Renting a kayak or borrowing one from a friend is a fantastic way to get familiar with the sport. But when you’re ready to progress to the next level and hit the water regularly, you’ll need to buy your own kayak.
Kayaks aren’t cheap, and paddling in a kayak that’s not designed for certain types of water or is wrong for your abilities can be dangerous. That’s why it’s essential to choose the right kayak for you.
We’ll walk you through the different types of kayaks available and how to choose a kayak that meets your needs and budget.
Questions to Ask Yourself to Narrow Down Your Choice
You will need to ask yourself several questions to narrow down the choice and help you decide the best kayak for you. Some of these questions can be tricky to give one answer to. But, if you plan to only buy one kayak, it’s important to keep in mind how you intend to use it the most.
Where Will You Use Your Kayak?
It’s possible to float any kayak on any body of water. A sea kayak won’t sink just because you’ve put it in a lake. However, specific kayaks are safer and perform better on certain types of water.
- Calm rivers, canals, and small lakes: These are predominantly classed as flatwater, meaning there are little to no strong currents, waves, or whitecaps. They’re often somewhat sheltered from the wind too. A sit-in or sit-on-top recreational kayak will be fine for kayaking on these waters.
- Large lakes, coastlines, and open seas: Large lakes can be as exposed to strong winds and waves as coastal waters. For that reason, touring kayaks or sea kayaks will perform better. Their long and streamlined design, which may feature a rudder or skeg, offers better tracking and speed.
- Fast-flowing rivers and whitewater: When you’re paddling on fast-flowing rivers, you’ll want something that can turn faster than a 16-foot touring kayak. Whitewater kayaks are short and can ride waves and turn on a single paddle stroke. A short flatwater kayak with a rudder or skeg may also work on fast-flowing rivers with class I to II rapids.
What Is Your Experience Level?
Consider your kayaking abilities. If you’re new to the sport, you’ll want something more stable and relatively easy to maneuver, like a recreational kayak or a day touring kayak.
Either option would allow you to improve your basic paddle strokes before upgrading to a more advanced kayak suited to more challenging waters.
How Will You Transport and Store Your Kayak?
For example, do you live in an apartment building? Or do you have a private garden or garage? Do you have a car with a roof rack? Or do you rely on public transport?
Hard-shell kayaks offer better performance than inflatables but require more storage space and a vehicle to transport them. Unless you can find a storage facility where you can keep your kayak next to the water, like a paddling club with a secure boatyard.
Anyone without enough storage space or an alternative storage location for a hard-shell kayak should consider an inflatable or folding kayak. Many pack down to about the size of a large suitcase. And most inflatable kayaks come with a rolling storage bag so you can take them to the water on foot or by public transport.
Would You Like to Kayak Solo or in Tandem?
Do you usually kayak with your spouse or child? Or, are you a beginner practicing with an experienced paddler? If any of these examples apply, you might want to choose a tandem kayak.
Tandem kayaks are great for beginners to gain confidence and experience on the water. They’re also a practical choice for parents and couples as you can’t get separated from the other paddler. Another advantage is that a tandem kayak will occupy less storage space in your home than two singles.
The flip side is that paddling a tandem kayak solo can be awkward, so it’s not ideal if you and your paddle partner have different schedules.
Consider an inflatable tandem kayak if you want the best of both worlds and mostly paddle on flat water. Most have adjustable and removable seats, which allow you to remove one seat and position the other in the middle of the kayak for solo use.
How Long Will You Spend on the Water?
Do you mostly go kayaking for a couple of hours, half a day, or from sunrise to sunset? Or, are you looking for a kayak that you can use on a multi-day route?
You’ll find that recreational or day touring kayaks with one storage hatch and deck riggings will provide enough gear storage for trips up to a day.
Meanwhile, for multi-day trips, you’ll want to look for touring kayaks with two generous storage hatches, deck riggings, and a place to attach a compass.
What Time of Year Will You Use Your Kayak?
It’s also worth considering what season you’ll use the kayak the most, as climate may impact your choice.
If you mostly kayak during the summer months or live where water and air temperatures are warm throughout the year, you might prefer a sit-on-top kayak.
However, if you plan to paddle between fall and spring or live in a colder climate, a sit-in kayak will offer much more protection from cold water, wind, and rain.
As a guideline, when water temperature combined with air temperature is above 120°f, it’s considered safe to go kayaking. That said, you should always be cautious kayaking in waters below 70°f.
If the combined temperatures in your area are only just above the 120°f mark, a sit-in kayak might be a better option.
Types of Kayaks and Their Uses
Kayaks come in a wide array of shapes and sizes. In this section, we’ll go through the most popular models. However, If you would like to take a more in-depth look at all the varieties of kayaks and their pros and cons, check out our types of kayaks article.
Sit-In vs. Sit-On-Top Kayaks
One of the first things you’ll need to decide when selecting a type of kayak is whether you want a sit-in or a sit-on-top. Choosing between the two options early on will help narrow down your search.
Sit-in kayaks are the more traditional of the two types. They offer much more protection from wind and rain, making them more practical for cool climates, choppy waters, and winter paddling.
