How to pack a canoe or kayak for a camping trip

Think of canoes and kayaks as giant 16-foot-long bags, with few dividers, compartments or pockets. Packing one for a camping trip can be a mess if you don’t have a plan, and a poorly packed canoe or kayak can be an underpowered and dangerous tool. The right approach takes into account heavy gear, light gear, gear you won’t need until after dark, and items you’ll want close at hand, such as a survival kit, map, compass, or bug dope. Whether you plan to canoe or kayak, here’s the 4-1-1.

Home work

Arrange your equipment in three piles. One is for the things you won’t need until you camp – tent, sleeping bag and pillow, cooking equipment, water and most food. Another is for gear you might need while driving, such as a fleece jacket or binoculars. The third pile is for the gear you’ll easily want: raincoat, sunscreen, camera, VHF radio, map, compass, safety gear and snacks. Pack gear in multiple dry bags so it’s easy to pack and keep the load centered over the sides and down in the boat.

Canoeing to-do list

There are two schools of thought when it comes to loading a camping canoe:

  1. Pack everything in multiple smaller bags to make it easy to cut down the boat for efficient trips, or load up in larger waterproof packs to make packing gear easier. If you’re not crossing big water and need maximum paddling efficiency, choose the latter strategy.
  2. Divide gear by function: All food and cooking tools fit into one pack. Another holds all the shelter stuff: tents, tarps, pillows and sleeping bags and the like. Add a bag of personal gear for each rower, and it makes for a load that can be moved to keep the boat decked out. Pack easily accessible items in a small bag that you place under or behind the seat. You’ll want them close by so you don’t have to tear up the boat looking for your lip balm.

Small coolers come in handy on a canoe trip. They can double duty as cutting boards and camp chairs. Just be careful to either tie them tightly to a hamper or tuck them firmly in place with other gear bags. A heavy cooler moving in a canoe can make the boat dangerous.

‘Yes, the attack

Pack gear in waterproof dry bags and think small; any bag larger than a dinner plate in diameter will likely not fit in kayak hatches. If you don’t have dry bags, pack in heavy duty contractor bags and zip up.

Light items such as sleeping pads and bags fit into the stem of the bow and stern. Heavy items such as water, food, and liquid stove fuel pass through the bottom of the boat and are concentrated over the side. Moderately heavy equipment—tents, cookware and stoves, and clothing—can go over heavy items. Keep the tent poles separate and place them low in the boat between the other gear bags. Large soda bottles are great for extra water. You can fit them into nooks and crannies where other equipment won’t fit.

The space behind the seat is perfect for the small bag of dry gear you’ll need on the water, plus a bilge pump and a few spare water bottles. Keep the deck free of large items that will throw the boat off balance or catch the wind. Carry a spare paddle and a waterproof map case below deck, but that’s about it.

This article is adapted from Field & Stream’s Total Camping Handbook.

Total Camping Manual Book Cover

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