Packing for a kayaking trip differs from packing for other outdoor adventures. Most kayak storage space is narrow compartments with some hard-to-reach areas.
Experienced campers become very accomplished at this version of Tetris, and you’ll be amazed at how much kayak camping gear you can squeeze into your boat.
To help you organize your packing list, we’ve broken this article into several categories so that you understand what equipment you should take on your camping trip and why. We’ll also suggest where this gear can be stored in your kayak. If you would like a more detailed guide on packing a kayak, check out this article.
- Essential Safety Equipment
- Tent and Sleeping Gear
- Cooking and Eating Utensils
- Personal Gear
Not all kayaks are capable of overnight camping trips. Most sit-on-top kayaks are meant for day trips as they’re shorter, slower, and tend to not perform as well as sleeker sit-in models.
The other big issue is that these designs lack the storage space you need for long expeditions. Some big sit-on-top kayaks may be capable of overnight journeys, but in most cases, you’ll want to use a touring kayak if possible.
These boats tend to be more expensive, but the improved performance and storage space is invaluable.
If you own a sit-on-top and want to try an overnight trip, it’s not impossible, just more challenging. The lack of internal storage will be a problem, and there’s the temptation to stack your gear on the deck and secure it with bungee cords.
Essential Safety Equipment
The following items include the essential safety equipment you should take whenever you go kayak camping.
- PFD – Hopefully, it goes without saying that you’ll be paddling wearing a reliable personal floatation device that is properly fitted and adjusted. It doesn’t matter what the temperature is or how good of a swimmer you are; always wear a PFD when kayaking.
It’s also helpful to attach a whistle to your PFD. Sound travels better over water than land, allowing you to hail passing boats or get your paddle mate’s attention in rough weather.
- Communication device – Technology has ensured that there’s no shortage of reliable communication systems, such as Garmin inReach, that can call for help no matter where you are. This doesn’t make you invincible, though. So don’t take unnecessary risks, and don’t hit the SOS button unless there is a real risk of physical harm.
It’s also best to always bring a marine VHF radio with you. This allows you to communicate with nearby vessels and possibly other kayakers. In an emergency, they may be able to reach you faster than the Coast Guard or National Park Service. Designated channels also allow you to check the updated marine forecast.
- First-aid kit – A basic first-aid kit outfitted with supplies for trauma injuries, hypothermia, and other basic ailments is also a must. It’s also wise to check with your paddle partners before heading out to see if anyone has any medical conditions you should be aware of.
I keep my medical kit and radio close at hand, either on the deck beneath the deck bungees or in a dry bag behind my seat. These should always be accessible from your seat and, in an emergency, easy to grab should you capsize or end up stranded onshore.
- Compass/GPS: You can lose your bearings, even on lakes and rivers, and a compass can point you in the right direction. Many paddlers now prefer an electronic GPS or GPS mobile app. Still, it’s best to have an old-fashioned compass as a backup.
- Map – Even if you have a quality GPS device, there’s still no substitute for a map. If possible, find a water and tear-proof map of the area you’ll be paddling. Keep it on the deck of your kayak beneath your deck bungees so you can always see it. If you don’t have a waterproof copy, some kayak deck bags are specifically designed for maps.
- Spray skirt – A spray skirt isn’t always necessary. However, on choppy water, a sit-inside kayak can quickly fill with water and become unstable.
- Bilge pump – Useful if you’ve got a leaky spray skirt and essential for emptying your kayak after a capsize.
- Headlamp – A good headlamp is super helpful when you’re in your tent and navigating around camp after dark. It can also be used to signal for help in low-light paddling conditions.
- Spare paddle – Bring a minimum of one extra paddle with you. It doesn’t have to be a high-end, expensive model, but this is one thing you should have multiple of. You don’t want to be stranded on a beach with a busted paddle.
Make sure your spare paddle can be broken into two pieces so you can store it on the deck of your kayak underneath some bungee cords and out of the way.
