Ultimate Guide to Kayaks
Getting started kayaking is a bit of a challenging task. For those who have grown accustomed to canoeing, a kayak can seem foreign or difficult. A complete novice will experience the challenge of learning to paddle and the thrill of mastering an agile kayak on the water. Learning how to pick out your gear and understanding the differences in kayak models doesn’t have to be a challenge, however. How will you know which is going to be the best kayak for you? Now you trying to decide which kayak to get think about these few things first:
- Firstly, where would you like to use your kayak? Will this be at a lake, the coast or maybe a river? This will narrow down your choices available.
- Sit-in or sit-on-top? Do you prefer the traditional sit-in, or the openness of a sit-on-top? (These are good for fishing!)
- Budget: Materials can directly affect the cost of your kayak as such inflatable kayaks are relatively cheap.
- Shape and size and length: These will affect the way the kayak handles and the amount of cargo space you will have.
With years of experience leading paddling expeditions and helping people learn to kayak I’m going to give you a head start. Once you read this article you’ll understand what features to look for when you’re buying your next kayak. I’ll help you understand what to avoid and how to pick out an awesome kayak that will meet your needs.
Whether you’re looking to get started with a recreational kayak and paddle once a year, or if you plan to paddle for weeks at a time we’ll get you off on the right foot. There are tons of different kayaks out there for everyone from fishermen to weekend warriors. Let’s get started learning how to choose a kayak.
How to Choose the Best Kayak for You
Now that you’re sure it’s time to buy a kayak, the next step is figuring out which one to buy! There are nearly unlimited types of kayaks for sale, so let me help you narrow it down.
These boats are usually affordable and widely available such as the Sun Dolphin Aruba 10 kayak. They’re made from inexpensive, but effective, polyethylene. This keeps them lightweight, yet inexpensive for the novice kayaker or paddler on a budget.
- Saving money
- Recreational use
- Occasional use
- Tandem Kayaks
Most kayaks in this category are in the 9’ - 11’ range and offer only minor options or accessories. That doesn’t mean they’re bad kayaks. These boats are perfect if you only paddle once a month, or just want a boat to keep at the cottage for the kids to use on occasion.
Recreational kayaks are usually best for flat water or gentle rivers. They usually lack high-end features for open water or saltwater paddling. These boats do a great job in mild conditions but can be dangerous in open water or rough weather.
These boats are usually more expensive and harder to find. You may need to go to a specialty kayak outfitter to find them as they’re often unavailable at your general sporting goods store.
- Long trips
- Camping or expedition equipment
- Efficient paddling in open waters
Touring kayaks are made to handle long distances and open water. They usually come with a rudder, spray skirt, waterproof storage, and room for enough gear to paddle for multiple days at a time. Of course, not all touring boats have all of these features.
Touring kayaks are ideal for those looking to take long paddling expeditions. They’re often used for coastal paddling or long stretches of open water. They’re not ideal for narrow rivers or agile conditions, however, as they’re usually quite long and narrow for fast speeds and straight lines.
Whitewater kayaks are used in fast, narrow waters. These boats are in a class of their own and can come in nearly any shape and size. Often specialty whitewater kayaks barely resemble a traditional kayak and are used for tricks and competition. Whitewater kayaks can range in length from 5’ or less to 11+ feet in some situations.
These boats usually sacrifice storage capacity and long distance paddling efficiency in exchange for extreme agility and handling. Before buying a whitewater kayak, take a lesson or two. Make sure you understand the basics and learn some safety as whitewater kayaking is inherently dangerous.
Once you’ve had a chance to experience some whitewater kayaking, you’ll better understand what type of kayak to buy for yourself. It’s not advisable to buy a whitewater kayak without any experience.
Sit on Top Kayaks
These relative newcomers to the kayaking family are ideal for recreational and fishing kayaks. They feature a single, molded body of plastic that’s self-bailing, durable, and easy to use. Because sit on top kayaks have no cockpit, they’re easy to right after flipping and they can easily self drain any water that splashes in.
- Recreational Use
- Fishing Kayaks
There’s no cockpit on a sit on top kayak which means they can be cold and wet in rough water. You also sacrifice the ability to grip the sides of the kayak with your hips and knees. That makes them harder to control and more prone to tipping in rough conditions.
These boats are ideal for occasional or recreational use. Because there’s no cockpit they’re also great for users who hate the feeling of being crammed inside the cockpit of a traditional kayak. You’ll find that they can carry tons of gear and, when outfitted properly, make a good choice for anglers.
