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Kayak Camping 101: A Guide to Camping in Your Canoe or Kayak

Kayak camping and canoe camping are two of my absolute favorite ways to adventure outdoors.

Not only does this type of on-water camping allow you to explore some of the most beautiful scenery on the planet, but it enables you to access incredibly remote campsites, like those in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (home to over 1,000 lakes).

It might sound intimidating, but canoe and kayak camping really aren’t much different than backpacking. You plan your route ahead of time, pack all the gear you need, and hit the trails (or, waterways, in this case!). The key difference is you don’t have to carry all your gear on your back – you can stash it in your canoe or kayak instead!

Whether you’re a true kayak camping beginner or a seasoned canoe camping vet looking for some new tips, this ultimate guide is for you.

Table of Contents

  1. Canoe vs Kayak
  2. Top Camping Tips
  3. Best Kayaks for Camping
  4. Kayak Buyer’s Guide
  5. Best Canoes for Camping
  6. Canoe Buyer’s Guide
  7. Kayak/Canoe Camping FAQ
How to Plan a Backpacking Trip

Canoe vs Kayak Camping

Kayak Camping by Tent

Canoes and kayaks might look similar to the untrained eye but have a few major differences.

For starters, canoes have an open design. You sit inside a canoe on a raised bench and use a paddle with a single blade. Most kayaks, on the other hand, have a more closed-in design. You sit in a low seat with your legs extended in front of you. You use a paddle with two blades, one on each end.

Canoes are generally more stable, especially in calm waters. You can move around inside of them. It’s even possible to stand upright without capsizing. This makes canoe camping a great choice for young children or camping with dogs. Ample gear storage space is available in many models.

Though less spacious and stable than canoes, kayaks handle strong currents, rough water, and inclement weather better. They are also lighter, faster, and easier to maneuver. Most kayaks come with watertight storage compartments at the front and rear of the vessel.

Although the choice of what’s best for camping is up to your personal preferences, you should base your decision between a canoe and kayak on the types of waterways you plan to explore most often.

Top Canoe and Kayak Camping Tips

Two People Sea Kayaking

The right equipment and a little know-how will make or break your canoe or kayak camping trip. Here are the top tips you need to know.

Plan Your Trip

Beginners should select a shorter route with calm waters and a relaxing destination. Your maiden voyage is all about figuring things out, so you want your outing to be as stress-free as possible. Mild, sunny weather is ideal. I recommend a short one or two night trip on your first outing.

Take entrance and exit points into consideration. Will you start and finish the trip at the same point? Or do you need two vehicles at two different points (such as along a river)?

Also important to think about is how much time you’ll spend on the water. Do you prefer to paddle all day or would you like to spend more time at the campsite. Remember to always bring a detailed map (with a waterproof cover) of the area you plan to explore.

Gather Your Gear

Pack for your canoe or kayak camping trip like you’d pack for a backpacking trip.

You’ll need all your normal camping gear, including a sleeping bag, camping tent, and a cook stove. Although standard car camping gear works well, backpacking variants, like a lightweight backpacking stove, arguably perform better due to the limited space.

Weather appropriate gear is also essential. Take note of special gear you might need for camping in the rain or winter camping.

Pack Your Gear

Don’t just pack your gear willy-nilly. Because of the limited space available, it’s essential to plan out how to pack your canoe or kayak before piling in your camping equipment.

Personally, I pack all my gear into dry bags, for both canoe and kayak camping. I pack like items into different dry bags. So, for example, my sleeping gear goes into one dry bag, my tent goes into another, my clothing into another, and so on and so forth.

I also like to load my craft with items I only need at the campsite loaded first. So, I’ll load my tent, sleeping bag, and cookware first and then load items that I’ll use while paddling like snacks, water, and a jacket last. This makes these everyday items more accessible without unloading and then reloading.

Load Your Craft

In addition to loading my craft with everyday gear packed last, I always make sure to think of how the craft will handle with the extra weight.

Simply put, a loaded craft handles much differently than an empty one. It takes a little practice, but you’ll quickly learn how to best load your canoe or kayak to maintain the best handling possible.

Keep your gear load low and centered. For a canoe, this is easy. You can stash all your equipment near the middle of the boat. But, for a kayak, this is a little more difficult as the storage hatches are typically located at the front and rear.

