Kayak Camping | A Beginner’s Case Study

In Tips by Tanner V.

Kayaking Birmingham, AL on the Cahaba River

Multiple nights on the water miles from society enjoying nature seen by few of your compatriots, kayak camping affords you a special kind of freedom. Of course, absolute freedom from self-reliance can become treacherous if preparation is incomplete. Detailed planning for the trip can often be the difference between a dream vacation and three nights sleeping soaking wet.

This guide goes into detail about how I mapped out my first overnight kayak camping trip from picking my destination to how I will get home from the takeout point. The goal of this post is to share my planning process in hopes that the readers will pick up a couple tips and tricks or share where my process falls short.

Break out your own checklist and follow along as I meticulously plan out the perfect first kayamping adventure!

The 5 W's

I am starting this process from absolute ground zero. My default approach to planning any kind of trip in life is to start with the 5 W's and How.

Who, What, When, Where, and Why

These 5 questions provide footing to start gathering my thoughts and creating a detailed trip.


I do not intend to take this trip solo, but I do not know who will come with me. Most people I know do not have the gear so that limits my options.

I will build the trip first because it is mainly about testing out my gear, then see who will come along for the ride. I suppose the only thing it will impact is transportation to and from the launch/takeout sites and what gear to bring.


The What is not so important in this post. I want to go kayamping of course!


There are a few things to consider when deciding when you will go kayamping. The weather or season would be the first major consideration. I am okay with it being cool in the mornings, but I prefer it be hot out when I am in the water. I am writing this post in March and I can imagine the water is still quite cold for most of the month. April is off because of family obligations so May 2018 it is.

The second consideration is the characteristics of the river itself. A friend advised me that the Cahaba can be quite shallow so water flow is something to look at before venturing out. I dig into how to do that here.

It looks like I can choose the month but the weather gods will be selecting the weekend.

This leads me to ask, “what else am I not considering?”


The million dollar question, which in this case won’t be hard to answer. I do not have experience kayamping so I want to chose an easy trip. My approach to new activities is to set the bar low so success is inevitable. My expectations are that everything will go wrong and it will rain the whole time. This way I won’t be disappointed if my meticulous planning doesn’t go as expected.

Anyways, I am going to kayamp close to where I live which is Birmingham, AL. There are several river systems within an hour drive of Birmingham so I reached out to to friends and family to pick their brains on good destinations. The overwhelming consensus was to paddle the Cahaba River, to which I agreed.

While I have never floated the Cahaba, I have been in it several times swimming or for school projects. The Cahaba is known for being the longest free-flowing river in Alabama and being amongst the most scenic and biodiverse places in the US. The river runs throughout the southern portion of Birmingham, which is where I was raised.


Plain and simple, the goal of this trip is to test all of the things I have learned and gear I have acquired.

I have a lot of knowledge, but very little first hand experience so I aim to maximize my margin of error for the boatload of mistakes I am sure to make.

A one night trip in a familiar area means all but the worst things can go wrong and I will still be able to make it to work on Monday.

Recommended Flow Rate

The Cahaba River can be quite shallow in places. You will need a flow rate of at leaset 200cfs with a recommended flow rate of 280cfs. Be sure to check the trend of the water flow rate to anticipate the river will be high enough on day 2 and 3.

Add a pop out box to show off these resources

http://flowpage.alabamawhitewater.com/ and https://waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/uv?site_no=02423555

Water Quality

Contaminates in the water are a real threat in bodies of water within high population areas. Before leaving for your kayamping adventure, I would consider hitting a Google search for “River Name Water Quality”.

The USGS website measures this data, but it is a bit confusing. For most rivers there will be local group, who checks the water quality weekly to update on swimming conditions. Additionally you can download the Waterkeeper Swim Guide App (https://www.theswimguide.org/get-the-app/) for updates on water quality based on your geolocation.

http://www.cahabariverkeeper.org/swimguide/ - This link is what is used for the Cahaba River. It measures for E. Coli levels, which is the main threat of this river. Through this site I found quite a bit of troubling information.

The Cahaba River has many waste water treatment facilities surrounding it. During heavy rainfall this leads to a rise in fecal bacteria levels in the river. When these bacteria levels are high, it is advised to not submerge your head in the water. Otherwise, you are risking ear infections and gastric issues.

Pretty gross if you ask me. Advice from the Cahaba River Society is to avoid swimming in the Cahaba if the water is murky. The area I will be kayaking should be particularly watched because there is a high amount of water treatment plants in the area.

With this information, I will be limiting swim time during the trip. This should mean I will cover more river each day.

A Quick Guide on How to Create a Float Plan

Okay, so I think I have a pretty good understanding of what the Upper Cahaba River has in store for me. Now it is time to actually plot out my course on Google Maps or Google Earth Pro. I prefer Google Earth Pro because it will allow to save routes and information for your trip and is completely free to download. 

Below is my complete float plan for this trip:

Float Plan Overview

When plotting out your trip on Google Earth, you will mainly use the Path feature to map out the river. I basically had the map from http://www.alabamascenicrivertrail.com/trip-planner/ open on one monitor and Google Earth Pro on the other. As a stepped through the river, I would check the website map for hazards or takeout points. Just combining these two resources allowed me to develop the image above.

