Kayaking with One Arm: Everything You Need to Know

There is a reason kayaks and canoes are typically paddled with two arms and not one. It’s just so much easier that way. Maybe if you only needed to perform strokes on only one side instead of both, it might seem more sensible. But even that is difficult to physically coordinate with one arm and hand. So we are left with the question of why, with the answer coming out of both necessity or situation.

Why Would You Need to Kayak with One Arm?

This depends on the person or paddler. There are situations on the water that could leave you with the need to paddle with one arm for varying periods of time. And for some people, their actual bodies are the situations leading them to the pursuit of paddling in this distinct way.

Not all people are born with or currently functioning with two equally good and capable arms. Amputations, specific physically affecting disorders, and serious injuries can leave a person impaired in many life impacting ways, including recreational pursuits and hobbies like kayaking. Since paddling with one arm is our focus here, we are talking about people with their upper bodies, and specifically arms and hands affected, who need specific adaptations to be successful on the water.

Paddling with one arm is a challenging and strenuous task, so this isn’t going to be for every person out there with an amputated arm, physical disorder, or serious upper limb injury. You’re going to need one better than good and capable arm, along with strong willpower to be able to put in double the typical paddling work.

demonstrating one arm paddling technique in an inflatable kayak on a lake

A person with the neurological disorder of Cerebral Palsy, has their physical body and its muscle tone, movement, and balance, among other things negatively impacted. There is type of this disorder where only one side of their body (spastic hemiplegia) is affected, leaving the other side, and for kayakers – that arm, with typical functioning. This could be a prime candidate for one arm paddling if just one, and not both, of their arms are impacted by their condition.

A serious injury can be a temporary hurdle that leaves you laid up, but also something that you can adapt to while still allowing for proper healing and rest to occur. To qualify for the one arm paddling endeavor, a person might be healing from a dislocation, separation, torn muscle, or broken bone in their shoulder, arm, or hand. The same goes for those with an amputated upper limb, anywhere from the hand to the full arm, even though this is more of a permanent hurdle. Either way, one arm paddling can be accomplished by people in these situations, but it is going to physically take a lot to do so. But for amputees, there is possible use of a prosthetic to avoid the whole one arm paddling trial run (with specific adaptations to grip and paddle, also provided in this post). And those recovering from a serious upper limb injury could always at least try hold off getting on the water, no guarantees there though.

fishing pole and a kayak paddle on an inflatable kayak at a river side

There are also situational needs that could leave a paddler wondering how they might efficiently paddle with one arm. Those same serious injuries to an upper limb’s muscle, joint, or bone can just as well happen on the water. With this likely being an unexpected situation, it’s going to take adapting the tools (paddle mostly) that you already have with you and powering through until you can get off the water. More of this to come later too. An unexpected hole in an inflatable kayak is another possibility, where you may need to apply pressure with one hand, while paddling with the other. These are a just couple hypotheticals, so let’s get into a more positive planned situation, where you aren’t applying pressure to stay afloat or suffering from a serious injury.

Fishing is a popular partner to recreational paddling of all sorts. And once again, just like with paddling you are using your hands (while our feet just sit there useless for a change). This being said, there is going to come a time or many occasions where you want to both cast or hold onto your fishing rod while paddling. Instead of constantly stopping your progress with either of them each time, it would be best to figure out how to manage both and this is where one arm paddling appears to a devout fisherman.

What Can be Purchased to Allow for One Arm Paddling?

It is a combination of the actual paddle and how it is positioned that makes all the difference here. It’s hard enough to perform the movements for each stroke with the same arm, let alone if you would also have to hold the weight of the paddle while doing so. Addressing these concerning areas, there are equipment adaptations out there for possible purchase.

Mounted paddle frames are very useful and appropriate for one arm paddlers. They do the work of holding the paddle in a steady and useable position for you. There are also differences in paddles used, including ones with an angle instead of the straight shaft between paddle blades. Examples of mounted paddle frames and paddles are provided below.

  • Angle Oar: Versa Paddle (angled down from mounted center point), Gamut Kayak Paddle Holder and Mounts (mount to kayak frame and hold to paddle).
  • Creating Ability: Paddle Pivot (mounted hold that can pivot, allowing for typical straight paddle to be used).
  • One Arm Freedom Paddle (attached shaft with single canoe paddle blade, developed by Cindy Dillenschneider, professor of outdoor education at Northland College).

How Can I Adapt in the Moment to Paddle with One Arm?

Not everything can be planned for, I mean this is the outdoors. So you’re not always going to be ready for a sudden change in something so essential as how you have to propel your watercraft. A freak accident or injury or a punctured hole in an inflatable kayak aren’t the norm but they are possibilities. Whatever the case, you may be left with some serious adapting needed to paddle with only one of your arms. Paddle stroke technique and the paddle itself are key areas to focus on in the moment to adapt to your new situation and circumstances.

