Essential Kayak Camping Guide for Any Season

May 10, 2024

Essential Kayak Camping Guide for Any Season

Kayak camping offers the incredible opportunity to navigate calm waters, camp on remote river islands, and immerse yourself in nature like never before. But before you go, you must know how to plan your trip. This includes everything from acquiring the right kayak accessories and safety gear to learning how to pack your kayaks for stability and understanding what goes into setting camp.

Why Choose Kayak Camping?

The major draw of kayak camping is the unique perspective it offers. Unlike traditional hiking or backpacking, which is constrained by land-based trails, kayak camping allows you to explore areas only reachable by water. 

Provincial, state, and national parks offer some of the best kayak camping trips, with tranquil waters and awe-inspiring scenery. Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada, Glacier National Park in Montana, and the Black Canyon Water Trail near the Grand Canyon are standout options, but there are great choices almost everywhere. You can view a comprehensive list of water trails to plan your trips here: National Recreation Trail Finder.

Planning Your Kayak Camping Trip

Choosing the Right Destination

Are you searching for the thrill of white water or the calm serenity of a lazy river? Factor in the location's accessibility, natural beauty, and difficulty level it offers based on your kayaking skills. Think of remote river islands or areas freeways can't reach because they provide unique experiences you won't get elsewhere.

Mapping Your Route

Plan your daily paddling distance wisely. The average paddling pace is approximately 2 miles per hour, and beginners would do well to keep their distance to 8-10 miles per day. Trust us, 4 to 5 hours of paddling can be quite a workout, even for those in top physical shape. Allow time for rest stops and for changes in weather or water conditions. Even taking a break by getting out of your kayak and walking around every hour or so (when possible) can leave you feeling much better at the end of an all-day paddle,

Selecting Your Campsites

When choosing campsites, consider their proximity to the water and their exposure to the elements. An ideal campsite is close enough to the water that carrying your gear doesn't become an expedition of its own but also tucked away enough that it offers protection from the wind or sudden tide changes.

Packing for Your Kayak Camping Adventure

An adequately packed kayak provides more stability and makes paddling easier, but packing a kayak requires some skill and knowledge. 

Kayak Camping Essentials

It's important to remember that the gear you need may vary based on the type of journey you're planning. However, here are the necessary items for a kayak camping trip.

  • Kayaking equipment: You'll need a suitable kayak (sit-in or sit-on-top), paddles, and a personal floatation device (PFD). Also, consider a paddle leash, dry bags for gear storage, a bilge pump, and a sponge for removing water from your kayak.
  • Camping gear: A lightweight backpacking-style tent typically works best for kayak camping. Overall, storage space is similar to that of a giant backpack. However, you can break the gear into smaller bags for more accessible organization, especially for your food and safety gear.
  • Personal items & safety gear: Personal items can include multi-tool knife navigation tools like a compass, map, or GPS. Safety is paramount, so carry a first aid kit, sunscreen, bug spray, a whistle for signaling, and extra clothing layers.

Balancing Weight & Space

Assessing your kayak's load capacity and understanding proper weight distribution will be critical for your safety during a kayak camping trip. First, check the manufacturer's guidelines to determine your kayak's maximum load capacity. Improper weight distribution, especially top-heavy loading or uneven side-to-side balance can make the kayak unstable and prone to capsizing. 

Add up the weight of all your gear, supplies, and personal items, along with the weight of the paddlers. Ensure this total is well within the kayak's maximum load capacity. Pack heavier gear closer to the middle of the kayak. Lighter items can fit around the sides and in the bow and stern.

Tips for Packing a Balanced Kayak

  • Pack items you’ll need more frequently (like water, snacks, or sunscreen) in more accessible spots, such as deck bags or compartments within easy reach. 
  • Store items that are needed less frequently deeper in the storage areas.
  • Ensure all items are securely packed to prevent movement, which can shift the center of gravity during paddling.
  • Place heavier items low in the kayak's hull to lower the center of gravity, enhancing stability. You’ll also want to stow heavier items toward the center of the boats versus the ends. This helps overall paddling performance and mainly helps keep the boat more maneuverable.
  • Use multiple smaller drybags versus a couple of larger ones. This makes arranging gear in the hatches/storage areas much more accessible and prevents digging through the more giant bags to find items.
  • Ensure that weight is evenly distributed from left to right to prevent the kayak from listing to one side. This balance is crucial for efficient paddling.

