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A Beginner’s Guide To Paddle Camping

Summer is just around the corner and paddle camping season will be here before you know it. If you’ve never tried paddle camping–either with kayaks or canoes, then you are sorely missing out!

Paddle camping, whether with a canoe or kayak, is an amazing way to explore and experience lakes, rivers, and waterways all over the country. Whether you’re heading down the river or to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, the opportunities for adventure are endless.

Use this guide to get started and add paddle camping to your bucket list this summer!

Plan Your Trip

Choose a short, easy route in calm waters for your first paddle camping trip. This will allow you to focus on learning the ropes and enjoying the adventure without getting overwhelmed. Even if you are a seasoned paddler and experienced backpacker, it’s better to start small than to bite off more than you can chew.

There are plenty of online resources for paddle camping routes in America and around the world. The James River in Virginia is an exceptional east coast location for paddle camping excursions.

Start with a one or two-night trip within easy driving distance to allow plenty of time to arrive, pack your canoe or kayak, and enjoy an easy paddle to the campsite.

If you select a route on a river, consider whether it will be a point-to-point trip or an out-and-back. The advantage of a point-to-point trip is that you won’t have to paddle upstream. If you choose an out-and-back route, make sure the current is not too strong and allow for extra time when paddling upstream.

What to Pack

Paddle camping is not very different from backpacking. The biggest difference is that you are paddling to your campsite rather than hiking. You can even use most of the same equipment for both activities.

Most canoes and kayaks have plenty of storage room for everything you will need. I find that I can bring a few more luxury items paddle camping than I can backpacking. It’s sort of like minimalist car camping!

Though weight is not quite as much of a consideration in paddle camping (because you aren’t carrying a pack), there are a few other factors to consider.

If you are paddle camping with kayaks, the hatches are uniquely shaped and have some limitations about how much you can fit inside. Canoes are open, so packing is much easier. Canoes generally have more storage capacity (in size, not necessarily in weight).

Here’s a basic list of items you will need for your first paddle camping trip:

Packing a Kayak

Lay everything out that you plan to bring and set aside all the items that should stay dry (sleeping bag, clothing, cooking items, etc.). Your hatch is probably not completely watertight, especially if you capsize. Dry bags are an easy way to keep these items safe.

Quite a few of your items don’t need to be in dry bags. This makes it easier to pack everything efficiently into your kayak. For example, your sleeping pad, rain fly, poles, and airtight food packages will not be damaged if they get wet. Items that don’t need to stay completely dry (like your tent) can be placed in a plastic trash bag.

Packing everything into your kayak is sort of like a giant Tetris game. Try to put things where they best fit and use every space wisely. Tent poles often fit well in the stern, for example. Put medium sized dry bags in then pack small bags and loose items around the larger items to maximize space.

While it’s inconvenient to load and unload all the loose items and small bags, it makes packing much easier. Bring an empty stuff sack or duffle bag to carry or store all the loose items once you arrive at your campsite.

Avoid putting unnecessary items in the cockpit with you. Keeping clutter to a minimum will prevent knocking items into the water or not being able to find what you need. Keep your map, compass, GPS, water, first aid kit, and sunscreen handy. Everything else should be packed away.

Packing a Canoe

For both canoes and kayaks, focus on keeping the load “low and centered.” This is much easier in a canoe where you can easily put most of your gear in the center. Pack the heavy items at the bottom and place the important items that you might need to access while paddling at the top.

Packing a canoe is more akin to backpacking. Nearly everything must fit into large or medium dry bags. That way, if you tip over you won’t have to round up dozens of loose belongings and everything stays dry in the open canoe.

You may need to experiment with different packing strategies and techniques to find the one that works for you. The key is to keep everything bagged neatly in case of catastrophe.

Portages

If you paddle camp long enough or in the right places, you may need to portage. A portage is when you carry your boat and belongings over a stretch of land. You might do this to move from one river or body of water to another or to bypass a dangerous rapid or shallow stretch.

Most pre-planned paddle camping trips will have the portages clearly marked but it’s a good idea to prepare for an unexpected portage on every trip. If you are paddling alone, make sure you can carry your canoe or kayak over short distances.

In a canoe, use the center yoke to balance the boat upside down on your shoulders. It does take practice getting the canoe up and down by yourself and keeping it balanced. Some people like to wear a backpack to wear while portaging a canoe; the shoulder straps offer some padding and you can carry some of your gear with you.

Whether you have a kayak or canoe, you’ll need to empty your boat to portage. Make sure you can carry all your gear with you in one or two trips. Many experienced paddlers bring an empty backpack or dry bag with backpack straps to make portaging easier.

Scout the portage before you begin hauling your boat. Many paddlers carry a load of gear all the way through the portage to assess the trail. Nothing is more demoralizing than carrying your boat halfway through a portage only to discover an impassable obstacle.

For very long portages, consider investing in wheels or a cart. Some portage paths are far too rugged for wheels, but if you have a long, relatively smooth portage, wheels or a cart will make all the difference.

Fishing and Other Perks

While there are many similarities between paddle camping and backpacking, there are a few perks that make paddle camping a must-try!

Because weight is not as much of a consideration in paddle camping, it’s easy to bring along a few creature comforts. I like to bring along a hammock, some wine, my journal, a good book, and a fun game.

Paddle camping also allows you to eat differently. While there are many tasty freeze-dried food options on the market, nothing beats a fresh-caught fish grilled over the fire. Bring along your fishing gear so you can eat fresh and very local!

My favorite paddle camping meal is fresh fish, couscous, and canned veggies. You can make all of this easily over a backpacking stove or fire. But don’t forget to bring along some extra food just in case the fish aren’t biting.


Are you ready to trade your boots for a paddle? Where will you head first? If you’re an experienced paddle camper, what is your favorite tip, trick, or location to paddle camp?

A beginner's guide to paddle camping

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