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Ozark Floats: 5 Tips to Plan Your Canoe Camping Adventure
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Canoe camping is a favorite pastime here in the Ozarks. Our pristine waterways offer an oasis on hot summer days, but planning a floating trip can get complicated if you’ve never done it before. Luckily, I’m here to help with a breakdown of everything you need to know to plan a successful float.
Here are my top 5 tips to plan your canoe camping trip:
- Choose An Appropriate Float
- Consider Logistics
- Bring the Right Supplies
- Pack Your Craft Wisely
- Have a Backup Plan
There’s a lot more that goes into planning a river float than meets the eye. You need to consider transportation, equipment, your route, and everything in between. Read on to discover exactly where, when, and how to float for the best results, so you can get on the water the smart way this season.
What is Canoe Camping?
Before we get into planning, it’s important to define the activity. Also known as river floating or kayak camping, canoe camping is a wonderful combination of two leisure activities: camping and riverboating. Typically, you’ll set off from a designated put-in spot along your river of choice.
You’ll float downstream in a canoe, kayak, raft, or other non-motorized watercraft, enjoying calm waters as you marvel at towering bluffs and crystal-clear springs along the way. Eventually, you’ll arrive at your pre-planned destination spot. Here, you’ll pull the boat out of the water and camp.
Some people prefer to take their supplies with them in the canoe. Others will go ahead and set up camp beforehand at their destination, driving themselves back upstream to put in. You can camp for one night in a cool place, or continue to meander down the river for days at a time and camp out in different spots each night.
Should I Use an Outfitter?
It’s important to note the presence of resorts, canoe outlets, and various other riverways outfitters in the Ozarks. These services offer watercraft rentals, various forms of camping, and vehicle transportation up and down the river.
An outfitter service can eliminate the planning headache which often goes along with a big trip like this. However, many of them charge pretty astronomical fees. They may also have rigid timelines in place as far as picking you up and dropping you off. And if you miss your pickup time, you’ll be stuck paying even more for transport.
Ultimately, it’s up to you whether you want to use an outfitter service. When I’m on an adventure, I prefer the freedom to float and camp how, where, and when I want. However, outfitters do work particularly well for families with kids, large groups, and those who prefer to take a backseat with logistics.
Which River Should I Float?
There are many navigable rivers in these parts, but five main rivers are extremely popular for floating. One lies in Arkansas, and the rest reside up in Missouri. It’s important to pick your river wisely based on its location and water level. Some rivers are more user-friendly than others, and some offer a wilder taste of the Ozarks outdoor lifestyle.
The Buffalo River in Arkansas is second to none in scenic views. It’s a designated national river and because of its protected status, no resorts or private land abut it. The Buffalo is surrounded by deep and unforgiving wilderness on each side, offering a slightly less civilized but much more adventurous floating opportunity.
This river depends highly on rain to carry a steady water level. If you try to float it after a dry spell, you’ll need to carry your craft much of the way. This can really cut down on the amount of fun you have. It’s imperative to check Buffalo River water levels before heading out, and only attempt to float when the levels are high enough to do so comfortably.
Of course, the Buffalo isn’t your only option. My personal favorite is the North Fork of the White River in Missouri. You can easily check Northfork water levels for every popular float along the river, and choose your desired put-in spot and destination based on that.
The Northfork is a cool, spring-fed river surrounded by bluffs and pockmarked with cave systems. It’s great for everyone, from solo adventurers to families. There are plenty or designated campgrounds and outfitter camps along the route as well, making it an appropriate float for children and seniors.
With the most natural springs of any Ozarks river, it’s easy to see why the Current River is beloved by so many. Here you’ll find an abundance of civilization should you want it, but there are also plenty of hiking and camping opportunities off the beaten path.
The Current River spans over 180 miles, and offers a plethora of put-in spots and campgrounds for floaters to take advantage of. You can choose to float the upper, middle, or lower current river depending on your location and preferences.
