How to Get In and Out of a Kayak with Bad Knees, Hips or Other Body Aches

How to Get In and Out of a Kayak with Bad Knees, Hips or Other Body Aches

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One of the most common questions we receive at Angle Oar is, “What’s the best way to get in and out of a kayak when you have (fill in the blank)? The “blank” is usually some combination of an adjective and a body part or parts, for example, bad knees, weak arms, a herniated disc, recent hip replacement surgery, arthritic hands, etc.

In our effort to assemble a set of responses to these questions, we asked members from two of the largest online kayaking communities what they do in these situations. We heard from hundreds of paddlers from the Senior Kayakers Group 55+ and the Church of the Double-Bladed Paddle, two Facebook groups with 20,000 and 34,000 members, respectively.

A Focus on the Knees

Though they shared firsthand experience on a wide range of kayak entry/exit methods, covering everything from bad backs to limited arm strength to achy hips, we asked them to focus on our primary question of how to get in and out of a kayak when you have bad knees. We told respondents that any of their techniques were fair game – we weren’t awarding points for style or gracefulness!

One paddler summarized our feelings on the matter well. “A good friend told me when I first started kayaking eight years ago that there was no graceful way to get into or out of a kayak. Once I heard that, I stopped trying to look good, and it really helped!”

Without exception, the responses were informative, varied and colorful! We’ve organized them into seven categories, though there’s quite a bit of overlap between the categories. We’ve also highlighted the pros and cons of each method, included videos (when available) to demonstrate the techniques, and added some extra tips for good measure.

Seven Methods for Entering & Exiting a Kayak When You Have Knee Problems

1. Shallow Water Methods (including the “Dump Grandma” Method)

By far the most popular suggestion was using the water itself to lessen strain on the knees. Several variations were mentioned, but most involved getting into the water somewhere between knee- and thigh-level deep and keeping the kayak parallel to the shoreline.

“Stay in about a foot and a half of water from shore. When you get out, it’s easier on the knees than trying to bend them less than 90° and getting up from the shore.” – JP

“Stop parallel to shore in two feet of water. Swing your legs over the side on the deep side. As you lean forward, the boat will nearly let in water, but you will be easily standing and no water (will get) in the boat. I call it the side saddle dismount, and my 73-year-old wife swears by it.” – GSL

Nancy Witham, 64, and her mom, Jean Mugford, 92, still paddle every year together. According to Nancy’s kids, they use the “dump grandma” method to help Jean get out of the kayak. “Getting in, my Mom slowly butt drops in from thigh-high level water as I support her. I swing her legs in and help her put on dry paddle shoes. We use a swivel car seat cushion to swing her in with ease,” said Nancy.

“Exiting is where we laugh… Again, in thigh deep water, I swing her legs over the side, then I go I stand on the opposite side and slowly roll the kayak as she stands up. It looks like I’m dumping her out, but it’s very controlled. She holds on to the side for support as I steady the kayak, and she stands up. We’ve got it all down until one of us starts laughing, at which (point) one of us loses our balance and goes in for a swim!”

“I’m 70 and have had two knee replacements. I have a Tsunami 165. (To get out), I stop in water just below my knee and swing one leg over the side and stand up on it. I can then bring the other leg out on the same side. If you are in shallower water, it is harder as the flexion on the knee is too much. To get in, I put one leg in and sit on the back of the cockpit and then bring my other leg in.” – Dianne Chellew

Requires minimal coordination

Requires minimal upper body strength

Some techniques may require an assistant

Requires shallow, relatively even shoreline (e.g., not deep or rocky)

Wet feet from the get-go

2. Paddle Bridge/Brace Techniques

Considered one of the more traditional techniques for entering and exiting a kayak, the paddle bridge technique is used by kayakers with and without knee problems. A number of paddlers mentioned it, but with the caveat that it does require some degree of upper body strength. Given that there is often (but not always) a correlation between age, joint degeneration and decline in strength, some paddlers with knee or hip issues might not have sufficient quad, core, arm or shoulder strength to carry out this maneuver.

