How to Find Secret Paddle-In Campsites

You know it when you’ve found it: a special and secluded campsite along the shore to spend a night at during a paddling trip. One where you won’t hear generators running late into the night or over-the-top camp setups, or find the amenities of a typical campground. The simplicity of a campsite only accessible by boat can isn’t appealing to everyone, but for those that do, the best sites stand out and are often returned to year after year. Most of these remote spots are quietly managed by National Forest or other public lands efforts. They’re treasures, part of which is discovering them. Which is why we can’t tell you where they are. But, we can give you some tools you can use to find them on your own.

Credit: Effie Drew
Credit: Effie Drew

1. Pick up an atlas

In the age of digital media, one of the most effective ways to find backroads, campsites, and swim holes is still with an atlas or gazetteer. Familiarize yourself with the various symbols; often these campsites are designated with a square (“Point of Interest”), or tent symbol, not to be confused with that symbol for campground. If you already have a specific paddling trip in mind, like the Saranac River or Maine Isle Trail, a paper map designed for that trip should include smaller campsites that aren’t apart of a larger campground network.

2. Study Google Maps

It’s not going to show you private property boundaries but studying Google Earth is a great way to narrow down your search area away from vehicle-accessible areas. It’s easy to zoom in and download a certain spot to your phone so you can view it once you lose service. Look for coves, islands or other secluded spots along the water.

Credit: Effie Drew
Credit: Effie Drew

3. Talk to locals

Some of the best spots are never written about on popular publications, and instead passed on by word of mouth. A good place to start is by heading into the local outfitter or rental shop. Explain that you’re looking for a remote waterside spot to spend the night (on the lake or river) and see what information they’re willing to give up. Some spots are kept pretty hush, but many folks will steer you in the right direction.

4.  Understand land management

Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service lands aren’t as prevalent in the Northeast compared to out west, but there are plenty of public lands maintained by other groups like the Maine North Woods. These areas often have the most strategically placed campsites, so don’t be surprised if there’s a small fee to stay at them (some can be paid retroactively, but have cash on hand). Otherwise, National and State-managed Forests will be your bread and butter. Understanding where these jurisdictions are, and how they operate will help you determine where to camp.

Courtesy: Dave Moore
Courtesy: Dave Moore

5. Read guidebooks

Paddling Guidebooks can offer some of the best intel on where you may want to be traveling and camping on the water. Even if you aren’t planning to do an entire trip, a guidebook covering a wider area, like the North Forest Canoe Trail or Adirondacks, will give you more than enough information to find the perfect spot for a night away.