Canoe Camping Gear Checklist: Don’t Leave Home Without These Essentials

Canoe Camping Gear Checklist
Written by Sean Nelson

If you would like to experience one of life’s greatest adventures it is important to put together a canoe camping gear checklist. Canoe camping isn’t for everybody, but that very fact makes it an attractive option for many outdoor enthusiasts. One reason many people enjoy camping is the ability to get away from the crowds and noises of daily life.

Car camping can sometimes offer this retreat, but popular campgrounds are often full of noisy campers and machines. Backpacking is more remote, but at certain times of the year and in some locations even backcountry trails can be inhabited by many people seeking the same thing. When it comes to canoe camping, the waterways are often much less populated and campsites are much more remote.

The opportunity for solitude when canoe camping is much greater and is an attractive option for those willing to endure the unique challenges it represents. Much of the gear you take on backpacking or camping trips is suitable for canoeing adventures. Keep in mind though that your gear will inevitably be exposed to water.

Canoe Camping Gear

Even the most experienced canoeist will experience water inside their canoes through wet feet, dripping paddles and the occasional splash over the top of the canoe. Specialized waterproof gear is available, but if you pack your everyday camping gear appropriately it can survive the wet environment of the canoe. With this in mind, consider the suggestions for canoe camping gear that follows.

The Checklist


Often considered an afterthought, especially for people spending hours upon the water, good, clean drinking water is no less important than in any other outdoor experience. Canoes provide so much space that unless the canoe sinks, flips, or is lost there should be no reason for an inadequate supply of drinking water.

Man is Filtering Water

Filters and other such water cleaning items are valuable to include in your equipment, but nothing is better than packing an adequate supply of water, for drinking, cooking and cleaning.


In a certain sense, clothing is one area that can be minimized to save budgetary room for other gear. There really is no reason to carry a wardrobe choice of clothing, even on an extended campout. There’s enough reason to carry only two sets of clothes, one to wear and one to clean, that more than that can be seen as excessive in some circumstances.

Canoe Camping Clothes

It is, of course, important to enjoy your outdoor experience and clothing can go a long way in such comfort. When canoe camping it is important to carry lightweight clothing that will not only protect you from the elements, but will also not impede the repetitive motion of rowing. The clothes should be thin enough to provide protection, but also be easily dried.

A shirt or pants that can take more than a day to dry although exposed to a wet environment are to be avoided. Of course heavier clothing items such as hats and jackets may be necessary in cold climates, but these should be stored in watertight storage when not in use.


Packing for a canoe trip can be viewed as either a backpacking trip taken by canoe or something else entirely. Because traveling by canoe often affords the ability to carry farm more gear than a typical camping excursion it is possible to use a pack that would be considered far too large for carrying on your back. In either case it can be important to choose a pack that has several compartments rather than one or two large ones.

Canoe Camping Packs

You may need to access some of your packed gear while on the water and in such a case it would be much safer to have quick access to it rather than trying to rummage through large pockets for a single item. It is also recommended that your pack not be built with a rigid frame. Rigid frame packs don’t typically store well at the bottom of a canoe and do not allow other equipment to be packed tightly around it.


Oddly enough, many campers overlook the seriousness of their choice of shelter. Most people must balance their purchases within an allotted budget, but too many choose to save money for other gear by purchasing cheap, inferior tents. While those who go this route may initially achieve success through such a choice because they experience calm, moderate weather.

Canoe Camping Tent

Go on enough camping trips through and eventually the cheap tents will fail during heavy winds, torrential downpours, or even snowstorms. Cheaper tents also tend to be on the heavier side while more expensive models incorporate advanced engineering and manufacturing standards that make them lighter yet stronger. It isn’t essential to purchase the most expensive tent on the market, but somewhere in between would probably suit the needs of most canoe campers.

Keep in mind also the number of people who will be sharing your tent. If you are going solo, a one person tent is suitable, but a tent that is not big enough for its inhabitants will quickly become uncomfortable. Another popular shelter option is the hammock tent.

Rather than lying flat on the ground, the hammock allows you to stretch your “tent” between two strong trees and will suspend the sleeping area above ground. The almost weightless feeling of sleeping in a hammock is something most people should consider trying. Another advantage to the hammock is that they typically don’t require the added weight and time consuming structure of poles.

