Packing a Kayak For Camping | Complete Guide + BONUS Packing List

Updated January, 2022

You’ve got your boat and a location scouted for your camping trip, and now it’s time to start packing your kayak for camping. Is it time to start strapping stuff to your kayak, cramming food in the hatches, and whatever doesn’t fit, just add it to the ginormous backpack you’ll be carrying.

Whoa… slow your roll.

That’s a good way to end up with a top-heavy, out of trim kayak that’s impossible to control. Packing a kayak for camping takes time and practice – especially if it’s your first kayak camping trip. 

So hunker down for the next 5-10 minutes and give this article a careful read. I’m going to talk about how to pack a kayak for camping so it’ll be…

  • Light
  • Balanced
  • Dry
  • Organized

Plus, you’ll get a few extra tips and a packing list that’ll make your life waaaay easier and save you some major frustration when packing for your kayak camping trip.

*Psst…just in case you haven’t seen it, don’t miss my Ultimate Guide to Planning Your First Kayak Camping Trip.

Ok, now we’re ready to start packing!

Keep Your Kayak Light

Usually, the heavier something is, the harder it is to handle. We’ve all proven that’s true when trying to get out of a recliner after stuffing ourselves at a family dinner. 🤣

The same is true with your kayak. Pack it with too much heavy camping gear and it’ll sit lower in the water, be harder to paddle, and harder to turn. You might not notice it in the first few minutes of paddling, but after a few hours, you’ll be wishing you hadn’t brought your cast iron frying fan.

So what can you do to keep it light?

Plan Well: Use my downloadable packing list as a guide. Pack your kayak as if you’re going on a backpacking trip. Sure, you can pack a little more since you won’t actually be carrying gear on your back, but you’ll still be moving everything you bring with your own power. 

what gear to bring for backpacking trip

So choose wisely and pack lightweight items. 

Pack As a Group: If you’re going with friends or family, plan what you pack as a group so you don’t bring unnecessary stuff. Plan on sharing a cook set, a tent, or other camping gear so you don’t end up packing doubles. 

Don’t show up to your campsite with 3 friends realizing you each just paddled 5 miles upriver with extra weight since you all packed 4-man tents.

Ok, so you’ve figured out what you’re going to pack. Now let’s move on to where you should pack things in your kayak.

Pack Your Kayak So It’s Balanced 

Proper weight distribution throughout your kayak will make it a lot easier to handle. Here are a few things to keep in mind.

Keep Your Kayak Stable: To do this, pack your kayak so it’ll have a low center of gravity. Pack the heaviest items low in the boat, towards the center, and evenly from side to side.

Keep Your Kayak in Trim: This refers to your kayak’s tilt front-to-back. A poorly trimmed kayak can be hard to handle, especially in strong currents or wind. 

So try to distribute the weight evenly between the bow and stern. This may take some trial and error. Once you’re at the water’s edge and have everything packed, take a seat in your kayak as if you were paddling and check out its trim. Then you can repack things as needed before heading out on the open water. 

Here’s a simple diagram that can serve as a reminder of where to pack items of different weights in your kayak.

weight distribution diagram for packing a kayak for camping

Keep Things Dry 

Dealing with water is one of the main things that sets kayak camping apart from regular backpacking trips.

So what’ll happen if your kayak overturns and your stuff ends up in the river? How can you prevent everything from getting soaked?

Two things – Hatches and Dry Bags

Most kayaks for camping have waterproof hatches where you can safely store your gear. Just load up the compartment and then seal the hatch lid. 

*If you’re looking for a kayak for camping, don’t forget to check out my article on how to choose a kayak for kayak camping.

If you don’t have enough hatch space and need to pack kayaking gear on the outside of your kayak, then dry bags will be your best friend. They’re made from durable, waterproof materials with special closures to keep water out. 

Here are some good choices for dry bags you can use when packing your kayak for camping. And for more info check out my article on how to choose the right dry bags for kayak camping.

Earth Pak Waterproof Dry Bag

dry back for kayak camping

Eark Pak Waterproof Duffel Bag

dry back for kayak camping

Yeti Waterproof and Submersible Bags

dry bag for kayak camping

A quality waterproof phone pouch like this one can be a real lifesaver as well and can even double as a pouch to carry important papers or your ID.

