Kayaking with your digital SLR: How to protect it

For general tips on kayak photography, regardless of your camera, visit Simple Tips for Kayaking with your Camera For tips on how to protect your digital SLR, keep reading.

There are some of you out there that won’t be satisfied with a point and shoot camera, while you are out there kayaking. You’ll want your digital SLR right there with you. Perhaps it’s because you want pictures of wildlife and need your long lens, or you want a greater depth of field or image quality. But, you have a problem. There’s all that water. You don’t know if you dare risk your precious out there on the open seas. It’s okay, I understand, because I am one of those people too- I can’t imagine leaving my babies behind.

So what makes me confident enough that I will take two bodies and multiple lenses out there on my kayak? The belief that I can keep it safe. Through trial and error (thankfully it’s been mostly trial,) I have developed a system that works well for my style of kayaking. Each person will have slightly different needs, so each person’s style of protection will also vary accordingly. (For example, I wouldn’t really recommend bringing SLRs on a white water kayaking trip using this method.) This should however serve as a good base to develop your own system.

I have two preferred options for keeping my SLR safe from water- dry bags and dry cases. They are what they sound like, a case to keep things dry and a bag to keep things dry. Both can be very effective, but each serves for a different style of protection. Either of these can be kept in different spots on your kayak, but if you want them to be accessible the main options are lashed to the deck in front of you or between your legs (this second option is mostly for open deck kayaks, because of the spray skirt on sea kayaks.)

Dry Bags

A dry bag is generally a heavy bag made from flexible PVC or treated fabric that has a device for sealing it. Some are sealed with multiple rollings of the top, and then being fastened with buckles, others have ziploc style zippers. Both can be very effective, but make sure your choice can stand up to some rugged use.

The soft walls of the bag provide very little protection for your cameras and lenses, so you will need some sort of padding (to protect against banging.) Two main choices- a piece of dense foam with cut outs for your different camera pieces or light weight synthetic towels. You may also do a combination of the two.

The foam is the best protection. You will want a piece five to twelve inches deep, by the circumference of your dry bag. Cut out insets for your equipment, and that’s it. It is not a bad idea to keep a micro-fiber towel or two in the bag to clean off incidental water droplets, and to protect the top of your camera gear from bumps when it is stored. Also, it can be easier to lash onto the deck of the kayak as its shape is more defined. However the foam is bulkier and less versatile. It will eat up the limited space of your dry bag.

My usual gear for kayaking. I don't bring the camera bag with me, it is just there to give scale. My usual compliment of lenses is a 300mm IS, 70-200mm IS, and a 16-35mm f2.8 with one to two camera bodies

My usual method with the dry bag is without the foam. I keep each lens in a soft foam lens case or wrap it in a micro-fiber towel (these are the sorts of towels that you can find at camping stores. They are small and lightweight, soak up lots of water, but don’t hold it. They also dry very quickly.) I also wrap the camera bodies I am not using in microfiber towels. The parts are less well protected, but I am careful of banging them around. The size and the shape of the bag is more versatile, so it can place more easily between the legs.

One of the advantages over a hard case is that it can be easier to access a bag. You can keep the camera lying just inside the open mouth of the dry bag, without sealing it shut. This way you will not have to undue a case or a dry bag to pull it out and shoot that bobcat that just came down to the beach.

Not only should you test your dry bags water tightness regularly, there are also some dry bags that the manufacturers do not recommend for electronic equipment. Avoid these if you can, if you can’t, test them very thoroughly before trusting your camera. To test fill your bag with air (no camera or other equipment inside,) seal them, and hold them underwater. Watch for air bubbles. Make sure that each part of the bag spends time under water. If you see bubbles rising, you know it is not a place for your camera.

Hard Cases

A hard case is a plastic box that seals out water using an o-ring (rubber gasket) and buckles. One manufacturer is Pelican. The inside is lined with foam, either the egg crate style, or with cut outs for each piece of equipment. A hard case is generally mounted and strapped down, or held in a rack (here is a site for a DIY pvc mounting rack for a dry case.) These cases are the best option for guaranteeing dryness and protecting your camera from hard knocks. If you will be kayaking in rougher seas, this can be ideal.

Access can be a little more time consuming, as it is either locked in the case or out of the case, unlike a dry bag. On a sea kayak, you must make sure that if you open the dry case, that the lid has stops behind it to keep it from opening completely to where you can not reach it. You can set it up so that it opens sideways, but it will be less well protected from bow splashes. On an open deck kayak this is not as much of an issue as it will be more in reach.

You should be sure to regularly inspect the o-ring of the case for wear, dirt and debris. Sometimes a single hair can be enough to allow water to leak through. Be sure to occasionally test your dry case by immersing it in water.

In Conclusion

Both systems can be very effective. If you will be in rougher seas or subjecting your equipment to heavier knocks, go for the dry case, unless you really need that easier access and are comfortable enough in your abilities to leave your camera in an open bag.

A further suggestion if you get a dry bag is to get one with back pack straps. It is that much easier getting in and out of the kayak with it over your shoulder.

