A properly loaded boat will be easy to handle, easy to find things in, and safe. This is my general philosophy in packing a boat.
Keep it Safe
This should be the number one priority when loading your kayak. It’s not good to keep things in your lap (although I’m often guilty of this when using a camera often). Make sure no loose straps or gear is dangling where you could get stuck on it should you swim out of your boat.
This article is no substitute for common sense: you are responsible for your own safety. I highly recommend taking a swiftwater rescue course and Wilderness First Responder course.
This is backpacking with a kayak, not car camping. No, you don’t have to carry everything on your shoulders, but when you pack light, every transaction will be easier.
Think about every time you have to deal with your gear: loading the car at home; unloading the car at the put-in; packing your boat at the put-in; digging around for lunch; unloading your boat at camp; setting up your sleep system and bombproofing camp; breaking down camp; loading your boat in the morning; etc, etc, etc.
The less stuff you bring the easier every one of those steps will be.
The most important consideration is actually space, not weight.
Things Will Get Wet: Use Drybags
Waterproof hatches are definitely not such. They always leak, or at least you should assume that they do. A lot of small drybags are better than a few big drybags.
You can stuff small drybags in the weird crevices of a kayak, and it’s easier to organize your gear (just grab the lunch bag when it’s time). The only downside is managing more bags while portaging and unpacking, but I like to just drag my kayak up on shore right next to where I camp, and unload from there.
You can also bring a big duffel bag, large dry bag, or big tarp to put everything in if you’re doing a lot of portages- but in that case you’d be better off just carrying less stuff. I like to fill the drybags about 2/3rds full and then squeeze out all the air, so it’s easier to stuff them in odd shapes.
Make sure to get drybags that will fit in the opening of your hatches; test them before you go. Tapered drybags are nice, but not neccesary. The best, driest drybags I’ve ever used are made by Watershed. I won’t put my SLR camera in anything else (except a Pelican case).
Here’s a cheap option if you don’t want to buy new dry bags: use plastic trash bags inside nylon stuff sacks. The stuff sack keeps the plastic bag from getting ripped, while the plastic provides waterproofing. Make sure you realize that this can fail: mission critical items like sleeping bags and camera should be in quality dry bags.
Think about what needs to stay dry (sleeping bag, food) vs what can get wet (tent poles and bottle of whiskey). It’s usually easier to put things in your boat loose than in dry bags, so you can fill up all those empty crevices.
Balance the Weight
Put the heavier things such as water, food, and cooking equipment towards the cockpit/middle of kayak, and light items such as your sleeping bag towards the stern or bow of the boat.
This keeps the weight centered in the boat, making it more maneuverable. Try and stuff odd shaped things in the tips- I always put tent poles out of a drybag and as far back in the stern as possible, for example. It’s a good idea to test your setup at home first.
This will save you a lot of headache at the put-in when you discover that your Paco Pad will not fit next to your lawn chair in your stern as you thought it would. If you are testing at the putin, make sure you can leave the inevitable extra items in a car.
I rarely keep things on the deck, with the exception of a map. But it’s good to remember that you have the option; if you’re just going out for the night on flatwater, strap the 30 rack right on the back!
Keep your stuff centered in the kayak, without too much weight to the left or right side. Packing your boat tight will keep things from rolling around as your boat moves; this will improve your stability.
I like using the space in front of the foot pegs; just make sure that your field are clear of all your gear, and that everything in front is secure and watertight in case of a swim.
A place for everything, and everything in it’s place…
I heard that one from my dad enough times. But it is much nicer to have a well organized kayak that you can unload and reload efficiently.
Practice is the only way to become really good at this skill, but you need to plan a bit too. You need to be able to find what you’re looking for without unpacking the whole boat. For example, keep lunch, rescue gear, drinking water, and sunscreen handy during the day.
Now your kayak should be stuffed full, stable, and ready for an adventure!