Sea Kayak Camping: Staying Ahead of the Curves


If you paddle the northwest coast at all you’ll know the water is cold and the weather dynamic. And I’m sure there are other places around the country (world) with the same characteristics. When it comes to sea kayak camping, staying ahead of the game is key. Once ashore we can relax, but at the same time, we still need to pay attention. My buddies and I call it ‘staying ahead of the curves’ and by so doing we ensure a quality beach experience. When it’s time to hit the water, we’re fueled up and ready.

It’s all pretty much common sense, really, nothing new under the sun here, but I find if I categorize the three principal concerns and treat them as a simple litany, it makes it easier to keep track of all the other things that can come up.

The idiom ‘staying ahead of the curve’ as we use it refers to being comfortably warm, well fed and rested. The curve is derived from the curl of a breaking wave, the one you ride to shore and one you certainly want to try and stay ahead of. While you won’t get Maytagged if you get behind the three curves discussed here, you might find yourself tired, shivering or hungry, none of which contribute to a positive experience.

Warmth The primary risk with cold-water paddling is sustained exposure, which may result in hypothermia and death. ‘Dress for it’ is more than a tip, it’s canon. And by ‘it’ I mean immersion. Excuses abound and every boater likes to brag that they “never capsize,” but there are only two types of boaters, boaters who have flipped and boaters who will. In finicky seas and cold water, being prepared is paramount. Ashore, the concern is not as dire, yet cold, rainy weather can make us miserable if we’re not prepared. Be sure you can stay or get warm as needed.

Pro Tips

  • Leave the jeans at home; get them wet and they’ll never dry out. Instead, bring fleece or wool, a favorite hoody is perfect after dark or when the wind picks up.
  • Extra socks are easy to carry with you and a dry pair for cold, wrinkled feet is heaven. But to save on needing extra socks, I tend to go barefoot or wear sandals in the rain.
  • Bring rain gear if you like, but you don’t have to. Some people like it. Some like to create a group shelter with a tarp and sit under it carving and catching up, while others like to play a snow day card and hole up in their tent and read. A jacket is a given, pants and boots not so much. To cut weight and space, I will put on my drysuit if I want to be outside in a pour.
  • Be sure you have what it takes to start a fire on a wet beach—a little canister of white gas goes a long way—but I also always stash a little dry driftwood for kindling.
  • Hang wet clothes out to dry at the first opportunity; you might need them later. And—rookie mistake—be sure legs of pants and arms of jackets are right side out. Nothing is worse than “drying out” the inside of your waterproof gear and having a squall blow through overnight.
  • Bring along a few of those air activated hand warmers.
  • Sheepskin boots. Invented by an Aussie surfer with cold and shriveled feet, they are no less heavenly to step into after a day on the icy NorPac. Keep them dry if you can, but even a wet sheep stays warm. I have never, ever, kayak trekked without a pair of UGGs stashed in my boat.

Nutrition. Unless you’re going extreme bring something other than freeze dry. If you have any kind of culinary gene in you at all, you will relish the chance to work with a bounty of seafood. Being a little savvy with catch and harvest and you’ll have all you need. Grilled salmon fillets, gently pan fried lingcod fillets, native style fish on a rock, maybe some rock fish ceviche for the more adventurous. Building a menu around what’s at hand just makes sense. So bring whatever gear and wherewithal you need to hunt and gather fish, mollusks and Crustacea. And, of course, to prepare it.

My favorite mixing-carbs are pasta, rice, beans and potatoes. All travel well. Some of my buddies bring a dry bag full of spices, garlic and ginger and do wizardry things in our makeshift kitchens. Without a cooler you should pack red cabbage and carrots, onion and apples, beer and tamari or whatever condiments you’re into that don’t need to be kept cool. Lunch can be simplified by eating energy bars, particularly if you’re on the water. People wanting real food will bring hard cheeses and salamis, maybe some exotic mustard and hard crackers like Akmoks or rice cakes. For breakfast I keep it modest. I stash a JetBoil in the alcove of the tent and fire it up first thing. Waiting for coffee sucks. Then cereal. Done.

But the big tip here is EAT LOCALLY. The North Pacific coast is stuffed with fish, crab, mussels, oysters, barnacles and clams and every ocean has its specialties (make sure you’re licensed and don’t harvest bivalves when there’s threat of red tide). Not only does a seafood component factor smartly into a traveling diet but it gives us a kind of existential traction with a special place.

We do this here in the northwest extensively; in fact, it seems like I plan trips from a recurring desire to binge on fresh seafood as much as the rest of it. It can be as easy as lowering a shiny piece of metal to the bottom and jigging it up and down. Do that off the edge of reefs and kelp beds and the odds are good you’ll tie into something. Troll an unweighted fly at the surface when you’re traveling. We pick up most of our salmon this way.

Ditto for the high desert canyons if the fishery is strong. More often we hunt ground birds for our protein: quail, chukar, Hungarian partridge and pheasant.

