How to Pack a Kayak for Camping

Multiday trips expand your sea kayaking horizons. Whether it’s an overnight on a nearby island or weeks exploring a remote coast, the ability to camp from your kayak opens up a whole new paddling dimension. 

You can go farther, see more, and experience more. Before you can camp from a kayak, you have to pack a kayak for camping

My name is Steve Rogers, and when I’m not throwing shields I’m generally messing around with boats. I’ve guided sea kayak trips in the Calamian Islands and the north coast of Luzon and explored the back corners of the Philippines in a kayak. 

Over the years, I’ve learned a few things about packing kayaks in the process, some of them by trial and error. I’ll pass some of those lessons on so you can learn from my mistakes instead of your own. 

There’s a bit more to packing a kayak than just putting the things you need in the boat. A lot of it is common sense, but there are ways to make the process easier, safer, and more convenient. Let’s look at the details of how to pack a kayak for camping!

Who Should Read This?

The tips mentioned here can help everyone who is planning a kayak camping trip, especially for beginners or if you are planning for a longer camping trip (like from 2 days trip to a 5 days trip).

Get Ready

Before you start packing your kayak you need to know what to pack. They won’t always be the same. Before you set up your packing list, run through this checklist.

  • Know your route. Can you pick up supplies along the way? Will you be hugging the coast, or making open water crossings? If you can’t get to shore you may want to keep more items accessible from the cockpit.
  • Know your campsites. Do your campsites require you to carry your boat or land in rocky areas? Are there biting insects? Knowing your campsites helps you decide what you need and what you don’t.
  • Consider climate. If the weather is cold you will need more clothing and a bulkier sleeping bag. If rain is likely you’ll need rain gear and appropriate shelter. 
  • What about water? Water is absolutely essential at sea or in camp, and it’s heavy. Know how much you need and where on your route you can get more of it. 
  • Get your group together. Decide which items (like shelter and cooking gear) can be shared. Set up a meal plan. Decide who will bring what.

All of these factors affect what you choose to pack, and that will affect how you choose to pack.

Understand the Constraints

In the mid-90s I bought a kayak. It was a Seaward Navigator, a big, fast, beautifully made fiberglass touring kayak. I was ecstatic at the size of the storage holds. I packed everything I needed, everything I thought I might need, everything I might hypothetically need. It all fit, and I was happy.

Then I tried to pick the boat up.

The Seaward Navigator carries 112 liters in the bow and 131 in the rear, for 243 liters total. That’s like three 70 liter backpacks with a 35 liter added on for good measure. Think about the weight of a fully packed 70 liter backpack. 

Multiply by 3.5. Add 56 pounds of boat and the whole thing was probably pushing 200 pounds. I couldn’t carry it.

Important Tips: Your core constraint isn’t space: touring kayaks have plenty. Your core constraint is weight. Most manufacturers specify a maximum load. Subtract your body weight and you have the maximum weight of the gear you can stow. 

Weight is Everything

A heavily loaded kayak isn’t just hard to carry. It’s vulnerable to damage in shallow water or out of the water. This is a serious consideration if you’re moving the kayak over areas with loose or slippery rocks. A dropped boat could be a huge problem. 

A heavy boat will also handle very differently, especially in rough water. 

Weight is doubly important with a two-seater kayak. Look at a typical twin, the Current Designs Libra XT. It has 3 hatches: front with 83 liters, center with 113 liters, stern with 102 liters. That’s a lot of space. It’s also almost 22 feet long. 

Picking up the loaded kayak from both ends, assuming two people can lift it, would place huge stress on the middle of the boat. 

Some guides (including me) would recommend two more people supporting the center of the kayak by running a strap under it and carrying the ends. That’s four people to carry one boat.

Two more constraints to keep in mind

  • Hatch size. Your cargo hold may be huge, but the access hatch might not be. Your big beautiful dry bag won’t help you if it won’t fit through the hatch. Small bags are good.
  • Hold shape. Cargo holds are typically tapered, wide toward the center of the boat and narrow toward the ends. That affects your ability to use space.

Now let’s get to the fun part: gear.