Finally, remember to never overload your craft. Keep your canoe or kayak’s maximum weight capacity in mind while packing gear. Typically, the less gear you bring the better, so think like a backpacker.

Stay Safe

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 recommend taking a dry run before your first overnight trip. That means loading up all your camping gear into your craft 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 and controlled environment.

Of course, you should always wear a life jacket. You must also know what to do if you fall into cold water. The National Center for Cold Water Safety is a great resource as is the American Canoe Association for canoe and kayak specific information.

Best Kayaks for Camping in 2020

Here are the top 3 best kayaks for camping in 2020.

Best Overall: Wilderness Systems Aspire 105

Wilderness Systems Aspire 105 Kayak

$1,059.00  in stock
as of May 12, 2024 5:24 am

The Wilderness Systems Aspire 105 is hands down one of the best and most versatile recreational kayaks available today.

This hybrid kayak tracks straight and true in all conditions. It excels on both flat water and rough water. It’s capable of high speeds but doesn’t sacrifice maneuverability in the process.

The comfortable, breathable seat is fully adjustable. Thigh and knee pads provide increased comfort on long paddles. Although the lack of a front storage compartment means there is less storage space available than on other models, the watertight rear bulkhead is more than big enough for short kayak camping trips. Shock-cord deck rigging makes it easy to attach additional gear items to the craft.

Learn more about the Wilderness Systems Aspire 105 Kayak.

Best Sit-on-Top: Eddyline Caribbean 12

Eddyline Caribbean 12 Sit-On-Top Kayak

$1.00  out of stock
as of May 12, 2024 5:24 am

For those that prefer a sit-on-top kayak for their kayak camping adventures, the Eddyline Caribbean 12 is hard to beat.

This incredibly stable kayak is best suited for flatwater kayaking, although it does hold its own in rougher waters. The Gull Wing hull is to thank for this stability. It also enhances speed and tracking while ensuring turning is easy. The comfortable, high-backed seat means you’ll remain comfortable on long paddles or lazy days of fishing on the lake.

The Caribbean 12 is also notable for its durable construction. It will last for years upon years, even with heavy use. A small watertight front hatch plus large exposed rear gear area with shock-cord give you plenty of places to stash your kayak camping gear. The craft can support up to 300 pounds total.

Learn more about the Eddyline Caribbean 12 Kayak.

Best Touring: Delta Kayaks Delta 15.5 GT

Delta Kayaks Delta 15.5 GT Kayak

$2,350.00  in stock
as of May 12, 2024 5:24 am

The Delta Kayaks Delta 15.5 GT is one of the best touring kayaks available in 2020.

This versatile kayak is ideal for users of all skill levels. It’s intuitive enough for those just starting out but boasts enough high performance features for seasoned paddlers. It’s sleek V-shape hull and upswept bow equal excellent speed and straight tracking in all weather conditions, including very rough water.

But one of the best things about the Delta 15.5 GT is its ample storage space. Two watertight storage compartments (one at front and one at rear) give you plenty of room to stash all of your kayak camping gear. Integrated shock-cord enables you to pack even more equipment along for your trip.

Learn more about the Delta Kayaks Delta 15.5 GT Kayak.

Camping Kayak Buyer’s Guide

Camping Kayak by Tent

The best kayaks for camping are sturdy and easy to maneuver. They track well in all conditions. They are relatively fast and have plenty of storage space. Keep the following factors in mind during the buying process.

Assess Your Needs

Where do you plan to kayak? On lakes or rivers, in the ocean, or a combination of all three? Do you expect calm weather or will you take your kayak out into rough weather?

Do you plan to go kayak camping alone or with a friend? A two-person kayak is ideal for camping with a partner. Do you only plan to use your kayak for camping or do you want to use it for everyday paddling as well?

How much gear do you plan to carry at once? Multi-day kayak camping trips require more storage space than single night camping trips.

Types of Kayaks

There are many types of kayaks available. The type you select influences its overall performance for camping.

