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Think of canoes and kayaks as giant, 16-foot-long duffel 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 unwieldy, dangerous craft. The right approach takes into account heavy gear, light stuff, gear you won’t need till darkness falls, and items you’ll want close at hand, such as a survival kit, map, compass, or bug dope. Whether you plan to paddle a canoe or a kayak, here’s the 4-1-1.


Arrange your gear in three piles. One is for stuff you won’t need until you’re making camp—tent, sleeping bag and pad, cooking gear, water, and most food. Another is for gear you might need while paddling, such as a fleece jacket or binoculars. The third pile is for gear you’ll want within easy reach: raincoat, sunscreen, camera, VHF radio, map, compass, safety gear, and light snacks. Pack gear in multiple dry bags so it will be easy to adjust, and keep the load centered side-to- side and low in the boat.

Canoe 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 trim the boat for efficient traveling, or load up larger waterproof packs to make gear-schlepping easy. Unless you’re crossing big water and need maximum paddling efficiency, opt for the latter strategy.
  2. Divvy up the gear by function: All the food and cooking tools go into one pack. Another holds all the shelter items: tent, tarp, sleeping pads and bags, and the like. Add a personal gear bag for each paddler, and that makes for a load that can be moved around to keep the boat trim. Pack easy-to-reach items in a small bag that you tuck under or behind the seat. You’ll want those close at hand so you won’t have to tear the boat up looking for your lip balm.

Small coolers are handy on a canoe-camping trip. They can serve extra duty as cutting boards and camp chairs. Just be careful to either tie them tightly to a thwart or wedge them snugly in place with other gear bags. A heavy cooler that shifts around in a canoe can make the boat dangerously tippy.

‘Yak Attack

Pack gear in waterproof dry bags and think small; any bag with a diameter greater than a dinner plate likely won’t fit in kayak hatches. If you don’t have dry bags, pack in heavy-duty contractor bags and seal with zip ties.

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

Space behind the seat is perfect for the small drybag of gear you’ll need on the water, plus a bilge pump and a few spare water bottles. Keep the deck free of bulky items that will throw off the boat’s balance or catch the wind. Stow a spare paddle and waterproof map case under the deck bungees, but that’s it.

This article was adapted from Field & Stream’s Total Camping Manual.