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Selecting a Kayak:
Which is Best?

Old Town Kayak 126
Old Town Kayak 126
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Kayaking can transport us into beautiful scenery, from rolling waves to quiet stretches of smooth water. Depending on what your goals are for exploring the natural world by boat, you’ll need a different kind of vessel.

In this guide, we’ll review what type of kayak is best for different types of water, budgets, and transportation needs, so you can choose the kayak that’s best for your unique adventures.

Before getting started, think about how you intend to use your kayak. This guide will do the rest!

Sit-on-Top or Sit-in Kayaks?

Sit in Kayak Perception Prescador 12-ft
Sit in Kayak Perception Prescador 12-ft
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The first major distinction you’re likely to notice when watching kayakers paddle by is how they’re sitting. They’ll either be sitting on top of the kayak, giving a more raised position, or sitting in the kayak, so your body is more in line with the water level.

Sit-on-top kayaks are easy to get into and out of, which can be soothing for those newer to kayaking or nervous about a capsize. You’re more likely to get wet in a sit-on-top kayak, so they’re better for warmer waters. They often have good storage space and stash spots, and scupper holes so they can drain on their own. They are heavier than most sit-in kayaks, and are primarily intended for recreational use.

Sit-in kayaks can be recreational or used for touring and day touring. They are faster, more efficient boats, and because your body intersects with the kayak in more places, the paddler can control the kayak trajectory better. They are more difficult to get out of, and kayakers will need to be aware of how to do a “wet exit” if a capsize occurs. Their storage compartments are covered, but they are not self-draining, so you’ll need to pump water out if the kayak gets flooded.

Which Kayak Is Best for Lakes, Oceans, or Rivers?

Kayaks on the river

Before we dive into the types of kayaks, you might notice that they aren’t usually categorized by a body of water. Still, the type of water you plan to use your kayak in does impact what type of kayak you’ll ultimately want, so it’s important to take a moment to understand the differences.

Coastline. If you’ll be heading out into the choppier waters of a nearby coast, you’ll want the added control of a sit-in touring kayak. A rudder and fixed tracking fin or a dropdown fin will help you navigate the various winds and currents that you’ll be dealing with. A sit-on-top might still work just fine, but be prepared to get wet!

Ponds and Small Lakes. Recreational kayaks do well in smaller, nearby lakes. The key here is to watch out for big waves with whitecaps – if you see these in the lake you’re targeting, a recreational kayak may not quite cut it. But if you’re heading to the local lake, a sit-in or sit-on-top recreational kayak will do nicely.

Slow Moving Rivers. Whitewater rafting deserves its own article – but for a basic trip down a river, it’s important to prioritize your boat’s ability to turn. A shorter recreational kayak or a day touring kayak will work well for these purposes.

Still & Moving Water. If you’re planning on exploring both rivers and lakes, you can find crossover boats that serve both of these purposes. A dropdown fin (called a skeg) is helpful here, as you can move it in or out of the water depending on whether you want to prioritize turning easily or tracking well. A shorter kayak with a rudder can also work for these purposes.

Body of Water Best Type of Kayak
  • Sit-in touring kayak
  • Rudder and fixed tracking fin or dropdown fin
  • Can also use a sit-on-top if you are okay with getting wet
Still Lakes
  • Sit-in or sit-on-top recreational kayak
  • Shorter recreational kayak or day touring kayak
  • Prioritize ability to turn
  • Dropdown fins are helpful for multiple purposes
  • Shorter kayak with a rudder can also work

Types of Kayaks

Now we’re ready to dive into the types of kayaks! These categories are not always clear-cut – it’s important to look at the features of the boat as well as the basic terms the manufacturer uses to describe it. But, these basic types will get you started finding the right boat for your needs.

1. Recreational Kayaks

Recreational kayaks are available as both sit-in and sit-on-top. These kayaks are both budget-friendly and easy-to-use, making them a great fit for casual and beginning kayakers. They’re stable, turn well, and are easy to get in and out of. You’ll have a bit of storage for essentials, but likely not an overnight trip.

These kayaks don’t track as well as some of the more complex models, meaning they have more trouble moving in a straight line and can be blown off course more easily. For this reason, they are better suited for mild conditions and shorter distances. More sheltered waters like easy rivers and still lakes are the ideal spots for recreational kayaks.

Recreational kayaks are typically 8’-12’ long. They can come in individual or tandem models, with different options for storage hatches. They are also wider than touring kayaks, which creates more stability but less speed.

Pros Cons
  • Budget-friendly
  • Easy to use
  • Stable
  • Turn well
  • Not enough storage for overnight trips
  • Can be blown off course in stronger winds
  • Slower than touring kayaks

2. Day Touring Kayaks

If you’re looking for a step up in efficiency, a day touring kayak gives a straighter trajectory and increased control for trickier waters. They may come with a rudder or skeg, which improves your ability to steer the boat.

