Kayak Camping 101: A Guide to Camping in Your Canoe or Kayak

Kayak Camping 101 A Guide to Camping in Your Canoe or Kayak

Going camping along a body of water in a kayak or canoe is a liberating experience. You get away from the crowds of campgrounds and you’re able to explore new areas that likely haven’t been frequented by people! It’s almost like being able to travel back in time to when the most efficient way to get around was by using waterways.

But before you go paddle off with your boat looking for what’s around the riverbend, be sure that you know what you’re doing first! Both kayaking and camping are relatively simple activities, but what you don’t know might end up becoming a problem for you if you’re not prepared.

Kayak and canoe campers are successful in their watery camping pursuits because of a few reasons. In order to go camping in your kayak or canoe, you must:

  1. Plan your trip well.
  2. Put in a reservation if needed.
  3. Gather your supplies.
  4. Know how to navigate on the water.
  5. Set up camp responsibly along a waterway.

By doing these things, you’ll be able to access new camp spots and enjoy the satisfaction of getting to your spot the way that very few people can!

Planning Your Trip

Compared to car camping, kayak and canoe camping requires a bit more planning. You have to consider what sort of water source you’re going to be traveling on, whether or not you need a shuttle back to your car, how rough the waters are going to be, and so much more. 


Kayak/canoe camping is great because there are so many opportunities to visit spectacular spots on a variety of waterways. You can camp on rivers, lakes, ponds, streams, and even coastal spots on the ocean!

Each waterway has its benefits as well as its challenges. Take a read through the following waterway descriptions to learn about each waterway.


Kayak/canoe camping along a pond is one of the easiest ways to go camping with your watercraft of choice. They are small enough to be manageable by novices, so you won’t be overwhelmed by having to paddle over long distances or deal with moving currents. 

Experienced campers can also use ponds to conduct what is known as a “shakedown” trip. Shakedowns are essential for going on longer and more difficult trips, as they reveal how well your kit is put together without risking going on more challenging waterways. They show what gear is working well and what gear needs to be replaced without making it so that you are way out in the middle of nowhere to find that information out!


Lakes are the next step in the progression of kayak/canoe camping. They are much bigger than ponds, which makes them a bit more challenging to navigate compared to ponds. You’ll also end up expending more energy to get to your campsite on a lake as the distances you’ll end up covering will be larger than on ponds.

Depending on the size of lake, you may encounter currents and choppy water. For example, Lake Coeur d’Alene in northern Idaho is huge! When the wind gets to blowing hard, it can produce some decent sized waves that might cause you to flip your boat if you’re not careful. 

Staying along the shoreline is often the easiest way to camp on lakes, because you can use the shoreline as a guard against choppy waters as well as a sort of handrail for navigating to your spot. 


For camping on rivers/streams, you need to be aware that these waterways are significantly riskier to navigate compared to ponds and lakes. Only those who are experienced with kayaking or canoeing on these bodies of water should attempt to camp here.

But why are they so much more dangerous than ponds or lakes? Two words: strong current. Rivers and streams present dangerous conditions to the inexperienced because to the untrained eye, they are just like going to a water park. However, danger lurks where you can’t see it. 

Rivers and streams have rocky bottoms that are constantly moving a shifting due to the water running over them. As a result, rocks can shift around and create areas that can entrap a foot or a hand if you’re out of your boat. If you end up going for a swim in the current (intentionally or not) you can accidentally get your foot stuck in between a set of rocks and get pinned down by the current. More people die on the river every year because of foot entrapments than any other reason.

The best way to avoid this happening is to get educated on proper river/stream travel. Take a class or go with experienced river boaters before going on your own. Learn how to navigate rapids in your kayak/canoe and always stay within your comfort zone. 

In addition to the safety precautions, river/stream camping also presents the logistical challenge of organizing a shuttle back to your vehicle. You can achieve this by parking another car at the take-out (where you plan to end your trip and take your boat out of the water) at the beginning of your trip, so that you can use it to drive back to where you put in. 

Another option here is to leave a bike at the take-out so you can ride it back to where you put in. Be mindful of how far away the put-in and take-out is from each other and how busy the road is. 

Hitch-hiking is another option for getting back to the put-in, but be aware of the risks involved with that before you make it your main way of getting back to the take-out.

Coastal Ocean 

Kayak/canoe camping along the ocean coast can be one of the most amazing experiences you can have. It’s a beautiful environment that offers opportunities to see spectacular views as well as awesome marine life. How cool would it be to kayak into your camp next to seals and dolphins?!

Be aware that ocean currents and tides do play a large factor in this type of camping. While it’s not as risky as camping on a river/stream, ocean kayaking carries its own risks due to strong currents and winds. Be sure that you know the currents well for the area that you plan on camping.

Also be spatially aware of how close you are to the coast and the surf. Waves can easily wreck a camping trip by flipping your boat if you’re not careful!

Is a Reservation Needed?

Is a Reservation Needed

Camping with your kayak or canoe means that you’ll be venturing into some pretty sensitive areas. Unlike car camping, it’s difficult to maintain the campgrounds at spots that you have to paddle up to. For that reason, many campsites that you might camp at will require that you get a reservation. But how do you check if it’s necessary and how do you make a reservation?

This is where having a good grasp on using Google is going to come into play. Because of the wide variety of waterways you can camp on, there are tons of different agencies that are in charge of managing those waterways. The National Park System, Bureau of Land Management, US Forest Service, and State Park systems are all land managers that you can reserve a spot through.

The best thing that you can do to book a paddle up site is to Google the name of the area that you want to go camping in along with the keywords: kayak camping reservations. This will reveal whether or not you can go camping in your kayak/canoe in that area and how you can reserve a spot.

