Beginners Guide to Canoe Camping

Beginners Guide to Canoe Camping

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Canoe camping is an excellent way for you to learn new skills and connect with other people or strengthen your bonds with family and friends. If you have thought about canoe camping, but you’re not sure where to begin, you need our beginners guide to canoe camping to help you plan your trip. Although this guide is a thorough introduction to the wonders of canoe camping, if you are still unsure of where to begin or just want some additional guidance, book a guided canoe trip.

What is canoe camping?

Canoe camping is a combination of canoeing and camping. It’s like backpacking on a whole new level. When backpacking, you carry necessary items for camping on a trail, but when canoe camping, you do so via a canoe or kayak on the water. Canoe camping is also referred to as touring, tripping, or expedition canoeing.

You can go canoe camping by yourself or with guides. If you haven’t explored the area or are not familiar with the outdoors, it’s recommended to start with guided canoe camping. A guided canoe camping trip can be a way for you and your family to experience nature without having to worry about logistics, transportation, or meals.

Guided or not, you still have to prepare for a trip in the wilderness. This beginners guide to canoe camping will help you make sure you have everything covered for your trip. 

Beginners Guide to Canoe Camping

For a successful canoe camping trip, you have to consider a few things. Start by choosing the destination, making sure you know which route to follow, buying the necessary equipment, and practicing canoeing skills beforehand. 

Plan your canoe camping trip

Trip planning gives you a proper understanding of where you’re going and what you have to account for. If this is your first-time canoe camping, plan a one or two-night trip. It’s also a good idea to have someone with you – no matter if you’re with friends, family, or a guide, your first canoe trip should not be by yourself.

Planning your canoe camping trip includes:

  • Choosing which lake or reservoir to go to.
  • Packing canoe camping essentials.
  • Knowing what to do in case of emergency.

Choose the destination

Choosing the right destination for your first canoe camp is crucial. Choose a place that is close-by, and somewhat popular. It would be ideal to go to a lake or reservoir that has developed facilities throughout the trail if you can.

Choose a lake or river route that goes along with your goals for the trip.

A few things you have to consider when choosing a canoe camping destination include:

  • The length and difficulty of the trail
  • Developed facilities such as camping spots or thunder boxes
  • Access to drinking water
  • Accessible parking or easy access to any public transportation

As a beginner, you should definitively take into consideration the difficulty and accessibility of the trail. Do thorough research by looking at river guide books, internet posts, and your local outdoor retailer to ensure you’re going to the optimal route for your trip. Your outdoor retailer or local outfitter might also be able to provide you with the necessary gear for you and your group.  

While choosing your destination, keep an eye out for the weather. Keep track of the weather before and during the trip, and make sure you are comfortable with and prepared for the projected weather forecast.

Map your route

Once you choose your ideal destination, start planning your route. If you use a guided trip, you won’t have to think that much about it, but it’s always nice to know where you’re going. Get a hard copy of the trail’s map and track down facilities, camping spots, and whatever else you think it’s necessary to know. 

If you’re going with a group, make sure everyone has at least one hard copy of the map. While there may be a lead canoe, ensuring everyone has a map helps if you get separated for some reason. That way everyone knows the campsites and has locations to meet in case of emergency.

Plan your equipment

Canoe camping requires specific equipment, from clothing to gadgets. Apart from standard camping equipment (such as tents, personal hygiene items, and sleeping bags), you also have to prepare canoeing equipment. 

In this beginners guide to canoe camping, we recommend the following list of items for your canoe camping trip:

  • Canoe
  • Paddles (one per paddler and an extra)
  • Personal flotation devices (one per paddler and an extra)
  • Dry bags
  • Signaling devices
  • Float bags
  • GPS
  • Knife or multi-tool
  • Headlamp or flashlight (and extra batteries)
  • First-aid kit
  • Tent/tarp
  • Sleeping bags
  • Stove and fuel
  • Cooler
  • Binoculars
  • Credit card and cash
  • Helmet 
  • Swimsuit
  • Drysuit
  • Paddling gloves
  • Rainwear (jacket and pants)

You usually can rent some equipment, or if you plan a guided trip, you might not have to bring some items. Make sure you know what you have to bring (and plan to bring extras too). You can also talk among your group to make sure you have enough items for everybody. 

Canoe camping gear

Practice before you go 

It’s important to know the basics of canoeing before you dive straight into the world of canoe camping. It’s recommended for you to go somewhere and practice your canoeing skills before your trip.

How to get in and out of a canoe

To get into the canoe:

  1. Make sure the canoe is secured to a dock at both ends, or have someone hold and steady the canoe for you.
  2. Bend your knees, crouch low, and hold one side of the canoe with both hands.
  3. Face the front of the canoe and put one leg in toward the center of the canoe.
  4. Use your hand to hold the other side of the canoe.
  5. Once you are steady, bring the rest of your body into the canoe. Focus on staying in the center.