Doing this is a little time consuming but invaluable. It serves a few purposes such as exposing yourself to the river, acclimating yourself with key features of the river, or introducing interesting surrounding areas, but most importantly it measures the distances of the different legs of the river. I know how have the my entire trip plotted out with icons indicating my campsite, takeout points, and 5 potential portages.

Tip: Alternating the color of each leg helps break the trip up visually.

Cahaba River Float Plan

Grant's Mill Road to Lorna Road

1. Grant’s Mill to Old Overton Rd - 6.8 miles
Float Plan Leg 1

2. Old Overton Rd to Hwy 280 - 6.4 miles

Float Plan Leg 2

3. Hwy 280 to Lorna Rd - 11.2 miles

Float Plan Leg 3
Float Plan Leg 3 pt. 2

In Summary

Day 1 Distance = 13.2 miles
Day 2 Distance w/option = 11.2 miles
Total Distance = 25 miles

Tip: Print out the screenshots of each leg to serve as your maps during the trip

How Far Can You Kayak In One Day?

The answer to this question is largely dependent on the current, wind, and your own physical ability. The consensus in the kayak camping community is ten miles per day.

While my trip will be a bit higher than the rule of thumb, I have a few advantages. The first being that I will be on a flowing river. Traveling a considerable distance will be largely contingent on the amount of time in the kayak as the river will carry me to my destination. Secondly, I am in good paddling condition and looking for a bit of a physical challenge since I will be out of the gym for two days. The gains never stop!

Where Should You Park?

I know it can be a bit of a hassle for kayampers to find parking spots near the launch and take out points. The launch points for this trip are about 20 minutes from my house so I will be picked up and dropped off rather than dealing with parking.
However, I wanted to investigate how I would approach this for practice sake.

The launch point below has a couple of options. There is a small gravel lot that the internet says you can park your car as long as you call the local owner. This the ideal parking spot because it is intended for kayakers and steps away from the water.
I found a reasonable back up a little further away at Church of the Highlands. There seems to be plenty of parking, but the vehicle would be there during Sunday. I would certainly call and ask before attempting to park here.

Launch Site Parking

The Lorna Road takeout point is less promising than Grant’s Mill. There are some small businesses to the near the takeout point. The perfect spot is somewhere where my car would be safe and is close to the water. I have been by this area before and it looks like a just OK spot to park.

Lorna Road Takeout Parking

What Activities Are You Going To Do?

Part of the beauty of kayamping, is that the world is your oyster. You can do anything you want. The only limit is your imagination and what you can pack in a kayak.

For this trip, I think a large part of the day will be spent simply getting from point A to point B. This will leave time for lunch stops, rope swings, and cliff jumps, but little time for anything else. I will also need time to practice setting up camp and testing out different equipment. I will bring a fishing rod, journal, and a book for camp or rest stops.

How To Choose a Camping Spot?

Float Plan Camping Spot

The way I began to narrow down my camping spot was by first looking where I would likely be at the end of each day. This spot is a little before the halfway mark of the trip because once I pass Hwy 280 the river winds through heavily populated neighborhoods. I wanted to be a bit more secluded and not have the cops called on me for trespassing.

The Camp 1 symbol in this image is not an exact location. It is a sign to me to start looking for a good place to camp because I do not know what the shore will look like. Hopefully, the banks are not too steep and I can get to good spot relatively easy.

Camping Spot Checklist

  • Secluded area - Somewhere a small fire wouldn't get the fire dept. called.
  • Appropriate daily mileage - Camp is at a good stopping point distance-wise
  • Trees for hammocking - landscape looks hospitable for camping style (tent/hammock/bicy)

Camping Methodology

Humans destroy stuff. It’s what we do and it’s what we continue to do because we feel no direct impact from it. Throw a gum wrapper out of the car window and that is the last time I will ever see that. Except not really - Check out the giant trash gyres if you don’t believe me here.

Leave No Trace Camping is a popular saying for essentially camping best practices. Wikipedia does a good post on it so I won’t go too far into it, but these practices should be followed by EVERYONE. Again, humans destroy stuff. If you want the campsites to be there in the future, do your part to protect it.

What Wildlife Should I Prepare For?

Check your local area for wildlife risks before setting out camping or kayaking. For the North this could mean bringing supplies to deal with bears, wolves or moose. For the South gators, snakes, or coyotes may be your biggest threat. 

Alabama has plenty of snakes; none more dangerous than cotton mouths commonly referred to as water moccasins. Water moccasins swim on top of the water and have been known to swim up to kayakers for a look-see. There are other instances of a cotton mouths falling out of a tree onto a kayaker, but this is extremely rare. In fact, encountering a snake at all on the trip is fairly low probability. Snakes want nothing to do with humans and run from us like the plague for the most part. However if one does get too curious, a good hard smack of a kayak paddle should send it on its way.

 Not much to worry about on this trip!