Eager to get out and paddle beyond where the land trails can take you? If you’re considering getting into and starting kayak camping, then you’re in the right place. In this guide, we’ll cover the ins-and-outs of how to start kayak camping (literally), what to consider and expect on your first kayak camping trip, and wrap up with ten key takeaway tips for first-time kayak campers.
How to Get Into and Start Kayak Camping
Every year, more and more people are keen to get into kayak camping. Kayak and canoe camping has been around since the 1950s, but it has only really begun to popularize in the past few decades. Whether it’s to escape the city and go where your feet can’t go or to find yourself upstream amid a great adventure, there are many people, like you, who are wanting to get into and start kayak camping.
But how do you just… start?
It might sound a bit plain, but the number one way anyone can get into and start kayak camping is to actually start! If you’re reading this, then you’re already taking the first essential step.
You’re learning. Kayak camping is not difficult for most; it just presents a quick learning curve. Rare are those who are born knowing how to roll forward out of a kayak in a dangerous situation!
All jokes aside, to get into and start kayak camping will take a bit of testing. You first need to figure out your kayak camping goals and opportunities. Ask yourself questions like:
- Do I want to go on short or long kayak camping trips?
- How comfortable am I with performing the basic kayak skills?
- Where is somewhere nearby where I can practice?
- Can I balance in the kayak well and know how to save myself if the kayak capsizes?
More often than not, those who want to get into kayak camping will already have an interest in camping in general and what it requires. If you are an avid camper, then kayak camping just adds an additional step of being on the water with a specific set of gear.
However, if you are completely new to camping or kayaking, and especially kayak camping, then does that mean you’re at a disadvantage of getting into it and starting? Absolutely not. Here’s why!
Can anyone go on a kayaking trip?
Yes, anyone can go on a kayaking trip. As long as you have the basic skills and knowledge needed to keep yourself – and others with or around you – safe, then anyone can go on a kayaking trip. Better yet, anyone can learn to go kayak camping.
Of course, there are a few exceptions as to who can go on a kayaking trip. For example, if you are capable of kayaking, but you are with a partner that is not comfortable, then it wouldn’t be safe. And if you’re intending on going solo but don’t feel 100% knowledgable or equipped just yet, then it’s best to wait until you are fully ready.
Again, anyone can learn to kayak and enjoy an adventurous kayak camping trip. But it needs to be incremental. First-time kayak campers should avoid debuting their new hobby with a complex kayak camping trip that involves varying types of water. Instead, beginners should stick with short kayak camping trips preferably with gentle, shallow water.
Kayak Camping vs. Canoe Camping
If you’re new to kayak camping, you might be wondering what the differences are between kayak camping vs. canoe camping. For one, the build of kayaks vs. canoes aren’t the same, which means the way you maneuver and handle a kayak will be different than a canoe.
Kayaks have slimmer, longer bodies that are built for speed. They can be harder to balance at first. Kayaks also have double-edged or bladed paddles on both ends, meant for cutting into the water quicker and with more ease.
Canoes on the other hand are wider, slightly taller on the sides, and have one-ended, single-bladed paddles that are shorter and slower. Because of the differing builds, you will also sit differently in a kayak vs. a canoe.
With a kayak, you’ll most likely be in a “cockpit” with your feet jutting out in front of you (if it’s a sit-in kayak). You will paddle from side to side, alternating with your entire waist and upper body. Whereas in a canoe, you’ll be sitting open-air, often in a knee position, shifting your weight from side to side to paddle the canoe.
Canoes were the first “vehicles” used for trips on the water that lasted several days, but now kayaks are taking the lead in that department. As kayaks, particularly inflatable kayaks, went on the market, more people began to use them in lieu of canoes for their canoe/kayaking trips out in the wilderness.
If you plan to build up speed and experience with this form of camping, many recommend learning and starting with a kayak as it offers better navigability on the water.
Considerations for your first kayaking excursions
As much as we love to encourage first-timers to “just get out and start” sometimes that’s easier said than done. There are a few practical things to consider before you rush out to buy and prepare new gear for your first trip.
Which kayak do you need?
There are several types of kayaks to choose from – single vs. double kayaks and sit-ins or sit-on top kayaks. If you’re heading out solo, you’ll need a single kayak which is quick and light. If you plan to go kayak camping with a partner, it’s better to have one double kayak than two single kayaks. Next, kayaks that you sit on top of are considered better for first-time kayak excursions. But if you’re in this for the long-run, then it’s better to practice with a kayak that has a cockpit you sit inside of. Not only are these types of kayaks easier to maneuver but they are much more efficient for paddling farther distances.
