By Ken Cluff
Jun 04, 2014

Boat Camping

Let’s include all kinds of water craft, canoes, kayaks, power boats and inflatable rafts. TimeVarsity Float trip spent on the water and at a primitive camp is unforgettable and cherished Varsity Scout time together. The Program Feature book (see canoe camping and Safety a Float) has a vast amount of information and covers this activity quite well. (Also note the float trips at

To choose a destination, prioritize what’s important to you and your Varsity Scout team: Good fishing and wildlife viewing, solitude, scenery and most of all – your mode of transportation on the water.

Try to plan around predictable elements like late afternoon winds: there’s no point in fighting a headwind if you could just as easily paddle the other direction or be in camp. And remember to consider seasonal factors like mosquitoes and water levels. Be sure to check out boating regulations for your preferred area. Permits may be required and “leave no trace” requirements may be in effect on well-travelled rivers and in wilderness areas.

Once you get maps, spread them out on the team meeting room floor before you depart. It’s fun to imagine what the area will look like ahead of time, and it’s important to identify possible hazards, drinking water sources, and potential campsites in advance. Maps will also clue you in to interesting side trips like hikes, old mining towns, historic buildings and Anasazi (“Ancient Ones”) cliff dwellings and rock art.

Kind of Gear to take:

So what to bringcamping_materials? Start with good quality life jacket, lightweight camping gear: sleeping bag, camping Therm-a- Rest mattress, and a tent appropriate for the climate. Always bring a stove: campfires can be unreliable or hard to find wood for, and may be prohibited in some areas. Then there are all the other basics:

  • Cooking equipment
  • Headlamps
  • Bug repellant
  • Water bottles
  • Dry bags
  • Extra clothing
  • Toilet articles
  • First aid Kit
  • Ground cloth
  • Repair kit
  • Small shovel for burying human waste
  • A rope

too much stuffOf course there are hundreds of other gadgets – just don’t go overboard. Here are a few simple suggestions:

Long length of cord or lightweight rope: Use it to make a clothesline for hanging all your paddling gear. You can also use your throw rope.

Daypack: Even though you may be traveling from camp to camp by boat, you’ll probably take some short hikes. A pack can be helpful for toting water bottles, if the water supply is far from camp.

Cooler: One of the things you can bring that really separates boat camping from other forms of wilderness travel; a cooler is a real luxury. Make sure you bring one with a latching lid in case you capsize.

Loading the Boat

Make sure your gear is in waterproof bags. Water fights will be going on almost all the time Water fightbetween the boys and adult leaders. Some water will collect in the bottom of your boat from these water fights.

Dry bags are made of waterproof, abrasion-resistant fabric and have special sealing closures for water tightness. If you plan to do much portaging, look for ones with shoulder straps. You can also use other packs or duffels, lined with sturdy garbage bags. Avoid packs with large rigid frames: it can be difficult to stuff these into your boat.

Tie everything in. Always important – better to be safe than sorry! Try and develop a simple, repeatable system for keeping everything secure in your craft. If you’ve got a touring kayak, your gear will probably be kept in closed compartments; make sure those hatches are tight. For open canoes you’ll want to make sure your gear is not only tied in but secure so it won’t shift during the day or dangle if you tip over. Many packs and gear bags come with straps attached: fasten these around the thwarts, and use a second strap in a crossing pattern over and through the whole load.

Canoe CampingBalance the load. Even a slightly off-balance load can compromise your stability. The best balanced loads are trimmed evenly from gunwale to gunwale with heavier items on the bottom for stability. The entire load should be slightly weighted towards the stern. Do your best to keep your gear below the level of the gunwales.

Use the ends of the boat only for the lightest gear. Keep your heaviest bags and large water jugs towards the center of the boat and use the ends for lightweight gear like sleeping bags and pads. The boat will turn and handle much more easily if you keep the ends light.

Keep fragile items safe and organized in dry boxes. Dry boxes are remarkably impactresistant

and waterproof, quick to open and close, and easy to customize with foam. Besides cameras, dry boxes also work well for small supplies that might disappear to the bottom of a dry bag. Dry boxes are a great solution for packing out garbage and human waste, too, as discussed in the low-impact section below.

Try to get dry bags in a variety of sizes and colors, including clear. This will go a long way towards improving organization and reducing the frustration of hunting through several bags each time you want something. Try using two or three larger dry bags for camping gear and clothing you won’t need during the day. Then, use smaller bags for quick access to lunch, camera, first aid supplies, and other day gear. (If you are paddling a kayak, small bags are probably all you can fit in the craft.)

Keep waterproof day items handy. Sunscreen, sunglasses, compact wind gear, and similar items don’t have to go in a dry bag. Try one of the commercially made nylon or mesh seat compartments, or even a fanny pack around your waist for convenient access.

