A Beginner’s Guide to Choosing a Kayak

A Beginner’s Guide to Choosing a Kayak

With all of the different types, categories, and brands of kayaks on the market today, choosing a single kayak from among the many can be a daunting task for paddlers who are not intimately familiar with kayak design. After all, paddlers have their choice of sit-on-top or sit-inside kayaks, composite or plastic kayaks, and recreational, day touring, or expedition kayaks; not to mention specialty kayaks such as surf skis, fishing kayaks, folding kayaks, and inflatable kayaks. So, how does a novice paddler choose the right kayak? There’s actually a relatively simple process to choosing the right kayak, by narrowing down your choices according to your intended purpose for your new kayak. So, in the following guide, we will discuss the many different aspects of kayak design so that you can learn how to choose the right kayak for you.

Kayaking is a perfect alternative to cardio workouts. It’s the most inclusive exercise of all.
Kayaking is a perfect alternative to cardio workouts. It’s the most inclusive exercise of all.

Where Will You Be Paddling Most Often?

The first question that you need to answer when choosing a kayak is where will you be padding most often and what type of water will you be paddling it on? For instance, will you be paddling on freshwater or saltwater?

So, the first step to choosing the right type of kayak for your style of padding is to decide where and what type of water you will be paddling on most often. Then, once you have answered that question, you can move on to the next step which is choosing between a sit-inside kayak or a sit-on-top kayak.

Types of Water

Although kayaks aren’t categorized by the type of water they are best suited for, it’s still helpful to think of them in that manner.

  • Ponds and Lakes: Local ponds and small lakes are often an excellent place to paddle because they are usually protected from wind and boat traffic is generally light if you stay near the shore. Thus, ponds and small lakes are the perfect waters for paddling recreational sit-inside and sit-on-top kayaks.

  • Coastlines: Coastlines offer paddlers a wide variety of waters to explore waters like meandering creeks, salt marsh mazes, calm estuaries, protected coves, bays, sounds, and rock gardens. However, paddling along a coastline also subjects paddlers to the effects of wind, waves, currents, tides. Thus, while longer recreational sit-inside kayaks and longer sit-on-top kayaks are suitable for paddling in protected waters along coastlines, day touring and expedition kayaks with either skegs or rudders are best suited for paddling in open water along coastlines.
Sea sunset
  • Slow Moving Rivers: Slow moving rivers on the other hand can offer paddlers some of the most enchanting paddling environments in nature but they generally require a kayak that is both stable and highly maneuverable. Thus, this is where both recreational sit-inside kayaks and shorter sit-on-top kayaks shine since their wide beams, short lengths, and plastic construction are perfect for the job.
A slow moving stream in the Smoky Mountains in fall
  • Still and Moving Water: However, if you plan on paddling both still water and slow moving creeks and rivers, then a crossover kayak is the best choice. This type of kayak can be either a sit-on-top or a sit-inside kayak but should be relatively long and narrow and it should have either a skeg or a rudder. Thus, longer recreational kayaks and day touring kayaks are a good choice for this purpose because the longer length will provide you with the speed needed to cover long distances. The skeg or rudder will aid in tracking and the moderate length will still provide you with a high degree of maneuverability.

The Different Types of Kayaks

When looking at kayaks, the first design aspect that you are likely to notice is that some kayaks are designed so that the paddler sits on top of the kayak, while other kayaks are designed so that the paddler sits inside. This distinction in design creates both advantages and disadvantages among both types of kayaks as you will see below.

Different Types Of Kayak

Sit-on-Top Kayaks

Sit-on-top kayaks are kinds of boat designs that are specifically made for novice paddlers who are uncomfortable with the idea of being enclosed in a kayak’s cockpit, wary of getting stuck if the kayak capsizes. In addition, they are primarily designed for recreational use on calm waters such as ponds, small lakes, and slow-flowing rivers. However, as mentioned above, they have both advantages and disadvantages. For instance:

Advantages:

  • Sit-on-top kayaks are much easier to exit and reenter in the event that the kayak capsizes due to their open cockpits. They are also much easier to enter and exit when exploring shorelines.
  • Sit-on-top kayaks are more stable in calm water than sit-inside kayaks are due to their extreme width.
  • Sit-on-top kayaks have scupper holes in the bilge and thus, their bilges are self-draining. Consequently, they do not require a bilge pump to empty the cockpit in the event that the kayak capsizes.

