≡ Menu

How to Choose the Best Kayak For You

Welcome to Kayak Review! If you already know what type of kayak you’re looking for, just click on the appropriate link in the page list on the right. If you need some help determining what type of kayak is best for you, read the following sections to help answer some of the questions you may have.

Where Do You Want to Paddle?

Everywhere, right? Me too! Unfortunately, we’re going to have to narrow it down a little. If you want to paddle everything from flat water to whitewater to the open coast, it probably won’t come as any surprise that you’re going to need more than one kayak.

taking a shore break at Lake Tahoe

taking a shore break at Lake Tahoe

If you’re new to kayaking and expect to start out paddling flat water on your local lakes and rivers, then a recreational kayak may be a fine choice. If you want to fish from your kayak, consider getting a kayak that has additional features designed specifically for fishing (e.g., rod holders). However, if you think you might want to do some kayak camping, then you’ll want the additional storage capacity that comes with a touring kayak. If you want a kayak that is suitable for venturing out onto the ocean, then a true sea kayak is what you should consider. Many modern whitewater kayaks are designed so specifically for certain types of whitewater kayaking as to be not very practical for general use on flat water lakes and rivers. However, they excel at their intended use in whitewater. If you are particularly claustrophobic or fearful of being in a sit-in kayak, then you should consider a sit on top kayak. However, while sit on top kayaks may be fine for recreational kayaking, fishing, or possibly a relatively brief overnight touring trip, they generally are inappropriate for ocean or whitewater use. Lastly, inflatable kayaks have become quite popular, in large part due to the fact that they can be put in the trunk of the car once they’ve been deflated. From a performance perspective, inflatable kayaks usually fit into the category of recreational kayaks. The following sections briefly describe the various type of kayaks in more detail.

Sea Kayaks

If you want a kayak that is suitable for venturing out onto the ocean, then by all means get a sea kayak. However, sea kayaks certainly aren’t restricted to ocean use. In fact, sea kayaks are essentially a subset of touring kayaks. Their large capacity for gear makes them perfect for kayak camping. Their long length makes them track much better (i.e., go in a straight line) than shorter kayaks but that also makes them turn more slowly than shorter kayaks. Sea kayaks tend to be relatively narrow and therefore have less primary (or initial) stability than wider kayaks (i.e., they feel less stable at first). However, many sea kayaks have very good secondary stability so that they can be held on edge for more advanced maneuvering.

While many people use the terms sea kayak and touring kayak interchangeably, I recommend making at least one distinction between the two. While any sea kayak can be used for touring, not any touring kayak should be used at sea. The primary difference is the length of the boat. In my opinion, a true sea kayak should be at least 16 feet long. Since many touring kayaks are only slightly shorter than 16 feet and otherwise have many of the same features as the longer boats, this may seem like an arbitrary distinction. To a certain extent that’s true. If you compare a touring kayak that is 15.5 feet long with the same make and model that is 16 feet long, I agree that it wouldn’t be fair to say that the shorter model isn’t seaworthy. However, when you get into more serious conditions on the ocean (e.g., larger swells on the open coast), I believe that the additional length offered by a longer kayak is indispensable. Therefore, it makes sense to draw the line somewhere and I have personally chosen 16 feet as my cutoff point.

To learn more about how to choose a sea kayak, check out the Touring and Sea Kayaks page.

Touring Kayaks

morning fog on Drakes Estero

morning fog on Drakes Estero

Just like I think it also makes sense to place a minimum length on the definition of a sea kayak (see above), I also think a minimum length applies to the definition of a touring kayak. While length certainly isn’t the only thing separating touring kayaks from the shorter recreational kayaks, it is important for at least a couple reasons. As was mentioned in the sea kayak section above, longer kayaks track a straight line better and that’s pretty important when you’re touring because you’ll want to get from point A to point B without wasting lots of energy constantly correcting your course. Generally, I think that boats shorter than 12 feet probably don’t belong in the touring kayak category, but there will always be exceptions.

Longer boats also provide more room for gear and if a kayak can’t easily accommodate enough gear for a trip that includes one or two nights of camping, then I’m not sure I’d put it into the category of touring kayaks. Along those same lines, I think that touring kayaks should have at least two gear hatches (not including the cockpit). General-purpose touring kayaks may be slightly wider than sea kayaks and therefore have slightly more primary stability but less ability to edge effectively.

To learn more about how to choose a touring kayak, please visit the Touring and Sea Kayaks page.

Recreational Kayaks

If you don’t plan to venture out onto the ocean or do any kayak camping, then a shorter and wider recreational kayak may be very appropriate. The recreational kayak category is quite large because it includes boats of many different styles. The primary attribute shared by all recreational kayaks is stability. Recreational kayaks are generally the most stable of all kayak designs. What gives them such exceptional stability is their width, although hull shape is certainly a contributing factor too. Some recreational kayaks are so stable that you can stand up in them and sit back down without capsizing. The cost of that stability is speed, or a lack thereof. Since these boats are much wider than sea kayaks or touring kayaks, they push quite a bit of water around and that makes them substantially slower. However, if you’re just spending a leisurely day on a lake or a flat water section of river, you’re probably not in a hurry to get from here to there anyway.

To learn more about how to choose a recreational kayak, check out the Recreational Kayaks page.

Sit On Top Kayaks

Sit on top kayaks are a subset of the recreational kayak category, and are just what they sound like. Instead of sitting inside the kayak, you just sit right on top. Sit on top kayaks may be even more stable than sit-in recreational kayaks. However, once again, that stability comes at the cost of speed and efficiency. Sit on top kayaks generally have holes that go right through the plastic hulls, making them effectively self-draining. But water can also splash up through those holes, making sit on top kayaks a wetter ride than more traditional sit-in kayaks. As a result, if you’re going to be paddling your sit on top kayak in cold water, you’ll need to wear a wetsuit (or even a dry suit) in order to protect yourself from the cold water.

To learn more about how to choose a sit on top kayak, please visit the Sit On Top Kayaks page.

Inflatable Kayaks and Folding Kayaks

The primary benefits of an inflatable kayak or folding kayak are the relative ease of transportation and storage. If you don’t have room to store a rigid kayak, an inflatable kayak or folding kayak can be ideal since it can be deflated or folded, put in a storage bag and kept in a closet. Inflatable kayaks and folding kayaks often fall within the recreational kayak category, but there are some inflatable kayaks and folding kayaks that are more performance-oriented. As always, your intended usage should be one of your primary considerations when choosing an inflatable kayak or folding kayak.

To learn more about how to choose an inflatable kayak, please visit the Inflatable Kayaks page.

To learn more about how to choose a folding kayak, please visit the Folding Kayaks page.

Fishing Kayaks

Fishing kayaks are essentially recreational kayaks that have been designed with fishing in mind. They feature various fishing-specific features such as rod holders, hatches for bait and gear, etc. They can be either sit on top kayaks or more traditional sit-in kayaks, but sit on top kayaks are generally more popular for fishing.

To learn more about how to choose a fishing kayak, please visit the Fishing Kayaks page.

Whitewater Kayaks

Whitewater kayaks have become very specialized and, therefore, there are several subcategories (creek boats, play boats, etc.). Due to the plethora of information pertaining to these various subcategories of whitewater kayaks, I have not yet added guidance about how to choose a whitewater kayak. However, I do hope to add whitewater kayaks as soon as I can, so please bookmark Kayak Review and check back periodically. Meanwhile, you can search for a particular kayak or even a type of kayak on the Kayak Search page. And please feel free to add a comment on the Contact Us page to let me know what types of whitewater kayaks I should add first. Thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.