What to Pack

We could write an entire article on gear for kayak camping. We’ll keep things general here.

Divide your load into basic categories.

  • Shelter and sleeping: tent, rigging materials, sleeping bag, and sleeping mat. In warm climates without bugs you may choose to rig a light tarp for rain cover and put the whole group under it.
  • Cooking and lighting: stoves, lantern, fuel, pots, bowl, utensils for eating, cooking tools, and trash bags. Coordinate this with your group!
  • Food. Remember your meal plan. If you don’t have one, make one.
  • Water. Always have more than you think you’ll need.
  • Clothes. This is personal, but many people bring more than they need. The minimum is one set of clothes for paddling, one set for out of the boat. You’ll need more in colder weather. Your throw bag can be a clothesline!
  • Personal items. Bug spray, sunscreen, toiletries, journal & pen, camera, multi-tool, gloves (this is especially useful for beginners, It’s ok if you have no fishing/ kayaking gloves, once I took my friend’s inner gloves for skiing and it works perfectly fine.)
  • Emergency items. Rescue gear, ditch kit, first aid kit, navigation and communication gear, s[are paddle etc.
  • Extras. Fishing gear and a kayak leash (almost a must have for kayak fishing trips), snorkeling gear, anything you think you’ll want. If you are planning for a kayak fishing trip, you may want to take a look at these 2 articles talking about kayak bass fishing tips and best lake fishing kayaks)

Those are the basic categories. Now divide each of those piles into three groups.

  • Things that must stay dry.
  • Things that can get wet.
  • Things you need on the water.

Things that must stay dry go in dry bags. Make sure your dry bags will fit through your access hatches. Purge the air and seal them carefully.

If kayak camping will be a regular thing, invest in two tapered dry bags, which will help you exploit the space in the bow and stern.

Pack your dry items in your dry bags. Some people like to label them using waterproof tape and markers.

Your tapered dry bags get special attention. One is for your sleeping bag. Leave the stuff sack at home and stuff the bag directly into the tapered bag. 

Put some nighttime clothes on top if there’s space. Seal it. I like to roll a tent, put the poles and pegs in another bag (they can get wet), and put them in the other tapered bag, again with clothes on top.

How to Pack a Kayak for Camping

Let’s start right.

  • Pack your kayak as close to the water as possible with the easiest possible access to the water. Remember that your loaded kayak will be heavy. 
  • Clean your storage holds before you pack. Sand is abrasive and abrasion is unkind to dry bags. Keep your holds free of sand. 

Now you’re ready to put things in boats.

Weight Distribution

There are three things to remember.

  • Keep the weight toward the center of the boat. Heavier items go closer to the cockpit and close to the centerline.
  • Keep the weight low in the boat. Heavy items go at the bottom. The higher the weight, the less stable your boat will be.
  • Remember your trim. You want to keep the weight in the front and rear as equal as possible. If you have to bias in one direction, keep your bow lighter.

That rule governs the order of packing. This is how I do it.

  1. Put the tapered dry bag with the sleeping bag in the bow of the boat.
  2. Put the tapered dry bag with the tent and clothes in the stern.
  3. Place your water supply on the bottom of the rear hold, just behind the bulkhead. Save what you need for a day’s paddling, plus a little extra.
  4. Place your food supply at the rear of the front hatch. Place the heaviest items low and close to the bulkhead. If your food weight exceeds your water weight, move some food to the stern hold.
  5. Now stow the items that can get wet. Where you place them will depend on how much space the food and water occupy, but you want to keep them low and keep the heavier items close to the bulkhead.
  6. Place your dry bags on top of the items that can get wet. Be alert for any sharp or abrasive surfaces that could damage your dry bags. 
  7. Pack any other items around the sides of the dry bags. Try to pack everything tightly enough to avoid shifting.

Close the hatches carefully, and you’re packed.

The Outside of the Boat

You have four places to put items outside the holds.

  • In the cockpit.
  • In the pockets of your PFD (Life Jackets).
  • On the front deck.
  • On the back deck.

I prefer to keep as little as possible in the cockpit. Be sure there is absolutely no way anything in the cockpit could entangle you or prevent you from exiting or entering your boat. 

