Canoe Camping

How to Start Canoe Camping With Kids

Canoe camping is a fun and family friendly way to introduce kids to backcountry camping. It is a great way to get a wilderness camping experience without having to carry all of your family’s gear (and your kids) on your back.

Imagine being in a secluded wilderness campsite and having a chair, a hammock, a coffee press, and even some fresh food.  The beauty of paddling a canoe to a campsite is that the canoe carries the weight for much of the trip and you don’t have to! 

For our family canoe camping (for us in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness) has been a great introduction it backcountry camping when our kids are too big to easily be carried but not yet able to hike far themselves. It has been more accessible because we can still get to remote back-country sites even though they aren’t ready to do the miles needed.

Plus we love being able to take a few extra luxuries to make camping more comfortable (for me it is good coffee, some fresh fruit and a good sleeping pad) because most of the miles are in the canoe. 

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How to Get Started

Where to Canoe Camp

Lakes and calm rivers are the best places to start canoe camping with kids. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCA) in northern Minnesota is a wilderness of lakes and rivers with miles and miles of canoe route and campsites. Canoe camping is the easiest way to explore it and it is surrounded by outfitters and other businesses ready to help people get on the water.

Some National and State Forests including the Superior National Forest also have paddle in campsites similar to those in BWCA. There are National Parks with paddle-in campsites and some even let you try portaging. Leigh Lake in Grand Teton National Park is one of these lakes and comes recommended by the Tales of a Mountain Mama team.

National Scenic Riverways like the Upper St. Croix and Namekagon River in Northern Minnesota and Wisconsin and the Buffalo National River in Arkansas have designated paddle in campsites often with fire rings and latrines. The Upper Missouri National Wild and Scenic River in north-central Montana has both developed and undeveloped campsite and many miles of paddling.

Always remember that canoes are not kayaks, stay off the Great Lakes, oceans, rivers with higher classes of rapids and other really large bodies of water.

Families looking at a campfire with a lake and trees in the background.

What Gear Do You Need


While most canoes are fine for paddling on a lake or calm river, when canoe camping with a family it is nice to have a more length and width to hold the gear.  My family of 4 usually paddles a 20-21 ft canoe that is lightweight and easy to carry between lakes.

Many outfitters in areas with canoe-in campsites will rent lightweight kevlar canoes for lakes. These usually weight about 50 lbs which makes them easier to carry on your shoulders with portage pads. Aluminum canoes are also common and I have portaged with those as well.

Canoes specifically for canoe tripping often have the option of adding a 3rd or 4th seat to accommodate additional people. A 3rd seat is great for younger kids to share, my 5 and 7 year old fit on it well. The 4th seat is great as kids get older but aren’t ready for full paddling responsibility.  A low camp chair or other cushion also works when someone needs to sit on the bottom of the canoe.

Portage packs and dry bags

Portage packs, dry bags with shoulder straps, and other hiking packs that are short enough to lay down in a canoe are all options for your gear. If you are on a canoe camping trip without portages, waterproof duffles and dry bags will work great too. Portage packs are large and shaped well for the bottom of the canoe plus they have padded hip belts and shoulder straps.

Large thick plastic bags are made to line portage packs if you aren’t packing everything in dry bags. Some dry bags come with backpack shoulder straps and if you choose to use a hiking backpack, line it with a large plastic bag and make sure it will lay down in the canoe.

Safety gear

Weather and navigation are key to think about when planning. Consider the size of the river or lakes and likely wind conditions when planning a route. Keep a map and compass in an easy to reach waterproof map case or plastic zippered bag for when islands and the shore start to all look the same. And of course always have everyone wear a Coast Guard approved life jacket (here’s the life jackets we recommend for kids).

Two kids and their dad sitting in a canoe on the water.

In the Canoe

Route Planning

If you are paddling on a river, the route is straight forward, it is just a matter of determining how many miles you want to do per day and looking for campsite options that fit your need. When canoe camping in areas with lots of lakes, paddling to a base camp is great option for a first trip. Choose a lake that is a reasonable distance to paddle to (for us it is 3-5 miles) while allowing time to find and setup a campsite.

