Lessons in Kayak Camping

July 20, 2016  •  1 Comment


I have decided to start a blog to share all the information I have learned that surrounds my photography and give behind the scenes insights. Since I do a wide range of photography, from portraits and weddings to landscape and wildlife, there is a wide range of topics that I will cover in future blogs that might appeal to all or a few of you. My husband and I are adventure junkies, and because he is also a landscape photographer, we get to nerd out together over photography equipment, backpacking/ hiking gear and our love for the Pacific Northwest. We also have a little adventure dog, an Australian Shepherd named Lady, who goes with us on most of our trips. Our most recent trip over the weekend was our first time kayak camping at beautiful Sparks Lake in Central Oregon. It only seems fitting to discuss in this first blog what is involved in kayak camping, backpacking recipes that worked well and what we’ve discovered to do differently next time.


This was only our second time kayaking, but we felt confident enough that we could take what we learned from backpacking and apply it to the weight and space limitations that come with taking only what you need into a remote location. Our trip was planned for four days and three nights. However, we lost most of the first day because we had just decided to do the trip the day before and were unprepared. We spent the morning packing our gear, preparing meals, and loading the kayaks. In a true Laurie moment, after an hour on the road I also realized I forgot to pack half of our food, so we had to stop for some groceries along the way. I am very organized and a list fanatic, but if it isn’t written down I usually forget it. I go through post-its like crazy and the most used app on my phone is my Notes. Later on the trip, I also realized I forgot to bring my headlamp, mosquito net, and sunscreen. From this experience, I have learned to create reference lists of everything we will need for each type of trip that can be checked off before hitting the road.

We had been talking about a photography trip to Sparks Lake near Bend, Oregon ever since we bought our kayaks. It worked out that we were able to take some time off work to go on this adventure sooner than planned, so we jumped at the opportunity. We have been to Sparks Lake a few times and are always amazed at it's beauty. The lake is a common attraction for landscape photographers. Sparks Lake is perfect for kayaking, canoeing and paddle boarding. It is a shallow lake that was created when Mt. Bachelor blew 10,000 years ago and indirectly feeds the Deschutes river. The lake is constantly draining through the lava flow into underground tables and springs, which keeps the water level low. It is beautifully surrounded by three major volcanoes in the Cascade Mountains-  Mt. Bachelor, South Sister and Broken Top- all of which can be seen from on the lake as it narrows and widens along the valley. There are several islands and inlets to explore with the deepest part of the lake being 10' on the south side and the shallowest part only inches deep on the north side. If you get stuck in the sand on this side of the lake you have to get out and walk the boat to deeper water. There are no designated swimming areas- cold glacial water feeds the lake and the lava is extremely sharp. There are camp sites along the lake that are easily accessible by road. Campsites only accessible by watercraft are fewer and hard to get. Fly fishing is the only fishing allowed at the lake. There are lots of Canadian geese and a variety of ducks that live on the lake. We also saw a bald eagle, osprey, deer, chipmunks, frogs, tadpoles and a snake swimming across the water.

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Gear We Brought

While packing, our biggest challenge was fitting everything into dry sacks and keeping it lightweight. We decided to take our backpacking cookware, a Jet Boil and GSI Outdoors Pinnacle Dualist Ultralight Cookset, rather than a camp stove and larger cookware. We opted for dehydrated and nonperishable food since space was limited. Afterward, we decided next time we would bring a small cooler to keep drinks and a few perishable items in for more options.  We were able to fit all our food and cookware in two 21”x 12” odor-proof barrier bags to keep from attracting wildlife into our campsite, both bags fit in a 20L dry sack. Everything else we fit into 3- 35L and 3- 20L dry sacks. We were both surprised that our gear did not add much weight or affect the water level against our kayaks by much.


List of additional gear we brought: 

  • 2 person REI backpacking tent
  • Mountain Hardwear down mummy sleeping bags
  •  Backpacking air mattresses
  • A small tarp
  • Water filter system and steripen (we filled our bottles twice from the lake after running out)
  • Several Nalgene water bottles
  • Bug spray
  • Toilet paper
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Dish soap
  • Ultralight cutting board
  • Small knife
  • 2 utensils
  • Small spatula
  • Paracord
  • Battery for phone charger
  • Map
  • First aid kit   
  • Emergency kit (matches, compass, whistle, etc)
  • Ibuprofen, Tylenol and Tums (necessities after age 30 :( )
  • Wet wipes (counted out for each day in a ziplock bag)
  • Cameras
  • Wide angle and telephoto lenses
  • ND filters
  • Extra batteries
  • Extra memory cards
  • Tripods
  • Lens cloths
  • Shutter Releases
  • Kayaks
  • Paddles
  • Lifejackets
  • Sponges


We each wore a pair of Kuhl brand convertible hiking pants, t-shirt, flip flops, trendy trucker hats and sunglasses. The only other clothing we each brought was a thin long sleeve shirt, changes of socks and underwear, a thermal top and bottom, Goretex shell, warm down coat, and Goretex boots. Our clothes bag also served as a pillow.