Disadvantages:

  • Sit-on-top kayaks expose the paddler to sun, wind, and spray due to their open cockpits.
  • Sit-on-top kayaks become unstable in waves or rough seas due to their width and high center of gravity.
  • Sit-on-top kayaks have less efficient hull designs than sit-inside kayaks and thus, they are slower and require more energy to propel.
  • Sit-on-top kayaks are more difficult to control and turn because of the lack of contact points between the paddler and the kayak.
  • Sit-on-top kayaks have less dry storage space than sit-inside kayaks.
  • Sit-on-top kayaks are generally significantly heavier than sit-inside kayaks and thus, they are more difficult to load and unload.
Sit-On-Top Kayaks

Sit-inside Kayaks

Sit-inside kayak designs range from ancient to modern and there are models for novices, intermediate paddlers, and experts alike. In addition, there are sit-inside kayak designs for all types of water from calm ponds and lakes to rivers to coastal waters. However, they too have both advantages and disadvantages. For instance:

Advantages:

  • Sit-inside kayaks are much more stable in rough water and waves than sit-on-top kayaks are due to their lower center of gravity and more narrow beam (aka width).
  • Sit-inside kayaks have more efficient hull designs than sit-on-top kayaks and thus, they are faster and require less energy to propel.
  • Sit-inside kayaks are easier to control and turn because the paddler can wedge themselves in by applying pressure to the foot pegs with their feet, the underside of the deck with their knees, and the back-band with their lower back.
  • Sit-inside kayaks protect the paddler from sun, wind, and spray due to their closed cockpits. Plus, a spray skirt can be attached to the cockpit rim to fully protect the paddler and prevent water from entering the cockpit.
  • Sit-inside kayaks have significantly more dry storage space than sit-on-top kayaks.
  • Sit-inside kayaks are generally significantly lighter than sit-inside kayaks and thus, they are less difficult to load and unload.

Disadvantages:

  • Sit-inside kayaks are more difficult to exit and reenter in the event that the kayak capsizes and, they are also more difficult to enter and exit when exploring shorelines.
  • Sit-inside kayaks require more skill for the paddler to remain upright due to their more narrow beams.
  • Because sit-inside kayaks lack scupper holes in the bilge, they require a bilge pump to empty the kayak if the cockpit becomes swamped during a wet exit.

So, as you can see, both sit-on-top and sit-inside kayaks have advantages and disadvantages that make each type best suited to a particular type of water and a particular type of paddling.

Athletic man floats on a red boat in calm blue waters lake

Thus, sit-on-top kayaks are a good choice for beginners who want to be able to easily enter and exit their kayaks and who plan on paddling on small, calm, bodies of water over relatively short distances. In addition, they are by far the most popular choice among kayak fishermen due to their open cockpits. But, they are not well suited to paddling in rough seas or in waves because they are easily capsized in such conditions due to their high center of gravity and wide beam. In addition, they are often much slower than a sit-inside kayak of similar length, and thus, they require more effort to paddle.

Sit-inside kayaks on the other hand are a better choice for ambitious beginners as well as intermediate and expert paddlers who want to paddle large bodies of water and/or to paddle over longer distances because they provide the paddler with much greater control and significantly more speed. In addition, they are a better choice when paddling in wind and waves due to their lower profiles and more narrow beams. Plus, they are able to carry more gear due to their forward and aft holds.

Sit Inside Kayaks

The Different Categories of Kayaks

For those paddlers who choose a sit-on-top kayak, there are only two categories to choose from, consisting of recreational kayaks and fishing kayaks. However, for those paddlers who choose sit-inside kayaks, paddlers will need to choose between recreational kayaks, day touring kayaks, and expedition kayaks. So, below you will find a general description of each category of kayak.

Recreational Kayaks

Most sit-on-top kayaks are considered recreational kayaks but only some sit-inside kayaks are considered recreational kayaks. Thus, the key features that define a recreational kayak are an open or large cockpit combined with a relatively short length and a wide beam. For instance, recreational kayaks generally range in length from 10 to 14 feet and typically have beams that measure 28 to 32 inches in width.

