Overnight kayak camping provides similar exploration opportunities as a backpacking trip, but without the need to lug all the gear on your back. While you can bring more equipment, clothes, and food on a kayaking trip, maximizing your packing space remains essential. In addition, balancing your packing list with a method that doesn’t hamper your kayak’s stability adds another challenge.
It does take some planning and practice, but once you’ve found a strategy that works, there’s nothing too tricky about packing a kayak for camping.
This article will share some tips I’ve picked up in my ten years guiding multi-day paddling adventures in southeast Alaska. Hopefully, some of these will be useful the next time you push off the beach with a fully laden kayak.
When planning a big kayaking trip, the most important thing to keep in mind is that your packing list should be fluid. While there are some essentials you should never leave home without, be willing to add or subtract equipment as space allows. Some items won’t apply to all situations.
For example, you won’t need to worry about predator-proof food canisters if you’re paddling in Hawaii. Conversely, sunscreen and shorts may not be necessary if you’re paddling up to a glacier in Alaska.
Determine Your Kayaks Volume and Load Capacity
Many manufacturers will list a kayak’s storage volume in their specifications, but what you can actually fit in that volume can fluctuate.
What packs down nice and tight the first day may steadily expand as the trip moves on. Those neatly folded clothes may not compress as well by day five. Additionally, the volume you need for food and water will change as you eat and refill water bladders throughout your journey.
That said, having a general idea of a kayak’s volume can give some inclination of how much gear you can take with you.
However, more importantly, you need to stay within your kayak’s load capacity. Overloading a kayak can cause it to sit lower in the water. This can lead to performance and stability issues, increasing the likelihood of a capsize. The good news is that most expedition kayaks are made to accommodate a lot of weight.
Use Dry Bags
Pack all water-sensitive gear in kayak dry bags no matter what climate you’re paddling in. Dry bags come in various sizes that can fit most of the necessary gear. I prefer going with several smaller bags than just a couple of large ones. Some hatch openings are narrower than you think, and having the flexibility to move and cram in smaller bags will make life easier.
They’re essential for clothing, and I’d strongly recommend stuffing your tent and sleeping bags into them too. There’s nothing worse than crawling into a soggy sleeping bag at the end of the day.
If you have the option, go with clear dry bags over their colorful cousins so you can see what’s in each bag without rifling through them.
Hard-sided dry containers like Pelican Boxes are great for delicate equipment like cameras, glasses, and phones. Some are even designed to float! They’re a little more expensive, but they’re really tough and let you have your camera and other fragile gear on deck without fear of damage.
Distribute the Weight Evenly
Besides adhering to your boat’s load capacity, distributing the weight of your gear is essential to ensuring a safe and stable journey.
The weight should be equally spread throughout the bow and stern hatches. Stern hatches tend to be larger than their counterparts in the bow, so chances are you won’t achieve a perfect balance, but try to get it as close as possible.
The same principles go for the port and starboard. Keep gear as level as possible. Water is the densest and heaviest gear you’ll be bringing. I like to store my water bladders as close to the kayak’s center as possible, usually between my legs. This way, they won’t shift or roll, and I don’t have to worry about compensating for it.
If you don’t have enough room in your hatches and cockpit, you can tie things to the top of your kayak, but please be careful if you choose to do this. Putting too much gear on top will make your kayak top-heavy and increase the chances of capsizing. Instead, only place lightweight gear, like tarps and poles on top.
If your hatch covers are secured with clips and straps, do not place additional gear between the hatch cover and straps. This will prevent the straps from tightening and allow water to leak into the hatch.
Consider the Food You Take & Possible Restrictions
If you’re paddling in a national park, check to see if there are any restrictions or requirements to protect your food from wild animals. For example, some parks require you to store your food in bear canisters that can only be opened by a creature with an opposable thumb.
Other places may require you to hang your food or use predetermined food caches to keep it away from our four-legged friends. If you need to hang your food, bring a pulley and make sure you’re comfortable with its mechanics. This will save a lot of grunting and groaning the first night when it’s time to find a sturdy tree branch.
If you choose to bring fresh produce or meat, plan on using them within the first couple of days (or sooner if it’s going to be hot). Even in cooler climates, fresh food spoils quickly. Choose fruits and veggies with a tough exterior that don’t squish easily, such as carrots, onions, and oranges.
Plan your meals and ensure your stove can adequately cook them. Depending on the size of your kayak and your available space, you may be able to bring a two-burner stove. But always take a small backup stove as insurance if something breaks.
