Few camping experiences match that of loading up your canoe or kayak and embarking on an overnight trip.
It doesn’t matter if you’re paddling down a river, through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (home to over 1,000 lakes), or along the coastline – canoe and kayak camping is hard to beat.
Imagine it with me for a second. Your days are spent paddling and floating, maybe doing a little fishing too. Then you pull up to your camping spot, cook a delicious meal, and relax around a crackling campfire at night. It doesn’t get much better than that in my opinion.
Yet both canoe camping and kayak camping are intimidating at first. I’m here to break things down to make taking your first overnight paddling trip a breeze.
Here’s everything you need to know about canoe and kayak camping.
- What is Canoe/Kayak Camping?
- Canoe/Kayak Camping Tips
- Canoe Buyer’s Guide
- Best Canoes for Camping
- Kayak Buyer’s Guide
- Best Kayaks for Camping
- Top Accessories
- Camping Checklist
- Additional Resources
What is Canoe and Kayak Camping?
It might be obvious, but canoe and kayak camping are simply methods of camping where you use your canoe or kayak to get to your campsite.
I like to think of it as a mixture of backpacking and car camping – but out on the water.
Like backpacking, you travel to a new site each day while carrying everything you need. The difference is that you paddle to each new campsite instead of hiking.
But most canoes and kayaks also have ample storage space. You can carry far more gear/supplies than you can in your backpack.
I like to use this extra storage space to bring along my normal car camping cookware. That way I can make my favorite camping recipes rather than subsist on my normal backpacking fare.
Differences Between Canoe Camping and Kayak Camping
The main differences between canoes and kayaks are straightforward.
Canoes have an open design. You sit on a raised bench inside the canoe and use a paddle with a single blade.
Kayaks usually have a more closed design. You sit in a low seat with your legs extended in front of you. You use a paddle with blades on both ends.
What we’re more interested in than the differences between the two types of craft is the differences in the overall camping experience that each provides.
Canoes generally have much more storage space. They’re also more stable and easier to move around in. You can even stand up without capsizing in a canoe. That makes canoe camping a great choice for those with young children or dogs.
Check out my guide to camping with dogs for more information on taking overnight trips with your four-legged friend.
The downside is that the extra storage space is uncovered. You’ll need to use a tarp or dry bags to keep things dry.
Kayaks have less storage space, but that storage space is made up of watertight compartments. Your gear has the best chance of staying dry in these.
Though less spacious and stable than canoes, most kayaks handle strong water and weather conditions better, including whitewater. They’re also lighter, faster, and easier to maneuver.
Choose whether a kayak or canoe is best for you by considering your needs, preferences, and where you’ll be using the craft.
I feel more comfortable kayak camping when I’m traveling in the San Juan Islands and the rest of the Puget Sound. But you’ll catch me canoe camping when I’m in most slow-moving lakes and rivers.
Cool of the Wind does a fantastic job further breaking down the pros and cons of kayaks and canoes.
Another great resource for those having trouble deciding between the two crafts is Paddling.com and their guide: Kayak or Canoe? Which One is Best for You?
Note that while canoe camping is traditionally much more popular, kayak camping has slowly surpassed it in popularity over the past decade.
Top Canoe and Kayak Camping Tips
Knowing what you’re doing will make or break a canoe or kayak camping trip.
We’ll show you how to plan your trip, gather your equipment, organize and pack your gear, load your boat, and stay safe on the water.
Planning Your Trip
Start your canoe or kayak camping trip off right by selecting the right route.
If this is your first time camping with your canoe/kayak, select an easy route with calm waters and a relaxing destination.
Your maiden voyage is all about figuring things out, so you want the conditions to be as stress-free as possible. Select a sunny stretch of days for your trip if at all possible.
Don’t bite off more than you can chew with your first trip. I recommend a one or two-night trip for your first excursion.
Another factor that goes into choosing a route is driving distance. How far is it from home? Will there be a different entry and exit point or will it be a there and back trip?
You should also consider what you want out of your canoe or kayak camping trip. Do you want to spend more time paddling or camping? Do you prefer solitude or a social camping experience? Is good fishing a factor?
Gather local maps once you select a route. Go over them ahead of time so you know what to expect. I always bring a map with me in a waterproof cover.
