Packing a Lot of Stuff in a Small Kayak

A friend recently contacted us with a great question: “How do I pack 10 days worth of gear for my Alsek trip into a Mamba 8.1?

The short answer is, “With difficulty.” 10 days in a standard creekboat is tough, and 10 days in a creekboat as small as the Mamba 8.1 is even tougher. She’s on the river right now, so hopefully she worked it out, but we wanted to share some ideas about how to eek the most out of your packing strategy.


  • You can make a huge difference in the volume of what you pack by having a sleeping bag and shelter that pack down really well. Exactly how light you can go depends on the trip you’re doing, so don’t overdo it, but on trips with decent weather, you can get away with being pretty minimal. If it’s a mid-summer self-support in Idaho, for example, I’ll only bring a tarp (if that) and plan on sleeping outside. Unfortunately for Natalie, that won’t fly on the Alsek in September, but a lightweight tent and a high quality down sleeping bag (down packs smaller) can save a lot of space.
  • Cut down on clothes and only bring enough to stay warm, planning on wearing your paddling layers off the water too.
  • Use lighter and thinner drybags. Watersheds are great, but the material is quite thick and some of the shapes make it hard to utilize all the space in your boat.
  • Longer trips in creekboats require a more mountaineering-style approach to self-support kayaking than normal; every ounce you can cut makes a difference, whether its from shelter, cookware, food, or warm clothes.
Camping on the Jökulsá á Fjöllum in Iceland with light-weight floorless tents.
Camping on the Jökulsá á Fjöllum in Iceland with light-weight floorless tents.

Food and Kitchen

I hate to say it, but if you really need to go light, it’s hard to beat the Jetboil / freeze-dried combo. Limiting your stove-needs to just boiling water can make your whole kitchen tiny, and the freeze-dried “eat in a bag” meals mean no bowl, etc. You can accomplish the same thing with your own home-dehydrated meals, too. The main benefit here is from cutting down your cooking to just boiling water. If you know you’ll be able to have a fire every night, you can skip bringing a stove at all, but you may not save that much space once you factor in a pot you can use on the fire.

Pack Gear in Front of Your Bulkhead

Depending on your boat, this might be a huge pain in the ass, but there’s a whole extra zone to pack things in front of your bulkhead. It’s usually easiest to unscrew the bulkhead attachment nuts and then try to rotate it out from the boat, but certain manufacturers make this a lot harder than others. We often pack our sleeping bag and some other miscellaneous things up there — there’s typically a lot of room. Having weight in the front of your boat can help from a performance perspective, too — while it’s generally best to have weight centered, putting some stuff up front can help offset the inevitable stern-heaviness of self-support kayaking.

One note here: be careful not to tear your drybags on the bulkhead screws when you’re packing gear in front of your bulkhead.

The Lap Bag

If you carry a camera on the river, you’re probably used to having a lap bag while paddling. If you’re really short on space, you might need to put a much bigger bag than usual on your lap. On longer self-supports, I usually have a Watershed Chattooga on my lap filled with camera, day-time snacks, and whatever I can’t fit anywhere else. Watershed duffles work well, but you can also use tubular roll-top dry-bags. Just slide the bag between your legs when you get into your kayak and put your skirt on over it.

Strap Things to Your Deck

This probably sounds crazy, but if the whitewater isn’t too hard, it’s a viable option! The most common thing we’ve seen strapped on the deck of a kayak is a groover system, but we’ve also seen Paco pads up there and really, there’s no reason you couldn’t strap a whole drybag on. In our experience, something like a poop tube doesn’t make a major difference in paddle-ability, even if you flip, but the bigger you go, the more likely you are to notice whatever you’ve strapped on, so make your own decisions about what to strap and what not to.

Unless you’re paddling a sea kayak or crossover boat, you likely won’t have any deck rigging to attach things with. Cam straps and ski straps are your friends — with their help, you should be able to get a drybag (or at least your poop tube) onto the deck of just about any boat. If you’re putting something on the front deck, give yourself a test run before launching on whitewater so you can be sure that it doesn’t get in the way of your paddle strokes.

Taking Out Your Stern Pillar

Disclaimer: this is a safety concern on rivers where pins might occur. Don’t do this without seriously thinking it through and deciding whether the added risk from the loss of boat structure is worth it to you. We typically use this strategy on the Grand Canyon where pins are nearly impossible.

Removing the stern pillar adds a huge amount of room to your boat. Getting it out is usually not that hard; getting it back in after the trip can be. If you’re having a lot of trouble, you can try lubing it up with soapy water or having a friend pull up on the cockpit rim to flex it as you push the pillar back into place.

Lots of room for the essentials in a Greenboat with no stern pillar.
Lots of room for the essentials in a Greenboat with no stern pillar.

Or…you could just take a bigger boat.

Leave a Reply