Dog Gear

For Lady we brought enough food in a Ziploc bag for her normal two meals a day plus an extra midday meal since she’s much more active on trips. We also brought her coat for the cool nights and a couple of towels to dry her off with. We normally pack along some doggie aspirin in our emergency kit as well for bee stings or stiff joints/pain. On one trip she jumped out of the truck, landed sideways and injured her back. The aspirin and resting in the truck helped her recover much faster. She sleeps between Andrew and I at night in her coat and can get under one of our sleeping bags to stay warm. Eventually we want to get her a lightweight doggie sleeping bag especially for the colder seasons. We keep a bear bell attached to her collar when we go on trips so we can keep track of her when she is off leash and she makes it jingle enough to warn any wild animals of our approach. We of course always bring a leash and put her on it if there are other people or dogs around, or if we are hiking in cougar or bear country.


Ok, now for the most important topic- food! The backpacking food that we try to take is yummy, healthy, high calorie, lightweight, and low processed. We have tried some prepackaged meals from the store that were either too salty to eat, or made us sick, so we have learned to make and package our own backpacking meals. I can tell you it is no fun being four hours from the car and another few hours drive to a town when you find out the food you brought isn’t edible! At home we normally eat protein, fresh veggies and fruit. Grains, sugars and processed foods normally make me sick, so we keep them to a minimum at home. While backpacking, grains and carbs are a necessity to keep energy levels sustained, so I’ve tried to find some whole grain and healthy backpacking recipes that we actually enjoy and look forward to eating on our trips.


We buy quick oats and dried fruit from the bulk bins at Winco and prepackage them in Ziploc bags for each morning. It makes mornings easy to just heat up some water to add and have a hot breakfast. Andrew and I are not happy morning people until we get a good cup of coffee. Going without or instant coffee does not make us happy people. We have started using a French press system that works with our Jet Boil. The concept of a French press seems simple enough, but we have struggled with lots of grounds in our coffee. We are still finessing our technique, but by the end of this trip we had minimal grounds. Yay! We both also love our flavored creamers and prefer not to drink black coffee or powdered creamers. We have found a good replacement to our normal creamers in a 3oz bottle of French vanilla Nestle Coffeemate 2Go that does not need to be refrigerated. Lunch

We bring smoked salmon for lunch on the first day (before it goes bad) and pair it with hard cheese and multi-grain crackers. The other days we pair dry salami, a hard cheese, multi-grain crackers and smoked sun dried tomatoes. Hard cheese has been aged and does not need to be refrigerated. We have found that Fred Meyer or Chuck's Produce has the best cheese selection. Smoked cheddar is our favorite! These meals are great for midday. You do not have to stop while hiking and dig out cookware and dishes since it is finger food. We cut and prepackage the meat and cheese in Ziploc bags so it is easier to eat on the trail.


We always seem to bring too many snacks, but it is the one thing that can keep you going in between meals or if you stay an extra day (by choice or not). We get all of our trail mix from the bulk bins at Winco and make our own gorp. Andrew suffers from low blood sugar from time to time so he likes to add chocolate covered raisins and walnuts to his trail mix to get it back up quick. I only like cashews or peanuts so I make my own blend with toffee peanuts, pumpkin seeds, dark chocolate, yogurt balls, and caramel/chocolate chips. I also bring a few quinoa Kind bars and Andrew brings a few Cliff bars. Sometimes we’ll bring a couple of candy bars, or leave them in the car as a reward to look forward to at the end of our hike.


Dinners have proven to be a tricky meal to make healthy, lightweight and yummy. Most people suggest boxed pasta like mac and cheese or something similar, but I simply get too sick from it because I’m not used to processed food or pasta. However, with that said, Andrew and I really like a simple 3 ingredient recipe that we enjoy on our first night out. Ravioli from the refrigerator case, pesto, and sun dried tomatoes. I repackage the ravioli for less waste and freeze it the night before and put about 2oz of pesto in a travel bottle to add that night. Heat the ravioli up in the Jet Boil with a little bit of water then add the pesto and sundried tomatoes and stir. It is important to constantly stir the Ravioli or it gets stuck to the bottom and is hard to clean.   