With your toes pushing against footpegs and your legs locked into the thigh braces, the seating position gives you better control of the kayak.
Sit-on-top kayaks are generally best for flat water and recreational paddling.
They tend to be more stable than sit-in kayaks, so you’re less likely to capsize. And, if you do capsize, it’s easier to get back on a sit-on-top kayak without assistance from your paddle buddy. There’s also little risk of your kayak sinking as water can drain through scupper holes in the deck.
Because you don’t need to learn how to do a wet exit or practice rescue techniques to paddle a sit-on-top kayak, it’s a popular choice for beginners.
Additionally, sit-on-top kayaks might be a more comfortable option for big and tall kayakers or anyone who struggles to sit in the same position for long periods. Because your legs are not covered, you benefit from a wider range of movement.
Many kayaks are built for specific types of water to perform best for your paddling style, length of trip, or even what you want to do while on the water. Here are the most common you will come across:
Recreational kayaks are the most affordable type and ideal for beginners. They’re stable, easy to maneuver, and best for paddling on gentle waters. Recreational sit-in kayaks have large cockpits that are easy to get in and out of.
Day Touring Kayaks
Day touring kayaks bridge the gap between recreational kayaks and touring kayaks. They are usually 10 to 14 feet long, narrower than recreational kayaks, and track better. However, they still have a large cockpit and stable hull.
Day touring kayaks are multi-purpose and a practical choice for half-day to full-day trips. They also allow beginner paddlers to improve their kayak handling skills. Like full-sized touring kayaks, most have storage compartments with hatches.
Typically ranging from 14 feet to over 20 feet long, touring kayaks are excellent for covering long distances and carrying gear. In addition, their long and aerodynamic design makes them less susceptible to wind, currents, and waves, reducing the stress on your body while paddling.
However, sea touring kayaks are best suited to more advanced paddlers because they take some skill to maneuver and are less stable. The smaller cockpit also makes the entrance and exit trickier. Sea-touring kayaks fall into a higher price bracket.
Fishing kayaks are similar to recreational kayaks, but most are designed to carry heavier loads. They also feature fishing-specific features such as rod holders, a high-low adjustable seat, a storage compartment, and deck rigging. Most fishing kayaks are sit-on-top, but you can also find sit-in versions.
Inflatable and Folding Kayaks
Both inflatable kayaks and folding kayaks have the advantage of being easy to transport and store. You don’t need a roof rack, and they’ll fit inside an apartment. Both perform well on flat water; however, inflatable kayaks tend to move slower and don’t track as efficiently as hard-shell kayaks.
Whitewater kayaks are specially designed for navigating rapids and rough water conditions. They are generally short, ranging from 4 to 10 feet, with a small turning circle. This allows them to maneuver quickly and easily in fast-moving currents.
However, the hull design means they are not well suited for extended trips on flat water and are best used in their intended whitewater environment.
What to Consider When Buying a Kayak
Now that you understand the types of kayaks available and how to narrow down your choice, it’s time to look at how brands and models can differ in design.
These can be minor differences on paper, but they can significantly impact how your kayak handles the trips you have planned for the future.
How Do I Know What Size Kayak to Buy?
A kayak’s length, width, and depth will affect how it moves in the water—specifically, its speed, tracking, and stability.
Aside from the general profile, you’ll also need to consider your height and build. Some kayak brands offer multiple sizes of the same model, so you can choose the one that feels the most comfortable to paddle.
Paddling in a tight cockpit will get uncomfortable quickly, but paddling a kayak that’s too big will limit your control.
- Length: Long kayaks cut through the water and track more efficiently than short and wide kayaks, so if covering distance is a priority, go for a kayak at least 14 feet long. However, bear in mind that the longer the kayak is, the slower it is to turn.
Meanwhile, shorter kayaks are quicker to turn, which is helpful for winding rivers and busy or narrow waterways. However, short kayaks don’t track as well, and it will take some skill to keep them moving straight. Day touring kayaks offer a compromise between tracking ability and maneuverability.
Another thing to consider is how much storage space you need to pack your gear. Long touring kayaks and sea kayaks usually have two or three hatches. Meanwhile, recreational and day touring kayaks may only have one or none.
- Width: Like long kayaks, slim kayaks can gain more speed but are also less stable. You’ll be less likely to capsize in a wide-hulled kayak, and you may find the roomier cockpit more comfortable for a full day on the water.
- Depth: Deeper kayaks let you get more gear in the storage compartments and are also more comfortable for anyone with long legs. The downside is that deeper kayaks are more affected by wind resistance.
- Weight capacity: Kayak manufacturers list the maximum weight capacity for each model. Your weight and any gear you take must be less than the maximum capacity. Exceeding the weight limit will cause the kayak to sit lower in the water, impacting stability.
- Cockpit size: A long and wide oval-shaped cockpit makes it easier to get in and out of your kayak, which is ideal for beginners and larger paddlers. Meanwhile, small and round cockpits allow for better kayak control, and you’re also more protected from waves and splashes.
Unless you particularly enjoy weight-lifting workouts, you’ll want a lightweight kayak that you can easily carry between your car’s roof rack and launch point. But you also need to balance the weight with cost and durability.
