How To Plan A Kayak Camping Trip – What You Need & How To Prepare For It

Have you noticed how kayaking is sometimes perceived as an expensive hobby for adrenaline junkies? I sure did. 

That’s why I’m thrilled to see that people are slowly starting to see kayaking for what it truly is: 

A way to spend quality time in nature, have insane amounts of fun and challenge ourselves in ways that are virtually impossible to achieve in an urban environment.

The only thing that could possibly make it better would be throwing camping into the mix.

However, a great number of curious folk are still intimidated by the sheer number of things you need to cover to have a successful kayaking camping experience. And I get that.

So, let’s try to take this uncertainty out of the equation and see everything you need to do and get before you set off on your first kayak camping trip.

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Benefits Of Kayak Camping (Yes, There Are Many)

kayak camping - tent and kayak

Before we go to the specifics, I’d like to have a quick chat with those of you who are still on the fence about the whole thing. So, yeah – why would you even bother with all this kayaking stuff? 

Sure, it looks exciting, but is it really for you and your friends?

The short answer would be – yes. 

If you’re a living, breathing human being, you’re going to love getting up close and personal with nature and all its beauty. I can promise you that much. 

But, even with that in mind, here are a couple of tangible mental and physical benefits of taking out your small boat and venturing into nature.

Freedom To Explore Remote Places

Hiking trails will only get you so far. If you’re genuinely in love with nature and want to access remote and stunning places seldom visited by humans, take a different path – hit the waters. 

This unique way of travel will allow you to observe nature and familiar places from a completely different perspective and see the world around you in a whole new light.

An Excellent Way To Relieve Stress

We have conclusive scientific evidence that prolonged stays in nature reduce piled-up stress and anxiety and improve mental wellbeing. 

For example, a recent article published by the Harvard Medical School states that a short 20-minute nature break could drastically lower cortisol levels. That’s the so-called stress hormone, by the way.

Similar results are seen with moderate physical challenges – and kayaking more than qualifies as such. 

Regular physical activity melts away stress, regulates dopamine production – that’s a so-called “happy” or “feel-good” hormone – and has a positive impact on your overall mood.

These effects will exponentially grow when you combine a stay in nature with physical activities.

Kayaking Camping Trips Are A Welcome Challenge

If you don’t get the importance of a good challenge, I’d recommend reading John De Sena’s book The Spartan Way. 

It’s a quick read that might just change your life forever – and for the better.

The idea is that comfort and complacency make us weak – mentally, physically, and spiritually. If we want to stay sharp and keep growing, we must always pursue new challenges and push our physical and mental boundaries.

Believe it or not – getting out of your comfort zone and learning to fight the currents, set up the camp, find a portage route, and experience an outdoor storm will, in fact, make you a stronger and more resilient person.

I’d say those are some very compelling reasons to give it a try. 

Kayak Camping 101: How To Plan A Kayak Camping Trip

planning a kayak camping trip, map and a compass

To tell you the truth, how awesome your trip is going to be will, to a large extent, depend on the planning. Seriously, aside from blind dating – and I could even argue about that – there are very few things in this world that can’t be made better by thorough preparations. 

And kayak camping trips are no different.

Choose A Suitable Location

Yes, the choice of location can practically make or break the entire trip. Aim too low, and you won’t get enough challenges. Trying to fly too high, and you’ll burn your wings just like Icarus. 

I’ll give you a couple of guidelines I still use when deciding where I’m going to dip the paddle next.

Keep The Trip Short & Simple

When I say “short and simple,” I mean a couple of days and never outside the 100-mile radius – or a two-hour drive from home. 

I’d say that more experienced paddlers can cover about 20 miles – or more if they’re kayaking downstream. But paddling newcomers should stick to 8 to 10 miles a day

You need to make room for eventual mistakes and sideways – and your first trips will have plenty of those.

Also, for the time being, stay away from strong currents and dangerous slopes. Even if you stay on slow-moving, calm waters, you’ll still get enough of a challenge. 

Don’t burn yourself out on your first try.