Inflatable / Blow Up Kayaks
These boats use modern synthetic materials to provide durability and function while being able to deflate just like the best inflatable Paddle boards. They’re a popular choice for many reasons, but most users love the small amount of space they take up when deflated. Great examples of these kayaks are made by Intex and include both 1 and 2 person kayaks. Our top picks are the K2 Explorer, K1 Challenger and the K2 Challenger.
- Transporting in small vehicles
- Minimal storage room needed when deflated
Inflatable kayaks include the world of packrafts which can be used in paddle/backpacking combination trips. These boats can open up a lot of doors that traditional hard bodied kayaks cannot.
They do have their drawbacks, however. Unlike hard bodied kayaks, inflatable can be punctured and deflated. Holes in the hull of a hard bodied boat are possible but less common. These kayaks can be as expensive, or even more expensive than their traditional counterparts. Choose an inflatable kayak if you need to save space during transport or storage. Here is the list of our recommended blow up kayaks.
I mentioned earlier a material called polyethylene. This is one of the most common and affordable materials that kayaks are made from. Polyethylene is moderately flexible by kayak standards and resists impact pretty well. This makes is forgiving when you bump a rock or beach on the shore. These boats can be prone to UV degradation and repairing a broken hull can be nearly impossible.
Polycarbonate is a plastic material that affords some of the efficiency and speed of a fiberglass kayak, with a price closer to polyethylene. These boats are ideal for people looking to upgrade speed and efficiency without upgrading too much in price. Also now you can experience kayaking like never before with a transparent kayak! These give you some of the most amazing views, check out our review of the Crystal Explorer transparent kayak.
Next step up is fiberglass. This material is a popular choice for homemade kayaks and high end boats. It’s durable and highly efficient due to its very sleek and smooth surface. Fiberglass is an easy material to work with for those building custom boats or project kayaks at home. It’s an expensive material to buy when purchasing a kayak, however.
Finally, we have wood kayaks. These boats are absurdly expensive and require loads of time and craftsmanship to create. They’re another common choice of material for the DIY kayak builder. People love wood kayaks for the aesthetics and craftsmanship. They are also extremely efficient and fun boats to paddle when built properly.
Kayak hulls come on several main varieties. Each type has specific advantages and disadvantages. I’m going to briefly help you understand a few of the most common hull designs you might want to pick between.
Rounded hulls are smoothly shaped so that the bottom of the boat create a uniform upswept profile when looking at the cross section. These boats have more secondary stability, meaning they can be a bit squirrely when sitting flat, but stabilize well when on edge. This profile makes for an agile boat.
V Shaped hulls are much more aggressively upswept than rounded hulls. These boats have a fairly pronounced V that’s identifiable. They paddle well in long, straight lines and are quite fast boats. They can feel very squirrelly when sitting still. This is a common shape for touring kayaks.
Flat kayak hulls are great for slower speeds and higher stability. They’re most common on specialty whitewater kayaks and fishing boats. They offer tons of stability but they won’t paddle very efficiently due to the increased drag of the boat.
Tunnel/Pontoon hulls are a double shaped and look like a W when viewed from the cross section. They’re slow and lack agility but offer the greatest stability of any hull shape available and track well in straight lines. These are perfect for fishing kayaks.
Chines on kayaks are essentially the physical definition of where the bottom of the boat flows into the side of the boat. It’s hard to describe but think of it this way. A cardboard box, with very sharp and square corners, would be an extremely hard chined design on a kayak. Something rounded and more cupped like, a bowl, for instance, would be a very soft chined kayak.
Chines are somewhere between hard and soft and usually occur at or near the transition of the bottom of the boat to the sides of the boat. Hard chined boats almost seem to have a crease in the hull that runs along the length of the boat.Courtesy of paddlersreport.com
- Great primary stability
- Speed and straight tracking
Hard chined boats provide improved speed and tracking with great primary stability. Hard chines boats also perform weakly in rough conditions and are slightly more prone to flipping and tipping in rough waters.
- Great secondary stability
- Better for rough water
Soft chined boats have lower primary stability but offer better secondary stability when put on edge. Because the sides of the boat are more uniformly rounded, they perform better in rough waters where waves “roll off” the rounded edges of the kayak.
Primary vs Secondary Stability
Primary stability is a measure of a boat’s tendency to stay stable in flat water, with the paddler sitting upright. Primary stability is great for beginners and fishermen when a more laterally stable boat is desired.