Young lady sits in the kayak with a paddle in the sea

Thus, this category of kayak is best suited for novice paddlers because they are less expensive, less prone to capsize in calm water, and easier to maneuver than a day touring kayak. However, they are also relatively slow and thus, they require more effort to paddle. Plus, they typically have very little dry storage space. Therefore, they are best suited for padding on calm, protected, waters over short distances or for paddling on gentle, slow flowing, streams.

Recreational Kayak

Day Touring Kayaks

Day touring kayaks on the other hand are all sit-inside designs and are characterized by smaller cockpits, longer lengths, and more narrow beams than those featured on recreational kayaks. In addition, because day touring kayaks are specifically designed for paddling over much longer distances than recreational kayaks, they typically measure 14 to 16 feet in length and have beams that measure 22 to 25 inches in width. Thus, day touring kayaks are much faster than recreational kayaks but they also require more skill to remain upright and they are more difficult to maneuver.

Shallow Scenic Lake Kayak Tour. Caucasian Kayaker on the Lake Misurina in Northern Italy. Italian Dolomites.

Plus, because all day touring kayaks are sit-inside designs, they provide the paddler with far more control over the kayak in wind and waves and they also have significantly more dry storage space. Thus, they are best suited for novices who prefer to skip the beginner stage and advance their skills more quickly as well as intermediate paddlers who want the speed and maneuverability needed to paddle over longer ranges as well as for overnight camping trips.

Day Touring Kayak

Expedition Kayaks

Similar to day touring kayaks, expedition kayaks (aka sea kayaks) are also sit-inside designs and have the same features as day touring kayaks. However, they are typically significantly longer than day touring kayaks and typically have more volume in their forward and aft holds. Thus, expedition kayaks commonly range from 17 to 20 feet in length and commonly have beams that measure from 20 to 26 inches in width.

Special forces men with painted faces in camouflage uniforms paddling army kayak. Boat moving across the river, diversionary mission, back view

Thus, when unloaded, expedition kayaks are typically faster than day touring kayaks and yet, they are capable of carrying much larger and heavier loads than day touring kayaks due to their larger holds. In addition, expedition kayaks commonly have a retractable skeg or a rudder and thus, they are easier to keep on course on windy days. Therefore, expedition kayaks are best suited for paddlers who demand top speed from their kayak as well as those who like to paddle over long distances and/or undertake multi-day paddling trips.

Specialty Kayaks

Then, in addition to the categories of kayaks mentioned above, there are also several different categories of specialty kayaks.

Tandem Kayaks

As the name implies, tandem kayaks are kayaks that are designed with either a single extra large cockpit with two seats or, with two separate cockpits with two separate seats in order to accommodate two paddlers who prefer to share the same kayak. Thus, for couples who prefer to paddle together, buying a tandem kayak can be less expensive than buying two day touring or two expedition kayaks. Plus, because tandem kayaks generally have a wider beam than day touring or expedition kayaks, they are generally more stable. Even so, tandem kayaks are also generally faster than expedition kayaks because they have two paddlers propelling them and thus, they require less energy from each paddler.

Tandem Kayak

Fishing Kayaks

Again, as the name implies, fishing kayaks are specifically designed for the purpose of kayak fishing and are almost always sit-on-top designs because most anglers find the open cockpit and elevated seating position better suited for fishing. Plus, fishing kayaks typically feature rod holders, paddle holders, electronics consoles, and tank wells to accommodate a cooler. You will find them in standard sit-on-top designs as well as pedal kayaks.

Tandem Kayak

Pedal Kayaks

Paddle kayaks are a relatively new type of sit-on-top kayak that has become quite popular with some kayakers because they are steered by a rudder that is controlled from the cockpit and propelled by a pair of fins that extend below the kayak’s hull. The fins propel by kicking and are operated by a pair of pedals in the cockpit.

Pedal kayaks require less effort to propel because a paddler’s legs are stronger than their arms and they leave the kayaker’s hands free for other tasks such as using binoculars or taking pictures. But, you do have to remove the pedal mechanism when paddling in shallow water and resort to using a paddle instead so that you don’t damage the fins.

