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To reduce weight when hiking with the AirFusion Elite, I'm considering leaving the top front pole at home. How big of problem would that be? Is the purpose of it to keep even tension on the kayak's skin?
You could do that. The reason for that pole is to create deck lift and a peaked deck for water shed. Without the pole. the kayak shape will just round around the front thwart. Either than that, you should be fine. I would recommend setting it up that way and going out for a short paddle to confirm any effect on performance, but you should not see anything.