How to Canoe Camp on the Wisconsin River
The Wisconsin River is consistently rated as one of the best canoeing rivers in the Midwest. The last 92.3 miles have been protected from further development by the creation of the Lower Wisconsin State Riverway which now encompasses nearly 80,000 acres of land on both sides of the river. The Lower Wisconsin begins at Prairie Du Sac at the last dam on the river. From Prairie Du Sac, it flows freely through the unglaciated hills of southwest Wisconsin where it joins the Mississippi river at Prairie Du Chien and Wyalusing State Park.
Things to know specifically about the Wisconsin
Because the sandbars of the river are constantly shifting and the average depth is only 5 feet, motorboats have trouble navigating the river which makes for a very canoe friendly experience. In some places, you're actually more likely to see hovercrafts than boats, however local fishermen do make their way onto the river. (Hint: If you ever ask one of the locals for information, make sure to get at least a second opinion - for whatever reason, they find it hilarious to send people in the wrong direction).
The DNR publishes a very useful paper containing all of the put ins and take outs along the Wisconsin River including availability of bathrooms and water. The paper also includes some history of the area in addition to maps of the entire Lower Wisconsin Riverway.
The river itself is wide open, sometimes nearly a half mile across. The river has a sandy bottom and a significant number of sandbars between Mazomanie and Spring Green that are suitable for camping. The river can get pretty busy on the warmest weekends of summer so your best bet is to go during the week if possible for solitude and the best chance of having your own sandbar. At peak periods, it's not uncommon to have to share a large sand bar with another group - though there is typically plenty of space to spread out. At worst, you'll usually see a group a few hundred yards ahead of you and a few hundred yards behind.
Your standard, everyday camping gear will work well on the river. Canoes are typically as large as your average trunk so whatever you put in the car will usually fit in a canoe. However, if you have a choice between a nice $300 backpacking tent or a $50 walmart tent, go with the walmart tent. Sand will eat zippers alive. If you don't lubricate your zippers (yes, zippers should be lubricated) it won't take long (a week or two of regular sandbar use) to grind them down to the point that they'll pull apart and not close.
Food + Water
You'll want to bring your own drinking/cooking water in with you (large storage bags can be cheap, hard sided storage containers also work great) since the river water picks up a significant amount of sand and tanins. These will significantly shorten the life of a water filter. Figure 1.5 gallons/person/day to be safe.
Basic camping foods work just as well out here as they do in the campground. The main thing you need to be aware of is the prep/cooking area. You're on sand. A lot of sand. It will get in everything if you're not careful. Always try to cook up off the ground - on a plastic storage bin, a board between two canoes, a portable table, whatever you've got. Also cook upwind and only let the cooks in the kitchen. The easiest way for sand to make it's way into your food is from being kicked up by people's feet as they walk by. It doesn't take much to ruin a good meal. Trust me.
Choosing a Campsite/Sandbar
The DNR does not require camping permits or fees of any kind. Sandbars are first come, first serve. (I recommend starting early and finishing early in order to have the best chance at getting a great sandbar) In the middle of summer, mosquitoes along the river bank and in stands of trees can be intense depending on how much rain we've had. Your best bet to avoid mosquitoes at your campsite is to aim for a spot in the middle of the river and away from trees and grasses. The light breezes in the evening and the distance from shore helps keep the annoyance to a minimum.
The ideal sandbar has a small stand of trees and grass at one end of the island that serves as a privacy area for bathroom breaks. No, bathrooms are not provided on the sandbars (though portable toilets are located at most landings).
Taking Care of 'Business'
If you're a regular camper/backpacker, you know you're always told to do your business at least 200 yards from any water source. That isn't the case here, mostly because it's not possible. Proper bathroom etiquette is to dig a 6-8 inch hole in the sand, do your thing, and cover it up. Ideally, toilet paper should be packed out but in practice, that rarely happens. If you're not going to pack it out, please make sure to completely bury your toilet paper in the hole - there's nothing worse than dodging 'landmines' on your way to making one of your own.
The water level can fluctuate depending on the amount of rain in the area. If dry weather or very light rain is expected, the river is not likely to move more than an inch or two a day. If heavy rains have been in the area, the river can rise as much as a foot or more overnight. In order to minimize any risks, set up your campsite in a place at least 16 inches above the waterline and pull your canoes way up onto shore (you can place a stick in the sand at the waters edge to keep track of changes in water level). If rising water is a serious concern, you can also tie your canoe to your tent which will keep it from floating away without you.
Rules and Regulations
Bring garbage bags to pack out all of your trash. Also, be aware that absolutely no glass of any kind is allowed on the water (this includes pickle jars, beer bottles, etc). This is strictly enforced by the DNR and can result in fines of up to $739. Wardens will often ask to check your coolers.
Campfires are allowed in the riverway. The only thing to be aware of here is that any firewood brought into the riverway has to have been harvested within 25 miles of where it is burned. This is a state law and it's not unheard of for state troopers to issue tickets when crossing the Illinois/Wisconsin border with firewood. In times of extreme drought, a fire ban may be issued but this is very rare.
Fireworks are not allowed in the riverway. Don't bring them.