Secondary stability is helpful once the boat is tipped on its side. Secondary stability measures a boat’s ability to remain stable once tipped. This is useful in rough waters and waves, as well as in whitewater paddling. During whitewater paddling often a large degree of intentionally tipping of the boat is used to “edge” the boat for certain maneuvers.
Those familiar with skiing are accustomed to the idea of rocker. Rocker simply refers to the “banana” shape of a kayak. In kayaking a boat with a large degree of curve in the bow and stern, compared to the center, is highly rockered. A kayak that is nearly flat along the bottom would be considered less rocker.
Rocker gives a boat more maneuverability because it causes the bow and stern to have less mass submerged, compared to the center. That means it’s easier to swing the boat from side to side when paddling.
Greater rocker is helpful when agility is a high priority such as river paddling or often in whitewater conditions. Highly rockered boats can be difficult to track straight, however, and become inefficient and downright annoying when trying to paddle straight.
For touring kayaks, recreational kayaks, and fishing kayaks where paddling long straight distances with ease becomes a priority, less rocker may be desirable. Having a flatter boat will increase the kayak’s tendency to keep a straight line. This will reduce the side to side zigzag caused by each paddle stroke.
There’s no wrong or right when it comes to kayak lengths. Ultimately it’s completely dependent on what characteristics you want your boat to have. To keep it simple I’m going to outline some of the pros and cons of various boat lengths. Then, when you’re deciding on your next boat, you can choose whatever length makes the most sense for you!
Longer kayaks tend to track straighter. They make great choices for higher speeds and longer distances. Long kayaks are common choices for touring kayaks where boats can easily reach 12+ feet long. Because the boats have more length below the waterline than shorter kayaks, they take more time and effort to turn. Longer kayaks also have more room for gear and storage.
Shorter kayaks have more agility and are easier to turn. Compared to longer boats they tend to zig zag more with each paddle stroke. They’re a superior choice for narrow waterways where agility is a priority. Whitewater kayaks tend to be in the shorter range, though some whitewater boats may still be longer. Shorter kayaks, of course, have less room for equipment and gear.
Having a kayak is great but if you do not have a way of transporting it to and from the water there isn't really much point. If you only have one or two kayaks then I would suggest you invest into a kayak roof rack for your car or truck. If you have more then it might be better to get a trailer for your kayaks.
But it doesn't stop there, why not make getting your kayak from the car to the water that little bit easier and get yourself a cart to transport the kayak.
These boats deserve a small section all to themselves. Why? Because a lot of the gear and accessories for fishing kayaks is a bit different than normal.
Sit on top kayaks are a common choice for great fishing kayaks. A good example of one is the Sun Dolphin Journey 12. Another alternative would be a cataraft which is a slightly different boat altogether. Because sit on top kayaks don’t have a cockpit to get in your way, it’s easier to cast, store gear, access the tackle box, and land or net a fish. Of course, you can still choose to use a traditional kayak for fishing.
For fishing kayaks, choose a boat with great primary stability. Hard chines and a flatter profile are common on fishing kayaks to help improve stability when sitting still. Longer boats provide more room for gear, rods, and tackle.
Other accessories to keep an eye on are built-in tackle boxes, paddle holders, rod holders, and an extremely comfortable seat. There are tons of fishing kayaks on the market but if you do thorough research, you’re sure to find one that really stands out to meet your needs better than others. Be thorough and make sure you get the features you like.
Buying a new kayak isn’t rocket science. But there is a good bit of science behind the design of a great kayak. Now that you understand things like chines, length, and kayak types you’re ready to go looking for your next kayak. For most paddlers, a recreational kayak that’s used once a month is probably most common.
If you’re a more avid kayaker, taking the time to make sure you find just the right boat will make all the difference. Contact custom kayak manufacturers directly if you just can’t find what you’re looking for. Don’t be surprise if Amazon or the local box store doesn’t carry exactly what you need. You may have to drive a ways to find the nearest reputable kayak outfitter but it will be worth it.
Remember to consider your needs and uses before buying a kayak, also do not forget about getting the best kayak paddle or a kayak roof rack to transport for your next adventure. Not everyone needs a racing kayak, and often a blend of features is best suited to your needs. Remember to stay safe and keep safety gear with you on the water at all times. See you out there!
You can browse all our of kayaking articles and decide whether you need an upgrade.