4 things you need to know before your first paddling adventure

The essentials before kayaking or canoeing your way through nature.
Person kayaking down a river

Paddling down a quiet, sprawling lake or river, the wind at your back, a sunny, welcoming sandbar just up ahead. Complete with a few nights in a remote campsite under the stars, these are all the makings of a perfect kayak or canoe camping trip, where you carry everything you need to survive on your vessel.

Canoe or kayak camping is a lot different than car camping or even backpacking, so many outdoor enthusiasts are reluctant to try it. Fortunately, this kind of adventure is not as daunting as it may seem at first glance, and a little know-how will help you keep things safe, fun, and dry.

Where to paddle

If you’ve decided to give canoe camping a go, the first hurdle to clear is deciding where to paddle. The decision may be an easy one if you live near a river that’s popular with kayakers, or a series of lakes with pristine shorelines. But there’s still the matter of where to put in, take out, and set up camp.

[Related: The 10 best canoe trips in the U.S. and Canada]

When planning your first trip, it’s a good idea to do some online research or stop by your local outdoor store or outfitter and ask questions. They’ll be able to guide you to the best places to start or finish, and inform you regarding local laws such as where you can or can’t camp. They’ll also let you know about potential obstacles like rough water or portages, where you’ll have to carry your boat to get through stretches of river with shallow beds or dams.

If you’re new to the activity, say so, and ask about routes where there will likely be many paddlers present. To get around, make sure to bring a compass (and know how to use it), and a waterproof map. If you can find it, get a canoe-specific one, as their layout is different from topographic maps and simpler to read when you’re in the water. 

Safety first

It may go without saying, but before you set out for paddling and camping, you should have at least basic swimming skills. Beyond that, make sure you get the knowledge you need—learn how to paddle, and what to do if someone in your group accidentally falls into the water. It’s also important to know the signs of hypothermia and how to treat it, since you’ll be at an elevated risk of succumbing to the cold if you’re wet. 

It’s also a good idea to pack a satellite communicator. You can purchase these online or from an outdoor retailer, but they’re expensive, so you may want to rent one. They offer peace of mind, plus a practically guaranteed way to call for help in the case of an emergency.

What to pack

Next, pack your camping basics, which are mostly the same as in backpacking or car camping, and in most cases, the less specialized, less expensive gear works just fine for canoe camping. 

You’ll need a tent or hammock, a sleeping pad, sleeping bag, pillow, cooking implements like utensils, a pot, a pan, and a stove or a grill grate if you plan to cook over fire. If you’re a seasoned camper, you probably already have most of it, says Mikaela Ferguson, ardent canoe-camper and co-founder of outdoor blog VoyageurTripper.com. And don’t forget trash bags. Whatever you bring with you, you have to pack back out again, including trash and food waste like peels and cores. 

A water filter and a purification system are essential, as well as a life jacket, which you’ll be wearing whenever you hit the water. In fact, Ferguson recommends packing an extra life jacket and paddle for your group. It’s easier than you think to lose either one in the drink, she explains, and if it floats away before you can get to it, you’ll be out of luck. Fortunately, most outfitters that offer rental packages will supply you with a spare. If they don’t, ask for one.

As for what to wear, avoid cotton, as it takes too long to dry. And you will get wet. “As much as we believe we’re not going to tip over in a canoe, these things happen,” Ferguson says. But synthetic clothing doesn’t have to be special or overly technical. She recommends a decent rain jacket and pants because, unlike car camping, if it starts raining you can’t just run under a gazebo or cozy up in the backseat. 

To keep your feet comfy, bring a pair of boat shoes and a pair of camp shoes. Boat shoes will get wet and stay wet for most of the trip while camp shoes should be kept dry at all costs. Ferguson wears quick-dry running shoes while paddling and comfy sandals in camp.

If you opt for a canoe, you’ll find you’re not nearly as confined by space or weight, but if you’re kayak camping, you’ll have less room to pack bulky items, so you’ll need smaller, lighter gear, like compact backpacking tents and smaller cook sets. Just make sure to leave room for a few comfort items. Ferguson recommends bringing your favorite snacks, games for the campground, even her new favorite piece of gear—a camp chair. That way you can relax and enjoy yourself once you arrive at camp.

Keep it dry

The challenge with kayak or canoe camping is how to keep everything dry when you’re surrounded by water. Ferguson’s go-to’s: barrels and dry sacks. Though there are more compact, kayak-friendly models available, air-tight barrels are more appropriate for canoes due to their size and weight, and they can store lots of bulky gear like food and tents. You don’t have to buy your own, as many outfitters will rent them to paddlers. 

[Related: Folding kayaks give you a double workout—but they’re worth it]

Dry sacks are perfect for kayaks and for quick-grab items like sunscreen, cameras, rain jackets, or snacks. You will need several per person: a large sack for gear like clothing, sleeping bags, and tents, plus smaller ones for accessories and food. But they only work if you know how to use them, so ask for tips or read your dry sack’s instructions to ensure user error won’t result in all your stuff getting soaked.

And as with backpacking, always keep one pair of socks and a full set of clothing dry at all times to prevent hypothermia and keep you comfy at camp.

“The first trip is always the hardest to start,” Ferguson says. “But once you’ve done it once, it becomes so much easier.” Build confidence by renting a boat for a day, camping for just a night, or taking a guided trip. You’ll be cruising waterways and pitching your tent on picture-perfect waterfront sites in no time.