Canoes offer campers chance at watery escapes

Posted on: February 11, 2017 | Matt Fincher | Comments

If Sears and Roebuck had sold campgrounds out of their catalog back in the day, as they did with houses, they’d probably have looked like this.

Industrial. Cookie cutter. Crowded.

Sound familiar? Many public campgrounds – supposedly places where the adventurous go to get away from the crowds – are all those things. They feature tiny spaces, maybe a patch of grass with a picnic table and fire ring next to a parking space, one after another in big rows or loops.

They’re not bad, necessarily. But they’re not lonely in a good way either

Ah, but if you can travel by canoe …

That’s just what we were doing. We shoved off from the river bank with the goal of covering 30 miles or so over the next two days. With public land on both sides for most of the way, we were going to float and fish as we wished, pull over at dusk to camp, eat and  relax, then continue on our way with the rising of the sun.

That’s just what we did. And what fun it was.

Jack Susco knows what that’s like. A resident of Cowansville and author of a couple of canoeing guides, he’s been floating and camping along rivers in his native Pennsylvania and elsewhere for almost 60 years.

“You get a whole different viewpoint of wildlife. You get closer to nature. And you get farther away from people,” Susco said. “That’s a plus.

“You go on a river and you have a whole island to yourself or at least a part of an island to yourself.”

“I tell people the good thing about canoe camping is that the only idiots we’ll see out there are going to be me and the ones I brought with me, so at least we know what to expect,” joked Dave McCracken, owner of McCracken’s Canoe Sales and Rental in Clearfield.

Acanoe camping trip need not mean exploring the unexplored. Most states have designated water trails. Like their hiking counterparts, they’re mapped pathways, with information on what oaters can expect along the way, from wildlife and water conditions to rest stops and more.

Paddlers can pick from among them based on how “wild” they want to go. Some water trails lead to official campgrounds, public and private, where canoers and kayakers can find restrooms, showers and sometimes more. Others allow for camping on islands and shorelines with no facilities whatsoever.

It doesn’t take a modern-day mountain man to enjoy such trips either. Dale Luthringer, an environmental education specialist at Cook Forest State Park, will tell you that canoes and even kayaks allow campers to splurge a bit and carry more gear than, say, a  backpacker could or would.

“If you want to bring a cast-iron skillet that weighs 5 pounds, you can do that. If you want to bring a camping stove, you can do that. If you want to pack a cooler with ice, there’s room for that,” he said.

There are some essentials that make time on the river more enjoyable. A roomy tent, with a matching footprint or at least a tarp of some kind to go under it, will keep you dry. Add a decent summer sleeping bag and a mattress pad, and you’re good for sleeping.

Meals can be as elaborate as you want, as there’s usually room to carry plenty of cooking gear and utensils as well as some varied food. Just don’t go crazy, McCracken said.

Many canoes come with weight ratings. They might, for example, say the boat can hold 1,000 pounds. That’s deceiving, however.

“What that rating tells you is the boat will float with 1,000 pounds in it. It doesn’t tell you that you can handle it,” he said.

“I tell people to load their canoe with what they think they’ll carry and take it out somewhere to practice before leaving on a trip. If it handles OK, you’re fine. But if you have a hard time making it do what you want it to do, you’re overloaded.”

He trims his load by packing things that can serve double duty. Rather than fill a cooler with ice, for example, he’ll use two-liter bottles of frozen water. They keep his food cool and provides drinking water later, he said.

Susco likewise tries to go as light as he can. For instance, he packs head lamps rather than lanterns for seeing at night.

“It comes down to how much of home you want to take with you. You really don’t need it all,” he said.

There are some safety considerations to keep in mind. All paddlers on a trip should have a properly-fitted life jacket. It’s important, too, McCracken said, to know in advance where it might be possible to get off the river in between your starting and stopping point should an emergency arise.

But for those willing to give it a try, canoe camping is a while other experience, Susco said.

“I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to get close to nature,” he said.

Canoe camping checklist

Heading to the river for an overnighter? Here are some suggestions on what to pack:

  • Dry bags to store gear
  • Spare paddle
  • Life jackets
  • Emergency whistle
  • Rescue throw bag
  • Water shoes
  • Extra clothing
  • Rain gear
  • Tent with ground cloth or tarp
  • Hat
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • Bug spray
  • Lightweight stove
  • Drinking water or a way to filter river water
  • Cookware and utensils
  • Water bottle
  • Bags to carry out trash
  • Plates and silverware
  • Fire starter
  • Rope, for hanging your food out of the reach of animals
  • Waterproof matches and/or lighters
  • Food
  • Sleeping bag
  • Mattress pad
  • Flashlight/headlamp
  • River trail map
  • First aid kit

When packing, put the heaviest items in first and near the center of the canoe to maximize stability. Keep gear below the level of the gunwales, too.

Pack items you might need while afloat, like your water, maps, rain gear, sunscreen and the like, within arm’s reach.

Finally, be sure to file a float plan with someone responsible before leaving so that in the event of an emergency people know where and when to start looking for you. A sample plan is available at

Bob Frye is the editor. Reach him at 412-838-5148 or See other stories, blogs, videos and more at

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