For first-time kayak campers, the appeal is obvious. Paddling through breathtaking scenery by day and sleeping under the stars at night. Yet the key to making this outdoor vision a reality is thoughtful preparation. Without proper planning, your trip could quickly sink from paradise to disappointment.
The good news? With smart planning, your kayaking camping adventure can be fun, safe, and hassle-free.
This guide includes pro tips on critical factors like
- Choosing a beginner-friendly location.
- Planning your route and daily mileage.
- What to look for when selecting a campsite.
- A packing list of the essential gear you should bring.
- Tips for loading gear securely and balancing weight in your kayak.
Follow our step-by-step advice for planning every aspect of your journey. We’ll have you outfitted and kayak camping in no time! Let’s start by discussing how to pick the ideal location.
- When choosing a location, pick somewhere close to home with calm waters. Consider paddle-in campgrounds or established kayaking routes.
- Plan your route by estimating realistic daily mileage limits, allowing time for breaks, noting portage sections, and arranging transportation back. Share your float plan.
- Pick campsites with natural shelter, clear tent grounds, legal fire pits, and good boat access. Arrive with enough daylight to get settled before dark.
- Pack essential shelter, safety, hygiene, food, and cooking items only. Use dry bags to keep gear dry. Pack light, balanced and secure the load. Keep frequently used items accessible at times.
- Load gear evenly in your kayak and conduct test runs to improve weight distribution before hitting the water.
- Secure your kayak near shore/high tide lines when camping. Use locks, sand anchors, ropes to prevent drifting.
Planning Your First Trip
Thorough preparation is key to ensuring your kayak camping trip goes smoothly. This section will cover the basics – choosing a suitable location, picking beginner-friendly routes, researching camping spots and weather conditions, mapping your daily mileage, being aware of potential hazards, arranging transportation, and more.
Follow these kayak camping trip planning steps and tips to set yourself up for the best first-time experience.
Choosing A Beginner-Friendly Location
The choice of location can practically make or break the entire trip. When selecting a spot for your first kayak camping trip, keep things simple and familiar. Stay close to home within a 100-mile radius or 2 hour drive. This allows more time for the fun parts – paddling and camping – rather than excessive driving.
For new paddlers, I recommend limiting your kayak trip to just one or two days, which means you won’t need to carry loads of gear, helping to reduce weight – making paddling easier.
Keep your daily mileage to 8-10 miles on calm, slow-moving waters without strong currents or steep slopes. Don’t take on too many challenges early on that could cut the trip short. You’ll still find plenty of adventure at this relaxed pace.
Don’t burn yourself out on your first try.
Pick popular, well-traveled kayaking routes across the country, such as boundary waters or river trails through state/national parks, you will find many have paddle-in campgrounds. Plus, on these established waterways, you’re likely to encounter more seasoned paddlers happy to lend navigation advice for newcomers.
If you’re still a bit hesitant about your skills, opt for guided tour groups your first time out. Knowledgeable guides choose routes with kayaker checkpoints, designated campsites, and provide everything you need for a smooth intro to camping and kayaking.
While we’re at it, I’d recommend the following destinations:
Picking The Perfect Camping Spot
Now, camping is the second – but equally important – part of this equation.
Selecting a top-notch overnight camping spot is nearly as important as mapping your paddling route. After all, you’ll want to spend evenings and mornings resting in comfort before hitting the water again.
Here are some of the key things to look for when evaluating potential campsites;
- Natural Shelter – Seek sites tucked within tree cover or rock formations blocking prevalent winds and weather. Shade also provides relief on hot sunny days.
- Legal fire pits – Designated safe spots for campfires if cooking meals. Check rules allow gathering firewood.
- Cleared tent grounds – Flat, dry areas to pitch your tent, free from rocks/roots/debris
- Proximity to water – Quick access to easily launch/land kayaks
- Secure boat access – Docks, posts or storage to safely secure kayaks overnight
- Parking nearby – Convenient vehicle access for drop offs/pickups.
- Animal Precautions – Bear boxes on premises let you stow food away from tent sites.
- Facilities -Bathrooms/restroom facilities as available
- Natural wind barriers – Landscape blocking heavy winds makes tents less vulnerable
Make sure to allow yourself enough time to find perfect the campsite and get the tent set up before the dark. And try to be as generous as you can – even experienced paddlers encounter some unplanned delays.
Check the Weather Forecast
The other thing you need to take into consideration is the weather.
Kayaking conditions can change dramatically with the weather. Storms, high winds, intense sun, or sudden temperature drops can quickly transform a pleasant trip into an endurance test. After all, I am sure you would prefer not to be paddling headfirst into storms or enduring hypothermic nights shivering in your tent?!
