How to Load a Kayak

Loading the kayak at Cortes Bay. Photo by Dave Barnes

Loading the kayak at Cortes Bay.
Photo by Dave Barnes

How to Load a Kayak

The boat ramp at Telegraph Cove on the north of Vancouver Island on a cloudy stormy Sunday afternoon is not a fun place to be waiting around while your buddy tries to figure out how to load his mountain of camping gear into his small, single-hatched kayak. That was what I did a few  autumns ago. I waited, and I watched him sort out the nightmare of loose gear. He put it all in, sat in the kayak to see if he still could fit his feet into the over-crowded cockpit, then got out took everything back out, even from the hatch and started again…it was heart-wrenching and painful to watch. Granted our boats were small. It was a grueling paring down of things for a one week outing. He was prepared for a month! Slowly but surely he got what he absolutely needed into the kayak and the pile on the grass was put back in the car, deemed unessential. I was paddling my little Current Designs Pachena and his was the plastic sister to it. Both equally small and required a minor miracle to be preformed with each loading. In the end, he did it. The miracle completed and we were off into a nasty crossing of Johnstone Strait towards Hanson Island and into the Broughton archipelago.

I had much practice in the miracle with that kayak and since have moved up to a longer, duel-hatched touring kayak and you would not believe it, but even with extra space and storage capacity the miracle is just as daunting. The years of paddling a much smaller kayak left me with a routine of paring down my gear even before I left the house. It is a routine I carried over to the bigger kayak and my loading time is half of any of my companions. How is this done? I have four steps that I always follow in the loading of my kayak for a trip. Whether it be a weekend camping trip in the Gulf Islands, or a longer excursion to far-flung west coastal places. The routing remains the same.

The first step: Order of Need.

The second step: Weight Distribution.

The third step: What goes in a bag and what stays loose.

The fourth step: Those pesky loose items.

Think about this picture. You have paddled a few hours and make it to your first camp spot of a trip. It is the first day so there was most likely a driving portion to the day, followed by a mad panic to load and get going before the tide changed or you had to make it to a pass at slack tide, whatever the case it was a long day. Landing, and it starts to rain, heavily. It does this! What is the first thing you want to have done at this moment? Your house. Getting the tent up is the key here. It is my first and only priority upon getting to my camp. I will stay in my paddling cloths. I will remain sopping wet and cold, but I will get that house built as fast as I can. Then other things such as changing into dry camp cloths and brewing up a hot something can be done. Having your tent, poles and the comforts of home readily available is what you must think about when loading your kayak. I keep my tent and tent gear in the back hatch. It has the most capacity and when landing I only have to remove my spare paddle to get access to the hatch. I grab the tent, and poles first and set it up. Done, I’m home! What comes next is up to your own comfort needs. I like to have my kitchen set up after my tent and tarps if needed. Once that is all set up I can relax, get changed and stay warm and dry while dealing with anything else. (Keeping a set of camp clothing in a dry bag that only is opened within the tent is a good idea. Keep those clothes dry!)

Step two is about loading so the kayak stays balanced back and front. Too much heavy stuff in the bow and you will go nose-down into the waves and become unstable. Too much in the back and you will feel like you are dragging an anchor the whole day. I load with the heaviest items at the center, at the immediate back and front of the cockpit. My tent is against the back bulkhead behind the seat, a dromedary bag of water is right behind my backrest (and has a sucking tube attached that runs up through a small hole in my deck for easy hydration) A second water bag I load against the front bulkhead in the forward hatch. Now I have the heavy water bags as center ballast and from out to the points from the center I load dry bags according to their weight with the lightest small items usually stuffed up at the bow and stern. Kayaks are designed to be loaded. They handle better full of gear than they do empty but you have to meet their needs part way and load smart.

Step three is what I pack and how I pack it. Dry bags are heavy vinyl sacks that roll down at the top usually having a buckle to seal the deal. They are water-tight but will eventually leak if submerged. Leaving a dry bag of camp clothing in the rain while you set up the tent is fine. That is what they are for. I have a selection of various sizes from the smallest 5 litre bag to a 35 litre dry bag called the Boundary Bag that on larger outings I strap to the rear deck. My food goes in these bags and again, looking back to step one my food is packed by order of need. I might think at the end of the paddling day I will want a coffee, so my bag of coffee, honey etc will be at the top of the food bag and therefore the last items to be packed. I split my food into two to three dry bags. In one I have breakfast items, granola, oats, coffee, tea, hot chocolate mix, Baileys Irish Cream because it works as both cream and sugar in the morning brew. You get the idea. In another bag I have my dry ingredients for the meals I am making. Most of my meals are pre-packed with all the ingredients I will need for that meal all in one large Ziploc. Order of need here is not so important but if you have an idea of what you would like on which day then load that bag accordingly to limit the amount of rummaging later on. In a third bag or a cooler bag I keep the fresh ingredients. Some of which may be frozen such as soups and stews. Those bags act as ice packs and keep the veggies happy as well.

Any items that must stay dry I will put in dry bags, these things include my clothing in a 10 litre bag, which is not to be opened until it is safely inside th tent. My sleeping bag will be in a dry bag as well. Nothing worse than sliding into a damp sleeping bag at the end of a cold day on the water. Most other items roll around loose, or in small stuff sacks in the hatches.

The fourth step is the toughie. What to do with all the bits left over, and you can count on there being bits left out. In my case these are things like pot set, fuel bottles, thermos flasks, sandals, shoes, water bottles, small dry cases with cameras, batteries, and the like. They may not be order of need items but it is good practice to keep them loaded in the same each time. There will, after a few times be familiar voids in the hatches for these loose items. They will fit and that huge pile on the beach beside your kayak will simply vanish into the bowels of your kayak. It can be done, just do the four steps and you will not leave your paddling companions waiting too long. It is a methodical practice and once you get your own routine it will just click!

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