If you’ve done any backpacking, the amount of gear you can take on a kayak camping trip can feel daunting. With the considerable load capacity of modern touring kayaks, there’s no reason not to paddle and camp in style.
This article will highlight some of the most essential kayak camping tips to help your next trip be a success.
We’ll cover several key aspects, from setting up camp to prepping fantastic backcountry meals, along with the proper, ethical way to deal with trash and waste. Whether you’re an experienced backcountry paddler or just getting started, you’ll find some helpful tips and info below.
While some kayak camping principles are universal, a lot depends on where your paddling trip will occur. For example, there’s a vast difference between paddling in the Everglades compared to the coast of British Columbia.
If you’re unfamiliar with your paddle route, it’s essential to research the area before setting out. If you rent a kayak from an outfitter, they should know the area like the back of their hand. Take advantage of their knowledge and ask plenty of questions.
They may not give away their favorite camping spots (those can be as valuable as gold). Still, they should be happy to dispense safety and paddling advice.
This article isn’t meant to replace your thorough research. Instead, it serves as a universal guide for a range of kayak camping situations.
Finding and choosing the right site can be the difference between the trip of a lifetime and a miserable experience. Fortunately, selecting quality campsites is something you can do before you even close your front door.
Purchase a high-quality map that is water and tear-resistant. Keep it within arm’s reach as you paddle, preferably in a clear deck bag strapped to the top of your kayak. You’ll be referring to it often.
By looking at the map during your trip planning process, it’s possible to identify high-quality campsites. Look for points, bays, and beaches with gradual or minimal changes in elevation. These are usually denoted on the map by black or red contours. In general, the closer these lines are to each other, the steeper the terrain.
Steeper terrain isn’t ideal for camping since there will be few flat sites to pitch your tents. Often, points or spits of land are flatter and less likely to have abrupt elevation changes.
Another indicator is how much of the beach is exposed at low tide. Maps usually show intertidal areas as clusters of tiny black dots. A shallower beach can be an indication of more gradual and flatter terrain.
Once you’ve made landfall, take some time to explore your prospective site. Leave your kayak(s) loaded at the water’s edge, and do a quick scout. But, be sure to pull your boat far enough onshore that a flooding tide or wave won’t wash it away.
Look for flat, hopefully, soft grass or moss above the high tide. Make a rough mental map of where tents, gear, and your kitchen can go. If you’re paddling in an area with bears or other large predators, look for any recent signs of their presence. Fresh scat, beds, or digs are all indicators. If you’re satisfied, hustle back to your kayak and start unloading.
Make sure to unload your kayak fully before carrying it up the beach. It will probably take several trips to get all your gear above the high tide line. But take your time and don’t try to carry everything at once. All it takes is one fall on an uneven beach to end your trip.
Identifying the high tide line is intuitive in most areas. Look for an undulating line of kelp, driftwood, and other ocean-born detritus.
In some cases, you may see multiple tide lines at various heights. This is a likely indicator that the tides are shrinking in size. Regardless, bring all gear above the line furthest up the beach. The delineation is likely marked by a meadow or treeline.
How you organize your camp will depend on where you are and any regulations in place. For example, some areas may have designated food caches or campsites. In addition, there may be a specific campfire ring, and the burning of fresh wood may be prohibited.
Respect and follow any of these rules. In most cases, they’re in place to minimize impact and keep the area as clean as possible for those that will follow behind you.
Suppose there are no specific, designated areas. In that case, I like to keep a 100-yard distance between my tent and the cooking area, especially if I’m camping in a region with large predators.
Bring a tarp to cook under in the event of rain and another tarp to store gear under overnight. Even if it’s not raining, placing your equipment beneath a tarp at night will keep dew and moisture off.
If it’s raining, setting up a tent and keeping it dry can be challenging, if not impossible. So make sure you’re well-practiced in how your tent comes together before heading into the backcountry.
Use the rainfly to keep the tent covered until all the poles are attached and laid out. Having another person can help put your tent together faster and quickly get it under the rainfly.
Keeping a Clean Camp
It can be easy for your gear to spread out and feel like you’re disorganized. If you can, keep your equipment separated by its function.
Keep your food and necessary kitchen items together, clothes in one dry bag, tent and poles in another, etc. This way, when you carry your gear up the beach, you can distribute them to their respective areas and save yourself a lot of back and forth.
Your cooking area should be below the high tideline. This way, any spills or scraps will wash away with the next high tide. In addition, it will lessen the scent of food and reduce the risk of an unwanted four-legged visitor in the middle of the night.
Don’t leave food unattended, and be vigilant about putting it away whenever you’re done with it. Never take food into your tent or sleeping area.
Bring a small sponge, towel, and container of dish soap. You may not get the best clean, especially if all you have is salt water, but it’s better than nothing.
