Basic Canoe Camping

updated 2021-01-01

If you have never had the chance to take a canoe into the backcountry then you are definitely missing out. Since I started using a canoe for transportation I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. Traveling by canoe also opens up a lot of opportunities you may not have thought of:

  • Access areas lacking established land trails
  • Carry more equipment than when on foot (hunting, photography, etc.)
  • Travel faster and with less effort
  • No danger of running out of fuel as with ATVs
  • Mechanical issues are rare and easily managed

My Background

I grew up in California where they don’t even have steady drinking water, and certainly not many places to go canoeing. To say that boating wasn’t exactly common would be a gross understatement – I never set foot in a canoe until I was 35.

Most of my outdoors experience was in the deserts, and out there you had to bring the water with you if you wanted to come back. Floating around on it wasn’t an option.

Hiking in Death Valley
Hiking near the Eureka Sand Dunes in Death Valley
Lake and mountains with canoe in foreground
Beautiful view of Lake Eklutna and the Chugach Mountains, Alaska

In Alaska the opposite is true – you can’t even throw a rock up here without hitting a lake or river.

In my first two years up here all that water made for some challenges. Trails regularly have water crossings, routes often detour around lakes, and some locations are only accessible in the winter when the water goes solid.

It took me some time to adjust and learn how to travel the backcountry on foot up here. And then one day the question came to me, “why travel on foot at all?”

That’s when the light bulb when on, I found a used canoe on craigslist, and I started making the water work for me.

If you are interested in learning how to get started traveling by canoe then keep reading . . . .


The first (painfully obvious) step with canoeing is to get it to the water. Boats are an ironic kind of vehicle in that they are a mode of transportation that often requires other transportation. If you have a truck you are in luck. With some foam pads to protect everything you can usually just throw the canoe in the back or on top of a cargo rack. On the other hand, if you drive a prius . . . well . . . go buy a truck.

Canoe attached upside down on Toyota pickup truck
Carrying a canoe isn’t complicated – throw it on top and tie it down!

What kind of camping?

The term “canoe camping” can mean two different things. The first is that you are going camping and will have a canoe with you. That makes things easy; just pack the way you normally would for a car camping trip, add the boat, and you are good to go. When you are not out on the water you can simply keep the boat in camp.

Camping site at Lake Louise with tent, fire, and canoe
Car camping at lake Louise, Alaska. Canoe on the right.

The other meaning of “canoe camping” is where, you are going camping and the canoe will be carrying all of your crap. That’s where it gets interesting.

Packing for the backcountry

While it is true that a canoe allows you to bring more stuff than if you were on foot, there are a few caveats to bear in mind. Remember that:

  • Whatever you bring has to be packed at home, transported, unpacked in camp, repacked, transported home, loaded in the car, unloaded at home, and then cleaned for storage.
  • If your route involves any portaging then everything has to be loaded-unloaded multiple times when you cross between lakes.
  • The canoe doesn’t help you get from the parking lot to the water. You still have to carry your stuff to the put-in, from the take-out to the camp, and back again.
  • An overloaded canoe is like a mistreated girlfriend: riding her won’t be as fun, you will both be aggravated, eventually you will hit a low point, and in the end she will dump your ass in the lake and float away without you!

The point is that you should treat your canoe as though it was your backpack. Keep gear light, simple, and compact. Everyone will be happier. Besides, you would be surprised at how quickly a canoe fills up. The one pictured on this page is a Coleman 17′ model named, The Hulk. The canoe itself already weighs 92 pounds, so lightweight is a religion for us when we pack. Portaging that beast really gives you an appreciation for light gear.

Canoe on teh mud at Lake Louise State Park
Resting for a while before putting back into the water for the next crossing

Loading the boat

As far as how to actually put gear in the canoe, there are only a few hard rules:

  • Use dry bags so that things stay dry (and above water) when you fall in.
  • Don’t neglect safety gear. Wear your life jacket!
  • Clip or tie your gear to the boat wherever possible. If you tip over at least everything will stay together as it floats down river.

The best arrangement for gear will depend on how many boats you have, how many people (and pets) are going, what you are packing, the size of your dry bags, and the water conditions. This is one of those case-by-case areas that are more art than science, so the best thing is to try various arrangements for yourself.

That said, you should not be figuring out how to pack things when you are setting off on your trip. Take some time before the trip and do some testing on the water: pack up all of your overnight gear and add a few gallon jugs of water for additional weight. Go out on a small lake and see how the canoe handles with various arrangements.

Canoe on teh beach at Lake Eklutna, Alaska
Resting on shore for a bit at Lake Eklutna, Alaska

Aside from the points above there really are no “special techniques” that go into canoe camping. As long as you do not sink or go swimming then you are generally doing it right.

I do recommend taking some time to get familiar with your canoe and build basic skills. Before attempting any camping trips you should be comfortable with traveling in a straight line (harder than it sounds), turning, as well as getting in and out of the boat. Look online for videos showing proper paddling technique, and find out of there is a local rowing club nearby. Remember, if you’re blowing bubbles then you’re doing it wrong. Otherwise, have fun!

Dogs (or kids) in canoes

I decided to give this topic its own section since it will not apply to everyone. If you’re like me, you love taking your dogs with you on camping trips, but you may be wondering how to bring them in a canoe. If you have small children traveling with you then you are also likely in the same boat (see that pun – clever!)

With dogs (and probably kids) the key is that some individuals will take to canoeing right away, whereas others may require some more training and hand (paw) holding.

My dog is a golden retriever named Sledge. Ever since I adopted him he has gone everywhere with me. He rides in trucks, in the back of cars, hikes on trails, and accompanies me to the hardware store. I have deliberately exposed him to as many situations as possible, so at this point in life nothing really surprises him any longer.

He took to the canoe in about 45 seconds. When I put the canoe in the water and got in he wagged his tail, hopped in after me, and enjoyed the ride from there. For him it was just another way to go on a trip and smell new stuff. After a few trips he associated the canoe with going on a trip and gets excited whenever the canoe comes out.

Dog sitting in canoe on the water
Sledge relaxing in his usual spot in the canoe.

My girlfriend’s dog also enjoys the canoe, but took a lot more coaching to get to that point. She is a much smaller breed and mainly grew up as an inside dog. Over the last two years she has built a lot of confidence in the outdoors, but for some reason the canoe made her really nervous. Still, with a lot of encouragement and a few treats she also now enjoys trips.

Dog and canoe on the short of Lake Eklutna
Sledge getting up after a rest on the shore of Lake Eklutna

The point is that different dogs will react to canoes differently, and you really need to know your animal. You also have to have a really good relationship with him or her. If you are not the boss then your dog will play around in the boat and tip you over. Likewise, if your dog does not trust you to take care of him/her then the dog may obey, but will never feel safe. When describing the relationship required, the phrase, “benevolent dictator” comes to mind.

If your dog takes to the canoe right away then you are good to go. But if he or she is a little more hesitant then do take the time to ease into things.

You can treat it somewhat like kennel training: hide snacks in the boat so that the dog has a happy feeling about it. Then practice with putting the dog in the canoe (on land) for a minute, giving a treat, and then taking the dog out again. He will realize that it is an odd experience, but a safe one. Over a few training sessions you can build up to doing this with the canoe in the water at the shoreline. Eventually the dog will realize that canoes are fun, and will look forward to the trip.

Happy floating!

Self-portrait of me canoeing on Lake Louise, alaska
Canoeing on Lake Louise, Alaska