Some paddlers like to keep water for the day in the cockpit, but be sure bottles are not going to roll around and potentially interfere with rudder operation. You don’t want loose stuff moving around the cockpit in choppy water.

I sometimes place a first aid kit and a reserve paddle jacket (even in the tropics wind and rain can drop the temperature fast) behind the backband, one on either side.

PFD pockets are great for snacks, a knife or multitool, and other small items. If your PFD accommodates a hydration bladder that’s a great place to carry water.

Before you put anything on the deck, think about your reach from the cockpit. Items on the deck outside that range will not be accessible. 

I like to put my paddle float, bilge pump, and ditch kit under the deck shock cords behind the cockpit. I can’t reach them from the cockpit but I won’t need them unless I’m in the water.

The cords in front of the cockpit are for items that need quick access. This may be a map case, a throw bag, some water… anything that you want to be sure you can reach.

I like to keep my deck as clear as possible. Weight on top destabilizes the boat, deck clutter can obstruct a roll or re-entry, and items can come loose and get lost. It also looks sloppy, but that’s just me!

If you’re paddling in open water be sure that everything you need is on deck and accessible, including extra water and food.

Before You Go

Avoid packing your kayak for the first time on the morning of a trip. You don’t want surprises.

Practice packing before you go on a trip. See what fits where and get a feel for the process. Don’t be afraid to set up your own preferred process or packing order, as long as you remember the weight distribution rule.

Before you go on a kayak camping trip, practice paddling your kayak with a load. It will handle differently. Some boats actually handle better with weight in them, especially in wind, but you will need to get used to the changes.

Practice rolling and self-rescue, and try to paddle your loaded kayak in the kind of water you’re likely to encounter on your camping trip. Get a feel for what it takes to launch and land a loaded kayak.

Packing your kayak carefully and practicing paddling with a load will leave you ready and confident when you launch your boat for your first kayak camping trip!

Sit-On-Top Kayaks

Sit-on-top kayaks tend to be shorter and slower than touring kayaks, and most are not designed to handle much cargo. 

That’s not ideal for extended touring, but a sit-on-top can certainly be used for a relatively short-range overnight trip. With some experience and some minimalist camping techniques, you can take them further, especially if you can pick up food and water along the way.

Most sit-on-tops have no front hatch or designed storage capacity, other than a small day hatch. Many have a rear deck well with shock cords to secure a bag. Some have a rear cargo hold, usually small.

That rear deck well or deck rigging does bring one gear item into play that doesn’t work in a touring kayak: the big dry bag. If you’re storing gear on top of the kayak you want one big bag that’s easy to tie down. Multiple small bags make it much easier to lose something.

If you have a rear hold, fill it with the heavy items: water and food. Put your big bag on top.

If you have a deck well, pack your big dry bag with heavy items on the bottom, light on top. Seal it well and tie it down securely. You may need to tighten your back band and move your body weight forward to maintain trim.

You may be able to put a bag between your legs, but practice first to make sure it doesn’t chafe your legs or interfere with paddling. You will want to tie it down: use a cam strap run through the drain holes if no tiedown points are available.

You can modify this method to suit your kayak. You will need to strip your gear down to the bare minimum, but you can camp out of a sit-on-top kayak.


Here are some commonly asked questions when it comes to how to pack a kayak for camping.

Can I Bring a Backpack on a Kayak?

Yes, you can bring a backpack on a kayak, but make sure it’s waterproof because it is very likely everything on the kayak (including you) will get wet. It is also advisable for you to bring multiple smaller dry bags instead of a huge backpack.

How do You Secure Things in a Kayak?

For sit-in kayaks, the best is to place everything you want to keep them dry and secure in the dry storage and lock them up. However, if you are on a sit-on-top kayak, you can make sure of little accessories like Kayak Tie Down Straps to keep everything secure.

Time to Go

I hope this doesn’t sound intimidating. It’s not meant to. Anyone with basic paddling skills, a suitable boat, and the right group can camp out of a kayak. I’d suggest starting with light loads and short trips, but if you can’t don’t worry. Plan well, execute your plan, and have fun!

Pack your boat, get in, and go!