Happy paddling and good shooting


About Galen Leeds Photography

Nature and wildlife photographer, exploring the world on his feet and from his kayak. Among other genres, he is one of the leading kayak photographers in Northern California. To learn more about him, visit him on his website- www.galenleeds.net
This entry was posted in How to, kayak photography, nature photography, photography, safety, SLR and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Kayaking with your digital SLR: How to protect it

  1. Galen, good article, and enjoy the information your are sharing I use the same two methods that you discuss. I use large and medium dry bags and a diy hard case. I purchase an ammo box from the local sporting goods store, some foam from the art supply store and made the box. The ammo box comes with a gasket around the opening, is water tight and floats. The ammo box and foam cost me less than $10 and took me about 30 minutes to build. I can carry D-90 camera with 18-105 lens, 70-300 lens, spare body or point and shoot and odds and ends like spare batter, memory cards, etc. Fits very nice between my legs or can be pushed up in the nose of the kayak when the fist are biting.

    • I like the idea of the ammo box. It seems like it would be a very rugged way to protect important gear, yet very economical at the same time. I might have to head over to my local military surplus store in the next week or so to see what they have. Easy and inexpensive to have two or three set up for different sorts of outings, and just swap them around as different needs present themselves.

    • beachmama says:

      Hope that ammo box is tied in well otherwise it will sink like a rock!

  2. dlmtleArt says:

    I’ve never been kayaking myself, but have thought of canoeing of something despite not wanting to risk getting the new camera baby or lenses wet. How do you handle a)not dropng it in the water while switching lenses etc?

    • I prefer kayaks to canoes when handling my camera for a couple of reasons, one of which is changing lenses. If you are in a decent kayak for photography, it is a fairly stable vessel compared to the canoes that I have been in (which I must admit is not a great number). In a kayak, you are lower to the water with your legs out in front of you. This means you have a nice big lap. On my lap is a large dry bag, with my camera gear. When changing lenses I have the camera strap around my neck (that way I have two hands to change the lens with and no fear of dropping my camera). The body and the lenses are within the mouth of the dry bag. This protects them from A)splashes and B)getting dropped. If a lens slips from my fingers it can only drop an inch or two, and is then safely caught within the bag.

      When the camera is not in use, it is snugly secured within the dry bag, where, as the name implies it stays nice and dry. I was dumped from my kayak last week by a wave, while trying to put out from a beach. I was soaked from head to toe, but my camera, lenses, memory cards, etc. were as dry and safe as could be, even though the dry bag was completely immersed in the salty ocean water.

  3. artsifrtsy says:

    Nice post! I can vouch for dry bags – the one time I have flipped my kayak I had my SLR in a dry bag behind the seat. Stayed dry even though I did not:)

    • I’ve only capsized once with my camera gear, and I too was very thankful that it was well sealed inside of a dry bag. I had nary a dry patch of skin, but my cameras and lenses were as dry as could be. The dry bags have also been indispensable in keeping my gear dry from the splashings of waves too. I think they would be unidentifiable corroded masses from all the salt water if it wasn’t for my bags.

  4. Jeff says:

    Hi Galen, thanks for your article. I too am seeking the best option for use of a DSLR camera with a couple lenses in a kayak. I wonder about the idea of a dry bag between the legs, supposedly under the spray skirt in wetter conditions or perhaps without a skirt in perhaps very dry and still conditions. As I imagine this arrangement and the pros and cons, I see the advantage of using the bag which is close to you and contributing to a lower center of gravity as opposed to these factors when the bag is up on a deck in front of you. But what about a capsize? Could a bag get in the way of a safe wet exit of the boat? It seems like it would be nice to have the bag secured in place to the hull, but this would require special mounting points on the inside of the hull. Regarding the hard box option. Securing a hard box with its flat bottom to the rounded top deck of a kayak sounds challenging, so I’m not sure about that option. Do you have suggestions about how to make this connection between the box and deck stable? thanks, Jeff

    • Hello Jeff

      I mostly use a sit on top kayak, as it suits my style of kayaking best, when the weather isn’t too rough. For me it’s the easiest way to have my gear accessible (no worries about spray skirts and getting gear through the limited space of the cockpit), so I do not usually have the issue of exiting the kayak. When I use a sit inside, and the going is nice, and there is little chance of capsizing, I keep the dry bag between my legs. As conditions worsen, and the chances of tipping increase, I then lash the bag onto the deck, since I generally don’t pull the camera out of the dry bag under those conditions anyways. (In other words, the conditions where I feel most comfortable using my camera and want it accessible are the same conditions as when there is little chance of going over.)

      I think I would try to fasten the dry bag down to the bottom in rough weather, but as you mention, that could cause additional issues, and still might make it trickier to exit the kayak.

      Mounting a flat bottomed hard box onto your kayak is not too big of an issue, if you create some sort of frame to support it. That frame does not have to be permanently fastened onto the kayak, but can even be lashed into place. The link on this page to make a PVC cradle is a fairly simple simple way to do this. You can adjust the height of the two PVC side rails to fit the curve of any hull.

