Think all kayaks are the same? Think again! There are dozens of different types of kayaks on the market today.
Kayaks come in a range of different shapes and sizes to make them suitable for a variety of water-based activities. As a result, it’s important that you understand the differences between them all. Otherwise, you might end up with the wrong kayak for your height and weight or your paddling style.
But if you’re feeling a little overwhelmed by all the different types of kayaks out there, worry not. We’re here to help. Kayaks can be broken down into four main categories:
Our first group of kayaks are known as flatwater kayaks. However, flatwater doesn’t necessarily mean that these kayaks are only appropriate for calm conditions. Some flatwater kayaks are crafted for rough seas, while others are best for cruising around sheltered lakes and bays.
With that in mind, here are the most common flatwater kayaks you might encounter.
Perhaps the most popular type of kayak on the market, recreational kayaks are designed with the casual paddler in mind.
These boats have wide, rounded hulls for stability and maneuverability in calm conditions. They’re generally 8 to 12 feet long, but you can occasionally find slightly longer or shorter models.
Most recreational kayaks are designed with comfort rather than performance in mind. As such, they usually don’t have skegs or rudders to help with tracking in high winds. Furthermore, they’re not very stable in choppy water.
Recreational kayaks usually have relatively large cockpits for easy entry and exit. They also generally have comfortable seats, though this varies quite a bit from model to model.
In the grand scheme of things, recreational kayaks are among the most affordable kayaks out there. Of course, prices vary widely, but recreational kayaks are usually great value for money.
- Large cockpit for easy entry/exit
- Usually quite stable
- Generally easy to paddle and maneuver
- Fairly affordable
- Poor performance in choppy water
- Don’t track well over long distances
Sit-on-top kayaks are technically a subset of recreational kayaks, but with a twist: they have an open cockpit. So instead of sitting in your kayak, you sit on top of the deck itself.
Sit-on-top kayaks offer a substantial advantage in terms of comfort and ease of use. Their open cockpit makes them easy to get in and out of. Plus, since you’re not enclosed within the kayak, you have more legroom in a sit-on-top.
Furthermore, sit-on-top kayaks have wide, flat hulls for stability in calm conditions. However, the downside to this design is that sit-on-top kayaks offer little stability in rough water. They’re also harder to maneuver in high winds.
In terms of comfort and user-friendliness, sit-on-top kayaks are hard to beat. While they might not be suitable for ocean expeditions, they’re an excellent option for many paddlers in calm waters.
- Very stable in calm water
- Easy to get in and out of
- Lots of legroom and comfort
- User-friendly design
- Not great in rough water
- Limited maneuverability in certain situations
Designed to be an intermediary between recreational and expedition-style sea kayaks, day-touring kayaks are an excellent choice for longer day trips.
These kayaks are about 10 to 14 feet long and usually track better than a recreational kayak. They also often have relatively slender shapes and smaller cockpits compared to a recreational kayak. But, day-touring kayaks are still relatively comfortable for intermediate paddlers.
Many day-touring kayaks come with a rudder or skeg, which can help with maneuverability and tracking in windy conditions. A day-touring kayak also offers slightly better stability in choppy waters.
- Improved secondary stability
- Usually has a rudder or skeg for improved tracking
- Great for intermediate paddlers
- Cockpit is relatively easy to get in and out of
- Not as good in choppy water as a sea kayak
- Slightly less stable in calm water than a recreational kayak
Also known as expedition touring kayaks, sea kayaks are long, slender boats designed for use on the open ocean. They’re usually about 14 to 18 feet long, but some tandem models can reach 21 feet in length.
When compared to day-touring kayaks, sea kayaks are both longer and narrower. These two characteristics allow them to perform much better in rough conditions. Plus, most sea kayaks also have a rudder or a skeg, enhancing their tracking abilities.
Sea kayaks boast plentiful gear storage options. They usually have at least 2, if not 3, dry hatches and ample deck bungees for stashing equipment on longer camping trips.
However, sea kayaks tend to have smaller cockpits due to their long, narrow shape. Some folks find sitting in a sea kayak to be a bit uncomfortable, though this is something that most people can get accustomed to with more time on the water.
- Enhanced secondary stability in rough water
- Lots of gear storage options
- Longer length and rudder or skeg for tracking
- Ideal for long kayaking expeditions
- Can be uncomfortable
- Tend to be quite pricey
- Less stable in flat water
A tandem kayak is any kayak that can accommodate two paddlers. Most types of kayaks, including recreational and sea kayaks, come in solo and tandem models.
Since there are so many different tandem kayaks, there aren’t many universal features that you’ll find in all of them.
However, you will generally find that tandem kayaks are both heavier and more expensive than their solo counterparts. Nevertheless, since tandem kayaks are usually wider and longer than solo kayaks, they also tend to be more stable.
The downside to a tandem kayak is that it can be pretty tricky to paddle them efficiently. But on the other hand, some new paddlers find that having someone else in the kayak with them helps them feel more confident on the water. So, it’s all a matter of perspective.
