Fundamentals of Kayak Camping Gear

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© 2002, by Mike Wagenbach ( )


In addition to basic day-trip paddling gear (see “What to bring on a sea kayaking trip”), kayak-camping trips require loading the boats with the requirements for a few days of simple but comfortable living:  water; food and probably cooking equipment; clothing in addition to that worn while paddling, including rain gear and enough insulation to be happy after dark in some breeze; personal care supplies; artificial lights; tools and other supporting equipment; and a place to sleep, as well as possibly additional shelter so camp chores can be done out of the rain without trashing the inside of a tent (or burning it down). 


Some of these categories are summarized below in a table, which lists “minimal, typical, and extravagant” variations, as well as some items deemed “inappropriate,” due to excessive bulk or unsuitability.  Detailed discussion of various items precedes the table. 


In a medium-large boat like most of the Club’s sea kayaks, is should be possible to fit a full set of “typical” gear, with some sharing of communal items, like cooking gear and tents, among several boats.  The Lookshas, Shadow and Scimitars are the most limited in cargo space, so avoid them if you want to pack heavily.   A very large boat is needed to indulge in much from the “extravagant” column, particulary in the case of “toys.”  I have managed to cross the line on a couple of categories at once, usually by cheating and using some deck stowage.


The difficulty is usually in finding a way to put all the desired gear in the boat in an appropriate way.  An average touring kayak can easily carry a hundred pounds more than the weight of the average paddler, so unlike backpacking, weight is not usually limiting, per se.  Space, size and shape are the main problems.  Some of the volume in the kayak will usually be wasted in pointy ends and other unfilled corners of the compartments, and hatches may be too small to get light but bulky items through easily.  Many small items can usually be packed in more tightly than a few large ones, but are more of a hassle to carry to and from the boat.  Unless you have long legs, there may be room between your footrests and the bulkhead for a small bag.  You may also want to put a small bag or something long and thin (e.g. a rolled-up sleeping pad) between your feet, but use real caution here, since you REALLY don’t want anything to wedge your legs inside the boat in case of a capsize and wet-exit.


Fore-and-aft balance is VERY IMPORTANT, particularly for boats without a rudder.  To maintain easy steering in wind, too much weight must not be placed in one end of the boat.  Almost always, the problem will be too much weight in the bow.  Most boats require that at least twice the weight of gear go into the stern compartment as in the bow to avoid developing troublesome weather-helm (tendency to turn toward the wind, a.k.a. weathercocking). 


When in doubt, try to err on the side of stern-heaviness.  Gear stowed on top of the stern deck will also increase weather-helm due to wind resistance, so try to limit use of that space to a spare paddle and maybe a polytarp tightly folded around a few yards of cord.  Even a small drybag sitting up above the deck will be noticeable in moderate wind, though loading the boat even more stern-heavy may correct this.  A large bag will be more difficult to correct for.  Of course, the exact effect will depend also on the hull shape of the boat.


Vertical and lateral weight distribution is also crucial.  The heaviest (densest) items, usually water and food, MUST be placed as low in the boat as possible for stability.  Usually, drinking water is placed just behind the aft bulkhead, with the food bag just behind the water, because keeping the weight near the center of the boat is also good.  Lighter gear and/or inflatable buoyancy bags should then be place above and around the heavy gear, so if the boat tips too far to one side or capsizes, the gear does not shift position, which could cause a capsize or make it more difficult to recover from one. 


Properly loaded, the boat will be very stable, and in most cases also easier to roll than an empty boat.  Heavy loads should never be placed on the deck, since this will make the boat VERY tippy and hard to roll or otherwise right after a capsize. 


While packing, also pay attention to placing items so one side is not heavier than the other.  If your boat tries to lean to one side, you will quickly go insane from the annoyance of trying to keep it upright and moving in a straight line.  Float the boat or have a helper lift it by the ends and see if it floats or hangs level, and correct any problems before you have left the beach.


