Looking for new ways to enjoy your boat? Sure, those mid-lake day trips might have satisfied your little family up until now. But there are more ways to experience your pontoon than simply taking it out for a spin once in a while. We're talking about pontoon boat camping.
Melding together comfort and the great outdoors, camping on deck is the perfect option for families who want to enjoy the serenity of mother nature without actually having to roll in the dirt. Planning a fun-filled on-deck camping trip with the whole family? Here's how to do it.
Preparing for Pontoon Camping
Pontoon boats are exceptionally versatile, and their wide decks make them ideal for setting up camp. But before we talk about anything else, it's important that you have all the essentials you need to make your camping trip both comfortable and safe.
Here are some must-have items that you need to buy before you haul the whole family for an overnight trip on your boat.
Unless the gang is okay with everyone taking a dump in the bushes a few steps from camp, you're going to want to buy a porta-potty. An outdoor portable toilet can make the experience of emptying your bowels alongside mother nature much more comfortable.
There are loads of options to choose from, but if you're hauling a pretty big family, capacity should be your biggest concern. This SereneLife Portable Toilet has a 5.3 gallon holding tank which might be enough for an overnight camping trip on your pontoon boat.
Check out our guide to portable pontoon boat toilets for more options.
No one wants to evacuate their system with everyone else standing around to see. Your portable toilet is going to need an enclosure of its own to make things a little more private. Pop-up tents are pretty popular these days in the camping niche since they're easy to set up and they fold up really small for storage.
Some tents incorporate a window cut-out that you can open or close to let fresh air in, in case that's a necessity. You might also want to get other tents for changing or taking showers. Some people even set up their pop-up bathrooms on their pontoon boats for easy access.
We recommend the WolfWise Pop-up Shower Tent.
Outdoor LED Lamp Lights
If you're camping in an area with limited or no lighting, then a set of outdoor LED light lamps should be on your list. Solar powered LED light lamps are great for outdoor use since you won't need to plug them in to power them up. Some even have a USB port that lets you hook up your phone to charge.
Consider the size of your boat and the number of people you're taking with you. It would be ideal to have a LED light set at each corner of your deck so there aren't any blind spots on board. Then you should consider having a spare light that you can take with you in case you plan to take a stroll as the sun goes down.
We like the Camping Lanterns with USB Charge.
Things are going to get pretty cold when the night settles in. And because pontoon boats are particularly exposed, sleeping on board could become impossible as the night wears on. Fortunately, a space heater can fix that.
When you're buying one of these bad boys, make sure you take a look at the device's power source especially if you're going to run it for several hours throughout the night. Some need to be plugged into an outlet, and take up serious energy if you're hooking up to a portable generator. Some use propane, which can be much more efficient especially if you're outdoors. Just make sure you take the necessary precautions because it's going to be a fire hazard.
Check out the Multi-Functional Campy Gear 2 in 1 Portable Propane Heater & Stove.
No one's saying it's wrong to pack pre-cooked meals for your camping trip, but no one says it's necessary either. Part of the fun of camping is that you get to cook your food in exciting new ways. If your pontoon boat has a grill installed, then you can cook up whatever you catch after an afternoon of fishing.
If you're using a propane powered heater like the one we mentioned above, then you can also use it as a stove. Again, safety protocol is key when operating a grill or propane stove. It's all fun and games until a fire breaks out. Bring a lighter and water proof matches along to help light the grill with less effort.
We love the Cuisinart Grill for Pontoon Boats.
Cooking and Eating Accessories
Since we're on the topic of meal-prep, might as well talk about all of the other accessories and items you'll need for a seamless outdoor cooking experience. Of course, a cooler is a must if you want to keep meat and produce fresh until the morning. Some boat owners even go as far as getting a mini fridge, but that also depends on the kind of power you have on board.
You can also take a second cooler with you to store ice and drinks. Consider something like these pontoon cooler tables. Some other items you can consider include plates, utensils, and cups. You can get a whole picnic set that stows away into a neat little package so it doesn't clutter your limited boat space when it isn't in use.
