Tips for Canoe and Kayak Camping

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A camper in a hammock tent reads by a light hung at the top of the net covering.

When camping next to a body of water, there are two important guidelines to follow:

  • Pack out everything that you bring into the wilderness (including garbage, toilet paper, extra food and so on).
  • Leave each campsite as clean or cleaner than when you arrived.

These common sense rules will ensure that the paddling routes (and surrounding lands) you enjoy remain unspoiled for wildlife and people alike.

Choosing Your Campsite

Survey your topo maps each morning before you set out to find a suitable stopping point for the night. This will familiarize you with the day's paddling route, as well as plan the day's breaks and meals so your group can get as far as it needs to go.

Keep in mind that camping locations chosen early in the day are not always in sight by the time night begins to fall. Pick a number of backup stopping points along the day's route, so that when early afternoon rolls around there will be a couple of options nearby to choose from.

Using Established Campsites

Stick to established campsites whenever they're available. These sites help limit your impact on the land and follow Leave No Trace guidelines. They may also offer basic amenities like fire pits, level sleeping areas and pit toilets to make your camping experience more pleasant.

Choosing Your Own Campsite

When established sites are not available, select your camping spot based on the following impact considerations:

  • Campsites should be located no less than 200 feet away from all fresh water sources to limit the possibility of source contamination.
  • Campsites should be placed so that they do not damage any fragile plant life.
  • Campsites should be placed in locations that offer some kind of natural or man-made protection from the elements (behind small hills or dunes, under the cover of low trees).
  • Campsites should be placed so that they minimize visual impact on other paddlers passing by.

Note: If you're paddling in a coastal region, remember to take the tides into account when you choose your campsites. To stay safe from rising waters, look for high tide lines near the top of the beach and stay at least 100 feet beyond them. If you're paddling on a river, keep your eyes open for high water marks and evidence of flood washes.

Setting Up Camp

There are a number of tasks involved in setting up camp. Approach the process as a team effort. After unloading your boats, make sure they're secure for the night by carrying them up and away from the water's edge.

After the boats are safe, establish camp by collecting water, setting up the tent(s) and laying out the camp kitchen. Divide up the work among group members. Try to alternate these duties throughout your trip, so people don't get bored doing the same jobs day after day.

If you're traveling with a large group, consider writing down a rotating job schedule that can be reviewed and agreed upon before your trip begins. A written plan will keep things running smoothly and cut down on disputes.

Camp Cleanliness/Personal Hygiene

To avoid contaminating fresh water supplies, wash your dishes, clothes and yourself far away from all wilderness water sources. Use a collapsable sink to carry cleanup water at least 200 feet away from any freshwater source so the ground can filter any waste water before it works its way back into the main supply. If you must use soap, use only a biodegradable version. Soap residue can easily spawn an algae bloom.

When disposing of human waste, dig a small cat hole at least 4 to 6 inches deep at least 200 feet away from all water sources, campsites and trails. After you've taken care of business, cover the hole completely and pack it down tight. Either carefully burn your toilet paper (if permitted) or pack it into a sealed plastic bag. In particularly sensitive areas, consider using WAG Bags to pack out all human waste.

Note: When paddling in coastal regions, it was once considered acceptable to dispose solid human waste within the intertidal zone (the area exposed during low tide). While the abundance of bacteria in this zone can hasten the decomposition of fecal material, this waste-disposal strategy is no longer recommended due to recent laws designed to protect water quality. So either bury solid waste in areas beyond high tide (and pack out all used TP) or use WAG Bags. Urine, meanwhile, is acceptable for deposit in intertidal zones.