- More stable than a solo kayak
- Having a buddy can provide some confidence on the water
- Provides a chance to paddle with family and friends
- Can be tricky to kayak with another paddler
- Generally heavier than solo kayaks
Aptly named, youth kayaks are designed specifically with kids in mind. These boats are usually aesthetically quite similar to adult-sized recreational kayaks, but they’re sized for children.
Most youth kayaks on the market are sit-on-tops because they are the easiest to get in and out of. Sizes for youth kayaks vary widely, though most models are 6 to 9 feet long.
Besides being smaller, the primary advantages of youth kayaks are their affordability and portability. Most youth kayaks are just a fraction of the price of adult models. Furthermore, a kids kayak’s smaller size and weight make them easy to transport to and from the water.
That being said, youth kayaks have one major drawback: they have a limited lifespan. Of course, you can always sell the kayak as your child gets older. But your kid will only get so many years of use out of one of these kayaks before it’s time to invest in an adult model.
- Small, lightweight, and highly portable
- Sized specifically for kids
- Usually easy to get in and out of
- Tend to be quite affordable
- Limited use
As you might’ve guessed from their name, whitewater kayaks are ideal for running fast rivers and playing around in rapids. They tend to be relatively small, allowing for increased maneuverability.
However, the downside to whitewater kayaks is that they’re not great at tracking in the water. So, they have limited use outside of a whitewater context. But, if running rapids is your idea of a good time, then a whitewater kayak is just what you need.
Playboats are a type of kayak that’s ideal for messing around in whitewater rapids. They tend to be very short, with an average length of just 4 to 8 feet.
A playboat’s shorter length and rounded hull make it highly maneuverable in tricky conditions. This makes them the kayak of choice for playing around on small sections of a river. However, this increase in maneuverability comes with a decrease in tracking ability. So, playboats aren’t great for long river descents.
Playboats can be tough to control in big water. So, these kayaks are best for people with the experience necessary to paddle them safely in high-risk situations.
- Very maneuverable and responsive
- Short length makes them very portable
- Fun to play around in
- Not ideal for new paddlers
- Poor tracking ability
- Not great for river descents
Out of all the whitewater kayaks on the market, river runners are your go-to for long river descents.
When compared to playboats, river runners are much longer. Most are about 7 to 9 feet long, which provides them with a slightly better tracking ability on the river.
At the same time, river runners have a low-volume design that makes them faster in the water. They also have flatter hulls and more defined edges, which can improve their surfing ability, even if this comes at a slight loss in agility.
For many folks, river runners are one of the most versatile whitewater kayaks. Many paddlers use these kayaks on easy-to-moderate rivers. But, some highly skilled paddlers prefer them on big water because they’re both fast and rugged.
- Very versatile design
- Better at tracking than a playboat
- Low-volume design for improved speed
- Decent surfing abilities
- Not as nimble as playboats
- Less suitable for tricks and aerials
Creek boats are another fan-favorite in the whitewater paddling world. These look like a longer, higher-volume river runner but with a much rounder, high-rocker hull.
The idea behind creek boats is that their shape makes them relatively buoyant. Of course, buoyancy is vital for any kayak, but for creek boats, this increased buoyancy translates to faster resurfacing after being submerged. This makes them ideal for very steep and challenging whitewater.
However, some creek boats have rounder hulls and softer chines than others. Models with rounder hulls are usually much more forgiving when maneuvering in rocky conditions, but they aren’t as easy to control in big water.
Overall, creek boats are a versatile, go-to option for more challenging descents. As a result, they’re a popular choice among experienced paddlers.
- Difficult to submerge
- Great for big water
- Longer length provides improved tracking
- Varied designs for different conditions
- Not as good as playboats for tricks
Inflatable Whitewater Kayaks (Duckies)
The last major type of whitewater kayak you’ll find on the market is a ducky. Duckies are essentially inflatable whitewater kayaks.
Why would someone want to use an inflatable kayak in whitewater? Well, it all comes down to stability and functionality.
Most duckies are pretty wide and stable, which decreases their maneuverability. However, they are a comfortable and forgiving option for new whitewater enthusiasts.
Furthermore, duckies are sit-on-top kayaks, which means you don’t need to know how to roll a kayak to use one. Since they’re inflatable, duckies are also easy to fold up and pack away for storage or transport.
That being said, they aren’t ideal for big water. But, when it comes to learning how to navigate and read whitewater, it’s hard to beat a ducky.
- Very beginner-friendly
- Highly portable design
- Wide and stable construction
- No need to know how to roll a kayak
- Not as maneuverable as other whitewater kayaks
Specialty kayaks are designed for a particular type of paddler or paddling environment. Here’s a quick run-down of some of the more specialized kayaks on the market.
If angling is your jam, a fishing kayak just might be what you need. Fishing kayaks are almost always sit-on-top boats with wide, flat hulls that provide superior stability for casting lines.
They usually have various fishing-specific features, like rod holders and cooler storage areas. Some high-end models also have built-in racks for mounting a fish finder, GPS, or other devices as you paddle.
