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Fitting It All In – The Dark Art of Packing A Sea Kayak

Posted on Aug 28, 2012 by Becs Morris

Packing a Sea Kayak

Believe it or not, packing a sea kayak really is an art! Perhaps you’re already well versed on the drill, but for those newer to paddling the open seas the thought of trying to stuff all your kit into such a small space could have you running for the hills! All our sea kayaking trips are led by expert guides who know how to ‘fit it all in’ like the backs of their hands, and will assist you every step of the way – but to give you an idea of what you’re letting yourself in for, one of our favourite guides, Becs, jotted down a few notes on the best way, from her experience, of packing a sea kayak.

Small, yet perfectly formed…

Despite their relatively small size a sea kayak can carry an amazing amount of kit. This is one of the big draws of sea paddling, you can go and explore some of the most beautiful, wild and remote parts of the world, for days or even weeks at a time and still live in relative comfort!

Packing a sea kayak with all the home comforts, such as bottles of wine and fine food is definatly a skill to be mastered. There is nothing more daunting than standing by your sea kayak on the first day of the trip with a veritable mountain of kit piled up beside you wondering how on earth you are ever going to cram it in, let alone remember where you actually put everything.

There have been so many times when we have all stood beside our sea kayaks scratching our heads, contemplating where in the world that extra stove went, or worse leaping around like a lunatic, being savaged by midges, while totally unable to relocate the midge net!

Here are a few handy hints and tips which will help ease the pre-trip drama of packing a sea kayak and help prevent that all important midge net disappearing into the bowls of the boat never to be seen again.

Keeping your gear dry

Firstly, you need to make sure that your gear stays dry. The sealed hatches of a modern sea kayak are, on the whole reliably waterproof. However, leaks do happen. Always checking your hatch covers are fitted correctly before getting on the water is the first line of defence. But it is vital that if any water does enter the compartments, that the important gear such as spare clothing, sleeping bags, cameras, phones, tents etc, do stay dry.

So, before anything is packed into the sea kayak it must be stored in a water proof bag or dry bag. These are available in a variety of sizes, shapes and colours. If you are on a Wilderness Scotland Sea Kayaking trip, we will provide you with an assortment of dry bags.

Packing tips…

  • Before packing your gear into dry bags, separate it out into like items, so all your clothing goes together, cooking gear into another pile, medical into another etc.
  • It is much easier to pack lots of smaller dry bags into your sea kayak than it is to pack a couple of large ones. Lots of small dry bags means you can squeeze kit into every available space.
  • Colour code your dry bags: When buying dry bags try and get a variety of colours. If you always pack your clothes in to a blue dry bag, your spare hats, gloves into red one, your wash kit into an orange one etc. then you can remember what is in each without having to open everything up. If you can’t distinguish between your dry bags, you can either write directly on the dry bag with an indelible marker, or stick a piece of duct tape to the outside and write the contents of the bag on it.


  • When packing your food, it is useful to separate it into breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dinners can then be sub-divided into daily meals. Make sure you discard all the packaging which doesn’t need to come with you.
  • Store the food low down in the sea kayak, below the water line. This will help to keep it cool.
  • Move the food you will need while paddling that day into a place where it is accessible, snacks can go in buoyancy aid pockets, lunch in the day hatch.

Keep the decks clean

Where possible all your gear should be packed inside the sea kayak and not strapped to the decks. Gear stowed on the decks raises the sea kayaks centre of gravity making it less stable and creating windage. The sea kayaks directional stability can also be affected and kit which is not strapped down well is prone to washing away in waves.

The only gear which should be on the decks is spare paddles, compass, maps, water bottle and if you have one; a deck mounted tow line.

Packing for trim and handling

Once all your kit is packed into dry bags, you need to consider where you are going to put everything in the sea kayak. The way your gear is distributed can affect how the sea kayak sits in the water, which will in turn affect the sea kayaks handling and ease of control. If there is more weight on one side than the other, the sea kayaks side-to-side balance will be affected and this will cause the boat to naturally turn away from the heavier side. Meaning a loss of paddling efficiency as you will need to use corrective paddle strokes to compensate for the unbalanced sea kayak. A great way to check your side-to-side balance is to float the sea kayak on the water without the paddler in it and check that it is sitting level.