Remember, it’s hard on you and on your boat to drag it ashore fully loaded. Bring waterproof shoes so you’ll feel comfortable unloading the boat from the water. And, of course, carry the empty boat well up onto high ground for the night, especially on a river where water level fluctuations can take you by surprise. Turn your boat over to keep rain out and to make it harder for an unexpected gust of wind to catch it.

Low Impact Camping

cookingLow-impact camping has been stressed in Varsity Scouting; there is no longer an “alternative” concept; rather, it’s a responsibility we all share. And with modern equipment like compact camp stoves, we don’t need to be destructive campers. Keep in mind the credo, “Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints,” and remember that much of your potential impact is invisible: buried waste, soap scum and even noise.

Garbage Management

Have you ever read about those contests to see how little garbage a Scout can produce? Try playing this game yourself; reducing your garbage in the first place is lesson number one in garbage management.

Leave home with as few cans, bottles, and other nonburnable items as you can. Maximize your pre-trip food preparations so you won’t have leftovers or scraps like meat bones and vegetable peelings. Plan meals to minimize leftovers, (For example, plan less of the main dish and more of some easily packed and versatile extras – bread, fruit, and cheese.) Bring a cloth kitchen wipe instead of a roll of paper towels. With a little forethought, you can produce surprisingly little garbage.

Keep it neat

An unprotected plastic bag will invariably get torn, wet, and generally become a bigger attraction for flies than for ecology-minded Scouters. Keep your garbage neat! Dedicate one dry bag for garbage and line it with plastic bags. Keep it in a central place in camp and make sure it gets used. Your garbage will stay contained and more odor free producing fewer arguments over who gets to be the “garbage barge.”

Never leave any garbage behind, even by burying it. This includes biodegradables like eggshells and vegetable peelings. It’s still garbage! If you carried it in, you can carry it out.

Human waste

When was the last time you went off to explore an intriguing little path, only to discover a grove of toilet paper “flowers” – or worse? Lake Powell is a perfect example of this.

For liquid wastes, stay above the high watermark and at least 50 feet away from any streams. If you must use toilet paper, carefully burn it or pack it out.

For solid human waste, the very best and most responsible solution is to pack it out. This isn’t as bad as it sounds! And on some regulated trips like the Grand Canyon, it’s required. Line a SAMSUNGlarge ammunition can with a plastic bag – trash compactor bags are particularly sturdy – and set a toilet seat on the ammo-box. (Or consider buying a packable toilet.) Each time you pack up camp, add some dry lime or other disinfectant and tie the bag off. Use a fresh bag for each camp. Use a second box to carry the disinfectant, extra bags, toilet paper, and a box of baby wipes for hand cleaning. Not only will you have significantly reduced your impact, but most Scouts will feel more at home with a real toilet seat.

If you don’t bring an ammunition can or packable toilet always bury your waste six to eight inches below the surface, where natural degradation works the fastest. Keep a pack of matches in a plastic bag with the toilet paper, and burn the paper carefully and completely before you leave.


Varsity Scouts love a campfire. But an old campfire ring and underbrush scoured clean of burnable wood are glaring and commonplace scars of previous human use.

If you want a fire – and even the most hard-core, low-impact campers indulge sometimes – resist the temptation to make it a roaring bonfire. A small fire will take less wood and effort and will be just as satisfying. Re-use pre-existing fire rings rather than building new ones. In the morning, pick through the cold ashes and collect any unburned debris. For true no-impact campfires, build your fire in a fire pan and take your ashes out with you as garbage.

More low-impact tips

  • Don’t trench around your tents, instead pick well drained locations in the first place.
  • Keep everyone on the same trails – around camp, on portages, scouting sites or side trips. Don’t destroy vegetation for firewood or to make room for your tent.
  • Do all your soapy washing at least 100 feet from the water, even if you’re using biodegradable soap.
  • Camp on a beach whenever possible; your impact will be lowest. Concentrate your impact.

Don’t pre-wash dishes directly in a stream or lake. Those bits of macaroni will persist in the cold water better than you think.

A canoe or kayak can get you into places a rubber raft will not go. Many of these places offer unmatched fishing. Canoe or kayak camping in wilderness areas offers an unmatched experience.

I think boat camping is fun if…

  • You think that the efforts of a few million mosquitoes might lower your blood pressure.
  • You enjoy sleeping on a rock.
  • Popping blisters is your favorite pastime.
  • You’re looking for an excuse to not bathe for a few days.
  • You love being cold and wet.
  • You need to remind yourself Mother Nature is always in control.
  • You enjoy the adrenaline rush you get when you’re sure you’re going to die.
  • Black flies swarming around your face have a calming effect on you.
  • You can’t get enough GORP.

Ken Cluff, Editor Varsity Vision Newsletter

Author: Ken Cluff | Editor, The Varsity Vision Newsletter


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