One of my favourite ways to get into the backcountry is in my kayak. Whether it is on a lake, river, or in the ocean, kayaking can bring you to some incredible places that you would never be able to access by foot. Imagine kayaking across a clear blue lake to camp on a beach that isn’t accessible by foot or car. Or kayaking down a remote river canyon and camping on sandy beaches each night as you progress downstream. If you are planning your next backcountry expedition and want to try something different from your usual car camping or backpacking trip, kayak camping might be for you!
As you are planning your next kayak camping trip, take a quick look through these tips for how to pack your kayak for camping, as it can be quite tricky to fit everything you need (and everything you don’t need, but want) in your kayak.
Selecting Your Kayak Camping Model
First and foremost, you need to select your craft! Being a fan of rivers and whitewater, I personally prefer to use either a whitewater kayak with a hatch in the back, or a crossover kayak that can be used on both lakes and rivers.
If you are not a fan of whitewater and prefer a mellow lake landscape to the adrenaline-pumping rivers, no worries! There are plenty of different recreational kayaks to choose from that have ample space for storing everything you need for a kayak camping trip!
And if you are looking to get out on the ocean, sea kayaks almost always have plenty of space to store camping gear within.
Lake, Ocean, or River Kayak Camping –
What type of kayak you choose all depends on what type of water you are kayaking on (lake, river, or ocean), and what your budget is. I don’t recommend simply going out and buying the cheapest kayak you find, as there are some brands that make kayaks with cheap and brittle plastic. There is nothing worse than being on a multi-day kayak camping trip in the middle of nowhere when your kayak cracks! It can be both frustrating and dangerous, so do your research and spend the extra money on a quality-built kayak.
The best advice I have for choosing which kayak to buy, is to buy one with a hatch (or maybe even two hatches if possible when kayak camping!). Hatches provide you with easy access to all your camping gear. Without one, you will have to stuff all your camping gear into your kayak behind your seat and in front of your feet. This may require moving your seat and foot blocks, which can be time-consuming and frustrating tasks to do after a long day of kayaking. I have done kayak camping trips both with and without hatches, and while both are fine, I much prefer the ease of packing my kayak through a hatch.
Packing Light- What to Bring Kayak Camping, What to Leave at Home
One of the trickiest parts of planning a kayak camping trip is deciding what gear to bring and what gear to leave behind. Depending on what kayak you are using, you probably have more space for gear than you would while backpacking. However, this does not mean you should simply ignore the amount of weight you are adding to your kayak. The more gear you pack in your kayak, the more it will weigh, and therefore the harder it will be to control and move around. In order to minimize weight in my kayak, while at the same time bringing everything I need (and want), I like to organize my gear into three separate groups.
- Necessary items for survival.
- Necessary items for comfort.
- Items I don’t need, but want.
Everything from group one gets packed. Most (sometimes all) things from group two get packed. Depending on space and weight, one or two things from group three get packed.
Here is a list of how I like to organize my gear while packing my kayak :
Necessary items for survival:
This can be a tent, hammock, tarp, or simply a sleeping bag and sleeping pad. When deciding which type of shelter to bring, I always consider how many nights I will be spending in the backcountry, what the predicted weather looks like, and what the terrain/landscape will be. When just camping for one night, the weather is predicted to be clear, and the landscape is going to be flat (beach or grassy area), I might take the risk and just pack a sleeping bag and sleeping pad.
If the weather is good and there will be trees around, a hammock would be a good option. If there is any chance of rain, snow, or bad weather, I am going to pack a tent or tarp. Deciding between tent and tarp is entirely a personal choice. A tent is going to be more sturdy and dry while camping, but a tarp will be less heavy and bulky while packing.
Choosing a Sleeping Bag –
When choosing your sleeping bag, the main thing to consider is the climate you will be camping in. Down sleeping bags (when compared with synthetic sleeping bags) are lighter, more compressible for easier packing, and tend to be a bit warmer. The downside of down sleeping bags is that if they get wet, they take forever to dry. So, if you are going to be camping in a humid and rainy climate, go with a synthetic sleeping bag.
