Man in an orange life vest paddling a blue kayak
Jo Richards
Jo Richards

How to Choose a Kayak | Guide to Different Types of Kayaks

Are you dipping your toe into the adventurous world of kayaks? With hundreds of yaks available on the market (each with advantages), it is essential to consider where you want to paddle, your body weight, paddling experience, and of course, your budget.

The last thing you want to do is spend more time overboard than onboard. Strike the right balance between the above factors and you will be happily tracking on the water, feeling comfortable in your new craft.

How to Buy a Kayak Suitable For Your Needs

The first thing you need to consider before you buy a kayak is where you want to paddle. If you are hoping to paddle on flat water, you will be happy with most crafts. However, if you are heading downstream on a river with white water rapids, you will need a specialized kayak.

Do you live near the water? Transporting your new kayak is another crucial factor to consider. While it would be ideal to store your kayak at a boat club near your local lake, you will likely need to transport your vessel at some point. Suitable roof racks for your vehicle, a kayak carrier with wheels, or opting for a compact inflatable kayak are things you need to consider.

Best Kayak for Beginners

A beginner kayak is typically a kayak with a broad and flat hull, making it incredibly stable. A sit-on-top vessel is also suitable for new paddlers as it is virtually unsinkable and offers a higher vantage point, making it easier to maneuver and track on the water.

An intermediate kayak is typically narrower than 30 inches, however, it may still be a stable enough kayak for beginners. A kayaker can be considered intermediate when they paddle regularly, have gear, and know what to wear when kayaking. An advanced kayaker typically has their own equipment and frequently paddles on new rivers or locations.

Two yellow kayaks being paddled on a still lake

Types of Kayaks

Having completed many kayak reviews we know they come in a surprising variety of sizes, styles, and construction materials. Below is a breakdown of the main kayak types determined by the style of seating, number of seats, and construction.

Sit-on-top Kayak

The best sit-on-top kayaks are typically recreational boats for lakes and easy-flowing rivers. Recreational kayaks often have fishing rod holders and a watertight storage unit. You will see longer sit-on-top kayaks have enough storage space to be used for an overnight trip.

If you find the idea of sitting inside a kayak too claustrophobic or if you don’t want to learn how to wet exit after capsizing, a sit-on-top kayak should be your choice of craft. Sit-on-top kayaks are easy to get on (even after capsizing). They are, however, typically heavier than comparably sized sit-in kayaks.

Sit-in Kayak

Sit-in kayaks can be suited for recreational use or for touring. The recreational kayaks are often focused on recreational fishing with purpose-built fishing rod holders. Touring sit-in kayaks move fast and are likely to track straight. Typically there are multiple points of contact between your body and the boat, giving you more control.

You can use a spray skirt on a sit-in kayak to keep water out, helping to make the sit-in kayak more comfortable in colder weather conditions.

Tandem Kayak

Tandem Kayaks are designed to carry two adult passengers and are typically more stable than their single kayak counterparts. These are great for families with children or if you are considering bringing your pooch on board.

Due to the tandem kayak’s length and buoyancy, it can be difficult to maneuver in the water when paddling it on your own. The larger size also poses a more significant challenge when loading and transporting the craft.

Inflatable Kayak

The biggest benefit of an inflatable kayak is portability. The vessel can also be deflated and packed into a compact storage space, ready for your next trip. Inflatable kayaks can be surprisingly sturdy and are either designed for recreational use or for touring.

Inflatable fishing kayaks are not designed for speed, while the touring models are typically longer sit-on-top designs.

Pedal-Powered Kayak

While these are the least common type of kayak, they do offer an important feature. Navigating calm water using your feet to pedal and propel the vessel forward leaves your hands relatively free. These alternative kayaks are ideal if you are interested in fishing, photography, or using binoculars to watch wildlife.

Pedal-powered kayaks offer a higher seating position to help with the pedaling motion and are typically wider to assist with stability. Unfortunately, you will still need to use your hand to steer the rudder. In addition, the pedalling does not work in shallow waters and can cost significantly more.

adult paddling on flat lake in yellow kayak

Where Will You Use Your Kayak?