I suggest regularly checking both short and long range forecasts across multiple sources leading up to your trip. If heavy storms, high winds or severe temperature swings threaten any part of your planned timeline, strongly consider postponing. Safety first!
Factor likely conditions into your gear packing strategy too. Sunny skies? Don’t forget sunscreen and a hat. Chilly or wet? Make room for extra layers and a waterproof jacket/pants.
And of course, hope for the best but pack for the worst!
Map Out Your Daily Route & Mileage In Advance
When deciding on your daily mileage, keep in mind that the average paddling pace is approximately 2 miles per hour, although currents can affect your speed. It is advisable for beginners to limit their distances to 8-10 miles per day.
While this may not sound like a great distance on paper, trust me when I say that 4 to 5 hours of paddling is sufficient, even for the most physically fit individuals.
I always recommend mapping the entire end-to-end journey before departure using tools like Google Earth. This allows you to identify potential rest stops, take notes on any sections that require portage, and ensure you arrive at your campsite before dark. It is also important to have an alternative route (Plan B) in case of any unexpected circumstances.
Researching parts of the water that present challenges, such as swift currents and known underwater obstacles like low-head dams or strainers, is crucial for being prepared. By doing so, you can avoid being caught off guard and ensure that you are paddling within the abilities of yourself and your group.
Be generous with breaks too—multiple short stops prevent exhaustion better than a few long ones. Leave wiggle room for the unexpected too. Building in flexibility for extended lunches, sore muscles, or unplanned detours will prevent rushed travel days. Here’s to meandering when the mood strikes!
Also, be a responsible paddler and file your float plan with someone you trust – you never know what problems can jump at you when you finally hit the water.
Don’t Get Stranded: Arrange Logistics
When planning your kayak overnight trip, it’s important to consider transportation arrangements. Unless doing an epic point-to-point or loop paddle, you’ll need to figure out how to get back to your starting point.
The easiest option is to choose an out-and-back route where you launch from a single spot and return to the same place. This way, you can leave your vehicle safely parked while you’re out on the water.
For paddling downstream with a pickup at the take-out, many popular paddle routes offer a convenient shuttle service during the peak season. Just make sure to accurately plan your journey timeline so as not to miss your pick up.
If shuttles aren’t available, consider coordinating return trips with new paddling friends who are also heading off the water. Caravanning not only fosters a sense of community, but also ensures that everyone departs safely. Most fellow river rats, myself included, are more than willing to offer a ride in exchange for gas money and the opportunity to share stories of future trips!
Lastly, if you need to hire transportation to haul your kayak and equipment, reserve rental trucks or trailers well in advance. And don’t forget straps, padding and tie-downs to protect your precious kayak during transit.
Essential Kayak Camping Gear: What To Bring On A Kayak Camping Trip?
When it comes to selecting what to bring on a kayak camping trip, your instincts might tell you the more equipment you bring, the better off you are; I get that. But people tend to go way overboard with this idea.
Packing for a kayak camping trip is an exercise in ruthless efficiency. You’ll need to evaluate each piece of gear not just for utility but for multi-use functionality given tight storage constraints.
Resist the urge to over-pack for unlikely scenarios. Extra “just in case” items often go unused while weighing you down with additional pounds on portages. You only need the bare essentials necessary for survival – meaning food, clothing, essential gadgets and tools, and shelter.
Everything else is a luxury.
Let the guiding minimalist principles be quality over quantity and versatility over specialty when provisioning your adventure. Doing so affords room for transporting memories rather than unused clutter back home.
We’ve compiled a packing list of essential items below;
Shelter, Kayak & Basic Survival Tools
- A kayak with plenty of space – you will need a higher-than-average weight capacity (300lb plus), multiple storage options such as dry hatches, suitable for long-distance paddling – in short, a sit-in or sit-on-top touring kayak.
- A waterproof, lightweight tent. Pick a tent designed for a backpacking trip, as these will be compact and be easy to stow. Look for models with a waterproof floor and rain fly to withstand wet conditions. Also, an insect proof mesh for ventilation and bug prevention. If you’re going for a one-day trip or expect extremely gentle weather, you could get away with a hammock and a tarp.
- Sleeping gear – Consisting of a warm, waterproof sleeping bag that packs down small, an insulated inflatable sleeping pad, and a compact pillow. Look for models specifically designed for backpacking as they are the best choice for this purpose.
- Dry clothing and rain gear. Aside from your trusty drysuit, you should pack dry base layer tops and bottoms, waterproof rain jacket with storm flaps, rain pants or drysuit bottom, lightweight fleece or puffer mid layer, quick-dry socks, waterproof gloves, water shoes with drainage vents and grips. Don’t forget sun protection like UPF shirts, wide brim hats, sunglasses with polarization.
