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Expedition Essentials: The Ultimate Guide to Canoe Camping

The ice has melted. The birds are returning. The sun - knock on wood - is actually shining again. Kayak season has returned to Detroit, along with endless opportunities to extend your aquatic expeditions via Canoe Camping.

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Imagine your perfect day on the water. The heat of the sun. The gentle breeze at your back. The serenity of nature's silence, broken only by the lapping waves, rustle of leaves, calling birds - and maybe that one guy playing music from a waterproof speaker around the bend. As perfect as perfect gets paddling down the Detroit region's waterways.

There's only one downside to such bliss: it ends. Even the longest, most brilliant summer days eventually arrive at a sunset, thus signaling the end of that day's paddling expedition for most kayakers. A sad fate that we all must submit to...or do we?

Spoiler alert: the terminus of your paddling voyage does not have to align with the setting sun. We at Expedition Detroit are proud to formally welcome Spring to our platform with an #ExpeditionEssentials crash course on "Canoe Camping" - the backpacking equivalent of overnight paddling adventures - covering the essential gear and destinations that you'll need for launching your next voyage.

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Canoe Camping Gear

Congratulations, you nailed it: you are going to need a canoe for canoe camping - more likely a kayak. You probably also guessed that you will need a personal flotation device ("PFD"). And oars. Oars are very important.

What may be less intuitive, however, are questions concerning the hair-splitting nuances between the variety of possible gear selections. What are the key differences between hard shell and inflatable kayaks? How about proper layering for shoulder season temperatures? Which water-proof bags are best for carrying a tent, sleeping bag, and other camping necessities? How about head lamps or gear that's required by law?

That, our dear friends, is where this section comes in handy. We've dug into the tough questions to save you a few hours of research, possibly save a few bucks, and get you in the water in no time.

expedition detroit canoe camping michigan spring summer fall outdoors kayak paddle adventure

Choice of Vessel

If you've spent anytime around the Huron, Clinton, or Rouge Rivers over the last few years, chances are that you've witnessed a cold war between three primary camps of paddling enthusiasts: hard shell kayakers, inflatable kayakers, and old school canoeists. Each of these modes of maritime transportation have their pros and cons - especially when it comes to selection for canoe camping. Here's a quick breakdown of these three options:


If you are planning packing a lot of gear - we're talking multiple days hunting in the backcountry amount of gear - then your vessel search should end with purchasing with a canoe. Following in the footsteps of both our Native American and European predecessors, the open-air design of a canoe facilitates immense storage capacity, as well as a more stable frame than kayaks. The hulls of canoes also comprise of the durable materials, such as three layer polyethylene, that paddlers would expect to safely navigate through shallow terrain.

The three principal cons of a canoe when compared to a kayak are maneuverability, weight, and cost. Even with sleeker canoes like the Sportsman Discovery Solo 119 shown above, the slimmer frame of a kayak permits paddlers to navigate through narrow or obstacle-ridden stretches that could delay canoes. The additional 10-20 pounds of weight that distinguish separate lightweight canoes from much lighter kayaks also inhibit the navigational prowess of a canoe. Last, canoes are undoubtedly more expensive than their kayak cousins. For example, the price difference between the featured canoe and inflatable kayak in this article is over $1,000.

Kayak (Hard Shell)

Hard shell kayaks are hands-down the crowd favorite for maritime navigation throughout the Great Lakes region - for several good reasons. First, the lighter weight and slimmer frame when compared to canoes offer more advanced maneuverability in less hospitable waters. The coverage of the shell also better protects a paddler from undesired water exposure and cold temperatures. Last, the extra compartments typically featured on kayaks like the Old Town Dirigo 106 Kayak remedy some of the lost storage capacity inherent to the hard shell cover.

While a hard shell kayak may appear to check almost every box for a paddler, there are some key drawbacks to note. Especially with regard to extended canoe camping, the lost storage capacity due to the encompassing shell may rule the vessel out entirely for longer, gear-intensive trips. Getting in and out of hard shell kayaks can prove to be more of a challenge when compared to open canoe or inflatable kayak models as well. Similar to canoes, hard shell kayaks also lack the transportability and significant price discount that inflatable kayaks offer to their owners.

Kayak (Inflatable)

The chief benefit of an inflatable kayak is and will always be its transportability. There was a period where I simply stored my inflatable kayak in the cab of my pickup truck, ready to be deployed whenever the paddling inspiration hit. Inflatable kayaks also tend to be less expensive and have higher weight thresholds than canoes and hardshell kayaks.

The main drawbacks of inflatable kayaks are their less dependable durability and inflation requirement. With regard to durability, the quality of the synthetic rubber and plastic polymers that inflatable kayaks are made from has improved over recent years, although these qualities simply do not compare to the wood, plastic, fiberglass, and composite materials of canoes and hard shell kayaks (pro tip: always carry some form of adhesive to plug any minor punctures). I personally enjoy the inflation process of an inflatable kayak for the upper body workout, but for anyone who doesn't derive the same joy from "type 2 fun," you will learn to dread this aspect of inflatable kayak ownership.

