Packing List: Sea Kayaking

By Dennis Stuhaug

Going sea kayaking? Here's what to bring.


Your outfitter is in business to provide you with a great sea kayaking vacation. With a little help on your part, that's what you'll receive. First and foremost, carefully read the list of items that will be supplied by your outfitter. Don't assume that the outfitter is going to know what you want or what you might need apart from that very specific list. And do your best to ward off potential misunderstandings. If you're six-foot-nine and your outfitter plans to supply sleeping bags, let him know in advance. If you're allergic to certain foods, make it clear weeks before you launch. If you don't understand an item on the list, ask. Good outfitters can accommodate every one of your needs and wants, but only if you give them time to prepare. At the same time, you'll pay for each special request you make. If there's a rule of thumb, it's that you should let the outfitter furnish those items specific to the activity that are not items you regularly use, and you should furnish those items involving fit, sizing, or individual comfort.

Even if you're going to be in a warm climate, it's best to bring the following items along. Better to peel off these layers than to be caught in the cold without them.

Cheapest and least efficient is the give-away "Gimme" baseball cap. It'll shade your eyes, but not protect your ears or neck. Better is a full-brimmed hat with a real chin strap (the wind will snatch it at the least-expected minute). Good ones are made by Columbia, Ex Officio, Kokatat, and OR (Outdoor Research) at under $30. If rain is a possibility, seek out a true sou'wester from a fisheries or offshore boating shop for $30-$40. If it's early in the year, a fleece skullcap (Polartec 100 is nice) runs around $10. Add a bandanna—under $10—for your neck.

You need them, and you can't cut corners. Polaroid really helps on the water, and side protection is vital. The Smith brand is comfortable, Oakleys are light and wrap around, and a lot of lifeguards wear Hobies—most run close to $100.

From the tropics to the high latitudes, your skin is going be under assault from the sun and the sea. Your allies are a good lip balm, a moisturizing lotion, a water-resistant sunblock of at least SPF 15 and a biodegradable cleanser.

Insect Repellent

Fill out your personals kit with a folding or cased toothbrush and a liquid insect repellent with a high percentage of DEET.

Look for a synthetic fabric that wicks away sweat—polypropylene, polyester, or Capilene, etc. These fabrics will keep you drier and feeling warmer. Cotton in a marine environment will continuously feel soggy. Look for a mock turtleneck with a zipper for temperature control. You want long-sleeve tops and at least one pair of long bottoms. Check out well-known house brands, Patagonia's Capilenes, and Kokatat's Polartec. These should run under $35 for a zip tee top, and under $20 for bottoms.

You'll probably spend most of your time paddling in shorts. Swimsuits may be fine for lounging on the beach, but paddling is a different experience. Look for a synthetic quick-drying fabric, a drawstring waist, pockets with mesh for drainage and a hook-and-loop or zipper closure, and a nylon or Capilene mesh liner. Mid-thigh to knee-length inseams will help prevent chafing. You'll thank yourself after sitting in shorts rather than a swimsuit for three hours. Cost? $40 to $50. Look at Northwest River Supply River Shorts, Ex Officio, Immersion Research, Patagonia, or Kokatat.

Consider a quick-drying, synthetic fabric "camp" shirt, with button-down flaps on the pocket(s) and plenty of ventilation. Ex Officio and Columbia are under $35. A good idea is a sun-blocking material (SPF 30) and a collar that will roll up to protect your delicate neck and throat. Check out Solumbra, from $50 to $75.

Outer Layer
Add a fleece jacket and long pants, in E.C.O., Polartec 200 or Patagonia R2 fleece, for warmth or lounging in camp, $50 to $75 each. A fleece vest will give you options, at $65 or less. If you're worried about a chill, a technical fleece vest that is breathable and windproof runs $75, and matching pants $120. You can peel these layers off if it's warm, but it's best to be prepared for the cold.

Paddling Jacket
A paddling jacket/shell keeps the wet and wind off your insulating layers. You have lots of choices. A waterproof, breathable jacket with sealable neoprene or latex cuffs, a sealable neck and two skirts (one going inside your spray deck, one over) and mesh pockets can cost over $300. A basic nylon oxford jacket with cuffs and a secure neck can go for $85. Most brand name outdoor jackets—Columbia, Lowe Alpine to name just a couple—will work just fine for your first trip if you have one in your closet. Pit zips will help you regulate your body temperature. When it's time to look at a dedicated paddling jacket, check out the Skanorack pullover from Patagonia (about $250) or the Kokatat Action Jacket ($200) at the pricier end, or the Kokatat Super Breeze ($85) or the Lotus Designs Paddling Jacket from Patagonia ($99).

Footwear is very personal. Most versatile and comfortable are sandals, which can be worn bare or over a variety of protection. Least expensive are wool socks, under $10. Consider a breathable fabric and waterproof oversock to keep your feet dry while splashing around: Gates Ov'sSocks or SealSkins, under $30. If you're in cold water, a neoprene sock (warm, but sweaty), under $30, Northwest River Supplies or Salamander. Sandals designed for active waterwear are under $75, from Teva, Merrell, or Nike. Some traditional paddlers like simple mid-calf to knee-high rubber boots, available from gardening, hardware, and discount stores for under $20. Tennis shoes stay damp; the technical river shoes are great for whitewater but aren't designed for more leisurely kayak trekking. If you go for rubber boots, also take a pair of stout walking shoes for beach scrambling.


To grab someone's attention, you need a whistle—that will be heard far beyond the range of your voice. Storm and Fox 40 are under $10, with a lanyard to clip to your PFD.

Swiss Army Knife
Get a simple model, and you'll need the tweezers, scissors, and one SHARP blade, under $25.

Signaling Mirror
Look in outdoor and dive shops for a plastic signaling mirror, silver on one side and red on the other, under $10.

Dry Bag
Your outfitter may have ample dry bags for your gear. Bring a couple of small dry bags for your personal stuff, at least one small enough so that you can stow it alongside your hip in the cockpit. SealLine from Cascade Designs.


Convertible Chair
If you have a Therm-a-rest or similar mattress, top it off with a Crazy Creek Chair. It's a mattress cover with straps and bracing that convert it into a comfortable camp chair. Under $40.

Forget your good 35mm camera and its lenses, unless this is a strictly photographic expedition. Salt, spray, and sand will eat your camera. The best trekking camera is a Nikonos V, about $2,000. The Minolta Weathermatic ($320-$400) is an autofocus APS camera, waterproof to 33 feet and great for spray and rain. There's a host of simple point-and-shoot 35mm fully automatic cameras, with 30 to 80mm zooms that, while they're all sensitive to dust and damp, are great for snapshots. Under $125. For these, use at least 400 ASA film, and 800 ASA is not out of the question outside of the tropics. For a short trip, don't write off the single-time-use cameras such as Fuji's Snap series, $5 to $10 at discount houses. You'll need twice as much film as you think.

Pack along a waterproof paper journal for all those notes, ideas, and memories that you'll want to carry into the future.


If you're going to be in cold water, gloves are a big help.
If you're paddling a sit-on-top, even in tropic or sub-tropic water, consider neoprene shorts ($50) or pants ($70), from Northwest River Supplies.

Published: 31 May 2000 | Last Updated: 2 Sep 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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