Kayaks are so much more comfortable than they were years ago. It simply amazes me. Recently we got a Dagger Alchemy sit-inside kayak and realized that there was no need for us to go through the "Outfitting Process" that we had done with all of our other boats.
The hip pads are adjustable and removable, the back band is low; but the height and level of support as well as the angle can be adjusted. The seat pan is very long, almost going to the knees of a shorter person - it is adjustable, though, so that the thighs can be raised for my mate and lowered for me. We have bought a boat that fits two very different people without the normal pads and inflatable cushions, thigh supports, and hip pads we normally carry around. It is wonderful. But not all boats are built this way and not all paddlers fit the boats they want to paddle. Left: 2013 WS Tarpon 100 with AirPro Seat - Right: 2012 Dagger Alchemy with Zone DLX Seat
Seat comfort is so important on a long trip that I routinely observe paddlers choosing a slower kayak than the fastest boat they own, because they want to be comfortable. In fact, I've come to realize that the comfortable boat is the fastest boat on a multi-day trip. In a comfortable boat, you don't have to get out and stretch every hour or two. These breaks add up and it is faster to keep it moving even if your pace is only 3 knots.
As the trend toward manufacturing a more comfortable kayak with model specific off-the-shelf outfitting continues, so do generic seating systems strive to keep up. Here are some things you can do for comfortable paddling whether or not you are in the market for a new kayak.
Seat Factors Affecting Comfort
It's the first adjustment paddlers tend to make after getting the foot pegs at the right length. Some prefer a lot of support up high. Others like very little support. If I'm in a boat with a seat back I usually have it tilted pretty far back so it acts like a ramp sliding me into the seat during rescues, allowing me to lean way back to stretch out or rest when I like.
The rest of the time I am off the back support for the most part. I have paddled without a back-band or seat-back many times and learned that without a back band a steep wave can wash you right off the back of a sit-on-top.
The best thing about many kayak seats these days is that you can easily adjust them. Almost no one wants to sit in the same fixed position all day.
Adjusting the tilt of your hips can make a significant difference in your long term comfort. New adjustable seats allow the paddler to have a very flat seat or tilt up the seat for more thigh support. Tilting the seat up at the front does cause the lower back to become more extended which can be extremely painful for paddlers with lower back issues.
I prefer boats that have a flat or tilted forward seat. Others prefer seats tilted back. In either case we are speaking only to the bottom of the seat not the back support. Different kayak manufacturers make different styles of seats and not all of them have the ability to adjust the hip tilt. If you cannot adjust it then your options are foam pads, adding an inflatable pad or removing the seat and starting over.
In general the higher you sit the more comfortable you will be. However you'll also be less stable, so you have to find the right mix between comfort and stability. Higher seating improves the ergonomics of paddling. Flat water racers sit in very high seats in very tippy kayaks. This allows them full rotation and better application of forward driving muscles.
In my own experience I can increase the sprint speed and long term comfort of my Cobra Expedition by adding in a 2.5 inch thick seat pad. However, this pad makes the boat too unstable in any waves that are high enough to wash over my deck. In the future I plan to use a combination of a one inch pad with an inflatable pad so I can easily lower my height on the go and improve my stability as needed.
A lot of kayak seat pans are too short and they do not provide enough thigh support. Inflatable thigh supports are the best because they are light and easy to adjust. Many save the expense of purchasing thigh supports by making foam ones or using something else for support. Pictured is a Support Cushion by Cascade Designs available at the TopKayaker Shop.
I have seen paddlers use a 2 Liter soda bottle filled with water under each thigh. This is low cost, adds ballast, and comfortable for the paddler. Be mindful that you want the support to stay in place if you choose to make your own outfitting. Also install the support so that it does not get moved around by entering and exiting the boat.
Try moving your foot pegs forward and back until you feel comfortable. In "Nigel Foster's Sea Kayaking Series", he recommends having the foot pegs set so that your legs can be straight along the bottom of the boat when relaxed with your knees down and your feet perpendicular to the floor - then by lifting your knees and pointing your toes a bit, the balls of your feet contact the foot pegs and your thighs contact the upper supports.
In sit on tops this set up works well except that sometimes the thigh straps will fall off to the side when you totally lower one leg.
Most whitewater paddlers are locked into the boat more firmly with a frog leg position where the knees are bent, the feet are splayed wide and to the sides. This really limits torso rotation in the boat, but provides a great boat body connection that is very stable.
Flat water racers have their feet adjustment similar to sea kayakers but they often use foot straps or a "pulling bar" to help the pull and push with their legs as they rotate their torso. They have the least boat/body connection with usually just their feet and their seat touching the boat.