Kathleen Pszonka is 74 and has had bilateral knee replacements. She says she uses sit in kayaks with an average sized cockpit, not large cockpits like the Wilderness Pungo, for instance. “I learned to exit with the kayak parallel to shore. I put my paddle behind my seat, bridging the shore or ramp. I push up my butt using my hands on the paddle behind me. Then, I swing my legs out into the deeper side of the boat,” explained Kathleen.

Steve Dooley has a prosthetic leg. He describes how he sits behind the cockpit on the kayak, with the paddle behind him, one side overextended touching shore. “(I slide) both legs in straight and plop down on the seat,” he said, noting that once in a while he catches the back-band of the seat on the way down.

You can see the paddle bridge technique demonstrated in this video, though the paddler is in shallower water and the kayak is not parallel to shore as described above.

The video also shows the paddle being used to push against the lake bottom in conjunction with the straddle method, which is covered in the next section of this post.

Can be used in a variety of environments (e.g., shoreline, dock)

Doesn’t require an assistant

Requires some flexibility and coordination

Can potentially cause damage to kayak paddle

Can be difficult in kayaks with high seat backs

3. Straddle & “Butt First” Approaches

It’s hard to say where the Shallow Water Methods begin and the Straddle & “Butt First” Approaches end, so admittedly, there’s quite a bit of overlap in these categories. You could say one emphasizes the location of the kayak (e.g., knee deep in the water, parallel to shore), and one emphasizes the order and positioning of the paddler’s body getting in and out of the kayak (e.g., butt first, then legs).

“I’m 55 with knees that are shot. I prefer to straddle kayak in shallow water. Drop butt into seat, put one leg in at a time. Reverse to get back out.” – Bern Vander Meer

Jean Betts lets her 82-year-old friend who’s had both knees replaced use what she calls her “guest” kayak which has a keyhole cockpit. The friend can’t bend her knees enough to use the butt-drop technique. Instead, both she and the friend enter their kayaks by straddling the kayak and sitting toward the back of the cockpit.

“We like to launch and return in knee-deep water, if possible, so our knees are fairly straight when our feet touch bottom. At that point I simply stand up and shove the kayak forward, out from underneath me, grab the stern, and bring my feet together,” noted Jean. She says they both use their paddles as outriggers, adding, “Remember to always lean a bit towards the paddle, and you’ll be fine.”

“I have a Pungo and a Tempest Pro. After using a “butt first from the side and swing the legs in” (approach), I have settled on putting in my worse leg first, my rear-end on back deck, and then bringing the second leg up and sliding into seat.” – JB

“(An) open bow boat saves the day for me. Walking the boat out into water that is knee-to-thigh deep, with someone holding the boat in place, I back up to the boat and get my tush into it, grabbing onto sides as I get in. Exiting (is) not pretty, but I swing my feet out into same depth of water, then my tush goes in for a swim, and I’m in shallow water. I wear some sort of water shoes that stay on and won’t take on pebbles.” – MLHL

Requires minimal coordination

Requires minimal upper body strength

Requires some flexibility in the hips (for straddling)

Requires shallow, relatively even shoreline (e.g., not deep or rocky)

Requires a butt (i.e., just seeing if you’re paying attention)

4. Partner-Assisted Methods

For those lucky enough to have a paddling partner along for the ride, the challenge of entering and exiting becomes that much easier. Here are some of the different ways kayakers approach the situation, but no doubt there are many others.

“To help my wife out, I brace my legs against the yak in front of her (stabilizing it so it doesn’t slide) and pull her up by both hands. (Using my legs, not my back). She can help a little bit, but not too much till she’s mostly upright.” – Dave Tarnowski

One paddler (NS) who had her right hip replaced said she uses the Shallow Water Method described earlier. “I put my weak leg in first, brace arms on the sides of the cockpit to balance, and then my other leg goes in because it’s stronger and will slip in faster.” She said she does have someone straddle the front of her boat to steady it and give her an arm if needed. Now that she’s fully recovered from surgery, however, she says, “I just straddle my SILV sea kayak” to get in.

Though we’re not covering adaptive paddling strategies in this post, per se, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the range of kayak transfer options available for people with disabilities or other mobility limitations. They range from adaptive kayak launches to transfer benches to transfers at the shoreline via Hoyer Lifts, as shown in this video.

