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Kayak Camping in California

 Alex Huntash, , author photo,

By Alex Huntash,
03/13/15 -- Outdoor recreation is more popular than ever. Every weekend cheerful families and day-trippers migrate to parks and wilderness areas. They are all after the same thing: peaceful union with nature. A trip to the woods offers relaxation unmatched by any yoga studio or meditation clinic. There’s nothing like spending time alone, or with a few close friends, undisturbed in the wilderness, just you and the stars.

Of course, the problem is that as camping becomes more popular, the areas we flock to for solitude become more crowded. It’s harder than ever to find a place to be alone in the woods. And isn’t that the point?

Why Travel with a Kayak?
Thankfully, the nation’s rivers, lakes, and shorelines still offer untouched territory. Most people travel to their destinations by car, then embark on a hike of two, five, maybe ten miles. Easy access guarantees these places will be crowded every weekend of the year.

Traveling across water is more difficult, and therefore brings fewer visitors. A river of forty or fifty miles may have three or four access points by road. But every inch of that river may provide scenic spots for picnicking or camping, far from any road. This all adds up to mean that the intrepid kayaker has wide opportunities to find isolated wilderness. Kayaking allows you to glide through natural areas silently, within yards of native wildlife, often without ever breaking a sweat.

A group of happy kayak campers saying hi to the camera. Photo courtesy of Headwaters Adventures, Redding, CA
Camping with a group is also fun and gives the kayakers a chance to learn from others and to develop lasting relationships. Photo courtesy of Headwaters Adventures, Redding, CA

Kayak Camping
At first, camping in a kayak can be a little off-putting. Loading gear for a few days into a tiny boat then bumping your way down a swift-moving river? First timers feel sure their boat will tip, spilling all their precious gear into the river. Like any outdoor sport, though, with preparation, almost anybody can take to the river.

First off, you need the right boat. “Recreational” or “sea” kayaks are the ones to look for. These boats are long (11’ to 16’) with lots of space and are very stable. Most of your equipment is similar to backpacking or car camping -- a tent, sleeping bag, some kind of camp stove, food, and water. The only addition, really, is large watertight bags to stuff everything in. Throw the bags in the kayak’s hull, or strap them on top, and off you go.

Where to Kayak?
Northern California
Northern California boasts a multitude of places to kayak camp, freshwater and marine. With mountains means streams and rivers that run into lakes, and hundreds of miles of coastlines, there are plenty of shore and island trips to keep a kayaker busy for decades!

Clear Lake State Park, located near Kelseyville, is the place to start. At 44,000 acres, with 100 miles of shoreline, it’s California’s largest lake.

A great trip is from Aurora RV Park (Lucerne) to Clear Lake State Park. Park and launch your kayaks at the RV park then enjoy the seven mile trip across Clear Lake. Bring a GPS unit and check out maps beforehand, as you’ll be paddling across open water. For the night, choose one of the campsites at Kelsey Creek campground.

Trinity River, in the Six Rivers National Forest, offers more challenging whitewater kayaking and camping opportunities, too. Put in off Highway 3 near Tangle Blue Creek. You can enjoy Class 3 and 4 rapids over the next eleven miles, ending at Trinity River campground. However, you should be experienced. My advice is to get lots of local information before setting off. You may also wish to hire a local guide who knows this stretch. Make safety your #1 priority as help may be far away.

Choose one of the primitive campsites then continue downstream the next day for a calmer five miles to the headwaters of Trinity Lake, taking out on Highway 3 near Trinity Lake KOA.

MacKerricher State Park offers a variety of habitats: beach, bluff, headland, dune, forest and wetland. Tidepools are along the shore. Seals may be seen on the rocks off the park’s coastline. Photo courtesy of the City of Fort Bragg
MacKerricher State Park offers a variety of habitats: beach, bluff, headland, dune, forest and wetland. Tidepools are along the shore. Seals may be seen on the rocks off the park’s coastline. Photo courtesy of the City of Fort Bragg

A saltwater trip for intrepid kayaker is from Mackerricher State Park (Fort Bragg) to Van Damme State Park (Caspar). This is fifteen miles of ocean paddling, so here again you must be prepared and experienced. You’ll be rewarded with striking views of California’s beaches against a mountainous backdrop. Bring a GPS and preload the coordinates for the state park (as well as emergency take-outs). You’ll actually paddle up the Little River about a half-mile to reach the campground.

