How to remedy kayak discomfort

I’ve had two hard-body kayaks over the years and suffered the same back pain with both after about 15 minutes. I’m in relatively good health but attribute my problem to lack of strong abdominal muscles. In brief, Almost immediately, I find myself leaning back too far in order to gain some relief. But that’s no way to paddle and I try to make adjustments–so far to no avail.

Background: I’ve paddled canoes and kayaks more than 40 years–mostly on rivers (Class 1-4). I’ve always been more comfortable in a solo canoe where I can vary my position from seated to kneeling (with virtually no knee pain) while using either a single- or double-bladed paddle. My first kayak was a Prijon T-Slalom which I took down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in 1991 as well as the main Salmon, the Green, the Upper Arkansas, the Mulberry, the Buffalo and other rivers. My second is a Jackson Journey 13.5 with an adjustable back band/back rest, inflatable Happy Seat and adjustable foot pegs. So far, nothing I do seems to alleviate my discomfort in the Jackson…

Btw, I’m 5’9", 175 lbs, exercise nearly every day and, at 73, am still healthy enough to pedal my road bike across Kansas and sail my Sunfish by myself. I am rarely in any back pain and when I am, it quickly disappears with stretching.

Recently I acquired two 10’ inflatable white water kayaks. With each, I experienced the same back pain and backwards slouching. I solved those problems by removing the flimsy stock seats and substituting 12" cylindrical back rests (sold by Aire) that I inflate as needed to prevent back discomfort and keep me from slouching backwards. I sit fairly upright in both.

With my IK experience, I now have a clue as to how I might proceed to alleviate my back discomfort in my Jackson Journey kayak, but aside from ripping out the stock seat I see no way to insert another cylindrical back rest. Heeding advice from Paulo Ouellet (, I am pretty sure I don’t want to limit my ability to rotate my hips & torso. In short, I am at a loss for better ideas to solve my problem.

So what do others who’ve experienced this problem have to say? I’d be grateful to hear from you.


Keep an eye out for the large diameter cylindrical foam “pool noodles” or “yoga blocks” that they sell in sporting goods and variety stores – 6" to 12" in diameter. They can be sliced in half lengthwise to make a flexible half-round bolster that you can place under your thighs to lift them or tuck between your lower back and seat rest or back band.

You can also cut a closed cell foam yoga pad or camping sleeping mat (Aldi stores have been selling them lately for under $10) into halves or thirds and roll those to fit behind your lower back and/or under your thighs. Aldi stores have also been selling inflatable foam filled “pillows” (more like seat pads) that roll up to create a cylindrical bolster – my local store had marked them down from $7.99 to $4.99 and I bought several. AdventureRidge is the brand, sold in black nylon stuffsacks with the camping gear. They are really quite nice – comparable to the costly Thermarests but far cheaper. They are better than foam because you can adjust the thickness with more or less air.

At 67 I am flexible (and lucky) enough to be very comfortable in any of my boats, even my skin on frame where I sit on a scrap of yoga mat directly on the hull and have a plain Snapdragon backband (which I don’t really lean against at all). But I do have many friends that I paddle with, most of them pretty athletic, who report the same pains that you have. It’s a common complaint which I think has more to do with tight quads than anything else. Though having excess belly fat can interfere with good posture and exacerbate such discomfort (not throwing stones here – I’ve got way more midriff fat than I should). So I carry a stash of the sliced pool noodles, various chunks of foam pad and inflatable cushions so we can rig out the cockpits such that my companions can be comfortable.

People often don’t think of just raising their thighs a little but it can make a big difference in lower back comfort. You could even test it with a rolled up beach towel. The various Pakboat and Feathercraft folding kayaks in my “fleet” all have inflatable seats and seat backs that allow for elevating the thighs and increasing the depth of the lumbar support – I have never had anyone I put in them complain about seat comfort or back aches, even people who have had problems in my hard shell boats.

Anyway, these are easy things to try and maybe something will help.

How’s your flexibility?

Questions like these are always iffy to address because none of us can really know if we are interpreting the other person’s descriptions of the problem properly, which means that projecting our own body awareness onto the situation might completely miss the mark, and because none of us (almost none of us) have the proper training (besides, if you are like me, you’ve probably found that the average doctor is highly likely to be dead-wrong in diagnosing joint and muscle problems until after there’s been lots of trial and error, and that’s in spite of their training, so us regular folks can’t expect to even be that good! So be careful listening to people like me.

Still, I ask about flexibility because I see a lot of people with poor hamstring flexibility and resulting lower-back problems. An obvious sign this type of lack of flexibility is that they can’t stand with straight legs and bend at the hips to easily touch the floor with fingers or hands (at least not without cheating with slightly bent knees that might feel straight to their owner but are not). The way that problem manifests itself when it’s necessary to sit upright with legs outstretched at nearly the same elevation as their butt (sort of like the kayaking position) is that the lower back accommodates some of the need for bending the middle part of the body the amount that’s necessary, and it accomplishes that by hunching over. That leaning-back position that you find yourself in when kayaking probably has it’s root in a reclining orientation of your pelvis which is caused by your hips not flexing enough, which is caused because your relatively straight-out leg position is tugging on your hamstrings. The end result is that your back is forced to hunch in an uncomfortable way just to get your upper body all the way upright.