The touchiest subject of camp cleanliness is what to do with your bathroom situation. An outhouse may be available in some more popular areas, saving you the trouble.
But in most wilderness areas, that isn’t the case. Upon arriving at your campsite, agree upon a private stretch of beach that will serve as your bathroom. This should be far away from your kitchen site.
I lay out my camp like a triangle with my camping area at the top point, with the kitchen and bathroom at the bottom points.
Again, check with any regulations that may be in place. Some areas are ok with campers going number two below the high tide line. The “natural flush” removes any evidence with the next high tide. Toilet paper should be either burned or placed in a ziplock bag to be packed out. Do not throw your toilet paper into the water.
In some more concentrated areas, you are required to pack out your waste along with your toilet paper. This is becoming necessary as the number of people using these beaches can cause an influx of human waste that can alter the ecosystem.
How to Eat Well and Impress Your Paddlemates
Perhaps the most significant difference between kayak camping and traditional backpacking is the quality of food you can take.
Some national parks may have specific containers in which food must be kept, such as bear-proof canisters or designated food caches.
If this isn’t the case, I prefer to pack my food in larger dry bags for kayaking. Line your bags with a kitchen trash bag to keep odor and spills from staining your sacks. Using the color of the bags, I can organize breakfast, lunch, and dinners and keep them separated.
Unlike backpacking, you should have room to bring along some fresh produce and meat. However, you won’t have refrigeration, so you can’t expect fresh food to last more than 2-3 days. Therefore, it’s best to eat fresh food in the early portion of the trip and save your pasta and dried goods for the backend.
Some fresh foods hold up better than others. Carrots, peppers, onions, apples, and oranges seem to be the toughest. I’ve had terrible luck with avocados. They always tend to go bad by day three. If you choose to bring fresh meat, I’d eat it no later than day two.
Plan your meals before you leave and print out a list of all ingredients and any necessary instructions. Then, place your menu in a ziplock bag to keep it dry. This is an excellent reference as you dig through the dinner bag, trying to remember how many cans of black beans you’d set aside for taco night.
Bring plenty of gallon-sized ziplock bags to handle trash, compost, and recyclables. When you can, empty one of your meal dry bags and use it for garbage. Keep things as tidy and clean as possible, rinsing any trash or recyclables before placing them in ziplocks.
With a bit of practice, even inexperienced campers can put together some great meals with a simple WhisperLite stove. Bring a cutting board and a good kitchen knife to chop veggies and meat. A large bowl to hold ingredients while you prep can also be invaluable.
Most kayaks have enough storage space for you to bring a good-sized frying pan and a saucepan. This gives you the flexibility to make everything from stir frys, tacos, and pancakes, to oats, soup, and dehydrated meals.
Travel-sized containers of spices can be stored in their own zip lock and can provide some zest and a flair of competency that will impress your paddlemates. Who’s expecting oregano and thyme on their backcountry spaghetti?
Sample Meal Plan for a Four Day Kayak Camping Trip
- Breakfast: At Home
- Lunch: PB&J
- Dinner: Salmon Stir Fry
½ Red Pepper
1 Pack Instant Rice
- Breakfast: Scrambled Egg
4 Fresh Eggs
½ Red Pepper
- Lunch: Chickpea Salad
1 Can Chickpeas
½ Red Pepper
½ Red Onion
- Dinner: Fish Tacos
½ Red Onion
½ Red Pepper
1 Pack Instant Rice
1 Can Black beans
- Breakfast: Oatmeal
- Lunch: Wraps
- Dinner: Spaghetti
1 Package Spaghetti
1 Can Red Sauce
1 Package dehydrated ground beef
- Breakfast: Granola
- Lunch: PB&J
- Dinner: At Home
I won’t try to tell you how much water to drink. There are enough of those articles already. Hopefully, you have a good idea of how much you need to stay hydrated. Whatever amount that is, plan on drinking more while you’re paddling. I notice my fluid intake rises when I’m on the water, especially on sunny days.
Carry enough water for two days. Remember, this isn’t just to drink, but also for cooking. There are plenty of containers that do the trick. Even empty 2-liter soda bottles are fine if you have a stockpile. Whatever method you have for carrying water, make sure they’re collapsable for easy storage when they’re not in use.
If you are gone for more than a night, you’ll probably need to refill your water bladders at least once. Fill up at fast-moving streams and avoid drinking standing water.
Before drinking, always treat your water with a filter or purification tablets. Giardia in the backcountry can quickly dehydrate you, sap your energy, and turn an inconvenience into a dangerous situation.
Many areas that appeal to kayakers have some of the most significant tidal fluctuations on earth. In most of these places, the tides are diurnal, meaning there are two high and two low tides every day, with each shift taking approximately six hours.
In these situations, you’ll usually arrive or depart at high tide but will have one long walk up or down the beach for the other. If you break camp on a morning high tide, odds are you’ll be reaching your next campsite around low tide.