Water Purification System-
There are so many types of water purification systems these days that you might want to try out a few and see what system works best for you. You also need to consider how dirty the water will be that you will be drinking from. If you are kayaking in a muddy river and using that water for drinking, you will need to bring a bucket to leave the water in overnight so the dirt and sand settle to the bottom.
Once settled, you can purify the water from the top of the bucket without worrying about ingesting any sediment or clogging your filter. You can buy lightweight collapsible buckets that don’t take up much space in your kayak at most outdoor stores. As far as water purification goes, I have used the purification systems that hook up to Nalgene water bottles, gravity filters, iodine tablets, SteriPEN, and Aquamira water purification drops. For shorter trips (two-three days) I don’t mind using either iodine pills or purification drops. They are small and lightweight, thus easy to pack. But they can cause your water to have a funny taste and color, so I don’t like using them on long trips.
Gravity filters are convenient because you simply fill the bladder of the filter with water, hang it on a tree, and leave it overnight. Gravity will slowly pull the water through the filter, leaving it clean and ready to drink. If you are camping somewhere without good access to trees, the water bottle hookup or SteriPEN filters might be better options. SteriPENS use UV light to kill unwanted bacteria. They are small and easy to use, and they kill viruses, while the water bottle hook-ups and gravity filters do not. Additionally, there are also Lifestraws, which allow you to just drink out of the river through a filter straw. Those are probably the lightest and cheapest option, but I have found them to be quite flimsy and have broken several of them.
Fire (or stove)
If you are pretty backcountry savvy, and you are going to be camping somewhere without a fire ban, you can simply build yourself a fire for cooking food and boiling water. However, if you are camping anywhere with a fire ban (this is very common, so make sure to double check before you head out), you will need a stove setup for cooking. My ultimate favorite backcountry stove is the MSR Pocket Rocket (or something similar). It is relatively cheap to buy, folds up to the size of a tube of toothpaste, and is compatible with most self-sealing canister fuels.
The one downside I have found to the pocket rocket is that they are so small that it is difficult to cook for multiple people with it. If you are going to be cooking for lots of people, I recommend getting an MSR WhisperLite backcountry stove. These stoves are the highest recommended stoves for backcountry expeditions, as they cook at high heat, use white gas (which is fairly cheap to buy), and they don’t clog up in extremely cold conditions.
When you pack your stove, don’t forget to pack a lighter/matches, lightweight pot, and utensils!
You CAN survive without food for up to two weeks, but you probably shouldn’t, so I am putting food in the necessary survival items group.
There are so many ways to plan food for kayak camping trips. What you decide to bring food-wise depends entirely on your preferences of how much weight you are willing to pack in your kayak, what you like to eat, and any dietary restrictions you may have. I have been on a 12 day long kayaking trip down the Grand Canyon where we ate freshly made cinnamon rolls (yes, we made the dough at camp) for breakfast, and homemade pizza for dinner! I have also been on kayak camping trips where we ate freeze-dried backpacking meals, oatmeal, and mac & cheese for every meal. Just remember to pack at least 1.5 times (if not double) the amount of food that you would usually eat, since you will be burning more calories while kayaking and living outside.
First Aid Kit
I like to buy the pre-packed medical kits that can be found at an outdoor store, and then supplement them with my own items. Here are some things that may not come in pre-packaged first aid kits, but I always like to have with me:
Top Items –
- Duct tape/Gorilla tape- Good for blisters, cuts, making waterproof(ish) bandages, and fixing broken gear.
- Iodine pills- In case your water filtration system stops working.
- Electrolyte tablets- Necessary for treating dehydration
- Two or Three Fun-size Snickers bars- Helpful if anyone in your group is diabetic and goes into Insulin shock. Or if anyone just needs a snack!
- Zip ties- I have never actually used these in the backcountry (thankfully), but I have heard that they are helpful if you need to make a makeshift splint.
- EpiPen- They can be pricey, but are always worth it in case of any allergic reactions while camping. You never know how you are going to react to a bee sting!
