(last updated October, 2016)
We like to think of kayak touring as backpacking with a cooler and camp chair. Like backpacking you need to select your items carefully and pack with an eye to both weight and weight distribution. But unlike backpacking, the kayak and water bear the weight so you can haul along a few luxuries that you would probably do without on a backpack trip. Having the ability to carry a cooler – even a little one – certainly can enhance many aspects of camp cooking!
We won’t be going much into camping here because once you arrive at camp it doesn’t matter whether you got there by boat, on foot, or by car, it’s all pretty much the same. And there are many books written about how to camp, so here we’ll just cover the things that make kayak camping a little different.
Kayak touring is primarily done with sit-Inside kayaks although we have had sit-on-tops on some of our overnight outings on relatively quiet rivers. The biggest difference is that with no hatches leading “below decks” a SOT has to load everything on the top deck and can quickly become top-heavy. Plus wind can greatly influence paddling with all the gear piled on top. All that gear also stands a greater chance of getting wet. It certainly can be done, but it’s more difficult to pack properly, paddle properly and should not be attempted if there is a chance of adverse weather.
#1 – PROTECT YOUR BOAT
First, a very important word of caution. Your kayak was not built to be carried fully loaded – that’s a really good way to break the back of your boat. Have all your gear packed up, carry the unloaded boat to the water, then load it up there. Do the same when you get out. Unload the boat before pulling it out of the water.
Regardless of the type of kayak or number of hatches or compartments, be aware than most hatches are not waterproof under all circumstances. Pack as if you expect your hatches to leak and you will never be disappointed. Anything that could be ruined (like food and toilet paper) or become uncomfortable if it gets wet (like your dry towel and sleeping bag) should be stored in water-proof dry bags.
Also, note that you may have a few things that do not really need to be in dry bags. Tents, tent poles, sleeping pads, and water containers come first to mind. But it would be a good idea to put them in a lawn trash bag to prevent them from getting totally soaked and/or place them in nylon stuff sacks to keep them organized, prevent them from rolling around inside the boat, and help carry them from boat to campsite.
Anything that could be ruined (like food and toilet paper) or become uncomfortable if it gets wet (like your dry towel and sleeping bag) should be stored in water-proof dry bags. The dry bags also allow you to organize your gear so you can find things quickly and pack efficiently. You can make do on your first trips with nylon stuff sacks lined with trash compactor bags, but eventually you will find that dry bags are a better and easier choice. Fortunately good dry bags are not very expensive, you can pick them up one at a time when you have a little extra money, and they will last a long time if you don’t abuse them.
We suggest you collect an assortment of dry bags in different sizes and colors. Unlike canoe camping where you can get a couple of huge, heavy-duty dry bags, cram everything in, then place them in the center of the boat, with kayaks you will want a bunch of smaller and less bulky bags so you can get them through the hatches and distribute the weight effectively front to back and side to side.
Probably the largest you will ever need is 25 Liters. These large bags are good for items like sleeping bags so you only need one or two in this size. The smallest dry bag is around 5 Liters and most of us have one of these for little items we keep in the cockpit like our keys and cell phones. 10- and 15-liter bags will be used for the vast majority of your packing.
Another type of dry bag is tapered and is usually sold as a bow and/or stern bag of 25 to 35 liters. These bags are great for large compressible items like sleeping bags. Their big advantage is they allow you to easily make use of the extreme pointy ends of the bow and stern – areas that frequently are hard to make use of.
Sometimes it can be hard to reach bags packed way up in the bow and stern. If this is the case in your kayak, simply attach a short line to the bag and run the line down along the inside keel of the boat to the center of the compartment under the hatch where you can reach it easily to pull it out.
Since most of your gear will be in 10- to 15-liter bags, if you purchase those bags in different colors it makes it easier to find things in a hurry. For example, food = yellow, clothing = blue, sleeping = orange, first aid = red, etc. Or you can organize the things you need to unpack by date: Friday = ýellow, Saturday = Blue, etc. Or you can organize by weight: the two red 15-liter bags weight about the same, the two yellow 10-liter bags weigh about the same, etc. You can figure out what color scheme makes sense to you based on your own needs.
Dry bags are made from many different materials from heavy duty vinyl to ultra-light silcon nylon. The large, heavy-duty vinyl bags are better for canoe touring where you have more room in the center of the boat while the sil-nylon bags we consider too light weight and puncture-prone for most use. The type we use are coated nylon with the water-proof coating on the inside. You load the bags from the top, roll the top over 3-4 times, then secure the bag with the plastic side clips. These dry bags are also more slippery than the vinyl bags which have a tendency to stick to each other, making the nylon bags easy to slip in and out of the boat. The better bags also have air vent valves to allow the air trapped inside the bag to escape from the bottom meaning you can compress them down as you pack so there is no wasted space. Also, coated nylon bags can be machine washed, but don’t put them in the dryer. Let them air dry.
Note: these nylon bags are not meant for submerging in water – they are not totally waterproof and will eventually soak through so they are not suitable for essential gear in a SOT where a vinyl bag is the better choice. Also, unless a lot of air is trapped inside, the filled bags will not float, or at least not for long. Don’t let them get away from you!
You will find it much easier to get all those little bags from the water to your campsite if you carry along a compressible bag with handles to haul your gear. Mesh duffle bags and big plastic shopping bags – like IKEA bags – work great. Or you could simply bring a long strap or two to run through all the bag loops and carry them over your shoulder.
One last thought on dry bags. They are made so you load them up, roll over the top 3-4 times, them secure the two sides with a clip. If you do not get at least 3 rolls – and 4 is better – on the top they may gap open. So don’t stuff each bag too full. When in doubt of a good seal on a bag with important contents, unload some of your gear and use a second bag.
Another item we’d like to mention that can be used on any all-day trip but is especially useful on a tour is a light weight tarp. It can be quickly rigged as a wind or rain break for breaks or in camp so you have someplace to cook and gather out of the rain. A tarp can make the difference between being cold and wet and being comfortable. In groups, 2 or more tarps can be carried and setup together giving you a large shelter. Pack a few stakes and some line with it, but you can probably use your paddles or trees to hold it up. Do an internet search for images of pitching tarps and you can see that they are very versatile pieces of gear. You can go with an expensive sil-nylon tarp or something cheap from a big-box store. But for quick, occasional use a simple, inexpensive square or rectangular nylon tarp will work just fine.
For an idea of how to go about fitting everything in your kayak, click HERE.
For an example from one of our Suwannee River tours covering planning, preparation and the trip, click HERE.