How to Pack for Your First Overnight Kayak Trip
Escape the crowds with a self-supported weekend paddle
Self-supported weekend kayak trips are magical: you can paddle to a gorgeous spot—a remote island, a hidden beach, a secluded cove—with enough luxury items to stay comfortable and full while you’re out there. But packing sea or recreational kayaks the most efficient way and with the right gear can be overwhelming. To help you get to that perfect location with the best setup, I spoke with Saylor Flett, who runs the Outdoor Recreation Leadership Program of California’s Feather River College and has been teaching sea kayaking for 13 years. (He’s also an old friend.) These are the topics and tips he discusses with first-timers.
If you are a beginner, Flett suggests going with a guide or staying within eyesight of shore in protected waters (bays, inlets, etc.) until you feel confident using all of your safety equipment to self-rescue in a kayak. It’s really easy to get yourself into big trouble quickly in open water, and the all the gear in the world is worthless without the skills to use it. If you want to head out on your own, start with proper training. American Canoe Association–accredited classes are where you should look first.
Type of Boat
The vessel that will best serve you is going to vary dramatically based on your objective, trip location, and skill set. We don’t recommend buying a very expensive boat for your first weekend trip (or your first few trips for that matter). Instead, rent a boat from a shop that’s close to the place you plan to kayak. Ask questions of employees there when you do so: I’ve gotten great insider tips—everything from campsites, to routes, to gear—for trips that way. As an added bonus, many rental businesses will drop your boat at the put-in for you.
How to Pack
Sea kayaks can be particularly tricky to pack, because you have to get your gear through the boat’s hatches. Flett recommends taking between five and seven 12-to-15-liter drybags (I have tested myriad Sea to Summit drybags and have never been let down), depending on your objective and the length of the boat. He usually puts three or four of those bags in the back and two or three in the front.
Balance Your Packed Weight
Flett suggests packing the heaviest items closest to your seat and the lightest items farthest away. This balances the boat in such a way that it actually adds stability. A good method is to place insulating layers and sleeping gear in the far front or back of your boat, thicker clothing a little closer, then heavy food bags and kitchen necessities closest to your person.
Organize in Order of Necessity
In addition to finding a good weight balance for your boat, you should also keep frequently used items close to you. “Your sleeping pad and sleeping bag are often the least likely things you are going to need access to until you get to camp for the night,” Flett says. Snacks, water, and emergency items like a first aid kit should be right in the cockpit with you.
What to Pack
“The nice thing about sea kayaking is that it’s basically backpacking in its ethos, but you aren’t physically carrying the weight,” Flett says. “If that weight is packed properly, once your momentum is going, it can kind of work in your favor by carrying you along in the water.” You’re still packing your whole camping kit, clothing, and gear into small 12-to-15-liter bags, though, so you’ll need to keep things tight.
Unlike with backpacking, the good news is you don’t have to worry too much about the heft of your grub. I have been on more boating trips with Flett than I can count, and I am pretty sure I gain weight on each one. “I have the backpacker’s mindset toward clothing and gear and the standard American-diet approach to the food I want to eat,” Flett says. He cooks on a fire if it’s legal to have one in the area, bringing tinfoil to wrap calorie-dense foods like potatoes and sausages together so they can be thrown on the driftwood coals. If you can’t make a fire, you’re going to have to stick with what you make on a backpacking stove like a Jetboil or an MSR WhisperLite.
Water is heavy. The amount you’ll need to carry will depend on your access to fresh water. “If you’re on a lake, then I would bring a filtration pump,” he says. “If you were on the ocean, say navigating around Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, I would plan my camps around where potable water would be available.” If you need to carry a few liters of water per day, we recommended MSR Dromedary bags which roll up to nothing when they’re empty and sit low in your boat when they’re full.
Flett is an advocate of sleeping alfresco but notes that large bodies of water tend to produce lots of condensation, which can lead to less than pleasant mornings. “If you’ve got nice weather and are concerned about condensation, then there are some great little lightweight backpacking tarps you can set up using your break-apart sea-kayaking paddle as poles,” he says. “They give you protection from condensation, but you can look out to see the ocean and the stars.” If you’re planning a trip where there could be inclement weather, ditch the tarp and pack your favorite two-person backpacking tent.
Flett goes a bit more plush with his wardrobe. He brings lightweight base layers and lightweight puffy pants or a comfortable synthetic camp pant. For tops he packs a sun hoodie, a synthetic thermal layer, and a rain shell. He also stows a solid pair of sneakers and some flip-flops. The sneakers—which should live in a drybag during the day—are good for camp, day hikes, or in an emergency.
The most critical safety item for a boater is a good personal floatation device, like the Hustler from Kokotat. While the knife that should live in your vest is a very personal decision, Flett likes his flat-tipped because it can be used to tinker with screws on kayaks. If you haven’t already built your own first aid kit, a watertight, premade medical kit like this one is your best bet. A personal locator beacon may help you get out of a tight spot, and both Flett and I prefer the Garmin InReach Mini. A map and compass are critical for obvious reasons, and a backup two-piece paddle is always good to have along. Flett suggests packing a sponge, a bilge pump, and a paddle float under the bungees integrated on the outside of most sea kayaks so they’re within easy reach. (The sponge and bilge are for bailing water, and the paddle float can help you self-rescue if you capsize.) “If you’re having an out-of-boat experience, you do not want to have to find those items in some corner of your boat,” he says.
Trash Compactor Bags Are Your Best Friend
A trash-compactor bag is an inexpensive way to significantly lessen your chances of your gear getting wet, even in a brand-new drybag. They are cheap, light, sturdier than regular trash bags, and a great way to compartmentalize your bag inside larger drybags. Flett lines each of his drybags with one and brings an extra just in case.
“If you are buying new drybags, buy the clear ones so you can see the contents,” Flett says.
Flett is a proponent of buying a few feet of inexpensive Tyvek—a light, synthetic sheet material used in construction—from a hardware store to use as a sleeping and changing tarp. “It’s nice to change into dry clothes on a Tyvek tarp when you get out of your boat and are wet and sandy,” he says. “Make sure it’s big enough to sleep on but still has a few extra feet to have your drybags live on it.” Flett packs it last so it’s the first thing out and he can unload his gear onto it.