How to pack your sea kayak for an overnight or multi-day camping trip
“There is no unhappiness like the misery of sighting land and work again after a cheerful, careless voyage.”
At some point early in our paddling lives, perhaps when we find ourselves approaching the end of a long paddling day but still a few miles from the takeout, we get to wondering.
“What if,” we surmise, thoughtfully stroking our stubbled chins, “I didn’t have to go home? What if I had, right here inside my boat, all the stuff I needed to eat and sleep and be comfortable for a night? Maybe two …?”
And so the ancient art of paddle-camping is rediscovered. But be careful; it was exactly this sort of fanciful reasoning that caused many a voyageur and mountain man to head for the woods, never to be seen again.
Following are some tips and pointers to help make your own overnight kayak-camping adventures a bit more enjoyable.
If you’ve recently made the transition from car camping, you may wonder where in your kayak to stow the cast-iron Dutch oven, chaise lounge, and beer cooler. Kayak camping is not as restrictive as backpacking, but almost. Even much of your favorite gear that is easily swallowed by a canoe will have to be left behind when kayak camping, so some strict discipline is in order.
You’ll probably find it easier to use lots of smaller drybags instead of a few larger bags, to better adapt to the oddly-shaped interior of most kayaks. Your bags should be color coded for organization, and perhaps even labeled with identifying tags. Heavy vinyl bags are alright for food, as they are more resistant to puncture and probably allow less bear-attracting odor to waft through the woods, but they stubbornly stick to one another when packing into the boat. Most of my favorite bags are instead made of lightweight nylon or polyester fabric with an internal rubberized waterproof coating. Though perhaps requiring a bit more care to prevent punctures, these bags easily slide past one another when jammed into a cargo compartment, making packing more efficient. As you close each drybag, be sure to squeeze out as much air as possible before rolling down the neck seal, to conserve precious space inside your compartments.
Keep Your Balance
Heavier items like food and water should be packed near the middle of your kayak, preferably just behind the rear bulkhead, while lighter, bulky items like sleeping bags and clothing get packed toward the ends. Everything should be packed low and centered from side-to-side, to keep your boat stable and balanced. The only exception to these general rules is if you need to re-trim a boat for better handling. When one of my paddling partner’s skeg cable broke halfway through a trip, he wisely loaded his boat a little stern-heavy the following days, to alleviate weathercocking.
A few days before your first overnighter, try test-packing your kayak to see if all your intended gear will indeed fit. It probably won’t. As you choose items that won’t make the trip, just remind yourself that the whole purpose of kayak camping is to get away from it all.
Sign up for “Fetch,” the newsletter of Superior Paddling!
Be the first to know about new or featured how-to articles, product reviews, and destination trip reports, plus other sea-kayak events, news, and more.
A Packing List
I offer below my current personal packing list, suitable for multi-day, self-supported sea-kayak trips on the Great Lakes or inland waterways. I am constantly tinkering with this list, as evidenced by the revision number above, and will post new ones here as they evolve.
You will undoubtedly wonder about certain items on my list (“A candle lantern? No GPS? What are you, Amish?”). So by all means, feel free to add and delete gear to make it your own personal packing list.
Believe it or not, all this stuff fits through the hatches of 14- to 18-foot sea kayaks, though sometimes I wonder how. If you’re paddling with others, there is no need to duplicate some of the equipment such as tents and cookware, but it’s often wise to have a spare stove or water filter, so use your best judgment, and hit the water!
- Kayak with all hatch covers, etc.
- Deck Compass
- Paddle w/ Leash
- Spare Paddle
- PFD: VHF Marine Radio, Emergency Strobe, Laser Flare, Whistle, Knife, Compact Compass & Thermometer, Waterproof Camera, Micro First-Aid Kit
- Spray Skirt
- Bilge Pump
- Paddle Float
- Sponge & Bailer
- Mapcase: Maps, Charts, Guidebook Excerpts
- Tow Belt
- Hydration Pack (with optional Bailout Kit)
- Waterproof Binoculars
- Spare Camera Batteries & Memory Cards
- Sunscreen, UV Lip Balm, Pain Reliever
- VHF Marine Radio Protocol Cheat Sheet
- Waterproof Notepad & Pen
Dayhatch or other accessible location:
- Water Bottles
- Coffee Thermos
- First-Aid Kit
- Signal Flares, Air Horn & Spare Air Can
- Waterproof Headlamp
- Compact Photo Tripod
- Small Towel
- Latrine Kit: Trowel, Toilet Paper, Hand Sanitizer
BAILOUT BAG / DITCH KIT / SURVIVAL
Containing emergency survival gear
KAYAK REPAIR KIT
Containing emergency repair supplies and tools
- Synthetic Undershorts or Swim Trunks
- Synthetic Long-sleeve Top
- Synthetic T-Shirt
- 0.5mm Neoprene Long- or Shortsleeve Wetsuit Shirt
- Farmer John Neoprene Wetsuit
- Water Shoes
- Synthetic Socks, 2 Pairs
- Gloves: Short Bicycling or Neoprene Wetsuit w/ Synthetic Liners
- Hat: Baseball or Wide-brim
- Eyeglass Tether
PADDLING CLOTHING, Optional, in mesh bag inside cockpit
- Drysuit or Drytop
- Neoprene Wetsuit Booties
- Synthetic Balaclava or Watch Cap
- Tent w/ Ground Cloth, Extra Stakes
- Rain Tarp, 10×10′, w/ Stakes
- Sleeping Bag
- Sleeping Pad
- Bear Bag Kit: 1/4″ Synthetic Line, 30′, w/ Carabiners
- Clothesline, 20′
- Sleeping Bag Liner
- Complete Sleeping Hammock Rig
- Camp Chair
- Bear Repellent Spray
- Synthetic Undershorts, 3 Pair
- Synthetic Fleece Long Underwear PJs: Top & Bottom, Sleeping Socks
- Camp Shirts, 2
- Socks: Long and Short; 2 Pair each
- Short Hiking Shoes
- Convertible Pants
- Synthetic Fleece Jacket
- Waterproof-Breathable Rain Jacket
- Synthetic Gloves
- Trash Bag for soiled clothes
- Insect Repellent
- Insect Headnet
- Waterproof Headlamp, Spare Batteries
- Compact Handheld Flashlight, Spare Batteries
- Candle Lantern
- Orienteering Compass
- Book, Journal, Pen
- Misc. Drybags, Duffels, Mesh Ditty Bags, Ziplocks, Tough Trash Bags w/ Rubber Bands
- Food; (packed in durable vinyl drybags)
- White-Gas Stove w/ Fuel, Priming Alchohol, Lighters; (approximately one ounce of fuel needed per meal)
- Cookware w/ Handle
- Can Opener
- Eatware: Bowl, Mug, Dining Utensils
- Foil Lunch Pouch for Cold Foods
- Coffee Filter
- Salt & Pepper
- Water: Filter, Bottles, Jugs (personal & community), Extra Caps
- Dish Soap w/ Scrubby, Pot Scraper
- Hand Sanitizer
- Kitchen Knife
- Small Dish Towel
- Firestarting Sticks, Matches, Lighter
- Ziplock Heavy-duty Freezer Bags for Trash, 1-gal
IN CAR FOR DRIVE HOME
- Large Trash Bags for wet stuff
- Street clothes
- Cell Phone Charger
What do you think? Leave a question or comment below, and use the social links to share with friends!