Another concern is maintaining dry gear and buoyancy in case of a mishap.  Waves wash more easily across the decks of a loaded boat than an empty one, so leakage through a faulty or improperly closed hatch is more likely to become a problem.  If the hatch cover should fail, a little water could be a nuisance, while a lot could be dangerous if the boat becomes insufficiently buoyant (impossible to steer or actually sunken at one end).  Drybags will keep a small amount of water from wrecking your clothes, sleeping bag and food, and will at least keep the boat afloat in a real disaster. 


Tapered drybags are very nice, as they fit into the oddly shaped ends of compartments with less wasted space.  Tapered and small drybags are more expensive, for their size, than larger bags, but for serious touring they are very useful.  Most boats have room for only one “large” size drybag, if that, and some bow compartments will not even accept a “medium” unless it is not very full.  Sometimes a larger bag can be used if it is put into the boat empty, then filled and sealed, but then you will probably want a large nylon mesh bag (or plastic bag if it’s raining) to carry all the gear in between the campsite and beach.  Even when it’s not raining, this approach can be slow and tedious. 


However, for beginners on a tight budget, immediately blowing a hundred bucks just on a wide assortment of drybags isn’t necessary, though it’s not unlikely if you get interested in serious touring.  For short trips, tough plastic trash bags will do if you are careful not to let them get punctured.  The expensive name brands really are harder to rip accidentally.  If you already have nylon stuff sacks for backpacking, putting the plastic bags inside these will minimize risks of ripping the plastic while jamming everything into the boat.  Either tie the ends of the bags into a knot securely but loosely enough that they can be untied without tearing, or tie them with a couple of big rubber bands or soft cord (not a wire twisty which could puncture the plastic).  Be extra cautious if you have to use anything with down insulation (not recommended).


Remember that you won’t want to put your wet raincoat in the same bag as your dry socks!  Pack everything you expect might get wet in a separate bag.


Using your paddling jacket as a rain jacket and windbreaker seems like it would work, but it’s not very pleasant.  Bring a separate raincoat if at all possible.


Small compression bags are also useful, though not a real necessity.  These are like nylon stuff sacks with sturdy end caps connected by straps which help crush the bag of fluffy, dry socks, etc, down to about half its original size.   A drybag loosely packed with 2 or 3 small compression bags is usually easier to get into the boat than the same drybag turgidly packed with uncompressed clothing, since it flexes through hatches and fits better into oddly shaped places in the hull.


 Sleeping  bags


Choice of sleeping bag will be affected by personal preference and intended use.  The bag is one of the bulkiest items to go in the boat, so minimizing its size is desirable.  Older synthetic-insulated bags packed much larger than goose-down bags of similar warmth, but newer fiber fillings seem to compress more easily, so this is less of a problem if you are buying a new bag.  Even if you keep it out of the rain, down is likely to become damp from perspiration and less effective if used during cool, humid weather, which could occur even in July or August.  Since synthetics are also less expensive and easier to care for, the small difference in size is not worth the risk of a clammy sleeping (or mostly waking) nightmare. 


Sleeping bags are “comfort rated” with a certain temperature.  This is obviously a very subjective number, since your metabolism rate and tolerance of cold may vary from the “norm.”  If you have roommates, it may be possible to predict this by comparing how heavy a blanket you prefer at home.  Women are often said to “sleep colder” (prefer more insulation) than men.  


At sea level in Washington or southern BC, night-time temps are usually over 40° F except in late fall or winter.  From this, you would think that only a rather light bag would be needed.  REI and Marmot both make a compact “35°” bag (the Marmot is a few dollars more, but has a slightly nicer design).  I find this to be adequate, but hardly luxurious.  A second pair of dry socks, a sweater and a soft hat (which usually falls off in the middle of the night) help a lot, but some users may find that the extra expense and bulk of a warmer bag are well worth it.  OTOH, too warm a bag is also uncomfortable, so don’t buy a 0° bag just because it’s on sale.


“Convertible” bags have an extra layer of removable insulation and so dual comfort ratings, e.g.  30°/15°.  These are barely more expensive than a comparable single bag, and give a lot of flexibility in various conditions.


