What is canoe camping? A beginner’s guide

by | Apr 13, 2022 | Paddling

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You already know what camping is. But what is canoe camping? We thought you’d never ask!

Canoe camping is more than just camping with a canoe. The canoe is your vessel of transportation; your way of getting from the access point to your campsite—and everywhere in between.

Ross and I started canoe camping in the early summer of 2020. Since then, we’ve taken many trips as short as one night and as long as eight nights. It’s been an incredible experience, and over the past couple of years, we’ve progressed from novice canoe campers to a more intermediate level.

If you’re wondering whether canoe camping is right for you, you’ve come to the right place. Here’s everything you need to know.

Okay, so what is canoe camping?

Paddling to a campsite.

Canoe camping is a type of camping that involves traveling by canoe to a remote campsite, typically in the backcountry. Canoe campers typically paddle pre-planned routes on lakes and rivers. It might include river travel only, lake travel only, or a combination of both. It can also include ocean water travel if you’re traveling along the coast.

A canoe camping trips can be a quick overnighter, or it can span several weeks in length. Some people choose to go on shorter trips and stay at canoe-in campsites, while others go on longer trips and paddle for miles each day, eventually setting up camp in extremely remote areas with unestablished campsites.

What you should know about portaging

Portaging the canoe.

Depending on the route, a canoe camping trip might involve portaging. A portage is a stretch of land either beside or between bodies of water that are used to carry your canoe and gear to the next portion of accessible water along the route.

For instance, if you’re traveling along a river, you may need to get out at a section of rapids to portage your canoe and gear around them before you can get back in the water safely. Likewise, if you’re on a lake, you may need to get out at one end of the lake and portage a stretch of land until you get to another lake (or river).

In areas where canoe camping is popular, portages are typically marked by signs and the trails are maintained by park or conservation workers.

However, in more remote areas where canoe camping is less popular and maintenance is rarely or never done, portaging can be far more difficult—often involving no signage and a “create your own portage” approach that involves excellent navigation skills and a lot of bushwacking.

What you should know about canoe access-only campsites

The canoe at a campsite.

In backcountry areas where canoe camping is allowed, campsites are typically found on the edge of the water along rivers, lake shorelines, and sometimes islands. Ross and I have even camped at campsites right beside waterfalls!

Unlike frontcountry camping, you don’t have campsites right next to you on a backcountry camping trip. You may have campsites across or down from where you are, but they’ll be far enough away that you can’t see or hear them. This is what makes backcountry canoe camping so special—it feels like you’re in your own little world, even if there are other people around.

If you book a backcountry canoe campsite through a national, provincial, state, or municipal booking system, chances are that your campsite will already have a fire pit and potentially a privy or “thunder box” where you can go to the bathroom. It should also have a few cleared areas where you can set up one or multiple tents and tarps, maintained by park or conversation staff.

To find out how canoe camping compares to other types of camping, make sure to check out our guide on the different types of camping.

What skills do canoe campers need?

Canoe campers should have or be willing to learn a few specialized skills in order to have an enjoyable, successful, and safe trip. The skills needed depend on the route and difficulty level.

Novice canoe campers, for instance, can get away with shorter routes, little to no portaging, and calm water conditions. This is a great place to start for beginners.

Intermediate and advanced canoe campers, on the other hand, need to know more about their route, weather, and water conditions. They also need to have more developed skills and experience to be able to safely handle a canoe in more difficult situations.

In general, there are four areas of skill that all canoe campers should develop: paddling, navigation, portaging, emergency response.

Paddling skills

Paddling in a canoe.

Paddling is the most basic skill needed for canoeing. All canoe campers need to know how to paddle efficiently in order to save energy and make the most of their time on the water.

This might involve sitting in proper position, holding and gripping the paddle properly, being able to steer, being able to stop the canoe, using different strokes to go faster or to manipulate the canoe, communicating and working with the other paddler in the back or front of the canoe, knowing how to “eddy in” or “eddy out” in fast moving water, and knowing what to do in adverse conditions.