Below we’ve outlined the advantages and disadvantages of the most common kayak materials.
- Polyethylene plastic: Commonly called roto-molded kayaks, polyethylene kayaks are the cheapest option but also the heaviest. Because they’re highly durable and abrasion-resistant, they’re a good option for kayaking on rocky waters or whitewater.
The drawbacks are that polyethylene isn’t UV resistant, so you’ll need to store it in a shaded place. Additionally, they tend to accumulate dents and scratches on the hull, which can be challenging to repair.
- ABS plastic: You might also hear ABS kayaks referred to as Thermoform kayaks. Don’t get confused because it’s the same material. Thermoforming is the process used to make ABS plastic.
ABS plastic kayaks offer a compromise. They’re lighter than polyethylene kayaks and cheaper than composite kayaks. But they still provide a high level of durability and a glossy finish similar to composite. ABS plastic also has slightly better UV resistance than polyethylene.
- Composite materials: Composite kayaks are made from reinforced layers of two or more materials. Kayaks can be made from various composite materials, including ultra-light carbon and graphite or kevlar fibers. Fiberglass is the most commonly used material.
Fiberglass is a hard and stiff material that allows kayaks to move quicker than their plastic alternatives. They also offer more UV protection but are considerably more expensive.
Although composite kayaks are durable, they don’t fare so well against sharp and direct impacts, making plastic kayaks a better option for rocky rivers and whitewater.
- Poly-based materials: Inflatable and foldable kayaks are usually made from durable and puncture-resistant poly-based materials with multiple air chambers. Folding kayaks are made of more rigid poly-based materials than inflatables and are typically combined with a metal frame.
Kayak Hull Types and Chines
The shape of a kayak hull affects its stability and speed. Before discussing the types of hulls, it’s useful to understand that there are two main types of stability. Primary stability refers to how stable a kayak feels when you’re on the water but not moving. Secondary stability refers to how stable the kayak feels while you’re paddling.
Hulls with more primary stability are less likely to flip when you’re getting in and out of your kayak or sitting still. Meanwhile, kayaks with greater secondary stability are more stable while moving, particularly in rougher conditions, but take some practice to get out of without taking a swim.
The four most common types of kayak hull are:
- V-shaped: This hull has steep sides forming a V-shape between the bow and stern. They track very well and move fast but are trickier to turn and offer little primary stability.
- Rounded: Rounded hulls also offer more secondary than primary stability, but they are easier to maneuver than V-shaped hulls. They can pick up speed on rivers and inlets and stay upright on rougher water.
- Flat hulls: These are very stable on flat water but don’t do so well in rough conditions. Flat-hulls are popular for fishing and beginner recreational kayaks as they offer good primary stability and turn easily.
- Pontoon hulls: Pontoon hulls (also called tunnel hulls) have a raised keel (centerline) and are the most stable of the four hull types. The downside is that you won’t win any races in this slow-moving kayak.
The chine is the part of the hull where the bottom meets the sides. On one side of the scale, you have a soft chine, where the sides gently round to meet the bottom. On the other side, you have a hard chin, where the sides are sharply angled.
A soft chine is more common on touring and sea kayaks as the rounded shape offers improved tracking abilities and greater stability while paddling in rough conditions. Meanwhile, a hard chine, more commonly found on recreational and whitewater kayaks, provides better primary stability. Most kayaks have a chine that falls between a hard and soft chine.
Additional Kayak Features
Aside from the several kayak design differences, there are a few additional features that you will need to consider when you are in the market for a new kayak.
You’ll be sitting the entire time you’re out on the water. Hence, an adjustable seat with ergonomic padding and a supportive backrest is better than hard plastic. However, if you’re upgrading your current kayaks or have specific requirements, you may prefer to buy a kayak with a basic removable seat and replace it with a more comfortable one.
These aren’t just for comfort; they give you something to brace your feet against while paddling and allow you to maintain proper paddle posture.
Some kayaks have fixed footrests or bulkheads (the inside wall that separates the cockpit from storage compartments). Ideally, you’ll want a kayak with movable footpegs; however, these are usually a feature of more expensive kayaks.
You’ll need a kayak with hatches if you plan to make longer or multi-day trips. These are waterproof covers that give you access to the storage compartments. Remember to pay attention to the diameter of the hatches; if you plan to go camping, you’ll need a hatch large enough to get a tent and sleeping bag through.
Rigging gives you a place to attach gear to the kayak’s deck. This is useful for storing things you need while on the go, like your kayak dry bag or bilge pump. Deck riggings are a standard feature on most kayaks.
If you’re looking for kayak accessories to help you move in a straight line or turn on cue, think about choosing a kayak with a rudder, skeg, or tracking fin.
- Rudders: A retractable blade attached to the back of a kayak; it’s controlled by foot pedals inside the kayak and helps you manage the direction of travel.
- Skegs: A small blade attached to the kayak’s hull, skegs are fixed and help the kayak move straight. Skegs can fold away into the kayak’s hull when you don’t need them.
- Tracking fin: This works the same way as a skeg; it’s not retractable but may be removable.