Kayak Camping 101: Ultimate Guide

Before We Get Started

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I have been kayak camping through 4 presidents, and I can tell you it can be incredibly fun, but you need to know a few things.

Camping, as it relates to kayaking and canoeing, is a little different than camping in a car or R or hiking to a campsite.

For one thing, you’ll have to pack light due to the storage constraints of your boat, so you’ll need to pack only the essentials necessary for a successful outing. Plus, you’ll have to bring dry bags and pack for water immersion, an ever-present possibility when paddling.

The most important step when kayaking or canoe camping, especially if this will be your first outing, is to plan carefully and make a good checklist.

Below ill go into more detail and try to tell you everything you need to know to go camping while kayaking one day.

I. Preparation

A. Selecting the Right Kayak

Selecting the Right Kayak

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Before going on a kayak camping trip, one of the key decisions you’ll make is selecting the right kayak. A kayak is your main vehicle in this adventure; choosing the right one can drastically affect the comfort and success of your trip. Here’s how you can choose a kayak that fits your needs:

A. Consider the Trip Length: The duration and distance of your trip are crucial factors to consider when selecting a kayak.

  • Smaller and lighter kayaks are suitable for short, one-day trips as they are easy to maneuver and carry.
  • However, you’ll need a tour or sea kayak for multi-day expeditions. These kayaks are designed for longer journeys and typically have a length of 14 feet or more. They are more streamlined, making them faster and more efficient over long distances. They also offer better tracking and stability, especially in open water conditions.

B. Consider the Amount of Gear You’ll Carry: Consider the camping gear, food, water, and other supplies you’ll need for your trip.

  • A day trip requires less gear – so a kayak with a smaller storage capacity may suffice.
  • If you’re planning a multi-day trip, you must carry more supplies. Thus, you’d need a kayak with a larger storage capacity. The amount of gear also influences the kayak’s stability, so choosing a design that can handle the additional weight without compromising performance is crucial.
Dont be this guy

Don’t be this guy 🙂

C. Select a Kayak with Appropriate Storage Capabilities: Once you have a clear idea of the duration of your trip and the gear you’ll be carrying, you can focus on the kayak’s storage capabilities.

  • Touring kayaks often come with built-in waterproof compartments that can secure and protect your gear from water. They also have deck rigging (bungee cords or ropes on the kayak’s deck), which can be used for securing items that you might need to access quickly or that can get wet.
  • Make sure there’s enough space for all your essential gear, and remember to consider how the storage is laid out – it’s useful to have items you’ll need frequently (like snacks, maps, or water bottles) easily accessible.

Remember, no single kayak fits all situations, so base your selection on the specifics of your planned adventure.

B. Assembling Camping Gear

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Preparing the essential gear, you will need for a kayak camping trip is equally important as selecting the right kayak. This checklist should be a comprehensive guide for the gear you’ll need to assemble.

1. Shelter: When it comes to shelter, your choice should be compact, lightweight, yet durable and weatherproof.

  • Tents: Choose a tent suited to the conditions you expect to encounter. It should be easy to set up, take down, and pack small to fit into your kayak.
  • Sleeping Bags: Choose a sleeping bag appropriate for the weather conditions. You may need a sleeping bag with a lower temperature rating in colder climates. Always store your sleeping bag in a dry bag to keep it dry.
  • Sleeping Pads: An inflatable or roll-up sleeping pad will provide extra comfort and insulation from the ground.

2. Clothing: Clothing should be chosen based on the forecasted weather and always have a waterproof option.

  • Look for layering options such as moisture-wicking base layers, insulating mid-layers, and waterproof outer layers. Also, pack a hat, gloves, and warm socks if you expect cold conditions.
  • Waterproof jackets and pants are essential. They’ll keep you dry on the water and during any rain you encounter in camp.

3. Cooking Gear: Plan and pack your cooking gear, keeping weight and storage in mind.

  • Portable Stove: A lightweight, compact stove is essential for cooking meals.
  • Utensils: Pack a pot, pan, cooking utensils, eating utensils, and a lightweight, easy-to-clean plate or bowl.
  • Food and Water: Plan your meals ahead of time, focusing on lightweight, non-perishable items. Don’t forget a water filtration system or purification tablets to ensure safe drinking water.

