Adjusting a sea kayak or touring boat to fit not only makes the boat more comfortable but also makes it easier to control. With the proper fit, edging, which helps you maneuver, feels easier, rolling becomes easier, and torso rotation, which propels a kayak forward, becomes unimpeded. For all-day touring, I feel that you need a snug fit that’s loose in all the right areas. That might sound like a slight contradiction, but let me explain.
How to Size a Kayak
There are a lot of factors in picking the right size kayak, such as what you’re going to do with it, what you weigh, how much gear you’re going to carry, etc., but one that seems to get overlooked is often the most important: the kayak needs to fit you. If you’re short and skinny, you need a cockpit that doesn’t swallow you. If you’re tall and fat, you need a cockpit that you can get into. While foredeck height and width make a big difference here, it’s easier to look at the cockpit coaming height at your hips. The coaming shouldn’t be any higher than the top of your pelvic bone. If you get this right, usually (but not always) everything else falls into place.
By having a coaming at this height, the boat doesn’t interfere when you twist your torso from side to side during a forward stroke and during sweep strokes. When you turn to the side for draws, rudders and rolls, the right height coaming let’s you twist more easily. Plus, during rear deck rolls, some of the lowest impact and easiest to learn, the coaming doesn’t stop you from leaning backward.
On a personal side, my 130-pound partner used to paddle my Romany, which is a pretty low volume boat. It fit her, but I could tell that a smaller boat would fit her better, so I built her an Iggy. It’s a smaller boat. She feels much more comfortable in the kayak, and she feels like she has more control over it, which allows her to take it into rougher water. She does all this even though the Iggy is less initial stable than a Romany. It’s a little lesson in how proper boat fit trumps apparent stability.
How to Sit in a Kayak
To sit properly in a kayak, you want to maximize contact with the boat. The more contact you have the more control you have over the boat. Some paddlers describe all the contact as wearing the boat instead of sitting in it. While I can see the analogy, I’m not sure it’s a good one, because we wear our clothing to cover and protect our body. We size and outfit the boat to give our body better control over it. Those are two different concepts.
Regardless, when sitting in the kayak you want lots of contact. The main three adjustable contact points are the foot braces, the thigh or knee braces and the back band. Some kayaks include adjustable seats. Points of contact that aren’t easily adjustable include where your heel rests in the boat (and where the foot brace hits your foot), your hips, the back of your legs and your butt. The goal in adjusting your boat is to maximize the contact at all these points without impeding torso rotation.
To see how you should sit in a kayak, go sit on the ground with your feet straight out in front of you. Keep your back upright — imagine that you’re sitting upright in grade school and that your teacher is going to slap your knuckles with a ruler when you start to slouch. Now, spread your knees while keeping your heels together. From above, it looks like your legs take the shape of a diamond or you look like a swimming frog. Now, turn your feet, so the toes are in the air and your ankles form a 90 degree angle. Your knees should slightly raise off the ground as you turn your toes to the air. This frog position is how you want to sit in the kayak.
After trying it on the ground, get in your kayak. Sit upright and adjust the back band until you are upright, then replicate the position you assumed on the ground. Put your thighs or knees against the thigh/knee braces (depend on where they hit you — on some boats these adjust). Hold that diamond shape in the boat and adjust the foot braces until they touch the balls of your feet while you hold your ankles at about 90 degrees.
In this position, the ball of each foot (if you have a long enough foot) should touch a foot brace. Your heel will touch the boat just under the brace. Your thigh or knee touches the thigh brace. Your back touches (is not supported by) the back band. (Really, the back band should just support your butt to the bottom of your lower back a couple of inches above your plumber’s crack. It stops you from sliding off the back of your seat. It’s not for leaning against while paddling, but during a break, lean against it.) Your butt contacts the seat. If the seat isn’t too wide, then your hips contact with the sides. You might also have other contact points, such as under your legs, along your calves and more depending on your body.
Your kayak is now basically adjusted to fit you. At this point, you start tweaking the fit by adding foam.
Once you have the basic adjustments down, you need to custom fit the kayak by adding foam. Don’t worry; it’s an easy process. You need contact cement and foam outfitting. You can buy the foam as an outfitting kit or as a solid block. I prefer blocks of foam, because I can then shape a chunk to my exact needs. I usually buy thigh pads, too. You also need a small hand-held saw, 80-grit and 120-grit sandpaper, and I like to use a rasp for quick shaping. To glue in a chunk of foam, start with a rough shape with a smooth gluing surface, sand and clean the area in the boat where you’re going to glue the foam, then follow the contact cement’s instructions, press the foam into the boat, shape it further based on fit. Once it fits, sand the surface smooth with 120-grit.
For outfitting, start at your feet. If your foot is too short for the ball to hit the brace, add foam under your heel. Foam here wears out quickly, so expect to replace it often. Even if your foot hits the brace in the right spot, adding a thin layer of foam under your heel keeps it warmer on cold water and helps prevent it from slipping around as you push on the foot braces during sweeps and the forward stroke. If you notice that your calf muscles feel tense and overworked after kayaking, it’s probably because you exert force on the foot brace through the ball of your foot, which transfers the force through your calves. You’re not used to that, because you walk and stand on the heel of your foot and not your toes (you sort of tip-toe in your kayak). You will build strength the more you paddle, and the pain will go away after a while. One way to avoid the pain or remove it if it doesn’t go away is by moving your kayak’s bulkhead, either literally or by adding foam to it, until it becomes your foot brace. This allows you to brace with both the heel and ball of your foot, which feels more natural. Some paddlers like the top to tilt slightly forward. On plastic boats, the bulkhead isn’t strong enough, but you can mount a whitewater-style foot brace instead by removing your current braces and retrofitting.