For certain trips, you may have to even put into a raffle to earn a permit! Going camping along popular waterways like the Colorado River as it flows through the Grand Canyon requires that boaters get a permit before camping. Due to the popularity of that section, you can only get a permit through a lottery style raffle. Increase your chances of drawing a permit by getting together with a bunch of friends to all put in for the same sections and dates so that you’ll be more likely to get a permit!

Critical Supplies

Critical Supplies

One of the most important things to consider when you go camping with your kayak and canoe is to bring along the right gear. While there are some items that are similar to what you take car camping, you’ll also need some specialty items to ensure that you get to camp safely and with all of your stuff dry!

Safety Gear

Safety Gear

Going kayaking/canoe camping requires that you bring along a few extra pieces of gear that you normally wouldn’t need if you were car camping or backpacking. Water travel brings new challenges that must be mitigated in order to safely enjoy your trip.

Be sure that you have the following pieces of gear before you go kayak/canoe camping:

  • Personal Flotation Device (PFD)
  • Pea-less whistle
  • Throw bag
  • Kayak knife

All four pieces of your safety kit are required for any amount of water travel. PFDs will help you stay afloat in the event that you enter the water outside of your boat. Pea-less whistles are a necessity in order to get the attention of other boaters or to signal that you are experiencing an emergency and need help immediately. A throw bag is critical for conducting rescue operations should you or your camping partner fall in the water and need extra help in getting to safety. And a kayak knife is a requirement whenever you’re on the water with any amount of rope. 

Aside from safety gear, you’ll also want to have some specialty items that will make it so that you can set up camp responsibly and ensure that your stuff gets to your campsite dry.

  • Groover (aka a portable toilet)
  • Dry bags

Groover is the slang term for portable toilets. They are a must have when going camping on the water! Everyone has to go to the bathroom at some point and in order to maintain the high quality of our water sources, it’s necessary to pack out your waste. Groovers can either be bought or homemade, so it doesn’t matter which one you get so long as you have a safe and sanitary way to pack out your droppings!

Dry bags are also a necessity for kayak/canoe camping as they will keep your things from getting wet. While not everything needs to be stored in a dry bag, your tent, sleeping bag, and clothing system should all be stored neatly inside of a dry bag.

Dry bags come in a variety of sizes. Take into account how much space you have in your boat and how much gear you intend to keep inside of your dry bag. If you have a smaller space to store gear in, consider getting a few smaller dry bags to store your gear in as it might be easier to stuff smaller bags into smaller spaces. If you have plenty of room to store gear on your boat, you can purchase a larger dry bag to keep all your gear in, kind of like a large waterproof backpack!

Water Navigation

Water Navigation

Navigation is a critical part of kayak and canoe camping. With car camping, you simply punch in the address of the campground into Google Maps and follow the directions. Backpackers have it a little tougher, but they still have a trail at the very least to follow! 

Water navigation is going to depend on your ability to read maps and use compasses. Be sure that you feel confident in using both items by watching a few YouTube videos on how to use a compass and read a map to get a basic understanding.

Nothing will prepare you better for navigation than taking a navigation course in person. You’ll be able to get real time feedback from a knowledgeable instructor and get real practice at finding your way with a map and compass.

Remember to waterproof your map! Laminating your map before you go kayak/canoe camping is a must. It will keep your map from getting ruined if it gets wet. Don’t skip this step because you think you’ll be careful and not get your map wet. With how easy it is to waterproof, it would be an incredibly poor decision to bring a non-waterproof map.

Setting up Camp

Setting up Camp

You’ve come so far! You’ve reached your camp with all of your gear and now it’s time to set everything up. Like everything else we’ve discussed so far, there are special considerations that need to be made when setting up a kayak/canoe camp.

First and foremost, you need to secure your boat to the shore. If you can, pull your boat up on the shore and out of the water. This will ensure that it won’t get swept off when you aren’t paying attention. Double down on protecting your boat from drifting away by tying it to a fixed point like a tree or large boulder. 

After you’ve secured your boat, start looking for a spot to pitch your tent. Try to only set up in areas that are designated tent pads. This will help ensure that you have minimal impact on the environment and also help you avoid getting wet from rising water!

Pay attention to where the soil looks wet. If you notice that the soil is darker in some areas, that might indicate that the water recently reached that level. This is especially true in ocean environments where tide plays a huge factor in the changing water levels!

Once you’ve located a good spot, pitch your tent. Walk at least 100 feet away from your tent to set up your groover. Try to put it in a location that is as sheltered from the elements as you can and try to put it where you have a clear path to it. The last thing you want to have to do if you have to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night is go through an obstacle course to get to the groover! Plus, putting it in a sheltered location will keep it from getting rained on too much if the weather does go south during the night.

Now that your camp is set up, kick back and enjoy the fact that you have your own beach front property to enjoy for the evening!

Final Thoughts

Now you are fully prepared to go out and enjoy a fantastic camping trip in your kayak/canoe! You know exactly how to prepare for your trip by researching the campsites and area that you plan on visiting. You’ve made a reservation for your campsite and gathered all of the special gear you’ll need to go camping while using your kayak/canoe. And you’ve successfully learned how to navigate through the water and set your camp up responsibly.

All that is left to do is to plan out your trip! Where will you go first?

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Picture of Lisa Hayden-Matthews

Lisa Hayden-Matthews

An avid Skier, bike rider, triathlon enthusiast, amateurish beach volleyball player and nature lover who has never lost a dare! I manage the overall Editorial section for the magazine here and occasionally chip in with my own nature photographs, when required.
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