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August 25, 2021 11 min read

Choosing the Best Kayak

Blue and yellow kayak on a seashore

You’ve decided you want to try kayaking, but you don’t know where to begin! 

Choosing a kayak can be daunting at first because there are multiple varieties and styles available, but we’ll help sort through the basics and demonstrate how to choose a kayak.

What is a Kayak?

Let’s start with the obvious - what is a kayak and why would you want one? 

A kayak is a small boat that you paddle so you can explore various waterways. In a kayak, you can access tiny streams and tributaries, go fishing on a lake, or tour the ocean’s coast. 

Kayaks can be single-rider or tandem, and many have enough space onboard to bring your dog. Kayaking is a peaceful sport that lets you connect with nature while you get a little exercise. 

A kayak can access almost any waterway, so let’s help you to choose the perfect one for your next adventure.

Considerations When Choosing a Kayak

There are many kinds of kayaks, so how do you begin to narrow down the list? There are sit-on-top kayaks, sit-inside kayaks, ocean kayaks, tandem, and touring kayaks. There are many options to consider when choosing a kayak, but using these factors can help to narrow them down so you can find one that’s perfect for your adventure.

Where You Will Kayak

Knowing the water environment you want to kayak is the first big question. Boats are not categorized by the location you want to kayak, but some kayaks perform better in certain waterways.

Lakes

For most calm lakes and flatwater paddling, you can have fun with a sit-inside or sit-on-top kayak or even a fishing kayak. You won’t need fancy rudders in this environment.

Oceans, Bays, and Large Lakes

These environments tend to catch more wind and have rough waters to maneuver. A touring kayak will help you track better in choppy water because of the extra length, better buoyancy, and because they’re likely to have an added rudder to steer. A sit-in touring kayak will have air-tight compartments to store gear and to assist in buoyancy if a solo-rider overturns in deep water. 

Rivers

Kayaking on a river is easier in a stable kayak that has the ability to maneuver. Depending on the length of your journey, you could consider a short, recreational sit-in or sit-on-top kayak for quick trips, or a long sit-in touring kayak for long-distance trips.

If you’re looking at whitewater kayaking, then whitewater kayaks tend to be short and easy to maneuver with a high rocker to lift on top of the waves.

Sit-on-Top or Sit-Inside Kayak

All kayaks come as a sit-on-top or sit-inside style. Knowing what makes each type perform better in certain situations will help you to narrow down your choices.

Sit-on-Top Kayaks

Sit on top kayak on a lake

Sit-on-top kayaks are typically recreational, easy to use, and good beginner kayaks. They are stable and easy to get on and off of even in deep water. They are a better option in warm environments since you might get splashed.

They have scupper holes that automatically drain water so there is no need to bail. They have deck space to stash gear that is easy to access and can be accessorized with rod holders or other accessories for fishing. You tend to have more space to move when on a sit-on-top kayak. 

Sit-on-top kayaks tend to be heavier than sit-inside kayaks and this needs to be considered for transport and storage.

Sit-Inside Kayaks

Sit inside blue kayak

Sit-inside kayaks are designed with a cockpit, and come in recreational styles as well as touring options. They are easier to maneuver and track straighter than sit-on-top kayaks and can house more storage compartments that are covered inside the hull which makes them a better option for long journeys with more gear.

You will stay drier in a sit-inside kayak and will stay warmer in colder environments. With a low center of gravity, you can paddle more efficiently and will move faster than in a sit-on-top kayak, but some people feel more confined in a cockpit with less freedom to move. 

Kayak Categories

Over time, kayaks have become more specialized for different water environments, to make them ideal for fishing, or to tour long distances. Many of these different options come in both a sit-on-top or sit-inside version. We’ll review the different options available.

Recreational Kayaks

Recreational kayak

Recreational kayaks are great for beginners and tend to have a shorter hull that is 10 foot long or less. They are easy to maneuver but not built for speed. They come in both sit-inside and sit-on-top options, and they are affordable and stable. They will be easy to get in and out of and ideal for short trips on flatwater or in environments with no waves or rapids. 

Touring Kayaks

3 groups touring kayak

Touring kayaks are long, at least 12 feet, and narrow with potential for speed. They track better through the water and are better for long journeys. Touring kayaks are usually sit-inside day touring or sea kayaks. A day touring kayak is longer than a recreational kayak but not as long as a sea kayak. 

The longer the kayak, the easier it is to steer and will track more efficiently through the water. This makes them better in rough waters and for long-distance trips. 

Whitewater Kayaks

Whitewater kayaking

Whitewater kayaking is a more dangerous sport than touring, and should only be navigated by experienced paddlers. Whitewater kayaks come in different varieties depending if you want to surf holes in the river or journey downstream. They will be shorter at about six to eight feet in length. 

