Choosing a kayak can be difficult when presented with the myriad of options on the market. The craziest part is that new types of kayaks are becoming available every day, and there seems to be no limit to innovation these days!
There are so many different types of kayaks that all have unique features and purposes, and making a decision can quickly become overwhelming. Don’t worry – we’re here to provide some clarity.
That's why we've created this go-to resource for all beginner kayakers that need that extra little bit of help to get out on the water.
Our comprehensive guide to choosing a kayak will help you navigate through all the types of kayaks and their uses, so you'll be able to choose a boat that best suits your needs. So, without further ado, let's get you paddling!
How to Choose a Kayak
Let’s start by deciding what your kayak will be used for. Here are a few questions to ask yourself to narrow down your options.
- Where will you go? Still water? The ocean? Whitewater? The water body that you will most frequent is the number one factor influencing your decision. Kayaks come in all different shapes and sizes depending on their use. Long and narrow kayaks suited for cruising open channels are useless in turbulent rivers, just as short, whitewater kayaks are inefficient in the sea.
- What is your skill level? Some kayaks are more stable and have greater maneuverability, making them better suited to beginners. Experienced paddlers who know they can handle a kayak may opt for a slimmer, longer craft that is harder to balance, but glides through the water effortlessly. If you are stepping into a kayak for the very first time, you won’t be getting into whitewater anytime soon, so you can probably score whitewater kayaks off your list.
- How serious are you? Consider if kayaking is going to be more of an occasional hobby for you, or if you plan on taking it seriously. Deciding this early on will determine what features you need and how much you are willing to spend.
- How far will you go? Are you only planning to go a mile here and there, or will you go on multi-day excursions where it is necessary to haul camping gear and supplies? Keep this in mind as some kayaks have much more storage than others.
- Who are you paddling with? Your social circle may influence the kind of kayak you buy. If your mates all own fishing kayaks and spend their weekends casting at the lake, chances are, you’ll follow suit. No one likes to be left out in any activity, and kayaking is no exception. Also, consider whether you’re flying solo or going to be paddling with the family or significant other. You may want to consider a tandem kayak or even a canoe if there’s likely to be more than one passenger most of the time.
Here's a good video that covers some more of the things you should be thinking about when selecting a kayak.
Sit on Top Vs Sit in Kayaks
Kayaks come in two main forms: sit-in and sit-on-top.
The difference is that your lower body is exposed in a sit-on-top kayak, and enclosed in the cockpit of a sit-in model.
Generally, sit-on-top kayaks are for warmer weather conditions, whereas sit-in kayaks are better suited when you need shielding from the elements.
Sit-in kayaks keep you dry, but they are tough to drain if you tip. You’ll take on more water in a sit-on-top kayak, but it is quickly drained through scupper holes, often with the help of the sun. They’re also much easier to flip and re-enter if you happen to capsize.
Many of the below kayak types come in sit-in and sit-on-top versions.
The Basic Layout of a Kayak
Here's an aerial view of sit-on-top and sit-in kayaks that shows some typical features.
Most of the features are self-explanatory, but we’ve included a description of their use anyhow – this is a newbies guide after all.
We’ve also described some lesser-known features that can’t be seen from the diagram, but you’ll want to look out for.
Standard seats consist of a hard plastic mold that becomes excruciatingly uncomfortable in a very short period - unless you happen to be packing a bit more cushioning on your backside 😉
You’ll want to upgrade to a padded seat quickly if the starter package doesn’t come with it.
Kayaks can have dry storage hatches inside the body of the vessel or open top storage with bungee tie downs on top. The on board storage is sufficient with most kayaks, and you’ll only need more if you’re planning an extended trip.
Carrying handles are usually found on the sides, and at the bow and stern. They can either be a strap or molded into the body of the yak. Strap versions that have built-in paddle stays are always handy.
Scupper holes allow you to drain any water you take on in a sit-on kayak. They can be plugged with bungs if they’re not needed.
This is a common touring and sea kayak accessory which helps to keep water out of the boat when paddling in rough conditions. Many touring boats come with a spray skirt as part of the package.
This is a metal plate on touring boats which can be extended or retracted to improve the tracking of the boat. Usually adjusted by hand controls, having a skeg is great for advanced touring paddlers.
Commonly found on high-end touring boats, a rudder can be adjusted and controlled with foot levers while paddling to aid with tracking or turning. A handy feature for windy days!
Kayaking Sizing and Shapes
Generally speaking, depth won’t be an issue. Sometimes deeper kayaks can be found to accommodate more gear or a larger person. Shop around if this sounds like you.
This is usually called Beam by those in the know – it just means width. Wider doesn’t always mean more stable but for the beginning kayaker, a wider boat is more stable when getting in and out. Touring kayaks are generally the slimmest.
This one is simple: the shorter the boat, the more agile it will be. Short kayaks perform better in tighter conditions, and longer kayaks are much easier to paddle straight across long distances. Don’t over think it.
Capacity is the maximum weight you’ll be able to take onboard safely. Consider this wisely if you’re going to use the boat for camping trips, and tally up the weight of all the gear you intend to carry.
Hull shape comes in three general flavors:
Flat hulls are featured on sit-on-top kayaks and are the most stable of all hull designs when entering and exiting the boat.
Round hulls are the shape of choice on economy grade recreational kayaks – they are slightly more efficient when paddling, but a little less stable initially.
V-shaped hulls are often found on touring boats and offer the best stability when under motion – they also tend to improve tracking.
The front-to-back curve of your boat (common on whitewater kayaks) is called rocker. This term is familiar to those skiers among you. The more rocker, the easier the boat is to turn, and the more easily it can handle waves head-on.