Selecting a Campsite

Aim for established campsites, especially if you're a beginner kayak camper learning to paddle and camp safely. You should camp outside the established sites if you're a seasoned outdoor enthusiast. Either way, always set up camp at least 200 feet away from the water to avoid the risks associated with tides and to avoid contaminating the water.

Leave No Trace Principles

Maintain ecological integrity by following the Leave No Trace principles. These guide us to minimize our environmental impact and preserve the natural beauty around us for future generations to enjoy.

  • Plan ahead & prepare. Research your destination, know the regulations and unique concerns of the area, prepare for extreme weather, and have a contingency plan.
  • Minimize damage. Use established trails and campsites. Avoid altering sites, widening trails, or creating new campsites.
  • Dispose of your waste correctly. Pack out all your trash, leftover food, and litter to avoid contaminating water sources and affecting wildlife behavior.
  • Leave what you find. Preserve the natural state of the wilderness by avoiding the temptation to take rocks, plants, archaeological artifacts, and other natural objects.
  • Minimize campfire impacts. Where fires are permitted, use established fire rings, keep fires small, and burn all wood to ash. Put out fires completely, then scatter cool ashes.

Camp Cooking

The cooking gear you can bring for kayak camping is often limited. Most kayak trips use backpacker-style foods, like MREs (Meals Ready to Eat), that are meant to be stored at room temperature. 

One-Pot Meal Ideas

Combine kidney beans, ground meat (or a plant-based alternative), canned tomatoes, bell peppers, onions, and a good mix of spices for a classic chili. Let it all simmer together, and you'll have a hardy meal after a day of paddling. Or how about a campfire stew? Pack pre-cut stew meat, potatoes, carrots, onion, and a mix of favorite herbs.

Quick & Healthy Snack Ideas

Trail mixes are lightweight and don't require any prep or refrigeration. Mix nuts, dried fruits, and maybe even some chocolate chips if you have a sweet tooth. Fresh fruits like apples, oranges, and bananas also do well without refrigeration. Or power your paddling with protein bars for a practical, high-energy snack.

Water Treatment

You'll need a reliable water purification method to produce clean drinking water since staying hydrated will be imperative. Using water bottles is a more reliable solution. 

Kayak Camping Safety

Safety and survival skills such as CPR, first aid, fire starting, and navigation is crucial. These skills are the difference between enduring a trip and enjoying the adventure.

Essential Safety Gear

Equip yourself with the following safety gear:

  • A personal floatation device (PFD) is a life jacket or life vest.
  • First aid kit
  • Sunscreen (SPF 30-50, water-resistant)
  • Lip balm (SPF 15+)
  • Insect repellant
  • Water in bottles or a hydration reservoir
  • Matches/lighter/fire starter (in a waterproof container)
  • Emergency shelter or tent

Remember to gear up considering varying weather conditions. Sunny skies? Don't ignore the sunscreen. Wet or chilly? Carry extra layers and waterproof jackets. Remember, being well-prepared lets you focus on capturing the essence of your adventure.

Risk Factors to Assess Ahead of Your Trip

Kayak camping combines the adventures of kayaking and camping, offering unique experiences and specific risks that need to be assessed beforehand. Here are some key risk factors to consider before embarking on a kayak camping trip:

Weather Conditions

Check the weather forecast for the entire duration of your trip. Be mindful of potential storms, high winds, and temperature extremes, making kayaking dangerous and camping uncomfortable or unsafe. Assess the waterways you plan to navigate, including river flow rates, tide schedules, and water levels. Look for any advisories related to water quality or hazardous conditions like strong currents, high waves, or rapids.

Temperature & Exposure

Water and air temperatures can significantly affect your safety and comfort. Hypothermia is a risk in colder waters, even in warm weather. Also, consider the risk of heat exhaustion during hot weather, especially if your route lacks shaded areas.

Route Complexity

Know the difficulty level of the paddling routes and the accessibility of the camping sites. Some waterways may have navigational challenges, such as narrow passages, submerged obstacles, or portages.

Isolation & Accessibility

Many kayak camping destinations are remote, which can complicate rescues or access to medical help in an emergency. Evaluate the isolation of your route and prepare a robust emergency plan, including communication strategies.

Legal Restrictions & Permits

Some areas might require special permits for camping or have restrictions on where you can camp or light fires. Be aware of the local regulations to avoid fines or legal issues.

Equipment & Skill Level

Ensure that your equipment is suitable for kayaking and camping and in good condition. Assess your and your group members' paddling and wilderness survival skills.

