You love camping and you love paddling, so why not combine them and go kayak camping? Even if you have camping down, preparing for a kayak camping trip requires more steps for paddlers to consider. Here is a basic breakdown of these extra steps before you head out into the wilderness.

Preparing a Vehicle for a Kayak Camping Trip

Never taken your kayak off the lake? You’ll need to invest in roof racks. Typically, roof racks come with four straps, which all come in handy for long drives.

Choosing A Kayak Roof Rack

Make sure you have the appropriate kayak racks for your vehicle. From Yakima to Thule to Malone, there are many kayak rack manufacturers and styles to choose from—just be sure to choose the best kayak roof rack for your needs. Each manufacturer will have a manual to guide which rack specifically fits your vehicle’s model and year.

Securing Kayaks with Straps

When driving your kayak to a local launch point near home, you really only need the center straps. If you’re taking a several hour journey on busy highways with tractor-trailers, heavy braking, and strong winds—two additional bow and stern straps are highly suggested.

Low Overpasses

Measure the overall height of your car with a mounted kayak. If you come up on a low overpass, it’s important to know if your kayak will make it through, or if you’re about to cause a real accident. Although the case is rare, it does happen on occasion. Some older backcountry roads contain low-lying bridges that prevent taller vehicles from passing. Trouble usually arises when kayaks are mounted in upright positions, adding approximately 18 – 32 inches in height to your vehicle. If you’re unsure about your route containing these, stick to the interstate highways as long as possible.

Planning a Route on the Water

Locate an Appropriate Launch Point

Locate a local marina to safely store your vehicle overnight. Most marinas will require overnight fees, but it allows for peace of mind that your vehicle will still be there upon return, and not towed off, leaving you stranded and upset with your kayaks and gear.

Calculate the Distance from Launch Point to Camp Site

Make certain to calculate how long it will take to paddle the distance. Is it a short skip across the channel or a full day’s paddle in a downstream river?

The easiest method to do this is to pull up a Google Maps and add points across the waterway until you reach your destination. It will give you the distance you need to paddle. Unfortunately, until Google Maps adds a much-needed paddling icon next to it’s cycling icon, you’ll need to calculate the time it takes to paddle yourself.

For beginner paddlers, it’s recommended to get a decent kayak that can handle a 3-mile paddle to the campsite. Paddlers with a bit more experience will find a 5-mile paddle a comfortable distance. Longer all-day type paddles to a site are for experienced paddlers. Either way, make sure your kayak is suitable for camping.

Estimating Paddle Time to Camp Site

Make habit of keeping track of hours it takes to get from two points on an everyday paddle. Paddlers can do this by simply turning on tracking features on phones.

The average paddler moves at a speed of 3 knots but this can fluctuate depending on many factors: Strength, a paddler’s experience, and cargo. Just be sure to factor in your added cargo weight like camping gear and food when kayak camping.

The most important part to remember, however, is to take currents or slack tides into consideration. The optimal paddle is to launch along with the tide–not work against it, which becomes challenging! Check the local tides, currents, and slack period predictions and confirm water levels can’t drop so low you’ll find your paddling route blocked by newly-sprung islands or peninsulas. Portaging is fine for most paddle outings, but loaded up with gear makes it difficult.   

Crossing with Caution

Even when campsites are near the launch point, there’s still one other thing to consider. Make certain the waters are safe to cross! If it’s a busy summer season, and powerboats are making choppy waves around the channel, remember that it’s not just you, but also a top-heavy kayak weighted down with tons of cargo. This can make a very precarious situation and creates a far greater risk of capsizing. As a paddler, you should already be aware of how to re-mount your kayak. Only this time, you will have to contend with gear, now possibly very wet and hopefully—if you tied it down and secured it well—not floating away or already sunk. Wet or missing camp gear will make a bad start to any camping trip, so make sure you can cross a channel with light traffic and small swells! Get to a launch point at early dawn so the only other boaters to contend with are anglers.

Crossing Channels During Dawn and Dusk

This brings up another point. Even if you’re not night paddling, if you plan on launching in the early morning hours, you could encounter foggy paddling conditions. Fishermen and anglers, any boater, for that matter, should have their navigation lights, but so should you. A kayak is no match for powerboats and needs to be visible! Get yourself and your kayak equipped for paddling during darker hours and stay safe with an emergency whistle too.

