plates/bowls, cutting board, knife, bug spray, matches/lighter, emergency space blanket, extra batteries, lantern mantles, sponge, camp soap, silverware, bottles of stove fuel, hiking stove etc. These are some things that you can leave in the trunk from one year to the next and know that all you have to do is pack that plus your tent, bedding and personal items and you're ready to go. You can even bring more than this, but it is the minimum for a decent camping trip. Select one that fits your canoe well and has some method of latching the top closed. If you dump, you don't want it spilling all your gear over the bottom of the river. Empty 5 gallon paint buckets (about $6 with lid at home repair centers) are a great dry place to store small items, like backpacking stoves, extra fuel, small lanterns/flashlites, charcoal, radios, etc.
    • Bring something that you can store all your trash in and make sure its sealable-you don't want to litter,and you don't want any sticky things spilling on you.
  10. Image titled Go Canoe Camping Step 10
    Bring a toilet, and shovel This is where canoe camping becomes more like backpacking, sooner or later you're going to have to take care of business and leaning against a tree or squatting simply isn't that much fun. A portable toilet system allows you to dig a hole in the soil, set up over it and do what needs doing. When it's time to leave, you simply pack the potty up and fill in the hole you dug. You might want to get a kit that has a nice shelter to give you privacy, but it is pricey. There are less expensive options you can choose that will work just as well, but go for a product with good durability. For a shovel, any good folding shovel will do the job.
  11. Image titled Go Canoe Camping Step 11
    Test pack your canoe the night before. There are two objectives here, one is to pack efficiently so that the gear isn't sitting too high above the gunwales, the other is to balance out the canoe so it doesn't list to one side. Once you have it packed, you'll want to develop some system of tying everything into the canoe. A small tarp with criss-crossing ropes works well or just threading the rope through handles or other openings is a good idea. Anything that will keep the gear with the boat if you dump it.
  12. Image titled Go Canoe Camping Step 12
    Bring extra paddles. Tie extra paddles to your boat in case you go over and lose the ones you're using.
  13. Image titled Go Canoe Camping Step 13
    Use a motor. Purists may not like this one, but an electric motor can be a lifesaver and a timesaver. This is an expensive option though, so if you're trying to go on the cheap, you may want to avoid this as you'll need the motor, a battery for the motor and registration for the canoe.
  14. Image titled Go Canoe Camping Step 14
    Bring a chair and table. A sling chair and accompanying table makes life on site so much more comfortable.
  15. Image titled Go Canoe Camping Step 15
    Bring an umbrella. For about $14 you can purchase a beach umbrella with a 6' (1.8m) spread. These are great if you need to get out of the sun or keep rain off of you. You can keep it in the boat, so if it rains while you're traveling downstream, you can throw it up quickly and stay dry. You can also use it at your campsite for the same purpose. It can also be used as a sail when there is a light breeze in the right direction.
  16. Image titled Go Canoe Camping Step 16
    Wear water shoes. No matter how soft sand feels it's like sandpaper on your feet. Flip flops and sandals aren't as good, as flip flops fall off when walking in the water and sandals tend to get small stones between your foot and the sole. If the river is known to be rocky (like those in central US (Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee), you'll want water shoes with hard stiff soles, rather than flexible soles like those found on "aqua-sock" type shoes. What ever you use, you'll want it cover your toes and be secured on your heel. Otherwise, when wading or lining your canoe in shallow areas, a foot injury or lost shoe is likely.
  17. Image titled Go Canoe Camping Step 17
    Use your imagination. This is what makes canoe camping so much fun. You can do it very simply and bring very little, or you can bring a screen house, a self standing hammock, an 11x11 tent and everything else listed above. A river is where all the characters come out. So load up your canoe, bring something distinctive and have fun on the river.


  • Keep a medium sized dry bag (8 liter) which has your clothes along with your wallet, cell phone and car keys with you at all times. Tie it to a thwart on the canoe so it won't be lost it if you dump.
  • Pack so that the stuff you need quickly is on the top of your dry trunk and the less used stuff is lower down.
  • Use Tupperware or similar containers to group things you'll need in camp and then store them in your dry trunk. For example, keep all kitchen utensils in a box with your knife, matches/lighter and silverware, this means you only have to grab one box when it comes time to make dinner and eat. Another box for your bug spray, camp soap, sponge, clothes line and other items that won't be used for cooking or eating keeps potential poisons away from other things.
  • Heavy duty tin foil has many uses. You can cover a rusty grill with it, make food packets for potatoes and summer squash for over the grill and store leftovers in it.
  • Zip lock bags have many uses. Always have a few on hand just in case you need a tiny dry bag or a place to put leftovers.
  • Telescoping compression sacks are a great way for packing clothes. You can get your clothing into a much smaller space or in a medium sized dry bag.
  • If you have to use the river bank as a toilet, please bring a shovel and dig a hole for your business. Not only is it unsightly to see toilet paper all over the riverbanks it's also unsanitary. You or someone else may have to camp on that bank.


