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Kayak Choices: A Guide For Beginners

If you are new to kayaking or maybe you're just interested enough to see if its for you, choosing your first kayak could be confusing and even as stressful as finding the hidden menu at Del Taco during lunch rush.

With so many options, styles, and uses - how do you choose the best craft for you? Well we're going to help you put together a plan and help you find out.

Choosing a Kayak: Narrow Your Choices

Organizing your thoughts behind a few simple questions to start should set the tone for you to consider.

  • Where do you plan on paddling? Lake, rivers, swamps, the ocean or sea-water?

  • How will you be transporting your kayak? Do you have a Rack system on your vehicle, pulling it on a trailer, load-bars? (We have plenty of great options we can show you here too)

  • Whats your realistic investment into your new hobby? Material and payload contribute a lot to weight and durability as well as abilities so be realistic here. You really don't need a $3400 Kayak but know $300 isn't going to get you much either at a Walmart

  • What will the kayak be used for? Do you need cargo space for camping equipment? Are you limited in storage space at home? Is it for fishing or hunting needs? or simply exercise and adventure?

Knowing the places you may want to explore with your kayak will also be helpful in picking out the right kayak for you.

LAKES: Calm open bodies of water. Here you can choose almost any sit-on-top or recreational sit-in craft and have a great paddle if the weather is forecasted to be good and your adventure isn't too far. If rougher weather rolls in and whitecaps are possible, a purely recreational craft can quickly get over matched.

RIVERS: To navigate rivers without technical rapids (*), you'll want to choose a more stable and certainly durable kayak with excellent maneuverability. Shorter crafts tend to be more controllable and stable in these waters, therefore that short stable recreational sit-in or sit-on-top kayak or even Day touring sit-in might be the better craft to consider.

RIVERS AND LAKES: Planning on doing a bit of both flowing and still water kayaking? The 'crossover' or 'hybrid' kayaks typically have a skeg that will help you turn more responsively when the skeg is up and track when the skeg is down. So the shorter recreational sit-in or sit-on-top kayak might be the best pick here to consider, or one with a rudder, a feature usually found only on longer boats might be a plus here too.

COASTS: Along the coasts, many things need to be considered. Wind, waves, currents, and tides are all important factors to keep in mind. A sit-in touring boat with a rudder, fixed tracking fin, or a skeg (a drop-down fin) is a better choice here. If you're just an adrenaline junkie and you plan on swimming or kayak surfing, a sit-on-top is probably the right craft for you.

(*) Whitewater Kayaks aren't discussed in this article because of the current scope of the article.

Sit-On-Top Kayak vs. Sit-In Kayak

Sit-On-Top Kayaks are a sub-category of recreational kayaks. Best suited for paddling in calmer bodies of water like lakes and rivers with no technical rapids. These kayaks are also well suited for warmer coastal waters where swimming, fishing, and kayak surfing may be had. By definition, Sit-On-Top kayaks are more open which is great for people looking for extra space and not feeling to closed in. Good for beginners because it minimizes the need to learn a wet exit if they capsize the craft. To help you decide consider the following:

  • Sit-on-tops are quite stable and easy to get on and off of, even in deep water. These are an excellent choice for casual uses like playing around the cottage and short excursions

  • You will always get wet when using a sit-on-top kayak, so it’s better in warm weather unless you are wearing a wetsuit

  • There is no need to pump out water because the boats are usually self-draining.

  • They typically have lots of deck space with tie-downs, which makes these boats ideal for people wanting to fish or even heading out on short camping trips. They often have limited cargo space inside the hollow hull

  • They’re generally heavier than comparable sit-in kayaks due to both materials and design

Sit-In Kayaks are available in recreational boats, day touring, and touring models. They move faster, track straight, and usually offer additional covered cargo compartments, so they're great for paddling towards a destination with intent. To help you decide consider the following:

  • They offer more protection in cooler or cold weather, especially if you are using a spray skirt

  • You need a bilge pump to remove water from your kayak for when you get fully swamped

  • You need to learn and practice how to do a wet exit

  • With a lower center of gravity (sitting closer to the water) and multiple points of contact between your body (knees, feet, bum), you will have greater control in rough water. It can also be more fun for maneuvering

  • They’re more efficient to paddle than their sit-on-top cousins

Recreational Kayak can be either sit-in or sit-on and are typically around 10 feet long. They are best suited to calm bodies of water and are ideal for a relaxing float down the river.

Generally more stable, easy to get in and out of, and maneuver reasonably well, but they are more difficult to steer than a longer boat. Most recreational kayaks weigh between 40 and 50 pounds, making them easy-to-transport.

A recreational kayak is for you if you’re a beginner who is just starting out, or if you will be sticking to lazy rivers and calmer waters. You will find that there is a recreational kayak to fit almost every budget.

Cargo space is limited. The price point is low to moderate.

Touring or Sea Kayak (Sit-In)

The length of your craft will dictate how it maneuvers and that determines a lot of navigating skills over time. Usually sea kayaks are longer than recreational kayaks and day-touring kayaks making them more stable and easier to steer. Sea kayaks also track really well and usually have a rudder or a skeg to efficiently deal with currents and wind. The more tapered designs and lengths also provide a stable and faster glide, making them highly efficient over longer distances.

A sea kayak is the craft for you if you plan on paddling open or rougher waters.. You will want to gain experiences on calmer waters first. Sea kayaks are not a starter boat. It is highly recommended to get some skills before choosing to plan out heading to choppy open water. Learning techniques of rolling and wet exits before heading out to open water. These are some critical skills to learn

Day Touring Kayak (Sit-In)

If a recreational kayak and a sea kayak had a baby, it would be a touring kayak. Touring kayaks tend to be longer and more narrow than a recreational kayak, but not as long as a sea kayak. They are versatile, sleek, and more efficient to move than a recreational kayak. They track straighter and offer more control in rough water. And because they are shorter than a sea kayak, they will be easier to transport.

