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4 Before-You–Go Tips for Kayak Camping (and 7 Destinations)

  • 7/29/2015 8:30:00 AM
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Kayaking is a great way to explore the state and get some exercise, but if you intend to stay the night at a paddle-in only campsite, you have to pack thoughtfully. Check out the advice below, approved by DNR paddling expert and instructor Todd Robertson, to help you start camping comfortably with your kayak. And remember, always check water levels before you go.  

1. Make a List Start out with a list of the items you usually bring tent camping. Most likely this list will be too extensive for carrying on your own, so check through and eliminate non-essential items or substitute with less bulky versions.

Tents and sleeping bags in particular can be space hogs, so consider investing in minimalist versions and keep an eye out for secondhand gear at garage sales. For summer, consider sewing your own ultra-light sleeping bag out of a bedsheet or old curtain.

Bring as few electronics as possible to avoid exposing them to water damage or loss, and remember to bring a life jacket. Inflatable versions are light and compact when not in use. 

4 Before-You–Go Tips for Kayak Camping (and 7 Destinations) | Iowa DNR

2. Use Proper Packaging Group the items on your list together based on how easily you want to access them. Tents, sleeping bags, and other campsite gear can get packed first because you don’t need them to be readily available for most of the day.

On the other hand, lunch, snacks, a camera, bug spray, a life jacket and water should be within arm’s reach (even better if you’re wearing the life jacket). Once you’ve finalized your gear groupings, pack them in waterproof bags or containers. Consider how easy or difficult sliding these containers past and around each other will be in the boat, and be sure to pack extra padding around fragile items and gear that could rupture its container. Nylon bags with a rubberized inner layer work particularly well for packing with ease.

3. Test Pack Your Kayak at Home Once you’ve got your gear set to go, practice packing your kayak to make sure all your stuff fits inside. Kayaks come in a variety of shapes and sizes, so pack accordingly. For example, small kayaks are great for agility and flexibility but not so great for carrying loads of cargo, so small kayak owners should make their packing lists extra spare. When packing, be aware that if you put an unbalanced amount of weight to a side, the front or the back of the boat, paddling and maneuvering throughout the day will be very difficult. Try to concentrate the bulk of your gear’s weight toward the center of the boat instead - this will provide extra stability to keep you from tipping over. Speaking of tipping over, remember to leave enough room in the cockpit for you to be able to exit the vessel if you do flip, and secure loose items to the kayak to avoid losing them.

If at first you don’t succeed, go back to your packing list, eliminate a few things and try, try again. Once you’ve practiced packing successfully, remember or write down how you did it so that you can replicate your perfect trial run later.

4. Bring Emergency Items While this is a ground rule for nearly every outdoor activity, it’s especially important when you go paddling. First, have a float plan. Know your approximate route and time expectations, and tell someone about them. That way, if you’re not back on schedule someone can consider contacting authorities and know where to look for you. Second, always bring and wear your lifejacket, even if you’re paddling on calm water (it doesn’t do much good if you use it as a seat cushion). State paddling instructor Todd Robertson specifically recommends standard Coast-Guard-approved models as opposed to inflatable versions with a rip cord because in an emergency you don’t want to have to worry about making your safety equipment work. Another essential item for any paddling trip is a spare paddle. Tie it into your kayak’s deck rigging for easy access, but avoid securing other items here as they will likely be lost if your kayak flips over. Lastly, Robertson recommends bringing a water pump in case you need to get water out of your kayak and an extra charged battery or power pack for your phone.

Once you’ve got your gear ready, all you need is a place to paddle. See the list below for details and recommendations on seven waters you don’t want to miss, or search “water trails” at to find more trails and plan your own adventure.

1. Lake Odessa The lake itself isn’t the main attraction of this location. Near the east bank of the Mississippi River, Lake Odessa leads into a series of interconnected backwater ponds too shallow for motorcraft to reach. These undisturbed waters offer paddlers an excellent opportunity to see animals like otters and waterfowl. Primitive campsites are centrally available off of the main lake, but due to limited space potential guests may wish to check campsite availability before setting out.

2. Red Rock Lake This is the largest lake in Iowa, and can take weeks to explore fully. As such, the lake is flanked by a variety of campgrounds, most of which offer campsite reservations. A paddle-in only wilderness camp called Hickory Ridge is open year-round, and six other campgrounds operate seasonally. 

3. Raccoon River Right next to the Des Moines metro, this water trail is great for getting away without driving all day. It’s also well-maintained, which makes for a relaxing paddle. Campers can make online reservations to stay at the nearby Walnut Woods State Park, or stay at the one of two drop off points at Adel Island Park or Kinnick-Feller Park.

4. Lake Rathbun Although not yet a state designated water trail, Lake Rathbun provides an excellent paddle and some quality quiet camping. The lake is surrounded by assorted campgrounds, but paddlers can get a special experience by staying at the remote, paddle-in only campsites at Paddlers Pines. 

5. Yellow River Robertson says this paddle is the best way to truly “get away from it all” in Iowa. The trail itself is best suited to experienced paddlers, but offers two remote paddle-in only campsites. This is also an excellent area to fish for brown trout.

6. Winnebago River This river gives paddlers the unique experience of paddling two types of habitats, both flush with wildlife. The river and its tributaries start out in marshy wetlands, which are prime locations for watching waterfowl. As the river picks up size and speed, paddlers can watch for bald eagles, deer, and other large wildlife along the shore. This is a whitewater trail, with a class I-II section as determined by American Whitewater. Camping is available at either end of the trail, with Dahle Park at the northern end at Forest City’s Pammel Park to the south.

7. West Nishnabotna River In the southwest corner of Iowa, this prairie stream is great for families or first time paddlers. The slow meandering water takes you through the scenic tallgrass prairie, has no notable rapids, and is exceptionally safe. Campers can stay at one of six campgrounds near the trail. Botna Bend County Park is particularly worth a visit to see the enclosed pastures of bison and elk herds.

For more ideas, maps and resources, visit our water trails pages or our Iowa Paddling board on Pinterest.