Nine Tips for More Comfortable Expeditions
by Wes Kisting
When you're logging long hours in the seat of a kayak, comfort is not just a luxury; it's a vital part of the performance equation. If you're not comfortable, your patience, stamina, and personal morale suffer. The hours drag, paddling becomes tedious, and the "magic" of kayaking vanishes.
Here, I'll share nine great comfort-related tips I've learned from years of high-mileage expeditions. Together, they will help you fend off many of the most common sources of discomfort which can plague the expedition paddler. Many of these tips will also help to improve your comfort during shorter day-trips, but their benefits increase exponentially the longer you subject yourself to the physical tolls of paddling.
Prehydration means taking a drink before you actually feel thirsty. If you wait until you feel thirsty to drink, you're already letting yourself begin to feel dehydrated: Thirst is the first symptom. If you want to get the best out of your muscles, with less soreness and fatigue, it's important to prehydrate. That means taking regular sips of water throughout the dayusually, every ten to fifteen minutes. In fact, exercise scientists generally recommend that you drink 8 fluid ounces (one cup) of water for every 20 minutes of exercise.
Obviously, if you use a conventional water bottle, taking frequent sips can mean an annoying routine of stopping and putting down the paddle to take a drinka tedious exercise that often prevents paddlers from taking drinks as often as they should. Instead, I recommend using a "water bladder" or "dromedary bag" equipped with a bite hose. I clip the bladder behind my kayak seat with a carabiner so that it cannot fall out in the case of a capsize, then I run the bite hose past my waist, up through the sprayskirt neck, and up under my life jacket. The mouthpiece hangs just below my chin, so when I want to take a drink, I don't even need to take a hand off the paddle. I just bend my head down, take the mouthpiece in my teeth, and sip. Nothing could be easier. With a convenient hydration system like mine, you'll be much more likely to stay on top of your body's hydration needs.
On a side note, if you are engaging in extremely high endurance paddling (especially in hot weather) without regular snacks or rests, there is a slight risk that you may fall victim to a condition known as hyponatremia or "over-hydration." Read my article Hyponatremia and Over-Hydration to learn more about this rare, but noteworthy phenomenon.
Going hand-in-hand with proper hydration is proper stretching. Most paddlers I know short-change this aspect of paddling because it is so easy to forget. Nonetheless, proper stretching can work wonders to reduce the likelihood of repetitive-stress-related injuries. Before you climb into your kayak, and whenever you stop for an onshore rest break, devote five minutes to stretching every part of your body: legs, back, neck, and especially the arms, wrists, and fingers. Develop a personal stretch routine and stick to it. Stretching helps to get the blood flowing and to loosen up muscles, making a remarkable difference in your comfort as you log long hours in the seat of a kayak.
Ibuprofen can work wonders for reducing aches and pains, but most people either forget to pack it along on a trip, or wait to take it until aches and pains have already set in. Assuming you have no unusual health concerns to consider (in which case you should consult your doctor), I recommend taking 200 to 400 mg of ibuprofen before you set out on the water; that is, before your muscles begin to ache. If you do, you will find that paddling-related soreness is much less commonunless, of course, you are miserably out of shape or seriously over-exerting yourself. As an over-the-counter drug, low doses of ibuprofen are quite safe, and the anti-inflammatory effects work far better preemptively, as a way to control or prevent soreness and inflammation. It also seems to reduce the likelihood or severity of common inflammation-related paddling injuries, such as tennis-elbow or tendonitis. Combined with proper hydration and adequate stretching, ibuprofen can make a remarkable improvement to comfort. It may also prevent repetitive-stress activities (like paddling) from turning into trip-ending injuries.
Digestion I: Diarrhea / Constipation Medicine
Most paddlers consume a very different diet on an expedition than they do at home (much of it comprised of dehydrated meals or canned foods). The change can wreak havoc on your stomach. Even if you think you have a cast iron stomach, you should never take a long expedition without some kind of diarrhea and constipation medicine on hand. Diarrhea, if left untreated, can lead to rapid and severe dehydration. Severe constipation can cause miserable pain in your stomach or reduce your appetite despite your body's need for nutrition. Make sure you carry medicine along to treat both conditions.
Digestion II: Chew Thoroughly
Another important tip for reducing food and digestion related problems is to chew thoroughly. Chewing is the first step in the digestive process, but most folks tend to take quick, large bites of food and to swallow quickly. Instead, try to take smaller bites and to chew as thoroughly as possible to pulverize the food before swallowing. This will make the rest of the digestive process easier on the stomach, resulting in less frequent and less intense stomach upset. Better yet, with foods like Power Bars, it also helps to get the stored up energy into your system more quickly, boosting your performance.