Day touring kayaks are essentially a mid-point between recreational and touring kayaks: they are shorter than touring kayaks, which makes them easier to handle, but they also don’t have as much storage space. Day touring kayaks are best use for short- or medium-length trips.

They’re more expensive than recreational kayaks, but share a spacious cockpit that will be fairly comfortable for the paddler. These are versatile kayaks that can handle light winds and a bit of rough water, but aren’t yet taking the leap into extended trip design.

Pros Cons
  • Straighter trajectory
  • Increased control
  • Easier to handle than touring kayaks
  • Does well in light winds and somewhat rough waters
  • More difficult to handle than recreational kayaks
  • Less storage space than touring kayaks
  • More expensive than recreational kayaks

3. Touring Kayaks

Also called a sea kayak or expedition kayak, these long, sturdy boats are meant to go the distance. They come with a rudder or skeg for that extra control in windy conditions, or to help deal with a water current. The higher prices pay for this high-end efficiency as well as plenty of storage space.

More control of the boat also means more skill required to maneuver the boat. Touring kayaks are not for beginners, so make sure you have the experience, skill, and need for one of these models before you shell out the extra cash. The cockpits are also more difficult to get in and out of.

These boats are longer than recreational kayaks at 12’-18’, and much narrower. The cockpits are quite a bit smaller, which can present a challenge for portaging, so keep that in mind if you’ll be carrying the boat on your expeditions.

Pros Cons
  • More control
  • Works in rougher conditions
  • Plenty of storage space
  • More expensive
  • More difficult to maneuver
  • Smaller cockpit

4. Folding Kayaks

Not everyone has the space available to store a whole boat, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be the proud owner of a kayak! As the name describes, a folding kayak folds up for easy storage or travel to a distant location. It’s not quite as sturdy as the kayaks listed above, but they can perform as well as some touring kayaks.

The ability to fold does sacrifice some elements of the kayak that may or may not be important to you. Storage hatches prevent the kayak from folding flat, so they are usually not included. They are also designed in a way that makes them unsafe for rougher waters, though they can do well in mild conditions.

Folding kayaks can offer the best of both worlds: the hard shell and durability of a recreational kayak, with the portability of an inflatable kayak—minus the annoying process of inflation!

Pros Cons
  • Easier transportation
  • Easier to store
  • Better performance than inflatable kayaks
  • Can be less sturdy
  • Sturdier models can be heavier
  • No storage hatches
  • Not suitable for rough waters
  • More expensive

5. Inflatable Kayaks

Inflatable kayaks are another answer to the questions of storage space and portability. There are a wide variety of models: wider inflatables can happily bounce off the many hurdles of a river, some are meant to be touring kayaks, and other recreational models move slowly and should be used closer to shore.

Inflatable kayaks do need to be inflated of course, so that can add some preparation time before you can start paddling. They are also less suited to windy conditions, as they are more easily blown around than hard-shell models.

The inflatable kayak won’t take the scratches or dents a hard-shell might. But while it will stand up better to minor wear and tear, it is less durable against serious rocks. These wide kayaks are quite stable and usually offer space for gear storage. These affordable models are usually made as sit-in or sit-on-top designs for 1-3 people.

Pros Cons
  • Easy to store
  • Portable
  • Material doesn’t scratch or dent
  • Wide and stable
  • Good storage
  • Less expensive
  • Not suitable for wind
  • Added prep time before getting in the water
  • Less durable

6. Tandem Kayaks

Many people prefer sitting two to a boat rather than one. This might be due to a difference in skill set paddling the boat, a parent wanting to accompany a child, or just a desire to be near one another!

Tandem kayaks are often more stable, and longer than a regular boat. The extra length gives them more storage space. If you are a skilled kayaker, you can paddle a tandem kayak solo and use the other seat for gear—but you might find the boat unwieldy for frequent solo travel.

Tandem kayaks overlap with the other types of kayaks we’ve covered so far. Meaning: most of the models we’ve discussed are also available as tandem kayaks. This means you can find tandem kayaks that are right for your skill level, conditions, and portability needs—but they will always be longer, heavier, and typically wider than the solo version.

Pros Cons
  • Ability to kayak together with a loved one / teach a beginner
  • More storage space
  • Paddlers need to get in sync
  • More bulky and heavy

7. Fishing Kayaks

Many kayakers are specifically looking to bring in their next catch while on their boat. Fishing kayaks are often sit-on-top kayaks to increase the angler's ability to move and respond—stability is the name of the game for fishing kayaks. For this same reason, fishing kayaks are often wider and shorter than recreational kayaks.

Some kayaks provide special add-ons such as rod holders, consoles for electronics, and tank wells to accommodate fishing gear. Fishing kayaks are often traditional or pedal-powered designs (discussed below).