Pick A Familiar Kayaking Route

Preferably, pick something close to home. That way, you can cut the time spent on driving – and use those precious hours on paddling and setting up a camp. Alternatively, try picking one of the established kayaking locations across the country: 

These “popular” waterways are visited by other – sometimes more experienced – paddlers. So, if you need assistance, they’ll be more than willing to help. 

While we’re at it, I’d recommend the following destinations:

If you’re still a bit hesitant about your skills, there’s no need to push yourself into this head-first. Guided kayak camping tours could help you get the gist of the whole thing.

Most of these tours also give you access to kayak checkpoints, suggested routes, set-up camp places, and so on – all in all, a perfectly safe way to get into the kayaking world without getting a headache in the process.

Check Camping Spots & Watch The Weather

Now, camping is the second – but equally important – part of this equation. 

So, while you’re looking for safe currents to paddle over, you also have to make sure you’ll have access to comfortable, dry, and safe camping grounds

No need to worry, though; you’ll find some great spots here.

The other thing you need to take into consideration is the weather

Heavy rains and storms can quickly turn Class I rapids into Class III monstrosities. Believe me; you want to avoid that, ahem, charming experience for now. 

So, you should preferably aim for the locations that are not that prone to rainfalls – or, at least, double-check the weather forecast for the weekend.

Plan Your Route

Everything I’ve covered above should help you pick the ideal location. And now that you have the route in place, it’s time to plan it out. 

So, while you’re deciding on places you’ll be camping at or assessing when and where to start your route, take the following into account:

  • The average kayaker paddles at a speed of 2 miles per hour. You might be able to go much faster than that if you catch a swift downstream current. But, depending on many factors, you could also go far, far slower. It’s always best to keep your expectations on the more conservative side and do everything at your own pace.
  • Beginners should never aim for more than 8-10 miles per day, tops. Sure, five hours of paddling might sound like a good idea now that you’re sitting in the comfort of your home – but boy, do those hours drag on like an eternity when you’re actually paddling.
  • Don’t be skimpy with the rest points. It’s far better to take several short breaks than to exhaust yourself before reaching the end-point. On that note, put Google Earth to good use; it should give you a pretty good idea about the appropriate shoreline locations.
  • Allow yourself enough time to get to the campsite and adequately set up the tent before the dark. And try to be as generous as you can – even experienced paddlers encounter some unplanned delays.
  • Research the potential dangers along the paddling route; better safe than sorry. So, if you’ll tackle waters with fast currents, dangerous slopes, low-head dams, or numerous strainers, you need to be aware of that. And if they prove to be too hazardous for you, it’s always good to have an alternative route – a plan B, if you will.
  • Keep note of the portage sections. Sometimes, carrying the ‘yak through the forest trails is unavoidable. Not the most pleasant experience, by the way. There are three ways to approach this. One – pace your journey so you’re well-rested before you need to take the kayak out of the water. Two – consider investing in one of those handy kayak carts. And three, pack lightly – that kayak of yours is already heavy enough to carry around.
  • If you’re paddling downstream, consider your options for getting back in advance. Sure, you can try paddling your way upstream, but this is far harder than it looks at first glance – and it already looks insanely challenging. So, as a plan B – or A, if you think about it – I’d recommend a local Shuttle Service. 

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 river.

And I think that’s pretty much it. 

Now, let’s move to our next topic…

Pre-Kayak Camping Trip Checks: A Quick Once-Over

Man inspecting his kayak before a camping trip

Things I’ve covered so far were mainly focused on picking your route and mapping out your trip, so that you get an optimal kayaking experience without burning out too early. 

But I haven’t yet addressed two other super-important factors – and that would be you and your kayak.

If you don’t make sure that both of you are in top shape and ready to tackle the waters, there is no amount of preparation in this good world that’ll make your journey even remotely pleasant. 

So, let’s tackle these two bad boys one by one, shall we?

Make Sure Your ‘Yak Is In Pristine Shape

You should have a pretty good idea why this is vital: 

A strong – and “healthy” – ‘yak brings the chance of something going wrong to a bare minimum. 