Gathering Your Gear
Packing for a canoe/kayak camping trip is a lot like packing for a backpacking trip.
You must pack for the weather conditions you expect as well as the trip duration and the number of days you’ll be camping for.
I recommend creating a detailed plan or checklist that outlines everything you’ll need. That way you can make sure you don’t forget anything essential.
Remember that the type of boat you’re using – kayak or canoe as well as the specific model – influences the amount of storage space available.
Our canoe/kayak camping checklist will help point you in the right direction.
Organizing and Packing Gear
Now that you’ve gathered all of your gear, it’s time to organize and pack it.
Don’t just do this willy-nilly. Because of the limited space in your canoe/kayak, a little pre-planning and preparation is key.
My favorite organization tip is to pack everything into dry bags. Not only does this keep your gear dry, but it also allows you to organize your gear by type.
I use a different dry bag for each usage type. My sleeping gear goes into one bag, my clothing goes into another, and my cooking and eating equipment goes into another.
I also pack my empty backpacking backpack to make it easier to transport gear from my boat to my camping site at night.
A backpack is also very useful if the route you’re taking includes any portage sections.
Loading the Boat
Perhaps the most important step in planning a canoe or kayak camping trip is loading the boat with your gear.
There’s no getting around it – a craft filled with gear handles much differently than an empty one. It’s essential to properly distribute the weight to influence handling as minimally as possible.
Start with your canoe or kayak’s maximum capacity. Take care never to exceed it. Leave behind any gear that you don’t absolutely need. Think like a backpacker.
Focus on keeping the load low and centered. This is more difficult in a kayak as the storage compartments are usually at the front and rear. It’s easier in a canoe where you can easily store most of your gear in the center.
Remember that water is not only heavy, but also sloshes around. That’s why you should place any water containers you’re carrying as close to the center of the boat as possible so that sloshing doesn’t upset its balance.
I tend to carry less water while canoeing and kayaking than I do while backpacking. Since you’re surrounded by water, you usually have access to as much as you need as long as you pack your water treatment system.
Gear should also be loaded with ease of access in mind. Important items – especially those that you might need to access while paddling – should be near the top.
Stash your first-aid kit, GPS, maps in waterproof covers, and cell phone in waterproof bag in a day hatch if your kayak has one. Keep them close at hand in your canoe.
Never embark on a canoe or kayak camping trip if you aren’t already comfortable in your canoe or kayak (unless it’s a guided trip).
I also recommend taking a dry run before your first overnight trip. That means loading up all your camping gear into your boat and taking it for a short spin. Doing so allows you to get used to the new weight distribution of all your gear in a safe environment.
Of course, you should always have a life jacket with you. I wear mine no matter the conditions just in case I capsize.
Cold water is also extremely dangerous. Knowing the dangers of cold water – and what to do if you find yourself in it – is vital. The National Center for Cold Water Safety is a great resource.
For more information related to canoe and kayak safety, check out the American Canoe Association.
Canoe Camping Buyer’s Guide
So you’ve decided that canoe camping is right up your alley.
One of the most important things you can do to ensure a positive camping experience is to buy the best canoe for you.
Here are the most important factors to keep in mind:
Needs and Preferences
How do you plan to use your new canoe?
The specific use narrows down your options greatly. For canoe camping, models are available that are better suited for weekend trips as well as those for week-long tours.
What type of water will you normally be up against? Will you mostly be on flatwater or will you encounter roughwater?
Will you be canoe camping alone or with friends and family? Some canoes are designed for single users while others comfortably fit multiple people.
Finally, how much gear do you expect to bring along? Those that are used to backpacking might be comfortable with less gear than those that are used to car camping.
Going through all of these questions before shopping will help you narrow down your canoe camping options much more easily.
The four main types of canoes for canoe camping include:
Recreational – Stable, easy to maneuver, and fun to paddle, recreational canoes are perfect for canoe camping on ponds, lakes, and mild-flowing rivers.
Multi-Purpose – More maneuverable than recreational models, multi-purpose canoes can handle everything from flatwater to whitewater rapids.
River – Designed specifically with running rapids in mind, highly-maneuverable river canoes are best for canoe camping only if a bit of whitewater adventure is thrown in.
Touring – The best option for multi-day canoe camping trips, touring canoes are designed with enough storage space for big loads and super long trips.
