5 Serious Kayakers Share How They Prepare and Pack Their Bags

Kayak touring is serious business, so you don’t just go to the body of water and start paddling!

To make sure things go as planned, you need to do some serious thinking about how you prepare and pack for your tours.

To improve how we pack our bags, we have talked with 5 experienced kayakers and asked them to share their best advice.

Read on and learn from their best tips and tricks (all the kayakers have lots of experience, so they know what they are talking about!).

Three touring kayaks with bags and gear

The 5 Experts

Sherri Mertz
I am from southeast Wisconsin and have lived here most of my life. I have been canoeing and kayaking since the late 1980s. I became a sea kayak instructor in the late 1990s first with the British Canoe Union (BCU) and then with the American Canoe Association (ACA). I have since become certified as an instructor in whitewater kayak, canoe, and standup paddleboard (SUP), also through the American Canoe Association.

My college degree was in physical education, but I have mostly been working as an outdoor educator, retail department manager for an outdoor store for nine years, and since 2009, I have been running my own business doing paddle sports instruction and rentals.

What top 3 things do you bring besides the common stuff all kayakers bring?

  • CGear Sand Free Mat: Allows you to keep your gear free of sand while you have it on the shore waiting to be packed into your kayak.
  • Lots of large 55-gallon heavy duty garbage bags: These can be used for everything from a ground cloth for your tent, waterproofing the inside of a duffel bag, to creating an emergency rain poncho or replacement hatch cover for a kayak.
  • A compact folding umbrella: Keeps rain from getting the inside of the hatches wet when packing or unloading a kayak in the rain.

How do you bring things with you?

Types of bags I use for kayak camping:

  • Roll-top closure dry bags (mostly 10L and 20L sizes), preferably in a coated nylon material because the bags will slide past each other easier when packing than the PVC vinyl drybags. When I have to use a vinyl dry bag, I often slip it inside a nylon stuff sack to make it easier to slide into the kayak;
  • SealLine Bulkead View dry bag (10L & 20L);
  • NRS Ether dry sack (5L, 10L, 15L);
  • NRS Mesh Bags (size L) – useful for carrying several smaller bags and other loose gear from the car to the kayak or from the kayak to the campsite, etc. Does double duty as a way to hang wet gear to let it dry out.

What are your top tips for other kayakers?

Think like a backpacker. While there is much more storage space in the hatches of a sea kayak then there is in a large backpack, the size of your gear is going to be determined by the size of your hatch openings. Also, to make maximum use of the space inside your kayak’s storage compartments, several smaller bags will fit better than a few very large bags.

Repackage food to reduce waste that will need to be carried out with you and to reduce the amount of space the food takes up inside your kayak.

Take your tent poles out of the bag that holds your tent. You probably won’t be able to fit a typical tent with poles through your kayak hatch opening, but if you separate the poles, tent, and fly, you can easily fit the poles into the hatch opening and the soft fabric of the tent and fly will easily stuff into odd-shaped parts of the kayak like the pointy ends at the bow and stern.

Novice kayak campers make the mistake of taking too much stuff along so that it won’t all fit in the hatch compartments. You don’t want your gear tied to the outside of the kayak as it is more likely to get lost or wet and the added weight on the deck of the boat makes it less stable. It is strongly recommended that you do a test packing of your kayak prior to leaving your house so you can pare down unnecessary gear and take only what you need. This also allows you to create a packing system so you will know where to find the items you need when you need them. You can use color-coded bags (blue for food, green for clothes, etc.) or you can use drybags with clear windows or clear drybags that allow you to see what is inside. Developing a packing system, including where you are going to pack each bag inside the kayak, will make for faster launching when you get to the water.

Gear on deck is more likely to get wet, but don’t assume that gear packed in your storage compartments will stay dry, either. Everything that needs to stay dry must be packed in drybags to assure it will stay dry in the event of a capsize or some other failure of the kayak’s deck to hull seam, bulkheads, hatch rims, or hatch covers.

To make sure you can get out on a kayak trip with the least amount of hassle and planning, keep a tote or duffel packed with all of the items you need for a day of kayaking. That way you will have all the gear necessary and can just grab it along with your kayak, and head to the water knowing you will have what you need. For longer trips, have an additional plastic tote or duffel containing the gear you need for a kayak camping trip like your tent, sleeping bag, stove, pans, utensils, etc. For items that you don’t want to keep packed in advance, make laminated lists that are kept in the tote. When it is time to pack for a last minute weekend kayak camping trip, you can quickly assemble the items from your lists. If you already have a designated duffel or bag that is the correct size to hold these items, it will make the packing go even faster.