Check out the Coleman Xtreme Cooler, the Alpicool Portable Fridge and the Apollo Walker Picnic Backpack Set Up.
First Aid Kit
You'll never know what might happen outdoors until it happens. And while no one really wishes for accidents and injury to occur, it's always better to be prepared for the worst. A first aid kit is a must have if you're camping on your pontoon boat, especially for boating accidents that might not be life threatening.
You can piece one together yourself by buying all of the first aid items separately. That includes bandages, tape, scissors, swabs, gauze, cotton balls, gloves, and wound disinfectant. Or you could take the easy route and just buy a whole kit that includes all of the safety essentials.
We highly recommend the Surviveware Survival First Aid Kit for Ourdoors.
Bug Repellent and Sunscreen
There are loads of bugs out there just waiting to feast on your skin. And while a bug bite or two might not be too big of a deal, it can turn into a sleepless night when the relentless stinging makes your whole body itch. Fortunately, a good spray or layer of bug spray should be enough to solve that. Make sure you get a formulation that's developed to last several hours so you can sleep soundly through the night.
Another essential item within the same realm would be sunscreen. Harsh sunlight and UV rays can cause painful burns on exposed skin. Unless you're going to be covered from head to toe in clothing (which is unlikely considering summer heat), you're going to want to make sure you have enough UV protection in the form of lotion.
You can't go wrong with OFF! Deep Woods Bug Spray as well as the Coppertone Sport Sunscreen Spray to protect you from the UV rays.
Anything can happen when you're outdoors on a camp trip, and you can't really tell when you'll have to call for help. If you're camping somewhere where you can just call for help by giving a holler, than you're pretty much set. But what if you're camping in a place where help might take hours to arrive?
For your protection and safety, you should consider copping a VHF radio. Water proof marine VHF radios are a prerequisite for pontoon boats. But if you don't have one at the ready, you can get one from the store at a very reasonable price.
Check out the Uniden Marine VHF Waterproof Radio.
Unless you're ready to sleep on your cold hard deck, then you should get a sleeping bag. Again, choosing the right bag is really a matter of preference. Sleeping bags come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, so you can be sure to find one that's a perfect match for your preferences and standards. Some people prefer the comfort of an inflatable bed over sleep bags.
You have the option to buy a single sleeper or a double, depending on your preferred sleep arrangements. It also helps to choose something that provides enough comfort and padding without being a chore to store and stow away. If you anticipate that you might camp on your boat pretty often, then don't hesitate to invest in a sleeping bag that's better quality.
We really like the RYONGII Single Waterproof Sleeping Bag or the TETON Mammoth Queen Size Sleeping Bag.
Think about the logistics of docking in a shallow, sandy water for a minute. Your typical anchor might not do the job, since it's intended to work in areas with significant water depth. Of course, you could always just beach your pontoon, but if that's not something you're used to, you might want to invest in other gear.
A beach anchor is a simple device that digs into the sand under the water to give your pontoon boat something to hold it in place while it floats around in shallow water. There are various designs available, and they're always easy to install and pull from the water while maintaining your boat right next to your camp site.
We recommend the Beachr Beach Umbrella Sand Anchor.
You're going to want to be ready for whatever mother nature might decide to toss in your direction as you camp on the water. And while a set of life vests should be on board at all times during every trip (one for each passenger on your pontoon), there are other emergency gear essentials to take with you.
An inflatable dinghy boat should be one of the things you consider taking with you. This just gives you an emergency vessel that you can use in case something makes your pontoon boat inoperable while you're out on your camping trip.
You should consider the Newport Vessels Inflatable Dinghy Boat for up to 6 people.
What About Pontoon Boats Camping Enclosures?
If you were looking to turn your pontoon boat into a camper enclosure accessories should be at the top of your list. Unlike a bimini top that only offers shade against the sun, pontoon enclosures provide complete cover to keep things like bugs and pests out since it has a roof and walls like a full-on room. It also protects against heat and UV rays from all directions, the same way a camping tent would.