After you outfit the feet move the thigh braces. The skeg control box and the kayak’s seam often feel uncomfortable in this area, so cover them with foam. I glue a thin piece of about 1-foot square foam in this area, so when I move my knees and thighs around, they always contact foam. Most boats lack a brace on the inside of the knee and thigh. Without something there to stop your knee from sliding towards the boat’s center, you can lose contact during an unexpected roll or brace. That can cause your knee to slide out from under the deck and cause you to miss the brace or roll. I recently had this happen to me. I was playing around a couple of rocks, got hit by a wave, flipped and before I could set up for a roll, my knee slipped from the brace, popped the skirt, and I swam. To prevent this, glue a wedge of foam into the boat running from the inside of your knee to the inside of your thigh. You want to feel locked in by this wedge, but you also want to be able to get out of the boat, so after you glue it in, make sure it doesn’t restrict your ability to wet exit.
Now consider the seat. Lowering the seat makes a kayak more stable, but it also raises the height of the cockpit coaming compared to your pelvic bone. The seat needs to feel comfortable. Period. It should be easy to slide your hips around on, and it should support your legs evenly. One problem that you may experience with seats is losing feeling in your legs or having your legs go to sleep. What happens is the sciatic nerve, which runs from the lower back, through the buttock and down your leg, gets pinched. If you notice this happening, you need to provide more support to your leg at the front of the seat to relieve pressure from the nerve. Add foam extension under each leg tall enough to support it or try a different seat. (Although rare, the nerve can also get pinched from tight hip bracing near the front of the seat.) Moving the seat slightly forward or backward can significantly change the kayak’s performance. For example, when I first got my Explorer, I noticed that it weathercocked terribly, which no one complained about and wasn’t mentioned in any reviews. Most paddlers describe it as wind neutral. I decided to remove the seat and put a new one about 3/4 of an inch behind the old position. After I did that, the boat hardly weathercocks at all. If you move your seat, you’ll probably need to adjust any outfitting that you’ve already finished. You can also add foam (which raises the seat, unfortunately) to give a slight forward lean, which helps you sit in an upright and aggressive position.
Next move to your hips. Here’s the contradiction. You need a snug but loose fit in the hips. During the forward stroke, you can increase torso rotation by rotating your hips — I heard one paddler describe it as riding a mini-bike, your hips move slightly back and forth with each stroke. Being able to easily rotate your hips also allows you to turn sideways for draws and sweeps. To allow your hips to move, you need a smooth seat and a loose fit. A tight fit in the hips gives you more control when edging and rolling (although some paddlers will argue this point). You need to balance the hip fit to allow for rotation against the tight fit for control. I suggest you snug up the fit by adding foam, but make sure that the front of the seat is slightly looser than the back and make sure you can easily rotate. Leaving the front looser allows easier rotation, because as you turn the side of your leg hits that part of the seat first. Making it tighter in back gives you a progressively more snug fit for control as the seat nears your back.
Now the most controversial part of fitting your kayak: the back band. Some paddlers will tell you to dump it. I’m not one of them, but you really need to think about how you’re using it. If you always use it to support your back, then you’re using it too much. By leaning against it or having it hold your body forward, you’re losing power and rotation. None of your strokes will be efficient as they should be. You’ll be slower than your friends, your boat won’t turn quickly when you need it to, and most likely, because you’re leaning against the back band, you’ll feel loose in the knees, your feet will just rest against the foot braces. By leaning against the back band you take a two-fold power hit. First, your rotation becomes non-existent. Second, you can’t start a stroke by pushing with your foot. You do this during sweeps and the forward stroke. Imagine sitting in you kayak, you rotate your right hip forward in the seat, which raises your knee. That allows you to swing your torso and shoulders more forward to put the paddle in the water near your right foot. As you start the stroke, you push against the right foot brace which straightens your knee and pushes your right hip towards the back of the seat and left hip towards the front of the seat. This creates more rotation in your torso, and more power as you pull the paddle through the water. Now since you’re sitting reading this instead of paddling, try this: Lean against the couch and slouch slightly. Get comfy, like you’re going to watch a long movie with popcorn and a drink nearby. Push with your right foot. What happened? You butt and back pushed downward. It didn’t rotate because it can’t in this position. By leaning against the back band, you lose the ability to rotate. So, what do you do? Adjust it so that its role is to keep you on the seat. That’s it. It just stops you from sliding off the back of the seat. If you have trouble sitting upright, then add situps to your daily workout. If you don’t do situps now, it won’t take long to build enough strength to sit upright in your kayak.
Testing and Refining
You never get this right on the first go, so don’t expect to. Go out on a several mile paddle and bring a rasp, sandpaper and a marker. Try a few braces and rolls. Watch for rotation. Feel for any hot spots or uncomfortable areas. While paddling, mark the locations with a marker or just remember where you felt the pain. After a mile, beach the boat, pull out the sandpaper and rasp, and fix the problem. Also, see if anything needs snugging up. If so, mark the site and add more foam when you get home.
After you finish adjusting and adding foam to your kayak, it will feel more comfortable. You’ll get better performance. It’s worth the afternoon investment. Once you dial in the fit, you’re done.