By far the most common boat material, PE is cheap and heavy. Economy grade boats and recreational boats will be made from PE, and it really helps keep the price down!
Store these boats in the shade or indoors to help extend their life as sun exposure will eventually weaken the plastic.
These boats are more resistant to sunlight degradation and lighter than PE kayaks. However, they are more expensive than PE models.
ABS boats are quite durable and easier to repair than PE boats.
Most expensive of the categories, these boats are top performers. Kevlar, fiberglass, and carbon fiber are the materials of choice here. Expect to pay through your nose and only look for these boats if you’re seeking top level performance and feather-light weight!
Treat them gently as they’re not nearly as durable as the PE versions.
A Roundup of the Different Types of Kayaks
Economy / Recreational Kayaks
This is the kind of kayak you might find for rent at your local livery or propped up against the wall in the sports store. Focused on the flat water paddler, and usually aimed at beginner and occasional kayakers, these boats are affordable and functional.
Recreational kayaks have a wider profile to help improve stability and are perfect for anyone who is learning how to paddle.
You can make these work for a day with family on the river, a fishing trip, or even a short kayak camping trip if you’re crafty.
Almost always, these kayaks will feature some storage and, if you’re discerning, you may find one with a more-or-less water tight storage compartment.
Look for a kayak with a good seat and don’t be afraid to pass on boats with cheaper or less comfortable cockpits.
- Easy to use and excellent stability in the right conditions. They perform best on calm water such as a pond or lake.
- They don't hold a straight course as well as a touring kayak.
- Feature limited – molded cup holders is as fancy as it gets
If you’re not 100% certain kayaking is for you and don’t want to spend a wad cash figuring it out, inflatable kayaks are your best bet.
They’re also ideal if you have a smaller car and can’t transport a hard-shelled kayak or don’t have the space to store one.
The lightweight and portable convenience of inflatables make them extremely versatile.
Made of rugged and durable materials these kayaks are just as serious as any other - don't let the word "inflatable" fool you, and don’t mistake them for a pool noodle either.
Insane buoyancy means these boats turn and maneuver on a dime. When you’re ready to pack up, the deflated boat packs away nicely.
Looking for an inflatable with maximum performance? Some boats feature stiffening frames or rigid body attachments to aid performance.
- Easy to store and transport
- Much less expensive than other types of kayaks
- It takes time to inflate before you get in the water
- They are less durable than hard shells
- They are typically slower in the water
These boats are short, stubby, and made specifically for durability, agility, and navigability. Did you get all the “abilities”? Good.
We recommend you take some whitewater kayaking lessons and learn the ropes from a qualified instructor. Whitewater kayaking is as dangerous as it is fun.
Taking lessons is a good way to dip your toe into this extreme sport and get a better idea of the gear you’ll need.
Please, don’t take the econo-grade recreational kayaking down the Class III rapids to save some money. It won’t end well.
- A hell of a lot of fun if you like white-knuckle adrenaline sports
- Durable kayaks that are built to withstand bumps and scrapes
- No or very little storage space
- They are made for intense rapid running only. They would be useless on a camping trip
Touring Kayaks / Sea Kayaks
Generally harder to find than the econo-focused everyday kayak, you may have to order online or head to a specialty outfitter to check out these more niche kayaks.
Featuring a longer hull for better tracking (straight line paddling) as well as much improved storage capacity, these boats are great for longer trips or open water (or both). Often these more advanced boats feature a rudder for easier paddling and steering on longer trips.
Cockpits will be more narrow and conservative than the recreational boats. Spray skirts either come with the boat or are highly recommended accessories.
Spend a little more on these boats to find a kayak that’s light, durable, and perfect for long paddling trips and multi-day adventures.
- Top-end kayaks - better performing and more versatile than most other yaks
- Can come with plenty of storage space
- Fast – long, narrow body is built for speed
- More expensive than recreational kayaks
- Smaller cockpits
The rise in popularity of kayak fishing over the last few years has seen a line of kayaks developed specifically for anglers.
Most fishing kayaks are sit-on-top models which are ideal if you plan on fishing in rivers and lakes. These kayaks are among the widest and most stable, leaving plenty of wiggle room for the angler to work.
If you’re fishing in the ocean, you’d fair better against the waves with a sit-in yak.
Fishing specific kayaks have plenty of space for tackle and gear, and have built-in rod holders and access holes for fishfinder transducers.
- Purpose built for anglers
- Sit-on-top versions are very stable, allowing for stand up casting
- Can be more expensive than modifying a ‘Regular Joe’ kayak for fishing
Tandem, or double kayaks, accommodate two passengers. They’re great if you’ve got a significant other, or if you fancy getting out fishing with a mate for the day and don’t want to deal with the logistics of transporting two kayaks.
Tandem kayaks are also fantastic when kayaking with young kids. You can let them ride up front while you keep your eye on them from the back.
They come in both open top and closed top versions, with some sit-on-top kayaks even having space for three people.
Paddling in unison does take some time to get used to, but you’ll find a rhythm with patience and practice. It’s a good idea for the less experienced paddler to be at the bow, so the experienced paddler can match the timing of their strokes and provide instruction easily.
- Ideal for couples
- Initial outlay less costly – only one kayak required instead of two
- Can be paddled by one person, but much easier with two people
- Tandem paddling technique takes some practice
Whether you’re looking for a flatwater budget boat or a state of the art carbon fiber touring boat, there’s a kayak out there to meet your needs!
As boat design and manufacturing improves every year, it’s important to stay educated on what’s available. We hope we’ve managed to help with that 🙂
Our parting advice? Don’t start off with the most expensive boat – there’s nothing wrong with buying a used recreational kayak and getting to know the sport before “diving” in head first!
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