boats · fitness

Kayak shopping while fat

CW: discussion of fat-shaming during kayaking outings and gear fittings.

I’m doing it– I’m finally buying a sea kayak! For years now, I’ve rented boats for paddling in lakes and rivers, estuaries and protected ocean bays. I love love love being on the water.

So why haven’t I bought a kayak before? You can get a used one for less than the cost of a good used road, mountain, cross or gravel bikes. Yes, they’re long– my future kayak will run 14 feet (4.25 meters) or longer. But I can store it in my backyard on sawhorses, with an inexpensive cover. And my car has a roof rack for transporting it. As for lifting a 50+ lb. boat, there are technology aids (e.g. little kayak trolley), that help make the loading feasible for one person.

Little two-wheeled trolley for moving a kayak here and yon.
Little two-wheeled trolley for moving a kayak here and yon.

So what’s been stopping me? Part of it is the maintenance of yet more gear. Also, why buy when you can rent? Here’s why.

Almost every time I’ve rented a kayak for a day trip, or signed up for a kayaking instructional workshop, I’ve been greeted with looks and comments of impatience, frustration, puzzlement and all-around negative vibes about the prospect of finding gear and a boat to fit my size. I’m not kidding. Almost every time. They tut-tut, shake their heads and cast about for everything from the actual boat (let’s look for a really wide cockpit for you), to a spray skirt (no, we don’t have any neoprene spray skirts to fit YOU), to a PFD (aka lifejacket; although to be honest most women complain about how they’re not designed to fit them).

When I did a weekend intensive ocean kayaking course, I found myself chatting with the main instructor– a world-class sea kayaker and long-time teacher and guide. When I said I was looking for a boat and was finding it difficult to find one I was comfortable in, he shook his head and said soberly, “yeah– they just don’t make many boats for people your size.”

Here’s the thing: that is totally false. There are loads and loads of kayaks for people my size. There are not loads and loads of super-high-end fiberglass or kevlar performance sea kayaks for people my size, but there are some. I actually paddled in one that he had in his gear shed– the Romany Excel. And I don’t want one of those anyway, partly because they’re very expensive, and partly because of this ad for them:

Ad for the Romany Excel sea kayak, which uses the phrase "extra large paddler" twice.
Ad for the Romany Excel sea kayak, which uses the phrase “extra large paddler” twice.

Naturally, it’s crucial to know the carrying capacity of a kayak, and they are designed for different maximum weights. It’s in the specs for every boat, so this information is easy to access. I suppose someone thought that aggressive marketing to the “extra-large-paddler” market would help sell this boat. Hmphf.

What really upsets me, though, is that ads like this make me feel like kayak manufacturers think the “regular” paddlers don’t and can’t include me. (FYI: I’m a size 16–18, XL/XXL) Yes, there are plenty of kayakers who weigh less than I do. There are many kayakers who are larger than I am. In sum, regular kayakers come in a variety of sizes and heights.

I want to be a regular kayaker in both senses of the word: 1) I want to be considered just one of the regular paddlers, not an outlier/special case “extra-large paddler” (regardless of my size); 2) I want to kayak regularly. In order achieve 2) I need to spare myself the ordeal of head shakes and “I guess I can see what we’ve got in the back”. So, I’ll get my own damn boat, thank you very much. Stay tuned for updates as the used-boat shopping commences.

I’ll end with some photographic evidence that they do, after all, make boats for people my size.

Janet and me (left) kayaking inside our boats.
Janet and me (left) kayaking inside our boats.

Readers: have you had trouble finding gear because you didn’t fit some advertiser’s or coach’s idea of the “regular” practitioner of your sport or activity? If you have something you’d like to share, I’d love to hear about it.

8 thoughts on “Kayak shopping while fat

  1. For me personally, that ad would be helpful — it tells me that it’s not only built for higher weight capacity, which could just mean cargo, but also wider bodies. I’ve also seen some tiny women frustrated that they can’t figure out which boat is *small* enough for them, and feel like more truth in advertising would help, not hurt. But I can understand not wanting to be singled out — I’m a similar size (18ish).

