If you’re someone who likes to avoid the crowds, access remote places inaccessible by car, and sleep under the stars with the sound of waves lapping outside your doorway, then say hello to kayak camping.
Not only can you haul more than eighty pounds of gear without breaking a sweat, but you can also explore some of the most remote and exquisite places on the planet using your own human power.
Depending on the season and duration of the trip, you’ll need to have the appropriate boat. Sea kayaks for longer trips in more challenging weather and waves will be the best. But it’s even possible to use inflatable kayaks in forgiving conditions.
I’ve enjoyed many unforgettable multiday trips around Vancouver Island and along the coast of BC, Canada, where I’ve witnessed abundant wildlife, inexplicable beauty of endless horizons, and explored some of the most majestic islands and inlets where only a boat can take you.
Who wouldn’t want to be woken by humpbacks breaching or serenaded by a chorus of sea lions as you fall asleep?
Planning for a multiday kayak trip may seem daunting at first, but if you’ve ever gone on an overnight hike or even car camped, the principles are not that dissimilar. Figuring out what kayak camping gear to take or pack is pretty intuitive.
Firstly you’ll need to plan out your gear; second, figure out how much food to take depending on the duration; and third, learn how to pack your boat.
Then you’ll be able to decide on an appropriate destination for your skill level and ensure you have the proper navigational equipment and ability to track the tides (if ocean kayaking).
If this already sounds overwhelming, stick with me and read on. I’m going to break it down.
Kayak Camping Gear:
The biggest difference between an overnight hike and kayak camping is the gear. Yes, you’ll need more equipment to get out on the water, but you can also fit a lot more into a kayak than a backpack.
Whether I’m day-tripping, multiday adventuring on the ocean, or exploring a lake or a river, my paddling gear will mostly look the same:
- Paddle (plus a spare)
- PFD (Personal Flotation Device) with whistle attached
- Paddle Float
- Throw Bag
- Pump or Bailing Device
- Dry Bags
- Dromedary Bags (for water)
- Map and Waterproof Case
I also like to use foam padding on both my seat and my backrest on longer trips, and you can slide padding under your heels, too, if you want to travel in complete luxury.
Like with hiking, you’ll want to separate your paddling clothes from your camping clothes. Clothing is very subjective and will vary depending on the season. But here’s a list of what I typically wear out on the water:
- Long sleeve quick-dry top (polyester or merino wool, never cotton)
- Quick-Dry Leggings
- Drytop (or full drysuit depending on the season and conditions)
- Neoprene Boots or Sandals
- Waterproof Hat or Ball Cap
- Bandana (to cover my ears and keep my cap on when it’s windy)
- Paddling Gloves (depending on the season)
Camp clothes are even more subjective than your paddling outfit. At a minimum, you’ll want something to sleep in, fleece or comfortable pants, a down or synthetic jacket, a beanie and gloves, camp shoes, waterproof pants, and a rain jacket.
I’ve seen people pack all sorts of camp clothing, from a silk robe to a sombrero, but as long as you’re dry, warm, protected from the sun, and comfortable, you really can’t go wrong.
This is where hiking and kayak camping begin to overlap. Once you’ve made it to dry land, you’re setting up camp like you would on a backpacking or car camping trip.
You’ll need the three essentials (tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad), and because you’ll have the space, you can fit whatever else you desire, like a camp pillow, foldable chair, hammock, bocce set, e-reader, and anything else that will make you feel at home.
Like any overnight trip, if you want hot food, you’ll also need your standard camp kitchen including a portable stove, gas canister, lighter, pot, pan, plate, mug, spork, pocket knife, biodegradable soap, and a small sponge or dishrag.
I love kayaking trips simply for the abundance of food you can fit in your boat and the creativity of meals you can cook on your camp stove.
I like to take a cell phone, emergency beacon, waterproof camera, headlamp, spare batteries, and a rechargeable battery pack to charge my phone. Remember to pack the required charging cords if you’re taking rechargeable items and a battery pack on the trip.
Some people will simply pack a toothbrush and toothpaste, but I like to add a few other items to my toiletry bag, including:
- Wet Wipes
- Toilet Paper
- Lip Balm
- Pain Killers
- Basic First Aid (band-aids, antiseptic cream, alcohol wipes)
- Hand Sanitiser
- Bug Repellent
- Face and Hand Cream
You’ll also want to ensure you have several large hauling bags to transport your gear from your boat to your campsite. The large blue Ikea bags are perfect because they fit a ton of gear and pack down easily in your hatch.
Once you have your gear in order, the next item on your checklist is food. The quantity of food will vary depending on your group size and the duration of your trip, but this is where you get to be creative. Other than foods that will spoil or melt quickly, like fresh milk, raw meat, or ice cream, you can take almost anything on a kayaking trip.
Pack your fresh items at the bottom of your hatch as they will stay cooler as you paddle, and be sure to store your food bags out of the sun when you’re onshore.
Here’s a list of the foods I find travel well in a boat and keep unrefrigerated for multiple days.