Navigation skills

Map and compass.

Navigation skills are important for all canoe campers, but especially those who are embarking on longer trips or routes with more difficult conditions. Knowing how to read a map and use a compass can help canoe campers stay on course and avoid getting lost.

When you’re on your route, you’ll be put to the test by using your best judgment to use visible landmarks to keep yourself going in the right direction. Out in open water, it can be difficult to distinguish land from islands and peninsulas, making it difficult to spot exact locations of portages and campsites.

Portage skills

Portaging the canoe to the water.

Portage skills are necessary for any canoe campers who need to cross land along their routes. You need to know how to safely lift a canoe up over your head, and you need to be able to carry it potentially several metres or kilometres down the portage—sometimes along rocky, muddy, uneven, or overgrown terrain.

This not only requires strength and endurance, but also awareness and good judgement. Rushing through the process, multitasking (like carrying too many things at the same time), or failing to consider all obstacles could lead to injury.

Emergency response skills

A capsized canoe in the rapids.

Emergency response skills are critical for all canoe campers, but especially those who are venturing out on longer or more difficult routes.

Knowing what to do in the event of a capsized canoe, hypothermia, broken ankle, or other emergency situation can mean the difference between life and death. Having all the necessary emergency items you need and a plan in place if something every does happen is also critical.

We never embark on a canoe camping trip without our GPS satellite messenger in case we need to call for help. (Check out our review of the SPOT Gen4, which is the one we use.)

If you plan on taking a route that involves harsher weather and water conditions, it may be wise to take a canoe training course not only to learn the correct techniques to paddle and navigate effectively, but also how to best respond in an emergency.

What equipment and gear are required?

Portaging the paddles and gear.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that some of the equipment and gear needed for canoe camping is different than what you might need for say, frontcountry car camping, or even a backpacking camping trip.

Besides of course a canoe, you’ll need several other things to help make your canoe camping trip as enjoyable and as safe as possible.

You definitely need a canoe (but not just any old canoe)

Colourful canoes on racks at a canoe outfitter.

First things first: The number of people coming on your trip will determine the size of your canoe. Canoes can fit as few as one person and as many as four people (or more, depending on length and model). The fewer the people it seats, the shorter in length (and potentially lighter in weight depending on its material) it will be.

The weight and material of your canoe is also important to consider. If you’re portaging long distances, you’ll want a lighter canoe that’s easier to carry over your head. Common materials used for canoes are fibreglass, kevlar, carbon fibre, aluminum, cedar strip, and inflatable.

Carbon fibre is very lightweight, followed closely by kevlar. They’re also very strong, which is great if you’re paddling in rougher water conditions and rocky areas.

Fibreglass is not as light or strong as the previous two, but it’s more affordable and easy fix if you do end up puncturing through it.

Aluminum canoes are also strong and durable, but they’re much heavier—something to keep in mind if you’ll be portaging a lot.

Cedar strip canoes are beautiful and unique, but they’re also more expensive and require more maintenance.

Lastly, inflatable canoes are great for solo campers or those who don’t want to deal with the hassle of roof racks.

Tip: Read our guide on the best canoes for camping to learn more about canoe types, design details, and materials.

All the other stuff

Our canoe packed with all of our gear.

Paddles. Some people prefer paddles with bent shafts because they’re more comfortable to hold and provide more power when paddling. Others might prefer a paddle with a straight shaft because they’re lighter and easier to store.

The size of your paddle is also important. A paddle that’s too long or too short will make paddling more difficult and can even lead to fatigue or joint pain.

As a general rule, the paddle should be about shoulder height when you’re standing next to your canoe.

Personal flotation devices (PFDs) are an absolute must—not just for canoe campers but for anyone who plans on spending time on the water. PFDs provide essential buoyancy and flotation in the event that you capsize or fall overboard.

