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  • Meg McCall

Adaptive Kayaking Equipment: From A to Z

This is the sixth in a seven part blog series describing the Juballa family's experience in getting a fully adapted kayak for their young adult son, Raymond. Go to the end of this post to see other articles in the series.

adaptive kayak seat and cart

Kayaking adaptations can range from as little as extra pieces of tape on a paddle for a kayaker who is visually impaired to sophisticated set-ups like Raymond’s, which included an adaptive paddle, specialty seating, outriggers, a heavy duty kayak cart and more.

The most common pieces of adaptive gear and a brief description of when they might be used and what to look for follows. Keep in mind, these are adaptive-specific items; paddlers will also need other accessories and safety gear such as a personal floatation device (PFD), a tow rope, water or a communication device. See our Kayak Safety Gear blog for information on those items.


Everyone’s needs will differ, but generally speaking, adaptive paddling programs look for sturdy, good quality kayaks that have large cockpits (if using sit-inside), are at least 10 feet in length, and can handle paddlers of 175 pounds or more. Shorter, wider kayaks tend to have poor tracking and longer kayaks can be unwieldy. We often recommend the Wilderness Systems Pungo, but there are many other brands that also work well.

guide to adapting a kayak

Many adaptive programs also have a fleet of sit-on-tops, making it easier for paddlers with limited mobility to get in and out/on and off. The tradeoff is that there isn’t any built-in trunk support that even a factory install seat provides. Tandem kayaks are also very popular, particularly when the guest paddler has no paddling experience or limited coordination.

Adaptive Paddles

Many adaptive paddlers can use a traditional kayak paddle, for example, someone who has a bilateral leg amputation. For people with hemiplegia, a torn rotator cuff, arm amputation, wrist problems or other strength or mobility limitations in their upper bodies, an adaptive paddle may be the solution. For a small portion of these paddlers, a lightweight carbon fiber paddle or a bent shaft paddle may be sufficient. For most others, they will benefit from a mount-supported paddle.

Mount-supported paddle systems, like our Gamut Paddle Holder and Versa Paddle, reduce stress on the hand, wrist, elbow and shoulder joints by holding the weight of the paddle. They also require a smaller range of motion and reduce the amount of torso rotation required to stroke the paddle. The Gamut works with the person's own paddle. The Versa Paddle can be used in the mount either straight or angled downward on each side, resulting in an even smaller range of motion. This makes is well-suited for paddlers with extremely limited mobility, poor coordination or who only have the use of one arm.

Kayak Stabilizing Floats (aka Outriggers)

canoe outriggers

People with paralysis, spinal cord injuries or limited coordination benefit from the added stability that kayak outriggers bring. The further the pontoon floats extend on each side of the kayak, the more balance they provide, though it is important to understand that tipping is still possible. Kayak outriggers also make entering and exiting the kayak a steadier, more positive experience. They are essential part of any adaptive paddling program.

Seating Systems

Certain paddlers, for example those with complete or incomplete spinal cord injuries, may have reduced or no sensory or motion function below the level of their injury. Some may only need a gel pad seat or an inflatable seat, such as Hobie's Comfort Seat or Jackson Kayak’s Sweet Cheeks, that conforms to the backside and legs and removes pressure points.

high kayak seat with lumbar support

Others may need added support around their trunk or pelvic area, which can be achieved with simple foam supports and tape. People with bad backs but want to use a sit-on-top kayak can attach an add on seat like the one here to provide better back support.

Still others may need substantial back, neck, lateral and hip support and therefore need a specially manufactured adaptive seat. Whatever style of assisted seating is used, it should allow the paddler to experience their own least restrictive environment in a safe manner.

Hand & Wrist Aids

People with severe arthritis, missing digits or wrist tendonitis may not be able to grip a paddle shaft. For them, one DIY solution is adding two half-moon shaped “handles” that are taped to the shafts. The paddler’s hands slip into them, taking some pressure off the fingers and transferring power to the arms. Other options include specialized gloves, adaptive paddle grips and wrist adaptations that latch onto the paddle and are controlled more by the wrists than fingers. These products range in price from virtually nothing to $150. Keep in mind that for safety reasons, the paddle should never be tied or bound to the person’s hands.

