Kayak Camping 101: Your Ultimate Guide to an Unforgettable Adventure

If you’re passionate about kayaking and camping, why not combine the two? Kayak camping is an increasingly popular way to explore the great outdoors, providing a unique blend of water sports and wilderness adventure. However, it does require careful planning and preparation. In this ‘Kayak Camping 101’ guide, we’ll explore all the essentials you need to know to embark on this exciting adventure.

1. Choose the Right Kayak

The first step in planning a kayak camping trip is choosing the right kayak. Sea or touring kayaks are typically the best choice for kayak camping due to their speed, stability, and storage space.

Some are better suited to multi-day adventures than others:

  • Touring Kayaks: Touring kayaks, or sea kayaks, are typically the best choice for kayak camping. They’re designed for longer trips on open water, offering good speed, stability, and a high storage capacity for all your camping gear.
  • Sit-On-Top Kayaks: Sit-on-top kayaks can also be suitable for shorter, overnight trips in warmer climates. They usually have a stable platform and are easy to get on and off, but typically offer less storage.

The dimensions of your kayak will significantly affect its performance:

  • Length: Longer kayaks are faster and can carry more gear, which is advantageous for kayak camping. They’re also better at tracking straight, making them suitable for open water.
  • Width: A wider kayak offers more stability, which might be beneficial for beginners or when fishing from your kayak. However, it can also make the kayak slower.

Adequate storage space is a critical feature for a camping kayak. Look for a model with multiple hatches and bulkheads to safely stow your camping gear. Some kayaks also have bungee cord systems on the deck for securing additional items.

When spending hours or even days in your kayak, comfort becomes paramount. An adjustable padded seat and footrests are essential. Also, consider the cockpit size – you want it to be large enough to be comfortable, but not so large that it’s hard to control the kayak.

The material of your kayak impacts its durability, weight, and price. Plastic or polyethylene kayaks are durable and affordable, making them a good option for rocky rivers or rough use. Composite kayaks (made from materials like fiberglass or carbon fiber) are lighter and faster, but also more expensive and less durable.

Before committing to a purchase, it’s advisable to test different models if possible. Many outdoor stores and kayak outfitters offer demo days where you can try various kayaks and find the one that feels best for you.

Companies like REI offer a wide range of suitable kayaks for your camping adventures.

2. Plan Your Route and Campsite

Planning your route is crucial for a successful kayak camping trip. Use maps and guides to research waterways and potential campsites, and always check if you need permissions or permits.

Firstly, you need to decide where you want to kayak camp. This decision will depend on your kayaking and camping skills, the time of year, and personal preferences. National parks, state parks, or local water trails can all be excellent choices. Websites such as Paddle Planner provide resources for route planning and campsite information.

Once you’ve chosen your destination, you need to plan your route. Consider factors such as the distance you’re comfortable paddling each day, weather conditions, water currents, and tide changes if you’re in coastal areas. Use maps, guidebooks, and online resources to help. Also, check for potential portages or obstructions on the route.

Choosing a good campsite is critical for your comfort and safety. Campsites should be:

  • High and Dry: To avoid flooding, especially in tidal areas.
  • Sheltered: A site sheltered from wind and waves will be more comfortable and safer.
  • Legal: Some areas require permits or have restrictions on where you can camp. Check local regulations.
  • Leave No Trace: Always follow Leave No Trace principles to minimize your impact on the environment.

If you’re planning a multi-day trip, you’ll need access to fresh water and, potentially, firewood. Some campsites have water sources, but you’ll need to treat or filter the water before drinking. If you plan to have a fire (where allowed), make sure there is an abundant supply of fallen wood. Never cut live trees for firewood.

Finally, always have an emergency plan. Identify potential exit points along your route if you need to cut your trip short. Carry a first-aid kit and know how to use it. Make sure someone knows your planned route and schedule, and set a time to contact them to confirm your safe return.

Websites such as Paddling.com provide detailed information about different routes and campsites suitable for kayak camping.

3. Pack Smart

Packing for a kayak camping trip requires careful consideration due to the limited space. Essentials include camping gear, navigation tools, safety equipment, food, and water.

The first step is to list out all the essentials. This should include your camping gear (tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad), safety equipment (personal flotation device, whistle, first-aid kit), and navigation tools (maps, compass, GPS). Don’t forget cooking equipment, food, water, and appropriate clothing for the expected weather conditions.

Dry bags are a kayaker’s best friend. They not only help organize your gear but also keep it dry – a critical factor when you’re out on the water. Use different sizes and colors to distinguish between types of gear, and opt for bags with a roll-top closure for the best waterproof seal.