Unlike some of the other specialty kayaks in this category, fishing kayaks are pretty versatile. Since they’re effectively sit-on-top kayaks with fishing-specific features, you can typically use them in any calm water environment.
However, fishing kayaks tend to be heavier and more expensive than standard sit-on-top models. So, if angling isn’t your thing, then you might be better off with a regular recreational kayak.
- Wide, stable, and comfortable design
- Comes with fishing-specific features
- Fairly versatile construction
- Pricier than regular sit-on-top kayaks
- Usually heavy due to the extra fishing-related features
Designed to be pedaled rather than paddled, pedal kayaks are a unique type of boat that’s fun to use in flatwater situations. They have built-in pedals for propulsion and a rudder for steering and maneuverability.
These kayaks are somewhat popular among anglers since they free up your hands for casting lines. They’re also great for folks with mobility limitations that make paddling impractical.
That being said, most pedal kayaks are flat and stable. So, while they’re great for calm water, they’re usually unsuitable for ocean or rough river adventures. But they’re a fun choice for casual trips to your local lake or flat river.
- Great for people with limited mobility
- Very stable and comfortable
- Relatively easy to maneuver in calm conditions
- Excellent for some kayak fishing trips
- Not suitable for rough conditions
A surf kayak is any boat designed for surfing ocean waves. There are many different surf kayak designs, each providing a unique paddling experience.
A classic surf kayak is generally relatively short, with an average length of less than 10 feet. However, some models, such as surf skis, can be 20 feet long.
Additionally, surf kayaks tend to have at least one fin to help them track while riding waves. Most will also have a relatively flat hull with varying degrees of rocker to improve their surfing ability.
Since surf kayak designs vary widely, it’s hard to pinpoint specific drawbacks to this category of kayak. But, you’ll generally find that these kayaks aren’t suitable for longer trips or casual flatwater paddles because they offer little gear storage or comfort on the water.
- Ideal for surfing waves at the beach
- Varied designs for different types of surfing
- Decent at tracking through the water
- Not suitable for expeditions or flatwater day touring
Unlike flatwater, whitewater, and specialty kayaks, the boats in this next section don’t necessarily share specific characteristics regarding on-water performance. Instead, the three lightweight kayaks in this category are all grouped because of their innovative, portability-focused designs.
Perhaps the most common portable kayak, inflatable kayaks are an affordable and convenient choice for many paddlers.
Unlike hard-shell models made from plastic or fiberglass, inflatable kayaks are made from durable PVC or vinyl. They’re particularly comfortable, too, so they’re excellent for casual paddles.
Additionally, inflatable kayaks tend to have a wide, flat hull, making them suitable for new paddlers on flat water. But, while there are a few high-end inflatables out there with touring kayak-esque designs, these boats don’t perform well in windy conditions.
When it comes to inflatable kayaks, portability is key. These kayaks can pack down to small sizes for easy transport and storage, which is excellent if you don’t have a lot of storage space at home.
- Usually very affordable
- Comfortable design
- Stable in calm waters
- Highly portable
- Not great in windy conditions
Folding kayaks are a relatively new advancement in the paddling world. They combine the portability of an inflatable kayak with the performance of a traditional hard-shell model.
With these kayaks, you’ll need to construct and deconstruct them before and after each paddle. They usually fold down into 2 or 3 flat pieces, which makes them ideal for air travel or folks who don’t have a lot of gear storage space.
The downside is that these kayaks aren’t great in very rough conditions. Indeed, while most folding kayaks will do just fine on casual flatwater jaunts, relatively few can handle an ocean paddle.
Oh, and these kayaks usually aren’t cheap, so expect to shell out a pretty penny for a folding kayak.
- More versatile than inflatable kayaks
- Packs down small
- Usually folds flat for simplified air travel
- Tend to be pretty pricey
- Not ideal for very rough conditions
Also known as snap kayaks, modular kayaks are another relatively new type of paddle craft. Unlike folding kayaks that fold down into flat shapes, these kayaks break apart into 2 or 3 pieces for easy storage and transport.
With these kayaks, you can quickly snap the pieces together like a puzzle before hitting the water. Then, when it’s time to pack up and go home, you can disassemble the parts, toss them in your vehicle, and hit the road.
When compared to folding kayaks, modular kayaks offer a lot more in terms of durability and versatility. Since these kayaks are typically made from plastic, some models are better suited for sea kayaking than any folding kayak on the market.
However, modular kayaks don’t fold down flat, so you still have to deal with the bulk of a plastic kayak. Furthermore, these kayaks are relatively new, and only a few companies manufacture them. So, you can expect to pay a premium for a modular kayak.
- Made from plastic for durability
- Can break apart into multiple pieces for storage
- Wide variety of designs available
- Some models are suitable for sea kayaking
- Don’t fold flat for air travel
- Fairly pricey
If you’re in the market for a new kayak, check out our article on how to choose a kayak to help you decide what is best for you.