Kayak Camping and Canoe Camping in South Australia
What is kayak camping?
Kayak Camping is an awesome way to get away from it all and immerse yourself in the serenity of nature. It involves taking all of your gear with you in your kayak, camping overnight along the way, for a period of anything from one day, to a week or two. It can be done as a round trip, or a one-way trip. When we help set people up for kayak camping we help with the logistics of reconnecting you with your car at the end of your trip.
Hikers will notice many similarities: the experience of getting away from civilization for a while and not needing support from others. The big plus, in comparison with hiking, is the ability to take more, and heavier gear: spoiling yourself with a bit of luxury e.g. taking a seat, an airbed, a bottle or wine….
Can I take the kids kayak camping?
What an awesome way to make memories! Depending on their age, children are most commonly paired with an adult in a double kayak, but depending on aptitude, it is not uncommon to have children around 12 years old paddling their own kayak.
Do I need any previous experience to go kayak camping?
While we would certainly recommend that you have been out at least once and are happy that you can steer and stop, launch and exit a kayak, it is not necessary to be a kayaking expert.
We have different trails that we can recommend to suit your
- level of experience
- desired number of days away
It’s worth noting that the Riverland offers plenty of safe kayaking: low to moderate flows depending on the route chosen. No special fitness is required – just travel at a pace that suits you.
In line with basic adventure guidelines, we recommend against heading out alone.
What is best? Kayak Camping or Canoe Camping?
Both options are great! The main considerations in choosing between canoes and kayaks are:
Most people find a kayak easier to manage, due to using a double-bladed paddle. (A canoe is powered with a single-bladed paddle: using it requires regular switching of sides which takes a little familiarization - people usually pick-up kayaking more quickly)
A kayak is a bit more streamlined, gliding more smoothly through the water. Our touring kayaks (follow the link and look for Tsunami 145 and Acadia 2) are longer than our day-use kayaks and have more storage space. Many of our singles, and some of our doubles have rudders. One of the benefits of the rudders, for travelling distance, is that they allow you to get in to a good steady rhythm without having to alter that pattern to steer around obstacles.
A canoe has more-easily-accessible storage space, as most of the craft is open: items don’t need to be placed through hatches into storage compartments. (Follow the link and look at Wobbegong.)
Waterproofing. Items that need to be waterproofed are generally stored in either drybags or barrels. Barrels can be used in a canoe for storage of items that need to be waterproofed. Two 60LBarrels fit comfortably in the centre. Barrels won’t work in a kayak – the items will need to be in drybags.
Note that in this article I will use the term “Kayak camping” to refer to both kayak AND canoe camping.
Route Planning considerations
When planning a route, here are 3 important considerations.
- How much distance can you expect to cover in the time allocated? Average maximum distance that inexperienced paddlers should plan for a full day of paddling would be 15 km. Even for really keen paddlers we’d still suggest no more than 20km. Don’t try to push it to the maximum of what you could do, especially if you are planning for a group where abilities are mixed – pick a shorter route that suits the less experienced paddlers. Keen paddlers will still have the option of doing an extra return paddle from your campsite.
- What is the ability and fitness level of your group? If the goal of your trip is to travel as much distance as possible, consider if that is realistic for your group, and matches the intention of each member of your group. It is much better to take it slow and enjoy the journey, rather than put your weakest members under constant pressure to keep up. You can be sure that they won’t want to join you again, if that is their experience.
- How willing you are to portage? (Portaging means carrying your kayak and gear around an obstacle, which could be anything from 20 to 150 metres across land.) Some of our best trails will require at least one portage around a weir or regulator – but we will always let you know if you can expect one on your route. For the trails near to Berri, you are more likely to need to do a portage during the second half of the year, when managed inundations (environmental watering) occur.
A big advantage of kayak camping is that with a few exceptions you can camp almost anywhere that you like on the trails that we recommend. Along most places on the river in the Riverland, the first 30 metres from the water’s edge is crown land. It is generally permissible for kayakers to camp wherever they can find a spot, so long as they are not camping in, or next to, a designated bookable campsite, and not needing to clear native vegetation to do so. Of course, you can always book a campsite, so that you can be confident of knowing there will be a space free for you.
A favourite route near Berri is Katarapko Creek which has easy paddling, lots of campsites, emergency road access within 1 km. and reliable mobile phone coverage on the Telstra network (Optus is generally okay too).
If you’re looking for something longer and more remote, in the Chowilla/Ral Ral area you can disappear for a week and still have lots of wonderful creeks and scenery. To do this you need to be better prepared as help is less accessible. Mobile coverage on the Telstra network is generally available.
It is important to stick together as a group. Use the same principle as hiking – go at the speed of the slowest person. Most people can happily travel at 4 or 5km/hr if allowed to travel at their own pace, BUT if anyone is put under pressure to keep up, by a group who leaves them behind, they will start to struggle.