4. Navigation Tools: Reliable navigation tools are essential for outdoor adventure.

  • Map and Compass: Always carry a detailed map of the area and a compass. They don’t rely on batteries and are unaffected by poor signal areas.
    • Paper maps are waterproof, lightweight, and don’t rely on batteries or signal strength.
    • When reading a map, identify landmarks and use them to understand your location and direction.
    • Keep your map in a waterproof case or bag to ensure it remains legible throughout your trip.
  • GPS: A GPS device can be a handy tool for tracking your progress and helping you navigate.
    • Modern GPS devices can display topographic maps, track the distance you’ve traveled, calculate your speed, and estimate your arrival time.
    • Remember that GPS devices rely on batteries, so bring extras and consider a solar charger for longer trips.
    • Despite their advantages, GPS devices should not replace maps and compass but be a useful supplementary tool.
  • Compass: A compass is a simple and reliable tool for determining direction. It works in conjunction with your map to help you navigate.
    • Before your trip, learn how to use a compass properly – it’s an invaluable skill in the wilderness. Practice orienting your map and taking your bearings.
    • Like your map, keep your compass in a secure, easily accessible place.

5. Safety Equipment: Safety should always be your top priority.

  • First Aid Kit: Pack a well-stocked first aid kit. Include bandages, antiseptic wipes, tweezers, medical tape, pain relievers, and personal medication.
  • Fire Starter: Carry waterproof matches or a lighter to start a fire for cooking and warmth. A fire starter can be a lifesaver if these fail.
  • Knife: A multipurpose knife can be used for food preparation, gear repair, and other emergencies.
  • Headlamp: A headlamp is essential for setting up camp, cooking, or other activities after dark.

6. Kayaking Gear: Last but not least, don’t forget your kayaking essentials.

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  • Paddle: Your paddle should be the right length and weight for you and the type of kayaking you’ll be doing.
  • Life Vest: Always wear a life vest while on the water. It should fit well and not restrict your movement.
  • Helmet: A helmet is necessary to kayak in whitewater or rough conditions.
  • Dry Bags: Pack your gear in dry bags to keep it dry and secure during your paddling adventure.

Remember, the key to a successful kayak camping trip is preparation. Ensure you have all the gear you need before you hit the water, and you’ll be ready for an unforgettable adventure.

C. Planning the Route

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Mapping out your route is a critical part of preparation for any kayak camping trip. A solid plan will guide your adventure, making it safer, more manageable, and enjoyable. Here’s a simple guide on how to plan your route:

1. Study the Waterway’s Layout: Before you set out on your journey, take the time to study the layout of your chosen waterway.

  • Get a detailed map of the area and familiarize yourself with the twists and turns of the waterway, the flow direction, the gradient, and any forks or intersections.
  • Research online or talk to locals or experienced kayakers about the particular characteristics of the waterway. This could include information about typical water levels, the speed of currents, and tidal changes, if applicable.
  • Understanding the waterway layout will also help you gauge your daily paddling distance and plan breaks accordingly.

2. Determine Possible Campsite Locations: Knowing where to camp along your route.

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  • Look for designated camping spots marked on your map. Many waterways have established campsites along their shores, often with facilities like restrooms and fire pits.
  • If there are no designated sites, identify potential areas where you could set up camp. Ideal spots are flat, sheltered from the wind, and safe from the water’s edge.
  • Always ensure that camping is permitted in these areas; if required, secure camping permits ahead of your trip.

3. Identify Potential Hazards or Difficult Points: A critical part of route planning involves identifying potential hazards or challenging points along your route.

  • Look for areas marked as dangerous on your map, such as rapids, weirs, or dams. Even experienced kayakers can find these areas challenging.
  • Take note of potential portage points, places where you’ll need to carry your kayak and gear around a hazard or difficult point in the waterway.
  • Understand the local wildlife and their behaviors. Some areas may have risks related to wildlife encounters, so it’s essential to be prepared and knowledgeable about handling such situations.

Remember, route planning isn’t just a safety measure—it’s also a way to enhance your trip. It allows you to find the best places to stop and rest, enjoy a meal, or soak in the natural beauty.

Always be flexible with your plan, though, as unexpected weather or water conditions changes may require you to adjust your route or timeline. Stay safe, and have a wonderful kayak camping trip!

II. Safety Considerations

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Kayaking and camping are both activities that bring inherent risks, and these risks are amplified when the two are combined.

Prioritizing safety is essential to ensure an enjoyable and memorable experience.

Two main safety considerations are the weather forecast and water conditions.