    (It may also be another sign of how much most sports stuff is aimed only at men, because there’s less stigma about talking about “extra large” men — while there’s definitely fat-shaming aimed at men, there’s also an underlying assumption that really big tall muscular men exist, and thus “extra large paddler” can mean a “desirable” large body type.)

    (The canoe manufacturer I bought my boat from (well, I bought it used, so not directly) has stopped (or never did) publishing recommended weights, which is really frustrating. I guess I’m unlikely to buy another one of their boats because yes, I do want to know before tracking one down to test paddle whether or not it’s going to be swamped with 220 pounds of me plus 60 pounds of gear or whatever. Sigh.)

  2. I’ve owned a kayak for a few years now and I love it. I wear the same size as you do but kayak on flat water, not in the ocean (not much ocean in central Texas), so I went with an open top. I guess there are width differences in open tops, but it wasn’t really a huge consideration when purchasing for me. I was looking more for something that could comfortably fit my dog between my legs and have room for camping gear. I did make sure it could carry my weight plus a lot more in case of said camping gear (and 50lb dog).

    I find it really interesting that you got such treatment from rental companies as I’ve never really noticed them having an issue with my size. Again, it could be because I’m more renting open top and not closed so I don’t need a spray skirt, but I’ve been fortunate that no one has really given me an issue or attitude. I have had issues with the comfort of rental PFD’s, though, so I bought my own on Amazon when I bought my kayak and while no PFD is comfortable, exactly, it’s so much better than the standard “one size fits most”.

    Keep in mind how much work it is to take the boat on and off the roof rack multiple times in a day (loading in the morning, unloading at the drop-in, loading after paddling all day). I find myself thinking about all the work it’ll take and deciding to go hiking instead. I do have a load assist bar that makes a huge difference (since 90% of the time I’m by myself), but it’s still a lot of work to lift the damn thing on and off. Hopefully, you don’t get many 100+ degree days like we do here!

    Good luck with your search!

  3. I am a large or extra large pant in hiking gear and running gear. I’m basically a size 4-6 in everything else, although I do have larger-than-average thighs (speaking mathematically, compared to other women with otherwise similar proportions). It took me nearly a decade to find hiking pants that fit comfortably around the hips and thighs and didn’t look like a balloon everywhere else (thank you Keen). Running tights have the same problem. It drives me nuts. Every time I struggle to find clothes that fit I wonder about anyone larger than me being denied access–if I’m already bordering on “too large,” they’re really selecting a very small group of people to participate in the sport.

  4. Renting kayaks is the worst. They’re usually in disrepair, or super cheap models or “safe” sit on tops. I agree with Sarah above that they’re targeting men with the “extra large” wording. I got a used Romany (original model) from a friend and lovvvvve that boat.

    The best way to find a good fit is to sit in as many boats as you can. Even without water it’s a big help. It’d be nice if they’d admit there are as many boat types as body types.

  5. Ski pant and ski boots! I have struggled for years to replace an aging pair of snowpants from Sears (!) and find a pair that have some stretch, room for my thighs and don’t make me feel like I’m being cut in half when I sit down. Cross-country ski pants remain impossible to find in my size (18/ 1x). I rented boots this winter and after a few bad experiences did get a staff member who knew how to adjust a specific pair of boots to fit my wide calves. I didn’t realize this was a ‘not just me’ problem until Bryony Gordon wrote about hating skiing this winter, and then I realized that the sport is another one where gear can make it inaccessible to various body types.

  6. I just came here to say that I love that you’re buying a boat and can’t wait to hear more about it! I still hope to get back into paddling some day, just need to move closer to a sufficiently large body of water :). In the meantime, I’m going to live vicariously through you. Good luck with your search, I hope you find a boat you love fast!

  7. Hi,
    Thank you for a great read and insight. I am a sea kayak guide and in training to coach. We are also the NDK dealer for the east of England; the maker of the Romany you mentioned. I am also 5’4” and ‘curvy’ so need to find the right fit for my backside! I wanted to ask how you feel the description should read for boats that are specifically designed for larger paddlers which say what they are? The last thing anyone wants to do is trawl through lots of boats. Some say they are for the ‘larger paddler’ but still aren’t the right size and oversell and waste the buyers time. The Romany range has three sizes and are great boats so don’t rule them out please! Stay safe and happy Kayaking 🙂

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