Modified Braces/Anchors Points

A kayak has multiple brace points (e.g., thigh, knee, foot) that give the paddler more control and balance on the water. These braces are used for bracing and edging maneuvers and also to help the paddler maintain a more comfortable and ergonomic position.

foam pads and cusions for adapted kayaks

Sometimes, no modifications are necessary, but other times they are, for example to protect a paddler’s skin from abrasions and pressure spots. There are a wide variety of pre-cut foam supports available online for this purpose or you can create your own.

In cases where the paddler has an inherent imbalance, for example, they have a below-the-knee amputation, it’s important to equalize the weight on the side that’s amputated to maintain balance and stability. This could be a bag of sand or some other lightly weighted item. Just make sure it doesn’t create an encumbrance in the event of a wet exit. In this example, it may also be a good idea to create a modified brace point, depending on whether and what kind of prosthetic the paddler is using (e.g., moving one foot peg closer to the paddler than the other).

Foam Supports/Padding

We’ve already touched on a few uses of padding (i.e., trunk support, braces), but there are a number of other ways in which air-filled cushions, foam and other types of padding come in handy in an adaptive setting. Foam noodles are sometimes use to serve as a guide for the placement of hands on a paddle or to cover any sharp edges when transferring from a bench into the kayak. Another application are products like Jackson Kayak’s Happy Seat, an inflatable bladder that goes right in front of the seat to take the pressure off your knees, hips and rear end.

Transfer Devices

A portable transfer bench is often a go-to in adaptive paddling programs because of its transportability. The paddler, either with or without assistance, moves from their wheelchair onto the bench, and then slides from the bench into the kayak. There are a wide range available - from straightforward planks to portable chair-like units --each with different functions, or you could consider building one yourself.

As we mentioned earlier there are also patient lifts, such as a Hoyer Lift, but these can be both expensive and difficult to maneuver at a waterfront location. (See our blog for tips on using lifts.) Portable, handheld slings are an option if the paddler is comfortable and feels safe being carried by others.

If you’re lucky enough to have access to an accessible kayak launch, there are quite a few styles of installed devices that enable paddlers to get into a kayak more easily and in a more steady manner. This Board Safe Dock and this one called EZ Launch are just two examples. Keep in mind, though, that what may work for one paddler, may not for another. Someone with little-to-no upper body strength, for instance, would have trouble using the launches in these examples.

Heavy Duty Kayak Cart

adaptive paddling kayak cart

If you don’t have access to an accessible kayak launch, a heavy duty kayak cart will come in handy so that you can bring the kayak – with the paddler already in it – to the shoreline. It’s critical that it be a heavy duty cart as the weight of the kayak with the paddler in it will usually be in excess of 200 pounds. You also want it to be stable and securely fastened to the kayak. There are some carts with balloon wheels that can be pulled over the sand, and others with wheels for more rugged terrain. Nearly all of them can be pulled directly into the water where you can release the straps and let the kayak float into the water. Note: You may want to have some sort of makeshift support device on hand, such as a plastic crate, to support the front and/or back of the kayak while the paddler is getting into the cockpit. Heavy duty kayak carts range from about $155 to north of $700.

Other “Must Haves”

The items above fall primarily in the “adaptive” category, but every kayak should strongly consider having some of the following safety devices on hand as well.

· Personal Flotation Device (PFD) sized for the person and suited to the specific environment.

· A safety whistle to get attention.

· A tow rope in case of emergency.

· A pole flag for added visibility in the water.

Adaptive Equipment Calculator

Depending on what items you need, an adapted kayak can be a pricey investment. You can use our equipment calculator to estimate what yours might cost.

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Adaptive Paddling Equipment List (you are here)

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