Some paddlers (myself included) hate wearing gloves. There's something about holding a paddle shaft in your bare hands that makes you feel more "connected" to the art of paddling. Nonetheless, on long-mileage, multi-day expeditions, the paddle shaft can take a severe toll on your handsespecially when constant exposure to the water begins to soften your skin. Quite seriously, it can lead to blisters and chafing so severe that you may find yourself unable to continue paddling until your hands heal. To prevent this problem, always pack along a pair of paddling gloves to cushion the blistering effect of long hours of paddling. If you're like me, you may not always wear them, but you will have them at hand whenever you begin to notice that your hands are feeling sore and chafed. The important thing is to put them on and keep them on whenever your hands begin to feel sore or to show signs of redness where you grip the paddle. If you wait until you develop a blister or tear open the skin, they will still help cushion the situation, but they won't be able to get rid of the discomfort entirely.
Washcloth / Unscented Baby Wipes
A small, quick-drying towel or washcloth can do wonders for your personal hygiene on a long expedition, especially if there are no showers to be had along the way. At the end of each day, or at least every other day, put some clean water in a pot on your stove and heat it to a warm, comfortable temperature. If you like, you can also add a small dose of camp soap to the water, but if you do, be sure to dispose of the water (afterward) at least 100 yards away from the nearest water source. Dip the washcloth in the water and use it to sponge sweat, salt, scum, and other impurities off of your skin.
Some people don't feel comfortable with the idea of sponge bathing outside, but the beauty of sponge bathing is that you don't have to take off all your clothes, so you can do it even if your campsite is not fully secluded, or situated in a place where another boat or person might pass by. More importantly, it feels remarkably refreshing and keeps you smelling a lot better than if you just live with the filth. Some paddlers think it is easier to jump back in the water to wash off sweat at the end of a day, but there are two problems: You can't (or shouldn't) use soap to bathe in a major natural water source, and you will still retain all of the water bacteria (even in a fairly pristine lake) which contribute to odor. Certainly, you can jump in the lake or river to wash off initially, but it is still much more effective to follow your dunking with a sponge bath, using a small amount of heated, purified water and a washcloth.
If the sponge bath approach sounds like a hassle, unscented baby wipes offer an excellent alternative. The baby-wipes contain a very mild cleanser, so they can be used to wipe dirt, sweat, salt, and other residues off the skin for a surprisingly refreshing "bath." The advantage of baby-wipes is their convenience: They'll get you clean without need to waste your purified water or to fire up your stove. The downside is that you must hang onto the used baby wipes and pack them out with you (never bury them or leave them behindthat's pollution!). Also, some baby wipes leave a mild residue behind on the skin (although infinitely preferable to the filth they remove) and they won't scrub off smells as effectively as heated water, a mild soap, and a washcloth. Ultimately, either approach is fine. For me, the decision depends on which way my mood is leaning (toward convenience or cleanliness) as I pack for the trip. Whatever you choose, attending to your hygiene will not only keep your body feeling fresher, but also your gearespecially your camp clothes and the inside of your sleeping bag.
Cologne / Perfume
This tip goes hand-in-hand with the previous tip, and it does wonders for controlling body odor on a long expedition: Pack along a small bottle of cologne, aftershave, or perfume. Personally, I pack along a tiny green travel bottle of Old Spice aftershave because it is among the smallest, most packable travel bottles I've found and it has a pleasant, mild scent. When you get to camp at the end of the day, clean off (see tip above) and then put a few small dabs of cologne on your neck and under your nose. The scent will do wonders to suppress the usual smells of neoprene, suntan lotion, dirt, and other residues which tend to linger stubbornly on your skin and annoy you after you crawl into your sleeping bag. It also comes in very handy if you need to stop in a town somewhere to resupply with groceries, in which case the cologne will help suppress any offensive odors that may follow you. Some paddlers may count this a frivolous concern, but together with the previous tip, a small dab of cologne will do wonders for your morale at camp, making you feel much "fresher" and more comfortable than otherwise would be the case. Also, your paddling partners will thank you as well.
Some paddlers report that certain kinds of cologne or perfume will attract mosquitoes. Although I've never experienced this problem myself, some scents will inevitably make you a bigger target for pests. If you're camping in mosquito country, you may wish to substitute a natural essence or extract like peppermint, lavender, or rosemary instead of cologne or perfume.
Portable Pee Bottle
This tip is relatively specific to male paddlers, although some camp outfitters do sell portable urination devices designed for the female anatomy as well. In any case, I recommend carrying a "pee bottle" if you are going to be making any long open-water crossings or working your way along an inhospitable shoreline that affords few landings. Almost any plastic bottle with a secure cap will suffice, but to make this tip feasible, you'll need to be wearing a wetsuit with a relief zipper or a pair of swim trunks that are easy to pull down. Regardless, there is nothing worse than needing to pee, but having to hold it (while you're dripping wet with cold water, no less) until you reach a shoreline that is still an hour or more away. With a portable pee bottle, you can unscrew the cap of the bottle, "take care of business" (to put it tactfully), put the cap back on the bottle, and continue on in comfort.
I've also found this technique useful along fairly public stretches of water flanked by privately-owned lands and houses. In such cases, there may be nowhere to go ashore to relieve oneself privately, but a pee bottle can be used discretely under your spray skirt, so you can "take care of business" while preserving your privacy and dignity. Afterward, stow the bottle somewhere safe until you can dispose of it properly, either at a public toilet or on dry land at least 100 yards away from the nearest water source.
© 2006, Wesley Kisting