- CPR Mask- This is perhaps the most important item to have in your first aid kit while on a kayak camping trip. Even if you are kayaking on a lake, you should always be prepared for the worst-case scenario.
- Emergency blanket
You probably already have one in your cooking setup, or in your lifejacket, but don’t forget it! You never know when you will need it.
Necessary Items for Comfort:
Whether or not you bring a sleeping pad is your own choice. Personally, I always bring one. I find that I sleep warmer with a sleeping pad because it insulates against the cold ground. Also, I am a bit of a princess and can’t sleep without one.
For your sleeping pad, the type you choose depends on the terrain you will be sleeping on, and also how you plan to pack it in your kayak. If you don’t want to deal with packing your sleeping pad in a drybag, you should just buy one of the foamy accordion-shape sleeping pads. You can just throw them in your kayak and it doesn’t matter if they get wet. If you prefer a thicker sleeping pad, the air Thermarest (or a similar brand) will provide you with a more comfortable sleep. Be careful if you choose this option though, they pop easily, especially near campfires!
Even if I am kayaking in a drysuit, I still like to bring a change of clothes for when I get off the water. I usually try to pack as light as possible, which means one set of layers for on the water, and one set for off the water. I usually bring fleece pants and a fleece sweater, depending on weather of course. Also, I like to bring a lightweight rain jacket and a small, compressible puffy coat.
I always bring camp shoes. These can be sandals, Crocs, or hiking shoes. And don’t forget to bring a hat and an extra pair of wool socks if it is chilly!
Toilet Paper and Small Shovel
Depending on where you are kayaking, there will be different rules for how you deal with your waste. Some river permits require that you pack out your poop! In this case, you will need to make or buy a “groover”, which is a plastic PVC tube where you store your waste until you are off the river. If using a groover, it is also helpful to bring along some “Wag Bags”, which make the whole mess of dealing with a poop tube much cleaner and easier! Wag Bags are simply big plastic bags containing a chemical that absorbs the liquid in your waste. You lay them on the ground underneath you while you do your business, making everything that much easier and cleaner.
If you don’t need to pack your poop out, you still have to bury it at least 6 inches underground, so don’t forget a small shovel.
Headlamp and batteries
When kayak camping it’s inevitable that the night time in the woods will be pretty dark. Therefore, having a good set of headlamps and plenty of backup batteries will help ensure that you can still set up a tent or campsite at dusk or night time. Headlamps are fairly inexpensive and battery life can last for a while. However, having a backup set is a great thought.
While camping, it is absolutely imperative that you wash your hands after using the restroom, and before cooking. There is nothing worse than gastrointestinal illnesses while in the backcountry, so make sure to take every precaution possible to prevent them! I like to use Dr. Bronner’s biodegradable soap for washing hands, face, dishes, and even taking the occasional river “shower”.
Toothbrush and toothpaste!
Camp cooking items
You can purchase lightweight cooking setups at most outdoor stores. These usually include a pot with a lid, a pan, a spork and knife, and a mug for hot water. Make sure your pot and pan will fit on top of the stove you will be using.
Items I don’t need, but want:
- Books: Depending on the length of the trip, I like to bring one small paperback book and one small notebook.
- Bug repellent
- Face wash/biodegradable body wash
- Camp Pillow : You can find inflatable pillows at most outdoor stores. Another trick is to stuff your puffy jacket and extra layers into a t-shirt or pillow case to make a temporary pillow.
- Sleeping bag liner : Not only do they keep you warmer in your sleeping bag, but they prevent your sleeping bag from getting smelly.
- Camera : If you have one, waterproof cameras are the way to go for kayak camping. GoPro cameras are a great option for kayak trips. They are small, lightweight, and 100% waterproof. If you want to bring a big, non-waterproof camera, I suggest spending some extra money on a super durable drybag. Find something that is 100% waterproof (preferably with a waterproof zipper or closure), and sturdy enough to withstand a beating.
