Boat Camping Basics for Beginners

Tent on a beach

Enjoyed by outdoors enthusiasts all over the country, boat camping offers quiet, exclusive access to some of nature’s most remote and undisturbed destinations.

This pastime combines two of any outdoorsman’s favorite activities: boating and camping. If you have a boat and are looking for new places to fish, or simply a quiet location to set up camp, consider a boat camping trip for you next weekend getaway.

Why Boat Camping?

Destinations that are accessible only by boat offer campers an opportunity to experience nature in total solitude, in less-traveled areas, without the sound of generators running in the background.

Instead, you can enjoy the sound of the waves crashing near your campsite, beautiful starry skies uninterrupted by light pollution, and a front-row seat to the most radiant sunrises and sunsets you can imagine.

Boat camping is unique in that it combines the advantages of hiking in and driving up to a campsite. With a boat, you have the ability to visit locations that you otherwise couldn’t get to by foot, while being able to bring all your camping gear with you. Your boat can carry all the creature comforts you’d normally need to pack in a car, such as coolers, stoves, chairs, and air mattresses.

Camping by boat is similar to camping in an RV, especially if your boat is equipped with RV amenities, such as a toilet, shower, and indoor shelter. Boat camping provides much more versatility in where you can go and what you can see, especially if your plans include spending time on the water.

Boat camping is especially popular among anglers who prefer to spend a few days fishing in a new spot, with the ability to easily change locations. You can set up camp near the water, and chase the fish around different areas, without having to put your boat in and take it out every time you’re ready to go somewhere different.

By setting up a waterfront campsite, you’re right near the action at dusk or dawn, without the hustle and bustle of the boat ramps.

Where to Boat Camp

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As a beginner, it’s always a good idea to select campgrounds with dedicated boat slips and mooring areas. A good place to start boat camping is at your local state parks and national forests. For example, Florida’s boasts six state parks that are easily, sometimes exclusively, accessible by boat.

Finding a place to camp can be as simple as picking a park or campground with a boat ramp, putting in at the park, and camping around your chosen body of water. That way, your vehicle is still nearby, and you can always take your boat out and drive to a new area.

Some campers prefer to rent out private tent campsites at campgrounds along a lake or river, and stay in a new place ever night. This is great for longer trips when you need to break for a shower, a rest by the fire, and a hot meal on the grill.

For off-the-grid camping, you can explore local waterways and islands that have dedicated primitive camping areas. Pick your favorite river, and cruise down the river while stopping at a different place to camp every night.

In popular recreational areas, you can often find signs indicating that overnight camping is allowed, sometimes without a permit or fee required. Just make sure to look out for “no trespassing” or “private property” signs before you set up camp.

Things to Consider Before Boat Camping

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The main thing to consider before you go boat camping is what your shelter will be. Are you tent camping or does your boat have a cabin big enough to sleep in? You’ll be outdoors for the majority of the trip, so your shelter should be able to protect your from threats from weather or wildlife.

The biggest disadvantage to boat camping is the limited ability to bug out in inclement weather. You don’t have the safety of a car to escape to, and conditions may be too unsafe to go back to the boat ramp. This is particularly true when camping on an island, where it’s especially important to be prepared to ride out rough weather.

That’s why, generally, boat camping is a seasonal activity. It’s not ideal to camp by boat when it’s too hot or too cold out. Warmer seasons bring thunderstorms, and colder seasons can make the water impossible to enjoy.  Make sure you’re prepared to spend the whole day outside, and pack something to provide shade or warmth if you encounter less than ideal weather.

Before you go, make sure to research what types of wildlife you may encounter and how to stay safe around it. In the south, you may see more snakes and alligators in less inhabited areas than you would in a maintained campground. If you’re boat camping along a river or near a lake in bear country, take basic precautions to protect yourself from the threat of bears.

Another consideration when boat camping is the condition of your boat. Your boat must be well-maintained and reliable, unlikely to leave you stranded. In the event of a mechanical issue, it’s important to have a backup plan, especially in more remote destinations, where it’s difficult to call a tow boat for assistance.

Any time you go out on the water, and especially when you’ll be gone for several days, make sure that someone on land knows your plans. Always tell a friend or relative where you’re camping, what route you’re taking, and how long you plan on being away.

Pre-Trip Checklist

Photo from Gander Outdoors

Once you’ve planned your boat camping trip, follow this pre-trip checklist to help you remember a few important details.

  1. Check the weather forecast and plan to arrive at your destination early in the day to avoid afternoon showers and choppy waters. Going out during daylight also helps you learn the route and remember where there are hazards in the water, such as structure or tree limbs.
  2. Check all your equipment and electronics. Make sure that your bow and stern lights are in working order.
  3. If you’re beach camping or heading to an island, check the tides to avoid tying up too close to shore and getting your boat stuck during low tide.
  4. Charge your cell phone and bring spare batteries in case you can’t charge your phone on your boat. Invest in a radio so you have a communication system in areas with little or no reception.
  5. Make sure your GPS is working properly and plan your route. Leave a copy of your itinerary with a friend or relative.
  6. Prep meals in advance to make it quicker and easier to cook at camp. Consider how much water and how many meals you’ll need for the entirety of your trip, and bring extra in case you run into an emergency or just get hungrier than you expect.
  7. If you’re fishing, check the local limits and regulations, and make sure you have the proper license.
  8. Confirm your campground reservations and check that you have any necessary permits and cash for honor box fees. Understand all of the restrictions, such as whether or not you can have a campfire or if you can bring pets.
  9. Most people forget to plan for using the restroom. Will your campsite have facilities? If not, bring a portable toilet or a shovel to dig a hole, keeping in mind that some places require you to take your human waste with you, along with your other trash.
  10. Make a packing list. Consider your boat’s space limitations and bring everything you need, and nothing that you don’t.

Boat Camping Gear

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Your boat camping packing list should include everything you’d bring on a regular camping trip, along with a few extra items accounting for safety on the water.

Safety Equipment

Camping Gear

Personal Care

Drinking and Eating

Have you been boat camping before? If so, what are some of your favorite destinations? What activities do you do to pass the time?

Boat camping basics for beginners


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