How To Plan a Canoe or Kayak Camping Trip

If you’ve logged a lot of miles in a canoe or challenged yourself on a kayak adventure, it might be time for something a bit more ambitious: an overnight paddling trip. Whether you’re a dedicated kayaker or prefer the spaciousness of a canoe, here’s a helpful guide to how to plan an on-the-water kayak camping trip.


There’s a lot of options when it comes to paddle-in campsites. Where you camp usually depends on your boat and your paddling skills. Canoes are often better on long-haul trips on flat water (i.e. lakes) or wide, slow rivers while kayaks are better on faster, smaller rivers or on the ocean. In general, canoes offer more room for both passengers and gear. (So if you plan to bring your kids, dog, and a lot of gear, stick with a canoe.)

Many state park systems (and some national parks) offer paddle-in campsites which means the sites can only be reached by a kayak or canoe. All state park systems are independent of each other, so check with your state to see what kind of campsites they offer. As for national parks and national seashores, it’s best to check with the individual park you plan to visit. There are also rivers and lakes throughout the country that allow camping on public shoreline. (Research online or with your local DNR before assuming you’ve found a legal camping spot.)

No matter where you camp, be aware that many (if not, most) paddle-in campsites require you to adhere to a “pack in, pack out” philosophy because there won’t be any trash disposal at the site. Be prepared to pack up any trash and bring it home with you.

Skills & Training

When it comes to paddling adventures, it’s best to start small. Canoeing and kayaking can appear to be straightforward activities, but there’s a lot to know. And anytime there’s water and weather involved, there’s less margin for error. If this is your first overnight paddling trip, choose a distance that’s relatively short (no more than a couple miles) and choose a location such as a mid-sized lake or a slow river that’s well-traveled by paddlers.

Even if you have previous canoe or kayak experience, it never hurts to brush up on your skills or practice good technique.

Check out this short video below for three important canoeing tips:

Or watch the video below for a quick intro to kayaking.

Even better? Sign up for a class at your local park, marina, or outfitters for hands-on training.

In addition to technical skills, it’s important to be physically fit before paddling. Cardio such as walking, running, biking are all good ways to get in shape for paddling. But it’s also important to focus on flexibility and strength, especially since you’ll be using arm, shoulder, and back muscles that don’t get used as often as other muscle groups. Here are some tips:

  • Flexibility: Stretching on a daily basis is a good habit to start before your trip. Yoga is an especially good way to slowly increase your flexibility (and decrease your likelihood of injury). YouTube’s “Yoga With Adriene” offers short videos, including targeted sessions for hands, fingers, & wrists, for neck, shoulders, and upper back, and for your core.
  • Hand & Wrist Strength: Work on increasing wrist and hand strength by doing wrist curls and or by doing a simple tennis ball squeeze. Squeeze a tennis ball (or stress ball) in one hand for 5-10 seconds, then release. Repeat 10-15 times with each hand.
  • Arms & Shoulder Strength: Even small weights and simple exercises like this can help strengthen your arm and shoulder muscles over time.
  • Core Strength: A lot of paddling power comes from your core, so make sure it’s used to working hard. Here are some exercises to try.

packing for a kayak camping trip

What To Pack

In many ways, packing for an overnight paddling trip isn’t that different from any other camping trip. But there are some unique considerations (and gear) that will ensure a better trip overall. First, due to limited cargo space, it helps to have the mindset of a backpacker when packing for a paddling trip. The size and weight of your equipment will matter because you not only have limited space, you’ll have to personally haul (or, paddle) what you bring in your boat.

In addition to standard camping items, here’s some gear that especially important on paddling trips. (See the end of the article for the links to our favorites.)

