You don't have to strap on a backpack and cut off toothbrush handles in hopes of lightening your load if you long to sleep on soft beach sand and listen to the whoosh of the surf.
Kayaks are the packhorses of the water world, capable of toting heavy loads to remote campsites unreachable by motor homes or on foot. Sit-inside kayaks hold more than 100 pounds of gear, which means coolers and two-burner Colemans aren't out of the question.
"Kayak camping is a good cross between car camping and backpacking," says Rory Moulton, an instructor and guide at Southwind Kayak Center in Irvine.
To make sure your beach adventure doesn't turn into a scene from "Cast Away," go with a guided group -- especially if your paddling skills are rusty or nonexistent.
Southwind offers a 14-mile, two-day instructional paddle from Newport Beach to Crystal Cove State Park (where the company has permission to camp on the beach). Fairly skilled paddlers attend "sand talks" to learn how to paddle in different wind and wave conditions, pack a kayak, navigate, launch a kayak in the surf with a loaded boat and paddle in tidal zones where water levels fluctuate.
Southwind also leads overnight trips to the Channel Islands and the Colorado River. Aquasports in Santa Barbara organizes outings to the Channel Islands and Montana de Oro State Park on the Central Coast.
The key to kayak camping is knowing where and when you can park your boat and pitch a tent. Though Southern California's coast offers few kayak-friendly stops, says Moulton, Channel Islands National Park stands out as the great exception. Not all islands are accessible and seasonal restrictions apply, but the promise of untrodden turf and quiet coves isn't far away.
Park concessionaires -- Island Packers in Ventura and Truth Aquatics in Santa Barbara -- use powerboats to transport paddlers, kayaks and gear to and from the islands. In all but one case, kayaks must be hauled to campgrounds about a mile from the landing spot and away from the beach.
Santa Rosa Island, a windy place with island foxes and pinnipeds, is the only island where you can set up camp on the beach. It takes 3 to 3 1/2 hours to get there by speedboat. Yvonne Menard, information officer for the park, recommends that kayak campers heading to Santa Rosa be "experienced enough to land on small pocket beaches with big swells."
There are few amenities on the islands, which, Menard says, "are not Disneyland." All the Channel Islands have pit toilets; fresh water is available only on East Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa islands.
To protect the island ecosystems, Menard says, boaters are required to stay 100 yards from seals, sea lions and nesting or roosting seabirds. Low-impact camping is required, with all trash packed out, including used toilet paper. Human waste should be buried 6 to 8 inches deep in intertidal sand or deposited 100 yards offshore, she says.
Scorpion Ranch, at the eastern end of Santa Cruz Island, is one of the most popular places to kayak camp in the national park. Kayakers can pick a site on the sand or in a shady eucalyptus grove in a canyon. At the northern end of the island, backpackers can leave their kayaks at Prisoners' Harbor and hike 3 1/2 miles to Del Norte, a backcountry camp in an oak grove.
Campsites at Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa have food storage boxes, Menard says, but unguarded coolers should be secured because wild pigs have been known to push them over and open them. Ravens and mice are also notorious campsite raiders.
Advanced paddlers can make the Santa Barbara Channel crossing in their kayaks -- it's about 10 miles to Anacapa Island from Channel Islands Harbor in Ventura -- but this requires expert skills, says Moulton, including being comfortable making "wet exits and entries." Strong winds and unpredictable weather, along with the added excitement of crossing shipping lanes, makes this a challenge not to be taken lightly. Menard advises crossing with a guide.
Those looking for a kinder, gentler kayak camping experience can head to Catalina Island, which isn't part of the national park. You can rent a kayak at Avalon or the more remote Two Harbors and paddle to three developed campgrounds or 11 boat-in sites.
Properly loading a kayak means stuffing as much food and gear as possible into dry bags in the boat's bulkheads. Frozen food in soft coolers is best, but hard-sided coolers can be lashed with bungee cords to the top of the kayak. Just remember that a higher center of gravity makes for a tippy kayak.
Dress in layers for kayak camping, topping off polyester or polypropylene clothing with a windproof outer layer. A wet suit may be necessary in cooler weather.
Joanne Schwartz, owner of Southwind Kayak Center, loves kayak camping because of its "connection to the past," she says. "This is how it was 200, 400, 800 years ago in historic California." A far cry -- but short distance -- from the whoosh of the 405 Freeway.
To e-mail Julie Sheer or read her previous Outdoors Institute columns, go to latimes.com/juliesheer.
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Help dipping the paddle
Before you take a spin in the surf on an overnight kayak excursion, check out these places.
Southwind Kayak Center, (949) 261-0200, www.southwindkayaks.com
Aquasports, (800) 773-2309, www.islandkayaking.com
Island Packers, (805) 642-1393, www.islandpackers.com
Truth Aquatics, (805) 962-1127, www.truthaquatics.com
Catalina Island Kayak Expeditions / Descanso Beach Ocean Sports, (310) 510-1588, kayakcatalinaisland.com
Channel Islands National Park: Reservations must be made for all island campgrounds; cost is $10 per night. (800) 365-CAMP.