- Dried fruit
- Pancake Mix
- Maple Syrup
- Tortillas or Bagels
- Avocados (though be careful where you pack them)
- Cherry Tomatoes
- Dehydrated Meals
- Homemade meals like chili or a stew (which you can pack frozen in a Ziplock bag)
- Pre-cooked curries and rice you can simply heat up
- Naan Bread
Dehydrated meals certainly pack the best and generally hold the most calories for their weight and density. But it’s easy to save space on other foods, too, if you remove their bulky packaging. By transferring items from cardboard boxes into Ziplock bags or taking the air out of packages like crisps, you’ll be surprised how much food you can fit.
I fit ten days of food in my medium-volume sea kayak on one of my longest paddling trips along the Salish Sea Marine Trail in BC. I thought this was impressive until a friend of mine fit close to thirty days of food on a trip up the inside passage from Vancouver to Prince Rupert, BC, in a P&H Cetus HV.
The amount of water you’ll need will depend on access to fresh water sources during your trip. On sea kayaking trips where no drinkable water is available, I’ve carried up to twenty liters of water in dromedary bags. I like to allocate 2-3 liters of water per day for drinking and cooking, but you’ll likely need more if you’re traveling mid-summer.
On trips where you have the luxury of access to fresh water, be sure to bring a filter or tablets to treat the water safely.
Packing Your Boat:
My advice is to start on a single, overnight trip to learn how to pack your boat economically and develop a system so you always know where your items are stored and can access those you use the most.
Like anything, the more times you pack your boat and refine your gear list, the easier it will become. I threw a tantrum at the launch site of my first multiday paddling trip because I had no idea how to fit all my gear into my boat. Fortunately, I had a more experienced friend to talk me off the cliff and show me some tricks on how to save space.
Waterproofing your gear is essential, but if you try to squeeze an air-filled dry-sack into your hatch, it’s likely to take up most space. The trick is to ensure all the air is out of the bag before packing it. Even better, I now stuff the sack into the hatch before I close it, so the contents can mold to the shape of the hatch before I seal it shut.
The same goes for your sleeping bag and other bulky yet malleable items. Let them mold into the more narrow ends of your boat so that you have space for solid articles like your stove and pot. Be sure to fill bulky items like your pot with socks or clothing to utilize every inch of space you have.
Now you have a solid grasp on what you’ll need to pack and how to make it all fit, the real fun begins when you can start dreaming about where you want to go.
Finding the Best Kayak Camping Destination
Considerations for destinations will depend on your experience level. Some may require long open water crossings, strong currents, and surf landings that you’ll want to avoid when you’re just starting out.
If you’re an absolute beginner, you may want to explore more protected areas like a lake or an inlet before heading into the open ocean. But if you’re a competent paddler and are ready to explore beyond the beaches or lakes in your backyard, there’s no shortage of coastlines and islands for you to explore.
My favorite destination in BC, Canada, is Vancouver Island because it provides a paddling mecca for beginners and seasoned paddlers. Provincial Parks like Desolation Sound and the Broughton Archipelago along the more protected East-coast of Vancouver Island are perfect for beginner to intermediate paddlers.
These destinations, particularly the Broughtons, will experience strong currents and rips. You’ll want to ensure you’ve done your research, have a comprehensive chart, and experience paddling on the ocean beforehand.
The Broken Group Islands and Nuchatlitz Provincial Park on the west coast of Vancouver Island provide exciting opportunities for intermediate to expert sea kayakers to explore a stunning archipelago of islands with a decent amount of protection from the often-turbulent Pacific Ocean.
Some companies can transport beginner paddlers and their boats out to the more protected areas of these islands, but it’s essential to know your limits, as weather can change very quickly on the West Coast.
Once you’ve decided on your destination, you’ll want to arm yourself with a detailed, water-resistant chart and, ideally a GPS as a backup to ensure you know where you’re going and avoid the risk of getting lost.
Smartwatches, especially something like Garmin’s MK2 can also provide navigation in a hands-free scenario.
Charts like Wild Coast Publishing are great because they detail hazards like strong currents and rips, and show protected areas, freshwater sources, launch areas, campsites, and trip planning information. Their maps are waterproof and durable, printed on polymer stock, which is significantly thicker than most paper maps.
Having a GPS device or even your smartphone is a great way to ensure you always know where you are. There are many navigation apps on the market which allow you to download various maps, but you can also use Google Maps, provided you download the required area, so it’s accessible when you’re offline.
Never rely solely on GPS for navigation, and always take a detailed chart in case your technology fails you.
Tides are a major consideration if you’re embarking on a sea kayaking trip. From launching and landing to currents and swells, you’ll want to know what the tide is doing at all times.
I use a fantastic app called AyeTides, which allows you to select your location on a map and shows you the tide information for any date in the future. It clearly displays high, low, and slack tides, and information on current directions, speeds, and the times for sun and moonrise. There may be some free options on the market, but this app is worth every penny if you have an iPhone.
Like any trip into the backcountry, kayak camping requires specific gear and planning. But if you own a kayak and have the equipment for an overnight camping trip, there’s no reason you can’t combine the two for a truly unique wilderness experience.
There’s nothing quite like paddling with a fully-loaded kayak and landing on the white sand of a beach, miles from the sound of traffic, lights of the city, or another human being. So now that you have the ins and outs of kayak camping, be sure to get out there and try it for yourself.