A touring kayak is for you if you already have experience with a traditional recreational kayak and you are looking for a smoother ride. Cargo space is moderate. The price point is moderate to high.

Inflatable Kayak

Inflatable kayaks are available as recreational, sea, touring, or even hybrid models. Without air, these kayaks take up minimal space and are well suited to transporting in a vehicle – no racks or trailer required. They are typically inflated using a foot or hand pump and can require as little as five minutes to inflate.

New generation inflatable kayaks are constructed with durable material, greatly reducing the odds of puncturing the hull. If a hole is created, most inflatable kayaks are multi-chambered. This is especially important while you are out on the water. One hole shouldn’t sink your boat.

Recreational models are not efficient and are best for playing at the cottage and short excursions. However, some touring and sea kayak models rival the performance of their hard-shell counterparts. An inflatable kayak is for you if you require a truly lightweight kayak that can fit inside the trunk of most vehicles. Averaging 25-35 pounds, these kayaks, once deflated are easy to transport. Cargo space is limited. The price point ranges from low to high depending on the style selected.

Folding Kayak

Folding kayaks are designed for backcountry hiking and camping. They are not as rugged as a hard-shell kayak, but they offer comparable handling and storage as some touring boats. You might also consider a folding kayak if you live in an apartment and don’t have space to store a hard-shell kayak.

Cargo space is surprisingly good. The price point is moderate to high (specialty item).

Whitewater Kayak*

For the adrenaline junkies and thrill-seekers, there are whitewater kayaks. These boats are short, measuring six to eight feet. They are generally used for playing in one set of rapids, versus traveling an entire river.

Whitewater kayaks are for more experienced kayakers, however, they may be used by beginners with some instruction. First, it’s important to learn how to do a wet exit prior to getting in the boat. It is also essential to wear appropriate safety gear.

Due to the added risks involved in whitewater kayaking, it’s a good idea to take lessons, join a group, or head out with an experienced guide.

(*) This article does not provide information or advice about whitewater kayaking.

Pedal Kayak

A pedal kayak with a sophisticated pedal propulsion system is for you if you want to free your hands for fishing, photography, using binoculars. It is also beneficial for people with back and neck issues that make paddling more challenging.

Some pedal kayaks use bike-like pedals that turn a prop. Others use push-pedals that power a pair of fins. Pedal-powered kayaks steer using a rudder that’s operated by hand control. You'll find many popular and new brands giving you multiple options with these. Hobbie, Wilderness Systems, etc..

They are sit-on kayaks, upon which you are sitting quite high to allow room for the pedaling motion. Despite being high up, these kayaks are on the wide side and therefore tend to be stable. You will have to paddle (not pedal) for some maneuvering during launch and in shallow or reedy areas. But for the most part, you are using your powerful leg muscles to propel you, allowing you to venture further more comfortably.

A few cons of note:

  • Adding pedal technology adds to the cost of a kayak

  • Pedal kayaks are mechanical and require more maintenance

  • The prop or fins require clearance beneath the kayak

  • It won’t handle quick turns or rough waters like you can in a kayak that you paddle

  • Pedal kayaks are heavier, and impact handling in and out of the water

  • You will likely need a trailer because of its weight

  • You will also likely need a kayak dolly to move it from your car to the water

Choosing A Kayak: Material Knowledge

The weight of the kayak is an important consideration for carrying and loading onto your vehicle (especially solo). But if budget is a factor, note that the more lightweight materials used in the construction of a kayak, the higher the cost.

Additional considerations:

  • A lightweight kayak is easier to get up to speed

  • With less of the weight capacity being taken up with the weight of the boat, you can carry more gear


  • Polyethylene plastic: inexpensive, abrasion-resistant, heavy, degrades with the sun’s UV rays

  • ABS plastic: slightly more expensive than polyethylene, offers similar durability, slightly lower weight than polyethylene, added UV resistance

  • Composites: most expensive, lightweight fiberglass and ultralight carbon-fiber offer a significant improvement in performance, more fragile

Other Considerations When Choosing A Kayak

When comparing similar boats, run through this last checklist:

Weight Capacity: Consider how you plan to use the boat. Total weight includes the boat, your gear and you. If the boat is overloaded, it will sit lower in the water and compromise paddling efficiency. Length: Longer boats move in the water more efficiently and offer more storage space. Shorter hulls are more responsive. You will notice an appreciable difference at increments of about two feet. Depth: Deeper hulls offer more legroom and more storage. Shallower hulls aren’t as affected by wind. Width: Wider hulls offer more stability. Narrower hulls can travel faster.

Skegs, tracking fins, and rudders: These help a kayak track straighter in the wind.

  • A skeg: A simple retractable fin that mitigates the effect of a side wind

  • A tracking fin: Similar to a skeg but cannot be retracted. Some boats have the option to remove the tracking fin prior to paddling

  • A rudder: A fin that flips down at the back of the boat that can be constantly readjusted via foot pedals or hand toggle, making the kayak more responsive to changing conditions

Seats: The Best advice I will ever provide — don’t skimp on a great seat. Though it adds to a kayak’s price, having a seat that is adjustable, padded, and more ergonomic will be worth every penny.

Compartment Size: A smaller compartment gives you more control and protection in rough conditions. A large compartment is easier to get in and out of.

Hatches: Larger touring boats will have two hatches providing access to interior storage areas. Day touring boats and some recreational kayaks will have one hatch.

Don’t let choosing a kayak overwhelm you. Take into consideration your goals and your skill level when deciding on a boat. This will ensure you pick the best craft for you.

All photos:

- Hobbie

- Wilderness Systems





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