Although designs vary, you mostly pull the canvas over a framework to keep the whole thing in place. Choices for pontoon boat camping enclosures are pretty limited, so you might not have too many choices available.
TaylorMade offers an enclosure that conceals the bow of your boat, offering complete protection against the elements. It can also fit an inflatable bed or two, so you can comfortable snooze while being protected on deck.
We like this 12006OB Taylor Made Bow Enclosure, Cover, Pontoon Boat Shade & Privacy.
Pontoon Enclosure vs Tent
An enclosure isn't exactly what you would call cheap. They're also pretty hard to find in your boat's specific size. That's why some boating enthusiasts have come up with their own enclosure design ideas that they've paid to get customized. Again, that means you'll have to be ready to spend a pretty penny for the piece of camping gear.
But then again, it could make the camping trip a little more comfortable. If you have trouble sleeping at night with a tent pitched up on the beach and your boat a ways away, then sleeping on your boat under an enclosure might be the way to go.
Other than that, pontoon enclosures are much better at keeping heat in if you're using a heater. So you won't have to worry about sleeping in conditions that might be a little too cold for comfort.
On the other hand, there's the issue of moisture and wind resistance. Most of the enclosure designs you'll find are made from a marine canvas material which isn't waterproof. So if the weather picks up and decides to rain down on your boat, you could expect your enclosure to be soaked through and through, making it impossible to sleep in.
If strong winds start to assail your boat (and they might especially at night), then there's the risk of getting your enclosure ripped out of place and tossed into the water. If anything, the enclosure makes a suitable choice if you're camping in fair weather. Any other weather conditions that risk rain or wind might make the specialized tent a bad idea.
Can You Use a Bimini Top Instead?
Well, no one's going to stop you, that's for sure. While a top cover might not provide the same luxury camping experience that an enclosure would, it can definitely do the job especially if you're only camping for one night.
Of course, you just need to make sure you're camping in good weather since they're also just made of canvas. You might also want to consider slathering on an extra layer of bug repellent since a top won't provide all-around shelter and protection the way a camp enclosure would.
Choosing the Perfect Spot for Pontoon Boat Camping
Now it's time to decide on where to camp. There are loads of destinations around the country that make great choices for families looking to experience the serenity of the great outdoors through pontoon boat camping. So it's really important that you practice some due diligence before you decide on a spot. If there are any camping and boating spots nearby, you could always scout them out in person.
There are a number of websites that index all of the different pontoon boat camping spots around the country, but you could also try Google Earth. Just zero in on lakes and other bodies of water and check for parks and wilderness areas. What's nice about Google Earth is that it gives you a bird's eye view on the property so you can see what it has to offer.
But a word of caution - the software doesn't really provide a very good perspective on the topography of the wilderness areas. So before you decide, you might want to call up the property managers to learn more about the area. Some places might look suitable from up top, but turn out to have steep slopes near the water that make it impossible to pitch up a tent within view of your boat.
Other Considerations When Choosing a Location
There's more to making the decision than just the property itself. Here are a few other important considerations you need to make so you can be sure that you're going to the perfect place for a seamless pontoon boat camping getaway:
Rules and Regulations
There's a reason why all of those wilderness parks have remained relatively well-kept and camp-worthy throughout the years. That's because the park management enforces rules and regulations that help protect the land and water. Before you visit, make sure you familiarize yourself with their camp rules.
For starters, some camps have specific guides for fishing while others have rules for cooking, especially since it poses a fire hazard. Some have designated areas for cooking activities on land, which means you can't just fire up the grill anywhere you want.
Of course, rules against making too much noise area also often in place to make sure all campers can enjoy the tranquility of nature. Then there are rules that govern the disposal of trash. You can't just throw your trash or waste from your portable toilet just anywhere you want. All parks have regulations for waste and trash disposal, so see to it that you ask before you discard anything.
Rain and wind can cramp your camping style and turn a fun overnight excursion into an absolute disaster. So make sure you're looking into weather forecasts for the next few days. Plus - just because it's warm and sunny in your neck of the woods, doesn't mean it's the same where you're going.
