What Can We Do About It?
This isn't a fashion question, by the way. It's a function question. And it has important real‑world consequences. A case in point: Perhaps the best big‑water canoeist I've known — it wouldn't be much of an exaggeration to say he saved my life on one occasion — was morbidly obese. Think pre‑late‑20th‑century Michelin Man and you'd be about right. This didn't stop him from paddling. Far from it. But it did mean he had to make all his own kit. Luckily, he was as good with a pair of scissors and a sewing machine as he was with a paddle. After having a wetsuit made to order and finding it less than satisfactory, he started gluing up his own. He stitched up paddling jackets, too. He even made his own PFD. He simply couldn't find one to fit him. (He kept a commercial flotation cushion in his canoe to satisfy the requirements of the law.) In fact, just about the only items of clothing he could buy ready‑made were his socks, his shoes, his hat, and his helmet.
Smaller hurdles have defeated many lesser men. Not him, though. These difficulties didn't hold him back. They didn't even slow him down. He routinely ran Class V water, but he did it in a flotation‑filled open canoe rather than a kayak or C1. Why? Because he couldn't squeeze himself into the cockpit of a decked boat. That didn't matter. He took on rapids in his open canoe that few kayakers then dared to challenge, and he did it with breathtaking grace and enviable élan. And when Farwell and I blundered in over our heads in the Hudson River gorge he was there. If he hadn't been, it's more than likely I wouldn't be writing this.
Needless to say, there aren't many like him. If would‑be paddlers can't find the speciality clothing they need in a catalog or on an outfitter's shelf, most will simply shrug their shoulders and take up some other sport. Or settle into the La‑Z‑Boy for good. And that's a shame. Happily, though, there are signs that the tide is now on the turn. The catalog photos may not reflect this welcome change just yet, but outfitters' offerings are starting to … well … open up. This isn't altruism on the outfitters' part. It's hard‑headed business sense. You can't make money if you don't sell what people want to buy. When your customer base broadens, so to speak, your line of specialty clothing has to expand as well. Or else.
As I've already noted, the hunting outfitters were the first to target this broader market, offering their apparel in a wider range of sizes, the largest of which would probably fit even the biggest paddler. And there's a lot in the hunting catalogs for these paddlers: PFDs, foul‑weather gear, even snug‑fitting, stocking‑foot neoprene waders. (I've been mighty glad to have a pair of these when I had a long stretch of lining ahead of me, in water that still bore the chill of a mountain glacier.) There are a few problems, of course. Much of the clothing sold by the hunting outfitters has a camouflage print, and this isn't ideal for paddlers, who want to be easy to spot if they get into trouble on the water. And most camo patterns are proprietary, as well, adding a hefty premium to the price of the garments that sport them. Still, catalogs and outfitters that cater to hunters are good places for hefty paddlers to start their search for a good fit.
Of course, it's just a start. The hunting catalogs don't meet every need. But at last the mainstream outfitters are catching on, too. I've made a cursory survey of two personal favorites: Campmor and NRS. The former, as you probably already know, is a general outdoor outfitter, whose plain newsprint catalogs provide an appealing retro contrast to the pile of glossy confections that fill my mailbox to overflowing. NRS, on the other hand, is preeminently a paddling outfitter. I could just as easily have written the paddling outfitter, I suppose, and the claim would probably stand unchallenged. In any event, a Bill's Bag was one of my first canoe‑camping purchases, and it served me well for decades. Many other purchases followed in due course.
Back to my survey. I limited my informal sample to two critical items: PFDs and wetsuits. And I'm happy to say that both Campmor and NRS offer PFDs in sizes that should accommodate even the largest guy or gal. Campmor's selection of wetsuits is more restrictive, however. But then Campmor isn't a paddling outfitter, first and foremost, and wetsuits are still seen — incorrectly, in my view — as specialty kit for hardcore boaters, rather than essential gear for anyone who messes about in small boats on cold (or even cool) water. NRS, on the other hand, has wetsuits for almost anyone of any size. And that's just as it should be.
Don't misunderstand me. Campmor and NRS are only two outfitters among many. I'm confident that other firms, both large and small, offer equally broad size ranges in essential kit. There's no doubt that the tide is on the turn. Big paddlers no longer suffer outsized problems when they go looking for paddling wear. They just have to look a little harder. And the job gets easier with every catalog cycle.
A final piece of advice: If you can't find something you need in a size that fits, don't be shy: Post a query to one of the many paddlers' forums. You'll find very good ones at Paddling.net. And be sure to let your favorite outfitter(s) know, too. The important thing to remember? You're not alone. And the outfitters need to understand that.