On the other hand, pedal kayaks are much heavier than the average sit-on-top kayak and thus, they are far more difficult to load and unload as well as being more difficult to transport to and from the water. Therefore, most kayakers choose to haul them on a trailer instead. In addition, they are also much more expensive than the average sit-on-top kayak due to their propulsion mechanism. Thus, pedal kayaks are far less popular than standard sit-on-top kayaks.

Pedal Kayak

Folding Kayaks

But not everyone who wants to paddle a kayak has the room needed to store one or a vehicle with a roof rack to transport one. So, what do you do in that case? Well, fortunately there is a kayak for that!

Folding kayaks are a specialized type of sit-inside, skin-on-frame touring kayak that consists of a collapsible aluminum frame with a waterproof skin which folds and rolls up to fit inside two separate bags for easy transport. In addition, the frames are simple to assemble and disassemble and the skins are easy to fit over the frame.

However, folding kayaks are not as rigid as either plastic or composite kayaks and thus, they are slower and require more effort to paddle. In addition, they also provide an unusual sensation when padding over waves because of their flexible frame. Plus, they are quite a bit more expensive than plastic kayaks and can cost as much as some composite kayaks. But, if you want to paddle a kayak but lack the room to store one, then a folding kayak is an excellent option.

Folding Kayaks

Folding Kayaks

Inflatable Kayaks

Like a folding kayak, inflatable kayaks are designed to require very little storage space by rolling up and fitting inside of a single bag. In addition, better quality brands and models are made from a sturdy and highly durable type of plastic. Plus, they are also available in a wide range of categories from purely recreational kayaks to touring models.

Read more about inflatable kayaks. They have some of the same benefits as folding kayaks, allowing you to take the bus with one, for example.

Inflatable Kayaks

Technical Aspects of Kayak Design

So, now that you know all about the differences between sit-inside and sit-on-top kayaks as well as the different categories of kayaks, it’s time to take a closer look at the technical aspects of kayak design.

plastic boats kayaks with oars near the sea

Length

When choosing a kayak, it’s important to be aware that the longer a kayak is, the faster it is and, the shorter it is, the slower it is. Therefore, longer kayaks require less effort from the paddler to propel them while the opposite is true for shorter kayaks. Thus, longer kayaks are a better choice when your goal is to paddle over long distances and, especially, when carrying a load of camping gear.

But at the same time, the longer a kayak is, the more difficult it will

be to turn and thus, maneuvering a long kayak requires that the paddler develop excellent edging skills so that they can lean the kayak onto its side to make it more maneuverable. Therefore, shorter kayaks are a better choice when the ability to turn quickly and easily is important.

Showing the way. Blonde-haired man kayaking with his appealing smiling girlfriend showing her the way.

Width

Similar to length, the narrower a kayak is, the faster it is; and the wider it is, the slower it is. Thus, kayaks with narrow beams require less effort to paddle while kayaks with wide beams require more effort.

Little girl enjoying paddling in colorful yellow kayak at tropical ocean water during summer vacation

But at the same time, the narrower a kayak is, the more skill it requires to keep the kayak upright in calm water; while the wider it is, the less skill it requires to keep it upright in calm water. However, the opposite is true when the water becomes rough and when paddling in waves because the more narrow a kayak is, the easier it is for the paddler to lean the kayak on its side to adjust to the face of a wave while the wider it is, the more difficult it is to do so. Therefore, kayaks with narrow beams are best suited for paddling over long distances because they are faster than wide kayaks, and they are also better suited for padding in rough seas and waves because they can be more easily leaned on their side. However, wide kayaks are a better choice for paddlers who paddle primarily in calm, protected waters and who require a high degree of initial stability.

Inflatable Kayaks

 

Additional Considerations

In addition to length and width, there are a few other aspects of kayak design that it’s important to consider.

Cockpit Size

While all sit-on-top kayaks have open cockpits and all sit-inside kayaks have decked cockpits, the size of the cockpit opening on a sit-inside kayak can range from small to large.

Thus, small cockpits provide the paddler with a snug fit which, in turn, provides greater control of the kayak and more protection from the elements in rough seas. But, at the same time, they make the kayak more difficult to enter and exit.

Larger cockpits on the other hand are specifically designed to provide easy entry and exit for the paddler but they also expose the paddler to the elements.

