Kayak Camping

By Andy Collins

Kayak camping, backpacking, bicycle touring, luxury travel, business travel, being homeless all involve packing a selection of stuff in such a way as to be portable and organized. As far as I see it, the two main cosmic packing guidelines are:

  1. Ability to carry safely and comfortably.
  2. Packed in such a way as to find what you want when you want to without unpacking everything.

You should pack enough stuff to be comfortable and safe while providing enough function to cover a predictable range of scenarios. The balance, or Art of Packing always starts with selecting what you absolutely need from what you don't. Another consideration is "relative" comfort. I am the kind of packer who would prefer to sacrifice a little comfort to carry what I want, such as luxury items. Other people prefer to be extremely light. I suggest trying both methods and see what you prefer. Is it better to suffer a little getting your gear there and then be really comfy in your big tent and fuzzy slippers, or is it better to be more comfortable getting there, and then suffer with your one man bivvy sack and freeze dried Chicken "cardboard" Fettuccini? It is a personal choice. What is not personal is safety, you should carry enough equipment so that you feel prepared for the worst, and feel safe.

Kayak packing is different from other types of packing in the following ways:

  1. You must consider the scenario of what would happen to each item if they were to get wet. ASSUME EVERYTHING WILL GET WET.
  2. Sharp edges are a serious consideration.
  3. Weight is not as much an issue as shape.
  4. Everything you bring needs to be attachable to the boat.

To address #1 there are Dry Bags. Dry Bags are heavy-duty rubber, or other waterproof material, bags that can be easily sealed to make them waterproof. I consider them a must on any kayak trip. You may get lucky with construction grade garbage bags and duct tape but your chances are not good to keep your stuff dry. Dry Bags also come in specialized shapes and sizes to make it easy to organize your gear and fit it inside the boat. There are long, narrow bags for tents and sleeping bags, big wide bags for clothing and such, small bags for cameras and personal items. I suggest getting two long, narrow ones for the stem and stern, one big wide one for behind your seat, and two or three smaller ones for special items and things you want quick access to such as a camera, safety gear, sunglasses or sunscreen. A list of suggested and optional items to bring is at the end of this document.

Once you have your stuff and your kayak ready to pack you should go over the inside compartments (assuming you are using such a kayak) with your hand to feel for sharp edges, such as rivet screws sticking down into the open compartment. All sharp edges should be duct taped to provide a smooth inner surface and to protect your Dry Bags from getting ripped and becoming useless. Gary suggested using electricians plastic wire caps to cap off the bottoms of sharp rivets.

For balance and weight distribution what you are aiming for is to get the kayak to ride level in the water with you in it. In general, heavy stuff (food, water, tent) should be stowed in the areas just fore and aft of the cockpit (for inflatable kaykas it is suggested to stow heavy gear in the compartment area just in front of your feet). This will help to make the kayak ride flat in the water. If you need to put in something heavy that cannot be split between fore and aft put it in the area just behind the seat. What you want to avoid is a situation where the nose is too heavy and the rear of the kayak rides high in the water, this dramatically decreases your steering ability and may cause the kayak to perl, or dive nose down when surfing a wave into shore. The long dry bags fit nicely in the stem and stern areas just in front of and behind the scupper holes. Try to visualize where you will put your stuff.

Now comes the artistic part. Considering you will be exposed to the water you ideally will want to be able to get at the gear you need while paddling without unpacking everything and risking it all getting wet. I do this by thinking of what I absolutely will not need until I get to my destination - tent, sleeping bag, stove, etc. This stuff goes into a bag and is sealed, not to be opened till the destination. Next, I fill a bag with the rest of the stuff I won't need till the camp site and put on top of this things I probably won't need but just might, like a jacket even though it is warm and sunny, or my sneakers in case I want to hike up some canyon mid journey.

When packing dry bags it is a good idea to make sure the stuff at the very top and around the perimeter is soft stuff, like clothing. This makes it easier to cram the bag into tight spaces and when you roll up the bag and seal it you get a tighter seal. Which reminds me of a good joke: What was the Walrus looking for at the Tupperware Party? A tight Seal.