One of the most important gear items you will bring on your kayak camping trip will be your drybags! It is imperative for safety that your sleeping bag stays dry while you are kayaking, so make sure your drybags are in good shape. For longer kayak camping trips, I like to use two drybags in the stern, two in the bow, and one in my lap. You can purchase stern float drybags that are in a V shape and fit perfectly into the stern of your kayak. Keep in mind that if you have a kayak with a hatch, your drybag preferences might change.
Packing the Kayak!
I like to practice packing my kayak in the comfort of home, just to be sure everything fits before I get to the river/lake. I will then unpack everything so I can load my kayak on top of my car without any weight in it, then, pack it up again once I am at the put-in to the kayaking trip.
If you are using a kayak without a hatch, it might be helpful to put your drybags in the stern and bow of your kayak empty, then load them up with gear while they are already positioned in the kayak where you want them to be. It may save you lots of frustration when trying to stuff a full dry bag into a small space behind your seat or in front of your foot pegs.
As far as where you put what in your kayak, you will need to plan this out ahead of time. If I am using a groover to pack my waste out, I will either stuff that in the stern of my kayak behind my drybags, or strap it to the outside of the kayak. I do this because I am paranoid and afraid of the groover leaking all over my drybags (though if your groover is made properly, a spill from it isn’t actually that realistic of a fear). Some kayaks come with straps on the top of them, which make attaching a groover to the outside a very easy task. If your kayak doesn’t come with outer straps, you could consider making your own strap system with cam straps and bungee cords.
The main thing to consider when packing your kayak is ease of access to necessary items. The drybag you carry in your lap should include all the essentials for a day trip. These include an extra layer, lunch/snacks, a small first aid kit, map/compass or GPS, and a camera (if you want).
Otherwise, the main thing to focus on while packing your kayak is BALANCE. You don’t want all of your heavy items to be on one side of the kayak, because then you might feel off balance. Additionally, you don’t want all of your heavy items in your stern, or alternatively, in your bow, as this will make your kayak track on the water differently, thus making kayaking more difficult. You don’t have to have each side perfectly weighed out, but just keep this in mind as you are packing so you are able to paddle your kayak with ease.
Additional Packing Tips
When kayak camping on a river, you should always carry a throw bag. This will be attached inside your kayak somewhere easily accessible. Your throw bag is not only a necessary safety item on the river, but also doubles as a drying line when you are at camp. Simply tie it between two trees to form a line to hang your gear and wet layers on overnight.
In addition to the necessary items that you pack in your lap drybag, you should also pack several small items in your PFD (personal flotation device, also know as your lifejacket). I like to include a small stick of sunscreen, a Snickers bar, a small tube of biodegradable soap, and sometimes even a small toothbrush and toothpaste.
When I am on a winter kayaking trip, I like to treat myself and pack a pair of down booties in my kayak. They don’t add too much weight to the kayak, and end up increasing in-camp comfort like you wouldn’t believe. Plus, they keep sand out of your toes when camping on beaches!
Helpful Tips –
Don’t forget to pack a breakdown paddle in case someone in the group’s paddle breaks or gets lost.
I always like to bring an extra sprayskirt as well, especially when kayaking on a river in whitewater. If a group member’s sprayskirt becomes damaged to a point where it no longer keeps water out of the kayak, it will be nearly impossible for them to continue kayaking through rapids without one.
A small repair kit is always a helpful when you are on any sort of backcountry camping mission. Duct tape, Aquaseal glue, a small patch (for a popped Thermarest or torn drysuit) dental floss, and a sewing needle are all items in my repair kit.
If you are a coffee drinker, don’t forget to pack your brew! A few years ago I discovered a reusable coffee filter that attaches to the top of your mug. It changed my coffee-drinking life! You simply attach it to your mug, add coffee, and pour hot water through it. Not to mention it weighs almost nothing and takes up almost zero space in your kayak. You can find reusable coffee filters at most outdoor stores. Other options include instant coffee or cowboy coffee.
I hope these tips help ease the stress of packing your kayak for camping. Have a safe trip, and always wear your PFD when on the water!