There are different types of PFDs to choose from depending on your needs and preference. Ross and I recommend investing in a kayak-style PFD since they’re made to be adjustable and much more comfortable than bulkier or inflatable types.

A canoe car roof rack system. If you’re planning on driving to your canoe camping destination, you’ll need a way to transport your canoe. There are a few different types of canoe car roof racks to choose from. The two most popular canoe car roof rack systems are the J-style and the gunwale style.

J-style racks are great for canoes with flat hulls since they provide more stability. Gunwale racks, on the other hand, are better for canoes with rounded hulls.

A water bailer is a must-have if you’re paddling in areas with a lot of waves or where there’s a chance of capsizing. We have the Kayak Keepers Four Bailer, which comes in the form of a red bag that’s lightweight and can be easily clipped to the back of the canoe.

If water gets in the boat, just unclip it and use it to quickly and easily scoop out the water.

A waterproof flashlight is another essential piece of gear for canoe campers. You’ll need it for nighttime emergencies, navigating in the dark, or even just reading your map at night.

A yoke pad is a padded cushion that goes across the yoke of your canoe. It’s used to distribute the weight of the canoe more evenly when you’re portaging, making it more comfortable to carry.

Rope is an essential piece of gear for any type of camping, but it’s especially important for canoe campers. You can use rope to secure your gear in the canoe, tie up your canoe to a tree or post, or even help rescue someone who’s fallen overboard.

Canoe packs and dry bags are essential for keeping your gear dry and protected from the elements. Even if you’re not paddling in the rain or in wavy areas, you’ll quickly find that getting in and out of the canoe during portages will bring water into it and get your gear wet.

When choosing a dry bag, make sure to get one that’s made from waterproof materials and has a watertight seal. We recommend the Earth Pak Waterproof Backpack for carrying standard camp gear like your sleep system and your clothing, plus additional dry bags that can be used to hold things like electronics, snacks, and first-aid supplies.

A waterproof map case is a must if you’re planning on doing any exploration or off-trail hiking during your trip. It will protect your map from the elements and prevent it from getting ruined.

A compass is another essential piece of gear for any off-trail exploration. It’s an essential tool for navigation and can help you find your way back to camp if you get lost.

Amphibian shoes or jungle boots are designed to be worn both in and out of water—made with either mesh material or drainage holes to prevent water from building up inside them. They’re also lightweight and have good traction, making them ideal for portaging in wet and slipper conditions.

A canoe repair kit. Even if you’re not planning on padding through any fast water or shallow, rocky areas, it’s always a good idea to bring a portable canoe repair kit along just in case something does happen. We had a situation where we were tying our canoe onto the roof of our truck too tightly, and as a result, the fibreglass material was weakened at that spot and eventually cracked—leaving us with water leaking into our canoe during one of our trips.

A crack in our canoe.

Luckily, we had something similar to the 10-5 Fibreglass Boat Repair Kit on hand to help us put a temporary patch on the crack and prevent water from coming in during the rest of our trip. When we got home, we removed the patch and made a proper repair.

Polarized sunglasses help reduce glare from the water, making it easier to see what’s ahead of you and any rocks or other obstacles that are hiding just under the surface of the water. We recommend having them even in cloudy conditions since the sun’s rays can still be reflected off the water and into your eyes.

Extra sunscreen. You can never have enough sunscreen when you’re canoeing. Even when it’s cloudy, the sun’s rays can reflect off the water and cause sunburn.

Extra layers. You might be surprised how cool it can get when you’re out in the water. We recommend bringing a wool or synthetic base layer, a fleece layer, and a waterproof outer layer just in case of cool or wet weather. Avoid cotton since it doesn’t insulate when wet.

A back-up paddle. If you’re paddling in remote areas, it’s always a good idea to bring along a back-up paddle in case you lose or break yours.

