How to Pack a Sea Kayak Part 1: Selecting and Packing Dry Bags

Packing a sea kayak with dry bags.

Despite their small size, most sea kayaks can carry enough camping gear and food for a multi-week kayak camping trip, which is one of the main draws of paddling a sea kayak. You can travel far away from the car and camp in comfort. How to pack a sea kayak is the tricky part. You need to balance the trim, accessibility, kayak performance and ease-of-access. Additionally, when you pack a sea kayak, you need to make sure your gear, especially your sleeping bag and clothing, stays dry. To keep the gear dry, you pack it into dry bags, which are waterproof storage bags.

Dry Bag Description

A dry bag is a storage sack built from waterproof fabric. Most dry bags are cylinder in shape and have a band running around the mouth. Attached to opposite sides of the band is one half of a side release buckle. To use a dry bag, you fill it with your gear, collapse the top opening, fold it over on itself multiple times and then clip the side release buckle. The folding creates a waterproof closure that as some manufacturers claim is 99.9% waterproof. Prolonged submersion will eventually penetrate the seal and soak the contents, but for using in a sea kayak dry bags are effectively waterproof.

Dry Bag Features

Most dry bags are simple, but a few offer additional features. One common feature is a plastic ring that you can clip a snap hook or carabiner to. Others feature a valve that allows you to compress air out of the bag after you close the top; it’s a useful feature that lets you compact the bag before storing it into the kayak. Compression straps are rare, but available. Clear windows on several styles let you see the bag’s contents, which makes identifying which bag to grab much easier. Several companies offer padded dry bags, which help protect electronics, such as the sweet Kindle Fire. If you already own dry bags, you can make your own by cutting up an old foam sleeping pad and duct taping it together.

Some companies offer dry bags in several different colors, which makes organizing gear easier. When you buy dry bags, consider your color choices carefully. You can coordinate colors for types of gear as needed. For example, you could use red for camera gear, orange for sleeping equipment, yellow for lunch, blue for breakfast and dinner, etc…

Dry Bag Materials

Dry bags are made from many different types of materials varying in durability, weight and flexibility. Each has its place in a kayak. The most durable bags are made from vinyl. In general vinyl is stiff and heavy, but because it takes a beating it’s good for packing metal gear or heavy gear, such as stoves (if you decide to pack your stove in a dry bag) and camera gear. The most trusted name in vinyl dry bags is SealLine. SealLine makes eco-friendly bags, clear bags, and standard vinyl bags with reinforcements.

Waterproof nylon is less durable than vinyl, but is lighter and more flexible. Often manufactures state that you should use dry sacks, the term for nylon and sil-nylon dry bags, where they’ll be submerged. That should be an issue if your sea kayak’s compartments are air tight, but it’s something you should consider when planning for risks. Nylon dry sacks work best for flexible, soft items, such as sleeping bags and clothing. For additional protection, line the inside of the nylon sacks with a light garbage bag. The bag protects the waterproof coating from wear and tear. Sea to Summit makes a nice nylon dry sack.

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Sil-nylon is the lightest and least durable. It’s not recommended for marine use, but the fabric is slippery and slides into the storage compartments of your kayak easily. Because it’s not durable, you shouldn’t store anything pointy in nor near it, and you need to take great caution when packing the bag. These are useful for less critical gear, such as a sleeping pad or food if you already bag (not if you’re going to use as a bear bag) the items into multiple ziplocks. Sea to Summit makes a nice sil-nylon dry sack.

Dry Bag Sizes

Dry bags come in many sizes ranging from small to huge. The best sizes for kayaking range from 8 liters to 15 liters — consider this the sweet range. Anything larger is hard to fit into a hatch and makes packing anything into the small gaps left around the bag difficult. Bags in the sweet range easily fit into the hatches and because they’re smaller fit into the gaps left around other dry bags. It’s pretty easy to fit two 10 liter dry bags side-by-side in a kayak. That arrangement usually leaves space above for either another one or two 10 liter bags in the bow or pots and pans or water filters in the stern. It’s easy to fit three 10 liter bags side-by-side in most day hatches.

Selecting Dry Bags

When selecting dry bags, consider what you’re going to pack into it.

  • Sleeping bag: Use a 10- to 15-liter, nylon dry sack, such as Sea to Summit’s Lightweight Dry Sack in Large, depending on the packed size of your sleeping bag. If it won’t fit within one of these sizes, get a new sleeping bag.
  • Sleeping pad: Usually a pad doubled over and rolled fits inside a 8-liter, sil-nylon bag, such as Sea to Summit’s Ultra-Sil Dry Sack.
  • Camp clothing: This varies, but if you travel light, one 8- or 13-liter, nylon dry sack will suffice.
  • Camera gear: Use vinyl 10- to 15-liter dry bags, such as SealLine’s Black Canyon Dry Bag. Pad the dry bags with an old foam pad or padded gear boxes. When on the water, store your camera in a Aquapac Camera Case.
  • Electronics: Consider using a flat Pacific Outdoor Equipment Dry Sack 15 with homemade padding.
  • Books, maps, journal, etc.: A flat Pacific Outdoor Dry Sack in 5 or 15.
  • Food: It’s easier to locate the food item when you use a sack that features a clear vinyl window, such as SealLine’s Kodiak Window Dry Bag.
  • Tent: You can pack a tent in the stuff sack it came with.
  • Cook gear: You can store most cooking gear inside a tight-fitting mesh bag.
  • Medical kits and miscellaneous gear: Select a 8-liter nylon bag of your choice.
  • Carrying Bag: To carry your gear-filled dry bags from your kayak to your campsite use an Ikea tote bag.