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Layered Clothing

Let's start with the basics: you should always dress in layers, especially for the cooler-to-freezing temperatures that fluctuate in the Detroit region during early spring. Especially when kayaking around sunrise or sunset, bring along extra layer to pull on/off when the temperature inevitably starts to heat up or cool off.

Here's a refresher on layering:

  • Base Layer ("underwear layer"): Arguably most important layer; goal is to wick sweat off your skin. Could be a swimsuit for warmer weather paddling.

  • Middle Layer ("insulating layer"): Should retain body heat to protect you from the cold.

  • Outer Layer ("shell layer"): Largely weather-dependent; shields you from wind and rain and provides extra insulation. Could include a raincoat and waterproof rain pants for inclement weather.

You should always dress for the water temperature you'll be paddling in, NOT the air temperature. For cold paddling conditions, opt to wear a drysuit over your base and mid layers. No need for an outer layer - your windproof, waterproof, and breathable drysuit takes care of that.

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Recommended Add-Ons

You've probably heard the old adage that "Too much of a good thing is a bad thing." Well, when it comes to searching "Recommended canoe camping gear" on Google, everyone appears to have an opinion, list, and strong arguments as to why certain gear should or shouldn't be included on your next expedition.

We have waded through the never-ending rabbit holes of recommended lists to provide you with this synthesized punch list of gear (omitting specific items discussed elsewhere):

  • Headlamp: Black Diamond's "Spot 400" and Petzl's "Actik Core" headlamps are the two market-leaders, although BioLite's 750 lumen headlamp has also recently been making waves into the headlamp market.

  • Dry Bags: Waterproof storage bags your camping gear, cell phone, portable batteries, maps and charts, matches or other fire-starting equipment, and anything else that you truly cannot afford to get wet.

  • Sun Protection Gear: Sunscreen, lip balm, sun glasses, and a wide-brimmed hat.

  • Bailer or Bilge Pump: Bilge pumps are especially effective for pumping unwanted water out of your kayak.

  • Sponges.

  • "Boat Shoes" or Sandals and Dry "Camp Shoes."

  • Camping Necessities: Tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, water treatment equipment and bottle, and portable stove and cookware.

  • Energy Food.

  • Knife or Multi-Tool.

  • First Aid Supplies.

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Legal Requirements

Let's settle the "lifejacket question" first: Michigan law requires paddlers to carry either a wearable PFD or a throwable PFD for each person on board a vessel. Ontario law is similar to Michigan law's requirement to carry a PFD per passenger, although only wearable PFDs are approved as lawful safety equipment. We strongly recommend wearing a PFD every time that you are on the water, which is required for all personal watercraft operators in Ohio.

For nighttime paddling, the one universal requirement under Michigan law states that all unpowered vessels less than 26 feet long must have at least one lantern or flashlight shining a white light at all times while in motion (such as a headlamp). The ideal illumination of this light would amount to visibility from at least three miles away, although that is not a legal requirement.

While most of the Detroit region's inner waterways fall under Michigan state jurisdiction, the Great Lakes also represent international boundary waters and therefore fall under the U.S. Coast Guard's jurisdiction. As such, special regulations apply to nighttime paddling along any international waters like the St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair, the Detroit River, and Lake Erie. These include carrying (1) a mounting a "kayak light" that is visible from 360-degrees and (2) visual/audio distress signals.

Interactive map of the Huron River National Water Trail

The Destinations

In case you haven't noticed, the Detroit region has water. Lots of water. Thousands of miles of Great Lakes coastline and inland lakes, rivers, and streams to explore, including 5 of Michigan's state-designated water trails, 3 national water trails, and the Detroit Heritage River Trail that constitutes the first and only water trail that has been designated for protection by the Canadian and U.S. Governments.

Especially with Michigan's moniker as "The Great Lakes State," you would assume that the Detroit region has an excess supply of canoe campgrounds, right...? Wrong. To our team's surprise, the Huron River National Water Trail represents the sole thru-paddling opportunity within our area's vast waterways. Yes, that includes the portions of Ohio and Ontario that fall within the purview of the Detroit region.

We will breakdown the best canoe camping destinations in a moment, but here's the silver lining to our current situation: canoe camping undoubtedly represents the single greatest recreational infrastructure opportunity within the Detroit region, on both sides of the border. Especially in light of the phenomenal work of recent years on developing the Clinton River Water Trail, Rouge River Water Trail, and Monroe County Water Trails, our recreational bodies have the firepower to construct and maintain world-class canoe campgrounds along our pristine waterways.