A. Weather Forecast

Keeping an eye on the weather forecast should be a part of your pre-trip planning and continue throughout your adventure. Here’s why:

1. Monitor the Weather in Advance:

  • Checking the weather forecast should begin several days before you leave for your trip, giving you an idea of what to expect and helping you pack accordingly.
  • Look for information about temperature highs and lows, the chance of precipitation, wind speed, direction, and any severe weather warnings.
  • Continue to monitor the weather as your trip date approaches, adjusting your plans if necessary. Weather conditions like thunderstorms or high winds can make kayaking dangerous and require you to delay or reschedule your trip.

B. Water Conditions

Understanding the water conditions of the area where you’ll be kayaking is equally critical. Here’s what to focus on:

2. Learn About the Water Conditions (current, tide, etc.):

  • Research the waterway’s usual conditions. This could include the speed and direction of the current, the presence of any rapids or obstacles, and tidal changes if you’re kayaking in coastal waters.
  • Check local resources for updates on water conditions just before your trip. For example, high water levels due to recent rains can make a normally calm waterway much more challenging and dangerous.
  • Always respect the power of the water. Even experienced kayakers can be caught off guard by strong currents or sudden changes in water conditions.

Both weather and water conditions can change rapidly, and staying informed will help you make smart decisions during your kayak camping trip. Always have contingency plans in place if the conditions become unsafe.

Remember, no trip is worth risking your safety.

B. Skills and Fitness

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Kayak camping is physically demanding and requires specific kayaking skills and a certain fitness level. Preparing your body and mind can significantly impact your experience and safety during the journey.

1. Be Physically Prepared for the Journey:

Kayaking and camping require physical effort; physical preparation becomes even more crucial when doing both on the same trip.

  • Cardiovascular fitness is a must. Kayaking involves repetitive upper body movements, and the better your cardio fitness, the longer and more effectively you’ll be able to paddle. Regular cardio workouts like swimming, running, or cycling can help improve your endurance.
  • Strength training, particularly for your upper body and core, is also important. Exercises such as push-ups, pull-ups, and planks can help strengthen the muscles you’ll use most while paddling.
  • Flexibility can aid in preventing muscle strains and improve your overall mobility in the kayak. Incorporate stretching into your regular exercise routine.

2. Have Basic Kayaking Skills:

Kayaking requires specific skills; for a kayak camping trip, proficiency in these skills is paramount for safety.

  • Basic skills include paddling techniques, maneuvering, and maintaining balance.
  • You should also know how to perform a self-rescue or buddy rescue in case of a capsize. Practicing these skills in a controlled environment can help prepare you for potential situations on your trip.
  • If you’re planning to kayak in whitewater or sea conditions, additional training and experience are needed. These environments can present unique challenges, and understanding how to navigate waves or handle the kayak in a current is crucial.

C. Communication

Keeping lines of communication open before and during your trip is essential for your safety. It can make the difference in an emergency or if things don’t go as planned.

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1. Inform Someone About Your Plans:

Before you leave for your trip, confirm that someone not with you knows your plans’ details. This is an important safety precaution that should not be overlooked.

  • Share your planned route, the expected return time, and the areas where you’ll be camping.
  • This person should clearly understand what to do if you don’t return or check in as planned. They should have contact information for the local authorities or search and rescue organizations in the area you’re exploring.

2. Carry a Means of Communication Like a Phone or Radio:

Although you might be seeking a break from screens and signals, it’s important to carry some means of communication for safety.

  • Mobile phones are convenient, but they rely on having a signal. If you are in areas with poor or no coverage, consider investing in a satellite phone or personal locator beacon (PLB).
  • Two-way radios can be useful, especially if you’re traveling in a group and may sometimes be separated.
  • Always carry your device in a waterproof case or bag, and consider bringing a portable charger or extra batteries.

Remember, communication isn’t just important in case of emergencies. Regular check-ins can reassure your loved ones that you’re safe and enjoying your adventure. They can also help you stay updated on changing weather conditions or other potential issues.

So, as much as a kayak camping trip is a chance to disconnect, don’t forget to contact the outside world occasionally.

III. On the Trip

A. Kayaking

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1. Properly Balance the Load in Your Kayak:

A well-balanced kayak is not only easier to paddle, but it’s also more stable.

  • Load your gear evenly on both sides of the kayak to maintain balance.
  • Try to keep the weight distributed as close to the center as possible. Placing heavy items toward the ends of the kayak can affect maneuverability.
  • Ensure that all gear is secured. You don’t want things shifting around while you’re paddling or in the event of a capsize.