To get out of the canoe:

  1. Secure your canoe to the shore or dock and grab the side of the boat that is closest to the shore.
  2. Stand up in a low crouch and slowly face the shore.
  3. Swing your dominant leg over the side and quickly bring your dominant arm over to grab the dock.
  4. After this, pull the rest of your body out of the canoe.

Paddling basics for canoeing

How to hold a canoe paddle: Place one hand on the top grip and the other hand on the shaft closer to the paddle’s blade. The top grip (also called the butt of the shaft) will be shaped to fit your palm. Hold your bottom grip thumb-side up.

How to paddle forward: With your hands in the proper position, slightly bend your elbows and rotate your torso in the direction of your top hand. Create a lever with your lower paddle by reaching ahead of you with the paddle blade and digging into the water. Push your top hand forward and pull your bottom hand back, using your torso to ease the movement.

How to paddle backward: Kneel in your canoe and turn your shoulders 90 degrees toward your paddling side – this will give you a better range. Reach your paddle back and insert the blade into the water behind you. Then make the same movement as before, but just in the opposite way. Pull with your bottom hand and pull with your top one.

How to steer your canoe: If you’re paddling with another person, the second person in the canoe will be mostly responsible for steering. The most common way to steer a canoe is using the J-stroke. Put the blade of your paddle in the water behind you, flat near the edge of the canoe. Twist your torso and shoulders to the side and then back towards the front of the canoe while still keeping the blade submerged. The canoe will turn towards the side the paddle is on. 

Packing your canoe: keeping things balanced and dry

Packing your canoe is a key aspect of canoe camping. If you don’t pack in a well-balanced manner, there’s a chance your canoeing experience won’t be as good as it can be (and you can even risk flipping your canoe). Plan to practice packing your canoe a few times before your trip to figure out how to best distribute gear.

The best way to balance your items in your canoe is to put the heaviest items (such as fuel, food, and water) right in front and behind you, closest to the middle. Your mid-weight items such as clothing and camping gear should go towards the front and end of the canoe. Keep cameras, sunscreens, snacks, and maps in front of your feet, between your legs, or behind you for easy access.

To keep your items dry, you should use waterproof dry bags. Try nylon-coated bags or rubber bags. Don’t overfill your bags – keep them around two-thirds full. An overstuffed bag might compromise the watertight seal. Make sure your bag will be waterproof by squishing the dry bag with your knee to burp out extra air.

Portaging with your canoe

Depending on where you are going on your canoe camping trip, you might have to portage. If that is the case, you have to make sure to portage your canoe in the right way, so you don’t hurt yourself. You can portage your canoe by yourself, but it’s always recommended to portage a canoe with another person. 

Before lifting your canoe, make sure to empty it of all water and equipment to ensure you have the lightest possible canoe. While lifting your canoe, use the muscles in your legs as much as possible and keep your knees bent and your back straight to avoid injuries. 

When you’re lifting and carrying a canoe with someone else, the most common ways of carrying it are the underhand lift or the overhand lift. To do an underhand lift, stand on the opposite side and opposite end of the canoe from your partner and grab the closest carrying handle with your boat-side hand. Lift straight upwards and always face in the direction of travel. 

To do an overhead lift, stand up beside the canoe on the same side as your partner and reach over to grab the gunnels. Together with your partner, rotate the boat over your head. You can also use your shoulders to support this method, using the opposite shoulder your partner is using.

As a beginner, it’s not recommended for you to lift a canoe by yourself. You can carry it by yourself, but make sure there’s someone to help you lift it. 

Portaging during a canoe camping trip

Water safety for canoe camping

Apart from the usual camping safety, you also have to be safe when you’re on the water. Even if you are in a safe space, you need to know what to do in an emergency.

General safety tips to know before your canoe camping expedition:

  • Always use a PFD whenever you’re in the water, even if you know how to swim.
  • Select an appropriate paddling spot. If you’re not sure where the best place is, contact your guides or local retailer. 
  • Avoid paddling in windy and wavy conditions. Check the weather to make sure you’re not going to paddle during thunderstorms or heavy wind conditions. 
  • If you are paddling in areas that allow powerboats, sailboats, and jet skis, make sure to stay out of the way. The biggest hazard is the wave generated by powerboats, and a way to deal with that is to point your canoe directly into it.
  • Be aware of rocks and fallen trees – they might trap a canoe or swimmers. 

Get started with canoe camping!

Canoe camping is a fantastic activity to do with family or friends, and it doesn’t have to be challenging even for beginners. With the right gear, tips, and mindset, your first experience will open the doors for a world of adventure in the wilderness.

Make sure to choose a destination that fits your needs, map your route, pick your equipment, practice the basic actions of canoeing, pack your items in the best way to avoid your canoe flipping, and know the best water safety guides from your area.

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this beginners guide to canoe camping.

Be sure to check out our product recommendations and related blogs posts below!