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Camping from a kayak. No matter what types of kayak it is, whitewater, fishing or touring, camping out of a kayak and spending days on the water is one of my favorite things to do. For many people though, it can be a daunting task, and somewhat intimidating between knowing the right gear to use, how to pack it, and how to stay comfortable and enjoy your days, and nights, on the water. Learning to do so opens up a whole new way of exploring your local waters, and in this article I’ll focus on a recent whitewater overnight trip on the Rio Hollin in Ecuador in the Jackson Kayak Karma, what I used, and why I used it, to help you choose and develop your own kayak overnighter sleep system.

Sleep System – What does that mean? Sleep system means the overall package you’ve chosen for your shelter, sleeping bag (or whatever else you choose to sleep in), sleeping pad, uk sleeping medication, ground protection, and whatever tools are needed to erect them properly to withstand your weather conditions. Those are broad statements, and some folks may choose to leave one or more out given personal preferences. But, a properly chosen and used sleep system can make your stay on the river far more enjoyable, and keep you more likely to come back for more.

So, where do you begin?

First, situational awareness. Recognize your limits, where you’re going, what you’re doing, and tailor your sleep system to it. Recognize the type of kayak you’re in — whitewater kayaks have a lot less space than fishing kayaks, and performance is much more affected by the weight of what you add to them. You can (literally) bring the kitchen sink sometimes on kayak fishing trips, but the lighter and simpler you can make your whitewater system, the better. Recognize the weather you’ll likely encounter — systems for 30 degree nights are much heavier and bulkier than what you’ll need for 80 degree nights. Bugs, sand vs grass, group size, how comfortable you are in the woods, etc all should factor into your thought process.

Second – With all that in mind, pick your sleeping bag, or attire. I don’t want to get into the merits of down vs synthetic bags here, temp ratings etc, but there are a lot of choices out there and lots of research you can do on those subjects. I’ve used them all, and they all work, if taken care of and used properly. Some people are comfortable sleeping in pants and a t-shirt on the ground if its warm. That won’t make for a good night if it’s cold or the bugs are thick. Compact and functional are the name of the game when it comes to packing a sleeping bag in your kayak.

Third – Shelter. Lots of options here too. Tarps, tents, bivy sacks, hammocks, nothing. Like everything else, they all have there pros and cons. Focus on weight, and most important, KNOW HOW TO USE whatever it is you choose. Tarps are great, but take some skill in setting up, and offer no bug protection. Tents are great, but quality varies widely, and can get big and heavy quickly. Shelter also includes protection from the ground, whether that be a tent ground sheet, tarp, towel, or matt of grass, most of the time, you’ll want some form of ground protection.

Fourth – Sleeping pad. Optional, but wonderful if you enjoy sleeping as much as I do. Nothing beats waking up rested and eager for the day ahead vs tired, sore and grumpy. Once again, lots of options out that are better suited to certain conditions than others, but with modern sleeping pads, you can achieve nearly mattress comfort from home anywhere.

Fifth – And arguably most important – know your gear. That means practice with it, and know its limitations, and your tolerance levels if things go South. Start with small overnight trips with easy access so if something goes really wrong, you’re not putting yourself in an emergency situation. Try your system in the back yard or on a local hike before going 50 miles into the River of No Return. Be conscious of weight. It’s easier to recognize it on your back than in your kayak, but trust me, fewer pounds matter, and your shoulder and back will thank you on portages. Dry bags are an essential part of your system too for protection and transport, and you should get familiar with a variety of them.

So, based on the logic above, let’s move on into the specifics of my particular sleep system for the Rio Hollin.


First – Situation. Heading down the Rio Hollin, Ecuador with colleagues and friends from Jackson Kayak and Endless Adventure International. 28 miles, remote jungle, one night out. Mostly experienced whitewater paddlers. Warm, humid, jungles of Ecuador. There will be bugs. It’s a rainforest. Kayak of choice, Jackson Kayak Karma Medium. I’m comfortable paddling weighted kayaks, but lighter is better. Some are sharing group sleeping arrangements – tents and tarps, I’ve opted to manage my own sleeping arrangements.


Second – Sleeping bag. So given all of the above, for my sleeping bag I chose a very lightweight, summer bag, the Snugpak Jungle Bag. 1.86 pounds on my home scale in its own compression sack. About the size of a bag of bagels. It’s a roomy cut that lets a mobile sleeper like me move around easy, has a anti-microbial liner to help keep the funk down in sticky, humid environments. Most importantly, it has a bug net built into the hood so given my choice of shelter, I don’t need any additional bug protection — a good thing given the human-face sized spiders crawling over the boulders on the river bank. Not something I particularly care to wake up to as a companion in a sleeping bag.


Third – Shelter. When it’s warm, it’s hard to beat a tarp. But, they do require some practice, skill and creativity to set up properly. Knowing a good chance of rain, tarps are great for group cooking areas, or to set up over your sleeping area before you unpack so you have somewhere dry to hang out. In this case, I chose the GoLite Poncho Tarp. At under half a pound, its one of the lightest solo shelters out there. It also doubles as a poncho, which is handy if you’re forced to hang around in the rain a bunch. You’ll need stakes and cord to erect properly. In this case, I shoveled a level area in the beach sand, next to a fallen log, and used my paddle, the log, and a bush behind me to erect a modified lean-to with the tarp. Excess sand was used to create a dam around the sleeping area and channels were dug in the sand for water drainage in the event of a downpour.

Underneath me, I laid down a very light, thin sheet of plastic as my ground sheet. In this case, half is old plastic we use to wrap kayaks for shipping, and half is painters plastic that is so light I didn’t even know it was still in my dry bag. Thin plastic sheets are great as ground sheets, they’ll last longer than you think, can be cut to any size, are easily recycled once worn out, and are easy to clean in the river in the morning before packing up without getting waterlogged so you don’t pack sand and water into your dry gear.

Fourth – Sleeping pad. My choice, Thermarest NeoAir XLite. At around .75 lbs, and like Jackson Kayak, Made in USA, its a tough one to beat. Packs up super small in a kayak, doesn’t hold water if it happens to get wet, and provides inches of airbed-like sleeping comfort.

Fifth – This is all gear I know, have experience using, and confidence in, so I already knew what was in store for me when we arrived at camp, later than planned, after paddling more rapids in the dark than I would have cared to. But, that’s life on the river. Aside from finding a good spot to set up, there was no questions or frustrations in setting up, just going through the motions, which is always better and leads to telling stories around the fire faster.



All of this weighed around 3.5 lbs, easily packing into the stern of the Karma in Aquapac dry bags. All of my sleep system, extra clothes, GoPro kits, and Goal Zero power management systems took up only one side of the Karma stern, leaving 3/4 of the kayak for food, safety gear, group gear, luxuries (like flip flops and clean Mountain Khakis), or most importantly, empty, light space, which always make the run more enjoyable. I always like to dedicate one or two dry bags for all of this essential gear, to keep it organized, help for efficient set up, and quick and easy pack-up in the morning. Especially on longer trips with many nights out, having a place for everything and a routine for packing it back up helps expedite camp departures.


Hopefully this article gave you some insights into my thought process as I plan for and enjoy my trips down the river. Have fun out there, on your days, and nights, on the water….