While kayaks are not categorized by the type of water you will be paddling on, it is a helpful way to narrow down your choice of craft.

Lake Kayaking

When paddling on lakes in fair weather, it is suitable to use a sit-on-top or sit-in kayak. With larger lakes, wind can generate waves that could challenge a recreational boat. Longer distance paddling favors a craft with a rudder.

Kayaks for the Coast

Along the coast, you can expect to face wind, waves, currents, and tides. The ideal kayak for the coast would be a sit-in kayak with a stabilizing rudder or tracking fins. Sit-on-top kayaks may be up for the challenge if they track well.

River Kayaking

While white water rafts are beyond the scope of this guide, a trip down a river without rapids requires a suitable craft. Consider a shorter sit-on-top or sit-in kayak that is stable and can turn quickly.

What Size Kayak do I Need?

Choosing a kayak size that is right for you is essential. The length, width, and depth of the kayak you choose will determine the type of kayaking you do. Keeping your intended activity, location, and paddling skill in mind, you can make the right choice.

Weight capacity

The size and design of the kayak impact the weight capacity. It is a calculation of the maximum total mass of you and all the gear on board. An overloaded kayak will sit too low in the water, increasing the drag and make it more difficult to paddle.

Typically a kayak will have a weight capacity of 300 pounds.

Length

Generally, the shorter a kayak, the slower it will paddle. Longer kayaks tend to be faster but are less maneuverable. Specialized white water kayaks are typically 7 feet long, allowing them to be maneuverable, while recreational kayaks are typically between 8 and 13 feet long. Touring kayaks are made for speed and are between 14 and 18 feet long.

It is important to consider your body’s length when choosing a kayak. The distance between your seat and footrest should feel comfortable. Beginner kayaks often have multiple footrest positions available, while higher-priced kayaks may feature adjustable foot positions.

Width

The width of a kayak greatly influences the feeling of stability. Wider hulls are more comfortable for beginner paddlers, while narrower hulls allow you to go faster. Hulls can be flat, rounded, v-shaped, pontoon, and chine-shaped.

Depth

Deeper hulls offer more room for long-legged paddlers and storage, while a shallower hull is less affected by wind and drag.

The depth increases with the addition of skegs or a rudder fitted to the underside. It benefits the kayak’s tracking but limits its ability to maneuver in shallow water.

yellow kayak ready to be launched next to lake

Best Kayak Materials

Weight is an important factor when carrying and loading your kayak on your own. A lighter boat does, however, cost significantly more. The materials used in the construction of the craft can contribute to the vessel’s light weight and indicate how it should be looked after.

Polyethylene Plastic

Polyethylene is an inexpensive and tough material used in the construction of kayaks. It is, however, the heaviest of the materials used and should be stored away from direct sunlight as it is prone to degrading from UV exposure.

A twelve-foot polyethylene kayak typically weighs 65 pounds.

ABS Plastic

ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) plastics are used in injection molded kayaks and have the benefit of being easily recycled into a new plastic design. The deck and hull are often thermoformed separately before being bonded together, contributing to a distinct two-tone top and bottom design.

ABS plastic kayaks are typically lighter and are more UV resistant than polyethylene kayaks.

Composites

Composites like fiberglass and carbon fibre are the lightest construction method for kayaks and offer the largest increase in both performance and price. While these techniques are highly resistant to UV damage, they are more prone to damage from major impacts with rocks.

A twelve-foot kayak constructed from fiberglass can weigh as little as 33 pounds.

Let’s Grab Our Kayaks and Go Paddling

Considering your paddling experience, body height, and intended location assists you in choosing the right kayak the first time. Will you choose an easy-to-store inflatable kayak? Or do you want to buy a long vessel suitable for the rougher ocean or open water kayaking conditions?

Whichever you decide to purchase, we hope our tips on buying a kayak made your choice easier. Happy with your choice of kayak? Share your experience with us on social media.

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