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Of all the ways to go camping, canoeing is the best. Over 58 million North American households went camping in 2022 according to KOA, but most new campers are taking to the wilderness in RVs, tricked-out vans, cabins, and at glampsites. Maybe it's because canoe camping isn't as trendy (or TikTok-friendly) as #vanlife nor as hardcore as ultralight backpacking; it would seem like paddling in neither appeals to beginner nor seasoned outdoorists. To this I contend au contraire—canoe camping has a unique universality that makes it ideal for beginner and seasoned campers alike.
Consider, for instance, two different canoe camping itineraries. In one, you'd paddle the entire length of the Northern Forest Canoe Trail, a 740-mile route that has you hopping your way from New York to Maine via 23 rivers and streams and 59 ponds and lakes (not to mention the 65 portages—that's a French word that means you'll have to carry your boat and gear over land from one body of water to the next). On the other side of the canoe camping coin, you might simply book a campsite at your local state park or reservoir, load the boat with everything you need including the dog, and paddle in for the weekend.
My first experience with canoe camping was back when I was 12, when I tagged along with the my small hometown's local church youth group to the nearby Saint Regis Canoe Area, an 18,400-acre area in New York's Adirondack Park that's loaded with 50 ponds and lakes to paddle between. We paddled from campsite to campsite, learning technique and outdoor living skills along the relatively easy way. The area feels like true wilderness, but it's fairly accessible, which makes it an ideal beginner backcountry trip.
Years later, I spent three weeks paddling the New Zealand's Clarence River from the mountains to the ocean as part of a semester spent with the National Outdoor Leadership School (aka NOLS). That trip involved full neoprene suits, traveling through sleet, and paddling and lining our canoes through Class II and III rapids (lining is when you stand on the shore and walk your boat down the river, like a dog, when things are a bit too hairy to paddle through). There were even a few capsizes and swift water rescues.
The point is, canoe camping can be as accessible or adventurous as you want or need it to be. Recently, having acquired a new Old Town canoe, I traveled back to the Saint Regis Canoe Area for the first time in a number of years with a group of friends for a long weekend camping trip. Even having grown accustomed to farther-flung and higher stakes experiences over the years, our tame 20-ish mile route had all the elements of a real outdoor adventure. It renewed my fondness for canoe camping, and convinced me that it's one of the best ways to take to the outdoors.
How to Plan a Canoe Camping Trip
Decide Where to Go
This is an obvious Step One, right? Maybe—give it some consideration. What kind of trip do you want? An easy one? An adventurous one? How much time do you have? What's accessible from where you're based? Do you own a canoe or will you need to find a rental? Answer these questions and you'll find you've narrowed down the options considerably (unless you live in Minnesota or Maine). If you're a beginner, seek out a flat water destination that's not too remote and go out for a night or two before leveling up.
Get Permits and Campsite Reservations
Before you break out the map, take a moment to check if you need permits or campsite reservations where you're heading. No? Plan away. If yes, be prepared to be somewhat flexible; limited campsite availability might choose your route for you. And if sites are first-come-first-served, see if you can find any information online about how crowded things can get or call a local outfitter for beta, and put a backup in place in case your top pick campsite is occupied by the local college outing club by the time you paddle up to it.
Plan Your Route
Let's assume that you have the freedom to paddle and camp wherever you want. Designing a canoe camping route is a lot like planning a backpacking trip. Canoe camping trips can be out-and-back excursions, they can be loops, or they can be one-way, point-to-point journeys. If you don't know how long it'll take you to paddle a given distance, take to the online forums again to see what others have done or, again, call a local outfitter for advice (they'll probably have really great route recommendations too, if you'd rather outsource this entire step). You can also go out for a paddle before the trip and time yourself to get a sense of how much water you can cover in a given time.
There can be added logistics involved depending on the type of route you design. For instance, you might need to run a car shuttle to leave one car at the takeout—don't forget to bring the keys to that car in the canoe with you! Local outfitters are a great resource here too, as many of them offer shuttle and pickup services and will arrange to have rental canoes ready for you at the put-in.
Get a Map
This is an important one: get a paper map. Ideally a waterproof one. While you're on the phone with the local outfitter, ask for the best one they have, pay for it over the phone, and have them mail it to you.
There are some amazing map apps available, but for paddling, analogue is best. You can secure a paper map protected by a waterproof case to the bag in front of you so that you can glance at it at any moment and check your progress and ensure you don't confuse one stream or bay for another and wind up far, far off course. Even though many smartphones are waterproof (so they say), you'll have to stop paddling every time you want to get your bearings and that means you'll wind up either not paddling enough or not checking the map enough. Both are no good.
Include a Portage in Your Route
I'm not an adherent to the old-school idea that all adverse situations are "character building," but there is something distinct about carrying a boat and all its contents from one body of water to another. It can be demoralizing while you're doing it and wildly empowering when it's over. Not every portage I've done has sucked, but the ones that have have also been among the most memorable moments of some very memorable canoe trips.
Make a Meal Plan
Some folks are content to count out the number of meals a trip calls for and buy an equal number of dehydrated meals and call this job done. I believe canoe camping offers a unique opportunity to call forth your inner backcountry gourmand. Since you won't have to carry everything on your back, you can afford to bring along bacon, a dozen eggs, and pancake mix for breakfast and leave the instant oatmeal at home.
I like to make a spreadsheet with all the meals (and snack times) listed out and use that to create a menu and a shopping list. This also makes it easy to assign meals to different members of the group and ensure that nobody goes hungry or thirsty.