Canoe or Kayak Camping Gear Checklist

  • Paddles. It seems obvious, but make sure you load your paddles when you’re loading your boats.
  • Life jackets. Even if you’re a strong swimmer, it’s best to not only bring, but wear a life jacket while you’re on the water. Today’s styles are much more comfortable and streamlined than the bulky orange versions you may remember from summer camp.
  • Dry bags. These are lightweight, waterproof bags that are either made out of plastic or a plastic-coated fabric. The top is sealed by rolling it down, then fastening with a clip. Dry bags are among the most important items you can bring on a paddling trip because they’ll keep your gear dry even if you flip over or encounter intense rain. They come in a variety of sizes to hold everything from sleeping bags to smart phones.
  • Dry boxes. Like dry bags, dry boxes are waterproof and are another good option for storing gear on a trip.
  • Sun protection. The sun’s heat and glare are always more intense on the water and shade is often hard to find. In addition to a waterproof, high-SPF sunscreen, be sure to pack sunglasses (with a strap) and a hat. Also consider bringing some lightweight long-sleeve layers if you start to get sunburned.
  • Bug spray. Water usually means mosquitoes, so be sure to pack bug spray.
  • Water. Paddle-in campsites often don’t have drinking water. Make sure you bring enough for both drinking and dish washing. A good tip is to reuse plastic milk cartons for water containers. Clean out one-gallon cartons and fill with water. Freeze the water before your trip, then store in a cooler. It will melt slowly, giving you cold water and also keeping other items cool.
  • Firewood. Find out ahead of time if there will be firewood (or legal opportunities to gather it) at your paddle-in campsite. If there isn’t, add firewood to your packing list. (Along with waterproof matches or a lighter.)
  • Waterproof phone pouch. If you plan on bringing your phone, make sure it’s always stored in a waterproof pouch if it doesn’t already have a waterproof case. You’ll also want to fasten it to the boat so it doesn’t float (or sink) away.

Our Gear Picks

Life Jackets

Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Vest

Onyx MoveVent Dynamic Paddle Sports Life Vest, Orange, XS/SM
  • Mesh in lower back fits high back seats;
  • Shoulder adjustments with neoprene comfort pads
  • SOLAS grade reflective material for visibility
  • Expandable zippered pockets with mesh drainage
  • Heavy duty nylon fabric; soft, lightweight flotation foam

Stearns Classic Vest

Stearns Adult Classic Series Vest, 3000004475, Blue, Universal
  • US Coast Guard-approved adult life jacket
  • Great for boating, tubing, swimming, and water sports
  • Soft and durable nylon shell and lightweight PE flotation foam
  • Open-sided design and 3 adjustable buckles for breathability
  • Designed for adults weighing 90 pounds or more

Dry Bags

Sea to Summit Big River Dry Bag

Sea to Summit Big River Dry Bag, Ultra-Durable Roll-Top Dry Storage, 3 Liter, Yellow
  • Durable, abrasion-resistant 3-liter roll-top dry bag is a rugged, trustworthy dry storage option for kayaking, rafting, canoeing, motorcycle touring, bike packing, and outdoor travel
  • Manufactured from lightweight, waterproof TPU-coated 420D nylon, with a 10,000mm waterhead (the higher the waterhead rating, the more waterproof the fabric)
  • Reinforced waterproof seams are double-stitched, and tape sealed; secure hypalon roll-top closure, and hypalon lash loops for gear attachment and stacking
  • Low-profile, streamlined shape saves space, and oval base resists rolling; patent-pending field repair buckle can be replaced in seconds
  • 3-liter dry bag holds a phone, snacks, wallet, and keys; open dimensions: 7 x 4 x 11 inches, weight: 2.9 ounces, volume: 3 liters (with closure rolled three times)

Outdoor Products Dry Bags 3-Pack

Outdoor Products Ultimate Dry Sack 3-Pack
  • Three lightweight, waterproof dry sacks for backpacking, kayaking, or adventure travel; includes 2-, 4-, and 8-liter bags
  • Soft and flexible rip-stop fabric with watertight roll-top closure for maximum compression
  • Polyurethane-coated with watertight, double-stitched, tape-sealed seams for waterproofing
  • 8-liter sack measures 10.75 x 22 inches; 4-liter sack measures 9.5 x 15.5 inches; 2-liter sack measures 7.75 x 13 inches
  • Backed by the Outdoor Products Plain + Simple Lifetime Guarantee

Dry Boxes

Outdoor Products Watertight Box

Outdoor Products - Watertight Box (Dress Blues, Large)
  • Polycarbon
  • Multipurpose box protects against moisture, dust, dirt, and sand; great for boating, kayaking, fishing, and more
  • Rubber key clip and strap attachment point; O-ring closure for a watertight seal
  • Made from shatterproof translucent polycarbonate; small size measures 3.25 x 5.25 x 6.75 inches with 840 ml capacity
  • Not intended for climbing, load-bearing use, or full submersion