How you pack your gear into your kayak can impact its balance and handling. Aim to keep the kayak’s center of gravity low, placing heavier items at the bottom. Distribute weight evenly between the bow and stern and on both sides of the kayak.

When space is at a premium, multi-use items are invaluable. For instance, a spork (spoon-fork combo) saves on utensil space, a pot cozy can double as a bowl, and a buff can be used as a hat, scarf, bandana, or pot holder.

Plan your meals carefully, and aim for high-energy, lightweight food. Consider freeze-dried meals or easy-to-cook items like pasta. Bring along a portable water filter or water purifying tablets so you can use natural water sources when available.

Always follow the Leave No Trace principles to minimize your impact on the environment. Pack out all trash, leftover food, and litter. Use biodegradable soap for washing, and be respectful of wildlife and other campers.

Check out this comprehensive packing list for more guidance.

4. Safety First

Safety should always be your priority when embarking on a kayak camping adventure. Always wear a personal flotation device, carry a first aid kit, and check the weather forecast before setting out.

Before setting out, always check the weather forecast for your intended camping area and the surrounding regions. Weather can change quickly, especially on the water. Knowing what to expect can help you avoid dangerous situations. Sites like the National Weather Service provide accurate forecasts.

No matter your swimming ability or the calmness of the water, always wear a Personal Flotation Device (PFD) when you’re in a kayak. Ensure it’s the correct size and is securely fastened. Many kayaking-specific PFDs also include pockets for storing handy items like a whistle or knife.

Your safety kit should include a first-aid kit, a rescue throw bag, a bilge pump or sponge, a paddle float, and a headlamp with extra batteries. Also, consider including a spare paddle, a multi-tool, and duct tape for emergency repairs.

Bring along communication devices to call for help in case of an emergency. A mobile phone in a waterproof case or a VHF radio can be invaluable, especially if you’re kayaking in remote areas. Also, consider a personal locator beacon (PLB) or a satellite messenger, especially for longer trips.

Understanding basic first aid can be a lifesaver in an emergency. Consider taking a wilderness first aid course – it can equip you with vital skills such as treating cuts, burns, fractures, or hypothermia. The American Red Cross offers various first aid courses.

Always let someone know your plan before you go. Include details like your route, where you’ll be camping, when you’re expecting to return, and what to do if you don’t return as planned.

If you’re new to kayaking, a kayaking course can provide invaluable skills and knowledge to help you navigate safely. The American Canoe Association offers a range of courses suitable for beginners through to experienced kayakers.

5. Leave No Trace

Respect for nature is a fundamental part of camping. Always follow the ‘leave no trace’ principles, including disposing of waste properly, respecting wildlife, and minimizing campfire impacts.

The first principle of Leave No Trace is all about preparation. Research your destination in advance to understand its regulations, weather conditions, and potential hazards. Knowing these aspects can help you avoid unexpected situations that could lead to environmental harm.

When paddling, camping, and hiking, stick to established trails and campsites. Avoid trampling vegetation, especially in sensitive environments like wetlands or riparian areas. When possible, set up camp at least 200 feet from lakes and streams to protect water quality and wildlife habitats.

“Pack it in, pack it out” is a key mantra for all outdoor enthusiasts. All trash, leftover food, and litter should be carried out in your trash bag and disposed of properly once you return home. When it comes to human waste, use established bathroom facilities or pack out your waste if needed.

Avoid altering natural features or removing artifacts. Let nature’s gifts remain where they are so others can enjoy them. Don’t carve or engrave on trees or rocks.

Use a camp stove for cooking instead of making a fire, as fires can cause lasting impacts to the environment. If you must have a fire, use established fire rings, keep fires small, and burn only small sticks from the ground that can be broken by hand.

Observe wildlife from a distance, never feed animals, and avoid wildlife during sensitive times: mating, nesting, raising young, or winter.

Respect other visitors and protect the quality of their experience. Keep noise levels down and let nature’s sounds prevail. Always yield to other users on the trail or waterway.

Visit the Leave No Trace website for more information on these principles.


Kayak camping offers a unique opportunity to experience the great outdoors, combining the thrill of kayaking with the serenity of camping. While it requires thorough preparation, the reward is an unforgettable adventure that connects you deeply with nature. So grab your paddle, pack your tent, and get ready to embark on a thrilling kayak camping expedition!

If you found this Kayak Camping 101 guide helpful, don’t hesitate to share it with your fellow outdoor enthusiasts. Stay tuned for more tips and guides to make the most of your outdoor adventures!