Acquiring a Canoe
In places where paddling is popular, it shouldn't be too hard to find a place to rent one. As previously mentioned, many outfitters will deliver a canoe rental to your put-in and offer some sort of shuttle or pickup service to facilitate point-to-point trips. Renting is the best way to go for beginners, or seasoned paddlers who might not have the cash to throw down on a boat of their own and/or the place to store it.
However, there's also something to owning such a simple vessel, one that has no breakable mechanical parts and needs no fuel except sweat. A canoe strikes directly at that indelible human attraction toward freedom, supplying comfort in knowing that, when the AI apocalypse comes, you can always just paddle off into the wilderness.
I recently came into possession of my first canoe. Since I hadn't yet found the time to build one by hand and my family's old Orvis was inflicted with irreparable rot in its wooden gunwales, the only option was to go new. If you're going to buy a canoe, it's a good idea to get one made by a company based in Maine or Minnesota, where paddling is engrained in the local identity. Ontario also works.
Being a New Englander, I opted for Old Town, a company that's been building canoes for more than 100 years in Maine's Penobscot River Valley. The boat is a 15' 8" three-layer polyethylene vessel with two seats, vinyl gunwales, and an ash wood yoke called the Discovery 158. It's a versatile watercraft; super durable, made for flat and moving water with enough space in the hull for loads of gear, all of which make it excellent for canoe camping.
Packing the Boat
Just as there is a science to packing a backpack for a multi-day trek, there's one to loading a canoe for a full day on the water. The keyword here is balance. An unbalanced boat is a tippy boat, so place items in the hull with a mind to keeping things relatively even bow to stern (front to back) and also side to side. It's a good idea to secure whatever you can to the boat too with straps and lines, particularly in moving water.
Canoe Trip Gear Essentials
In addition to everything and anything you need to camp the way you like to camp, bring these paddle trip-specific items.
Personal Floatation Device AKA PFD AKA Life Jacket — Astral Ringo, $170
Any life jacket is better than no life jacket, so if all you have at your disposal is one of those awkward orange foam horseshoes, use it. But some companies, like Astral, have figured out how to make PFDs that are certified-safe but also comfortable, facilitate better arm movement as you paddle, and have bonus features. The Ringo is all of these things, and it has a handy front pocket for frequently accessed items like sunscreen or your phone (or, as a paddler friend advised me, a 12-ounce can).
Big Waterproof Backpack — SealLine Black Canyon Dry Pack 65L, $260
The packing mantra for canoe camping is waterproof everything. Nay, double waterproof everything. Big, waterproof duffel bags are your friends in this endeavor, and SealLine's 65-liter Black Canyon Dry Pack could be your best friend. It's big enough to hold a backpacking tent, sleeping gear, and clothing for two people without being overly scant. It also has comfy backpack straps and a hipbelt that are adjustable and removable—you'll want these for that portage you built into your route.
Waterproof Boat Bag — SealLine Discovery View Dry Bag 5L, $35
Think of this smaller dry bag as your daypack; it's a place to stash the small number of essentials that you'll want easy access to while paddling. Things like a windbreaker or rain jacket, a fleece, sunscreen, some snacks, binoculars, a 35mm camera. This semi-transparent bag from SealLine makes it easy to see where everything's located so you don't have to do too much digging around. That'll minimize the time spent not paddling, which will make your boat mate happy.
A Good Fleece — Patagonia R1 Air Fleece Crew, $99
Fleece stays warm when wet, which makes it the perfect insulating layer for canoe trips. You're bound to get splashed—either by your own paddling or the wildcard in your group who your friend brought along. There are many fleeces to choose from, but this Patagonia crew is a workhorse that packs small and provides a lot of warmth. Check out Field Mag's guides to fleece jackets and grid fleeces for more options.
Camp Shoes — Chaco Chillos Clogs, $65
Or, depending on how you want to think about it, wet shoes. Either way, you'll want footwear that'll get wet during the day (and possibly stay wet for the entirety of your trip) and something dry to slip into when you arrive at camp. You can go a lot of ways here—any old pair of trail running shoes can do the trick—but Chaco's cross between sandals and Crocs is a canoe trip-approved option that'll work in the boat or at camp (and for other trips too). Along these lines, dry socks for camp are a must, and I'll even advocate for a pair of sleeping socks that you only use when cocooned inside your sleeping bag.
Camping Chair — Nemo Moonlite Reclining Camp Chair, $160
You're going to be sitting and/or kneeling in a boat for most of the day, so do yourself a favor and bring a chair with a backrest to camp. Any one of these camping chairs will do the trick. Nemo's Moonlite is a personal favorite because it's light, packs down small, and is quite comfy thanks to an adjustable back.
Cooler — Yeti Roadie, $250
If you're going to take my advice and go all out in the camp kitchen, you'll want a cooler that can preserve those perishables for a few days. Yeti's smallest hard cooler is a portable cold cellar, and doubles as a sturdy, hard, flat surface for food prep. It's not the easiest thing to carry on portages, but eggs and bacon are worth the extra effort.
Water Purification — LifeStraw Peak Gravity Water Filter System, $66
Look up giardia and you'll understand why water filtration is important. I've used big, bike pump-style water filters on some trips and chlorine drops on others to make water safe to drink, but LifeStraw's approach is more straightforward. Just fill up the bag, hang it in a tree, and dispense as needed.
Extra Line — NRS Rescue Rope 3/8"
If your canoe doesn't come with a painter—that's a rope attached to the bow for tying up, which you should do at camp—you should affix one. Even if it does, it can't hurt to have some spare; for hanging a food bag away from pesky mice, making a clothes line, tying to your friend's bow because they forgot to do so themself, etc. You can get some at your local gear store, or order from NRS by the foot.