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5 Tips For Kayak Camping In The Apostle Islands

Updated: Feb 26

Waking with the sunrise... Sand Island, Apostle Islands Wisconsin.

I'm going to assume that readers will already have camping experience, so this article will focus on tips for camping via sea kayak specifically.

Tip #1 - Put Safety First

I met a couple who had planned a 3000 mile expedition, starting in Lake Superior, heading through the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean, down the east coast, through Central America via the Panama canal, and up the west coast to Washington State. What an amazing endeavor!

Unfortunately they only made it about 70 miles before a bear demolished their boats to get to the food they had stored in the hatches. Animals in general have a keen sense of smell and like to hang out near the water. Bears often fish at sand bars (also great places to camp) and wander beaches in search of food washing up on shore. Those folks lost their boats and ended the trip of a lifetime due to sheer laziness.

In many locations, losing your boat also means you're stuck. (Think islands or campsites with no land access) From experience I can tell you that winds often switch in the middle of the night, and can wash your boat out to sea. At a minimum, tie up your boat to shore. If possible, carry your boat up to camp far away from potential sea level rise.

And don't feed the bears.

Tip # 2 - Bring The Right Gear

As a paddler you will be exposed to being wet on a daily basis, so you will want to have plenty of quick dry clothing, packed in waterproof bags.

Waterproof, or "dry bags" come in all shapes and sizes, with the best being light, slick, (easy to get in and out) and shaped specifically to your boat storage areas. (Typically triangular hatches) Several smaller bags are better than one large one, both for fitting in the boat and finding what you need later. You can buy different colors or even see-through dry bags to help with organization at camp.

Remember your drying line!

Tip #3 - How To Fit Everything In Your Kayak

A typical sea kayak will fit more than the typical backpack. That being said, they don't always have the most convenient shape for packing. I follow the small-big-small rule:

  • Start off with smaller items, packing the bow and stern areas with tent poles, canned goods, and fuel bottles. These are items that don't need to stay dry.

  • Next, dry bags. If your dry bag is too large to fit through the hatch full, you can put the bag in the hatch empty, then pack it while it's in the boat.

  • Finally, pack heavier items closer to the cockpit, with small items packed in the hatches. Apples, cans, tent stakes, etc. Also think about what you'll want first when you land. I like to keep my camp shoes and fishing tackle close to the top.

How about the cockpit? It's not ideal to pack non-essentials in the cockpit with you, since if those items rolls around it could hinder you from getting out during a capsize, or more likely, getting back in during a rescue. However sometimes there just isn't enough room in the hatches, so I'll put water dromedaries, (Bags with fresh water) in the open area beyond my feet. I also keep my rain gear behind my seat, and my water bottle between my knees. You can even fit a sleeping pad between your legs if needed.

I avoid putting ANY items except maps, compass, and rescue gear on the deck. You don't want the boat to be top heavy or to blow around in the wind due to the junk piled on top. Keep it slim and sleek.

On my body I keep safety items such as lights, VHF radio, and maybe a snack in my PFD.

For tents, I tend to keep the tent body in a dry bag (or garbage bag) and pack the poles and fly separately. The fly will dry very quickly and stuffs in to tight spaces, but the worry is keeping it from abuse/tears when packing.

Tip #4 - Play Nicely With Others

Assuming you are paddling with companions, I suggest organizing camp like a house. We have our bedrooms, a closet, and a kitchen. When we get to shore everyone puts any group gear such as toilet paper, shovels, water treatment, etc. in the closet, kitchen and food items in the kitchen. This helps keep frustration at bay and a more peaceful camp. (People aren't yelling "Where's the @#%^$ dinner bag!?)

Tip #5 - Minimize Your Environmental Impact

One of the great things about camping by sea kayak is that most campsites are by nature minimal impact. Fires can be made below the high water line and the site itself may be a durable surface such as rock or beach. However there are a few specifics to kayak camping.

Limited Campsite Areas

Some coastlines are more prone to impact. Rocky or rainforest coastlines can be difficult to find a campsite. River mouths often have a nice beach and access to fresh water. In the Apostle Islands most good camping is at established campsites. Read more about campsite 'Types' of the Apostle Islands.

Human Waste

It may sound strange, but when camping near salt water the usual procedure for getting rid of organic waste (including feces) is to put it below the high tide line and let it wash away and get eaten by ocean critters. However in fresh water it's the complete opposite, (200' from water minimum) so in areas of high use and where beaches are few, nice latrine spots can be scarce. You may need to plan to use a 'wag bag' and carry it all out.

Pack It Out

As you consume your food, space tends to open up in your storage. Wash out food containers, pack it all in sturdy trash bags, put that in a dry bag so that you don't poke holes in the garbage bags, and pack it out. PLEASE don't bury food or other garbage or bears and other critters will dig it up, and ruin that sea-side paradise that you just enjoyed.

Keep It Real

By this I mean keep in mind the reality that due to limited camp areas, thousands of people will camp in the same spot as you. Lately I've been finding birch trees stripped of bark, right in camp. This scars the tree, and unless done properly, kills the tree. I always find dead birch bark on the ground within 30 feet of camp. This just shows how lazy people can be and is just one example. Throwing garbage in fire pits, trail shortcuts, and carving trees and rocks are other common inconsiderate actions. Think about (and help others think about) the long term impacts we have on these highly impacted areas.

Now, Plan Your Trip!

If you're interested in seeing all of this in action, we'd love you to join us on a guided overnight trip to the Apostle Islands. If you feel ready to go it alone here's a few recommendations for traveling and paddling in and around the Apostle Islands.

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