  • Recreational – Affordable, easy to use, and stable in calm conditions such as lakes, ponds, and slow-moving rivers.
  • Touring – Best for traveling long distances. These kayaks are fast, stable, and track straight, even in rough conditions. Some models have ample storage space.
  • Modular – Their unique design allows these kayaks to snap apart into multiple sections for easier transportation and storage. Extra seating can be added as needed.
  • Sit-on-Top – Great for beginners and children. Sit-on-top kayaks are stable and easy to use. The best models are also stable in rough water. Some models lack storage space.
  • Inflatable – The best choice for those with minimal storage space and small vehicles without roof racks. Inflatable kayaks pack down small but are easy to reinflate.
  • Folding – Another unique design, folding kayaks, as their name implies, fold down small enough to carry in a large backpack. High-performance touring models are available.
  • Fishing – Stable with a large amount of storage space, fishing kayaks are built from the ground up with kayak fishing in mind.
  • Whitewater – Created specifically for rough water, whitewater kayaks are ideal for whitewater conditions. They often don’t have much storage space, making them a lackluster option for kayak camping.

Although you can make do in pretty much any type of kayak, the best types for camping are usually a recreational, touring, or sit-on-top model.

Kayak Dimensions

Camping kayaks come in all different shapes and sizes. Although shorter kayaks are easier to maneuver, they are slower than longer kayaks. Longer kayaks also track straighter across long distances.

Width directly influences stability. A wider kayak is generally more stable, although narrow kayaks are actually more stable when executing sharp turns.

As for depth, a deeper kayak can offer more storage space, although depth is largely about your personal preferences. Beginners sometimes feel more secure in a deeper kayak as they sometimes offer more protection from waves.

Kayak Materials

A wide variety of materials are used to construct camping kayaks. The materials directly influence strength, durability, weight, and maneuverability.

  • Plastic – Usually polyethylene or thermoformed ABS, plastic is cheap, impact-resistant, abrasion-resistant, and lightweight.
  • Composite – Usually Kevlar, fiberglass, or carbon fiber, composite kayaks are extremely lightweight and high performing.
  • Soft Shell – Most inflatable and folding kayaks use a soft-shell material made from a durable cloth-like material.

Know that material type also directly influences cost. Composite is typically more expensive than plastic.

Additional Factors

Keep your eye on the following additional factors when selecting the best kayak for camping.

  • 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 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 Canoes for Camping in 2020

Here are the top 3 best canoes for camping in 2020.

Best Overall: Old Town Saranac 160

Old Town Saranac 160 Canoe

$799.99  out of stock
as of May 12, 2024 5:24 am

A sturdy recreational canoe, the Old Town Canoes Saranac 160 Canoe is an excellent choice for canoe camping with your family.

Created by Old Town Canoes, one of the leaders in the recreational canoe industry, the Saranac 160 is very stable, easy to maneuver, and tracks straight. It has three comfortable seats (with built-in cup holders and storage trays). Additional features include a flush mount rod holder and a built-in anchor mounting system.

This top-quality camping canoe supports up to 750 pounds total, enough for most families of three plus camping gear. Still, it’s small enough to paddle alone on solo outings.

Learn more about the Old Town Canoes Saranac 160 Canoe.

Best in Rough Water: Mad River Adventure 14

Mad River Adventure 14 Canoe

$799.00  out of stock
as of May 12, 2024 5:24 am

The Mad River Adventure 14 is a sturdy, reliable canoe that makes a great option for family camping.

Not only is it suitable for up to three paddlers, but the canoe is still lightweight and nimble enough to be piloted solo. It offers plenty of storage space for all of your camping gear, making overnight canoe camping trips a breeze.

The multi-chine hull makes for great stability and straight tracking while the hull’s short length improves maneuverability. Comfortable adjustable seats with built-in cup holders and trays increase usability. The rugged rotomolded construction ensures this camping canoe is very durable and will hold up to years upon years of fun.

Learn more about the Mad River Adventure 14 Canoe.

Best Solo: Old Town Next

Old Town Next Canoe

$1,399.95  out of stock
as of May 12, 2024 5:24 am

Not only one of the best solo canoes for 2020, the Old Town Canoes Next Canoe is also an excellent choice for solo canoe camping.

Made by one of the leading names in the canoe industry, you can rest assured that this camping canoe is quality through and through. Despite its relatively narrow width (to improve handling), the canoe is quite stable, even in rough water conditions.

