Packing a canoe for a family camping trip is a bit like packing a duffel bag - a 16- to 17-foot-long duffel bag without any dividers, compartments or pockets.
It can be a mess if you do not have a plan. And in the worst conditions, a poorly packed canoe can be an unwieldy, dangerous craft.
Much like packing a backpack, there is a process for doing it right. There is a place for the heavy stuff, the light stuff, the stuff you will not need till darkness falls, and the stuff you will want close at hand, including an emergency kit, a map, a compass, or an industrial-sized bottle of bug dope. Here is the 4-1-1.
Smaller is better.
Do not lug the oversized Samsonite. By packing smaller, waterproof dry bags, it is easier to shift weight in the canoe for the best ride. You can always place smaller bags into larger backpacks for ease of moving. Just make sure the bags are waterproof. If you do not have waterproof bags, line stuff sacks with a couple of garbage bags, and knot each bag separately. They will keep your gear dry during an extended swim, but garbage bags will turn away rain and the inevitable splashing from canoe paddles and small rapids.
Think about when you will need gear as you are packing each bag. I often will pack sleeping clothes and a toiletries kit right in with the tent, because I will not need them until I am setting up camp. I try to pack a single dry bag with all the food and cook gear, so all I have to do for lunch or dinner is pull out that single bag packed with everything from fire starter and a lighter to a camp sink and dishwashing detergent.
Everything in its place.
When loading a canoe for a multi-day trip, keep the weight low and centered in the boat. The multiple small bags allow you to trim the boat so it is not too heavy at either end. Shift the gear until a double handful of water pools just behind the center thwart. That is the best compromise. And think through whatever gear you might want along the way. Set aside a small dry bag for snacks, sunscreen, raingear, and maps. You will want those close at hand and easy to get to so you will have to tear the boat up looking for your lip balm.
A word about coolers.
Small coolers are super handy on a canoe-camping trip. They can serve extra duty as a cutting board and camp chair. Just be careful to either tie them tightly to a thwart or wedge them snugly in place with other gear bags. A heavy cooler that shifts around in a canoe can make the boat dangerously tippy.