Here are the Detroit region's top canoe camping destinations:

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1. Huron River National Water Trail | Michigan

Simply put, the Huron River National Water Trail ("HRNWT") is one of the crown jewels of the Detroit's greater outdoor ecosystem. Its 104-mile trail, spanning from Proud Lake State Recreation Area in Oakland County to Lake Erie Metropark in Monroe County, circumnavigates the western rim of our region's premiere outdoor destinations. Most importantly for our article, the HRNWT provides direct access to four canoe campgrounds: Kensington Metropark, Island Lake State Recreation Area, Hudson Mills Metropark, and Lower Huron Metropark. A fifth - and very much needed - campground is slated for Oakwoods Metropark. Reservations are required for all sites.

2. Point Pelee National Park and Pelee Island | Ontario

As long-time readers of our content are now well-aware, if any "top destinations" list appears on our content, then Point Pelee National Park will surely make an appearance. Generations of recreationists have flocked to the park for its world-class hiking, cycling, bird watching, and star-gazing opportunities. Kayaking is another favorite past time of Point Pelee's patrons, especially when paired with an overnight stay at Camp Henry within the park. The Camp's "oTENTik" lodgings - a cross between an A-frame cabin and a prospector tent - are conveniently located directly across an access point to West Beach. Talk about a bucket list camping experience within our region's sole national park!

3. Algonac State Park | Michigan

On the northeastern periphery of the Detroit region - just north of Lake St. Clair - lies Algonac State Park and its unprecedented Great Lakes kayaking opportunities. While the park is largely celebrated for its views of freighters from around the world (watch them right from your tent!), the park's 1,550-acres boasts a half-mile of riverfront, campgrounds, trails and a 1,200-plus-acre dedicated natural area. Algonac's "Riverfront Campground" is conveniently located just a short walk away from multiple launching points into the St. Clair River and its multiple routes within the Blueways of St. Clair water trail network.

4. Seven Lakes State Park | Michigan

The "Seven Lakes" of Seven Lakes State Park may have morphed into one massive "Seven Lake" after its dam construction, but the park's legacy of pristine kayaking and camping opportunities has both endured and thrived. While the namesake "Seven Lake" provides an obvious draw for top-notch paddling experiences, the park's 230 acres of water also provide ample opportunities to explore Dickinson Lake, Spring Lake, and and Sand Lake. The park's campground at Sand Lake is especially popular with kayakers - hard to argue with direct beach access from the campground to the lake.

expedition detroit canoe camping michigan spring summer fall outdoors kayak paddle adventure

Quick Safety Add-Ons

Before signing off on this article, we wanted to close by sharing the following water safety best practices as prepared by the Clinton River Watershed Council. Regardless of whether your voyage consists of a few hours on the lake or a multi-day thru paddle of the Huron, paddling recreationists should always adhere to the following safety guidelines:

  • ALWAYS PADDLE WITH PROPER EQUIPMENT. Life vests, helmets, a whistle, a first aid kit, and a phone are examples of standard equipment depending on the routes or conditions that you may paddle.

  • BE AWARE OF THE STREAM FLOW. Check streamflow at the USGS gauge nearest to your intended trip. Visually check stream flow before you embark, and if the river is too fast for your comfort level, wait until it recedes.

  • BE AWARE OF THE WATER TEMPERATURE. Cold water is extremely dangerous. Learn about protecting yourself from hypothermia before embarking on your trip.

  • BE AWARE OF THE WEATHER. Conditions can change rapidly. Be aware of forecasts, and do not go out during thunderstorms or other adverse weather events. Stay alert to changing weather conditions.

  • BE AWARE OF THE DAYLIGHT. Make sure you leave enough daylight to comfortably finish your trip.

  • BRING A SPARE CHANGE OF CLOTHES IN A DRY BAG. You will likely get wet. Bring a spare change of clothes in a dry bag to avoid hypothermia.

  • WEAR RIVER FOOTWEAR. Protect your feet from sharp river rocks—always wear footwear.

  • KNOW HOW TO SWIM. Make sure you know how to swim before embarking on a river trip.

  • KNOW HOW TO GET HELP. To get help, dial 911. Make sure you are aware of your surroundings and can communicate your position to emergency responders.

  • FOLLOW SAFETY SIGNS. Know how to recognize the safety signs throughout the Clinton River.


The return of warmer weather means open season on several genres of outdoor exploration in the Detroit region: backpacking, mountain biking, and especially canoe camping. Overnight expeditions on our world-famous waterways provides not only a phenomenal means of exploring our region's greatest asset - our fresh water - for extended periods of recreational bliss, but also represents a relatively untapped avenue for experiencing our natural environmental.

As shoulder season ends and Spring proper takes over, we can't wait to get back in the water. We can't wait to paddle up to new campgrounds, dock our vessels, and settle in by the campfire, swapping stores from the full day spent paddling and exploring our rivers and lakes.

Most importantly, we can't to see you out there.


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