In this case, I like to leave my boat at the water’s edge. Bring along some extra line and tie it to your bowline, uncoiling it as far up the beach as you can. Then, while you cook dinner and set up your tent, you can steadily walk your kayak up the beach as the tide floods.
This method only works in protected water. If you’re exposed to the ocean or frequent boat wakes, don’t leave your boat onshore.
Before leaving, consult the tides and how they’ll affect your trip. Then, if possible, construct your trip to travel with the tide as much as possible. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t or can’t paddle against the tide. But the extra boost can ease your travel and make your trip more efficient.
In areas with diurnal tides, there is often one high tide that is higher out of the two. The higher tide will likely be when you sleep. In this example, note the much higher tide at 5 a.m compared to the evening.
To save yourself from a midnight swim, bring all of your gear well above even the highest tideline. I store my kayak next to my tent. This way, if I miscalculate the tide or a curious animal is inspecting my boat, I know about it before it floats away or gets damaged.
Weather & Open Water Crossings
Depart with the most recent weather report you can find. The National Weather Service transmits around-the-clock weather updates for most U.S waters, including the Great Lakes. Canada provides a similar service. Ensure you know which channel these updates are transmitted on and check daily.
Even with the most accurate weather forecasts, water conditions can fluctuate or be different for isolated areas. If you’re not familiar with the place you’ll be paddling, try to find someone with local knowledge that can share any inside information.
For open water crossings, it’s best to do them in the morning or evening when the water is generally calmer. Sunny summer days are often windy as the land warms and air rises. This creates a vacuum that cold air rushes to fill and can cause strong winds and dangerous waves.
If you can, camp as close to your crossing point(s) as possible so you can tackle them first thing in the morning.
What I love the most about paddling and camping in the wilderness are the animals I get to share it with. But while there’s something exhilarating and intimate about seeing these creatures in their natural habitat, we must treat them with the respect they deserve. Above all, I want to keep these wild animals as they are. Wild.
We won’t go case by case or species by species. But here are a few suggestions for some of the bigger critters you may encounter.
I do most of my kayaking in southeast Alaska, where there can be two bears for every square mile. If you’re paddling in a temperate region, chances are there’s a black bear or two roaming around the woods.
Despite their size, bears are generally skittish and cautious animals. But like humans, each is a little different. Some are curious, some are ornery, others are downright goofy. But they all have one thing in common, they’re always on the lookout for an easy meal. So keep your camp clean, and the chance of a negative bear interaction drops drastically.
Should a bear approach your camp, don’t panic, and DO NOT run or abandon your gear. Instead, gather together, preferably around your food, and start talking and waving your arms, looking as big as possible. If the bear continues to approach, shouting and banging pots and pans are good deterrents.
If you’re in a group of three or more, the odds of a bear acting aggressively is almost zero. So don’t back down. If you come across a bear that is reluctant to go away, consider moving camp. But in most cases, the bear is simply moving down the beach and will pass by without any issue.
Cougar sightings have been rising for many years now along the British Columbia coast, particularly near and on Vancouver Island.
While there are instances of attacks on humans, these are still extremely rare despite the uptick in sightings. Cougars stalk their food and are usually invisible unless they want to be seen.
Mitigate your risk by making plenty of noise while walking through the woods or away from your camp. Children should always be accompanied, as most attacks have been on smaller individuals.
This one is easy. Just leave them alone! Moose aren’t curious by nature and are very unlikely to approach. However, they can be aggressive if you get too close, especially if they have a calf. So just keep your distance and enjoy them through binoculars, and you won’t have any trouble.
For my money, there’s nothing more extraordinary than a whale surfacing near my kayak. My fellow paddlers seem to agree, and the demand to see these charismatic animals up close is rising exponentially. Yet, for all their size, many populations are endangered. Along with a drop in available prey and a changing climate, we are literally loving them to death.
Please respect all federal and state regulations when it comes to viewing whales. In most cases, this means approaching no closer than 100-yards. Unfortunately, many kayakers seem to be under the impression that they can’t disturb them since they don’t have an engine. However, this isn’t true.
Keep your distance, and if a whale or pod happens to swim to you, count yourself incredibly fortunate. But do not pursue, hem in, or cut off traveling whales.
While plenty of organizing and planning goes into a backcountry paddle trip, there’s no shortage of additional online resources to help you prepare.
Proper planning is essential, but there’s no substitute for loading up your kayak and heading out. If it’s your first time, pick an easy route that doesn’t take you too far from civilization in case something goes wrong. In time, kayak camping unlocks a whole world of opportunities to explore some of the wildest and most remote stretches of coast on earth.
Hopefully, this article has helped equip you for your next great paddling adventure. Have a safe journey, and if you see my campfire burning on the beach, don’t hesitate to stop by to say hello.