Granted, the possibility of malfunctions will generally be much lower if you’ve just bought a new boat. Still, a quick once-over is always a good idea. And if you own a second-hand kayak, this is an absolute must before a foray into nature. 

HOW TO INSPECT FISHING KAYAK FOR CRACKS AND LEAKS

On that note, here are a few things to check during your next “bow-to-stern” inspection:

  • Give the hull a thorough visual inspection. While you’re at it, grab a flashlight and see how things look inside; some issues are far easier to spot this way. Any dents or cracks should be dealt with immediately.
  • Make sure the bulkheads are solid and still in place. 
  • Open and close the hatches; see how they seal. If they show any sign of weakness, the seals should be fixed immediately.
  • Ensure there are no cracks in or around scupper holes and replace any missing scupper plugs

Now, this is the point where I’d like to remind you that you can avoid most of these problems with regular check-ups and maintenance. If something’s off, don’t delay dealing with it; things are only going to get exponentially worse as time goes by.

Make Sure You’re Ready For This

I can’t sum up what it means to be a “good paddler” in a couple of points; it’s nearly impossible. 

But, I could still share a few valuable skills that I wouldn’t want to face the challenges of kayak camping without – and neither should you – including:

  • Make sure you have basic navigation skills. That’s a must for any foray into nature, and kayak camping trips are no different. Consider investing in a solid kayak GPS; it’ll make this whole ordeal considerably easier. 
Kayak Navigation Basics - Taking Bearings & Triangulation - Kayak Hipster
  • Make sure you are physically fit. Make no mistake about it; long-distance paddling will put your body through its paces. I’d suggest you spend some time training for kayaking – and make sure other paddlers in your group do the same. Consider physical fitness, any previous experience with long-distance paddling, and portaging.
  • Make sure you have good paddling technique. Fortunately, you can practice these skills even in your backyard – or, if possible, a pool. Speaking of, use this opportunity to practice some basic kayak safety techniques, like wet exit and re-entry, rolling, reverse sweep, and similar maneuvers.
  • Make sure you have the necessary kayaking equipment and accessories. 

That last bit brings me to the next topic…

Kayak Camping Gear List: What To Take On A Kayak Camping Trip

kayakers packing up after a camping trip

Your instincts might tell you the more equipment you get, the better off you are; I get that. But people tend to go way overboard with this idea. 

I swear to God, I saw a paddler carrying a kitchen sink once. I don’t know how that factors into the whole survival idea, and honestly, I don’t care. 

What would you even do with a kitchen sink on a camping trip?!

Every item you bring turns into dead weight you’ll have to drag around. You only need the bare essentials necessary for survival – meaning food, clothing, essential gadgets and tools, and shelter. 

Everything else is a luxury.

We’ve compiled a list of essential items below, but be sure to read our comprehensive kayak camping equipment packing list for further information.

Shelter, Kayak & Basic Survival Tools

  • A kayak with plenty of space, higher-than-average weight capacity, multiple storage options, suitable for long-distance paddling – in short, a touring kayak
  • A waterproof, lightweight tent. 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 sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and a pillow. And yes, it should all be waterproof.
  • Dry clothing and rain gear. Aside from your trusty drysuit, you should throw in water shoes, PFDs, kayaking helmets, and warm – or, depending on the weather conditions, UV-protective – kayaking gloves.
  • Power bank, flashlight, and head torch
  • 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.
  • Additional cooking equipment, such as a travel BBQ, essential cooking utensils, washing set, lighter,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
  • Camping-friendly food. Now, this is a tricky one since it depends on preferences, dietary requirements, and other variables. One thing’s for sure, though – whatever you bring needs to be calorie-dense. I’d recommend frozen meat, tinned meat, and veggies, MRE (Meals Ready-to-Eat) food, dry fruits, dry meats, and, of course, the most popular super-food on the planet – nuts.
  • 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. 

How To Pack A Kayak For Camping

Kayaks and airtight gear bags on the beach

Okay, you know what you need to bring to your next kayak camping trip. Problems solved? 

Not even in the slightest. 

