Tandem paddling is hard, plus other lessons from my first kayak camping experience
Ahoy, car camping crusaders and battle-scarred backpackers: Looking to put a fun twist on your wilderness excursions? Kayak camping throws a boatload of fun into the mix—plus an entirely new set of challenges.
My kayak camping escapade took place in early September right on the edge of Tomales Bay, a long narrow inlet of the Pacific Ocean in Marin County in northern California. Armed with camping gear, my fiancé and two friends, I was ready to hit the water and start paddling—and also blissfully naive of the lessons that awaited. Read on for a few of my tips to make the most of your experience.
Pick an outfitter ahead of time
We rented kayaks right by the water at Blue Waters Kayaking, about an hour's drive north of San Francisco. Blue Waters offers overnight kayak rentals for up to 48 hours, and also provides nighttime parking for a small fee, but be warned: Spots are limited. After finding a spot to park, we had to walk about a half-mile walk to the outfitter. When picking your outfitter, do a little research ahead of time and inquire about the parking situation. For those who want to give kayak camping a try without having to worry about all the logistics, Blue Waters also offers guided excursions with motorboat support every Saturday from April through October.
When to go
In the case of Tomales Bay, a weekday summertime trip is your best bet for a sunny, crowd-free voyage. Plus, bioluminescence peaks there from May through November—something I'd highly recommend if you've never experienced gliding through glowing waters at night. Going in September made it a little chillier for us, so remember to check the weather and plan accordingly.
Permits and reservations: Have them
Camping is permitted anywhere in Point Reyes National Seashore—as long as you grab a permit first. As for kayaking gear, reservations are a must-have.
Speaking of gear...
The bottom line here: Less is more. Our kayak rental came with bungee cords, a whistle and life vests, plus a map of the area indicating marked campsites, bathrooms and remote beaches. Aside from that, we packed all the usual camping gear—sleeping bags, firewood, head lamps, tents and (so important, just trust me on this one) tent stakes. Pro tip: If it's windy on the beach, ditch the rain fly...it basically turns into a sail. Dry bags are ideal, or you can improvise like us and use contractor bags or nylon backpacking bags. Towels are also key, along with sunscreen and bug spray. No one likes a sandy bug bite.
Leave your expensive athleisure wear at home
Just accept this: You're going to get wet, no matter how carefully you wield those paddles. Wear a swimsuit and clothes you don't mind immersing (I wore sandals, a swimsuit and rain shell. And no pants. Who needs pants when you're kayaking?). Post boat, layers are crucial. We brought fleece, thermals and clothes that dry quickly, because nothing's worse than being damp from kayaking all afternoon and marooned on a beach when the sun starts to set. Nothing. Except being soaked and thirsty all at once. Which leads me to my next tip...
Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate
Yes, you'll be surrounded by plenty of H20, but you'll still need to BYO! Remember to bring a gallon a day, per person. I suggest investing in a Platypus Water Tank or MSR Dromedary Bag—it'll make packing and transporting water via kayak way easier. And what's a camping trip without a few brewskies? Save some space for a couple cans (emphasis on the cans part) of Full Boar or a some wine-in-a-pouch (hey, don't knock it until you try it). As the wise campers of the world always say, "Can beats bottle, box beats can." Everything you carry in has to be carried out, so containers that can be flattened or burned will save you from major hassles.
Traveling in a group? Collaborate!
You probably won't need 10 tubes of sunscreen. If you're traveling with a posse, discuss what everyone is bringing beforehand. This way, you can eliminate redundant items and lighten the load on everyone’s kayaks.
To tandem, or not to tandem? Answer: NO TANDEM
There comes a time in every novice kayaker's life when when a very important decision will present itself: Single, or tandem? We opted for tandem because, hey, two paddlers is better than one, right? Wrong.
Here's the thing with tandem kayaks: They're heavy son of a guns—100 pounds, give or take. This makes them more difficult to maneuver, both in the water and when you're dragging them around onshore. And because they have less storage space, we had to put a lot of the shared group equipment in the single kayaks, which had dry hatches. To top it off, tandem paddling can sometimes lead to spats between you and your significant other. Just saying.
My fiancé and I *attempted* to paddle in sync, jaggedly inching across the bay in one direction, then the other, periodically whacking paddles, throwing around four-letter words and playing the blame game. This is the point when we started to question our partnership in life, or, at least, our partnership on a 17-foot-long boat.
Packing: Less is more
The wonderful staff at Blue Waters helped us out with this part, but it still took about an hour. Just anticipate spending a chunk of time playing Tetris with your bags in the kayaks—it's unavoidable—and budget the time into your departure day itinerary.
When packing, place heavier items in the middle of your boat by the cockpit. Try not to tie too many things to the deck of the kayak, as it makes your vessel less wind-resistant. The best rule to follow? Take a cue from the famous sailor Robin Lee Graham, who once said, "at sea, I learned how little a person needs, not how much." If you don’t really need it, don’t bother bringing it.
Our little oasis
Because we didn't account for all the time it would take to get packed and put our kayaks in, we left a little later than intended—around 2 p.m. We were running so far behind schedule, in fact, we almost didn't go. After paddling for two hours with the water getting progressively choppier (it's calmer in the morning), we decided to set up camp at Wall Beach. This was a little remote, sandy area with lots of hiking nearby and animal noises from elk and deer all around us.
We've all gotta go
Bathrooms. Like we mentioned earlier: Point Reyes National Seashore is pack in, pack out. This means you have to take all your s*** with you. Literally. As horrifying as it sounds, it's not the end of the world:
- Pack out human waste, toilet paper, baby wipes, hygiene products, etc. in a WAG Bag.
- Or, bury human waste at least 200 feet from water, campsites, and trails. But still pack out toilet paper/hygiene products in a WAG BAG.
- OR...set up camp at a site that's marked with bathrooms.
Cook somethin' nice...before you leave
When it comes to cooking, same rule applies as packing: Less is more. Prepared or ready-to-eat food is ideal (we packed meats, cheese and avocado), but a Jetboil is easy to haul around if you want to make hot food. If you've got a JetBoil, I highly suggest bringing along some Starbucks via instant. There's nothing quite like sitting at the water's edge at the break of day with a hot cup of java in hand.
Go ahead and get your toes wet—and everything else
Go ahead and assume the waterproof hatches on your kayak aren’t really waterproof. Stuff is gonna get wet. For electronics like cameras and smartphones, grab a dry bag—you'll be glad you did. Water temperatures are around 55 degrees Fahrenheit in summertime, and there will be currents, so the closer you stay to shore, the easier the ride. Also! There will be sand. Sand everywhere. Even in your butt. Just FYI.
Don't put the horse before the, um, kayak
Never tried kayaking before? Never tried camping? Best to try each separately before embarking on a multi-day kayaking/camping trip, lest you disappear into the wilderness and make some rookie mistakes that make you regret all of your recreational decisions. When it comes to kayaking, it's not rocket science or tightrope walking, but you can, and will, most definitely feel awkward getting used to it. If you're not using proper techniques (for example, paddling with your arms instead of your core) you'll get sore in about five minutes—while your boat makes no progress against the current. Last, I recommend studying up on what to do in case you flip over.
Plan ahead! Try to go on a weekday if you can. Keep an eye out for other boats. And most importantly, schedule a massage for when you get home.
In all, our first kayak camping adventure was a success. The lull of waves breaking is the most relaxing way to drift sleep after a few hours of paddling. With great company and salty air, you're guaranteed to wake up refreshed and ready to paddle home.