If you are going somewhere that requires you to carry your own water, it is easier to use water bags than hard-sided water containers as they will fit through the hatch openings and conform to the shape of the kayak hull. Also, when they are empty, they can be more easily flattened to take up less space in the kayak.

Visit Sherri Mertz’s website

Bryan Hansel
Here’s my official bio: Bryan is an award-winning professional landscape photographer and outdoor educator. He has over 25 years of photography experience with over 100 publication credits from publications such as National Geographic, Outdoor Photographer, Lake Superior Magazine, National Park Traveler, Ocean Paddler, Canoeroots, Adventure Kayak, Canoe and Kayak Magazine, Backpacker Magazine and many more. He started his popular photography workshop program in 2006. His programs take students to the best and often unknown locations in the northland and across the nation to many National Parks. He is a former American Canoe Association Level 4 Open Water Coastal Kayaking Instructor. He lives in Grand Marais, Minnesota.

Quote: “The movement of waves and tides is the earth breathing and the waters of earth teem with life. Kayaking provides an intimate relationship with the sea and that intimacy allows you to feel the earth breath.”

What top 3 things do you bring besides the common stuff all kayakers bring?

I can’t really say that I bring more things than is common. I probably bring less. But, I do bring a full camera system with me. I’m a pro photographer and writer for a kayaking magazine, so having along camera gear is mandatory. I also bring a ditch kit. A ditch kit is a kit you can grab in an emergency where you have to abandon your sea kayak that helps keep you alive and safe until the rescue arrives. All kayaks should bring this, but it is often overlooked because people often don’t think about the risks of kayaking on big water and how to mitigate those risks.

Useless things: I’ve seen large floating coolers towed behind kayaks before. I thought that was pretty useless.

How do you bring things with you?

I use bags that range in size from eight liters to 12 liters because those fit into the kayak’s hatches. I organize those items by function and distribute the weight to provide an even trim across the entire kayak. If I can, I put items that I’ll only use in camp into the front hatch. My camera gear and lunch goes into my day hatch and everything else goes into the stern.

I use a combination of Sealline Baja bags and Sea-to-Summit Light Weight Dry Sacks and Ultra-Sil Dry Sacks.

What are your top tips for other kayakers?

Before heading out on a long trip, go to your local pond and pack up your gear. Put your kayak into the water and check the trim. You want an even trim that is similar to how the kayak trims unloaded. If you can’t get the perfect trim, going a little stern heavy is usually better than bow heavy. When you unload make sure to remember which bag went where. While I don’t do this, I’ve seen people color code their dry bags by where they go in the kayak.

Visit Bryan Hansel’s website

Brian Schulz
I grew up around boating and watersports and lived on the Oregon Coast for 15 years. I like kayaking because no other watercraft is as versatile or as seaworthy for the weight and the price. It’s also just a beautiful, intimate experience with the aquatic environments. I’ve been doing wilderness kayaking trips for 23 years.

What top 3 things do you bring besides the common stuff all kayakers bring?

Duct tape, a divers white board, and my brain. Duct tape is obvious, there is no need to bring a whole bunch of band-aids and special various repair tapes. Good ol’ duct tape will do it all.

A divers board (the kind you write on with a pencil underwater) is a really efficient way to organize navigational information. Every morning on a trip I study the map, the weather, the surf report, and then make a drawing of the area on the board along with important landmarks, the tide info, current info, and weather report. I still make sure I can get to the map, but this is normally all I need for the day to navigate. It’s a smart thing to do because you can’t fake your way through it like so many people do when pretending to navigate. Having to remember and write down the information makes important details stick in the brain so much better. (rock in this location, peak at this compass heading, tide change at this time, thunderstorm at this time) it’s just a really nice, clean way to navigate.

The overwhelming majority of on water safety depends on judgement, which means keeping your brain engaged and not overestimating the value of gear. Good gear is important, but fitness and the ability to look at each situation and game out worst case scenarios, will keep you much safer.

How do you bring things with you?

It really depends on the type of boating. Typically I’m using combo air/gear bags in my kayaks. The ones sold by Trak work well, but I’d like to find some that are even bigger. In a canoe or an inflatable kayak, it’s usually a big red NRS drybag. Of course, everything that absolutely must stay dry goes in thinner dry bags inside of the big bags. The 2.2 L NRS bags are a little small, but the 3.8L ones are too big, so pick your poison. I like to go small if I can, but it depends on the length of the trip.

What are your top tips for other kayakers?