Water filtration bottles. Paddling (and portaging) is hard work, so naturally, you’ll need a lot of water. Instead of carrying gallons of it with you, we recommend using water filtration bottles like the Kataydyn BeFree Water Filter Bottle. They allow you to fill up as needed from lakes and rivers without having to worry about getting sick from bacteria or other contaminants.

An optional drysuit. If you’re paddling in cold weather or waters, a drysuit will not only help keep you warm and dry, but also safe from hypothermia if you ever capsize. We just got ours for when we venture out in the shoulder seasons.

Unfortunately, they’re quite expensive, but they’re worth the peace of mind and can be custom designed for your body dimensions. We got our custom-made Kokatat Gore-tex Front Entry Drysuits for nearly $2,000 each!

An optional spray deck, which is a piece of waterproof fabric that covers the opening of your canoe, keeping water out of your canoe when padding in rough conditions or fast water. You typically have to get them custom made to fit your canoe, and just like your custom-made dry suits, they can be quite expensive. We don’t have one yet, but it’s definitely on our minds as a future purchase.

That’s it as far as specialized equipment and gear go for canoe camping! Remember you’ll need all this in addition to your standard camping gear like your tent, cookware, food, sleep system, first-aid kit, fire building tools, and more.

How do you plan a canoe camping trip?

The canoe on a beach at sunset.

Planning is half the fun, but you do need to be aware of all of the different variables that can either make or break your trip. Here are the main things to consider when planning a canoe camping trip:

  • What’s your preferred trip style? Are you looking to travel light and paddle several kilometres a day to check out different areas, or do you want to set up a basecamp and relax at your campsite?
  • Where do you want to go? Consider what sorts of things you want to see such as historic landmarks, beaches, wildlife, vegetation, or geological formations. In addition, make sure you research the lakes and rivers you’re interested in paddling to get a sense of what you can expect.
  • When do you want to go? The season and weather can have a big impact on your trip, so make sure you’re prepared for whatever Mother Nature has in store.
  • What’s your skill level?& Make sure you’re honest with yourself about your canoe tripping skills and what kind of challenges you’re comfortable taking on. If you’re a novice paddler, it’s probably best to stick to calmer waters and rivers with little to know rapids or portages.

After you’ve considered all of these factors, it’s time to start planning your route. Take into account the number of kilometres you want to paddle each day, the water and terrain conditions, and any portages that may be required. If you’re unsure about any of this, it’s always best to err on the side of caution and overestimate rather than underestimate what you can handle.

Use an online canoe trip planner

There are several free tools you can use online that allow you to plan your route for your canoe trip. We use Paddle Planner (available for select Canadian locations only) alongside a waterproof paper map that we typically purchase from the non-profit organization that oversees the area. Make sure to check out our camping trip planning guide to plan the rest of your trip!

How do you prepare for a canoe camping trip?

Loading the canoe off the truck.

Depending on your skills, fitness level, and the type of trip you’re planning, there are some things you can do to help make your trip go as smooth as possible while also minimizing your risk of injury or emergency situation. Here are some of the things we recommend:

Take a course in canoe tripping. This is a great way to learn the basics (and beyond) of what it takes to safely and successfully paddle in different types of terrain and water conditions.

Get in shape. Canoeing can be quite physically demanding, especially if you’re paddling for long periods of time or carrying a heavy load. You’ll want to focus on building core and upper body strength (and flexibility) for paddling as well as lower body strength and potentially endurance if you’re doing a lot of portaging.

Learn how to lift and lower a canoe correctly. This is important for portaging. Doing it incorrectly can strain your back, shoulders, and arms.

Practice canoe flipping. This involves intentionally flipping your canoe and then righting it again. It’s a great way to learn what to do if you do end up capsizing, and it can also be fun!

Understand how to read a map and use a compass. It’s important to be able to navigate your way around the lakes and rivers you travel so you can avoid getting lost and potentially ending up in a dangerous situation.