Most canoes are somewhere in the range of 16 or 17 feet long. Select a shorter model for whitewater rivers or a longer model for extended touring.
As far as width, remember that a wider canoe is a more stable canoe. However, narrower canoes are more maneuverable and also easier to paddle.
Deeper canoes have more storage capacity. The higher walls keep more water out. The downside is that deeper canoes are more susceptible to being battered by the wind.
Canoes are made from a wide variety of materials. The material used affects the strength, durability, weight, maneuverability, and also cost.
Three of the most common canoe materials include:
Fiberglass – Created by weaving layers of fabric together and bonding with polyester resin, fiberglass canoes are rigid and efficient.
Kevlar – Stronger and lighter than fiberglass, Kevlar canoes are also among the priciest on the market. Created in the same way as fiberglass.
Royalex – Created by placing closed-cell foam between two layers of ABS plastic and topping with a vinyl outer layer, Royalex canoes are among the most durable and long-lasting on the market.
In addition to these three main materials, modern canoe manufacturers have also cooked up their own exclusive materials.
For example, Old Town Canoe uses the ultra-durable, ultra-springy CrosslLink3 for their Discovery series of canoes. Another exclusive material, the stiff, durable, and lightweight PolyLink3, is used on other models.
There are so many additional factors to look at when it comes to buying a new canoe. These include:
Hull Shape – The hull shape affects how the canoe handles in water. The main options are flat-bottom, rounded-bottom, shallow-arch bottom, and v-bottom.
Rocker – The upward curve from the front to end of the hull is rocker. Lots of rockers means easier maneuverability. Less rocker means faster paddling and straighter tracking.
Side Shape – Flared sides make carrying heavy loads and shedding waves easy. Sides that curve inward make it easier to reach the water (great for canoe fishing).
Entry Line – The shape of the hull where it meets the water is entry line. Sharper means higher speeds while blunt is best for whitewater.
Canoeing.com breaks down the different design elements that influence shape in their canoe design resource.
Best Canoes for Camping
Not all canoes are created equal. Some models are much better for canoe camping than others.
The best canoes for camping are sturdy, easy to use, and highly maneuverable. They boast ample storage space. They are designed to keep you and your gear dry from waves.
Here are my recommendations for the three best canoes for camping:
The Saranac 160 is my top choice for the best canoe for camping with your family.
Created by Old Town Canoes, a leader in the recreational canoe industry, the canoe is easy to maneuver and tracks straight. Plus, it’s incredibly stable (an essential feature for canoeing with children and pets).
It boasts three comfortable seats all with built-in cup holders and storage trays. The spacious interior is designed to support up to 750 pounds.
The thermoplastic hull is not only durable, but also very quiet on the water. Extra features include the flush mount rod holder and built-in anchor mounting system.
My favorite thing about this canoe is its size. It’s big enough for the whole family and all your canoe camping gear. But it’s still small enough to paddle by yourself on a solo outing.
Buy the Old Town Canoes Saranac 160 now.
Another top-notch option for canoe camping is the Mad River Journey 156.
It was created with the utmost versatility in mind. It’s designed to work just as well in roughwater as it does for flatwater paddling.
The two-person canoe achieves this versatility with a 3-layer polyethylene hull that not only stands up to the wear and tear of tight, twisty, rocky rivers, but is also incredibly stable.
The length and shape (gentle rocker) of the canoe makes for easy maneuvering in tight conditions, but also enables straight tracking and high speeds in calmer conditions.
My favorite thing about this canoe is its versatility. It’s nice to have a canoe that can track straight on a calm lake but also manage a twisty river with ease.
Buy the Mad River Journey 156 Canoe now.
Canoes just don’t get any better than those from Wenonah Canoe.
What makes their award-winning canoes so special is not only their state-of-the-art technology, but also the fact that each and every one is handmade.
Ryan outlined his experience visiting the canoe maker in a previous Beyond The Tent post: A Behind the Scenes Tour of the Making of a Wenonah Canoe.
Their one-person Argosy Tuf-Weave Solo Canoe is incredibly nimble to safely navigate strong cross-currents in rivers and streams. It laps up rough water without a problem and even holds its own in whitewater.
