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Boat Camping 101: How to Enjoy the Best Campsite on the Lake

Anyone who has been camping in a tent or RV knows that the best campsites are always by the water. However, the best campsite may be on the water itself. Boat camping allows you to explore coves, beaches, and islands that weren’t possible any other way. However, it does require some preparation and planning to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience.

Today, you’re enrolling in Boat Camping 101, and we will be your captains through this course. Whether you’re an expert or a beginner, we’ll help you make the most of your time on the water and create unforgettable memories.

So grab your personal flotation device, and let’s set sail.

How to Plan A Boat Camping Trip

What Is Boat Camping?

Boat camping is an outdoor activity that combines boats and camping. It can be done in two general ways. The first way is to spend one or more nights aboard a boat, usually in a natural environment like a river or lake. During this adventure, the watercraft is a means of transportation and a temporary shelter for the campers, similar to car or RV camping. The second way is simply to use the boat as transportation to a campsite that would otherwise be inaccessible to other vehicles, often called “boat-in” camping.

These are unique ways to experience the great outdoors and make memories. Participants can explore new areas, enjoy breathtaking views, and escape from the hustle and bustle of daily life.

A great thing about boat camping is that you can do it with various types of watercraft. Anything from kayaks and canoes to larger vessels and yachts can do the job. However, it requires careful planning and preparation, as campers must consider safety, weather conditions, and the necessary equipment and supplies for their trip.

kayaks by tents

Can You Sleep Overnight on a Boat on a Lake?

It is possible to sleep overnight on a boat on a lake, river, or other body of water. However, the vessel must have the proper safety equipment. Some essential items include secure anchors, life jackets, navigation lights, and sound-producing devices. 

Many larger vessels, typically more than 25 feet, have under-cockpit berths. These designated sleeping areas vary in size and usually contain a bed or bunk beds. Additionally, some will have curtains or partitions to maximize privacy. These sleeping spaces are most common on sailboats, motorboats, and houseboats.

If you plan to camp in your boat, you’ll likely want one with a cabin for the most comfort. However, you can use hammocks, air mattresses, and sleeping bags for sleeping anywhere you can fit them. It might not be nearly as comfortable, but it’s possible.

Before heading out for a camping trip, you must know the local rules and regulations for boat camping. Many authorities require you to be fully self-contained and have an onboard bathroom, also known as a “head” on a boat. This helps ensure waste doesn’t get into the water, creating severe sanitation issues.

Additionally, you always want to check and keep an eye on the weather forecast, as weather changes can happen swiftly. Furthermore, if you’re unprepared for storms or tide changes, you may wake up to a rocking and wet boat.

Pro Tip: Make sure you know how to tie these 6 Essential Knots Everyone Should Know before you set sail.

Interior of boat bedroom
How comfortable boat camping can be will depend on the type of boat you are snoozing on.

Is Sleeping on a Boat Peaceful?

When imagining sleeping on a boat, most people envision a tranquil experience. Sleeping on a boat can be a peaceful experience with clear skies and gentle winds. However, it’s important to remember that nature can be unpredictable.

During severe weather, the waters can be very turbulent. Instead of the gentle waves or soft movements lulling you to sleep, it could be very violent. You could end up tossing and turning the entire night. Again, you’ll want to monitor the weather forecast and set up alerts to any significant changes. You may want to adjust your plans if there are storms or severe weather in-bound.

What Is Boat-In Camping?

Boat-in camping, or water-access camping, is a recreational activity that involves accessing a campsite by boat rather than by foot or vehicle. These campsites are usually along lakes, rivers, or coastal areas and are only reachable by watercraft. 

Boat-in camping allows campers to enjoy a more secluded and remote experience. These spots are typically less crowded and more primitive than traditional campsites. Campers must have a boat, canoe, kayak, or paddleboard and the necessary gear and supplies to be self-sufficient. 

Boat-in camping can be a unique and rewarding experience, allowing campers to explore new areas, fish, swim, and enjoy the beauty of nature away from the crowds. If you’re tired of crowded campgrounds, this might be worth considering.

However, even boat-in campers need to watch the weather for changing tides, rising reservoir or river levels, and waves. Be sure to place your boats and camp set up far enough from the water’s edge to avoid getting wet or swept away.

Man near tent and packrafts in forest camp near river. Packrafting.

Best Types of Boats for Camping

When planning these trips, selecting the correct vessel is crucial to ensure a safe, comfortable, and enjoyable experience. With so many types of boats available, it can be challenging to determine which one is best suited for your needs. Some boats are more suitable for day trips, while others are for extended stays on the water.

Pontoon Boats

Pontoon boats are famous for camping due to their spacious and comfortable designs. They feature a large, flat deck that provides ample space for gear, coolers, and other equipment, even tents!