But what’s really special about the Old Town Next is its fun unique design that’s something of a mix between a canoe and a kayak. In fact, it can be used with a traditional double-bladed canoe paddle or a one-bladed kayak paddle.

Learn more about the Old Town Canoes Next Canoe.

Camping Canoe Buyer’s Guide

Canoes on Beach Near Campsite

The best camping canoes are sturdy, easy to use, and highly maneuverable. They have ample storage space to keep your gear dry from waves. Keep the following factors in mind while searching for the best canoe for camping.

Assess Your Needs

How will you use your new camping canoe? Will you use it for weekend camping trips or week-long expeditions? Do you plan to use it mostly on flat water or in rough water as well?

Will you go canoe camping alone or with others? Does your canoe need to hold just one person or several people plus gear? How much gear do you expect to bring? Longer expeditions typically require more storage space than short jaunts.

Your answers to these questions will help you narrow down your options for the best camping canoe for your needs and preferences.

Types of Canoes

Canoes come in several main types. The type of canoe you select influences its overall camping performance.

  • Recreational – Stable, easy to maneuver, and fun to paddle, these canoes are perfect for canoe camping on ponds, lakes, and slower 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, river canoes are the best option for canoe camping if a bit of whitewater adventure is thrown into the mix.
  • 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.

Each type of canoe has its own pros and cons for camping. However, you’re likely best off with a recreational, multi-purpose, or touring canoe depending on the specifics of your camping trip.

Canoe Dimensions

Most canoes range from 16 to 17 feet long. A shorter model is best for whitewater rivers while a longer model is better for extended touring.

As far as width, remember that a wider canoe is a more stable canoe. However, narrower canoes are often more maneuverable and also faster.

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.

Canoe Materials

The material used to construct a canoe directly influences its strength, durability, weight, and maneuverability.

  • 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. They are created in the same manner as fiberglass canoes.
  • 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, many modern canoe manufacturers have also cooked up their own exclusive materials.

Canoe Shape

Canoe shape is another factor that influences the overall performance of the vessel.

  • Hull Shape – Affects how the canoe handles in water. Your 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 rocker 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. breaks down the different design elements that influence canoe shape in greater detail in their valuable guide to canoe design.

Canoe and Kayak Camping FAQ

Canoe Campsite

Here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about canoe and kayak camping.

Q: Where to go kayak camping?

A: The best place to go overnight kayak camping depends on where you live. Look for guided tours in your area or ask for ideas at your local paddling supplier. You can also plan your own trip at pretty much any body of water with waterside campsites.

Q: What to take on a kayak camping trip?

A: Start with your kayak, paddle, and life jacket. You’ll likely also need a roof rack for your vehicle to transport your kayak. Beyond this, the best kayak camping gear includes all of your normal gear, such as a sleeping bag, tent, and camp stove.

Q: How to pack a kayak for camping?

A: Keep it light. Limit the amount of gear you bring. Lightweight backpacking gear is best. Pack heavier gear at the bottom and lighter gear on top. Keep your valuables close. I recommend using dry bags for additional protection from water damage (even if you have watertight compartments).

Q: Where to go canoe camping?

A: Many of the same places that are ideal for kayak camping are equally good for canoe camping. I personally like to stick to nearby lakes and mellow rivers with easily accessible campgrounds along them.

Q: What to take on a canoe camping trip?

A: Don’t forget your canoe, paddle, and life jacket. On top of this, you’ll need your standard camping gear, including a sleeping bag, tent, and cook stove. Don’t forget to pack the proper ingredients to make delicious camping meals!

Q: How to pack a canoe for camping?

A: You can typically bring a little more gear in a canoe than a kayak. That said, you should still think light. Pack the heaviest gear at the bottom and in the middle of the canoe. I recommend using dry bags, although a tarp also works, to keep your gear dry, especially if you’re canoe camping in the rain.

Let Us Know If You Have Any Questions!

Canoe on Beach

So, that’s the bulk of what you need to know about canoe and kayak camping as a beginner. But the best way to learn…is to head out on a trip of your own, of course!

Before you take off, we’d love to hear from you. Which do you prefer: canoe camping or kayak camping? Where is your favorite place to go? Do you have any additional tips that we missed here?

Let us know in the comments below! And don’t hesitate to ask if you have any additional questions!

