Some paddlers are minimalists, bringing little more than what keeps them afloat and fills their pockets.

Others pack their canoes in heaps of gear like giant ice cream scoops. Both extremes can be uncomfortable so I let conditions dictate and try, like most paddlers, to find a balance.

Kayaks are great for day trips, but a canoe suits me best for longer floats. Here are some items to consider when packing for either:

Float Plan

Study maps, distances, weather, and other information to plan your trip. Create a float plan that includes information about your group, entry and exit points, schedules, likely camping spots, and contact information for local first responders. Give the plan to someone who will take the necessary actions in an emergency. Be sure to monitor your progress against the plan using maps and compass or a GPS.

Paddling Gear to Match the Conditions

Photo by author.

Thanks to blind trust in my outfitter, a friend and I made a four-day trip down a Bolivian river in little more than an inflatable pool toy.

His paddle broke on the first rapids; and on the last day, we hit a snag and sunk.

Luckily, we only had to swim the last 15 feet of the trip.

While planning your trip, talk to folks at area paddling clubs and outfitters about watercraft, paddles and leashes, clothing, spray skirts, other gear and accessories.

Their advice will help you choose the right gear for your trip, or the right trip for your gear.

Health & Safety Gear

The U.S. Coast Guard requires all recreational boats carry a lifejacket for each person aboard.

I also sit on a floating cushion because it’s comfortable, can be used as a pillow, and can be thrown to a troubled swimmer. Nylon rope and an NRS Kayak Rescue Throw Bag are invaluable when you need them. Other items include: a hat, sunscreen, sunglasses, bug repellent, first aid kit, hand sanitizer, parachute cord, and toiletries.

Before you pack, see Matador’s 8 Simple Steps for Getting into Whitewater Paddling and How to: Pack a First Aid Kit for Travel.

Fishing Gear

Fishing is a great partner for paddling and it can supplement your provisions. If you plan to fish, check out Matador’s Essential Packing List for a Fishing Trip.

Bladed Tools

On short trips, a lock-blade pocketknife or a multi-tool work well for general use. On multi-day trips, bring a short machete for cutting fallen wood for fires, a filet knife used only for preparing fish, and a fixed blade knife for general use.

Easy Fire Starters

Nothing beats a fire when you’re waterlogged. The trick is to start one when you need it most. In a small dry bag, pack a new lighter, tea candles, and strike-anywhere-matches you’ve dipped in wax. Even when dry tinder and kindling are scarce, these three items will help get your fire started.

Headlamps and High Powered Flashlights

Photo by author

While on a canoe trip down South Mississippi’s Red Creek, my dad learned from the radio that a hurricane had developed and was headed toward our hometown.

He spent a long night navigating the creek’s snags and crooks by headlamp. Bring a mini headlamp for convenience and at least one large Maglite for candlepower.

Water Shoes

Flip-flops are comfortable and easy to ditch, but they’re not very sturdy. Look for a shoe that will protect your feet while portaging, looking for fire wood, or exploring a gravel bar. Consider kayak shoes, sandals, dive booties, or old tennis shoes.

Dry Bags

Dry bags are necessary for keeping gear dry on the trip. They are also great for stowing wet clothing and gear in your vehicle on the ride home.

Travel Guitar

I can’t think of anywhere more inspiring than the outdoors so I bring a travel guitar. It’s small, inexpensive, and packs well in its case. The Martin Backpacker and Washburn Rover are both good options.

Keep in mind:

  • Conditions should dictate the gear. Climate, terrain, water conditions, and other variables will influence your packing list.
  • When paddling is partner to other activities like fishing or camping, packing needs change. Consider food, water, shelter, communication, safety, and the goal of your trip.
  • Many books are available for those interested in canoeing and kayaking. A bookstore’s local authors section often carries books about local waters.
  • Take only what you need and refine your gear list after each trip.
  • Service your equipment before each trip. Bad equipment can put you in real danger.
  • Paddling and water safety courses are available across the U.S. The skills taught therein will help you keep yourself and those around you safe.
  • If you take up paddling, please be an active and dedicated steward to our natural resources.