There was a time not too long ago when kayakers didn't have fancy neo' nylon stuff sacks, front bulkheads and spiffy deck bags into which copious amounts of nonessential gear could be stored. Time and materials have changed but not some of the old-fashion tricks of kayak packing.
The most basic of techniques should be founded in safety. Therefore the most essential key to packing a kayak is to do so safely. It is important, not only for safety and stability to pack a boat well, but it also affects the performance of most kayaks when the gear stowed is distributed evenly and securely. Generally a well-loaded boat is a boat that floats level and even in the water it is well "trimmed" to sit and perform as a balanced craft. Establishing that as a "given", let's discuss some of the ways you can effectively pack gear away in a kayak.
First and foremost, at the start of each kayak season, I plan for emergencies by creating and then stowing away an overnight survival kit. Hopefully I don't intend to even use this pack throughout the summer, except for an occasional inspection prior to a long, self-supporting trip. My survival pack is intended to be stored way up into the far reaches of the bow nestled into the narrow snout of the kayak where it will remain all season.
A strong, waterproof nylon stuff sack is my container of choice. I might even use a compacter garbage bag as a secondary liner just in case! This pack is then stuffed with a small bottle of water, an emergency energy bar, matches and/or lighter, a very small first aid kit (bandages, compress, aspirin, a few other personal needs), a thin "farmer john" type of synthetic underwear, a cap, pair of wool socks and a space blanket. Seems like a lot of stuff, right? Well, yes, but it really takes up very little space and unless space is at a restricting premium, it's gear you will probably want to have anyway. Otherwise its extra stuff stowed away in the forward depths of your kayak ready if ever needed (imagine a capsize on a remote island you are drenched, but your kit is full of warm, dry gear). That's the idea anyway.
I am always careful how I pack my food for an extended trip. Soft-sided containers will morph soft foods into all kinds of weird shapes. Hard containers don't pack as easily. I still prefer the stuff sack.
Here's a trick that works for outfitters on extended trips. Do you want to pack all the breakfast food preparation items together so each morning this same sack is utilized? Do you want to pack each day's meals in its own sack (breakfast, lunch, and dinner? Both methods have their merits, it's a personal choice.
Pack with Color
The second part of this "trick" is to use a different colored sack to designate which bags are which (red for breakfasts, or yellow for Monday, etc.). In the days when stuff sacks had to be loaded from the cockpit way forward (using a paddle like a big pizza spatula) savvy kayakers would tie a length of line onto the end of the stuff sack, tie a "wiffle" type practice golf ball onto the other end of the line and make sure the ball could be reached from the cockpit. That way retrieving the back was easy: grab the ball, pull on the line and the bag would come forward. Care was taken so feet could not be entangled in the lines.
It follows, therefore, that if you have the same color stuff sacks but pack according to the "all same meals" or "food for the day" option you can at least use different colored golf balls to identify those packs.
Even in kayaks with spacious maws for hatch openings, fore or aft, using the line and ball technique can make it easier to unload your boat.
Packing Large Items
Ever had that too large sleeping bag or tent that won't fit through the hatch opening. No problem - assuming you have a dry, clean place to lie out your gear. Take the bag or tent out of its sack and put the sack inside the cargo area. Use one hand to hold the sack open and stuff the gear down through the hatch opening and into the sack. Once the gear is stuffed inside the compartment, you can secure it as you would normally. Reverse the operation when retrieving the gear. Of course, the biggest disadvantage in this method is pulling the gear out in the rain? Unless, that is, you also pack an umbrella and use it as a mini shelter when emptying your gear in the rain (or building a fire, or cooking, or ???).
One last thing about packing. Consider using the classic canoe country "Duluth" type pack. This can be rolled and folded up under a deck line or can be the last thing you pack into your compartment. The "Duluth" pack is a huge, open backpack with shoulder straps usually associated with canoers who use it to carry a lot of gear while portaging. The idea is the same for kayaking. Instead of trying to juggle all those small, stowable sacks and breakdown contraptions gathered in your arms, stuff them all into the Duluth pack and carry it all up to your site in fewer trips. You may have to acknowledge that the canoe guys thought of it first, but who cares if it works!
Learning the basics of trimming a kayak, properly stowing gear for safety and performance are essential skills needed to becoming a proficient touring kayaker. Using some simple tricks and tips just helps kick up the enjoyment level a stroke or two.
Tom Watson is an avid sea kayaker and freelance writer with 15 years experience in the North Pacific waters of Kodiak Island, Alaska. He is also a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in most of the popular kayaking publications. He posts articles, thoughts and paddling tips on his website: tomoutdoors.com/blog/