Whether you’re looking for an easy afternoon float, or a multi-day trip, Northern California's waters have it all.

Southern California
Kayaking is gaining popularity across the nation, and southern California is no exception. The area hosts abundant opportunities to get out and paddle, with state and national parks, U.S. Forest Service areas, and national forests.

Kayak camping is great for small rivers or any size lake. When paddling a river, it’s important to plan ahead and have a car or person to pick you up at the end of your trip, since paddling upstream is not an option. There are several outfitters around SoCal, such as Southwind in Newport Beach and Irvine. They are a reputable outfitter I’ve had great experiences with, and can take a lot of the headache out of planning your trip.

A camper sitting under a tree along the lake shore edge, his orange and gray tent setup nearby. Photo courtesy of Headwaters Adventures
If you come prepared you may be able to enjoy a great experience in solitude. Photo courtesy of Headwaters Adventures

Or, do a little research and head out for one of the many public spots around SoCal to kayak. This area is unique in the amount of ocean paddling it offers. You can load up your kayak then hit the ocean and paddle up the coastline in search of a good camping or fishing spot.

The Santa Monica Mountains, just west of Los Angeles, is a great place to kayak camp. Point Mugu State Park, on the north end of the mountains, is probably the best choice for sea kayakers because it is located right on the shoreline. The park offers great camping opportunities from group camping to hike-in sites located a short distance along a trail. Leo Carrillo State Park is also located right on the coast. It has a family camping area and a few hike-in sites. Find more information about the Santa Monica mountains here.

The Channel Islands are located west of the Santa Monica Mountains. These five islands offer an absolutely pristine marine environment. Their separation from the mainland has allowed wildlife on the island to develop independently of the mainland, meaning these islands have a very unique array of flora and fauna. Be warned, though: traveling across open-ocean in a kayak is for the experienced paddler only. Navigation can be difficult and weather can turn on you pretty quickly.

If you don’t think you’re up for the open ocean paddle, consider traveling to the islands in a powerboat and bringing kayaks and gear along. That allows you to safely reach the islands, but still enjoy the pleasurable paddling opportunities around and in between the five islands.

Channel Islands National Park is one of the most impressive sites in southern California. Each island has a designated camp area where you can spend the night. Park regulations are strictly enforced to make sure this pristine environment remains untouched and unsullied by park visitors. Read more about this amazing place, and make camping reservations at this page.

These are just a couple kayak camping opportunities in California. Part of the fun of planning a camping trip is finding your own favorite spot. Use maps and national park to research camping and paddling areas and find a place that best suits you. There are even a few books out there. My favorite is PADDLE ME: A Flat-Water Kayak and Canoe Guidebook for Central and Southern California by Janice Green.

Basic Tips for Camping with a Kayak

· Get waterproof gear. Most kayaks have a hold that manufacturers claim to be waterproof. They’re not. Buy large waterproof bags and look for waterproof clothing and gear.

· Try out kayaks before you buy. There are many different kayaks out there with different features and designs. Don’t go out and buy the first one you find on sale. Rent kayaks to try different styles and see what works best for you.

· Ease in to kayak camping. Don’t start with a 30-mile trip with class V rapids. Try an overnight trip on a calm lake first, just to work out the kinks in your camping methods. Slowly work up to longer trips on more exciting bodies of water.

· Research and prepare. I can’t stress this enough. When your GPS gets wet, or when your map blows away in the wind, you still have to get home. Make sure you know the area you’re kayaking in well, and make sure someone knows where you’re going and when. I enjoy reading about different destinations, so I’m usually researching a spot for months before I actually go.

Southern California is really an outdoor lovers’ paradise. Hundreds of outdoor recreation destinations lie within just a few miles of some of the nation’s largest cities. Of course, being so close and convenient means these places are often packed with other people. And if running into other people (or their dogs or their music or their litter) spoils your camping trip, tossing your gear into a kayak and paddling out to a secluded spot may be the just the thing for you.

Anyway, if you want to know anything about the wildest waters to ride or which type of kayak is best as your vessel of choice. Let me know!

Alex Huntash is the editor of, a site dedicated to reviewing all types of kayaks as well as kayak accessories and gear. He also offers advice regarding traveling and camping with kayaks. His reviews and recommendations can be found at his website. He can be reached by email at

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