 

Seats

Kayak seats can range from simple molded plastic or fiberglass on sit-inside kayaks to elaborate, elevated, and cushioned seats on sit-on-top kayaks. However, a comfortable kayak seat is of paramount importance to paddlers because you will be spending a lot of time sitting in it.

So, it is wise to spend the extra money on a truly comfortable seat when choosing a sit-on-top kayak and to purchase and install a specialized kayak seat pad when choosing a sit-inside kayak.

Skegs and Rudders

Both skegs and rudders are designed to keep a kayak traveling in a straight line when paddling in with wind and currents. One is fixed, while the other one is adjustable. Therefore, paddlers have been debating which one is better for as long as the two systems have existed.

  • Skeg – A skeg is a fixed or retractable fin that is located on the bottom of the hull a the stern (back) and can be either molded into the hull or designed so that it can be extended and retracted at will by the paddler. However, it cannot be rotated in order to steer the kayak. Thus, small fixed skegs are commonly featured on recreational and inflatable kayaks while retractable skegs are usually only featured on day touring and expedition kayaks.

  • Rudder – Similar to a skeg, a rudder is also a fin that extends below the water line at the stern and aids the kayaker in maintaining their course. However, unlike skegs, rudders are capable of rotating from side to side and the rudder’s position is controlled either by hand at the cockpit or by foot pegs inside of the cockpit.

Load Capacity

Load capacity refers to the total amount of weight a kayak can safely carry and thus, it includes both the paddler and any food, water, and gear they may choose to store in the fore and aft holds. Thus, when choosing a kayak, it’s important to note the kayak’s load capacity so that you can choose one with enough capacity to meet your needs.

 

Construction Materials

Last but not least when choosing a rigid kayak, you will also find the need to choose between plastic and composite construction. So it’s also important to be aware that each material has both advantages and disadvantages over the others.

Composites

Kayaks made from composite materials are the favorite choice of experienced paddlers who are looking for a high-performance kayak for day touring, multi-day camping trips, and racing because composite kayaks are more rigid than plastic kayaks.

In addition, composite materials can be molded into far more efficient hull designs than plastic can. Therefore, kayaks made from composite materials such as fiberglass, Kevlar, and carbon fiber are much lighter and much faster than kayaks thermo-molded from plastic. However, composite kayaks are also far more expensive than plastic kayaks because they must be individually built and painted by hand.

ABS Plastic

For paddlers who still want a high performance kayak but don’t want the high price associated with composite kayaks, kayaks molded from ABS plastic are an excellent compromise. While kayaks molded from ABS plastic are somewhat more expensive than those molded from polyethylene plastic, they are also more rigid and lighter weight.

ABS plastic kayaks provide better performance than polyethylene models. Plus, ABS plastic is less prone to degradation by ultraviolet light, and they last longer than polyethylene kayaks.

 

Polyethylene

Kayaks rotomolded from polyethylene plastic are the least expensive, the least rigid, and the heaviest of any type of kayak. Polyethylene is generally used to make recreational sit-inside kayaks and all sit-on-top kayaks. However, polyethylene kayaks are also much tougher than composite kayaks and thus, they are the best choice when a rugged kayak is needed for landing on rocky shores or for playing in rock gardens.

On the other hand, polyethylene models are not as well suited for touring or for long-range expeditions because they are relatively heavy and thus, they require more effort to paddle. In addition, plastic kayaks are also more difficult to load and unload as well as to transport to and from the water due to their significantly heavier weight.

So, if lightweight and high performance are your priorities, choose a composite kayak. But, if durability and expense are your main concerns then choose a polyethylene kayak and, for a compromise between the two, then choose an ABS plastic kayak.

 

So, we hope that you have enjoyed our beginner’s guide to choosing a kayak and that you now know enough about the different types and categories of kayaks as well as how some of the various design aspects affect the kayak’s performance.

You should be able to make an informed decision concerning what type and size kayak as well as what material best suits your needs and the type of paddling that you intend to pursue. We also hope that the information presented above will enable you to choose the right kayak the first time since having the right kayak will greatly enhance your paddling experience.

But, regardless of which kayak you choose, stay safe and have fun paddling!

 

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