This model of the Argosy boasts Tuf-weave flex-core construction. This is a 50% polyester and 50% fiberglass interwoven bend for the utmost in lightweight, performance, and durability.
My favorite thing about this canoe is that it predictably leans into turns for you. This increases your confidence, especially when you’re alone in rough water.
The Argosy isn’t the best choice for beginners. As a high-end solo canoe, it’s better suited for intermediate and advanced paddlers.
Buy the Wenonah Argosy Canoe now.
Kayak Camping Buyer’s Guide
Do you prefer kayak camping over canoe camping?
Then take the time to do your research and understand all of your options to ensure you buy the best kayak for you.
Here are the most important factors to keep in mind:
Needs and Preferences
How do you plan to use your new kayak?
Will you use it on lakes, rivers, the ocean, or a combination of all three? Will the weather conditions be mostly calm and flat or can you expect rough water and wind?
Do you plan to go kayak camping alone or do you want room for a friend (whether that’s a human or a dog)? Is overnight camping your main goal or do you want a kayak for plain old paddling as well?
How much gear do you expect to haul on camping trips? Some kayaks have minimal storage space while others have plenty of room for all your odds and ends.
Knowing the answers to these basic questions before you start shopping will make narrowing down your kayak camping options a whole lot easier.
Kayaks come in a nearly endless variety of types and styles. Some are much better for kayak camping than others.
The eight main types of kayaks for camping include:
Recreational – Affordable, easy to use, and stable in calm conditions, recreational kayaks are best for kayak camping on lakes and ponds as well as slow-moving rivers.
Touring – Your best choice for traveling long distances, touring kayaks are fast, stable, and straight tracking. Most have ample storage space and can handle rough conditions in open water.
Modular – These unique kayaks snap apart into multiple sections for easier transportation and storage. You can even add one or two additional seats if you plan to kayak camp with a friend or two.
Sit-on-Top – The best choice for beginners and kids, these easy-to-use kayaks are stable in calm conditions, but lack the storage space and stability in rough water that are often vital for kayak camping.
Inflatable – Designed for those with very little storage or transportation space, inflatable kayaks are surprisingly durable and sturdy.
Folding – Most often designed for touring, these high-performance versatile kayaks actually dissemble small enough to carry in a large backpack. This video of a folding kayak gives a great taste of what they’re all about.
Fishing – As their name implies, fishing kayaks are created specifically with fishing in mind. They are usually quite stable with a good amount of storage space.
Whitewater – Probably the least common option for kayak camping, whitewater kayaks are nonetheless the best option for tackling rough water and whitewater.
Any of these eight types of kayaks can be effectively used for kayak camping.
However, your best bet is a recreational or touring model depending on your budget and the conditions you expect to encounter while camping.
Kayaks come in all different shapes and sizes, depending on their intended use.
Short kayaks are much easier to maneuver. However, they’re slower than longer kayaks. A long kayak is also your best option for straight tracking across long distances.
Like canoes, width is the primary influence on stability. A wider kayak is more stable in most conditions. However, narrow kayaks actually offer more stability while executing sharp turns.
Depth is mostly a matter of personal preferences. A deeper kayak offers more storage space and might keep you a little dryer. However, deep kayaks with tall sides are usually slower as they have more wind resistance.
Kayaks are made from a wide variety of materials. The material used affects the strength, durability, weight, maneuverability, and also cost.
Three of the most common kayak materials include:
Plastic – Usually polyethylene or thermoformed ABS, plastic is the most common kayak material. It’s cheap, impact-resistant, abrasion-resistant, and lightweight.
Composite – Usually Kevlar, fiberglass, or carbon fiber, composite kayaks are extremely lightweight and high performance.
Soft Shells – Most inflatable and folding kayaks use a soft-shell material often made from a durable cloth-like material.
A few more features to keep an eye on while looking at kayaks for camping include:
Hull – Flat hulls are best for flatwater stability while round hulls are best for long-distance touring. V-shaped hulls are fast, track straight, and are more stable in rough water and bad weather.
Cockpit – A small cockpit translates to better maneuverability and stability in rough weather. However, it’s much easier to get in and out of a large cockpit. Fishing is also easier from a large cockpit.
Foot Pegs – These give you a place to brace your feet for more power while paddling and maneuvering. Adjustable foot pegs are great for kayaks used by multiple people.