If tackling whitewater, make sure you know how to safely get in and out of your kayak in a current and have the appropriate safety gear. 

Inflatable Kayaks

Inflatable kayak on the lake

Inflatable kayaks make transporting your kayak to a distant lake and storing your kayak easy. It requires minimal setup to inflate your boat when you get to the water. They are designed mostly for recreation and are not fast. They are a great option for families who travel with their kayak or those short on storage space.

Fishing Kayaks

Man on a fishing kayak

Fishing from a kayak allows you to access waterways that you can’t in a motorized boat, and then approach your fishing hole in stealth mode. Fishing kayaks have storage space to pack your tackle box and bait, and attachment points to load fishing rod holders and fish finders. 

Pedal Kayaks

two people pedaling a kayak

A pedal kayak allows for hands-free fishing, photography, or wildlife viewing, as your kayak is propelled by pedals, leaving your hands free! These can be bicycle pedals that propel a prop, or push pedals to move underwater fins. A rudder is attached to a hand device to steer while you pedal. They are wide and stable and great for calm waters. 

Because of underwater rudders and props, they might hit obstacles in shallow waters or hang up on weeds. They tend to be heavier and more expensive but could be ideal for someone with neck or arm issues to allow for fun on the water.

Tandem Kayaks

Tandem kayaks

If you intend to always paddle with a partner, then you might save money and your energy with a tandem kayak. They will have two seats and are more stable than a solo kayak, and could be perfect for families with small children who can ride along. A tandem kayak will be heavier than single kayaks, but also provide more storage space for gear.

Kayak Dimensions

Hopefully, you’ve started to narrow down your options on which kayak works best for you, but now let’s dive deeper into kayak specifics. Sometimes the best kayak will be purchased based on the littlest of details. 

Weight Capacity

When considering the weight capacity, calculate not only your own weight but that of your gear such as coolers or tackle boxes. If you overfill your kayak, you will sit low in the water and be more likely to capsize. You have more control if you are more buoyant. 

Length

A short kayak hull will turn quickly and be easier to maneuver, while a long kayak will track more efficiently and move faster in the water. 

Depth

A deep hull will provide more warmth and leg room for a kayak. It also means you will have more leg room, but it comes with the disadvantage that you will also catch more wind. 

Width

A narrower kayak will have more speed and make ideal touring kayaks. A wide kayak is preferred for general recreation kayaks and for fishing because they will be more stable.  

Hull Type

Kayak hull types

The design or shape of the kayak hull will affect its overall performance and its stability in the water. There are multiple hull types to consider.

Flat hull

A flat hull is stable and more maneuverable and a good choice for beginners. It is usually found on recreational kayaks designed for flat water. 

Rounded hull

A curved or rounded hull will allow more speed than a flat hull and allow you to be more maneuverable once you’re moving on the water. 

V-shaped hull

A v-shaped hull can readily cut through the water to help it track in a straight line. V-shaped hulls are less stable upon initially stepping into your kayak, but more stable in the water once you’re moving. They are preferred for touring kayaks.

Pontoon hull

The design of a pontoon hull means it is stable upon entering your kayak, but also has rounded edges to add to its stability once moving in the water. Pontoon hulls tend to be slower in the water. 

Extra Features

Kayak seats and extra features

Whether you plan to kayak for general recreation, or accessorize your kayak for the ultimate fishing vessel, certain features can add to your experience on the water. 

Seat

What fun is an entire day riding in a kayak if your seat is uncomfortable?

Look at the quality of the kayak seat to determine if it's padded, adjustable, and ergonomically fits your shape. Also consider your PFD (personal flotation device - otherwise known as a life jacket) when choosing a seat. A PFD that has a mesh back will be more comfortable than one that is padded for a long day kayaking. 

Cockpit

A small cockpit means you have a snug fit for more control to maneuver your kayak, and it provides protection in rough waters. A larger cockpit provides more room to move and it's easier to get in and out of the boat.

Hatches

A hatch provides access to internal storage areas. They are usually not fully waterproof so you still need to store your gear in waterproof bags to keep them dry. A touring kayak will typically have two hatches, while recreational kayaks will only have one.

Foot pegs

Foot pegs provide a secure base to push against when you paddle. Without a foot rest, you tend to hunch forward and will be less able to rotate your torso when you paddle.

Rudders or Skegs

Skegs and rudders are fins that drop down at the rear of the boat to keep the kayak tracking in rough or windy conditions. A skeg is a fixed dropdown fin while a rudder is not fixed and can be controlled with pedals to influence the direction.