Jack’s Fork River
A major tributary to the Current River, Jack’s Fork River is not to be overlooked as a floating destination. It’s a smaller waterway but no less beautiful, with over 22 documented springs and many more said to be hidden along the way. Jack’s Fork isn’t the easiest river to navigate, but it’s well worth the effort if you’re up for an adventure.
Even with seven put-in spots, it’s important to note that Jack’s Fork lacks access at many points. The first 25 miles run through a deep canyon, with few places to stop. If you do plan to float Jack’s Fork, be sure to check the forecast beforehand. If it rains, you could be in danger of a flash flood. The lower 24 miles are easier to navigate, with wide gravel bars and gently-flowing waters.
Eleven Point River
The Eleven Point River is one of the larger waterways in the Ozarks, lined with towering Dolomite bluffs and an abundance of swimming and fishing holes. From humble beginnings in Thomasville, Eleven Point grows quickly. Aided by the 10th-largest spring in the world at Greers Spring, this river raises to near-roaring levels after a heavy rain. It’s one of the few rivers which can be navigated with a motorboat as well as a canoe.
Named after French pointe, meaning curve, Eleven Point River has 11 put-in spots along its banks. Seven of these are stocked with amenities, while the others simply provide access. Eleven Point is one of the premier fishing destinations in all of the Ozarks for smallmouth bass and trout, so pick up a Missouri fishing license online if you want to partake in the fun.
5 Tips to Plan Your Canoe Camping Trip
1. Choose an Appropriate Float
Have a general idea of which river you want to float down? You’re not done just yet! Now you have to figure out what section you want to float. A section lasts from your put-in to your take-out, and it’s important to choose a part that’s perfect for you.
Different sections of river will always offer different attractions and views to enjoy. Sure, all of them are spectacular—but ask yourself what really interests you. For example, those who are super into caving should opt for a river section known for its caves, like the Twin Bridges to Hammond Camp section on the North Fork. If you want to see springs, opt for a section on the Eleven Point.
Of course, attractions are only part of the equation. You also need to pick a float that’s appropriate for your skill level. Beginners should research the flow rate of different sections and choose a slower one. Check on water levels in the days leading up to your excursion as well. Make sure the river is low enough to float safely while being high enough to actually float—you don’t want to drag bottom or carry your watercraft long distances on the trip.
Lastly, consider your mileage. It takes around 3-4 hours to complete a 5-mile float. Some sections are only a few miles long, while others can be over a dozen miles. You don’t want to be back at camp in the early afternoon wishing you were still on the water. Conversely, you don’t want to be stuck on the river long after you’re exhausted, hungry, and sunburned. When in doubt, go for a shorter float. You can always make it last longer by stopping at gravel bars and sightseeing along the way.
2. Consider Logistics
So, you’ve chosen a river, picked a section, and you’re ready to go! But how are you going to get there? And perhaps just as importantly, how are you going to get back? Planning logistics for a floating trip can be complicated at best and an absolute nightmare at worst. Especially if you’re not going to employ an outfitter, you need to be meticulous.
Designated river access points will have lots of parking for cars and boat trailers. Keep in mind you’ll usually need to pay a nominal fee for parking and putting in, which helps keep you and your vehicle safe while you’re gone overnight or for a few days. But once you’re done with the trip, you need to get back to your car—and there are several ways to do this.
The first and probably easiest is to have someone else in your party park their vehicle at your destination. Then, two people can hop in this vehicle to drive back to the original put-in spot, snatch the first vehicle, and drive both of them back to load up the boats.
There can be several variations on this depending on how many cars and people you’re toting along with you. An alternative is to hire an outfitter just to drive your car from the put-in spot to the destination spot. This is a popular choice for solo floaters and those who don’t want to deal with driving to fetch the car. The cost can range from only $20 to $50 or more, so be prepared and know the price beforehand.