It is so nice to set up camp and get kids settled in and just stay for a few days! You can do day paddles to explore neighboring lakes without having to portage a canoe full of gear. Or you can just swim, fish and paddle around the lake you are on.

Moving sites nightly to complete an out and back trip or loop are options too and can add an element of surprise to each day. It is always wise though to keep mileage and portages low enough to have plenty of play time when you reach your campsite. I always like to have a backup plan in case weather slows the trip.

Many canoe camping areas only have entry permits and you are free to choose any designated campsite so you can adjust the route plan as you go. We have changed our route plan the day before a trip when we realized that our route would have had us paddling into the wind each day.

Consider a mid-week start if you expect family friendly campsites (those with good swimming, large tent pads) to be competitive to get.  When paddling in areas with lots of lakes and campsites, it is wise to have a few campsites in mind because you may not get your first choice.  We have been pleasantly surprised by sites we overlooked when planning.

How to Organize the Canoe

Portage packs, backpacks or dry bags should stay low in the canoe and the weight distributed evenly between the sides. This keeps the canoe more stable. If one paddler is significantly lighter than the other, put more weight near them to better balance the canoe and help it track straighter in the water. I am very petite and we keep the heaviest packs near me to balance my average husband in the stern.

Always pack your canoe with everything in a dry bag/pack so splashing waves (or kids) don’t leave you with wet gear/food. While we have never flipped a canoe, it certainly happens and it is best to be prepared. I like to leave a small dry bag out with snacks, rain gear, sunscreen and the map to avoid having to dig through the other packs in the middle of a lake or river.

Metal canoe filled dry bags on a lake with a mountain in the background.

Keeping Kids Engaged, Comfortable, Safe

Sometimes just watching the water and scenery is enough to keep kids attention (and keep the bickering away). For the other times and when kids aren’t yet old enough to paddle, bring a stick with a string and small floating object (bobber, small toy animals) or fishing pole with a barbless lure for kids to drag in water.

When kids are ready to start paddling, consider tying the paddle to the thwarts so they can’t be lost. It seems that whenever the paddling is easy and peaceful for the adults, our kids get bored and start whining. They are great whenever the wind is strong and I am working hard.

Snacks, snacks, snacks. Snacks are always a good way to keep kids happy outside. When in a canoe, choose easy to open snacks that are still okay if they get splashed.  Granola bars, fruit bars and fruit snacks are easy wins. Some families love bringing suckers when paddling for a quieter more peaceful time.

Make sure your kids are comfortable in their life jackets in advance of a canoe trip. We always practice staying low and using 3 points of contact when getting in and out of the canoe (usually two hands and one foot) to keep it stable.

The three points of contact rule still applies in our canoe when paddling, it just becomes your bottom and two feet. That keeps kids from leaning too far over the edge and needing fished out of the water! If the water ever gets too rough, we have our kids kneel or sit in the bottom of the canoe.

Wind and Weather Considerations

Consider likely wind conditions for large lake crossings.  Strong head or cross winds make paddling difficult, slow and hard for kids to contribute to.  Staying close to the shore or behind islands may reduce the wind if you can’t avoid it.

Remember that when paddling into wind, the weight in the front of the boat can be increased to keep it from being blown around. We have definitely stopped and moved a pack closer to the bow (front) to help keep the bow from being blown around. You can also have the heavier paddler take the bow in strong head winds.

Portaging Between Lakes and Around Rapids

What Is Portaging?

Portaging is when you need to carry your canoe between lakes or around rapids.  It is usually done on your shoulders using special pads called portage pads that are clamped onto the yoke.  Most outdoor shops and outfitters who rent canoes provide these on the rentals.  You can also purchase them for your own canoe.

Two Kevlar canoes sitting on a beach on a lake.

How to Portage

If you are planning a canoe trip with a portage, planning the logistics of it in advance will make the day more smoother. Key things to plan are how you will get in and out of the canoe, who and how the gear will be carried and what the kids will do on the portage. Having a plan will help you get through those more quickly.

Sometimes other groups will be also waiting to unload or reload and portage so you may not be able to plan this once you have landed the canoe. Also, some portage landings are rocky, muddy, or the wind can be pushing the canoe around.