A Thermarest or other compact sleeping pad often makes the difference between a good night’s sleep and a painful ordeal, and is generally considered essential equipment by all but the most spartan campers.  The pad will add a few degrees to the warmth of your sleeping bag, in addition to blunting the assault of rocks and tree roots.  The thinner versions are usually sufficient.  The 3/4 length designs save some bulk and a few dollars over a full-length pad, and that second pair of thick socks helps cushion ankle bones almost as well.  Closed-cell foam is much cheaper than the inflatable Thermarest type, but takes up more valuable space in the boat and isn’t quite as plush.  A camping-size pillow is also nice to have, but is not nearly as important as a pad.


Stoves and other flammable toys


Cooking on a wood fire is a pain, and gets your pans grimy, and then everything they touch in your boat.  Gasoline stoves are the norm, with MSR and Coleman being popular and reliable.  MSRs break down into handy little assemblies, but Coleman users seem to spend less time cleaning their “shaker jet.”  Trangia alcohol stoves are light and simple in design, but they are hard to regulate, don’t get as hot and burn much more fuel, so the weight advantage disappears after a couple of meals, since you have to carry pounds of alcohol. 


One stove per small group is adequate, but two is a cheap luxury, and saves your butt if one stove decides not to work for some reason.  The giant long-nosed butane lighters are nice for lighting the stove without frying the hair off your fingers.


Campfires are smelly, scar the ground and ruin your night vision, but lots of people like them, and the warmth can be handy.  Starting one when you really need it is a challenge, since if you’re wet and cold, probably the wood is too.  Look near the fake fireplace log section of the supermarket or hardware store, and you’ll find firestarter blocks made of a sawdust and paraffin combination.  These work great, and won’t burn the hair off half of your body like dousing the wood with gasoline from your stove.  Except in the worst weather, one block (usually about 1”x2”x6”) is bigger than you need to get a fire going, so you’ll probably want to chop these into 2 to 4 pieces with a cleaver, saw, chisel, etc, before leaving home, then pop the chunks in a little baggie. 


For serious cheaters, a tube of Shoo Goo or other flammable glue can be dabbed on things you want to burn, in addition to its more conventional uses.  If it’s really rainy and windy, this trick may even be needed to get your paraffin brick started.  Don’t breath the smoke!


In areas with lots of campers, the driftwood will already be mostly depleted of campfire-sized pieces, so unless you can take a daytrip to a shore away from campsites and bring wood back in your boat, a pocket chainsaw (a chainsaw-like blade with a handle on each end) is the best tool for chopping up long sticks.  Harvesting live trees or standing deadwood is NOT appropriate!


Cook gear


Bring at least one more pot than you have stoves.  You’ll probably want to steep tea while making oatmeal, or some such combination.  In a pinch, a 2-quart stainless steel saucepan from your kitchen is OK, but the big handle makes it a pain to pack.  At least for small groups, 1 and 1.5 liter nesting camping pots are a handy set, or 1.5 and 2 liter if the group is over 4-5 people. 


Non-stick surfaces are nice, but only if you are really careful when cleaning and transporting them.  (Pack each nested pot inside a plastic grocery bag, or the bigger pot outside it will get scratched.  Bring a couple of extra grocery bags for garbage.) Titanium pots are for yuppie scum only.  Choose with care cooksets that use a pliers-type handle that you use for all the pots.  The MSR design is good, but some brands are flimsy or tricky to use, so beware.  You don’t want to pick up a pot full of boiling water and have the handle fall off!


Tools, etc.


You WILL need duct tape and rope, so bring some.  I’ve used a short length of 3 mm cord to replace a lost screw from a footbrace track twice, and once patched a punctured fuel line on a car with duct tape and fishing line.  Duct tape carefully applied to skin can protect against blisters.  Add a swiss army knife and an extra polytarp, and you should be able to take care of almost anything.  If you’ll be fishing, small pliers with wirecutters are invaluable when you hook someone you didn’t intend to, and need to cut the barb off the hook.