Construction Materials

A kayak that is built with lightweight materials will be easier to lift into your vehicle, easier to carry to the water, and will get up to speed faster than a heavier kayak. If the materials of your kayak are lightweight, that allows more weight capacity allowance for your gear. Unfortunately, the lighter the materials, the more expensive the kayak.

Polyethylene plastic

Inexpensive and resists scuffs and abrasion, but it is the heaviest kayak material. It also degrades with UV light so your kayak would need to be stored out of the sun.

ABS Plastic

ABS plastic is lighter weight than polyethylene with a similar durability. It is higher priced, but it is lightweight and can resist UV rays that will fade your kayak.

Composites

Lightweight fiberglass and carbon fiber will perform the best on the water but have a high price tag. They resist UV rays completely but can damage easier on impact with a rock. 

Kayak Storage and Transportation

Kayak storage and transportation

Before you purchase a kayak, consider where you’ll store it when you’re not on the river and how you will get it to the water. A touring kayak will be long and more challenging to store, while a recreational kayak might fit in your garage reasonably well. An inflatable kayak can solve all storage and portability issues because it can deflate and pack into a compact bundle. 

The material of your kayak might also be affected by its storage. Certain materials will degrade and fade with UV light and will need a covered location out of the sun. 

Budget Considerations

Look for a kayak that fits your needs but also considers your wallet. Specialized whitewater or touring kayaks will have more features to improve performance that will increase the price, and you might decide to sacrifice some speed to buy an affordable recreational kayak. 

The materials impact the price more than anything else. A lightweight and durable kayak will cost more than a heavier kayak that might be more difficult to transport. 

Summary

There are many factors to consider when choosing a new kayak. After you determine the type of water locations you want to explore, then decide on which style of kayak fits that niche. After narrowing down the field of candidates, consider everything from the comfort of the seat, the storage space, and the quality of the foot pegs. 

Your perfect kayak awaits!

FAQ’S

🏆 What type of kayak is best for beginners?

A recreational kayak would be the best option for beginners because they are wide and stable. They are easier to maneuver and can come in sit-on-top or sit-inside varieties. Recreational kayaks will be slower than touring kayaks, but more stable. 


👍 What kayak is best for fishing?

You can fish from a sit-inside or sit-on-top kayak, but a sit-on-top kayak will provide more open space to cast your line and reel in fish, and it has more potential for storage. A good fishing kayak will have attachment points for fishing rod holders, a comfortable seat, and storage capacity for your tackle. 


🏝️ What to look for when buying a kayak?

As reviewed throughout this article, there is much to consider when buying your first kayak. Start by knowing what environment you hope to explore and determine if a sit-on or sit-in kayak fits your needs. 

After narrowing down the type of kayak you need, then look at specifics including weight capacity, the quality of the seat, and storage capacity. Consider how you will transport your kayak and where you’ll store it before making the final decision.


❓ How do I pick a kayak?

Choose a kayak based on your skill level and the style of kayaking you want to enjoy. If you’re looking for long journeys down the coastline, then you should evaluate touring kayaks. If you have a big family with multiple potential kayakers, then a recreational kayak that can adapt to all around use might be the best option or a tandem kayak with multiple riders. There are kayaks for whitewater, for fishing, and inflatable kayaks that can travel anywhere. The right kayak is out there with all the qualities you’re looking for.


📦 What size kayak do I need?

When deciding on the appropriate size in a kayak, evaluate the weight capacity, length, width, and depth of the cockpit. A wide kayak will be more stable for beginners, but will be slower in the water than a narrow kayak. A long kayak will be faster in the water, but harder to maneuver than a short kayak. 

The weight capacity factors in your own weight as well as the weight of your gear. If you plan to load your kayak with fishing gear, then find one with sufficient weight capacity for your tackle box, cooler, as well as all the fish you’ll catch!


📦 How much should you spend on a kayak?

The price of a kayak is mostly determined by the materials used in its construction. If you’re a beginner looking for a fun experience, then a recreational kayak will be less expensive but will be heavier to carry than higher priced alternatives. 

If you plan to tour the coastline, you’ll likely want to invest in a specialized touring kayak built with lightweight materials and a long, narrow hull for increased speed. 


📦 Should I get a sit-in or sit-on-top kayak?

Sit-on-top kayaks tend to be more stable and easy to use, but you can usually plan on getting wet when splashed by water. If you’re looking for a recreational kayak in a warm environment, a sit-on-top kayak is a good option. 

In colder weather, a sit-inside kayak provides a cockpit to keep you warmer as well as dry. Because of a lower center of gravity, sit-inside kayaks tend to be easier to maneuver and are also faster.

Pat McCaw
Pat McCaw

Author, physician, mom and lover of all things outdoors. If there’s water or a hiking trail nearby, that's her happy place. Throw in family and a couple of dogs and it's paradise!