Look into the forecast and see whether your camping plans are actually feasible. As a general rule, you're going to want to scrap a plan and take a rain check if there's the slightest indication of strong winds or rain.
Anchoring areas for your boat is going to be one of the biggest considerations you should make before you decide on a specific location. Some parks and wildlife areas have anchoring coves that puts your boat in the vicinity of other boats. This just makes it easier to keep an eye on all of the people in the park. But then again, it might also take a toll on privacy especially if you were hoping to enjoy a little peace and quiet.
Other than that, you're going to want to inspect the kind of land underneath the water. Not all nature parks have lakes that are pontoon-friendly simply because the land beneath the waves are too jagged and uneven, risking damage to your tubes. Make sure to ask before you haul your pontoon into the park.
Tips for Pontoon Boat Camping
If you're camping on your pontoon boat for the first time, then there might be a lot of guesswork involved. To help streamline the process and guarantee enjoyment and safety, take these handy tips into consideration:
- Ask about fresh drinking water availability, and pack more than you think you need if there isn't any available at your chosen park.
- Go through your pre-departure checklist twice or thrice for good measure.
- Plan all of your meals ahead of time and schedule perishable products first.
- Pack more boating snacks than you might think you'll need.
- See to it that all safety essentials are ready especially your life vests
- Try to get your passengers to wear their life vests any time they're on board even when the boat is near land
- Don't forget to clean your trash and waste as you go - leave the park the same way you found it.
- Stay on top of the weather especially since forecasts aren't always 100% guaranteed.
- Prepare some pontoon games to keep the entertainment going and make the experience more fun for the kids.
- If you're camping with a large group, always perform a head count.
- See to it that all of the members of your group are properly briefed on safety protocol for various potential emergencies.
- Have everyone carry whistles and pocket-friendly flashlights especially if you're camping in a remote area.
- Take extra caution when lighting your fire or grill to avoid any accidents
- Never forget to leave behind a float plan with a trusted friend or relative who's staying back home.
Summary Check-List for Pontoon Boat Camping
To make sure you're ready for the big day, here's a general list of all the things you should make sure to prepare:
General and Safety Preparations:
- Float plan complete with a list of passengers to be left with a friend or family member
- Pre-departure boat inspection
- Safety gear such as life vests under the seats, inflatable dinghy, whistles, radio, flashlights, fire extinguisher, and first aid kits
- Permits and paperwork required by your chosen park
- Ownership papers, licenses, and other boat related documents
Food, and Water Essentials:
- Grill or propane heater
- One large pot or pan
- Grilling utensils
- Knives or a multi-tool
- Can and bottle openers
- Lighter or waterproof matches
- Eating essentials (plates, utensils, cups, table napkins)
- Cooler packed with ice and your scheduled meals and ingredients
- Separate cooler with ice and drinks like juice, beer (as allowed by the park), and lots of fresh water
- Loads of snacks packed in sealed containers to ward off pests and ants
- Trash bag and holder to collect biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste
- Swim wear
- Sweater, pull over, or jacket
- Quick-dry underwear
- Water shoes
- Long socks
- A wide-brimmed hat or baseball cap
- Waterproof duffel bag
- Sleeping bags
- Flashlights and solar lights
- Power banks
- Portable generator for lights and gadgets
- Bug repellent
- Toilet paper
- Pop up tent
- Repair kits
- Inflatable bed
- Air pump
- Foldable seats and tables
- Ground tarp
- Waterproof phone pouch
Spice Up Your Boating Life
Pontoon boats aren't dubbed the ultimate recreational watercraft for nothing. So aside from taking it out for a mid-lake boating snooze or a routine fishing trip, why not try something new? A camping trip atop your pontoon boat can unlock loads of fun for the whole family. But there are some serious preparations to be made.
Take cues from our ideas for pontoon boat camping guide and prepare a fun-filled overnight camping extravaganza for the whole family to enjoy. Just make sure you pack your bags with all the essentials.