Going for the lightweight backpackers gear, but not the ultralight is a good compromise between weight, cost, and durability. 600 fill 20 degree down sleeping bag, 2lb insulated inflatable mat, 4lb backpacking tent is the base kit. My cook kit is pretty minimal, 2 cups, 2 sporks, an alcohol stove, lighter, and wind screen all fit inside of a 1 quart titanium pot with lid/pan. I’m careful not to overpack on clothes. A single pair of shorts, a single pair of long johns, a couple t-shirts, and a couple pairs of underwear and socks plus a heavy fleece jacket is plenty on a week long trip. A first aid kit can be pretty minimal too, a few common medications and some antibiotic ointment is fine. Toiletries can go in there as well. My knife is a lightweight multi tool. My headlamp is a cheap usb chargeable bike light. For food I pack like a backpacker but shop at a normal store, food should be around 2lbs a day. The 10L MSR dromedary bags are the only way to haul water if you need to. The bottle top water filters are nice if you are in clean water, just dip and drink.

I try not to bring a lot of extra stuff. The only things you absolutely must have spares of is sunglasses and a paddle. For entertainment, a kindle is a lot lighter than books and you can read the lit screen at night without an annoying headlamp. Playing cards are nice as well.

Buy a nice, gore-tex drysuit when you start paddling. You’re going to end up with one anyway and it’s a lot cheaper just to bite the bullet and do it in the beginning. With a dry suit you’ll be a LOT more likely to actually practice your rescues, which will make you safer. Unless you live in Florida or Southern California, a farmer John/dry top will just make you miserable.

Don’t overestimate the value of gear OR skills to keep you safe. Remember, if you end up in a situation where something just dumped you in the water, it’s usually the case that thing will just keep dumping you in the water, no matter how many rescues you can do. Judgement is 90% of safe paddling. Apply sunscreen every 2 hours tops, and don’t put it above your eyes.

Visit Brian Schulz’s website

Ilene Price
Originally from Philadelphia, by way of Vermont and British Columbia, I’ve now made my home in Valdez, Alaska during the summers and Panama during the winters, where I am a sea kayak guide. I’ve been guiding Alaska and Panama since 2010 and love every moment of it!

I studied Adventure Guiding at a university in B.C., where I first became a certified sea kayak guide. Recently, I have been certified as a Level 2 coastal kayaking instructor by the American Canoe Association (ACA). What fun!
I’m currently in Valdez, Alaska, which is northeastern Prince William Sound, home to the most tidewater glaciers in the state of Alaska.

I’m into kayaking because:

  • I love that it’s a quiet and peaceful activity of self-propulsion (yes, you can sneak up on Sea Otters in a kayak:) Try doing that in a motor boat!
  • You can squeeze into some amazingly beautiful places that you otherwise couldn’t get into, such as ice caves and over shallow water above coral reefs.
  • It keeps my body feeling good. Although it might not look like it, kayaking is a full-body activity and uses a lot of core. Don’t we all love a good core workout?!
  • It requires no experience and almost anybody can enjoy it (depending on conditions, of course). I’ve taken 2-year olds and 90-year olds kayaking and we all had a jolly good time!
  • I’ve made it my profession, so it also supports me financially:)
  • Basically, you don’t need a whole bunch of really expensive gear for it. You can have just as much fun in a borrowed wooden dug-out with trash bags as dry bags!

What top 3 things do you bring besides the common stuff all kayakers bring?

What I bring:

  • Farkle (a fun dice game). I recently guided a 9-day trip in Alaska, and in the middle of the trip we got weathered into a soggy campsite for 3 days. Farkle pretty much saved the days! We played every day. I think it’s important to bring along some entertainment, such as dice, deck of cards, guide books with flora and fauna, other reading materials relevant to the area. The trips that I guide in Panama, because we are paddling around the territory of an indigenous group (The Guna) and their communities on the islands, I always bring books in English for the kids because they love them, as well as school and art supplies to give out. It has enhanced every single trip, as it is an incredible way to have amazing cross-cultural exchanges when we speak different languages. We just sit down and look at books and color! Kites are also a huge hit! Anything that can put a smile on someone’s face is a great addition to any trip.
  • Lavender eye-pillow made by grandma, of course. It’s real bright almost 24 hours during the summers in Alaska, so it’s nice to have something to cover the eyes to darken the nights for sleeping.
  • Water bladders for hot water to keep you warm at night. It gets cold in Alaska and having a pocket of hot water to cuddle with in your sleeping bag can make the difference between a miserable chilly night, and a restful cozy slumber.


