See the World From a Kayak

Go where no other boats can. Plan your kayaking vacation with our expert tips on how to choose the right type of trip and find recommended tours.

Arranging a kayak vacation, whether a day kayaking trip or a multi-day adventure, is much easier than you might think. The skinny craft is multi-faceted: It goes through churning whitewater, along lake and estuary coastlines, and can even catch a wave. You just need to determine what type of kayak travel you want, where you’d like to go and how long you’d like to be in the boat.

I’ve been kayaking since 1993, and met my husband, a former member of the USA Canoe/Kayak team, while on a kayak tour under the Golden Gate Bridge. Together, we own a kayak business and have paddled in 12 countries. Take it from me: you don’t have to be an edgy adventurer to get out on the water.

How to Plan a Kayak Vacation

Pick Your Adventure

The first thing you have to decide is what you want to do. Dream of navigating a bubbling mountain river? Want to catch the perfect wave? What about quietly investigating the wharf of a coastal town on a sea kayaking vacation? The choices are nearly endless, but once you decide what kind of adventure you want (from the athletic to the lily-dipper), it’s easier to determine the destination and length of the trip.

You can venture out for an hour rental or a multi-week excursion. How long do you want to go? Some folks want the option to take a little paddle every day of their vacation (in lieu of jogging or going to the gym). Some prefer kayaking tours to get to know a new destination. Others are excited by the idea of packing a week’s worth of food and provisions and hitting the watery trail.

First, consider if everyone in your party agrees on what makes a great vacation. If not, can you choose an option that will allow everyone to participate as they wish? Cranky kayakers are not good traveling companions. Make sure nobody gets in over his head.

Kayak Destinations

Take a look at destinations that feature your preferred method of kayaking. In many cases (California, New Zealand, Costa Rica and more), there are destinations for every kayak discipline. In others, you have only one choice. Take your time and choose wisely. [See our list of Top Kayak Destinations.]

Outfitter or Solo?

There are many reasons to pick an outfitter for your kayak trip. Outfitters have gear for people of all ages and sizes, guides know destinations extremely well and can give advice with different skill levels in mind, any necessary permits and logistical hassles are taken care of, and food and drink for the trip are packed for you. This allows more time to relax and recreate, instead of practicing your survival skills. Here are a few kayak outfitters to consider when planning your trip:

Nantahala Outdoor Center. Flatwater and whitewater classes, excursions and kids’ camps in the southeastern United States. Kayak trips in Chile, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Mexico and Panama. Tel. 888-905-7238.

Otter Bar Lodge Kayak School. Whitewater kayak courses on the Salmon River in California. Kayak trips in the Grand Canyon and New Zealand. Tel. 530-462-4772.

Tongass Kayak Adventures. Sea kayaking trips in Alaska. Tel. 907-772-4600.

Half Moon Bay Kayak Company. Rentals, classes, trips and kids’ camps on the California Bay Area coast. Sea kayak trips in Baja California and Honduras. [Full disclosure: This is my business.] Tel. 650-773-6101.

Prices vary widely, depending on the type and place of your trip. Plan to spend anywhere from $45 overseas to $65 in the United States for a three-hour guided trip, to $1,000 (low-end) to $2,000 (deluxe) for an organized weeklong tour.

If you know the water at your destination well, have kayaked enough to have solid rescue and survival skills, have your own gear (or can rent from an outfitter) and really want to organize your own trip—then by all means, go it solo. But make sure you’ve correctly assessed your skills and knowledge of the area, because it won’t always be easy to get help if you need it. Make sure you have a marine radio or cell phone (and know whether you will have a signal) for emergencies.

If you’re not yet ready to run your own trip, but would like to learn the skills to do so, consider signing up for a course with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). The organization teaches kayak courses in Alaska, the Rocky Mountains, Mexico, Patagonia and more. Tel. 800-710-NOLS (6657).

What to Bring

Whether on a day or extended trip, your outfitter is likely to include some basic gear besides just the kayak and paddle. Any reputable outfitter will give you a list of things to bring (and what they have available for you to use), because each destination has different climate considerations.

One constant: Bring a comfortable change of clothes and shoes for when you’re off the water. Few things are as irritating (and cold!) as sitting around in soaking wet clothes.

Top Kayak Destinations

United States

With a wealth of watery terrain, the United States offers different options for great kayak vacations. The San Francisco Bay Area has plenty of top-notch spots for paddling. Many Colorado rivers are whitewater-packed for fast fun. The Alaska peninsula and Florida Everglades let you get out into the wild. And Kauai is a don’t-miss spot for the Hawaii-bound kayaker.


It’s almost impossible to go wrong choosing a kayak destination in the Caribbean. Start with the U.S. Virgin Islands (especially St. Croix and St. John) and British Virgin Islands. People who want to get off the beaten track should check out the Bay Islands of Honduras.

Costa Rica

Many of Costa Rica’s best rivers for kayak trips are just a short drive from San José. Sea kayaking excursions are plentiful along both the Pacific and Caribbean coastlines.

New Zealand

Great spots for New Zealand paddling in the country’s North Island are in the Bay of Islands (north of Aukland). In the South Island, a handful of whitewater and coastal trips are within driving distance of Christchurch.


In southern Thailand it’s easy to rent a kayak and paddle and explore the Andaman Sea coastline and its many karst-formation caves, especially from the island of Phuket, and Railay Beach and Khao Sok National Park on the mainland. Or try the islands of Koh Samui and Koh Phangan off the country’s east coast.

Destinations: Alaska, Colorado, Bay Islands, Christchurch, Costa Rica, Phuket, Everglades National Park, San Francisco, Saint Croix, Saint John, Kauai

Themes: Outdoor Adventures

Activities: Kayaking

User Comments

Nice article -- I especially appreciate the list of overseas kayaking options. What fun food for thought!