Kayak on rocks on beautiful lake


Wednesday 30th of August 2023

The part about a "shakedown" cruise? (loading the gear and test-paddling BEFORE you go out for real)...IT'S IMPORTANT!!! It's so easy to overestimate your ability to pack and safely transport all the weight. Don't wait until the kids are yelling and its starting to get dark at the boat launch to figure this out. You do not want to dump your boat as night is falling or when the water is cold. Ask me how I know...

If you have been car camping previously, you will NOT be able to take all that stuff. Forget all the Snoopy-Come-Home cotton sleeping bags. (forget EVERYTHING cotton) Forget the Coleman two burner stove, Forget the 100 quart cooler, forget the Paul Bunyan axe. If you have been canoe camping previously and are now going in will NOT be able to take the stuff you had in the canoe! Canoes are way easier to load and distribute weight. Kayaks can be very very challenging. You need to break up the gear into many smaller dry bags instead of several large ones. And when the gear manages to fit in those crevices, you have to make sure the weight is balanced as well! Do this at least a day beforehand. Take pictures or make a diagram showing where you pack everything and have the boat level. It's super easy to forget how you managed to accomplish the packing later.

Practice loading. You want to be able to distribute the weight evenly. If you are solo, you'll need to add more weight to the bow. Strive to have no gear above the gunwhales as wind can be enough of a challenge with a canoe...don't add to your problems.

Dry bags! Get some. Many of them! Crappy ones are NOT good. They will leak. Garbage bags are NOT good. They will leak. If you cannot get your gear, especially bedding and clothes, into good dry bags, wait until you get some before going out. Or be able to be happy with a wet sleeping bag and clothes.

SealLine Baja Bags are extremely heavy duty and will last a lifetime. Not incredibly lightweight but they are bombproof. Good for heavy gear and gear that has sharp edges or bumps, Also good for food since they seal out smells pretty well. (thinking of animals detecting smells at night and coming to dinner) Sea To Summit, Big River, bags are excellent. Very lightweight and very durable. Very good value. Compression dry bags are excellent for sleeping bags, which can otherwise take up a lot of space.

Don't forget a good first aid kit. Don't get a $19.95 kit from amazon or the drugstore. This is an important kit that you should assemble yourself, using products that are high quality and reliable and also include what you need from your own experience. (poison ivy treatments? Benadryl? Butterfly bandaids, huge bandaids, alcohol wipes, ace bandage, female stuff, instant ice pack...etc. ) Put into a good drybag or a waterproof tupperware with locking lid.

Lastly, if you are going into waters that are frequented by motor boats, at least one of your group should have a fluorescent orange flag on a pole, and a signaling air horn. If there's ANY chance you could be out after dark, PLEASE get a good WATERPROOF light...and have the ability to put it on the flagpole for visibility.

Will Thornberry

Tuesday 24th of September 2019

Mostly useful but I've never been car camping myself, so I lack a gauge when you compare it to Car Camping. Everything else is brilliant.


Wednesday 19th of September 2018

So glad I found your guide. My wife and I have decided to give kayak camping a go so we will be reading a ton on it.

Sam Carey

Sunday 16th of September 2018

Hi! Me and 5 of my friends are planning a canoe trip, we have all plenty backpacking experience together but have never taken a canoe trip and want to mix it up this upcoming summer (2019). Do you have any suggestions for a river/trip in the NE region?


Thursday 23rd of August 2018

Thank you for these useful tips! What kind of food do you reccomend taking though? Im planning a kayaking camping trip down a calm river near PA and NY border. I think I have everything else I need to know. I just need to think of some light/compact breakfast, lunch, dinner, and/or snack foods that I can fit into a small cooler or into one of the 2 waterproof bags we have.. I’m thinking instant mashed potatoes in the pouch, bumblebee snack on the go tuna salads, maybe some granola and granola bars, MAYBE some MRE’s.. maybe a small cooler to keep butter and maybe some chopped chicken to cook on the pocket rocket? I need some other ideas though if anyone has any.. thank you so much!

Jake Walnut

Thursday 6th of September 2018

Sounds like an awesome kayak trip! We have quite a few posts on camping recipes including our camp cooking guide. Lots of great ideas in there. I personally pack like I'm going backpacking, including not bringing a cooler, when I'm on a canoe/kayak trip.