Allow Extra Time

You never know what you might encounter, from a strap breaking that was holding down gear, to a long wait at the marina launch. Even when you reach your destination, it takes time to locate your particular site. You’ll want to secure your kayaks and be able to set up camp before dark. Take time to enjoy the view and peace and quiet of nature, too!      

Packing for a Kayaking Camping Trip

Minimizing Camping Gear for Lighter Cargo Weight

If you love car-camping, chances are you already have all the gadgets and gear to do so—cast iron pots, camp chair loungers, and a complete s’more-making kit. But with kayak camping, you need to downsize (and then downsize s’more). Take only what is absolutely necessary! Here are a few personal tips, along with a detailed kayak camping list, on how to lighten your cargo:


  • Boxes are best, cans are okay. Empty boxes can be tossed in fires, and cans can be crushed for easy pack out.  
  • Think dry goods like dehydrated vegetables and freeze dried meals.
  • The less food to keep chilled, the better. It’s okay to pack a small cooler, but don’t go overboard.
  • Organize provisions, by each day’s meals or by meal types, and separate into different stuff sacks. Being difficult to store in a kayak’s odd-shaped compartments, use hard containers only if necessary for softer foods like bread.


  • When car-camping, it’s simple to locate faucets and fill water bottles. But with kayak camping and no plumbing in site, water is limited and keeping hydrated becomes a challenge.
  • A gallon per person per day is a general rule of thumb. This suffices enough for yourself as well as meal preparations.
  • Sure, paddlers can bring along enough water bottles for the trip, but one preferred method is to locate a freshwater source and carry water tablets or a water purifier instead. It saves a ton of room! I bring both; tablets make it taste better but a purifier strains sediment and debris.


  • Keep utensils and tools to a minimum. Do you really need the entire grilling set? Or maybe just the tongs?
  • Bring along extras for anything that starts fires. Matches, fire starters, fuel for the stove; whatever it is—don’t take chances of not being able to cook!

Dry Bags

  • As experienced paddlers know and novice paddlers eventually discover, a dry hatch is not perfectly dry. For extended trips especially, purchase dry bags to keep camp supplies and food contained.
  • Keep all electronics, flashlights, headlamps, and cooking equipment like matches, fire-starters, and stoves inside a dry bag.
  • Depending on how far your site is from water, paddlers might find it beneficial to get a dry bag with straps that transition into a backpack for deeper walk-in campsites and portages.

Compression Sacks

  • Compression sacks are perfect for sleeping bags, clean clothes (and wet, dirty clothes), and anything that needs to, well, compress tighter. Get yourself several.
  • Turn compression sacks into temporary dry bags by placing in a heavy duty trash bag. Another layer doesn’t hurt and the last thing you want is wet clothes or worse—a wet sleeping bag.  

Sleeping Bags, Sleeping Pads, or Hammocks

  • Down sleeping bags are highly suggested as they compress very well.
  • Find the smallest camp pad you can find that’s relatively comfortable.
  • Hammock-camping is one of the best ways to eliminate a lot of gear. Many hammock manufacturers offer rain flys (and even bug nets) that shelter you just as any small tent would.


  • The tent bag is typically constricting and way too long to fit in most hatches. Instead, remove and fold your tent into a shape that will fit, and wrap it around the poles and stakes as one bundle.
  • Lastly, secure it all together with bungee cords or even the ropes used to tie down the stakes.    

Dry Run Practice Pack

Once you’ve set aside what you think is necessary, do a dry run practice pack. Set up your kayak in an open space like your backyard, and line up items alongside hatches where cargo gear will be placed. It might take time to arrange the cargo into awkwardly shaped portals and narrow spaces (and to maximum capacity), but in doing so, keep in mind a few strategies:

  • Pack heavy items along middle bottom of the kayak, close to rear bulkhead.
  • Place light compression sacks with sleeping bags and clothes at the bow and stern.
  • In general, gear should be placed low and centered to keep your kayak stable.

The reason you need to do a practice pack is not only to ensure items fit, but to know beforehand where gear is intended to be stowed. When arriving at the launch point, you want to swiftly unload and painlessly pack it in so you can begin paddling.


It’s a strong possibility you’ll still need to leave gear behind. But try to remember why you’re preparing for a kayak camping trip in the first place—to get away from it all. With proper research, you’ll have an easy paddle straight to your site. Trust me, once you’ve arrived and set up camp, you’ll sink into nature and be glad you spent time planning ahead for a trip of a lifetime.