The price of stability is speed. Because of the shorter, wider frame, most fishing kayaks are slower than recreational kayaks. This is usually a good trade-off for anglers who may be staying in one spot and need to bring in their catch, but make sure you have enough energy to paddle a longer trek home.

Pros Cons
  • Stable
  • Easy to control
  • More gear storage
  • Specialty features
  • Slower moving

8. Pedal-Powered Kayaks

Sometimes, you might want to have your hands free while floating in a serene lake or down a quiet river. Whether you’re birdwatching, fishing, taking photos, drawing, or just enjoying the scenery, some applications require a hands-free approach.

As the name suggests, pedal-powered kayaks use pedals (like on a bike) instead of the traditional paddle. These are often wide, stable boats – though they may be more expensive and require more maintenance due to the pedal mechanism.

These boats also require deeper water, as the mechanisms underneath the boat can get caught in the shallows, and are often heavier than other kayaks. However, since legs are generally stronger than arms, pedal-powered kayaks often move more quickly through the water than the traditional paddle kayak.

Pros Cons
  • Stable
  • Allows hands to do other things
  • Faster than paddling
  • Require deeper water
  • More expensive
  • Pedal mechanism requires more maintenance

What Material Is Best For A Kayak?

Group of kayakers

A kayak’s material will impact its weight – and that affects a lot of things. How you transport your kayak and how much additional weight can be stored within your kayak are both impacted by its heaviness. However, lightweight materials can also cost more, so it’s important to consider what you actually need.

The most common kayak materials include:

  • Polyethylene plastic. The least expensive option is also the heaviest, but it is durable and will hold up well against bumps and abrasions. Be sure to store polyethylene plastic boats out of the sun, as they can be damaged by the UV rays.
  • ABS plastic. This represents a small step up from polyethelene. It’s a bit lighter, roughly as durable, a bit more resistant to UV, and a bit more expensive.
  • Composite. For the best quality, composite lightweight fiberglass and ultralight carbon-fiber boats bring the strongest efficiency. With this comes a jump in budget, and while you’ll be safe from the sun’s rays, you do need to be more cautious of heavy impacts.

What Type of Kayak Hull Do I Need?

Different kayak hulls

The hull refers to the bottom of the boat. As your boat’s primary contact with the water, the hull design can make a big difference in performance. We’ll look at how different designs impact your stability both in the water and in getting in and out of the boat.

The main hull types you’ll be choosing from are:

  • Flat hulls are very stable and easy to get in and out of. They’re great for recreational uses, beginners, and especially stiller waters.
  • Rounded hulls make for faster boats that are easier to maneuver. They’re a better choice for more experienced kayakers who want more control over their boats.
  • V-shaped hulls keep the boat moving straight, and can be a great choice for recreational and touring uses. They’re a bit trickier to get in and out of, but they’re good on the water.
  • Pontoons are very stable both on the water and as you’re getting in, but they make for slower boats.
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What Else Do I Need to Know to Buy a Kayak?

Kayak on the sand

Now you know the basic types of kayaks, and you may already have a good idea of the type that’s best for you. Before you pull the trigger, there are just a few more elements to consider as you’re deciding between types.

Weight Capacity & Storage

If you want to kayak for several days, you’ll need a higher weight capacity. Remember to calculate the weight of your gear, your boat, and yourself! Also check out the hatches for interior storage space.


Determining the optimal kayak size is an important part of selecting a kayak.

Shorter boats turn quickly and are thus useful in winding rivers. Longer boats will be better at cruising and offer more storage space.

A deeper hull will give you more space in the boat, but is also more susceptible to wind.

More stability comes from more width, but more speed comes from a narrower boat.

Look at how much room you’ll have in the boat – a tighter cockpit will give you more control, but it will be easier to get in and out of a larger one.

Kayak Feature Benefit
Shorter kayak Better turning
Longer kayak Better cruising, more storage
Deeper hull More space in boat, more susceptible to wind
Shallower hull Less space in boat, less susceptible to wind
Wider boat More stable
Narrower boat Faster
Smaller cockpit More control
Larger cockpit Easier in/out, more space for larger person

Directional Accessories

There are three basic add-ons that your boat may have to help you keep course.

Add-on Benefit
Skeg Dropdown fin to help during windy conditions
Tracking fin Helps during windy conditions, but cannot be removed like a skeg can once you’re in the water
Rudder Fin on back of boat that can be adjusted while you’re moving


Keep comfort in mind – most people kayak for more than ten minutes at a time! Padding, shape, and adjustability make for a more enjoyable trip.

Storage and Transportation

If you own a kayak, you’ll need a place to put it. This should be a factor in determining which type you purchase. Some types, like a folding or inflatable kayak, will be easier to store than others. If you have a garage, a recreational kayak will likely fit inside, while a touring kayak might be more challenging. Make sure you have a plan for storage before you choose your boat.