Getting in and out of the canoe

A canoe (especially a kevlar one) should always be mostly floating before you get in it to reduce the stress on it. When canoe camping with potentially rocky or muddy landings it is often easiest to wade in and get into the canoe from whatever stable surface you find. 

Plan your footwear and wear boots or closed toed sandals that can get wet and dry back out easily.  Some people wear quick drying, thin boots while others wear closed toed sandals. Waterproof socks are a good option in cold weather. Trying to balance on rocks to stay dry is an easy way to end up twisting ankle! 

How to move your gear on a portage

Sometimes you will need to or want to portage between lakes or around rapids.  That is why packing gear in portage packs or other backpacks is key. When portaging the canoe on your shoulders with portage pads most groups like to have one adult takes the canoe on their shoulders while the others take the packs.

With a family, we have the person carrying the canoe, get it up on their shoulders and just start walking while the other takes a pack and stays with the kids for the portage.  We just plan for one of us to make two trips and it is totally okay!

What to do with kids

Depending on the age and strength of the kids, they may be able to carry a small pack or dry bag. Younger kids can carry a paddle or fishing pole or an adult’s life jacket (carrying a pack with a life jacket on isn’t comfortable so I usually take mine off for the portage).

Last summer, on our annual BWCA trip with good friends, the kids were ages 8, 6, 6 and 4. The 8 year old carried a pack and some paddles, the 6 year olds carried fishing poles or paddles and the 4 year old just focused on walking often with the 8 year old at her side. We always have kids keep their life jackets on and keep one hand free while while portaging.

In Your Canoe Campsite

What Makes Canoe Camping Special

A canoe-in campsite is much like a backpacking site but you can almost always swim! One of the great things about canoe camping in some areas is that sites come with fire rings and latrines. While the latrines may be a bit buggy it is rather nice not to dig a hole with your kids so many times! 

Fires are often allowed in designated rings so come prepared with a hatchet, foldable saw, and collapsible bucket to fill for putting a fire back out. Always check on the local fire danger and rules before your trip.

Camping right on the water comes with different risks than other sites so I like to set boundaries for exploration and camp rules for the kids right away. Day hiking from a campsite is often not possible because these canoe camping sites are in places hiking trails don’t get to.

When choosing a site, consider how it will catch wind.  A breeze off a lake or river may reduce your bugs but it can also make camp a bit windy.   We will choose some wind over bugs most days.

Three kids washing dishes on the ground in a campsite.

In the Campsite Activities for Canoe Camping with Kids

I love to involve my kids in campsite prep like pitching the tent, washing dishes, filtering water and gathering dead and downed firewood. They love feeling helpful and are learning great skills.

Swinging in hammocks, building forts and fairy houses, fishing and skipping rocks are great ways to pass time. My kids love going for little paddles and sometimes one adult will just go out for a fun calm water paddle. Tip: Sometimes it is best to paddle out to get less murky water for filtering and many kids love a little paddle trip.

Small cars, dinosaurs or animals are great fun in the dirt. We practice Leave No Trace principles when camping and in our play and take back down and disperse materials from anything we build. Always pack a couple rainy day items like cards, coloring, or a journal, plus a tarp to sit under.

Boy sawing dead log for firewood

Tips and Safety Considerations for Canoe Camping

Stay within your comfort and skill level. Have a way to reach help that you will hopefully never need: a cell phone in a dry bag, a Personal Locator Beacon or a satellite messenger. Use your local resources – outfitters, local gear shops, associations, etc. Ask questions of the local experts, you are never the first to have the question. Remember that many people love to help families learn to love canoe camping.

Bring lots of sunscreen, bug spray and maybe bug nets.  Calm water is good for breeding mosquitoes so try not to camp by a swampy area. Also remember that the water and metal canoes reflect back sunlight. Many people have burned the back of their knees in a metal canoe!

Plan what to do in adverse weather and wind in advance. Having a plan helps you and your paddling partner react quickly and calmly.  Calm adults helps kids stay calm.

Our Team’s Favorite Places to Canoe Camp

Additional Links

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