How do you transport your kayak?
One technicality not to gloss over is how are you going to make this actually work? As in, how do you get the kayak from point A to B? If you’re transporting it from your home, you will need a reliable rack that fits on top of your car. Otherwise, you can always opt for an inflatable kayak which you inflate with an air pump once you arrive at your entry location.
What do you wear and pack to start kayak camping?
It can be a little hard to know what to prepare when you haven’t “been there don’t that” just yet. It’s the same for packing for your first trip abroad or when getting into and starting kayak camping. You tend to forget things, overpack, or pack just enough but not the right type of clothing or gear. When it’s your first kayak excursion, focus on the essentials. For example, wear moisture-wicking clothing and water shoes and take ample sun protection. As for safety, always take a life vest (PFD – personal floatation device), an extra paddle, floatable compass, dry bags for all your equipment/gear, waterproof casing, and back up tools and repair kits.
10 Tips for beginner kayak campers
In addition to the above, here are ten essential beginner tips to help prepare you for your first exciting kayak camping trip.
1. Always use dry bags and waterproof casing
Dry bags might not save your life per se, but they will save all your gear and clothes from getting wet which can feel like a life-saver. Also, pack and organize your items per dry bag to make it easier to find and sort later once at the campsite. Lastly, due to the limited space on-deck, smaller dry bags are known to be easier to store inside a kayak rather than large 60L bags.
2. Attach everything
Make use of any and all carabiners and clips you can get your hands on. If you leave loose items around, it’s likely you’ll end up losing them in the water. Everything in your kayak should be secured. Use straps to tie down bags and your extra safety paddle.
3. Keep the essentials in easy reach on-deck
It’s wise to always leave your essentials in easy reach. That usually means a floatable compass, topo map, phone in waterproof casing, whistle, and snacks/water to replenish yourself.
4. Begin with small, easy trips
It might take time to get used to the stamina needed for an extended kayak camping trip. Underestimating the water and weather while overestimating your ability to “press on” can lead to a dangerous situation. Go slow at first. Then, when you build up experience, feel free to take longer, more thrilling trips down some white rapids (that is if you dare!).
5. Don’t forget essential food/cooking equipment
Will you be cooking all of your meals? If so, make sure to do ample research about the best cooking equipment for kayak camping trips. There are many lightweight tools and burners to choose from that’ll make the cooking experience much better.
6. Stay in established campsites whenever possible
As a general rule of thumb, it’s better to stay in established campsites along your kayak route. If ever you need to set up camp on your own, make sure it is at least 200 feet from any fresh water source. Always check to ensure your campsite doesn’t harm fragile fauna or flora.
7. Pack for the water temperature, not air temperature
Make sure to take note of this life-saving tip! Always wear clothing that is adapted to the water temperature rather than the air temperature. Should you capsize in cold water, risk of hypothermia is a serious possibility.
8. Keep safety a priority
That said, always make safety a priority. That means always wearing your PFD and keeping an eye on your map, water transitions, and sudden changes in the weather. Always pull to the closest shore and seek shelter in case of thunderstorms and lightning.
9. Flip your kayak at night and pull it out of the water
It’s always a good idea to pull your kayak out of the water when you set up camp. Otherwise, you could find yourself up the riverside without a paddle in sight! Also, flipping your kayak over at night will help drain any water that seeped in during your trip. It’s best to keep things dry. Make sure to check that all your gear is dry as well.
10. Follow the Leave No Trace principles
Last, but not least, if in doubt, refer to the seven Leave No Trace principles and set guidelines that aim to reduce human impact in natural areas. Always leave a campsite cleaner than when you found it, pack out all trash you pack in, and use biodegradable soap whenever you wash up.
If you are completely new to kayak camping, then make sure to practice kayaking with all your gear actually packed inside the kayak as if you were ready to go. A loaded kayak will change the balance of the kayak which throws off many first-time kayak campers (hopefully never literally this time!).
Nothing beats getting out on the water and feeling that sense of adventure wash over you on your first kayak camping trip. If you are just getting into and starting kayak camping, remember to keep safety a priority and make sure you feel comfortable navigating the kayak on the water before ever setting out on your journey.