If you are new to kayaking, choosing your first kayak can be confusing and wrought with stress. With so many different styles – how do you choose the best boat for you? This beginner’s guide to choosing a kayak will help you find out.
Choosing a Kayak: Quickly Narrow Your Choices
Answering a few simple questions will quickly narrow kayak options for you to consider.
- Where will you paddle? Lake, river, ocean, sea, swamp?
- How do you plan on transporting your kayak? If you’re not sure, read our guide on How To Haul Your Kayak.
- What’s your budget? Material directly impacts the kayak’s price and is the biggest contributing factor to weight and durability.
- What will you use the kayak for? Do you need cargo space for camping equipment? Are you limited on space to store it at home? Shape and size affect handling and cargo space.
Where Will You Paddle?
Where you want to explore with your kayak is an important part of picking the right boat.
Lakes: Calm open bodies of water. If the weather is forecast to be good and you aren’t venturing too far, you can choose pretty much any sit-on-top or recreational sit-in boat and have a great paddle. If weather rolls in and whitecaps are present, a purely recreational boat can quickly get over-matched.
Coasts: Along the coasts, wind, waves, currents, and tides are all important factors to consider. A sit-in touring boat with a rudder, fixed tracking fin, or a skeg (a drop-down fin) is a better choice. If you are a bit more of an adrenaline junkie and you plan on swimming or kayak surfing, a sit-on-top is probably the right boat for you.
Rivers: To navigate rivers with no technical rapids(*), you’ll want to choose a stable, durable kayak with excellent maneuverability. Shorter boats tend to be more stable, therefore a short, stable recreational sit-in or sit-on-top kayak or day touring sit-in kayak would be the boats to consider.
(*)Whitewater kayaks aren’t discussed on this site and are beyond the scope of this article
Rivers and Lakes: Planning on doing a bit of both flowing and still water kayaking? A shorter recreational sit-in or sit-on-top kayak might be the best pick. These ‘crossover’ or ‘hybrid’ kayaks typically have a skeg that will help you turn responsively when the skeg is up and track efficiently when the skeg is down. You could also consider a short boat with a rudder, a feature typically only found on longer boats.
Choosing A Kayak Type
Sit-On-Top Kayak vs. Sit-In Kayak
Sit-on-top kayaks are a sub-category of recreational kayaks. They are best suited to paddling in calmer bodies of water like lakes and rivers with no technical rapids. These kayaks are also used in warm coastal waters for swimming, fishing, and kayak surfing. Sit-on-top kayaks are by definition more open. This is great for people who don’t want to feel closed in or who enjoy some extra space. It’s good for beginners because they don’t need to learn how to do a ‘wet-exit’ if they capsize. To help you decide consider the following:
- Sit-on-tops are quite stable and easy to get on and off of, even in deep water. These are an excellent choice for casual uses like playing around the cottage and short excursions.
- You will always get wet when using a sit-on-top kayak, so it’s better in warm weather unless you are wearing a wetsuit.
- There is no need to pump out water because the boats are usually self-draining.
- They typically have lots of deck space with tie-downs, which makes these boats ideal for people wanting to fish or even heading out on short camping trips. They often have limited cargo space inside the hollow hull.
- They’re generally heavier than comparable sit-in kayaks due to both materials and design.
Sit-in kayaks are available in recreational boats, day touring and touring models. They move fast, track straight and have covered cargo compartments, so they’re good for paddling to a destination. To help you decide, consider the following:
- They offer more protection in cooler or cold weather, especially if you are using a spray skirt.
- You need a bilge pump to remove water from your kayak for when you get fully swamped.
- You need to learn and practice how to do a wet exit.
- With a lower center of gravity (sitting closer to the water) and multiple points of contact between your body (knees, feet, bum), you will have greater control in rough water. It can also be more fun for maneuvering.
- They’re more efficient to paddle than their sit-on-top cousins.
Recreational kayaks can be either sit-in or sit-on and are typically around 10 feet long. They are best suited to calm bodies of water and are ideal for a relaxing float down the river.
They are generally stable, easy to get in and out of, and maneuver reasonably well, but they are more difficult to steer than a longer boat. Most recreational kayaks weigh between 40 and 50 pounds, making them easy-to-transport.
A recreational kayak is for you if you’re a beginner who is just starting out, or if you will be sticking to lazy rivers and calmer waters. You will find that there is a recreational kayak to fit almost every budget.
Cargo space is limited. The price point is low to moderate.
Touring or Sea Kayak (Sit-In)
The length of a kayak dictates its ease of maneuverability. Sea kayaks are longer than recreational kayaks and day touring kayaks, making them more stable and easier to steer. Sea kayaks track well and have a rudder or skeg to efficiently deal with wind and currents. The tapered design and length provide a stable and faster glide, making them highly efficient over distances.
Sea kayaks perform well in large, rougher bodies of water like large lakes and the ocean. If you plan on heading for choppy open water, it’s a good idea to practice the techniques of rolling and wet exits before heading out to open water. These are critical skills to learn and will help keep you safe on the water.
A sea kayak is for you if you plan on paddling open or rough waters. You will want to gain experience on calmer waters first.
This is not a starter boat. It is highly recommended to get some experience before choosing to purchase a Touring Kayak. Cargo space is generous. The price point in this category can be quite steep.