The same is true for the sea kayaks fore and aft (back-to-front) trim. Manufacturers design sea kayaks so as when seated, the paddlers centre of mass is over the sea kayaks centre of buoyancy. When the sea kayak is balanced like this it will paddle and preform as the manufacturer intended. When we start loading a sea kayak we can easily disrupt this natural balance point, making the sea kayak difficult to handle. When an un-laden sea kayak sits on the water it will naturally weather cock (the bow of the boat will turn into the wind). If the front hatches are heavily laden this weather cocking will be exaggerated, making it very difficult to turn the sea kayak away from the wind, resulting in lots of wasted energy trying to control the poorly balanced sea kayak. The fore and aft trim can be assessed by floating the sea kayak before you load it and looking to see how it sits in the water. Once you have loaded it go through the same process. The sea kayak will now be sitting lower in the water, but the proportions of how high the bow is relative to the stern should still be the same as when the sea kayak was unladen.

There will be a process of trial and error to find the correct and balanced solution for your particular sea kayak/paddler combination. Once you find a method that works, stick with it. Pack the sea kayak the same way every time. This means you will get to know exactly where everything is in your sea kayak as well as knowing it will be comfortable and responsive to handle.

Trim and handling tips…

  • Make a pile of items/dry bags which you will need easy or frequent access to throughout the day. Make a second pile of camping and cooking gear which you will only need access to once you land for the night.
  • Take your tent poles out of the tent bag – they will fit perfectly right in the stern of the sea kayak behind the skeg box.
  • Load heavy kit near the centre of the sea kayak and as low down in the bottom of the boat as possible, helping to keep the centre of gravity low. Lighter items can be packed on top of the heavier ones.
  • It is cooler lower in the hull below the water line – keep veg, cheese and other perishable items near the bottom of the sea kayak. This is a perfect place for chilling the white wine!
  • If your sea kayak has a compass, keep metal items away from it.
  • Pack the items you will want easy access to in the day hatch – it is very difficult to open the rear or front hatch on the water. Also if these hatches are opened and fill with water, it will make the sea kayak very difficult to handle. If the day hatch is opened and ends up filled with water, it will have very little effect on the sea kayaks handling.
  • The space behind the seat is a great place to store water carriers, or other items which don’t mind getting wet, like sea kayak carry staps.
  • If you are very heavily laden and need to store a kit bag in the cockpit, in front of your feet, be careful. Ensure the bag is well sealed and most importantly, make sure it is not going to inhibit the paddlers exit from the sea kayak should they capsize.

Packing essentials and the Golden Rules

  • A sea kayak which is well balanced and trimmed will be easier to paddle, manoeuvre and control.
  • Keeping the weight low in the sea kayak increases the stability.
  • Keeping the weight near the centre of the sea kayak and the ends lighter will make the sea kayak easier to control.
  • Emergency gear; VHF, repair kits, pump etc should be easily accessible, preferably without having to open hatches.
  • Any gear which you need easy access to frequently throughout the day should be in the day hatch.

When you land

Despite spending all this time ensuring that your gear is well packed and your sea kayak is balanced, once you arrive at your destination you are going to have to unpack it. If you have a good mental map of where everything is life will be much easier at this point. You may not need to unpack everything, food for the following days can be left in the sea kayak, as can most emergency gear, spare stoves and clothes.

Unpacking tips…

  • Take a couple of large, durable light weight bags with you (IKEA bags are perfect), this makes the journey from the landing spot to where you are pitching your tent much easier.

And finally…

A well packed sea kayak is a joy to paddle, having an organised system which works for you and can be repeated every time you go on the water will make life much less stressful when it comes to the dreaded start of trip pack up!

Hopefully, you’ll now be a little less daunted when thinking about what you need for your sea kayaking trip – obviously there isn’t space for the kitchen sink, but with careful planning you’ll have room for all the essentials plus a few treats as well!

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