How to Pack a Sea Kayak Part 2: Packing Your Kayak

Getting ready to pack a sea kayak

Learning how to pack a sea kayak for camping isn’t a mystical black art reserved for expert expeditionary paddles who spend most of their life at sea. Instead, it just takes planning and knowledge of boat trim and balance. In How to Pack a Sea Kayak Part 1: Selecting and Packing Dry Bags, you learned how to pick the right dry bags and pack them properly. The next step is to actually pack the sea kayak.

Sea Kayak Compartments and Storage Spaces

A sea kayak with bulkheads and watertight cargo compartments that are accessed through hatches make packing much easier than trying to pack a kayak without bulkheads and hatches. Most modern sea kayaks include these features, so it shouldn’t be an issue for you; if your kayak doesn’t have bulkheads and hatches consider an upgrade. An example of a kayak with bulkheads and hatches is Wildernes Systems Tempest 170

Typically, a sea kayak will have a front cargo compartment and a rear cargo compartment. Some kayaks, often British-style, have a day hatch, which is an offset hatch behind the cockpit. A bulkhead separates the day hatch from the rear cargo compartment. New models might have a glove compartment, which is a small hatch in front of the cockpit that drops into a small compartment between your knees.

Other places that you can use to pack gear include the front and rear decks under bungee cords. Some paddlers like to carry a bag strapped to their front decks, which they can access quickly. The problem with carrying gear above deck is that it raises the kayak’s center of gravity which makes the boat less stable, wind can catch the gear easily and make the kayak side slip or affect directional stability, and it’s prone to wash away in waves. Try to pack all your gear below deck, which reserves your deck for a spare paddle, compass and a rear deck mounted tow rope.

Other places that might work to pack gear include the area between the front bulkhead and your foot pegs, behind the seat and under the deck if you use a knee tube or an Under Deck Bag. The gap between an Under Deck Bag and the kayak’s deck fits a bilge pump perfectly.

Sea Kayak Trim and Balance

Before shoving dry bags into the kayak, consider a kayak’s balance and trim. Side-to-side balance is how level a kayak sits in the water from side to side. Packing the starboard side of a kayak more heavily than the port causes the kayak to list to the starboard, which is annoying but also can cause the kayak to turn away from the heavy side. Ideally, when packing the boat balance the weight equally, so that the kayak sits level in the water without anyone in it. A kayak’s trim is the difference between the draft at the bow and stern. Each kayak has a design trim at which it performs as designed, and when off that trim a kayak can become squirrelly or unpredictable. Typically, the manufacturer places the seat so that the paddler’s center of gravity aligns with the kayak’s center of buoyancy, which keeps the kayak trimmed correctly. If loaded bow or stern heavy, the kayak will shift its trim towards the heavier end. To keep it trimmed correctly, pack the kayak with equal weight distribution. If you like math equations, use this one:



CWB = Cargo (dry bag) weight at bow
CWS = Cargo (dry bag) weight at stern
DFCB = Dry bag distance from the kayak’s center of buoyancy

Some kayaks are more forgiving than other when packing for trim. For example, a NDK Explorer can handle 40 percent of the weight in the bow and 60 percent in the stern without any real issues. The only way to find out if your kayak handles uneven weight distribution is through testing. Until you test it, load it evenly.

Where to Pack the Gear

As long as the weight is kept equal, pack gear anywhere, but ideally pack it to keep the center of gravity low and the swing weight of the boat centered. Do this by packing heavier gear low and centered in the kayak and away from the ends. This will make the boat more stable and it’s easier to keep things trimmed — a heavier item packed far in the bow causes the bow to sink more than the same weight packed just fore of the front bulkhead. For example, heavy tent poles might sit along the keel of the kayak and heavier gear such as food closer to the bulkheads. Try to think of packing a sea kayak like a seesaw; a heavy object in one end will cause a lighter object in the other to rise.

Consider several principles that inform you how to pack a sea kayak:

  1. A balanced and trimmed boat paddles better.
  2. Weight low in the boat increases stability.
  3. Weight in the ends makes the boat harder to control.
  4. Keep gear you need on-the-water readily available by packing it near the hatches.
  5. Pack emergency gear, so you don’t need to access a hatch to retrieve it.

One way to pack a sea kayak, separates gear for camping into one compartment and food and gear used during the day into another. Using this system, you pack your sleeping bag, sleeping pad, tent, spare clothing, camp shoes, Ikea bag, electronics and maybe your pots and pans and stove in the front compartment. Because you’ll only need these items in camp, you only need to move your spare paddle once you make camp. Keep any magnetic items away from your compass. In the day hatch, you carry a first aid kit, emergency repair gear, extra drinking water, helmet, rain gear and camera gear. In the stern, you carry a water filter and food. In the Under Deck Bag, you carry flares, gloves and a neoprene hood. Your pump goes above the Under Deck Bag and the paddle float gets strapped to the back of the back rest. If carrying less food (or you eat it) or lightweight or no camera gear, then you need to move clothing and other items to the stern to trim the boat correctly.

Within the front compartment, stuff your sleeping pad into the tip of the kayak and follow the pad with your sleeping bag. Any electronics, such as a netbook fit flat against the bulkhead. The tent poles sit on the keel with one end against the bulkhead. The tent body and spare clothing fit side by side in the remaining space. Stuff your camp shoes into the hatch near the hatch cover and stuff your Ikea bag in there also. Usually, you’ll have enough room to put your cooking gear ontop of your tent or clothing bag. In the stern compartment, stuff one food bag up against the bulkhead and then the remaining two side-by-side. The water filter goes next to the skeg. Evenly arrange the gear in the day hatch, but make it easy to access your camera if needed.

How to Pack a Sea Kayak on the Beach

On the beach, pull or carry your kayak near to the water. Then lay out all your dry bags according to the suggestion or try to balance the weight equally between the stern and bow compartments. Then start stuffing. You’ll find that every kayak packs a little differently, and that a specific order might make packing easier. Dry bag color helps establish bag locations and orders. For example, you might pack everything in the front hatch into green and orange bags. The stern might have everything in blues, and the day hatch might have reds. Yellow bags migrate between the bow and stern based on remaining food.  Try to remember that order each time you reload. The first time that you load your kayak, do it near a calm pond and test for trim and balance. Also, paddle the boat to see what it feels like loaded. Kayaks paddle differently when loaded and the roll differently as well. Test it before you head out on a kayak camping trip.

In How to Pack a Sea Kayak Part 3: What to Bring learn what items to bring and suggested maximum weights of the items to keep paddling efficiency and save wear and tear on your body.

Articles in the How to Pack a Sea Kayak Series

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