Pontoons are also stable and easy to maneuver, making them ideal for families with children or older adults. Many pontoons come with grills, tables, and shade canopies, providing added comfort and convenience during your trip.

However, pontoons can generally be slower and less agile than other options, limiting your ability to explore more remote areas or travel quickly in an emergency. In addition, they’re typically less fuel-efficient and very wet in big waves.

Despite these drawbacks, pontoons remain a trendy choice for camping. This is primarily due to their large and comfortable design, ease of use, and family-friendly features.

Sleeping on pontoon boat while boat camping
Pontoons are comfy cruisers with plenty of room to set up a tent and other camping gear on a flat and stable platform.

Cabin Cruisers

Cabin cruisers are popular for camping, especially those who prefer a more luxurious and comfortable experience. They have an enclosed cabin with a private sleeping area and may include a galley, bathroom, and other amenities. You can think of a cabin cruiser boat like an RV on the water.

Cabin cruisers typically offer more space and storage than other options, allowing for a more extended trip with all the comforts of home. They’re versatile, and you can use them for cruising, fishing, or watersports activities. 

However, cabin cruisers are typically larger and more expensive than other options. They can also require more maintenance and operating costs.

cabin cruiser boat aerial photo
We regularly spend time on the water in a cabin cruiser because its so similar to RVing

Sailboats

Sailboats are an excellent choice for camping due to their quiet operation and ability to travel long distances on the wind. They offer a unique and peaceful experience, relying on wind power instead of fuel to move.

Sailboats are also more environmentally friendly and cost-effective than motorized vessels, requiring less fuel if you sail. These vessels come in a wide variety of sizes, features, and capabilities. Small sailboats can be a little bigger than a canoe or kayak, and large ones can have multiple hulls and estate rooms. Your trip will likely look drastically different depending on the type of sailboat.

However, they may all require more skill and experience to operate than a motorized or paddle boat. The wind and weather can be unpredictable, making it essential to monitor weather conditions and adjust plans accordingly. Since they are generally larger, with deep keels to balance the sails, trailering can be more difficult, and you must take care in shallow waters.

Larger sailboats are frequently used for longer adventures, as well as live-aboard situations.

From RV to Boat? Pros, Cons, & Similarities to Full Time RV Living - Mondays w/ the Mortons S2E2

Kayaks or Canoes

Kayaks and canoes are an excellent choice for adventurers seeking a more intimate and immersive experience on the water. These small, lightweight vessels are easy to transport and launch and can access remote areas. 

Kayaks and canoes are also very quiet, allowing for a peaceful adventure in nature. Additionally, these watercraft are a suitable option for solo travelers or small groups. They’re convenient to maneuver and require little to no previous experience. 

However, canoes and kayaks may be less comfortable than other options, as they offer limited storage space and seating arrangements. They can make the experience incredibly physically demanding, especially if traveling against a current. It may seem best to slowly work up to how far and long you paddle.

Kayaks and canoes may not be suitable for longer trips or larger groups. They offer limited space and amenities. Since you’ll need to carry everything, you’ll likely want to stick to shorter adventures. 

Pro Tip: If you are ready to set sail, use these tips on How to Start Kayak Camping.

Kayak camping
From kayaks to pontoon boats, there are many boat options to take on your camping trip.

Packrafts

Packrafts are inflatable portable rafts that are often used in combination with other camping and outdoor recreation, as they can fold down pretty small. They are frequently used for overnight river trips as they are comfortable and capable on light rapids. As the name suggests, you use condensed packs to carry all your gear. Then, you plot your route down or around a body of water with planned campsites.

Pro Tip: Use our guide on What Is Packrafting to plan some incredible packraft adventures.

Essential Gear to Have for Boat Camping

When planning a camping trip, the right gear and equipment can significantly improve your comfort, safety, and enjoyment. Due to the unique challenges and needs of being on the water, boat camping requires specific gear. Here are some things you’ll need before heading out for your adventure.

Navigation Tools

Navigation tools are essential gear, enabling you to navigate the waterways safely and efficiently. A quality set of navigation tools will help you to plan your route, identify potential hazards, and stay on course, ensuring a stress-free and enjoyable experience.

Some essential navigation tools for boat camping include maps, a compass, GPS, marine radio, chartplotter, and binoculars. Whether you’re a seasoned pro or a beginner, having reliable navigation tools and knowing how to use them is crucial to ensure a safe and successful camping trip.

On larger boats, navigation is almost always built in, but even on a kayak, you can get mapping apps specific to marine usage.

chart plotter navigation on boat
Its important to have marine navigation with water depth charts if you are going camping on the water. If you need to move at night especially you will be relying on it.