GSI Outdoors Lexan Gear Box

GSI Outdooors - Watertight, Crushproof, Lexan Gear Box, X-Large
  • INTELLIGENTLY DESIGNED: With dual lash points to keep the box closed tight and secure, you will never have to worry about losing your valuables again!
  • MULTIPURPOSE: This Lexan resin box can store your kitchen utensils, small tools, phones, GPS, first aid kit, or whatever valuable gear that you want to protect.
  • WEATHERS AGAINST THE ELEMENTS: Waterproof and virtually crushproof, this polycarbonate box will make sure gear stays dry and safe.
  • SIZE & WEIGHT SPECS: Small is 6.5" x 5.0" x 3.4" inches and 9.6 oz. Medium is 7.7" x 6.4" x 3.6" inches and 14.3 oz. Large is 9.5" x 7.8" x 4.0" inches and 20.3 oz. X-Large is 11.0" x 8.9" x 5.2" inches and 2 lbs.
  • LIFETIME WARRANTY: GSI Outdoors spent over 30 years building quality, performance products and stands behind them 100%. GSI Outdoors warranties all products for the original owner against manufacturing defects for the lifetime of the product.

Sun Protection

Outdoor Research Helios Sun Hat

Outdoor Research Unisex Helios Sun Hat, Pewter, Large
  • The broad-brimmed Helios Sun Hat protects from intense sun with a UPF 50+ rating. The headband moves moisture away from your brow, and the brim offers an oasis of shade. The drawcord adjustment keeps it snug on long trails.
  • Water resistant. Breathable. Lightweight. Wicking, quick-drying. TransAction Headband. UPF 50+
  • Dark fabric under brim. Floating foam-stiffened frim. Embroidered OR logo. One-handed drawcord adjustment. Removable chin cord. Packable.

Columbia Coolhead Ball Cap

Columbia Unisex Coolhead II Ball Cap, Moisture-Wicking, Sun Protection
  • OMNI-WICK - The ultimate moisture management technology for the outdoors. Omni-Wick quickly moves moisture from the skin into the fabric where it spreads across the surface to quickly evaporate—keeping you cool and your clothing dry.
  • CLASSIC COMFORT: Columbia's Unisex Coolhead II Ball Cap features a classic fit that provides comfort for everyday wear.
  • STYLISH DETAILS: A signature logo adds style and character to this waterproof hat.
  • ADJUSTABLE BACK: A hook and loop adjustable back make for a customizable fit.
  • ADVANCED TECHNOLOGY: This everyday hat features our signature moisture-wicking fabric to keep you cool and comfortable, as well as UPF 50 protection to protect against harmful sun rays.

Waterproof Phone Cases

Hiearcool Waterproof Phone Pouch

Hiearcool Waterproof Phone Pouch, Waterproof Phone Case for iPhone 15 14 13 12 Pro Max XS Samsung, IPX8 Cellphone Dry Bag Beach Essentials 2Pack-8.3"
  • [SUPERIOR WATERPROOF PROTECTION]: Certified IPX8 waterproof with Hiearcool's triple layer lock-down technology provides complete protection against water, snow, dust, and sand. Ensure your cell phone stays dry.
  • [CASE FRIENDLY]: With a size of 8.3 inches, the waterproof phone pouch can fit most cell phones with or without a case, providing double insurance to your phone.
  • [RESPONSIVE TOUCH SCREEN]: The Hiearcool waterproof phone pouch is made of upgraded TPU material that provides excellent response sensitivity while using your phone, including face ID unlock and calling.
  • [ULTRA CLEAR PICTURE UNDERWATER]: With high transmittance transparency technology, this phone pouch provides a crystal clear photo capture of the underwater world.
  • [ADJUSTABLE LANYARD]: Comes with a detachable lanyard from 13.8 to 21 inches providing multiple choices for the length you prefer—lifestyle by crossing your body or around your neck.The Hiearcool waterproof phone pouch is perfect for various activities, such as beach playing, water park, swimming, snorkeling, kayaking, rafting, or even taking a shower with your phone in hand.