- Bear spray – If you’ll be traveling in bear country, bring multiple cans of bear spray with you and keep a clean camp. Bear spray has been statistically proven to be a more reliable deterrent than a firearm and can be easily stored anywhere in a kayak.
Your choice of clothing will vary depending on the climate you’re paddling in. Still, one consistent thing is to wear synthetic or wool clothing because they keep you warm even if wet.
Rain Gear and Jackets
In colder, wetter climates, good rain gear is a must. I do most of my kayaking in southeast Alaska, where rain is a constant threat regardless of the time of year. As a result, I often bring two pairs of rain gear with me. A heavy-duty, rubberized one for torrential rain, and a lighter, Gore-Tex style for lighter rain.
Rubberized gear is great for those super wet days, but remember, everything is only waterproof to a point, and rubber doesn’t breathe. Lighter shells aren’t as watertight but are breathable and more comfortable to wear while paddling. Spare rain gear can be easily stuffed into a dry bag for kayaking, stored on deck, and if it’s dry, makes a decent pillow at the end of the day.
Take a down jacket or something similar if you’ll be paddling in cold weather areas. You may not want it while kayaking, but it fits great under rain gear and can help take the chill off if it’s wet or windy in camp.
Layers and Gloves
While weather dependent, I like to bring plenty of clothes that can be easily layered and removed with minimal difficulty.
The temperature on the water can fluctuate depending on the time of day, the wind, splashing water, and rain. Keeping extra layers of clothing close at hand, either under the kayak’s bungee cords or behind your seat, helps you adapt to the changing conditions without needing to go ashore.
If you’re prone to blisters, bring a pair of paddling gloves. If the forecast is wet and cold, a warmer pair of gloves (insulated and waterproof) or pogies to protect your hands can be a game changer.
I store all my clothes in a dry bag, and my tent clothes are at the bottom. I try to never wear them outside of my tent. This ensures that, at the end of the day, I have something dry to put on when I go to bed. Also, I bring more socks and underwear than I think I’ll need. It’s hard to have fun if you’re walking around in soggy socks.
Tent and Sleeping Gear
Regardless of the weather you anticipate kayaking in, don’t skimp on your tent. There are plenty of cheap tents that rip or tear easily and, even worse, aren’t waterproof. Instead, invest in a quality tent with a reliable rain fly that will shed any unwanted precipitation.
Look for a tent with a fly that extends beyond the tent’s perimeter near the zippers. This is called the vestibule and works like a covered porch. It’s a great spot to put wet gear, boots, or shoes to keep water and debris out of your sleeping area. It also provides a place for the tent to shed water and keep it from dripping into its interior.
If you’re living in a colder climate, make sure you invest in a three or four-season design that will keep you warm in these cooler temperatures. Of course, they’re more expensive but well worth the investment.
When packing, remove the tent poles from the bag and store them along the side of your seat. This allows you to compress and stuff your tent just about anywhere and helps maximize space.
A cozy sleeping bag at the end of a wet day can be the difference between a good and a miserable time. Most sleeping bags use either down feathers or synthetic material to provide insulation. Like tents, they’re rated for specific times of year and temperatures.
As for whether a down or synthetic bag is best, there are pros and cons for both.
- Down sleeping bags compress easier, allowing you to stuff them into a dry bag with little trouble. This makes them easy to shove into small compartments or squeeze around other gear. Always keep it in a dry bag; there are few things worse than a wet sleeping bag.
This is the biggest drawback to down sleeping bags. Once they get wet, they lose a lot of their insulative properties and are difficult to dry without extended time in the sunshine. Because of this, many guiding companies and kayakers will staunchly tell you that down sleeping bags are out of the question.
- Synthetic sleeping bags do a better job of keeping you warm if they get a little wet. That said, I’d still keep it in a dry bag at all times. The only problem is, getting a synthetic bag into a dry bag can be challenging. They’re difficult to stuff and tend to bunch up halfway down the bag.
The best way to get around this is by keeping your hand inside the dry bag with your fingers near the bottom. Slowly bunch the sleeping bag near the bottom, compressing as best you can and working towards the opening of the dry bag to ensure that you maximize the bag’s volume.