Day Touring Kayak (Sit-In)
If a recreational kayak and a sea kayak had a baby, it would be a touring kayak. Touring kayaks tend to be longer and more narrow than a recreational kayak, but not as long as a sea kayak. They are versatile, sleek, and more efficient to move than a recreational kayak. They track straighter and offer more control in rough water. And because they are shorter than a sea kayak, they will be easier to transport.
A touring kayak is for you if you already have experience with a traditional recreational kayak and you are looking for a smoother ride. Cargo space is moderate. The price point is moderate to high.
Inflatable kayaks are available as recreational, sea, touring, or even hybrid models. Without air, these kayaks take up minimal space and are well suited to transporting in a vehicle – no racks or trailer required. They are typically inflated using a foot or hand pump and can require as little as five minutes to inflate.
New generation inflatable kayaks are constructed with durable material, greatly reducing the odds of puncturing the hull. If a hole is created, most inflatable kayaks are multi-chambered. This is especially important while you are out on the water. One hole shouldn’t sink your boat.
Recreational models are not efficient and are best for playing at the cottage and short excursions. However, some touring and sea kayak models rival the performance of their hard-shell counterparts.
An inflatable kayak is for you if you require a truly lightweight kayak that can fit inside the trunk of most vehicles. Averaging 25-35 pounds, these kayaks, once deflated are easy to transport. Cargo space is limited. The price point ranges from low to high depending on the style selected.
Folding kayaks are designed for backcountry hiking and camping. They are not as rugged as a hard-shell kayak, but they offer comparable handling and storage as some touring boats. You might also consider a folding kayak if you live in an apartment and don’t have space to store a hard-shell kayak.
Cargo space is surprisingly good. The price point is moderate to high (specialty item).
For the adrenaline junkies and thrill-seekers, there are whitewater kayaks. These boats are short, measuring six to eight feet. They are generally used for playing in one set of rapids, versus traveling an entire river.
Whitewater kayaks are for more experienced kayakers, however, they may be used by beginners with some instruction. First, it’s important to learn how to do a wet exit prior to getting in the boat. It is also essential to wear appropriate safety gear. Due to the added risks involved in whitewater kayaking, it’s a good idea to take lessons, join a group, or head out with an experienced guide.
(*) This site does not provide information or advice about whitewater kayaking.
A pedal kayak with a sophisticated pedal propulsion system is for you if you want to free your hands for fishing, photography, using binoculars. It is also beneficial for people with back and neck issues that make paddling more challenging.
Some pedal kayaks use bike-like pedals that turn a prop. Others use push-pedals that power a pair of fins. Pedal-powered kayaks steer using a rudder that’s operated by hand control.
They are sit-on kayaks, upon which you are sitting quite high to allow room for the pedaling motion. Despite being high up, these kayaks are on the wide side and therefore tend to be stable. You will have to paddle (not pedal) for some maneuvering during launch and in shallow or reedy areas. But for the most part, you are using your powerful leg muscles to propel you, allowing you to venture further more comfortably.
A few cons of note:
- Adding pedal technology adds to the cost of a kayak.
- Pedal kayaks are mechanical and require more maintenance.
- The prop or fins require clearance beneath the kayak.
- It won’t handle quick turns or rough waters like you can in a kayak that you paddle.
- Pedal kayaks are heavier, and impact handling in and out of the water.
- You will likely need a trailer because of its weight.
- You will likely need a kayak dolly to move it from your car to the water.
Choosing A Kayak: Know Your Materials
- A lightweight kayak is easier to get up to speed.
- With less of the weight capacity being taken up with the weight of the boat, you can carry more gear.
- Polyethylene plastic: inexpensive, abrasion-resistant, heavy, degrades with the sun’s UV rays
- ABS plastic: slightly more expensive than polyethylene, offers similar durability, slightly lower weight than polyethylene, added UV resistance.
- Composites: most expensive, lightweight fiberglass and ultralight carbon-fiber offer a significant improvement in performance, more fragile.
Additional Considerations When Choosing A Kayak
When comparing similar boats, run through this last checklist:
Weight Capacity: Consider how you plan to use the boat. Total weight includes the boat, your gear and you. If the boat is overloaded, it will sit lower in the water and compromise paddling efficiency.
Length: Longer boats move in the water more efficiently and offer more storage space. Shorter hulls are more responsive. You will notice an appreciable difference at increments of about two feet.
Depth: Deeper hulls offer more legroom and more storage. Shallower hulls aren’t as affected by wind.
Width: Wider hulls offer more stability. Narrower hulls can travel faster.
Skegs, tracking fins, and rudders: These help a kayak track straighter in the wind.
- A skeg: A simple retractable fin that mitigates the effect of a side wind.
- A tracking fin: Similar to a skeg but cannot be retracted. Some boats have the option to remove the tracking fin prior to paddling.
- A rudder: A fin that flips down at the back of the boat that can be constantly readjusted via foot pedals or hand toggle, making the kayak more responsive to changing conditions.
Seats: The Best advice I will ever provide — don’t skimp on a great seat. Though it adds to a kayak’s price, having a seat that is adjustable, padded, and more ergonomic will be worth every penny.
Compartment Size: A smaller compartment gives you more control and protection in rough conditions. A large compartment is easier to get in and out of.
Hatches: Larger touring boats will have two hatches providing access to interior storage areas. Day touring boats and some recreational kayaks will have one hatch.
Don’t let choosing a kayak overwhelm you. Take into consideration your goals and your skill level when deciding on a boat. This will ensure you pick the best one for you.
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