Canoe Camping Hammock

Whichever shelter choice you decide to go with, make certain that the structure has mesh windows. You will undoubtedly want to welcome the quiet night breeze, but since you will be camping near water there is a much higher chance that you will be surrounded by mosquitoes. Keep the flaps closed tight so that your sleep is not interrupted by the incessant buzzing and annoying bites of mosquitoes.


A good night’s sleep is an essential part of the canoe trip experience. Canoeing can place special demands on the body, especially the uppermost parts. Trying to canoe while fatigued is a recipe for disaster, thus it is absolutely essential to ensure you are going to be able to get a comfortable and restful sleep.

Canoeing allows a little extra comfort here because it is often possible to include a much thicker and heavier sleeping pad than might be possible with backpacking. Sleeping bags are also an important consideration. Although more weight may be allowable in a canoe, the filler material in heavier sleeping bags is often difficult to dry.

Canoe Camping Sleeping Bag

Nobody plans for their sleeping bag to get wet, but it does happen and trying to sleep in a wet bag will often be uncomfortable and even perhaps quite dangerous.


Depending upon the area you will be canoeing as well as the time of year, gathering firewood may not be accessible or even be prohibited. Burn bans and conservation efforts can make cooking with wood a difficult option to plan for. Because of this it is highly recommended that you carry with you a good quality camp stove, if even for a backup. Camping stoves come in a stunning array of choices these days so it isn’t difficult to find one appropriate to your level of use.

Just make sure that whichever stove you choose that you also include slightly more fuel than you think you will need. When it comes to campsite cooking on the go, there are some great cookware options available that are strong yet lightweight. Plan your menu well ahead of time and make absolutely certain that you will be able to prepare the food with the stove and cookware you plan to take along.

Canoe Camping Cookware

Camping utensils can range from complex to very simple. Those who plan bigger, challenging meals will need to pack the utensils that will allow the proper preparation and consumption of your meal plan. Much simpler meals such as dehydrated foods only need to be boiled and some people find it only necessary to carry a single spoon for these kinds of meals.


This is another variable that can be highly customized for the individual camper and itinerary. Lighting is an important safety consideration, but individual campers may prefer anything from high powered lantern style lights to the simple but effective headlamp.

In either case, while canoes offer greater space for packing heavy, bulky lighting gear, it is important to remember that canoes can experience rough water at times and lanterns with glass should be highly avoided.

Canoe Camping Lantern

It is also important to consider that there may come times when you have to leave the canoe and carry your gear over land for certain distances in order to avoid hazardous or unnavigable waterways. The heavier and more numerous your gear is, the longer and more difficult your portage experience will be. While it is not considered to be a safe practice, some people have been known to canoe at night, whether by choice or necessity.

In such situations it is important to take along high powered lighting that can extend well past the bow of your canoe and penetrate the darkness ahead. In addition, some locations will require you to place nighttime navigation lights on the exterior of your canoe. These are available for canoes, but hopefully you will plan accordingly so that you won’t need to find yourself on the water after sundown.

First Aid and Safety

It is interesting to note the lack of preparation in this area for so many people. First aid supplies don’t necessarily consume a lot of space and are certainly within the budget limits of even the most frugal camper. The basics of bandages and antiseptic wipes alone can serve injured canoeists well, but don’t overlook additional items such as small scissors, tweezers, insect bite lotions, and even gauze pads and wraps. For you safety, don’t leave home without reading our review of the best first aid kit to help  you choose.

Canoe Camping First Aid Kit

One of the greatest reasons for canoe camping is the privacy it affords, but the privacy can come at a certain expense if you aren’t prepared for the inevitable injury. You are likely to be your own medic for a given period of time before reaching assistance so it is essential to prepare and not cut corners in the first aid kit. There may also be conditions that you weren’t prepared for.

Higher water than expected can be dangerous for some canoeists and you could find yourself with either a damaged or lost canoe. If this happens to you and you are prepared ahead of time then the chances of getting home again are much greater. Items such as signal mirrors, flares and whistles are all good potential rescue gear.

Waterproof First Aid Kit

A portable radio may even be considered a safety item that can be easier carried by canoe than in a backpacking situation. Depending upon the type of canoe you have, it may be possible to take along a small repair kit. Under certain circumstances your canoe can experience punctures, cracks or tears and having the necessary repair supplies could very well save your trip.


Chances are high that you are not going to experience campsites with running water and bathrooms. It is very important to familiarize yourself with the rules and laws where you will be canoeing so that you will be adequately prepared to deal with human waste as required. Some areas will require you to carry your waste out of the wilderness. Others allow you to bury it.