Foot angle adjustments can be crucial to comfort for some. I've purchased used boats at a great discount because the low deck did not provide enough room for a paddlers size 10 shoes. As someone who usually wears a size 12 I was used to turning my feet to the side for low decked boats, so it worked well for day paddles and classes.
Most boats do not have an adjustment for foot width but it is really useful to have one. With your feet and knees together you can really rotate better and paddle farther and faster with less effort. With your feet wide apart you can apply counterbalancing forces to your braces to make your boat much more stable.
Many sea kayakers take out their foot pegs and pad the bulkhead to meet their feet in their favorite boat. This makes it harder for others to use, but this custom fit allows one to move the feet all around as conditions and the need for comfort dictate. I've made a foot plate from a plastic cutting board covered with ½ inch minicell foam for a couple of my sit on top boats. It really can help to be able to have good foot support in more than one position.
Basically there are two knee positions available, having a knee high and outside in the thigh support, or having it low and in the center of the boat. For normal cruising the knees are always moving up and out on one side and down toward the middle on the other side. On rare occasion they are both together in the middle of the boat as you paddle very slowly or relax and sit in the water. In really rough water, some paddlers bring both legs up into the thigh supports or thigh straps. This limits rotation but provides a great connection for bracing quickly on either side. See TopKayaker Shop Knee Straps. For other outfitting See Foot Pegs & Rails Department
Sometimes I set up the outfitting of the boat to have the feet in a fixed position against a fixed foot-bar or bulkhead, often with foot straps. The position in the cockpit is then adjusted by moving the seat forward or backward which is really easy to do in most sit on tops and surf skis.
This can affect how the boat is weighed, but is easy to fix by putting the gear in a front or back hatch to level the boat.
A fixed bulkhead with foot straps has really added comfort and control to my favorite boats. I recommend you try it and see. If you like it adding foot straps or a "pulling bar" to the bulk head is easy.
I've found that a seat that fits me well doesn't have to have any cushioning. But I've met others who had to add cushioning to their seat for better comfort. As I lose weight I am finding that I like more cushioning than I did in the past, so I have to admit that this is a highly personal issue. White water paddlers and surfers like firmer cushioning for more control. Long distance paddlers sometimes prefer softer cushioning. On long trips it is sometimes nice to put a self inflating cushion under your seat for extra comfort during the flat water parts of the trip; If it gets a little rough you can let out some air and improve you contact with the boat.
In surf kayaks for rough water paddling I need some back support just to keep a big wave from washing me off the back of the boat. For fishing I like back support so I can lean back and rest. For most other active paddling I prefer no back support at all. In sea kayaks I remove the back band or set it as low as possible. If it is above my belt line it really interferes with rotation for efficient paddling and significantly increases chafing.
My general advice to a beginner would be that lower back rests are generally better. Another option is to have the back rest tilted pretty far back so you can lean back to rest, but you normally are not touching it with your back when you sit up to paddle.
Fat paddlers, anglers, office workers, and folks who drive for a living have a different situation as far as back rests. For folks like us, paddling is not so much a sport as it is a fun way to get to the places we want to visit. Here I recommend doing as I did in the past. Adjust your back rest to support you comfortably for paddles under six miles. I know a lot of anglers who never paddle over six miles a day and catch all they want. If you want to paddle farther, try to spend some time each paddle without the back rest. Even consider doing some core exercises so you can sit up comfortable without back support. See TopKayaker Shop: Backrests
Handy paddlers often gain as much pleasure from modifying their boat as they do from paddling it. Others who paddle quite a number of miles each year end up needing a custom seat. There are two common ways to go in this regard. One is using blocks of minicell foam and carving out a seat to fit you perfectly.
The other is to make a mold of your bottom and use that to make a fiberglas-carbon-composite seat. In each of these cases the back support can be provided by a store-bought back band or it can be built into the seat. One problem with custom made seats is that they work only for one person in one set of clothing in a specific set of conditions. An adjustable seat and outfitting allows you to fit well in spite of changing seasons and thickness of clothing.
There are more foam and gel seat pads than you can shake a stick at. In spite of that they all seem to be the same length. If you really move forward and backward in your seat for fishing or surfing, then look for or make a seat pad longer than the standard 12 inches. The longest are about 16 inches so if you really want to more back and forth pay attention to the length.The type of foam matters two. I prefer harder foam for better control, but I find that at the last hours of the day I want to slip in a little piece of extra soft paddling or an air pad. Other paddlers have had to add some softer padding on top of an already paddled seat to improve their tailbone comfort. See Close Cell Foam At TopKayaker Shop
This article covers outfitting that can improve your kayak's comfort. In the companion article Frank will address paddling posture and paddler fitness to solve some of these issues.
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