“We use this method a lot at the kayak school. Get the paddler to put their feet in the cockpit while sitting on the dock. A buddy sits behind them with their feet on the back deck to stabilise the boat and holds the back of their PFD as they drop into the cockpit. If they have serious range of movement issues, then sitting on the back of the cockpit coaming first, re-position the hands, then sliding in.

We have a number of different height floating docks, and we’ve found 25 cm above the water is the sweet spot ergonomically.” – TW

Likely provides the best stability for the paddler

Rules out impromptu solo outings

Requires a partner with some degree of strength and/or coordination

5. All Fours & Corkscrew Styles

Karen Hassett of Ontario, Canada, only started kayaking about a year ago, but quickly fell in love. She says she doesn’t have any specific knee problems, “I’ve had a couple scopes and, basically, it’s just arthritis.” After searching for different options, she found a technique that works for her and created a video to demonstrate it.

Karen says she usually does the maneuver from the shoreline. “I put the kayak in the water with just enough on shore that I can step in and sit down. Then, then I scoot it on into the water,” she explained. “When I exit, I drive it into the shore…just enough out of the water to stabilize it. Then, I’m able to turn around and stand up.”

Lisa Petrowski LaLande has had two knees replaced. She says her technique “isn’t pretty. (It) looks like I’m being birthed out of the kayak onto the dock or beach. I need to shift my body to get my hands down and bum up. Then the rest of me.”

Entering the boat requires someone to stabilize it, most frequently her husband, Lisa says. “Keep good upper body strength, because you’ll have to slide your legs in from the back deck using your arms to support you. A good friend or loved one, and a sense of humor is key! All worth it!”

“I get my left leg out, swivel on to my stomach, and push up to stand. I always get out on the shallow side of the boat.” – BS

Rick Wayne, who describes himself as “220 pounds and famously short on core and upper-body strength” has refined a reverse corkscrew technique for getting out of his kayak. “Basically, you twist your upper body so you’re facing aft, then (supporting your weight with your hands) flip your lower body to match. You wind up in a natural position to kneel on the seat,” he explained. “From there it’s relatively simple to lever yourself out while never putting a load on a lower leg at an acute angle.

Rick says this method works quite well for him. “It’s that very first bit that’s tricky. Once your body knows the routine, it’s simple, but the first time or two, it’s pretty easy to go sploosh.”

Requires less flexibility and strength than other methods

Can lead to fits of laughter if done properly (i.e., awkwardly)

Works best with large cockpits

May require an assistant (or adaptive launch) to stabilize the kayak

6. Slide Out Methods

A first cousin to some of the other approaches already described, the Slide Out Method could also be called the Crawl/Fall/Roll Out Method, depending upon the specifics of the technique. Here are the variations our experienced paddlers offered up.

“I have two bad knees. I get near the bank (or on the edge of a boat ramp) in shallow water, swing my legs over and slide out into the water. I get a little wet, but it’s so much easier.” – SWH

Jennifer Dones doesn’t have bad knees, but due to an old injury, she struggles with stability and standing up when exiting her kayak. Her method is to paddle onto land as much as possible and then “roll my boat on its side and butt scoot out. Then, someone will either help me up or I’ll crawl out into the water until I’m swimming, then swim back so that I’m standing.” She acknowledges that it may be an inconvenient way to do things, but it works for her! To get in, “I’ll put my boat half on the bank, half in water, straddle it, then throw myself backwards into the cockpit,” Jennifer explained.

“I can get in (the kayak) but can’t get out without somebody helping lift me up. Usually, I just paddle up into knee deep water and roll out. Once I get me feet under me, I can grab hold of the boat and stand up to walk to shore. (It) looks silly but, it works.” – TT

Lessens flexion on the knees

Trips ends with a wet/sandy exit, in most cases

7. Using Assistive Devices

In the final category, we received a plethora of examples of assistive devices paddlers keep on hand to help them get in and out of their kayaks.

“My hubby keeps a rope tied to the front of the kayak and looped back to him, where he is sitting. He uses this to pull himself up.” – KM

U-Shaped Brace

A few years back Brian Muntz created a U-shaped aid out a few pieces of PVC pipe and some 90-degree elbows for a mate’s sit-on-top. He said the legs of U were placed down through the scupper holes and pushed into the sand, then the top of the U was used to grip and lower yourself down after you straddled the kayak! “Pull up the aid, store it under the deck lines and paddle off. Reverse the procedure to land! It works in sand or gravel,” said Bruce.

