Packing for a Multi-Day Kayaking Trip
Shot By: Tommy Chandler
Camping out of your kayak offers a feeling of freedom that few adventures on shore can match.
You paddle down rivers or float across open water during the day, and kick back by a campfire at night. Experienced multi-day paddlers can easily pack their boats for many days on the water, but your first time packing for more than a day’s paddle can be pretty stressful. Here are some pointers for planning your trip, a sample packing list, advice on organizing and keeping track of your gear, and tips on packing a whitewater or touring kayak for your first multi-day paddling trip on the river, lake, or ocean.
Gathering Your Gear & Supplies
Think like a backpacker. The gear required for a multi-day backpacking trip is very similar to the gear required for a multi-day kayaking trip. And just like a backpacking trip, weather, season, distance, trip duration, and group size all affect the type of gear and supplies you’ll need. The farther you go, the more supplies you need; the nastier the weather, the heavier and more serious your gear will become; and the larger your group, the more you can split up group gear to lighten the load of each boat. A detailed plan is necessary when preparing for any multi-day trip, and it will help guide your gear choices so you know what you have to pack.
Keep in mind that the type of water you’ll be traveling on will also affect the type of gear you need to carry. A river trip will require additional protective equipment for whitewater and perhaps a group toilet solution (such as a groover) if you’re traveling through government-controlled land, while a trip on open water will require additional navigational equipment, signaling and safety gear, and more. The type of water you travel on will also dictate the type of boat you use, and thus the storage space available for gear.
The Type of Boat Makes the Difference
Touring and sea kayaks are designed for comfort, efficiency, and most importantly, gear storage. A multi-day trip on open water requires gear and supplies, and these boats are designed with the storage space to hold it. Often, watertight bulkheads seal these storage spaces off from the rest of the boat and waterproof hatches offer quick access. Additionally, a touring kayak may have the added advantage of a day hatch where you can store small essentials that won’t fit or don’t belong in your PFD.
Whitewater kayaks are designed for performance first and gear storage second. Unless you’re paddling a creeker or a crossover-style hull, space is limited. Any storage space fore or aft of the cockpit may or may not be accessible by a hatch cover, and this storage space is rarely sealed off from the rest of the boat. This style of open storage space drastically simplifies packing, but it also leaves your gear more exposed. A little ingenuity and creativity will guide your hand when you’re packing a whitewater boat.
Both touring and whitewater boats require the same basic set of gear for a multi-day trip.
A Sample Gear List – For Warm Weather and All Types of Boats
- Sleeping bag (treated, water-resistant down or synthetic)
- Sleeping pad (closed cell foam)
- Iodine or bleach
- Personal mess kit (mug, plate, spork, etc.)
- Toiletries (toothbrush, face cloth, etc)
- Water pump or purification system
- Compact stove
- Stove fuel
- Kitchen & cooking kit (aluminum pot, spatula, etc)
- Tarp or ultralight shelter
- P-Cord or similar
- Bag for garbage
- Food (labeled by day or meal)
- Water storage
- Repair equipment
- Break-down or backup paddle (stored inside the hull of a whitewater boat or on the deck of a touring boat)
- Duct tape or Gorilla tape
- Needle and thread for skirt repair
- Zip ties (for boat repair)
- Any manufacturer-specific spare boat parts
- Throw bag (at cockpit)
- Basic first aid kit (minimum)
- PLB or communication device
- GPS or navigational device
- Emergency contacts
Clothing & Wearable Gear
- Personal Flotation Device
- Micro first aid kit
- Synthetic base layers
- Board shorts or swim suits
- Synthetic hat
- Waterproof footwear for men or women
- Waterproof gloves
- Rain shell
- Rain pants
- Dry, synthetic layers for camp & sleeping
- Wetsuit or dry suit (based on conditions & personal preference)
- Synthetic socks
- Bag for dirty clothes
- Bivy (bug or rain)
- Bug spray
- Camera and dry bag
- Bear spray
- Bear bag or canister
- Journal & pen
- Ultralight day pack
- Soft cooler bag
- Any camping or travel permits
- Fishing license
- Fly rod
- Nautical charts or maps
- Signaling flare (in PFD)
- Paddle float
- Sponge and bailer
- Trowel, waste bags, or portable latrine option
Kept in Car at Take-Out
- A bag for your wet clothes
- Street clothes
How to Organize & Pack Your Gear
You have the right gear. Now it’s time to pack your boat. While organization techniques are largely personal, even a basic plan can go a long way towards keeping track of your gear—nothing wastes more time and energy than completely loading and unloading a boat just to find that one rope or the spare batteries you desperately need. One simple organization strategy is to pack your gear into dry bags based on similar use. Pack one bag for clothing, one for sleeping gear, one for safety or first-aid, etc. Then you can label your dry bags clearly with waterproof tape and marker, or use dry bags of a variety of colors. Create a checklist of what’s in each bag, including your personal gear and any group gear that’s split among different boats in the group. Run through the checklist the morning before you leave, and then stash it somewhere that’s easy to find. You’ll have a quick reference for each bag and who’s carrying what when your group is large.
Add a high-capacity spare duffel bag for any trip with a portage. This bag can help you quickly round up and transport items in your boat that aren’t packed in a dry bag. Also, a spare bag can be used to move camping gear from your boat to your camp spot if you decide to camp away from the beach.