Hatches – A very important feature if you plan to kayak camp, hatches at the front and rear are a great place to store gear. Watertight hatches also improve buoyancy, especially if you capsize.
Skeg – A common feature on touring kayaks, a kayak skeg is designed for straight tracking in high crosswinds or cross-currents. It’s a small metal plate lowered under the stern that’s similar to a rudder.
Best Kayaks for Camping
Just like with canoes, certain kayaks are better suited for camping than others.
The best kayaks for camping are sturdy and track well in all weather conditions. They’re easy to maneuver, relatively fast, and have plenty of watertight storage space.
Here are my recommendations for the three best kayaks for camping:
The Wilderness Systems Tsunami 125 is my top choice for the best kayak for camping.
It’s created from the ground up with touring in mind. It has two large storage compartments, so you have room to stash enough gear for overnight trips. Front and rear bungee systems give you additional space to tie down gear.
The versatile kayak excels in all water conditions. It’s just as at home in streams and rivers as it is on large lakes and coastal regions. The kayak even remains stable and upright in rough water.
The rotomolded polyethylene hull boasts great impact and abrasion resistance. The padded seat is not only comfortable but fully breathable and ventilated as well.
My favorite thing about this kayak is that it’s swift and tracks straight. Its high-performance design makes it easy to get from point A to point B – and have fun doing so.
Buy the Wilderness Systems Tsunami 125 Kayak now.
If you’re looking for a kayak that can handle the open ocean, a fully-outfitted sea-worthy kayak like the Eddyline Samba is a necessity.
Not only is the kayak designed to provide safe passage in heavy wind and rough waters, but it’s also extremely nimble and fun to play around in on calm water.
Two watertight storage compartments provide ample space for overnight camping trips. A series of deck bungees give you even more options for bringing along gear.
The kayak is about mid-pack as far as size goes. It’s just under 14’ long and features a keyhole cockpit that’s perfect for small users. The Samba comes with a navigational rudder and a skeg for straight tracking in rough sea conditions.
My favorite thing about this kayak is its playfulness and maneuverability. It’s perfect for exploring twisting rivers or small coves and inlets along the coastline.
Buy the Eddyline Samba Kayak now.
You’ll be hard-pressed to find a better two-seater kayak for camping than the Riot Kayaks Polarity Tandem Kayak.
The quick and agile tandem kayak features, as its name implies, two seats. Each seat has a comfortable and adjustable backrest.
Two watertight storage compartments are available for stashing gear. A number of bungee ties enable you to bring even more gear along.
It’s possible to pilot this kayak alone with one seat used as extra storage space (or for your four-legged friend). But paddling and maneuvering the kayak alone is more difficult due to its long size.
My favorite thing about this kayak is how stable it is in rough weather. Beginners might find it unstable in flat water, but it provides confidence in waves and during tight maneuvers. The kayak is also surprisingly fast and straight tracking for a two-person model.
Buy the Riot Kayaks Polarity Tandem Kayak now.
Top Canoe and Kayak Accessories
A variety of accessories are available to make canoe camping and kayak camping an even more enjoyable experience.
Some of these accessories are absolutely necessary, like a paddle. Others are strongly encouraged, like a personal flotation device. Still, others are just a matter of personal preference, like a kayak spray skirt.
Here are ten of my favorite accessories for camping with a canoe or kayak:
SeaSense Telescoping Canoe Paddle
This floating canoe paddle telescopes from 48” to 72”. A well-made locking mechanism locks the extension in place. It’s lightweight, strong, and doubles as a boat hook.
Buy the SeaSense Telescoping Canoe Paddle now.
Available in a variety of colors as well as sizes (54”, 57”, 60”, and 63”), the Carlisle Standard Paddle boasts a shaft made from vinyl-tempered aluminum and a blade made from high-impact polyethylene. The floating paddle is rugged enough to stand up to years of canoe camping abuse.
Buy the Carlisle Standard Canoe Paddle now.
Few kayak paddles are better than the low-budget SeaSense X-1. At just under $30 regularly priced (it’s often on sale), you get a floating paddle with a two-piece aluminum shaft and two molded plastic blades.
Buy the SeaSense X-1 Kayak Paddle now.