Packing a kayak for camping and fitting all these things 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 Before Hitting The Road

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

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. 

How to Pack a Dry Bag for Paddling

So, why don’t you try using dry bags – especially in the case of sensitive electric items? It’s like an extra layer of protection. And a must-have one, at that. 

Pack Light

You’ll need three or four trips to finally trim your baggage to a level we could call “optimal.” But even as it is, try to be brutally honest, and ask yourself: 

Do I genuinely need (insert any item) while I’m paddling? 

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

Make It Well-Balanced

I’ll quote Thanos on this one – “Perfectly balanced, as all things should be.” Avengers, anyone?

It makes sense if you think about it: 

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 struggle. 

How to pack for Kayak Camping

So, keep the heavy items close to the boat’s center and evenly distribute lighter cargo towards the ends.

Think About Easy Access

What items are you going to need while you’re still in the ‘yak? 

My point is, you’ll have very little use from them if they’re buried beneath the rest of the cargo or you need to stop to dig it out. 

Do your best to keep the items you’re going to use packed together. It just makes the search far more effortless.

Secure The Load

This one’s 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. So, be a great sport – get something useful from my experience. 

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.

Bonus Advice: Things To Consider While Kayak Camping

kayaks packed with camping equipment on the shore

Okay, we’re almost done. But I still need to talk about a couple of things you should keep in mind when you go on your next kayak camping trip. These aren’t necessarily concerned with paddling; they’re more in the “common sense” department. 

And believe me: 

Things like that will make your journey more comfortable, stress-free, and responsible.

Beware Of The Local Wildlife

Despite some people seemingly forgetting about it, we’re not alone on this planet. And the last time I checked, personal safety mattered. 

So, if you live in an area rich with wildlife, don’t leave the house without a good bear spray

I mean, sure, as long as you keep the food sealed or hung away from your tent, bears and wild cats should stay away from your tent, anyway. But you never know. 

Also, if you’re sharing the waters with alligators, keep the food and the catch safely sealed. For the love of all things holy – don’t filet the fish near your camp. 

And no, feeding alligators is not “fun” or “cool.”

As for the bugs, they’re not that dangerous – but they sure as heck are annoying. Either way, you should avoid the time of the year when their presence is the greatest – they tend to be a real nightmare in the summer. 

If that’s not possible, cover your skin the best you can, use some of the popular repellants, and if they really bug you – excuse the pun – pack yourself a lightweight bug shelter.

Leave No Trace Behind

I think there’s no need to go into great detail with this one. Our beautiful planet is in danger – you want to be a part of the solution and not the problem. 

So, do your best to leave no trace behind

What is Leave No Trace? || REI

Start by sticking to the 7 Leave No Trace Principles. In essence, the idea is to leave the area you were camping in unchanged – in the same condition you found it in. 

That means pick up your trash and, if possible, try storing some of your items in cardboard or paper containers that can be burned in the campfire.

Keep Yourself Fueled & Hydrated

Now’s not the best occasion to worry about your diet. Kayaking burns a lot of calories – and these calories need to be replenished if you want to avoid fatigue. The same goes for proper hydration. 

Be sure to satisfy these needs in due time, even if that means taking a break.

Secure Your Kayak When Camping Overnight

The last thing you want is to end up stranded in the middle of nowhere with no ‘yak to continue your journey. I’ve already talked about this in my post about kayak security – so I don’t want to waste your time here any further. 

But, seriously – make sure the kayak is safely locked.

The bears might not be interested in stealing your ‘yak – but someone from the nearby campsite might be. You never know. 

Summary

And we’re finally at the end. What a journey, huh? 

I hope you enjoyed everything we talked about and, even more so, realized one important truth: 

Although they might seem intimidating to a novice, kayak camping trips are nothing more than a series of small and manageable steps. 

If you want to make this journey, you only need to take the first step – and rest assured, the rest will follow.

And you can’t begin to imagine how I want you to take this leap of faith. Kayaking is one of the most beautiful, beneficial, and addicting experiences you can have in your life – and it only gets better when you add camping into the equation!