- Power bank, flashlight, and head torch – High-capacity waterproof power bank to recharge devices throughout trip, water-resistant flashlight with extra batteries, hands-free headlamp for setting up camp after dark, also pack a few glow sticks as floating emergency backup lighting.
- Safety Gear – High-decibel whistle, signal mirror, backup map/compass in dry bag. Throw rope, spare paddle. Multi-tool with knife and pliers. Personal locator beacon for SOS signaling. Emergency foil blanket. Duct tape and cord for impromptu repairs.
- Personal hygiene items – eco-friendly body wash, wet wipes, and plenty of toilet paper (preferably safely stored in a dry zip lock bag), along with a first aid kit.
Food & Cooking Equipment
- Camping stove – the lighter you go, the better. Simple outdoor meals don’t require any excessive equipment. Opt for a small, portable propane or isobutane burner, with a windshield to conserve fuel.
- Additional cooking equipment, such as a travel BBQ, essential cooking utensils, washing set, lighter, waterproof match or some other type of fire starter.
- A survival knife and an ax – because the firewood won’t chop itself, would it?
- A compact kayak cooler – Insulated, soft-sided cooler bag, with antimicrobial liner and waterproof zipper seal to keep contents cold, dry, and protected for multi-day trips — able to maintain ice retention for 48-72+ hours.
- Camping-friendly food and drink – Pack high-protein, non-perishable meal options along with snacks and hydration items like: Non-perishable, high-protein options such as tuna/chicken pouches, beef jerky/sticks, powdered protein shakes. Complex carbohydrates like oats, granola, dehydrated pasta. Snacks including dried fruits, nuts, nut butters, meal replacement/protein bars. Precooked dehydrated camping meals just needing boiled water. Electrolyte powder/drink mixes to replenish salts and minerals lost while paddling.
- Water Bottle – To save small use collapsible water containers. Make sure they are durable, leak-proof, BPA-free with an attachable carabiner clip.
- Tea and coffee. These are the best when it comes to getting you warm and kick-starting your day early in the morning. Honestly, I’m absolutely feral without my morning dose of caffeine. I would never dare to leave home without my French press.
- Litter bags – because, well, you don’t want to be that person that leaves a mess behind when they leave the camp. Plus, they can come in useful in other situations, too.
- Dry Bags: Like socks, you can never have enough dry bags. dry bags in varying sizes lets you safely stow phone, snacks, clothes with no leaks after splashes or spills. Roll-top closures seal tight. Secure to kayak interior with straps for grab-n-go access.
- Sunscreen: Don’t let cloudy skies deceive you – the sun’s rays reflect intensely off the water. Generously apply water-resistant SPF 30+ sunscreen pre-launch to lock in UV protection through the day. Broad spectrum formulas that block UVA/UVB rays along with zinc oxide provide superior protection for outdoor activities. Zinc oxide physically blocks the sun’s rays rather than absorbing it like other chemicals, which minimizes skin irritation and allergic reactions. It also defends against longer UVA rays that penetrate deeper, making it uniquely suited to extended sunlight exposure kayaking.
- Bug Spray: Mosquitos and insects can sabotage an otherwise peaceful shoreside lunch. Come equipped with a trusty DEET or picaridin spray, especially in hot summer months when bug populations spike. These effective repellents ward off mosquitos, ticks, flies, and other pesky biters. Apply a protective mist generously before heading out and don’t be shy about reapplying after swimming or a few hours of paddling.
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Tips On How To Pack A Kayak For Camping
Packing a kayak for camping and fitting all of your gear in a way that’s suitable for a long kayak ride is an art form in itself – and definitely a topic worth discussing.
And much like all other success stories in the world, this one starts with a good plan.
Create An Inventory List & Check It Twice
Packing can be a hasty process, and considering all the things I’ve listed above, there is more than a slight chance you’ll forget something. If you don’t have a reminder, that is.
So, here’s my advice:
Create a list of things you’re going to need, record where those items are stored, and highlight the items that still need to be purchased. Then, go over it before hitting the road – or should I say, waters.
Use Dry Bags For Storage
If I can give you one piece of advice, it would be to use dry bags to help protect everything you bring from getting wet – especially in the case of sensitive electric items. You can think of me as the voice from the future, telling you that relying on dry hatches to keep your items dry is not a very good idea – unfortunately I had to learn this the hard, and expensive, way.
I recommend sticking to a mixture of small to medium-sized bags, ranging from 10-40L. Anything bigger will be difficult to stow or could risk putting too much gear and weight in any one place in the kayak.