  • Tank top for paddling in Alaska. Yes, we can get very sunny and warm days (sometimes it even gets into the 70’s, although rarely!), but a tank top is a bit ambitious for paddling in AK.
  • The hope to use cell service out there. First of all, reception and signal is hard to come by. Secondly, I think it’s a significant experience to be able to unplug during a trip. It’s far easier to sink in and get in touch with the natural world and the natural rhythm of a kayak trip when you’re not checking for messages and updating your IG constantly. Get back to what really matters in life. . the world immediately around you, and you and your companions. Unplugging = blissful.
  • Excess of alcohol. A little is fine.. in fact, it can be great (i.e. sipping “coco locos” with rum out of a coconut while swaying in a hammock in the Caribbean. . . . sipping on a nice whiskey with glacier ice after a day paddling around icebergs). I’ve seen people get far too focused on Happy Hour though, which takes away from the experience when done in excess. Also, hangovers in paradise are still hangovers. No judgment from me though.

How do you bring things with you?

Mostly soft dry bags (I have no use personally for a hard case). I use a variety of companies, styles and sizes. I’m a fan of SealLine bags. I think they’re a good company. I use the 5L or 10L Baja bag as my deck/day bag, which I put under the bungees on the deck in front of my seat. These are for items that I want to access while I’m paddling (extra layer, guide book, cell phone, communication/satellite device, tide chart, snack, sunscreen). I still keep certain items, such as my cell phone, in small zip locks, just to ensure dryness!

I’m a HUGE fan of the SealLine Kodiak tapered dry bag. I think that I have this bag in 20L size. I’ve had it for over a decade, and I still use it on every single trip. This bag fits wonderfully as one of the first items that I pack into the bow or stern of the kayak, since it has that tapered fit. I pack all of my “camp stuff”, like the clothing that I change into for camp and sleeping. I organize things in such a way that I pack the things that I am least likely to use (or will use later on in a multi-day trip) at the bottom of the bag, then pack the items that I am most likely to use towards the top. I also organize my things into smaller “ditty” bags (also made by my grandma) for organization, such as one for toiletries, and another for electronics.

I’ve also been happy with NRS dry bags, Sak Gear Dry Sacks, Outpack Gear (with shoulder strap), and the Friendly Swede 2L with shoulder straps. Right now I’m using a 10L Waterproof Bag as my deck bag. (I’m not sure if that’s the name of the company. This is the logo that reads across the front) that has a strap, which I discovered I am a fan of. The strap makes it easy to carry around up the beach and on short hikes.

For food on extended trips I use NRS soft coolers. They are yellow and awesome. They are very easy to clean also.

I carry extra fresh water in MSR 5L and 10L dromedaries. These get strapped to the outside of the kayaks.

I pack my sleeping bag into a size large waterproof Sea to Summit compression stuff sack. I love it (gift from grandma)! I also fit into it a compressible Therma-rest camp pillow, Therma Lite synthetic sleeping bag liner, and my Therma-rest NeoAir (I think the XLite) sleeping pad. It’s amazing how much fits in there!

I’ve never felt that I’ve not had enough room in my bags. When packing a kayak it’s far better to have more smaller bags, than less larger bags. So if I have more to pack, I simply pack another small dry bag. The hard part is memorizing which things I’ve put into which bags! At this point, I think that I have my system down:)

What are your top tips for other kayakers?

I do believe in minimalist packing to some degree, however I also believe in taking advantage of the fact that you’re not backpacking! Kayaks can hold a lot of things and it’s nice to bring along some luxuries that will make you more comfortable out there. Sure, bring the bottle of champagne, bring the book, bring the nice camera, bring the comfy camp chair, bring the hammock, etc.

I can’t think of anything that I’ve seen other paddlers do wrong necessarily. I guess, I’m one to believe that you don’t need to go out and buy the latest and greatest. Yes, some things are necessary to have really good quality, such as safety gear and rain gear (especially when hypothermia is a possibility), however if you’re on a budget or have other things that your money is going to, a trash bag and some zip locks can be perfectly reasonable dry bags for a short trip. Most of my layers are from thrift stores. I’ve found brand-new Arcteryx and Patagonia clothing from thrift stores that I’ve used for years. That being said, never buy rubber boots at a thrift store! Some things should be bought new.