He said they also made one for a sit inside that had permanent stabilizing legs that straddled the outside of the kayak, but it was too bulky to carry so it was left at the launch spot. It “got pinched after the third use, unfortunately,” he reported, adding, “on reflection there’s a number of ways I could have made it to fold flat so it could travel with the kayak!”

Stakeout & Other Poles

Stakeout poles are often used by kayak anglers in shallow waters to keep their kayaks from drifting. The poles, usually six to eight feet long, are stuck into the mud or sand and secured to the kayak with an anchor trolley or tie. Several brands make them, including the YakAttack ParkNPole, Yak Gear’s Floating YakStick and the Hobie Stakeout Pole.

Michael Nicholas has discovered that a stakeout pole also comes in handy for getting out of his kayak. But rather than paying retail, he found a roughly $10 Do-It-Yourself (DIY) option that works just as well.

“It’s an 8′ tree stake made by Vigoro and sold at garden stores. The handle is 3/4″ PVC fittings: a Tee with the center part threaded, two short pieces of pipe and two end caps. Use a silicone sealant or Shoe Goo to screw it onto the pole,” noted Nicholas. “Stick into the bottom in shallow water and you have something to pull yourself up with and help with stability once you’re standing. You could also tether your yak to it so the yak won’t drift away.”

“I have been experimenting with two folding trekking poles. As close to side as I can get them, I like the forward push they give and how they help stabilize my boat. I also find (keeping the) kayak parallel to shore helps. Let the shore stabilize then step out or flop out.” – LM

Sturdy Plank

Sometimes just getting a head start on those first few inches out of the cockpit is all that it takes. One option is to bring along a sturdy plank — something resembling a 2 x 4″ piece of wood that’s wide enough to fit across the width of the cockpit. Get the kayak beached on shore and put the board on the rim of the cockpit behind you. Use both your arms and feet to lift your bodyweight up onto the plank. In that elevated position, your feet are now under you, and you can swing them over the side and stand in the shallow water. The board can be tucked inside the hull or on the deck when not in use.

Small Cooler

One 74-year-old paddler takes “one of those small, blue coolers with me and props my replaced knee on it. (It’s an) easy way to keep water cold, a snack, … I can’t paddle without it.” She says it helps that a large cockpit in her Point 65 Martini kayak. – JA

Other Tips

When we first started to research this topic, this was one of the only videos available. While not an actual entry or exit method, this man’s advice on practicing “lawn kayaking” before the season starts is sage advice — whether it’s for bad knees, to strengthen your upper body or to regain flexibility!

“I did purchase a new boat this spring that is a performance kayak, but the deck is higher. It’s been a godsend on my hip.” – ES

“Add a few handholds to your kayak. Place the handles to where you can grab and pull yourself up on top of the kayak. These will also be helpful to flip your kayak if needed and offer more tie downs for extra gear.” – LW

“When I injured my arm several years ago, I used some exercise equipment to strengthen my triceps, to help lift my body out of the kayak. There are various methods to strengthen the triceps. (Google it to see options for you.) – BL

“(My) knees are ok thus far, but hiatal hernias sometimes can get in the way. In shallow water, put-in or take-out is much easier if (the) kayak is backwards, especially on those sloping launches.” – MLC

More Ways to Enter and Exit a Kayak

The advice we received from experienced kayakers on how to get into and out of a kayak when you have bad knees or hip problems is an embarrassment of riches, honestly. There is so much creativity and such a welcome recognition that it doesn’t matter what it looks like, as long as it works!

It does, however, beg the question: what are some of the other techniques for entering a kayak under different circumstances? For example, what’s the best way to get into a kayak from a dock, from a rocky shoreline or from an ocean beach?

Stay tuned for our upcoming blog that answers these questions and more!

Angle Oar LLC’s mission is getting people who didn’t think they had the strength or mobility to kayak out on the water and keeping experienced paddlers there longer! We provide adaptive kayaking equipment , including our Versa Paddle, Gamut Paddle Holder, outriggers and more.

This content was originally published here.