If you plan this kayakpacking trip well you can pop out late on a Friday afternoon and still be back in time to make the kids pancakes on Saturday morning. The beauty of an overnight kayak camping trip is that they don't have to be all that complicated. Fair warning here: once you make this initial trip you'll likely be hooked.
With a limited window the first step to a successful S24O (Sub 24-Hour Overnighter) is locating a body of water close to home that has decent chance of a place to camp. This 'Start from the end' method is a proven winner and will get you well on the way to answer almost every other question that you might have about such an enterprise. In fact, the only things you need to know will all be driven by this first and most important question.
Where to camp & How far should I go?
The answer is largely going to depend on how much time you have and your relative skill level. Generally speaking +/-3-5 mph is a comfortable pace in a touring kayak. If this is your first overnighter then go for the sure win - 3-7 miles. 3 is enough to make you feel like you've gone somewhere and 7 is not so much that you'll get lost, exhausted or overwhelmed.
Locate your campsite on a topo or bombsight it on Google Maps and do some simple distance measurements. Keep in mind a few things as you make your estimations: 1). Wind. Wind plays a bigger factor than you'd imagine in how much time the distance will take so factor in the prevailing winds for your location as well as the weather forecast. 2). Current and Tides. If you are planing your adventure on a flat water river or coastal body then current and tides will also come into play. Best advice here is to start easy, short, and well within your skill level. You'll have enough on your plate without having to deal with too many external factors.
Where do I put in?
This is really one of the more fun parts of planning an overnighter. For me, its a little like releasing my inner Lewis & Clark or Marquette. With the knowledge of your campsite in mind start referring back to your map, looking for overpasses, State DNR boat ramps or dirt roads that border your water. Local kayaking clubs will also be a great resource.
A good alternative to planning your own would be to look for a paddle trail. The American Trails National Water Trails System has, as of this writing, 49 trails that include predesignated camping platforms or locations.
What do I need to take?
Besides some basic kayak safety gear – your PFD being the most important – you'll need less than you think. 1) Water or a means to purify it, 2) food and a means to cook it if needed, and 3) shelter pretty much round the list out. If you are already geared up for backpacking or, with little exception, car camping, then with the addition of a few 15-20L dry bags you are probably all set to go. Some budget items are linked below if you are looking for recommendations.
We can't stress enough here the need to practice packing your rig prior to your departure. Modern touring kayaks can hold a lot of gear so you'd be hard pressed to max your weight or storage space out on an S24O. If you are transitioning in from car camping your most likely candidates for gear replacements are going to be your camp stove and maybe your tent.
Rule number one of kayakpacking: everything is going to get wet. Thankfully not everything that gets packed in the kayak has to first go in a dry bag. Really, its just the stuff that would be unusable or ruined if it gets wet. If you have room for the essentials and can also put everything else in a dry bag – go for it. But its not a necessity of kayakcamping. My kit usually contains 2 or 3-20L dry bags. Everything else goes in a bulkhead or securely in a hold.
This is by no means the only way to go about planning a successful overnight kayak camping adventure. One of our contributors has a YouTube video on the subject that we highly recommend. Check out Trip Smith's "How I Plan Overnight Kayaking Trips - TIPS and the PROCESS" on his wildly popular channel "Out There".
Also have a look at a few of our S240 routes for inspiration.
The Epic Fjords of Norway
The Ullswater Reach
St Andrews Bay Fugue