Some other fun tips:

  • You will make some pretty stanky laundry out there, so don’t forget to bring a bag that seals for those stinky socks and undies. A zip lock works great.
  • On camping trips I pack quite a few spare trash bags. These have many applications. In Alaska, when somebody tops out their rubber boots we use small plastic trash bags to line their rubber boots so that they can still wear dry socks. I like to bring a spare 10L dry bag, which sometimes becomes the “wet rain gear bag”. Coastal Alaska is rainy. In fact, it’s a legit rain forest. I make everybody bring two sets of rain gear. One that is all rubber, and another set that can be lighter and breathable, such as Gore-tex.
  • I pack special “sleep socks” that never leave my sleeping bag (in Alaska). Even if my socks get wet or sweaty during the day in the rubber boots, it’s so nice to know that I have a pair of warm and fuzzy socks waiting for me in my sleeping bag.
  • An inflatable solar light, such as Luci Lights, are awesome in sunny places, such as Panama. I have a few of them that I strap to the outside of my kayak during the day to charge. They are waterproof, lightweight and hardly take up any space. I like to string them around camp at night.
  • On longer trips I like to use biodegradable body wipes to clean off those particular areas that need it most (armpits, face and yes, the crotch!)
  • Use coral reef-safe sunscreen!
  • My best tip for sun protection is to cover up. You won’t see me in a bikini out there. Well, I might be wearing a bikini, but it’s underneath a lightweight quick-dry top or rash guard and leggings. Nothing too fancy there. I like to wear paddling gloves for hand protection (I’ve been happy with NRS and Columbia gloves). As a 33-year old I already have “old lady hands”, so anything that I can do to protect my skin I am ALL ABOUT!

A tip for getting out the door:

Contact a local paddling club or join a paddling Facebook group for advice, inspiration, and potential paddling partners. Don’t think that you need to go out and do some crazy, challenging trip. Educate yourself about local conditions, hazards, and weather. Start small and local, until you gain confidence and experience. After doing some research, invest in (or borrow) the appropriate gear (new or used) to ensure a safe and comfortable trip. If you are comfortable you are way more likely to enjoy yourself and want to do it again and again and again:)

Or. . contact me for inspiration. Life is beautiful and is meant for smiling and laughing.

Visit Ilene Price’s website

Barry Kalpinski
I’m originally from Wisconsin Rapids, but have now lived the majority of my life in Madison, Wisconsin. Kayaking was really the culmination of everything I love: camping, fishing and exploring Wisconsin. What started as a hobby turned in to a 10-year obsession of documenting rivers and creeks on my site milespaddled.com.

What top 3 things do you bring besides the common stuff all kayakers bring?

  • Battery-operated sawzall and/or pruners. We snip/cut/saw as we paddle to help keep streams more navigable for those behind us.
  • Duct tape – Things happen and you never want to be left without a way to patch your boat.
  • GoPro – This one may be common for extreme kayakers, but not usually for flatwater paddlers. Yet we like to capture our paddles on video and relive them in the offseason.
  • Weather Radio: For Packer season, of course.
  • As for useless things? A friend of mine once brought a cast iron pan on his first kayak/camping trip. While it in itself is not useless, the weight he added to his boat – not to mention the space that it took up was ridiculous. And I’m not convinced that breakfast was any better than any other pan.

    How do you bring things with you?

    We use Sea to Summit eVent bags for practically everything because they compress gear down to a very small size, which is very important with limited space in a kayak. When I started, I bought some clear plastic bags because they were cheaper, and because I thought it would be convenient to see what was in each bag. It was a good idea in theory but those bags are bulkier, and the heavyweight plastic gets sticky inside the hatches instead of smooth and packable like nylon.

    You can buy eVent bags in different sizes so you should always find what you need for whatever gear you want to group together. On that note, smaller and more bags are a better idea than a few large bags. It’s easier to pack and maneuver smaller items within the unique (and sometimes awkward) shape of kayak hatches. While the eVent bags do cost a bit more, they are well worth the investment.

    What are your top tips for other kayakers?

    Packing light takes some trial and error – figuring out what exactly you need and what is just more gear. I’m an overpacker in general but I’ve learned what my absolute essential items are, which still allows for a couple luxuries. Many folks want to fit everything inside their compartments for an overnight but often overlook the top of the boat, which is usually outfitted with tie-downs. A cooler set directly behind the seat and lashed with some bungees will save you some room (and it can make for a good backrest).

    As for getting out the door, start small and local. It’s usually not too hard to find an outfitter to introduce you to the sport. Also, there are now endless paddling groups on Facebook with all sorts of people at different skill levels looking to help out with information or looking to meet up and go paddling.

    People seem to get hung up on river/creek tripping and how to handle the shuttle (how do I get back to my vehicle?) which can be a legit barrier, however we often bike-shuttle. You can always start on a Lake where you don’t need a shuttle. Just put it on the calendar and hope for good weather.

    Visit Barry Kalpinski’s website

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