Available in a variety of sizes, the Bending Branches Whisper Kayak Paddle blends superior durability with a high-performance design that promotes a flutter-free stroke. The floating paddle is lightweight with comfortable molded grip areas.
Buy the Bending Branches Whisper Kayak Paddle now.
This comfortable life vest from Onyx fits your body like a glove. It’s soft, lightweight, and slim to maintain mobility for kayaking and canoeing. The mesh back panel is designed specifically for use with a kayak seat.
Buy the Onyx MoveVent Curve Life Vest now.
This life jacket from MTI Adventurewear was strength tested at 50 mph, so you know it has the oomph for paddle sports. Four front pockets and D-rings to attach additional gear make it the perfect jacket for kayak or canoe fishing.
Buy the MTI Adventurewear Fishing PFD Life Jacket now.
If you don’t have a kayak spray skirt designed specifically for your kayak model, this generic spray skirt is a great bet. It’s constructed from durable nylon and is fully adjustable to fit snugly over your kayak’s cockpit.
Buy the Generic Universal Kayak Spray Skirt now.
Transporting your kayak or canoe to and from the water is a whole lot easier with this J-bar roof rack from TMS. It mounts directly to your car or SUV’s on-roof crossbar. It boasts a steel design for extra strength plus padding to protect your kayak or canoe.
Buy the TMS J-Bar Roof Rack now.
Tenwell Waterproof Dry Bags
Don’t risk soaking your valuables with water. These waterproof, floating dry bags from Tenwell are available in 10L or 20L models to keep all your equipment dry while you’re canoe or kayak camping.
Buy the Tenwell Waterproof Dry Bags now.
This TMS Carrier Trolley makes moving your kayak or canoe from the car down to the launching off point that much easier. It has a solid stainless steel frame, ample padding, built-in tie downs, two burly off-round wheels, and a dolly handle for pulling.
Buy the TMS Kayak/Canoe Carrier Trolley now.
Canoe and Kayak Camping Checklist
Packing for your next canoe or kayak camping trip is relatively easy.
Though our Family Camping Checklist is a great resource to get started, here’s a list specifically tailored to paddling.
Here’s my canoe and kayak camping checklist:
Basic Camping Gear
- 10 Essentials
- Tent (or hammock)
- Sleeping bag and pad
- Food for snacks and meals
- Water and water treatment
- Stove and fuel
- Cookware and plateware
- Clothing and footwear
- Lantern and flashlight
- Matches or lighter
- Knife or multi-tool
- Personal flotation device
- Dry bags
- Special protective bag for cell phone
- Spray skirt
- Signaling whistle
- Basic repair kit
- Maps and charts (in waterproof case)
- Weather/VHF radio
- Compass and GPS
- Sunglasses and sunscreen
- Insect repellent
- Fishing gear
I basically think of it like a normal camping trip. I gather my normal camping supplies first and add in anything I need for canoeing or kayaking.
After a few trips, you’ll know exactly what fits in your canoe or kayak and what doesn’t. Like anything, the process gets easier the more you do it.
REI also offers a great canoe multiday touring checklist.
The guide above breaks down canoe and kayak camping into detail.
Yet it doesn’t delve too far into the basics of canoeing or kayaking. Beginners should read up on these basics until they’re comfortable before embarking on an overnight trip.
There are dozens of great how-to videos on YouTube. A few other great resources include:
We’ve published several other ultimate guides here on Beyond The Tent. A few of the most helpful for canoe and kayak camping include:
- Guide to Buying a Tent
- Guide to Buying a Sleeping Bag
- Everything You Need to Know About Hammock Camping
Loading up your kayak or canoe and setting out for an overnight paddling trip is undoubtedly one of the best ways to experience the great outdoors.
Taking your first canoe or kayak camping trip might seem overwhelming at first – but just think about it like going car camping.
Sure, you have less space, but that just means you have to be creative! Packing your canoe/kayak is easy with the help of our tips above and a little practice.
All the hard work pays off big time once the sun falls and you’re listening to the sound of the water on a quiet and dark shore in front of a crackling campfire.
Have you guys ever been canoe camping or kayak camping? How did you like the experience? What are the best trips you’ve been on? How about your longest overnight trip?
And, as always, please don’t hesitate to ask any additional questions you might have about canoes, kayaks, camping, or anything in between!