  5. thanks, Galen, for the visit. nice blog you have here and very informative.

  6. Jonathan says:

    Hi, I’m a full time photographer by profession and would love to take my gear out kayaking but it’s over $10,000 just for one body and a couple of lenses so it’s very worrying. I like your ideas but the one concern I have (which affects me when I use my iPhone to shoot on a kayak) is wet salty hands. How do you overcome that? All my bodies are weather sealed but I do not want to use salty wet hands when operating them! I know I could use a simple cloth to dry my hands first – is this the only way or do you have a better idea?!

    • Hello Jonathon. There are a few things that I’ve found that can help keep wet, salty hands from coming in contact with expensive camera gear, and they mostly involve not getting the hands wet and salty in the first place, and have to do with the paddle itself.

      Most paddles will come with drop guards, but these are not all created equally. Good ones will fit snugly around the kayak shaft, and seal tightly enough that no water can seep through. They should also have be slightly concave on the side toward the blade. This will cup the water a little and make it more difficult for it to roll over and past the guard, then down the shaft to your hands. It is well worth the money to buy a better drip guard. Your local kayak shop might even let you try out a few different ones, or have ones that they recommend over others.

      The drip guards should not be placed right next to your hands as markers for where your hands should be. When your blade is in the water during a normal stroke, the guards should be out of the water by 3-5 inches (7-12cm).

      A second thing that can really affect how wet your hands are getting is paddling style and technique. When paddling, both sides of the paddle are important, both the side with the blade in the water, and the side with the blade in the air. When I paddle neither of my hands ever goes above shoulder height (often they are a little below at their highest point in the stroke), even the hand that is holding the blade in the air during the stroke. This does two things, one of which is to keep the paddle’s angle from becoming too steep. If the paddle has a steep angle it is easier and faster for water to run down the paddle toward your hands. Decrease the slope, and water won’t have he same opportunity to run down the blade and past the drip guards.

      Keeping hands lower also helps to create more of a sweeping stroke than a digging stroke with your paddle, which is more effective and efficient when paddling distances or for a long period of time. It may not supply the same power that is needed in rapids, but chances are that if you have your camera with you, you’ll be avoiding some of the situations where you need that sudden force. Kelli g your hands low and your stroke smooth also means you’ll be waving your paddle in the air less, and make you less of a disturbance to wild life.

      Also, it can help to develop a steady rhythm with your strokes, and to make sure that you never pause for more than a moment or two with one blade higher than the other in the air.

      If after adjusting your stroke and/or investing in better drip guards you still find your hands getting wet, it may be a sign that you are not using the appropriate or high enough quality paddle, although I generally find that this is rarely the case.

      When I see people kayaking I can often tell who has bad drip guards or lifts their blade too high, by simply spotting their wet arms and sleeves. All of the above are cheap investments when compared to thousands of dollars of camera gear.

      • Jonathan says:

        Thanks for that Galen, I will certainly take this on board next time I’m out. I’m using a Werner Camano but have just left the standard drip guards on there, however I do think that I may lift my hands too high on occasion. Thanks again.

  7. Ris says:

    Galen! Wow. This is excellent information! I am extremely new to kayaking, but not so new to photography. I just got back from my first kayaking trip, which was six days in the backcountry of the Florida Everglades, in the 10,000 Islands area. I wanted to bring my DSLR but understood that having no experience on a kayak in the sea while holding a DSLR could be disastrous. Having said that, this trip was hands down the best, most transformative experience of my life! I learned so much, not only about conservation and how to maneuver a kayak, but about tuning your mind into Nature. I had never been to Florida before, and the wildlife/vegetation was absolutely gorgeous. The mangroves were beautifully twisted and unlike any tree I’ve ever seen. The whole time I wished I had my camera to capture the experience, but was glad I had the opportunity to take it all in with my own eyes.

    I plan on going on the trip again this December/next March, but would like to bring my camera. The only problem I ever run into (which, as a college student, is always a problem) is money. All of the trip gear is provided, I would just need to invest in the camera gear. We did a beach launch (was crazy awesome and exhilarating, I might add, and it was our second day on the water!), and I imagine we’d probably attempt that again on the next trip. Do you have anymore suggestions for sea kayakers? Or ideas about the most cost-effective gear?

    I’m certainly going to look around your site some more. I’m studying Environmental & Social Justice, and getting a dual-degree with Journalism. So this sort of thing is exactly what I want to be doing for the rest of my life, and I truly appreciate the information you have provided! It’s beyond helpful.

    Thanks again! :)

  8. Chris S. says:

    I know this post is a bit old, but the info is great and not date specific. Reading your suggestions did inspire me to get my gear out and shoot some photos while kayaking here in Florida. I now have 2 trips under my belt and have one question. While I did invest into nice drip guards and such – I still find that occasionally my gear is going to get a little wet. My question is, what is the best way to clean your gear when it does show water/salt spots after your home?

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