Environmental Hazards

Be aware of environmental issues such as falling rocks, landslides, or sudden water level changes due to local dam releases.

Wildlife Encounters

Research the wildlife in the area, particularly any potentially dangerous animals you might encounter, such as bears, snakes, or aggressive marine life. Understand how to store food safely and deal with wildlife encounters. Remember, you're a visitor in their habitat. Always maintain a respectful distance and avoid feeding wildlife.

Emergency Procedures & Evacuation Plans

Always tell someone your plan: the route, timeline, and when you plan to return. This information could be vitally important in case of an unexpected emergency. Ensure you have an evacuation plan in place should you need to abandon your trip due to weather conditions or equipment failure. Remember, a backup communication device like a satellite phone can be a lifesaver if trouble arises.

Advanced Kayak Camping Considerations

You'll naturally explore new environments as you get more experienced and comfortable in your kayak. Here are some advanced kayak camping factors to remember as you level up on your adventure.

Coastal & Open Water Kayaking

Keep in mind that not all kayaks are suitable for coastal routes. Sea kayaking typically involves dealing with large areas of open water, including large lakes, which pose additional hazards such as strong currents and erratic weather changes.

Katabatic winds, sudden gusts exceeding 50 mph, are a significant hazard to all kayakers, especially on long lakes flanked by mountains. Understanding different wind conditions and how they can affect your paddle is essential.

Winter Kayak Camping

The beauty of winter kayaking can quickly turn dangerous. Freezing temperatures, icy waters, and sudden weather changes are serious considerations. Prepare to keep warm. Extra layers, preferably wool or synthetic, are essential. Waterproof jackets and pants are recommended to keep you dry, and a hat will keep you cozy. 

Pack for the worst but hope for the best; always bring additional gear just in case. Paddle with caution and be prepared to act quickly if an unexpected situation arises.

Making the Most of Your Kayak Camping Experience

Combining kayaking with camping can give you a whole new perspective on wild areas, but here are ideas for making your trip especially memorable.

Photography & Journaling

Use a notebook and your camera or smartphone to capture the spectacular vistas, vibrant sunsets, or misty mornings. With the potential for varied landscapes, wildlife encounters, and dramatic water scenes, your journey could result in a remarkable visual diary.

Fishing & Foraging

If you're an angler, add fishing gear to your list, but avoid heavy tackle boxes by packing just what you'll need. Ensure you know local fishing regulations and dispose of any remains according to park guidelines. Foraging can also be a fascinating adventure. Learn about native plants, edible berries, and mushrooms before your trip.

Night Paddling & Stargazing

Night paddling opens a different facet of water adventures. Use LEDs or headlamps for visibility and safety but ensure they don't impact wildlife. Remember to follow local regulations regarding paddling after dark. Identify constellations, note star brightness variations, or appreciate the peace under the celestial dome. A pair of binoculars can help get a detailed view of the stars.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is multi-day kayak camping?

Multi-day kayak camping is a form of adventure where experienced kayakers embark on several-day expeditions, often through challenging bodies of water and requiring careful route selection, gear management, and safety measures.

What are some challenges of coastal and open-water kayaking?

Coastal and open water kayaking present unique challenges, such as large bodies of water and katabatic winds. These conditions require careful route selection, skills tailored to the environment, and appropriate safety precautions.

How does winter kayak camping differ?

Winter kayak camping is distinctive because you must stay warm in freezing temperatures and sudden weather changes. Take specific gear and preparedness measures to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience.

How should I select gear for multi-day trips?

When selecting gear for multi-day trips, consider the weight and compactness of the equipment. Prioritizing weather-appropriate gear and valuing minimalism can ensure comfort and improve your experience.

What are the safety precautions for coastal kayaking?

Safety precautions for coastal kayaking include:

  • Establishing a route that suits your skill level.
  • Preparing for wind conditions.
  • Using a navigation system.
  • Carrying adequate safety and survival gear.

What considerations should be taken for winter kayak camping?

During winter kayak camping, you should consider appropriate insulating gear to stay warm, weather monitoring, sudden climate change preparedness, and strategies to prevent hypothermia and frostbite.

< Back to Blog


Erika PaciniHead of MarketingErika is a novice adventurer and dedicated member of the Outdoorplay family for over two years. With a passion for hiking, biking, and all things outdoors, she's always on the hunt for new trails, waterfalls, and secluded beaches to explore. Erika's passion for the natural world and mindfulness fuels her desire to inspire others to deepen their connection with themselves and nature through outdoor adventures.