Canoe Camping Essentials: How to Pack for Canoe Camping

How to pack for a canoe trip

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Your gear can be the one thing that makes or breaks your experience out in the wilderness, so take the time to prepare well by getting to know the canoe camping essentials. To help you get ready for your first (or next) excursion, we’ve put together our recommended canoe camping checklist.

What to pack for canoe camping

The best approach is not to plan for ideal conditions. Prepare for the worst so that you’re not caught off-guard if Murphy’s Law decides to throw every possible obstacle in your path. And remember that while you’re heading out on a canoe trip for fun, nature is not a game. If you hit the water and the wilderness without the proper gear and skills, you may not get a second chance to be well prepared.

Don’t let this stern warning deter you, however. It’s very simple to make sure you’ve got everything you need for a safe and fun trip.

Canoe camping essentials checklist

  • Canoe and paddle
  • Repair kit
  • Safety and signaling gear
  • Gear for making your way
  • A canoe that is appropriate for the conditions
  • Of all the canoe camping essentials, perhaps the most important one you’ll need is a good canoe!

Whether you own or rent, you’ll want to choose a canoe that is built for the kind of conditions you’ll be navigating. Canoes come in a variety of models and specifications that affect speed, maneuverability, durability, and more.

A recreational or multi-purpose canoe is the most versatile, but if you’re planning to hit rapids at any point, you should choose a vessel that can handle fast-moving water.

For more information about choosing a canoe for your canoe camping trip, you can check out our article here, [link], which goes into detail about the different options available to you.

You’ll also need one paddle for every person in the canoe, plus a spare if one goes overboard or disaster otherwise befalls it.

Repair kit

Before any outdoor expedition, you should also put together a basic repair kit to patch up dings, dents, holes, and other issues affecting your canoe.

A typical canoe camping repair kit will include sealant, a roll of copper baling wire, nylon cord or bungee cords, putty, replacement nuts and bolts, and duct tape.

Safety and signaling gear

No matter your skill level as a swimmer, it is essential to wear a lifejacket that fits you properly at all times in the canoe. Even better if it has a whistle attached.

Devices such as whistles, mirrors, and flares are also musts so that you can signal for help in an emergency.

Another essential item is a bailer or bilge pump. This will be worth its weight in gold if you start taking on water.

Gear for making your way

Camping and personal gear
  • Bug tarp and spray
  • Tent and sleeping bag
  • Outdoor kitchen setup
  • Clothing
  • Sun protection
  • First aid kit
  • Electronics
  • Tent and sleeping bag

Choose a tent that, like your bug tarp, can stand up to the wind and that everyone can squeeze into without stepping on each other’s toes (figuratively and literally).

Bonus points if it’s quick and easy to set up since the last thing you want to do after a long day of paddling is spend hours fussing with poles and pitching. A sleeping bag that will keep you warm when the temperatures drop at night rounds out your setup.

Outdoor kitchen setup

Don’t leave home without a portable camping stove. Although the thought of cooking over an open fire speaks to the outdoors person in all of us, the reality is that cooking over a stove is faster, more reliable, and a heck of a lot easier. Plus, some areas have fire bans, so a stove may be your only cooking option.

Be sure to keep your matches, lighter, and firestarter in a waterproof container, so they’re ready to go when your stomach starts rumbling.

Here’s an insider canoe camping tip that we want everyone to know about: pot cozies. These make outdoor cooking a breeze in several important ways. Their insulating action speeds up cooking time and keeps food warmer for longer, thereby reducing your need for fuel.

Two more must-have items are a trusty water container and a multi-purpose knife.


The issue of what clothing to pack could fill an entire article on its own, so we’ll keep it general and say to pack for a range of weather conditions, including footwear (that means sandals, walking shoes, and rain boots) and a raincoat.

Many experienced canoe campers swear by the many light layers approach, and we agree. It’s the best way to stay warm without too much bulk.

Sun protection

Most people think of wilderness hazards in terms of wolves, bears, tornadoes, hurricanes, and poison ivy. But in fact, one of the things you most need to guard against is the very thing you want to bask in: the sun.

Without proper sun protection, hours out on the water and under the sun can lead to serious sun burns, heat stroke, heat exhaustion, and worse. That’s why a hat, sunscreen and sunglasses, and a lip balm with SPF should be at the top of your packing list.

First aid kit

Although a canoe camping trip is a chance to escape our digital devices for a little while, you still need to bring a few electronic devices along for the sake of safety. Two-way radios are useful when you’re camping in a group of two or more since they let you stay in touch in areas where cell phone reception is weak or nonexistent.

Your cell phone should come along if you’re using it for navigation purposes but keep it in a waterproof bag. A multifunction watch is another suitable device to have on hand to track the time and plan your day.

How to pack your canoe camping gear

Spread out on a table or floor, the amount of gear needed for even a short canoe camping trip can boggle the mind. It seems impossible to carry all that stuff around. It is indeed possible, however, with the right packing technique.

There are two kinds of packs we recommend: a barrel pack and a traditional canoe pack.

Barrel pack

A barrel pack is a round, rigid container for your food built to be waterproof and to keep out small animals.

When you pack it, start by placing your last day’s worth of food at the bottom, and then fill it up, working backward by day to the start of your trip. This allows you to take out each day’s worth of food without having to root around and unpack and repack items.

Traditional canoe pack

A traditional canoe pack is a large backpack with a long strap known as a tumpline, which connects to the sides of the pack and is worn across the forehead. It may sound a little wacky, but it does wonders for transferring weight away from the shoulders.

To pack it, place softer items toward the back (where they’ll be resting against your spine), and put medium-weight items on the bottom. Then layer heavier items in the middle and finish with lighter items on top. This ensures the weight is distributed and the pack is easy to carry.

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