If the first case you will need to equip yourself with adequate storage bags that can be cleanly and safely carry it out. In the latter case you will need some sort of hand shovel for digging deep trenches in order to keep the waste out of the surrounding environment and safely away from wildlife. Adding a supply of toilet paper to your gear is also a must have for proper sanitation. Do check our review of the best biodegradable toilet paper to ensure you leave only your footprints behind.

Canoe Camping Sanitation

Cleanliness is another one of those options that can be greatly affected by perception. Some campers believe that getting back to nature includes not bathing or keeping clean personally. Many experienced campers will disagree with the “natural” approach to personal cleanliness. As long as a body does not experience any injury, it can indeed withstand extended periods of neglect.

When injuries do occur though, a dirty body can be a dangerous breeding ground for bacteria and other irritants that will make healing difficult or even impossible. A simple container of camp soap, a washcloth and a comb can go a long way in providing a clean and healthy body. If you are traveling with others they’ll most likely very much appreciate the effort as well.

Canoe Camping Bug Spray

Insect repellent can be an absolutely essential item when canoe camping. The presence of nuisance insects that bite or sting are prevalent around water and without repellent your experience will not only be diminished, but can be a health and safety issue. Excessive bites, sores and exposed wounds can attract other insects, animals and diseases that make the physical endurance of the trip a constant source of irritation. For easy instructions on how to make your own DIY mosquito repellent, check out our article to find out more.

Comfort Items

This is an area that canoe camping excels over backpacking. If you find it impossible to enjoy certain creature comforts while backpacking, the expanded carrying capacity of a canoe can be just what you are looking for. Folding chairs, coolers, fishing poles, tackle boxes, small camp tables, and even Dutch ovens are all possible when canoe camping.

Canoe Camping Comfort Items

It may take some creativity to slide everything you want into a canoe, but chances are you won’t have to leave anything appropriate to your level of comfort behind.

Bulk Storage

All of this gear has to find a proper place in your canoe storage, but all of it needs to be stowed safely away in waterproof containers. These can be as simple as zippered bags that can be found at the local grocery store, but their feasibility is limited.

Canoe Camping Bulk Storage

It is much more recommended to store your gear in specifically designed and manufactured waterproof backs or dry storage boxes. The bags are very useful for storing smaller items within your pack. The boxes can store larger items such as food, cooking, shelter, and safety supplies.

Other Essentials

These items don’t necessarily fall into any one of the categories above, but they are important items to include. Rope is always a good thing to take with you, especially when camping by canoe. You will always need to tie your canoe up at night so it will be there when you wake up in the morning.

Canoe Camping Ropes

Rope can also serve as a good place to dry clothes, other gear, or even hang your food in at night to keep it out of the reach of wildlife. Rope is also very useful in canoe camping in order to secure all of your gear in and to the canoe. Should your canoe tip over you don’t want to see your gear floating down the river and away from you. If it is properly secured to the canoe it will stay in place.

Packing the Canoe

One of the biggest misconceptions in canoe packing is to stash everything in the front to allow for more room near the rear. Such a practice can make the boat both unstable as well as difficult to maneuver. The appropriate loadout for a canoe is to place the heaviest items on the bottom towards the center.

Canoe Packed Gear

The lighter items should then be placed towards the front and rear, but make sure to allow enough room for your feet to comfortably rest on the canoe floor. Keep items that may need to be accessed daily and frequently near your seat. In fact, there are mesh pockets that can be bought which can be attached to your seat making such items very easy to reach.

Wrapping Up

If you haven’t yet added a canoe adventure to your list of trips, consider doing so as the rewards will last you a lifetime.

It may be tempting to want to launch off into a grand adventure, but it would be more prudent to start small and build up to bigger and bigger trips. Start small by planning simple one night camps and build upon that experience with longer trips unlit you are confident that you can handle more complex adventures, especially if you plan to take less experienced canoeists along with you. On your next trip, read our outstanding car camping checklist before you leave.

Canoe Camping

So what do your think of our canoe camping checklist? Any other areas of concern that you think we should have covered? Let us know in the comments!


Sean Nelson

Sean was backpacking since he was 7. He was born close to the RMNP and his father was a ranger, so life surrounded by mountains and wildlife is a norm for Colorado. He likes to explore, but prefers to stay in USA. In his opinion, there are too many trails and options in US to go abroad.