2. Paddle with the Correct Technique:

Paddling with the correct technique will help you move more efficiently and can prevent injuries.

  • Ensure your paddle is the right size and you’re holding it correctly.
  • Use your torso, not just your arms, when paddling. Rotating your torso engages stronger muscles and can help you paddle longer and more powerfully.
  • Take full strokes, immersing the entire paddle blade in the water for maximum propulsion.

3. Manage Your Energy Wisely:

Pacing yourself and managing your energy reserves are crucial, especially on longer trips.

  • Don’t try to cover too much distance too quickly. Remember, kayak camping isn’t a race; it’s an opportunity to connect with nature.
  • Take regular breaks to rest, hydrate, and eat. Even a short break can recharge your energy and prevent fatigue.
  • Listen to your body. If you’re tired, stopping and resting or setting up camp earlier than planned is better.

Remember, the goal of your trip is to enjoy the journey as much as the destination.

B. Setting Up Camp

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The camping part of your kayak camping trip is just as important as kayaking.

Setting up camp and adhering to the Leave No Trace principles will ensure you have a comfortable place to rest and recover each Night and leave your campsite as pristine as you found it.

1. Choose a Suitable Location for Safety and Environmental Considerations:

  • Look for a spot that’s high and dry. Avoid valleys and paths where water may flow into the campsite.
  • If possible, choose a spot that’s already been used for camping to minimize your impact on the environment.
  • Keep a safe distance from the water’s edge in case of sudden rises in water levels.

2. Set Up Your Shelter and Cooking Area:

Once you’ve chosen a campsite, it’s time to set up your shelter and cooking area.

  • Set up your tent on flat, level ground. Clear away any rocks or sticks that could puncture the tent or make sleeping uncomfortable.
  • Your cooking area should be downwind and a safe distance from your tent to prevent potential fire risks and keep cooking smells away from your sleeping area.

3. Secure Your Kayak and Gear for the Night:

WiNightur camp set up, focus on securing your kayak and gear.

  • Pull your kayak above the high-water mark and tie it to a tree or other sturdy object.
  • Store your gear inside the kayak or tent to protect it from the elements or wildlife. If you have food, consider hanging it in a tree if bears are concerned.

C. Leave No Trace Principles

The Leave No Trace principles are a set of guidelines meant to educate outdoor enthusiasts about responsible practices towards the environment.

1. Respect Wildlife:

Always observe wildlife from a distance and never feed animals. Feeding wildlife damages their health alters natural behaviors, and exposes them to predators and other dangers.

2. Dispose of Waste Properly:

“Pack it in, pack it out.” This simple phrase reminds us to leave no trace of our visit so others can enjoy nature’s gifts. Dispose of all waste properly; carry out all trash, leftover food, and litter.

3. Minimize Campfire Impact:

Use a camp stove for cooking instead of making a fire whenever possible. If you must have a fire, use established fire rings, keep fires small, and burn only sticks from the ground that can be broken by hand. Always extinguish fires completely.

4. Leave What You Find:

Avoid introducing or transporting non-native species, do not build structures or furniture, and do not dig trenches.

IV. Post-Trip Considerations

A. Cleaning and Storing Equipment

  1. Clean Your Kayak and Gear: Rinse your kayak and gear to remove dirt or salt. Ensure everything is thoroughly dry to prevent mold before storing.
  2. Store Properly: Store your kayak and gear in a dry, sheltered place. Kayaks should be stored off the ground, ideally on racks. If you have an inflatable kayak, deflate it to avoid strain on the seams.


Here are some resources that might be helpful in your research and writing:


  1. Outdoor Recreation Participation Report by Outdoor Foundation


  1. American Canoe Association (ACA)
  2. Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics
  3. Outdoor Industry Association (OIA)


  1. “The Complete Book of Sea Kayaking” by Derek C. Hutchinson
  2. “Sea Kayaker’s Savvy Paddler: More than 500 Tips for Better Kayaking” by Doug Alderson
  3. “Camping’s Top Secrets” by Cliff Jacobson

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About Julian Thompson

cb787c59d2808e1f609076e790ca977e?s=90&d=mm&r=gCertifications: Certified Kayaking Instructor (AKA)
Education: American Kayak Association
Lives In: Denver Colorado

I am a kayaking expert/instructor who has been fishing for over 15 years. Fishing is my passion, but kayaking keeps me on the water. I love to share my knowledge of techniques and tips with others. I live in Colorado with my wife and two kids and own a small kayak rental business On Grand Lake where I rent and instruct.