Posted by Rutabaga Staff on 7/12/2013
In order for your kayak to work the way it is supposed to, it has to fit. Kayakers of all stripes are taking advantage of all that custom outfitting has to offer. The good news is that today’s kayaks come from the factory with more outfitting aids than ever before. Even so, nearly all kayaks can benefit from some additional work. Keep in mind that outfitting your boat is a process, not an event. Unless you’ve got a lot of practice, you will probably not be able to completely outfit a kayak to your liking in one session.
The goal of kayak outfitting is to get the boat to perform as an extension of your body. The old way of doing this was to make it really tight. Back in the early days of kayak outfitting, this was OK, since you’d get out on a regular basis to scout the next rapid on the river allowing you to stretch, walk around, and put a fresh shot of Novocaine into your feet. If you’ve planned a 20-mile crossing in your sea kayak, though, getting out isn’t exactly an option. The way it’s done now is to use components that can be shaped to make the boat fit. I’ve limited the discussion to closed-cockpit kayaks (sea and touring boats). Sit-on-tops and open cockpit recreational boats can also be outfitted with lots of tools to improve your experience, but they take a whole different set of techniques.
This is the one most people think of first, since a sore rear end can make you more miserable than almost anything else. The purpose of the seat is to provide solid contact between the hips and the kayak.
The simplest way to improve the comfort of a seat is to apply some padding. Self-adhesive foam pads are available for this purpose, most of which also provide a bit of traction for improved control. There are also inflatable seat pads that provide tremendous comfort, but be careful when using one. Sitting up on a thick pad decreases the stability of the kayak.
A seat can sometimes also be repositioned. Many whitewater kayak seats can be moved front-to-back to fine-tune the performance of the boat. If you are handy, most any seat that is not molded into the hull can be repositioned to some degree. The most common changes made are to move it up or down (to change stability characteristics or to create room for the legs), or to tilt it forward or back (to relieve stress on the back, or to alleviate tension in the hamstring muscles).
As a last resort, a seat can be replaced. Seat styles vary widely between manufacturers, so you probably won’t be able to fit a Current Designs seat into your Dagger boat, but Valley makes a foam seat that can be placed in nearly any kayak by gluing it to the floor. The seat is soft and comfortable on its own, and it can be shaped with coarse sandpaper. Just keep in mind that some seats provide structure to the hull, and removing them may compromise the integrity of the boat.
Hip pads will help your paddling performance. You won’t slide around on your seat, so your strokes will be more efficient, and your braces will be more effective. In fact, most people are not really able to Eskimo roll until they spend some time putting hip pads in. The classic solution is hip pads made of minicell foam. They are easily shaped with sandpaper or Dragonskin, and can be glued into the cockpit. A newer idea is modular pre-made hip pads. They are easy to attach to the sides of the seat and shims can be added or removed to fine-tune the fit.
The purpose of back support is to hold the pelvis in proper alignment, which in turn allows the back to hold itself in good position. It also provides a solid surface for the feet to push against-an essential component of powerful and efficient paddling. Many people think that a tall seat back provides the sort of relief they need, but in most cases this is not the correct solution. The principle is that if the pelvis is supported correctly, the back will align itself naturally. In fact, an over-tall backrest is not just unnecessary, but actually harmful. It reduces your ability to rotate your torso during your stroke, isolating the stress of paddling in your relatively fragile shoulders which become susceptible to exhaustion and injury. It also sticks up higher than the level of the back of the cockpit and seriously complicates the matter of re-entering the kayak in deep water.
So what makes a good backrest? We recommend something that’s substantial. It can be padded, but it should have a fairly rigid structure inside. This can come from a hard plastic seat back, or from a back band that has some kind of stiffener inside. After you get your back band set up properly, you won’t spend a lot of time fiddling with it. It’s also best to use something that tops out at or below the level of the cockpit rim. Once you find something good, set it up so that it presses securely against your sacrum and lumbar area, and allows you to sit comfortably with a slight forward lean.
The footbrace is what you’ll be pushing off of, and it should be able to take the pressure. Most adjustable plastic footbraces that come as standard equipment are not really up to the task. They function OK for a while, but they don’t tend to last. Luckily, there are several options available for upgrade. Good footbraces are very stoutly constructed of aluminum and stainless steel, and they can be expected to last indefinitely. They are available for both ruddered and non-ruddered boats. There are several different styles and designs for foot braces. Take the time to see which design will work best for you.
If your kayak has a fiberglass or welded plastic front bulkhead (as most British kayaks do), you can also use blocks of minicell foam to create a bulkhead footrest. These are very solid and comfortable, but will not work with rudders and also do take up cockpit space-space that might be needed on a long trip.
Good thigh contact is essential to performance. Padding your knees against knocking on the underside of the hard deck just makes the whole paddling experience that much nicer. Plain old padding does help, but it works best if it’s shaped in such a way as to lock the thighs in place. Many kayaks today have contoured (and sometimes adjustable or interchangeable) molded thigh braces in them. A thin sheet of minicell foam (or a thicker one if your kayak is too roomy) with a shaped foam wedge to create a “hook” can be glued to the side of the kayak. Some thigh hooks are padded with neoprene rubber, which provides nice grip.
Part of outfitting is making sure that you have access to the items you need while on the water. The key is to keep things accessible but protected from damage and loss. It’s also possible to over-do it. The most obvious storage solution is the deck bag. There are a variety available, from simple mesh organizers to 100% watertight consoles. The key is to remember that anything you put on deck will alter the performance of your boat in the wind, may kick spray into your face, and is subject to damage during rescues. A map case helps keep charts available and protected, and most attach easily to your deck lines.
Storage inside the boat strikes a different balance-things are more protected but less accessible. Much is made of storage space behind the seat, but it’s frequently difficult or impossible to retrieve anything stuffed in there. The space between the knees, however, is prime real estate, and there are a couple of ways to make use of it. Northwater’s Under Deck Bag provides storage-it’s a soft-sided bag that hangs from anchors glued to the underside of the deck.
Outfitting a kayak is easy and most people will have fun doing it. All you really need is a bread knife or hacksaw and some sandpaper or Dragonskin (for cutting and shaping minicell foam), duct tape for holing things in place, and Mondo-bond or other waterproof contact cement to secure things once you’ve figured out where you want them. Major modifications like cutting out a seat is more involved, but none of it is really difficult. The best way to proceed is to look at what other people have done with their kayaks and sit in them. This will help you find out what you think is comfortable, adapt them to your own use. As always, we’re just a phone call away if you need help or moral support.