Sea Kayak Adventures office staff member and first time kayaker Amber Crane just returned from a tour in Baja (Oct 30-Nov 4, 2011).  She will chronicle her adventures in a new blog series:

Voyage of a Novice Kayaker

Part 2: Do as I say, not as I did – Trip Preparation

I didn’t do everything wrong on my Baja trip.  After all, I had the time of my life!  I just don’t recommend pinning the success of your tour on my misadventures. Consequently, I bestow this blog to fellow nervous-novices that you might glean from it the fruits of my foibles.

As mentioned in my last blog, took a proactive approach to my upcoming trip that worked quite well, initially. I familiarized myself with a sea kayak prior to my departure and increased my upper body strength.  I talked through my concerns and asked questions about anything of which I was unsure. (I must confess, I didn’t even know what a ‘dry bag’ was when I started working for Sea Kayak Adventures!)  I joined a trip that had motorboat-support, which was a luxurious addition and support to make up for my minimal camping and paddling experience.  I read through the pre-trip e-mail and thoroughly combed through every page of the trip guide with devotion and studious measure.

…Okay, okay, I actually just browsed through the first through pages, tore out the pack list, and then flipped through to look at all of the animal pictures.

In my defense, we have different trip guides for all of our Baja and BC tours, and I have read most of them in my time at SKA.  However, for those of you who didn’t receive months of professional training about the structure and operation of Baja kayak tours as I did, you will find a great depth of information in these handy packets.  And thus we come to the first “do as I say, not as I did” tip: read as much of the trip guide as you can, or at least the first few pages and the itinerary. Answers to most of my questions could have been found here.

You’ll still have a great trip if you are confined to a brevity in this matter, but I would have had a richer experience had I taken time to learn a bit more about the natural area.  I had a few “Hey I saw a picture of that but now I can’t remember what it’s called” moments.  While a wildlife library accompanies each tour, I found myself excitedly pointing out at camp each fish I had seen rather than absorbing any information. Now, with hundreds of underwater photographs depicting extraordinary ocean-dwellers and no memory of their names or behavior, I wish I paid better attention! I suppose that’s just the animal-lover in me.  Your results may vary.

I will spare you the details of my delight (for now) over the multitude of marine life in Baja, and proceed to the matter of greatest importance: the pack list. Mine lived a ragged, quarterfold existence in my purse for several weeks as I darted to-and-fro, squirreling away items into my carry-on bag and scratching them off the list. As I had never packed for a kayak trip before, this advanced-planning was quite helpful for avoiding the “Did I forget my ____” syndrome. I felt quite confident with my supplies and preparation at this stage. The trouble erupted when I had crossed everything off of the pack list, looked at my half-full duffel bag, and asked, “What else?”

My advice: the pack list is fantastic. Stick to it, without duplicating anything, but also keep in mind current weather conditions (which can fluctuate on any given week).

Here’s why: while two dry bags (these, if you’re still not sure what they are) and smaller, lap-bag easily hold the entire pack list and more, they must fit along with the sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and tent provided by SKA into your kayak.  While the Seaward Southwinds are considered downright spacious in the kayak world, the hatches are shaped into points at either end which means they require a bit more finesse to pack than a square suitcase. The guides, which I now consider to be packing-puzzle miracle-workers, ensure that all items and personal gear for the trip end up safely stored in the kayaks, so don’t hesitate to ask for help!

I found that I used quite little on my trip compared to what I brought. For example, the pack list suggests 2 pairs of socks. I brought 4.  I used one pair.  I took three kayaking outfits with me.  I used one.  I brought about a half dozen bandanas. I used (you guessed it) one. I brought underwear. I went commando with a pair of swim shorts (yeah, too much information, but trust me – at some point you will wonder and now you don’t have to ask). I brought a journal and two books.  I wrote on the plane rides but didn’t touch these again for the duration of my tour (though others on my trip did, so bringing one piece of reading material is still recommended).

On the other hand, don’t be afraid to add items that aren’t on the list (within limits - remember pointy kayak hatches!). I brought an extra long-sleeved shirt because I get chilly easily, and did find that helpful when the wind picked up at and I wanted to walk along the beach. I swam not in my swimsuit, but in a rashguard and swimshorts (and sometimes my wetsuit, even though daytime temperatures were in the 90s F/mid 30s C), so I wish I had brought an extra sports bra for swimming.

Additionally, in all my packing glory, I assumed I would want fresh clothing each day. Instead, I “washed” my kayaking garments in the ocean from time to time and felt quite eager to re-use them every day. I actually remember thinking, the first time I stuck sandy feet into socks, that I didn’t want to subject any other “clean” clothing to the same treatment (though of course everything was fine with a run through the washing machine back home). Next time, I will pick a few “sacrificial lambs” from my wardrobe, and leave the duplicates behind.

My valuables survived the trip almost without incident. I had a near miss with one of my cameras when I zipped it in a plastic envelope and left it in my fanny pack at my feet while kayaking.  Apparently, the process of getting into the kayak pulls a small amount of water into the cockpit (mostly from my aquashoes).  I learned immediately that that anything that doesn’t say the word “waterproof” isn’t.  Next time, I will bring a small camera-drybag to ensure my camera is completely protected.

My passport, cash, wallet, and cell phone were sealed in a ziplock bag and tucked away at the bottom of a drybag.  As a side note, one of the greatest surprises on my trip was the importance of small cash denominations.  While American money was well-accepted, change for currency over $10 wasn’t easy to come by in sleepy Loreto.  Next time I will bring mostly 1 dollar and 5 dollar bills, which are great for tips and small purchases. A few 10s and 20s for larger buys or nicer meals are fine.

Happily, many folks in Loreto speak enough English that even utterly clueless, blindingly-white people like myself can order a cup of coffee or a meal (pointing at the menu is a failsafe!) or purchase gifts.  However, a small investment in a Spanish phrasebook would have made me feel more comfortable traveling in a foreign country, even in a town so quiet as Loreto.  I mostly spent my time in town surrounded by other guests or helpful SKA personnel, and my new guide friends patiently took the effort to teach me new Spanish words every day, most of which I have now forgotten.  At least I remembered to say “Gracias,” at every available opportunity, beaming widely as I presented my monotonous Mexican refrain in a hopefully-endearing manner. I don’t think anyone minded, and I was having too much fun to care!

Best of luck packing for your trip! If you need any advice or more tips, call the SKA office. We’re here to help.

Stay tuned to hear more about my adventures with the next edition: "Voyage of Novice Kayaker, Part 3: Isn’t it time you talked about the actual trip?"

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