Never eat or store food in your tent and cook at least 100-yards away from your tent site.
Learn to Read Tides & Pack Your Kayak Accordingly
This applies to those who will be paddling the higher latitudes. If you are, it’s vital that you know how to read a tide chart and plan accordingly.
Some areas can have tidal fluctuations of 20-feet or more. These places typically have diurnal tides (two highs and two lows every 24-hours). Acquaint yourself with the tidal zone of the region.
When packing, make sure you know if the tide is rising or falling. Imagine meticulously loading your boat only to realize that the tide is falling. Now your heavily laden boat is high dry, leaving you to unpack or risk damaging your kayak by dragging it to the water.
If you’re traveling with a group, it’s worth having someone babysit the kayaks while the rest of the crew carries gear down to the water’s edge. The babysitter is in charge of shuffling the boats up or down the beach, depending on where you are in the tide cycle.
Kayak Camping Packing List
This is a basic packing list for trips into temperate to cold weather, summer environments. Adjust clothing and gear accordingly depending on the climate and potential wildlife interactions.
- Fully stocked backcountry medical kit
- Radio, inReach, or similar device
- Kayak repair items: duct tape, wire, parachute cord, small pliers, multi-tool
- Paddle floats
- Paddle leash
- Sunscreen, bug spray, bear spray
- Spare paddle
- Tide tables
- Tow belt if there’s more than one kayak in the party
- Sturdy rubber boots with insoles and good ankle support
- Camp shoes like chacos or crocs
- One pair of wool socks for every day on your itinerary
- Wool sweater/down jacket
- Zip-up fleece
- Wool hat & ball cap/visor
- Synthetic or quick-dry fabric t-shirt
- Long sleeve shirt. Again synthetic or wool
- Outdoor pants
- Long underwear
- Two pairs of gloves. One you can paddle in (neoprene) and another pair for camp
- Synthetic sleeping bag
- Sleeping pad that can be compressed easily
- Appropriate tent for the climate + rainfly
- Tent footprint
- Nesting pots
- Waterproof matches
- Water purification tablets/filter
- Soap and sponge
- Tarp to cook and sit under if it rains
Additional Kayak Packing Tips
- The cockpit is the biggest storage hatch in your kayak. Poles and other long, rigid items fit nicely alongside the seat. In addition, many kayaks have room for dry bags behind the seat.
- A sleeping pad, sleeping bag, or dry bag with clothing can be placed between your legs. Not only is this comfortable, but it gives your legs something else to brace against, improving your paddling technique.
- Don’t underestimate the amount of water you’ll need. Paddling is thirsty work, and water weight can quickly push you towards your kayak’s load capacity. One U.S. gallon of water weighs 8.34 pounds.
- Remove your tent poles from the bag. This lets you easily stuff the tent into a hatch. Tent poles can be stored on the side of your seat or lashed to the deck.
- Don’t wear cotton, especially if you’ll be in a cold, rainy, and windy environment. Cotton loses its insulative properties when wet. Instead, opt for wool or synthetics with a tough raincoat shell on the outside.
- Bring extras of your essential gear. For example, spare batteries for headlamps, multiple lighters, an extra day of food, etc.
- Set aside a small dry bag that can fit under your deck bungees. Use it for snacks, an extra layer, binoculars, and whatever else you’ll want while you paddle.
- Passionate coffee drinkers don’t need to stoop to instant packets (if you don’t want to). Instead, you should have room for a stainless steel french press.
- Bring water containers that can be compressed when empty.
- Always carry at least two days of water. If you pass a good stream, take the time to fill up. You’ll drink more water than you think, and many outdoor meals require a lot of water for cooking.
- A bath isn’t always possible. But a pack of wet wipes to clean your face and hands at the end of the day feels wonderful, especially if you’re paddling in saltwater.
- If you can, place the gear you’ll want access to first (e.g. the bag that has lunch) in the kayak last. This way, when you land, you don’t have to move a bunch of other gear around to access it.
Packing a kayak for an overnight trip is like putting a puzzle together. The only problem is the pieces can go wherever you want. But there’s something oddly rewarding when that last dry bag fits in that last little pocket of space.
Be patient and take your time. It may take longer than you think, but it will save you a lot of digging and frustration later.
Hopefully, some of these tips and hints will aid you in your next big kayaking adventure. Happy paddling, and I hope to see you out there someday soon.