Start by increasing your own knowledge and skills to be able to apply useful techniques to paddling strokes with one arm. Techniques can vary according to your paddle size and weight, your body’s strength and capabilities, and personal preferences. These can be further researched and will be easier to watch than read a description of, but there are universal considerations to make note of. Using your body as a base for the paddle shaft to rest on during specific strokes can help create leverage in strokes, while lessening the weight of control in your paddling arm.

half of an inflatable kayak paddle

This may take some upper body shifting and twisting to maintain the position and support that is replacing your other hand and arm. And you likely aren’t going to get the same efficiency and production out of both sides of both stroke sides, so make use of other stroke types. An example of this is to use a back paddle stroke on your strong side, to keep your side to side progress even and your path straight and on target, rather than eventually paddling in a circle.

The ability to adapt your paddle, is really going to depend on what you have for a paddle (unless you are on MacGyver’s level of innovative creativity with other miscellaneous items). Some paddles can be split into different sections, while others are one whole paddle shaft. Those that can be split apart, could be done to adapt for one arm paddling. This can help lessen the weight of the paddle and make it a more maneuverable length. If your paddle is one solid piece, you are most likely going to have to make do with how it is. And it’s hard to break this paddle into more useable pieces, when a paddler has one arm to work with in these scenarios.

Tips for Any One Arm Paddlers

  1. Play around with one arm rigger set ups and do it yourself adaptations until one or more feels solid (comfortable, effective, energy efficient, stroke versatile, etc.).
  2. Be attentive of the details to your one arm rigger or DIY adaptation and any adjustments made (exact height, how close to body/arm’s reach, where grabbing paddle shaft).
  3. Practice on the water adjustments to one arm riggers or DIY adaptations, noting specific steps to take to do so, how long these adjustments take, how environmental factors (waves, current, wind) effect this process.
  4. Practice paddling on calm waters a bunch before, if desired, progressing up to rougher waters (river rapids, large lake or ocean waves).
  5. If paddling rougher waters, scope out your intended path (especially on a river) and the challenges and hazards that it offers, favoring these to your stronger paddling side.
demonstrating one arm paddling technique in an inflatable kayak on a lake

What Other Adaptations Might a Kayaker Need?

Even though paddlers are relying on their arms instead of their feet to get around, there are still other important areas of adaptation out there. These adaptations are often designed for people with specific physical limitations, impairments, or disabilities, that can affect their trunk stability, grip strength, limb use and range of motion, and more. Key elements to a kayak, as well as body positioning are the focus of adaptation efforts and resulting products. And like with the range of reasons for one arm paddling (fishing with other hand to having an amputated arm), these other adaptations can have a more general use by people for added support and improved efficiency in different ways.

Seat

This is a very common area for an adaptation of a kayak. Seats can be specialized for both people that physically need it and those that just desire it. Stability, posture, and comfort are all motivators to paddlers desiring a change in seats, while the extra trunk support is key for those physically lacking their own. Characteristics to adapted seats include a sturdy and extended back rest, added height to the seat, and varying angles to it, changing a person’s sitting position and posture. So what’s out there for adapted seats?

  • Advanced Elements: Lumbar Seat AE2013.
  • Creating Abiltiy: Universal Paddle Seat.
  • Gurney Gears: Bumfortable Kayak Seat.
  • NRS: Pike IK and GigBob Seat.
  • Sea to Summit: Solution Tripper Kayak Seat.

Paddle Shaft

The paddle shaft is where your physical connection to your kayak’s movement occurs, like your feet and pedals on a bicycle. Grips and holding positions are the focus at hand. Like with the seats, the paddle shaft has adaptations possible for many, from necessity to improved comfort and efficiency. Grip assistance devices are available, which is great for anyone that struggles with grip strength, endurance, and positioning, like someone with arthritis in their hands may. Mounted frames are also highly useful for taking the weight of holding the paddle off the paddler. Anyone that physically struggles with the upper body effort that goes into paddling could use this on their kayak. Here are some quality grip assistance and mounted frame devices available out there:

  • Angle Oar: Versa paddle, Gamut kayak holder and mounts.
  • Creating Ability: hand adaptation, wrist adaptation, paddle pivot.
  • YakAttack: Roto Grip paddle holder.
  • Yakgrips: kayak paddle grips.

Body Positioning

A paddler’s body position can only be adapted so much to keep with the traditional seated paddling form. This positioning isn’t best for every person though, even with specializations to seats. Some people may physically need something different, like with the Bellyak paddle board. It has a unique dug out look to its frame and is designed for people to lay prone or on their stomachs to paddle. But no paddles are used, as people use their hands (similar to a surfer would paddle out) to move themselves on the water. The close and concise paddling motions here, take away much of the extra movements used paddling in a traditional kayak.

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