Anyway, now you have two bags sealed. Do you remember what you put in them and what is in which bag? Some people like to put some type of label on the bags that says what they contain, others maintain a separate list, and yet others store it mentally. The points is you should know whether you packed something or not, where it is, and how buried is it. This is why it is ideal to segregate your stuff based on when you might use it.

Items such as a camera, binoculars, suntan lotion, snacks, water, radio, sun glasses, hat, sun shirt and knife should go into the small bags which will be lashed to the deck. You should not plan on being able to open your hatches while at sea. If there is something I really want to protect, such as a book, I double bag it, in a ziplock plastic bag and then in the dry bag.

Safety gear such as whistle, flares, ocean tape, mirror, should be stored in a pocket on your life vest in case you are violently separated from the kayak. A small bag of emergency gear should also be prepared, containing flashlight, lighter, emergency blanket, extra flares, etc.

All items not safely stored below decks should be attached to the kayak in some way. Water bottle, paddle, you, small bag, maps should all be attached to the boat. As for your body the jury goes two ways. Some say you should be attached to the kayak by a life line looped over one shoulder and under the other, others say this is too dangerous so never let go of your paddle which is attached to the boat. The concept is that in strong wind, currents, or surf if you fall out of the boat it can move away from you faster than you can swim to catch it. This scenario is particularly threatening in high wind where the boat acts like a sail and takes off, leaving you stranded mid-ocean. In any case you should never be separated from your boat. Ask fellow kayak club members how they choose to deal with this and try the different approaches to see what you are comfortable with.

Once everything is packed you want to test drive you boat to make sure it is balanced acceptably. Make sure it is not listing too far to one side or another and get the general feel for how your boat handles loaded down. Re-adjust as necessary.

Now you are ready to go.

The best book on paddling in Hawaii and on Kayak camping is Audrey Sutherland's Paddling in Hawaii. I have taken some of the material presented here from her book. I consider it a must read. Other recommended books are as follows:

The Essential Sea Kayaker: A Complete Course For The Open Water Paddler by David Seidman

How To Shit In The Woods by Kathleen Meyer

Sea Kayaking: A Manual for Long-Distance Touring by John Dowd

Simple Foods for the Pack by Claudia Axcell, Diana Cooke and Vikki Kinmont

Medicine for Mountaineering and Other Outdoor Activities by The Mountaineers


The Deluxe Gear List

(from Audrey Sutherland's Paddling Hawaii)

Shelter and Sleeping

Tarp or plastic sheet

Nylon cord

Tent and seam sealant


Sleeping bag or substitute

Air mattress or mat


Fast drying shoes, reef walkers, or strap sandals (I like Chaco Sandals the best)

Felt-soled tabis



T-shirt, part synthetic

Long sleeve shirt, synthetic

Jacket and pants, foul weather jacket


Wet suit vest

Pareu/lava lava/sarong

Hat and gloves





Toiletries kit

First aid kit

Portable toilet

Sunglasses, polarized with UV filters


Camera and film

Waterproof containers



Boat and paddle

Spare paddle

Life line

Fins, mask, snorkel

Air pump (if inflatable boat)

Water pump (if boat is decked or has hatches)

Repair kit

Maps and map case

Tide chart


Tow line (floating line like polypropylene)

Life jacket

Self rescue system, float bag


Emergency signals

VHF radio

Waterproof bags, stuff sacks

Duffel-type travel bags for plane

Cartop racks and line

Kayak wheels


Weather radio

Notebook, pencil, pen


Small flashlight

Underwater flashlight

Extra batteries and bulbs


Lantern and fuel

Fishing gear


Magnifying glass

Small pickax, machete, saw

Sheath knife

Swiss army knife


Waterproof watch


Stove and fuel

Fuel bottle with spout

Stove pump if needed

Grate for open fire

Water bags

Bowl, cup, spoon

Cooking pots

Nylon net


Roll-up table


Water filter

Rubbish bags

Kitchen box

Coconut grater

Other items, not from Audrey's list

Insect repellant

Knife, fork and spoon set.

Something for a pillow

Fishing gear

Lexan or Nalgene water bottle