Upgrade your gear to be more lightweight. This is especially important if you’re portaging a lot and traveling long distances. Lightweight gear is typically more expensive, but it’s worth it if you want to avoid having to double-portage all the time.

Have a backup plan. Things don’t always go as planned, so it’s important to have a backup plan (or two) in case you run into trouble along certain stretches of water or in areas where travel is more difficult. This could involve altering your route or bringing along extra items in case you need them.

Where are the best places to go canoe camping?

Canoe camping in Algonquin Park in the fall.

There are too many great places to list them all, but here are five of the best spots in Canada and the U.S. to go canoe camping.


Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario is known for its great canoeing routes and is a perfect place to start your canoe camping adventure. There are over 1,500 lakes and 1,200 kilometres of rivers to explore.

The Bowron Lakes Provincial Park in British Columbia is a beautiful chain of lakes that offer some of the best canoeing in the province. The park has several different loop options that vary in length and difficulty, making it a great place for both experienced and novice canoe campers.

Mauricie National Park in Quebec is a stunning park with 150 lakes to explore. It’s a great place for canoe camping because there are so many different routes to choose from, and you can always find a new spot to camp each night.

The Nahanni National Park Reserve in the Northwest Territories is a world-renowned paddling destination. With its pristine wilderness and challenging whitewater, it’s a great place for experienced canoe campers to test their skills.

The United States

The Adirondack Park in New York is a massive 6 million acres and has over 10,000 lakes and 30,000 miles of rivers and streams. The park is a great place for both beginner and experienced canoe campers alike.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota is a popular canoe camping destination for those looking to get away from it all. With 190,000 acres of wilderness and over 1,100 lakes, it’s is the perfect place to disconnect from the outside world and connect with nature.

The Northern Highlands-American Legion State Forest in Wisconsin is a great place for beginner canoe campers. With hundreds of lakes and 80 campsites to choose from, it’s a perfect place to paddle and explore.

Who should (and shouldn’t) try canoe camping?

We’ve covered a lot in this guide, and at this point, you should know what canoe camping is. But that doesn’t mean it’s for everybody.

You should definitely go canoe camping if…

  • You’ve gone camping before and want to try a new camping style
  • You love the water and want to explore it
  • You find it refreshing to spend time in nature
  • You don’t mind having to get a little dirty
  • You’re willing to learn how to read a map and use compass
  • You’re moderately fit or willing to get into shape
  • You want to spend more time outdoors or in nature
  • You’re willing to going without modern luxuries for a while
  • You have an open mind and are willing to learn
  • You view canoe camping as an exciting new challenge and experience
  • You’re willing to take the time to plan your trip properly and safely
  • You have the necessary gear or are willing to purchase or rent it for your trip

You might not want to go canoe camping if…

  • You’ve never gone camping before and don’t really care for it
  • You’re afraid of the water or can’t swim
  • You’re more of a city person
  • You hate the idea of getting a little dirty
  • You have poor navigation skills
  • Your fitness level isn’t so great
  • You prefer to spend little time outdoors or in nature
  • You prefer the luxuries of modern life and don’t really want to give them up
  • You don’t have an open mind
  • You see canoe camping as an unappealing or unnecessary struggle
  • You’re not willing to commit to planning a trip properly and safely
  • You have little to no gear and don’t want to invest in new stuff

If you know anyone else who’s ever asked the question, “What is canoe camping?” be sure to share this guide with them. And if you do decide to take the leap and plan a canoe camping trip for yourself, we hope it’s as amazing and as memorable as you hoped it would be.

Happy paddling!

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About Us

Elise & Ross

We’re Elise and Ross, avid backcountry campers and outdoor adventurers! We started Gone Camping Again as a way to share our knowledge and experience about wilderness living and travel. Our hope is that we inspire you to get outside and enjoy all that nature has to offer!

Read more about our story.