  • Keep your food well contained. Raccoons are notorious thieves and will take away any loose food they find. They can also carry away and open simple and small containers. Don't give them a chance.
  • Beware of poison ivy. It can often be found on riverbanks. It is a good idea to wash with a grease cutting soap, such as mild dishwashing liquid, after a portage.
  • As noted above, if you must use the river bank as a bathroom please bury your waste. Property owners don't want to see this and you or someone else may have to camp on that bank.
  • If you are planning on bathing while on your canoe trip, use a soap that is biodegradable, such as a real soap, like Ivory, (not a deodorant bar or liquid body wash). Some camping soaps are available at camping and fishing supply stores. It is important not to use deodorant or antibacterial soaps that pollute the land and water.
  • Land owners are often lenient with you using their property as long as you respect it. Carry in, carry out. Always leave a campsite better than you found it.
  • Take fire safety seriously.
  • Don't litter. If some one catches you, and they likely will, you'll be facing a fine of $50 or more at best, and criminal charges at worse.
  • Try to get permission before going onto some ones property. Many people will respond poorly to trespassers, and are legally able to press charges. Avoid going onto the property if you don't get permission, and then treat the property well and leave it as you found it.
  • When camping in true wilderness areas, beware of bears and wildlife. Cooking meat and fish on an open campfire will attract unwanted animals. Even the drippings from foods cooked over a fire remain in the firepit and can be smelled from miles away. You don't want to be awakened in the middle of the night to find a spooked bear looking for something to eat. It might be you!

Things You'll Need

  • Canoe (15' or longer recommended)
  • Paddles
  • Life vests (1 each per person)
  • Maps
  • Chair backs for canoe seats (optional)
  • Motor (optional)
  • Battery for motor (optional)
  • Motor mount (optional)
  • Registration (optional only if not using motor)
  • Line for tying canoe and securing gear
  • Fire permit (required in some areas)
  • Food
  • Beverages
  • Potable Water (figure .5 gallon per day per person for drinking, at least 1 gallon per day extra if using for washing dishes)
  • Hiking water filter pump
  • Cooler
  • Dry trunk
  • Ice
  • Aqua shoes
  • Dry shoes for around camp (optional)
  • Extra Clothing
  • Personal items specific to you (toothbrush, toothpaste, medication, sanitary items etc.)
  • Towel
  • Lighter
  • Matches, either waterproof or in a waterproof container (Strike Anywhere are great)
  • Fire paste (for starting a fire with slightly wet wood or starting a white gas camp stove in the cold)
  • Pots and pans
  • Roll of paper towels
  • Tin foil
  • Ziploc bags (Quart and gallon size, for food and to keep things dry)
  • Tupperware (or similar for keeping things dry and together)
  • Garbage bags
  • Silverware
  • Unbreakable coffee mug
  • Unbreakable cup
  • Good folding knife
  • Tongs
  • Bamboo Skewers
  • Spatula
  • Grill fork
  • Camp toaster
  • Biodegradable camp soap
  • Bucket or tub for camp sink
  • Stand alone grill (for over the campfire)
  • Paper plates/bowls (Chinet are very durable)
  • Coffee Maker
  • Camp stove (one or two burner)
  • Extra fuel for stove
  • Stove stand
  • Roll up table or two (for food prep, eating, and off the ground storage)
  • Chair
  • Collapsible table (to use with chair)
  • Bug spray (Off, Old Woodsman, Cutter, etc)
  • Insect fogging spray (Yard Guard, Cutter, etc)
  • Sunglasses
  • Hat
  • Rain poncho
  • Sun screen
  • Complete first aid kit, including:
    • Solarcaine (or other sunburn relief)
    • Cortizone cream (or other insect bite relief)
    • Neosporin (or other topical anti infection cream)
    • Pain remedies (Aspirin, Ibuprofen, etc.)
  • Umbrella
  • Clothes line
  • Cutting board (camping cutting boards can be very small)
  • Camp Saw (Sven Saws or other bow style saws work very well, avoid folding saws, most are junk)
  • Emergency Space Blanket
  • Flash light
  • Extra batteries for flash light
  • Lantern
  • Extra fuel or batteries for lantern
  • Lantern stand or tree hanger (optional)
  • Tent
  • Air mattress
  • Mattress repair kit
  • Air pump for mattress
  • Extra batteries for air pump
  • Sleeping bag or sheets/blanket
  • Pillow
  • Dry bags
  • Portable toilet
  • Shelter for toilet
  • Toilet paper
  • Folding shovel
  • Camp hammock (optional)
  • Compression sack (optional)
  • Radio (optional)
  • Authors Note: Some well meaning but shall we say "uninformed" people (I hesitate to use the word stupid) have accused me of wanting to kill people by recommending the freezing of water in plastic bottles. Here is what snopes has to say. In a nutshell, you won't get cancer from a PET bottle.

Article Info

Featured Article

Categories: Featured Articles