The blue water beckons. Somewhere out there is a remote island with a beach, someplace you can only get to by paddling. You’ve rented a kayak or borrowed a friend’s. Before you just load up and go, here’s what you should know: some essential gear for kayak camping, and how to make it easy and fun.
Those compartments inside sea kayaks keep out most of the water if the boat capsizes, but not all. If you want to keep your gear dry, but it in dry bags inside the hatches. Things that absolutely need to stay dry, such as electronics and cameras, should go into dry boxes with O‑ring seals.
Lots of Small Things Pack Easier
Don’t pile things in big dry bags as canoers and rafters do. It’s far easier to cram gear in a kayak when it’s in lots of small dry bags (5–10 liters and smaller) than a few big ones. This lets you use the nearly infinite small spaces between items. Hard objects, like pots and pans and big dry boxes, are the hardest to pack, so pack those first or find smaller versions.
Balance and Access
Just like a backpack, you’ll want to make sure your kayak floats evenly. Too much weight in the ends will make it hard to turn. Balance fore and aft will make it paddle normally, instead of tilting to one side or wandering across the water like a drunk stumbling down the sidewalk. And think about what you want access to easily: lunch, jacket, gloves, etc. and what you won’t need until camp.
Keep a Clean Deck
You’ll be tempted to strap lots of stuff to the deck. Don’t. Gear on the deck makes the kayak unstable, catches the wind, and complicates rescues. A frightening number of accidents and coast guard rescues involve paddlers who had mountains of gear strapped to the deck. Kayaks are designed to be paddled with gear inside, not on top.
Bring Less Than You Want
Kayaks can carry a lot—more than you need unless you’re heading out for weeks on end. Resist the urge to bring firewood, tons of extra camp gear, or a bocce ball set. You’ll have to carry everything you bring up and down the beach twice every day. You’re there to have fun, not to lug stuff back and forth.
Try Packing First
Try packing your gear in your backyard to make sure it fits. There’s nothing more embarrassing than being the guy everyone’s waiting for on the beach, only to have to ask your pals to bail you out by carrying your sleeping bag.
The Surface Moves
Unlike hiking or climbing, a kayak moves on a surface that’s always moving. Tides rise and drop, revealing hidden rocks and sucking away kayaks left unsecured overnight, and sometimes even swamping tents that are too low on the beach. Currents create a treadmill that can either stop your progress or speed you along. Learn how to read tide and current tables.
Go Early and Watch the Weather
The wind is an equally big factor that applies far less when you’re backpacking. Learn the patterns and listen to the forecast. On the west coast, most sunny days will have a northwest wind that rises shortly after noon and builds in strength. Don’t be caught unawares by this familiar pattern.
Know Your Route
It’s easy to get lost on the water. Unlike hiking, where your perspective changes as you climb ridges, in a kayak you’re always about 3 feet off the water. Islands can look like peninsulas and bays disappear against vast shorelines. Learn how to read a chart, which is different from a topographical map. And in the US, most chart data is free online.
There are few joys like traveling self-supported on the sea. Don’t be surprised if you get hooked.