Dry bags come in a variety of shapes, sizes, weights, and colors. Use dry bags that are small enough to fit through the openings of your fore and aft hatches. It’s much easier to load and balance the weight of a boat with many small bags than it is with a few large bags. A brightly colored dry bag is particularly useful for your first aid kit, repair kit, or rescue kit. The bright color makes it easily recognizable among a pile of gear and quick for anyone in your group to find.
Always assume that your gear will get wet. The most waterproof hatch covers leak, dry bags eventually wear out, and boats roll and fill with water—it happens. Keep vital camp gear like your sleeping bag and insulating layers in your most secure dry bag. Garbage bags can be used to line or double-line the inside of dry bags for added protection. Squeeze as much air as possible out of each dry bag. Inches count when space is limited, so do everything you can to maximize fore and aft hatch space. Store everything else in older dry bags, compression sacks, or nylon duffels to keep loose items together.
Load Your Boat
There’s just as much art as science involved in loading a boat. Weight distribution and ease of access are your two primary concerns. Every boat has a maximum weight capacity, and you shouldn’t exceed it. Again, think like a backpacker. Simplify your gear selection and leave behind anything that isn’t vital. You should keep a few simple luxuries so you can still enjoy your trip, but choose wisely. Sharing gear among members of your group can drastically reduce the amount of weight in each boat. Instead of carrying two full kitchen kits, stoves, or bear bags, carry one of each and assign each to one boat.
A boat should be loaded with the weight low and centered. Lighter items should be packed far into the bow and stern and heavier items close to the cockpit. A properly balanced boat will have even fore-aft trim and will feel more stable in the water than an unloaded boat—maybe surprising, but true. Pack bags you need to access frequently closer to the hatches. Anything absolutely vital, like spare water or a small first aid kit, should be within reach of the cockpit. Water is heavy and prone to sloshing around, which can upset the balance of your boat quickly. Keep water low and close to the center of the boat. At most, you should carry a half gallon to a gallon of water—remember, you can always pump or purify more.
Fuel bottles are small and easy to jam into tight spaces, but beware: potentially hazardous liquids should be separate from your food. Stash fuel bottles at the very end of the bow or stern. You won’t need the fuel until you’re unloading your boat anyway, so isolate it in case of potential leaks. Electronics and large, metallic items should be far from navigational instruments or your compass. A few degrees of compass interference can cost you serious time and energy when you’re on the water.
The kind of food you bring is very much a personal choice. Some people can live off dried goods and protein bars, while others prefer fresh fruits and veggies. One tip for keeping perishables cold is to pack your fruits or veggies below the water line and close to the hull where cold water can help produce stay cool. Although you run the risk of bruising your apples or avocados, this below-the-water-line method is an easier way to keep food fresh longer, without the use of ice. Packaged food, fruits with tough skins, and the like can be packed loosely in your bags while foods affected by sogginess should be stashed inside a small dry bag.
Keep small essentials like a first aid kit, GPS, or backup knife in a day hatch if you have one. Every boater should have a knife and whistle attached to his or her PFD anyway, but a day hatch can offer additional quick-grab storage. Anything small and absolutely vital that won’t fit in your day hatch or your vest can be stored around, beneath, or behind your seat, but keep big dry bags and gear well behind the foot rests and free of your body and legs. In an emergency, you need to be able to roll your boat or wet exit without gear in your way.
Once you’re seated and your spray skirt is sealed around the cockpit, reaching past it isn’t an option unless you stop and undo the skirt. A deck bag can be attached to the deck of your sea or touring kayak to give you quick-reach storage if you don’t have a day hatch built into your boat. Whitewater boaters have to be craftier and plan carefully what’s stored in the pockets of their PFDs and near their seats. A deck bag isn’t an option, but safety essentials like a throw bag or bailing equipment should be within reach all the same. Many experienced whitewater kayakers will store small, vital gear in and around their seat by sliding their seat forward a few inches, releasing the back rest, stashing the gear inside, and then buttoning everything back up.
Keep the deck of your boat free and clear of heavy gear. A heavy or overloaded deck can make your boat dangerously top heavy, nearly impossible to roll, and prone to high wind on the open water. The deck of a touring kayak can hold a spare paddle under the stern bungees, a bilge pump just ahead of the cockpit under the bow bungees, and a small compass mounted to the front of the cockpit. Besides a groover or a throwbag (depending on personal preference), the deck of a whitewater boat should be completely clear. In heavy, churning whitewater, anything attached to the outside of a boat can quickly detach itself without warning.
- Always assume your gear will get wet
- Use many small dry bags instead of a few large dry bags
- Pack heavy bags and gear low and close to the cockpit
- Pack light bags and gear at the ends of bow and stern
- Keep weight distribution even from bow to stern and side to side
- A properly balanced boat will feel stable and paddle easily
- Keep the deck free and clear of heavy, bulky gear
- Never forget the coffee
It might seem overwhelming at first, but packing a kayak is like packing for a car-camping trip—you just have to be a little more creative with space. Take a dry run with your fully packed boat and make any weight adjustments before you set off with your group. It never hurts to practice at home, too. After all your planning and organization, the hard work will pay off when you’re sitting at a campsite on a shore far away from the hustle and noise.