Placing your sleeping bag between your legs while you paddle can provide some excellent padding and give you something to brace against for those long crossings.
Cooking and Eating Utensils
The contents of your kitchen will be dictated by your meal plan and how fancy you want to get. This can be as simple as a few pieces of silverware and a pot or as extravagant as a two-burner stove and dutch oven.
It’ll depend on several factors, the most significant being how much space you have in your kayak. Most cooking gear doesn’t collapse easily. But there are designated camping cookware sets that break down and nesting pots and pans that minimize the required space.
Look at your meal plan and determine what kitchen utensils you need and where they could go in your kayak. Ideally, you’ll be able to store your kitchen gear in one of the watertight hatches. And remember little things like a can opener, dish soap, and a towel.
Other important items include a lighter and a different type of fire starter, like waterproof matches. It doesn’t hurt to bring several lighters with you. The redundancy gives you peace of mind and they take up very little space. Keep your matches in a sealed ziplock or otterbox, and store a set in your first-aid kit.
Like your kitchen, your food choices depend on how fancy you get and how long your camping expedition is.
Some national parks require you to store your food in animal-proof bins at night or in bear cans. Bear cans have proven to do a great job of keeping bears out of your food, but they’re bulky and make packing more challenging.
In other areas, you may be asked to hang your food from a tree, so bring some sturdy line and a pulley system to help raise and lower the bags.
There is plenty of freeze-dried camp food options out there today. While many are still gut bombs with a ton of sodium and preservatives, a few brands offer healthier, palatable options.
If you’ll be gone for several days and space is an issue, you’ll probably want to lean towards more dried food options that pack well. However, I still like to bring some fresh food for the first day or so before breaking into the dried food. If you need help with what food to pack, here’s a template to get you started: meal plan for a four-day kayak camping trip.
Hopefully, you know how much water you drink while outside or exercising. Chances are you’ll drink more than you usually do while paddling, especially if it’s hot and sunny. Most meals also require water to hydrate dried food, and you’ll want plenty extra for hot drinks like coffee or tea if it’s chilly.
I always keep at least two days’ worth of water with me. If I get close to this threshold and pass a place to refill, I take the time to stop. It’s better to refill more often than to wait until you’re almost out.
Filter or treat any water unless you know it’s already been treated. Even in pristine environments, nasty parasites like giardia might be lurking, and nothing will derail a paddle trip faster than having to deal with those symptoms, which are better left unsaid.
Water tends to be the densest and heaviest of your gear and can easily make your kayak feel off balance. To counteract this, I store water in several small containers instead of one or two large ones.
Balance your water in your kayak’s bow and stern, and keep it as close to the keel as possible. This is another item that works well in the cockpit with you. It keeps it centered in the middle of the boat and will prevent it from shifting in rocky seas.
It can be easy to forget about your personal gear and hygiene with all the other equipment required, but make sure you leave room for these essentials.
You probably won’t have many opportunities to shower. Still, some deodorant and a package of scented baby wipes can go a long way. Cleaning the grime and salt off your face and hands at the end of the day can make you feel much cleaner than you are. And your tent mate will thank you.
Other items like toothpaste, toothbrush, and other toiletries are easily packed and fit just about anywhere. Remember that toothpaste and other scented toiletries should be hung with your food or stored in bear-proof containers if you’re traveling in bear country.
Bring sunscreen, a sun hat, and sunglasses. Even if the weather forecast is cloudy, the sun’s rays are magnified when they bounce off the ocean and can cause you to burn quicker than expected. Lip balm is another vital piece of gear. Even if you don’t typically use it, your lips tend to dry much faster when paddling on salt water or in the sun all day.
Leave room for a camera and binoculars, and ensure they’re either waterproof or stored in appropriate watertight containers. If you’re bringing your cell phone, make sure it doesn’t get near the salt water. There are also plenty of charging options available for the backcountry, including several easy-to-use solar options.