I personally keep small essentials like my phone, wallet, and keys in a dedicated fanny pack or bum bag . Not only does this type of pack protect them from moisture, it keeps them close and accessible at all times.
Consider color coding bags by gear category, such as toiletries, kitchen items, medical supplies, and more. Additionally, using transparent bags allows for easy identification of what’s side without the need to unroll or open the bags. This simple system greatly simplifies the process of locating the items you need quickly and efficiently.
I once made a rookie mistake of using five plain black dry bags. Finding my headlamp meant a night diving into each one under fading daylight. Lesson learned!
– Sam O’Brien
Pack Light And Don’t Overload Your Kayak
When packing your kayak for a camping trip, try to be brutally honest, and ask yourself:
Do I genuinely need (insert any item) while I’m paddling?
Prioritize necessity over luxury items as you determine your must-haves and nice-to-haves.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t bring anything – I’m guessing you’re not Bear Grylls. But just keep in mind that your ‘yak has a limited weight capacity, exceeding it will affect your kayak’s performance. You’ll need three or four rounds of reduction to finally trim your baggage to a level we could call “optimal.”
To avoid overloading your kayak:
- Weigh yourself plus any other passengers.
- Weigh all camping gear, food, water – everything that will go onboard.
- Combine passenger and cargo weights. Aim to keep this total at least 30% under your kayak’s specified max load rating.
Balance Your Load Evenly
Weight distribution affects the kayak’s stability, handling, and overall performance – in short, it can turn something that should be a casual paddle into a torturous uphill struggle.
So, keep the heavy items, such as food and water, close to the boat’s center of gravity. And evenly distribute lighter cargo, such clothing or sleeping bags, towards the ends – making sure to balance the weight side-to-side.
We recommend doing a test run at home. Place your kayak on a flat surface and load up all your gear as if preparing for the actual trip. This allows you to assess the weight distribution and balance visually ahead of time. If items need rearranging, better to determine that now rather than when already at the water’s edge.
Keep Essentials Within Easy Reach
When organizing the order in which you pack your gear, ask yourself: Which items will I need regularly during the day while out on the water?
The point is, these items will be of no use to you if they are buried beneath the rest of the cargo and you have to stop and dig them out.
Pack items you’ll need to frequently access towards the top layers or in external pouches. This will save you from constantly unpacking gear or digging around searching for essentials like snacks, sunscreen, or navigation tools.
Small personal items like phones, wallets, and keys also deserve dedicated protected storage. Keep them secure yet handy in your life jacket pockets or clip-on chest packs. These portable packs protect valuables from moisture while allowing easy access without impeding movement
Secure The Load
Making sure your load is secure is super important. I mean, you probably don’t want to chase your cargo down the river if you end up capsized.
I learned this the hard way. Losing my sleeping back in the process – don’t be like me
If possible, cargo should be stored inside the vessel. If not, ensure that everything is secured with bungee cords and leases – and safely stored inside lockable hatches and dry bags.
You might want to do a “practice run” on dry land to get the hang of these things.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Are The Best Ways to Secure a Kayak When Camping?
When planning a kayak camping trip, securing your kayak is crucial to ensure its safety and prevent it from drifting away. The best ways to secure a kayak when camping include using a sturdy cable lock to attach your kayak to a tree or another immovable object near the shoreline.
Additionally, you can use sand anchors or heavy rocks to weigh down the kayak if you’re camping on a beach or soft ground. It’s also advisable to pull the kayak well above the high tide line or water’s edge to prevent it from being taken by the water during changes in tide or unexpected rises in water levels.
What Type of Kayak Is Best for Camping?
The type of kayak best for camping often depends on the nature of your trip, including the water conditions and the amount of gear you plan to carry.
Touring kayaks, with their long, narrow design, are ideal for camping because they offer enhanced stability, ample storage space, and are designed for longer distances in a variety of water conditions.
Sit-on-top kayaks can also be a good choice for warmer climates and calm waters, offering easy access to gear and the ability to get on and off the kayak more easily.
Ultimately, choosing a kayak with enough storage for your camping gear and one that matches your skill level and the water conditions you’ll encounter is key.
Where to Go Kayak Camping?
Deciding where to go kayak camping depends on your experience level, interests, and the landscapes you wish to explore. Popular destinations include national parks with lakes or rivers, coastal areas for sea kayaking, and river systems that offer a mix of calm waters and mild rapids.
Places like the Everglades National Park in Florida, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota, and the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore in Wisconsin are renowned for their stunning natural beauty and are well-suited for kayak camping trips.
Researching specific water trails, local regulations, and seasonal conditions is essential in choosing the best destination for your kayak camping adventure.