Also – plan to have regular breaks (make sure that the person at the back gets a break too – don’t rush off again as soon as they catch up). It’s a good idea to designate a leader and a back-marker. The back-marker will travel alongside the slowest paddler. The leader’s job is navigation, and to make sure the back-marker is never out or eyesight or earshot. If someone needs to take a break – for whatever reason - don’t leave them behind , forcing them to struggle to catch up.
What is the best time of year for kayak camping?
Autumn and Spring are often the best choices. Ideal conditions are most likely to arise in April and May.
Although winter nights can get below 0oC they are often followed by still sunny days perfect for paddling. The beauty of fog or mist on the water in the mornings can be enchanting.
Summer in the Riverland can get very hot. You’ll need to be prepared for temperatures of 40+oC for your paddling and your sleeping.
If you want to avoid the busier times and motorboats - when finding a campsite can be a challenge – avoid Autumn and Spring long weekends and the first week of any school holidays. But even during popular times the Riverland can offer peaceful paddling trails and campsites where there is no vehicle or powerboat access.
Managed inundation of floodplains and creeks between July and December can see increased flows and water levels raised by as much as 3 metres. Up-to-date information is essential for paddling certain trails during this time.
Best Practice includes leaving a float plan – a description of your intended route, and intended timing, along with your contact phone numbers, with a trusted responsible adult. This is so that if you do not return when expected, emergency services will have some idea of where to start looking for you.
If you'd like a template of a float-plan, you can download one from the button.
Packing Information and Gear List
Canoes are open with plenty of space for gear, and our touring kayaks have large hatch areas, as well as the ability for things to be tied on top. Weight is not the issue in kayaking that it is with hiking. Volume is a bigger consideration. Generally we find that people are surprised by how much fits into a kayak BUT, be careful with bulky gear.
Clothing - Some people make the mistake of taking more clothes than they need: You need sun-safe paddling clothes for warmer weather. In winter we suggest thermal layers and a decent raincoat, rain poncho or cag jacket. Maybe 2 changes of clothes besides what you’re paddling in, particularly in winter, when hypothermia is a danger. It is seldom necessary to have more than that.
Bedding – We recommend a light tent and camp mat, or air bed with insulation. Insulation is especially important in cool/cold weather, as the cold ground will cool down the air in the air mattress, keeping you cold. The insulation might be as simple as a camping mat (think yoga mat thickness).
Swags are NOT recommended for kayak camping, due to their bulk: they would need to be strapped on top of the deck, raising the centre of gravity and making you more likely to capsize. It is also very difficult to make them waterproof. The danger with swags is that if you DO capsize: 1) they will probably act like a giant sponge and get extremely heavy, and 2) not having dry bedding is a danger, especially in cooler weather.
Swags might work for canoe camping, as there is more open space to fit them into – but that then leaves little space for anything else.
Some sleeping bags are very bulky – these are best avoided and replaced with a quality one that compresses well.
General Packing Tips - When packing, just take care to not put a lot of weight in the front. e.g. a 10L water bag is best transported behind the seat, rather than being loaded into the front hatch. (We advise against drinking unfiltered river water – there are a number of filters available commercially if you don’t wish to carry all your water)
A few handy items we always take include a collapsible bucket, a hangable water bladder bag and a lightweight folding stool/chair that packs down small.
For kayaks, the principle is to pack in lots of small bags, rather than 2 or 3 big ones. This allows the smaller bags to be slid down to the far ends of the storage compartments, making best use of the space available.
Waterproofing - Although we aim for our kayak hatches to be waterproof, we can never guarantee that they will stay that way, so always pack assuming that they’re not. Think about what needs to go in a dry bag – often it’s only sleeping bag and clothes that NEED to stay dry. Cookers, water bottles, canned foods, fuels, and many other things don’t need to be put into drybags.
Phones - A few tips:
- If you don't need to be able to receive calls at all times consider switching off when not needed. Phone signal can be weak in creeks and batteries flatten very quickly when continually searching for signal.
- You'll get better coverage using a phone on the Telstra network e.g., Aldimobile (Note - in the Riverland Aldi and Telstra seem to have the same coverage - but this is not the case all over Australia) If you can't get through on the water, sometimes simply exiting the kayak and going to the top of the bank is all that is needed to get enough bars of reception to make a call.
- If you're having trouble following the map, open your mapping app, e.g. Open Street Maps or Avanza to pinpoint your location, then compare that to your route mapto help you confirm your location."
- If you load your phone up with apps for first aid, maps, bird and plant identification, weather, fire incident etc, they can be an awesome tool.
- WATERPROOF it! And make sure that it won't disappear over the side of your kayak to keep the fish company.