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

Dry Bags

Dry Boxes

Sun Protection

Waterproof Phone Cases