3. Bring the Right Supplies
You won’t have any fun if you don’t come fully stocked and prepared for a great float trip. Of course, everyone has personal tastes as far as food and beverages go, and there’s no one snack or drink that works best. That being said, glass containers are prohibited on all Ozarks waterways. Opt for cans or plastic bottles if you intend on having some adult beverages, and make sure you have plenty of water to drink as well.
Choosing snacks with a high water content is smart on hot summer days, so fruits are beneficial. Protein-packed nibbles like nuts and jerky are also a great boon when the munchies hit. No matter what food you choose to bring with you, keep in mind that refreshments aren’t all you need.
Sunscreen is a must-have, even if you don’t normally use it. The weather can get brutal and even if you hop into the water for a cool-down, you’ll still be exposed to UV rays for hours on end. Bring sunglasses, a hat, and a light cover-up to protect yourself from the weather on your trip.
You’ll also want a receptacle for your garbage so you aren’t tempted to litter. I find a mesh or burlap potato-bag works quite well. Getting a paddle-seat instead of sitting on the hard rack of a canoe will increase comfort greatly, and making sure you have plenty of ice in your cooler will help you keep a steady temperature throughout the float.
Other items can be helpful as well. Personally, I like to bring a waterproof camera to capture the moments and bug spray because I’m sensitive to bites. I also always take a snorkel and goggles along with me, so I can drift through an underwater universe as we navigate the river. A flashlight is top of my list for exploring caves, and a towel is important for when I inevitably get cold as night falls.
4. Pack Your Craft Wisely
Stuff happens on the river. Especially if you’re new to floating, it’s possible that you’ll tip over. Even if you don’t, you will definitely take on water at some point. To protect your belongings from getting soaked, it’s imperative to pack your craft the smart way.
So, how can you do that? First, invest in a good dry box. The best dry boxes for you will vary depending on your needs, but they should be big enough to hold your keys, cell phone, and other essentials you absolutely need to keep dry. Make sure everyone has their own dry box, and tie it down to the boat in case you capsize—that way, your float won’t be ruined when you tip over. It will all just be part of the fun!
Balance the weight in your craft somewhat evenly. Place the heaviest items at the bottom, towards the middle of the canoe. This may cause you to drag bottom, but dragging is much better than capsizing because of faulty load distribution. Tie your gear down if you’ll be going over rapids, but make sure things like food and water are still easily accessible.
It’s smart to stow equipment like tents and sleeping bags inside of a cooler, because the hard lid will repel water and keep your items dry. If you don’t have a cooler to spare, tuck them inside a plastic bag and stuff that bag inside of a heavier canvas sack to prevent ripping, tearing, and sun damage.
5. Have a Backup Plan
Canoe camping in the Ozarks is generally a safe practice. But even the best-laid plans can get waylaid, and it’s good to be prepared in the event an emergency arises. Inclement weather, equipment failure, and other things can all cause a trip to go south quickly—and not in a good way. If that happens, you need to have a backup plan.
So, what’s the first step? Informing others of your whereabouts is paramount. Text a close friend or family member with your planned route and destination. Inform them of how long you plan on being out in the wild and let them know where your car is parked. This will save valuable time in the unlikely event you go missing.
Always bring a river map and compass in your boat. You’ll find a lot of advice out there that warns against taking your cell phone with you on the water, but it’s a smart move to bring at least one phone inside your dry box. That way, you can call for help if needed. In the likely event you get no reception on the water, you can use the map and compass to find your way to higher ground and call for help there.
Your backup plan should also include supplies like extra food, a water filter, rain gear, and alternative methods of lighting a fire like a flint stick. You don’t want to find yourself literally up a creek without a paddle, so take an extra one with you to avoid drifting downstream with no control of the craft.
Your Adventure Starts Now
Ready to hit the water? I can’t blame you! Whether you’re setting off up in Missouri or down in Arkansas, the Ozarks are calling your name with the adventure of a lifetime. Make sure to follow these tips for floating like a boss, and you’ll be on your way to a great time as soon as possible.