Duct tape comes in several grades.  Get the expensive “contractor’s grade”  or famous brand name from a good hardware store.  It does work better.  Tape from big rolls can be re-rolled onto short dowels, a pen or pencil, etc. to make small rolls very cheaply.  Bring several, to insure that you never lose all the tape.


Bring a couple types of cord.  Fishing line or dental floss are no substitute for something with a breaking strength over 500 pounds, nor vice versa.




Too complicated to go into here.  NOLS Cookery and Linda Daniel’s Kayak Cooking are both recommended.  Just two words of advice:  hummus mix.


Post-trip gear


IMPORTANT!  Money, extra snacks and water, clean shirt to wear in brew-pub.  Probably all left in the car.


The Matrix

Non-redundant items should be considered cumulative from Basic to Extravagant.  Some items, like spices, tools and stoves, can be shared among the entire group, so the trip coordinator should bring those or arrange for someone else to supply them.








2 liter bottle and iodine tablets*

4 liters and purification pump*

10 liters (and pump*)

no water

cooking equipment and spices

bowl, spoon, dish soap,

peanut butter

1-2 stoves and 2-3 pots per group, stove fuel, small spatula, corkscrew, tiny cutting board, salt, pepper, sugar, cooking oil, garlic, fork

one stove and two pots per person, collapsible camping oven, French Press coffee maker, olive oil, rice vinegar, balsamic vinegar, habanero salsa, molasses, (all in tiny Nalgene bottles) parsley, lemons, sourdough starter.



polytarp instead of tent, 35° sleeping bag

2-person tent per 2 people, polytarp for cooking area, 20° sleeping bag, 3/4 length  Thermarest pad

1 tent per person, parawing canopy for cooking area or 1 polytarp per person, 10° sleeping bag, full length extra-thick Thermarest pad, folding camp chair

family-sized tent

tools and utility gear**

small roll of duct tape, Swiss army knife, 10 feet nylon utility cord, dental floss or 15# fishing line, first aid kit, cigarette lighter

25 feet 1/8 inch nylon cord, bigger Swiss army knife, epoxy glue and glass cloth (for repairing fiberglass boats only), tiny trowel for latrine duty, more duct tape

fishing rod and net, fillet knife, pocket chain saw, 50 feet 3/16 inch polypro cord, 50 feet 1/4 inch manila rope, 5 feet 3/16 inch bungee cord, zip ties, folding pliers with built-in knife and file (Leatherman brand rusts badly in marine use!),


personal care

rocks, leaves in lieu of toilet paper

last 20% of toilet paper roll in ziploc bag, small toothbrush, chapstick, sunscreen, ibuprofen, pepto-bismol, insect repellent

hairbrush, sudafed, benadryl, hand lotion,

an entire roll of toilet paper for 1-night trip



hacky-sack, small frisbee, novel in case of rain

telescope, tripod, 35 mm camera with zoom lens, full-sized binoculars, mask and snorkel, field guide to coastal wildlife

non-water-based lubricant

clothing and rain gear***

poly tights and sweatshirt or wool sweater, 1 pair dry socks, light rain pants and rain jacket with hood

cotton T-shirt, cotton shorts, 1 pair dry socks per day, spare light poly shirt (so stinky shirt worn while paddling can be changed in camp)

more of everything

blue jeans


2-cell AA flashlight or headlamp (Princeton-Tec brand recommended), or no lights if trip occurs just before full moon

flashlight + headlamp. 


New LED models have amazing battery life

flashlight, headlamp, candle lantern, Eveready 4-cell AA fluorescent waterproof lantern

Coleman gasoline lantern, or no lights during last quarter or new moon


*Assuming fresh water is available somewhere near camp.  If not, bring at least 3 liters*** per person per day.

**The longer the trip, the more stuff from this category you should have.

***Assumes usual PNW summer coastal weather:  non-hot and irregularly rainy


What to Bring on Kayak Camping Trips / Mike Wagenbach last updated: 2002.11.19