If you’re just getting started in the paddling world, looking for the best recreational kayak may be challenging. As a full-time outdoor educator, it’s my job to help you figure out what gear to use and what to avoid.
Recreational kayaks are great for beginners, and those looking for a basic or simple boat at an affordable price. If your needs are more advanced or more specific, you may want to consider touring kayaks or whitewater boats. Let’s get started learning about recreational kayaks!
Our Top 5 Best Recreational Kayaks
10' x 30" x 13"
10' x 28.5" x 17"
10' x 30.5" x 15"
9' x 31" x 18"
10' x 36" x 19"
Scroll down to see full reviews!
How to Choose a Recreational Kayak
Understanding what features are important and which ones can be ignored is a difficult prospect. Our recreational kayak buying guide will take you through a few of the most helpful things to know when looking for a new recreational kayak.
Recreational Kayaks vs All Others
There are many types of kayaks to choose from when looking to buy a new boat. What sets recreational kayaks apart is a value driven construction, simple features, and design which fosters learning.
Recreational kayaks are meant for flat water beginner paddlers and won’t stand up to whitewater or touring use. They’re usually easy to handle, inexpensive, and bare bones when it comes to features.
Cockpit and Seat
It’s important to check the size of the kayak’s cockpit before purchasing. If you have long legs or wide hips, you may find that not every kayak will accommodate your frame. Make sure the opening of the cockpit fits your body type.
As you’ll be spending all your time sitting in your new kayak, you’ll want to look for a kayak with a nice, comfortable seat. Avoid the cheap molded plastic seats as they’ll rapidly become uncomfortable. Many recreational kayak seats have adjustable back rests – make sure the adjustment system is robust as this is a component which often fails early on.
Sit On Top vs Traditional Kayaks
Recently, manufacturers have been producing a new type of kayak. These kayaks are molded from a single piece of plastic, and the user sits atop the boat (instead of in the boat). These kayaks have become quite popular for ease of use, durability, and versatility.
Sit-ons are best suited to kayak fishermen or for the recreational paddler who might want a boat for the beach house. These kayaks are durable and long lasting thanks to their simplicity.
Watch this video for a full breakdown of the pros and cons of sit on top recreational kayaks.
Dry Well and Storage
Having room to stash your lunch, keys, and sunscreen for a day of paddling can be overlooked. Make sure to find a kayak with enough storage room for your needs. You’ll probably only need to store a few items for an afternoon of paddling so don’t go overboard (pun)!
Having a sealed dry well in your boat might be a luxury, and I don’t really recommend it for beginners. Simply use a waterproof bag if you need to ensure your equipment stays dry. Remember to strap everything into the boat because if you tip your kayak, your keys or phone might sink to the bottom!
Part of the beauty of recreational kayaks is that the cost can be kept low as manufacturers strip the boats down to only essential features. Look for sales, clearances, or used boats when buying a recreational kayak. If you want to buy new, you’ll almost always get a better deal online.
Remember to start small, when it comes to price, as you can always sell the boat later and upgrade. It would be awful to spend top dollar for your new kayak only to find out that you don’t truly enjoy kayaking as much as you’d hoped.
Before You Buy a Recreational Kayak
It may make the most sense to visit your local kayak livery or borrow a boat from a friend. Why? Because firsthand experience is always the best to learn.
By going out on a day trip with friends, you may learn a lot about what features matter to you in a kayak. On top of that, you’ll get more experience paddling and have a better understanding of whether or not it’s the sport for you.
Consider your needs and how likely it is that you’ll grow to need a better or more specific kayak in the near future. Recreational kayaks are really only meant for occasional short paddling trips on flat water. If your goal is long distance paddling and overnight camping, you may be better served in purchasing a touring kayak right off the bat.
Recreational Kayak Reviews
I’m going to guide you through taking a look at a few popular recreational kayaks which might meet your needs:
Sun Dolphin Aruba 10
This beginner kayak features a wide cockpit design which is perfect for people with larger frames or those looking for some wiggle room.
An adjustable seat, padding for your knees, and a dry well for storing your gear (though it’s not waterproof) all make great additions to round out this inexpensive kayak for recreational paddlers.
I like that the kayak features adjustable foot braces – a feature often left out on recreational boats. This boat makes a great balance between price, performance, and features for the beginner kayaker.
Old Town Canoes & Kayaks Vapor 10
One fun feature about this recreational boat is the included cup holder right at the front of the cockpit. Bring along a can of your favorite beverage and keep yourself cool while enjoying a quiet paddling trip – sounds relaxing to me!
Adjustable seat with plenty of bottom cushion makes for a pleasant ride. This boat’s short profile will be agile and easy to turn and the included day well at the back of the boat will store plenty of items for the day.
Only downside? There’s no great lashing system for tying or holding down gear. Just makes sure to add your own shock cord or carry sealed bags which are guaranteed to float.
WILDERNESS SYSTEMS Tarpon 100 Kayak
Moving into the realm of sit on top kayaks, this boat is feature rich and bit pricier than the others. Perhaps the most robust and well-rounded choice of our lineup here today, this boat will have enough features for the new kayakers to grow with.
I like the fully adjustable backrest and the sit on top design means plenty of wiggle room for comfort and flexibility. Adjustable foot pegs mean a tailored fit for every paddler which is a huge convenience!
Cup holder, dry well, and plenty of lashing and shock cord make this kayak a cargo hauling machine with plenty of options for loadout. Love it!
Ocean Kayak Frenzy Sit-On-Top
A more budget minded sit on top kayak, this boat is slightly more minimalist in design and features.
I love the extra tall backrest as back ache constantly seems to be a problem for me on cheaper kayaks. Tones of shock cord lashing both front and back mean that this simple boat can carry tons of gear if you need to. However, the lack of robust features means this vessel probably isn’t an all-day type of boat.
Perhaps this boat is best suited for getting kids started or keeping a boat around the lake cottage for occasional use or guests. You won’t find many advanced features here.
Lifetime 10 Foot Manta Tandem Kayak
This compact tandem boat is priced at a level that makes it hard to say no. If you’re looking for a fun boat to get the family, friends, or girlfriend out on the water, this might be a great choice.
Using a sit on top design this kayak has minimal gear storage and minimal space. Having a pointed bow and flat stern means the boat is one-directional and paddling backward will be difficult.
Overall a reasonable tandem choice and I like the adjustable backrests – a must, even if you’re only out on the water for half an hour.
If I had to pick a boat to start learning in and grow with, it would definitely be the Tarpon 100. Simple enough for the beginner but robust enough for fishing or short kayak camping trips makes it a solid choice.
All of the kayaks on our list have a place with specific paddlers. From rivers, lakes, beachfront, or made for anglers, there’s no doubt that you’ll find what you need. Remember to keep your needs in mind and buy a kayak which makes the most sense for your skill level and desires.