Pro Tips

  • Keep the beer and the potatoes and such in the bottom of the boat as ballast.
  • Double bag liquids. In any case, you will appreciate having the extra baggies.
  • Bring olive oil instead of butter.
  • Cook scaled and field dressed whole fish on hot rock. Find a big flat rock and put it in the fire. Pray it doesn’t explode, withdraw it and blow off the ash, slap fish down on the rock, salt and pepper liberally, frying ten minutes each side. Rockfish are lean. Eat the skin, that’s where the fat is.
  • Sprouts. We’ve brought them on long canyon floats and saltwater treks. It takes a little forethought, care, and maintenance and will likely turn experimental at first, but you’ll be heralded for the effort if you succeed. Thing is they need to be rinsed regularly so you need the freshwater and there are concerns with toxicity—sprouts carry a risk of foodborne illness—if you can’t manage that. If you pull it off, you get the much-needed benefit of the green component. A few years ago, Callie was the cook on our Owyhee adventure; she prepped several Mason jars with alfalfa sprouts before we left the island and they were just coming on when we reached the put in. Come morning she found them frozen stiff. She told us she meant to put them in her sleeping bag with her but forgot.
  • Cereal. A good friend of mine fills baggies with a big batch of nuts, grains and dried fruit and sprinkles in instant milk. In the morning, he tosses one in my direction. Add water and eat out of the bag. It’s as easy as it gets.
  • Memory. A buddy just got back from BC and told me about the pile of salmon fillets he had smoked to perfection, then forgot about and left in the refrigerator. We’ve all done that, waiting until the last minute to put something in the cooler. I’ve taken to writing a note and putting it on the dash of the rig as insurance.

Rest One of the more stupid things I can ever remember doing segues in here. I always sleep with a coffee set up at arm’s length; I don’t even have to get out of my bag. We were camped on the John Day River fishing steelies and I wanted an early start to nail a favorite run. I had water ready to fire up in the Jet Boil and an itchy piezo finger.

At one point I awoke to flashlights outside my tent and got up to pee and investigate. I found Dawn (our cook) and her partner up and dressed. It seemed like I’d slept a while already and I assumed they were about to head out fishing or get some breakfast going. I scuttled back in pulled the trigger, brewing up a huge cup of double instant and drank it down. Then, proud of my commitment to getting such an early start, I slipped into my waders and went outside. I found a dark and quiet camp.

I thought maybe they’d both hiked up the river as they’d talked about, but when I crawled back in to check my watch, it was two in the morning! Talk about all dressed up and nowhere to go.

If you’re not used to sleeping in the wild, it might take some getting used to. The cough of waves throughout the night replaces the hum of the refrigerator and the wind gusting in the treetops replaces the drone of trucks and cars passing by the house.

Bring a reliable shelter. Mountaintops and exposed seacoasts can spank you like no other. Nothing ruins a good night’s sleep like bailing out a leaky tent or waking up every time the wind climbs to a shriek and you’re hoping you’re still in Kansas.

A buddy of mine likes tarps. He can do some amazing things with one. The upside, it’s a light, creative piece of gear that will keep the worst of the weather at bay, the downside is you might want to feel snugger. Another buddy likes hammocks; again, a different slice.

Bring along a good pad (and repair kit) and keep your sleeping bag in a secure dry bag. Down is fine if you take care to keep it dry, but if you’re the careless type and/or out for an extended period, bring treated down or synthetic fill.

Pro Tips

  • Take a minute to walk around and find the right spot, the Feng shui of tent siting. I was on the coast one time and came ashore at a long, crescent beach. I pitched my tent at one end with a rock wall behind me and a cozy feeling about it. That night the tide came in and a huge shore break boomed, reverberating off the rock wall like cannon fire. It was so bad I got up naked in the dark and dragged my tent down the beach to escape.
  • So on that note, avoid sleeping near shore breaks, pitch your tent on level ground after removing rocks and sticks and crab claws. And be sure to look for rain runoff tracks leading out of the rainforest BEFORE YOU PITCH. A big spell of rain can turn a beach into a tailwater.
  • Bring a warm enough bag, but avoid overkill; temps are typically in the fifties mid-to-fringe season. Double bag the sucker. If you insist on down, be sure and keep it dry. You may remember Dawn, our Dutch Oven Diva. She and her partner Dave were floating the lower John Day River in November with us and fly fishing for steelies. I’ll never forget the fuss when she and Dave pulled into camp after flipping upriver and spreading their down bags out on a giant makeshift clothesline in front of a roaring fire. Inevitably, they came out dry, but crispy.
  • Bring your pillow (I’m locked in with mine). And earplugs. I sleep with one every night, even at home. I swap it out to the open ear when I roll over.

Ideally, we all want to be comfortable, a little hot or a little cool is fine, as long as we can adjust. But if we’re stuck somehow wet and cold with no heat, no fire, inadequate shelter and no dry clothes, it’s another story. Jack London’s short story, “To Build a Fire,” made a lasting impression on me. If you get a chance, read it, but if not, hopefully this short article will suffice.