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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.

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 kayak

Available as both sit-in and sit-on-top, recreational kayaks offer a budget-friendly, easy-to-use option. 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.

2. Day Touring Kayaks

Day touring kayak on lake

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’re 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. They’re more expensive than recreational kayaks.

3. Touring Kayaks

Touring Kayak

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.

4. Folding Kayaks

Folding Kayak

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.

5. Inflatable Kayaks

Inflatable kayak - Aquaglide chinook 90
Aquaglide chinook 90
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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.

6. Tandem Kayaks

Tandem Kayak

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, but you’re committing to always kayaking with a buddy.

7. Fishing Kayaks

Bestway Hydro Force fishing kayak
Bestway Hydro Force Fishing Kayak
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Many kayakers are specifically looking to bring in their next catch while on their boat. Some kayaks provide special add-ons such as rod holders, consoles for electronics, and tank wells to accommodate fishing gear. Fishing kayaks are often sit-on-top kayaks to provide increased ability for the angler to move and respond, and can be found in traditional or pedal-powered designs (discussed below).

8. Pedal-Powered Kayaks

Old Town Sportsman Salty Pedal-Powered Kayak
Old Town Sportsman Salty Pedal-Powered Kayak
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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.

Size

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.

Directional Accessories

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

Seats

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.