If you just want a shopping list: buy two 13-liter nylon dry sacks, one 8-liter nylon dry sack, one 8-liter sil-nylon dry sack, two 10-liter dry bags, three 10-liter Kodiak bags, one 5-liter nylon dry sack, one Pacific Outdoor 15-liter dry sack and one Ikea tote bag.

How to Pack a Sea Kayak: Packing Dry Bags

To pack dry bags, separate out your gear into alike items. For example, all clothing should go into one dry bag. Medical gear into another pile, cooking equipment into a further pile. Separate your tent from your tent pole, books, journals, spare maps into another pile, etc.

Separate your food into either breakfasts, lunches and snacks, and dinners or into day 1 to 5, day 6 to10, day 11 to 15. If you do the second, pack each day into a separate zip lock bag. If you do the former, pack each type of item into zip lock bags. For example, one zip lock of oatmeal packets, one zip lock of poptarts, one zip lock of energy bars, one zip lock of tuna, one zip lock of soup packets, etc… Make sure to discard and recycle any packaging that you don’t need to bring with you, such as the boxes that food comes in.

Once you have everything set out into piles, start packing it into dry bags. For food, you may find the items fit into the bags better when packed in a certain way. Note: Flour wraps pack best when wrapped around the outside of the bag. For clothing, roll each piece of clothing up before packing it into the bag to maximize space. Sleeping bags should be stuffed instead of rolled. Pack camera gear into padded cubes before placing it into a dry bag.

Before you head out on a trip, pack all your gear into the dry bags to ensure that everything fits properly. It’s much better to find out at home instead of at the put-in.

In part two of How to Pack a Sea Kayak, learn how to arrange the gear in your kayak.

Articles in the How to Pack a Sea Kayak Series


  • Great article, I am in favor of many smaller dry bags. It allows you to fill every nook and cranny in your boat. I also can then be very selective about what I place in my day hatch, my hot meal and drink kit is a must. I also like to have my rain shelter, be that a tent or a hammock, near the hatch. When I land in poor weather I like my shelter up before I unload most of my boat. Ron S taught me a nice trick which is to carry three very lightweight duffel bags sized to match the contents of each hatch., this makes it very easy to carry gear to camp when its not right on the waters edge.
    Last point – you mentioned checking your gear fits in your bags before you go on a trip, also make sure all your bags fit in your boat.

    • Great suggestions and tips. Instead of lightweight duffel bags, I use Ikea tote bags, but it’s the same concept. With a tote bag I can get almost all the gear in one load.

      In part 2, I’ll get into more specifics about loading the kayak and the way that I do it.

  • I love vinyl bags for my kevlar boat. When it starts to get full and you have to squeeze things in, you will appreciate the durability. I find the edges of the hatch opening can slice through the “light duty bags.”

    • I’ve never had an issue with nylon bags, but I have with the sil-nylon sacks. When I get a new kayak, I sand the sharp edges off any hatch openings and the coaming. I don’t know if that’s what is going on here, but it seems like an edge that can cut a bag is just a little to sharp for my taste.

      • I didnt think of sanding them… That seems pretty straight forward.. I guess I would have been scared as my boat was new… but It’s been rebuilt now… so It’s not not a problem. All my sil bags rip at the seams anyway… so i’ve moved on. I use them for hiking.. :-)

        • Composite kayaks often come from the factory with rough edges, so you need to sand them smooth to avoid ripping stuff. Just sand with 80 or 120-grit until it doesn’t feel sharp to your hand.

  • Lots of good info on drybags. Having a good variety of sizes and types is key. I have a few GG sil/eVent compression bags and they work great for clothing and sleeping bags. I also have some OR HydroComp bags that are heavier, but stronger, often the kids use them.

    Another thing to consider is layers of water protection. Since each layer WILL eventually fail due to construction/user error/time more layers is better. Portage packs are lined with a trash compactor bag and we often use a SealLine vinyl portage pack for the outermost layer. I also suppose a watertight hatch in a kayak counts as a layer.

    We use a few of the gasket food containers with snapping lids. One to fit our point-and-shoot was only a few dollars and was strong and waterproof.

    Since we only canoe some of my experience has been different. I usually divide stuff by how wet sensitive it is and then appoint bag them accordingly with more layers and better bags.

    • I agree that layers are a good idea. When I canoe, I use sil-nylon dry bags for my sleeping bag and clothing, and I line those with garbage bags. I line the inside of my portage pack with a contractor bag. I’ve never lined the inside of my SealLine portage pack though and the gear inside has always been fine.

  • Great article, particularly on the dry bags themselves. Here was our load plan for the Everglades Challenge which includes a diagram our our boat and loat ;

    • Nice diagram. One note: I’d move your spare paddle from the hatches to the deck.

      • Your absolutely right. We’ll have that done for the next go-a-around.

        • Nice site, Robert. I’ve browsed it. Lots of info. If you’re ever interested in doing a guest post here let me know.

          • Sure man. If in browsing my site you feel an article has merit, let me know. I think that my Self-Recovery article may be my best work.

  • […] Most people don’t realize that you can pack enough gear in a sea kayak for a multi-week camping excursion. Here’s how: […]

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