Jan 25

Pack It Up

With the summer holiday approaching, many paddlers are thinking about doing multiday paddling trips. In an article that I wrote for the February 2019 issue of this magazine, I focused on the why, what, where, when and how of doing multiday trips. One aspect of this type of adventure that I only briefly touched on was how to pack your kayak; I have had some requests to expand on this in more detail.

In this article, I offer detailed advice on packing different types of crafts based on personal experience. If you are preparing for your first multiday trip and you do not have an experienced hand along, it may be worth starting with one night out, just to get into the groove.

The interesting thing about multiday trips is that, in general, packing for a two day/one night trip is pretty much the same as for a longer trip of five or six days; you just take more food on the longer trips.


The first step, before you pack anything inside or on top of your boat, is to make sure that everything that needs to stay dry, can indeed stay dry. Few things can ruin a trip like having your food, clothing or sleeping gear wet, especially if the weather turns foul.

I recommend using dry bags and while there are some alternatives, like barrels, dry bags really do work. A large variety of dry bags are available on the market: different styles, different fabrics, different sealing methods. Personally, I like roll-up PVC-coated nylon dry bags with thermo-welded seams because of their durability and ease of use.

For loading gear on top of rafts or in the tankwell of sit-on-tops, I prefer bulkier, heavy-duty dry bags like those made by ARK, especially the 30L and 40L models. The 60L model also works great for serious expeditions with rafts, where you want as few separate bags as possible to be tied on.

For gear going through hatches on sit-on-tops or touring kayaks, or inside the hull of whitewater kayaks, the general rule is to use many smaller dry bags. I prefer the slimline CEKR dry bags. They were designed specifically to slide easily through 8” hatches (the standard size on most recreational kayaks), and also into the back of whitewater kayaks, where space is limited.


The most important aspects to keep in mind when deciding what to pack where are the trim and swing weight of the craft.

The trim of the kayak needs to be balanced, with the bow generally a tiny bit further out of the water than the stern. This is determined by the distribution of weight on the boat. If you put everything in the front of the boat, the bow will lie too deep in the water compared to the stern, and the straight-line as well as turning performance of the boat will be compromised. The inverse is true if too much weight is loaded in the back.

The swing weight is also determined by weight distribution, but in a different way. If the trim is perfectly balanced, but all the heavy items are towards the ends of the boat, it will be very sluggish in response to steering prompts. The idea is to keep the heaviest items as close to the centre of the boat as possible to keep the swing weight to a minimum. This is especially important on rivers and in the open ocean, where quick direction changes are sometimes needed.

Another important factor is height. While many kayaks have the option of loading things on top of the deck, always keep the height to a minimum. Loads packed high will negatively affect boat stability.  Performance and manoeuvrability of a boat with a high load is severely affected by wind. On open water, a high load acts like a sail and every bit of wind will push your boat around, making paddling and steering very hard work.

Finally, it is also important to make sure that the one side of the boat is not heavier than the other side. You will expend a lot of energy to control the boat if it is not balanced side to side. It is very easy to test the balance by putting the boat on the water without any person in/on it. If it leans to a side, move some of the heavier items around to achieve side-side balance.


Apart from the craft mentioned below, multiday trips can also be done with a variety of boats, like open canoes, surf skis, marathon kayaks, fishing kayaks, etc. The craft mentioned here are the most commonly used kayaks for multiday trips in South Africa.

Sit-on-top recreational kayak

Fast sit-on-top rec kayaks are perfect for South African conditions, and nowadays I use these almost exclusively for multiday trips, unless there is serious whitewater involved.

Most sit-on-tops have a large tankwell (a recess in the deck) behind the seat, which is perfect for stowing big items. I put all my sleeping gear in one big dry bag (typically a 30L or 40L bag, depending on the season), which includes a tent, self-inflating mattress, sleeping bag and even a self-inflating pillow.

The heaviest items go directly behind my seat through a hatch, to keep the swing weight low. This includes my stove, gas bottle, cooking utensils, food and snacks. My clothing and other light items go through the bow hatch.

Many sit-on-tops also have a separate, sealed-off hatch compartment close to the seat that can be used for small but important items like phone, keys, camera, as well as snacks.

Whitewater kayak

For multiday trips with whitewater kayaks, you have to make do with a lot less stuff. Firstly, packing space is very limited. Secondly, the weight of gear is a big issue, as the performance of the kayak in rapids is affected if it is very heavy. When doing whitewater expeditions, there is also the possibility of long and difficult portages, which becomes even more tiring with a heavily loaded kayak.

As a result, gear taken on whitewater trips tends to be spartan and functional. Instead of a tent, I take a bivvy bag. There is simply no space for luxuries, which are easily be fitted into or onto any of the other craft. Also, most whitewater kayaks do not have a hatch. Dry bags must be squeezed into the stern of the kayak through a narrow gap over the back of the seat that allows access to this storage space.

Because of the highly rockered hull profile of whitewater kayaks, even a little bit of weight in the stern affects the trim of the kayak. It is quite common for kayakers to move their seats forward a notch or two on multiday trips to compensate for the weight in the back. If you do not have long legs, put a dry bag with some gear in front of your footrest to help with the trim of the kayak.


Two-man rafts, or ‘crocs’ as they are commonly known, are very popular craft in South Africa for trips that include some rapids. They are slow on flatwater and a pain in the wind, but they are super stable and can carry a lot of weight. Personally, I prefer larger rafts. Although more expensive, they are extremely versatile, especially when fitted with an oar rig.

The same general rules apply in terms of trim lengthwise and widthwise, as well as keeping weight towards the middle wherever possible. The big difference between rafts and other craft on this list is that it is harder to tie things onto the raft, and, when a raft flips in a rapid, it can sometimes stay upside down for quite a while, giving any loose objects a proper beating.

For this reason, I prefer to use much bigger dry bags on rafts. Items can still be put into smaller bags (preferably cloth, not plastic – consider the environment) that go into the large dry bag. Make sure the dry bags have a couple of strong D-rings for tying them on. On my big raft, I strap a strong net over the dry bags stashed in a compartment between thwarts, to keep them contained should the raft flip.

Another waterproof option is dry barrels. 25L and 50L barrels are very popular. Because a big raft can carry so much weight, we tend to take more heavy food along too on longer trips. On these trips, I normally put food into a 50L dry barrel.

Touring kayak

Sit-in touring kayaks are not very popular in South Africa (yet!), but they do have the advantage over sit-on-tops in some conditions. On winter trips, your body is more protected from the elements. Touring kayaks are also ideal for ocean tours if you can do an Eskimo roll, as you can roll up if you capsize.

The method of packing a touring kayak is similar to that of sit-on-tops. The main exception is that there is no big tankwell into which you can put a large dry bag with all your sleeping gear. The hatch sizes and inside deck heights of touring kayaks tend to limit dry bag sizes to about 20L each.

Most good touring kayaks have a fairly large oval hatch on the bow and stern deck. It is quite common to put all the sleeping gear through the stern hatch, but, due to space constraints, some sleeping gear is sometimes put through the bow hatch too.

If you are a paddler and you have not yet embarked on an overnight trip, you are seriously missing out. Get the right gear for your craft, or even better, get the right craft for the type of trips you most want to do, and head out. Start with weekend trips, just one night out, to gain confidence. Or hook up with a commercial operator that specialises in these type of tours.

Author: Celliers Kruger. This article was originally published in The Paddle Mag in the Dec/Jan 2020 issue. This is a superb, free-to-read digital magazine.

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