Safety Equipment

Safety equipment is a vital part of your boat camping gear, as it can help prevent accidents and save lives in an emergency. You may not need or plan to use it, but you’ll be glad you have it if you do. Before embarking on your trip, ensure that you have all the necessary safety equipment and that it is in good working condition.

Life jackets, fire extinguishers, flares, a first-aid kit, and a sound-producing device are some of the basics. We also recommend you familiarize yourself with safety regulations and practice safe boating habits. Stay alert and aware of your surroundings, avoid alcohol, and wear appropriate clothing and footwear.

Keep in mind that camping on the water tends to be more chilly than camping on shore. Pack extra layers, an insulated camping pad, and plenty of sleeping bags or blankets to stay warm on the water.

Pro Tip: Safety is key while boating! Before you hit the water, make sure you know The Most Common Causes Of Falling Overboard Boats.

Camping Equipment

You don’t want to forget your camping equipment when you go camping. Right? However, your gear and equipment will depend on your situation. If you plan to sleep on the boat, you might not need to pack a tent. However, a tent is essential if you’re doing boat-in camping.

Don’t forget to consider comfort items like sleeping bags, pillows, and bedding. Other things like camp stoves and cooking utensils can help you make delicious food during the trip. Please don’t underestimate how dim it will get once the sun goes down. With no ambient light, it will likely be incredibly dark.

The right equipment and supplies can make or break your trip. Before packing, ensure you have all the equipment and supplies. Make a list of any items that you forget or wish you had. This can help maximize your experience for any future adventures.

Man sitting in boat next to tent
Make sure your boat is packed with all the gear you need before you hit the waters.

Where Can You Find Boat Camping Campsites?

If you’re looking for campsites, you’ll want to start your search around water. Almost anywhere where you can take a boat, there are likely options. The most common places are state and national parks, wildlife management areas, and private campgrounds.

However, you must do your research when picking a spot. While many governing agencies won’t mind you camping on their land, a private owner will. Setting up camp on private property could land you in hot water with the owner.

Anchoring Out or Moorings

Anchoring out or using moorings is very common in boat camping. This is when you anchor to a buoy in a designated area. Like a campsite, you can rent these spots and make yourself at home. This lets you avoid drifting away or worrying about potential dangers while sleeping.

Anchoring out is like RV boondocking, where you are off-grid and self-reliant. When boat camping this way, it’s crucial to follow local regulations and guidelines, like anchoring in designated areas, maintaining a safe distance from others, and ensuring the anchor or mooring line is secure and not damaging the seabed or marine life. Always follow Leave No Trace principles, and respect the natural environment to ensure that the area remains pristine for future campers.

Boat-In Campsites

Boat-in campsites are trendy for boat campers who want to enjoy a camping experience in a secluded and remote location accessible only by watercraft. These campsites are typically on islands or along the shorelines of lakes, rivers, and coastal areas.

They may also offer fire pits, picnic tables, and vault toilets. However, they’ll still require campers to be self-sufficient and bring their food, water, and camping gear. There may also be regulations and guidelines, like limits on watercraft size or motor use, and may require permits or reservations to ensure that the area remains protected and preserved for future campers. 

FIVE tips for camping on your boat!!

Set Sail on Your Boat Camping Adventures

Boat camping offers a unique and unforgettable way to explore the outdoors and experience the beauty and tranquility of nature on the water. Whether you prefer anchoring in a secluded cove, setting up camp on a remote island, or cruising along the shoreline, there are endless possibilities for adventures. 

With the right gear, equipment, and preparation, you can enjoy a safe and comfortable experience on the water. Additionally, exploring new destinations can create unforgettable memories with family and friends.

Would you ever give boat camping a try? Tell us your thoughts in the comments!

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About Cait Morton

Co-Founder, Logistics Queen, Business & Content Manager, and Animal Lover

An Upper Peninsula of Michigan native (aka a Yooper), Caitlin is the organization, big-picture, and content strategy queen of our operation. She keeps everything orderly and on track.

With a background in Business Management, she supports and helps channel Tom’s technical prowess into the helpful content our readers and viewers expect. That’s not to say you won’t find her turning wrenches and talking shop – RV life is a team effort. She keeps the business and the blog moving forward with a variety of topics and resources for our audience.

Believe it or not, she is rather camera shy, though she co-hosts the Mortons’ personal videos and The RVers TV show.

Caitlin’s passion lies in outdoor recreation and with animals. Some of her favorite things to do are hiking, biking, and getting out on the water via kayak, SUP, or boat.

She also loves the RV life due to the fact that you can bring your pets along. Sharing information about safely recreating outdoors with your whole family – pets included! – is very important to her. Because of this, Caitlin spearheaded the launch of HypePets in 2023.

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