Depending on how much you trust your kayak’s hatches, you might still want to pack some essential items like matches, sleeping bags, a first aid kit, or food in plastic bags as an extra layer of protection. This could mean just putting it in a durable ziploc bag or in a small dry bag. 

There’s nothing more discouraging than arriving at your campsite only to realize your hatch cover popped loose, some water got in and now your sleeping bag is completely soaked.

When it comes to keeping things dry, it’s better to be safe than sorry and add an extra layer of protection where possible.

So you’ve figured out what you’re going to pack and how you’ll keep it dry. Now let’s look at how to stay organized.

Pack Your Kayak So It’s Organized 

Have you ever been hiking and just couldn’t seem to find something in your backpack even though you were sure you brought it? While kayak camping, you’re packing more gear that’s spread across a variety of bags and hatches. That means it’s even easier for that to happen with the gear you’ve packed for kayak camping. 

So how can you pack your kayak for camping so you can find everything easily? It boils down to thinking about what you need and when you need it

For example…

When will you need your sleeping bag? In the evening once you’ve got camp set up. Since that’s one of the last things you’ll need, you can pack it deep in the bow or stern of your boat. 

When will you need snacks and water? While you’re out on the water paddling. So make sure you can easily access them without having to get out of your kayak. The last thing you need is to tip your boat in the middle of a lake because you were rummaging around trying to find your cookies. (It can happen easier than you might think.🤪)

So as you pack each item it’s good to stop and think… When will I need this and how will I get to it when I need it?

Keep emergency items close at hand. Your waterproof first aid kit shouldn’t be buried deep in a hatch next to your sleeping bag. Make sure it’s easily accessible. 

The same is true for other essential safety items like emergency paddles, safety rope, and navigation gear. 

What to Pack

Want a complete list of what to pack for your overnight kayak camping adventures? Go to…

Ultimate Kayak Camping Checklist + FREE Downloadable Gear Lists

Here’s a basic idea of what to pack in addition to your normal camping gear (lightweight tent, sleeping bag, stove, cookset, etc.)

  • Kayak repair kit
  • Marine first aid kit
  • PFD (Personal flotation device)
  • Paddle
  • Spare Mini Paddle
  • Bilge Pump
  • Dry bags
  • Kayak seat
  • Spray skirt
  • Rope
  • Cockpit cover
  • Check out the article I linked to above for more specifics.

Now you should have a better idea of what you’ll pack and where. Does that mean you’re ready to head out on the water? 

There’s one more thing you should do, especially if this is your first time camping with kayaks.

Practice Packing Your Kayak for Camping 

Now it’s time to head out to the backyard and practice packing your kayak for camping while you’re still on dry land. Sure, it’s an extra step, but it’ll save you big headaches in the long run. 

Many first-time kayak campers have started packing their kayaks for the first time at the water’s edge only to realize they could fit everything they planned to pack. Or they realize their kayaking gear doesn’t fit through the hatch openings. Oh noooo!

If you do a practice packing run, you may also find that you have more space than you realized (and can pack an extra can or two of spam!) YES! 

Bonus Tips for Packing Your Kayak

  • Divide some essential items up into different bags. For example, if you’re packing two changes of clothes, don’t pack them both in the same dry bag. If something happens and water does get into that bag, ALL your clothes will be wet. But it’s very unlikely that two dry bags will fail, so you’re more likely to always have a set of dry clothes no matter what.  
  • As you plan how to pack your kayak, first, get to know your kayak. Some kayaks have hatches with surprisingly small openings. Double check to make sure your camp cook set or tent will actually fit through the hatch opening. Double-check that your kayak’s hatches are actually waterproof so you’ll know how many dry bags you’ll need to buy.
  • Pack different items in different colored dry bags so it’s easier to remember which is in each without having to open them. Red = Emergency, Blue = Clothes, Brown = Toiletries
  • Download my free CHECKLIST below with all the kayak camping essentials you’ll need to pack and use it to help you plan.
how to pack kayak what to camp printable pdf checklist free

Ready to Start Packing Your Kayak For Camping?

Properly packing your kayak for camping is one of the most important steps to make sure you enjoy your kayaking trip. So follow the tips in this article and get ready for an awesome new kayak camping adventure! 

I’d love to hear how your first kayak camping trip went and swap some funny camping stories, so don’t forget to follow and say hi on the socials.


And of course, for more help planning your next kayak camping trip don’t forget to check out these posts…

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