On this trip we tried 2 new recipes that I’ve had my eye on for awhile. The second night we had Cous Cous with Chicken and Vegetables. See the recipe here and for how we cooked it in a freezer bag. Cous cous is a type of "rice"made from wheat or barely, it is surprisingly very tasty! It is perfect for backpacking as it is extremely light and cooks instantly. The nutrition value is also good for backpacking. The grain at 38g is carb heavy and has 6g of protein, but only has 176 calories!  Additionally, it contains selenium, which is lacking from the soil that food from the Pacific Northwest is grown in. The grain also contains potassium which helps with proper muscle function on the trail. I found it in the bulk bins at Winco. I would like to try a different vegetable blend with this recipe to give it some added flavor.

The third night we had Curry Rice with Chicken and Cashews. See the recipe here and for how we cooked it in a freezer bag. Andrew gave this meal an A+. You can find instant brown rice at most grocery stores. Normal rice takes too long to cook in a Jet Boil, but the instant rice only has to sit for 5 minutes. I doubled the recipe for both of these since the recipes are only for 1 person, but I wouldn’t add as much rice next time. We had left overs and Andrew even had a second helping.  For both of these recipes we found freeze dried veggies at Whole Foods, but could not find freeze dried chicken anywhere. So we ended up getting precooked grilled chicken that just needs to be heated up and kept it in an insulated lunch bag with some ice.

I did not like the freeze dried vegetable blend we found at the store. I don’t like carrots or peas, which it had. I suppose I’m discovering I’m somewhat of a picky eater! Regardless, I am going to start dehydrating our own vegetables for 2 reasons- I can customize them to our tastes and Whole Foods is too expensive (I dislike ordering food online because that takes planning).  I am also going to try dehydrating chicken. I will follow up with what I have discovered in a later blog.

Nature Brings Out the Best in People

While we were kayak camping on a beach on the far side of Sparks Lake we met lots of very friendly kayakers and paddle boarders. One group of older folks asked us if we would share our beach with them while they stopped to eat lunch and let our dogs play together. They had a little border collie named Brady, who Lady hit it off with right away. They had a blast running up and down the beach and swimming after Brady’s ball, until Lady started taking the ball and hiding it in the woods. We failed as pet parents and forgot to bring her ball on the trip. The dog’s owners were a very nice group and gave us a bag of kale chips and a little honey bear of apricot honey they had bought at a farmers market. The kale chips are surprisingly addictive with oil and salt! I am a chip-aholic. I don’t buy them because I know I will eat the whole bag by myself. Unfortunately, Andrew discovered my addiction early in our marriage when he brought a bag of chips into the house and didn’t get to eat them. I would like to start making some kale chips as a healthier alternative to have on hand when chips do make it into the house… and so Andrew can enjoy some chips too.


Next Time

So what would we do differently on our next kayak camping trip? Bring water socks or shoes! It was difficult for Andrew to climb around on lava rocks in sandals while photographing and he was in the water pulling my kayak up onto shore and shoving me off while getting tiny pebbles stuck between his toes. I almost fell over a few times when my flip flops were sucked down into the wetlands while photographing sunset and proceeded to splash mud all over my backside while trying to get unstuck. We also decided a hammock, or some sort of small compact camp chair, would be a nice luxury for the time spent in camp. We spent our down time sitting or laying on the small tarp, there were lots of big carpenter ants along the lake so it helped keep them at bay. I started using my lifejacket to sit on, but it still wasn’t very comfortable. We had a lot of down time waiting to photograph between the magic hours of sunrise and sunset, even after kayaking on the lake during the mornings. In the same sense, bringing a book to read would add to the relaxation of the trip. Although it was nice to just let the mind drift to nothingness, until boredom set in.


We were rewarded with some beautiful photos on our last night! All the photos in this blog are shot with my iPhone, some are offered for print in my Behind the Scenes gallery. Look for fine art photos from this adventure in my Landscapes gallery.

Hopefully you get some ideas for your next adventure from what we’ve learned and can try out the recipes for yourself. I would be happy to hear what you think of them.

Enjoy life’s adventures!



Andrew Mitchell(non-registered)
Beautifully written and beautifully photographed. Keep up the great blogs, looking forward to more.
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