Does that sound plausible?

I don’t know what it’s like to work on improving flexibility at age 73, but very gentle, prolonged stretches probably work better than forcing the issue. The following anecdote may mean nothing since it had to do with much younger adults, but back in my martial-arts days, we had a beginning guy who, when he bent over with straight legs, couldn’t even touch his ankles. He started working on exactly that - bending over and reaching down with gentle force while keeping his knees straight - all during commercials when he watched TV! In a couple month’s time he was bending over and planting the palms of his hands to the floor. Gentle, prolonged stretches did the trick for him, yet short-but-intense stretching routine before each class had done nothing for him in the prior months. So a couple other beginners started doing that and had similar success.

The only back discomfort that I have had was when I would use my rec kayak that has a very supportive seat back. One sea kayak has a back band and the other has a form fitting glass seat with a low seat back. I used to be most comfortable in the glass seat, but lately it makes no difference which boat I’m in–there are no back issues. I mainly attribute that to spending a lot of time in the saddle and always trying to maintain good posture. The only therapeutic things I do is lots of sit-ups and I tend to lay flat on my back on the floor when I’m tired. I’m 74, or will be next month and am delighted that my back, legs, shoulders and all are hanging in there. I’m kind of a believer in “If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it”, but I’m realist enough to know you can probably wear it out too.

The back of the cockpit in my CLC 17 hits me high up the lower back. I raised the seat 3/4 to 1" and the back problems went away. The leg cramps went away too … well up to a four hours paddle. It sounds like you need lumbar support, but too high is a bad thing. leaning back is bad kayak posture only good for rolling and sleeping (very advanced technique).

I take my back problems to my daughter the Physical Therapy Doctor, DPT. She can usually work some magic fingers and recommend specific exercises to strength muscles to help the problem. My primary care MD just prescribes x-rays and drugs. said:
I’ve had two hard-body kayaks over the years and suffered the same back pain with both after about 15 minutes. I’m in relatively good health but attribute my problem to lack of strong abdominal muscles.

Since you know the problem, why not address it and strengthen your abdominal muscles? You can easily start by doing simple leg lifts, maybe starting out with five, then increasing the number by one or two each day.

No sit-ups (which now are advised against) or crunches necessary. Leg lifts will work wonders. I do three sets of 15-20 every other day and never have had back pain.

Ditto for hamstring stretches. The ones described in the following article are easy to do using an exercise band.

If you aren’t flexible, then try Yoga.

Strengthening your core will benefit your performance in your other sports, so as the old Nike ad stated: just do it!

@Rookie said:

Since you know the problem, why not address it and strengthen your abdominal muscles?

I don’t wish to detract too much from Rookie’s comment because it’s worth considering, but if you have enough flexibility, it doesn’t actually take strength to simply hold the upper body upright. The only reason it takes strength to sit up straight is because you have to strain against resistance to hold that position. Increased flexibility will reduce that resistance. Think about what’s different about sitting upright in a kitchen chair with your feet beneath you on the floor, where no particular effort is needed to sit bolt-upright without relying on the backrest, but what happens if while doing so you extend your legs and someone lifts them to the same height as the chair seat? That won’t change things all that much if you’ve got good flexibility, but it changes everything if you don’t.

Members of the forum have made a lot of good comments. However, everybody’s back is different, and what helps somebody else may not help you. For example, while Guideboatguy made some excellent comments, I have never been able to come any closer than 4 inches from touching my toes, but I don’t have any back pain either when paddling a whtewater kayak or when pedaling a mirage drive sit-on-top kayak.

Having said that, here’s what keeps me comfortable in a kayak seat: a backband which firmly supports the back of my hips and keeps me sitting up straight with a straight backbone. I’m 63, have been kayaking for 34 years, and I recently did a 10 day 200 mile whitewater kayak trip with no discomfort whatever. If my back starts hurting a bit, I usually realize that the straps on my backband have slipped and my backband is no longer firmly supporting the back of my hips. I tighten the straps, and the discomfort immediately goes away.

When I was in my early 20s, I blew my back out pretty badly, and for about 10 years I would suffer from back spasms and pain a number of times a year. I think that extensive amounts of kayaking fixed that problem by developing my core muscles. I haven’t had any back problems for many years.

I’m 64. I have had several problems solved by physical therapy. As a result, I now have quite a list of exercises and stretches that I do on a regular basis. If I started experiencing what the OP is, I would go to the doc, explain the problem, suggest that I prefer PT to drugs, and go learn how to fix it.

A different take - sometimes back pain is caused by the foot rests forcing you too tightly against the seat back. Try moving your foot pedals away by a notch.