A kayak is an incredibly versatile watercraft; it allows you to peacefully explore waterways and get close to nature, reach areas that aren’t accessible on foot, go for a morning paddle around the lake, and even descend river rapids.
This adaptability (pun intended) means that there are quite a few variations of kayaks to choose from; some are designed as an all-rounder and some are specialised for a certain type of kayaking. So, how do you know which one is best for you? When you’re trying to decide, this kayak buyer’s guide is a good starting point.
Types of kayaks
Kayaks are classified in a number of different ways: where you sit in/on them, how you use them, their structure and whether they are built for a specific purpose. It’s a good idea to have a general understanding of this before choosing a kayak.
Sit-in vs. sit-on-top kayaks
Sit-in kayaks are more efficient to paddle than sit-on-top models; they also track straight and have covered cargo compartments, making them ideal for long distance paddling.
The position of your body, in a sit-in kayak, lowers the centre of gravity of the boat and multiple contact points (seat, knees and feet) gives you more control. This is particularly useful in choppy conditions and can be more fun when manoeuvring.
Since the lower half of you’re body sit’s inside the kayak’s hull, sit-in models are more comfortable in cold water conditions. You can also add a spray skirt for extra protection, but a bilge pump is needed if you get fully swamped. Plus, if you get a traditional narrow sit-in kayak, you’ll need to learn how to do a ‘wet exit’.
Sit-on-top kayaks are primarily meant for recreational use on lakes and easy flowing rivers, but they are also ideal for warmer coastal waters when you don’t mind getting wet. They’re easy to get on (even in deep water) and off of, so they’re good for casual uses, like playing around near a lakeside cabin, or as a swimming platform.
Water that enters the cockpit drains out through scupper holes, so there is no need to pump out water. Most models will have some deck stash spots, however, a few longer sit-on-tops have extra (hard-to-access) cargo space (inside the hollow hull) for overnight trips.
These are definitely worth noting, but be aware that not all kayak brands use the same terms; one brand’s ‘recreational’ might be comparable to another’s ‘day touring’ kayak. That said, here are some general guidelines:
Recreational kayaks are, as the name suggests, designed for flatwater fun or meandering rivers. They are generally affordable, stable, easy to get in and out of, and simple to turn. Extremely popular for families and part-time enthusiasts, they often feature changeable seating positions and multiple length footrests. You will commonly find them as a sit-on-top, designed to seat 1-2 people, but you can also get sit-in variants.
Day touring kayaks
These versatile kayaks are sleeker and more efficient to move than recreational models, with a focus on comfort and stability to maximise time out on the water. They also track straighter and give you more control in rough water, but will often have a higher price tag.
Day touring kayaks are normally made to fit one person and mostly come as a sit-in. Because they are shorter than sea kayaks, day touring kayaks are easier to transport and handle. They offer a moderate amount of cargo space (more than a recreational kayak but less than a sea kayak).
Sea kayaks are longer than day touring kayaks and a lot narrower than recreational models. As such, they are super efficient over large distances on open water. Designed as a sit-in, these long, robust kayaks track well and can handle choppy conditions thanks to a rudder or skeg. An additional outrigger can also be attached for extra stability. (Note: If you’re sure that you will be using your kayak for long trips and coastal kayaking, then you’ll save money by opting for a sea kayak at the outset. If you’re not sure, a day-touring model will cost less as a first kayak, and make it easier to develop paddling skills.)
If you’re going to be tackling river rapids and whitewater, then a specialised whitewater kayak is a must. These sturdy kayaks are rotomolded in a semi-rigid, high impact plastic that ensures the hull remains structurally sound when subjected to impacts with rocks and other obstacles in fast flowing water (although they scratch and can eventually puncture with enough use).
Generally, you will find two main types of whitewater kayaks. Playboats are short, with a scooped bow and blunt stern. These trade speed and stability for high manoeuvrability. Their primary use is performing tricks in individual water features or short stretches of river. Creekboats, on the other hand, are longer and have far more volume. This makes them more stable, faster and higher-floating for use on large rivers where their extra stability and speed may be necessary to get through rapids.
There are further sub-categories of whitewater kayaks for different uses, but this is beyond the scope of this article.
Fishing kayaks look very similar to sit-on-top recreational models, however, they have modified extras specific to fishing (such as rod holders and mounts). They tend to be wider than a standard kayak for added stability while pulling in your catch. Fishing kayaks also have specialised storage space, designed to hold your catch, bait, spare lines and further supplies. There are even fishing kayaks with sophisticated pedal propulsion systems (at significantly higher price tags) to free your hands for casting and reeling ’em in.
If you live in an apartment (with limited space) or plan to travel to a remote location for a trip, then an inflatable kayak might be a good option. When deflated, they take up a lot less space than a hard-shell kayak, but they are surprisingly sturdy and versatile. Purely recreational models won’t go anywhere very fast, so they are best for close-to-shore use. Wide, rugged inflatables, on the other hand, are good for flowing rivers and can bounce off obstacles. There are also a few inflatable kayaks designed to be used as serious touring kayaks.
Like inflatable kayaks, these are great space savers. Folding models won’t be as rugged as hard-shell kayaks, but they offer comparable handling and storage to many
Construction of the kayak: materials, weight and price
These days, kayaks tend to be constructed from three types of materials (polyethylene plastic, ABS plastic and composites) which affects the weight, performance and price of the boat. Lighter kayaks are easier to carry and load onto your car and easier to paddle up to speed. A lighter boat also allows you to carry more gear because less of the weight capacity is taken up by the weight of the hull itself. The trade-off is that lightweight materials cost significantly more.
Polyethylene plastic: Polyethylene plastic is the cheapest and heaviest option. It’s highly abrasion-resistant, but the sun’s UV rays will degrade it after an extended time in the sun (so be sure to store it in a covered location.)
ABS plastic: ABS plastic is slightly more expensive than polyethylene. It offers similar durability, to polyethylene, at a slightly lower weight and has better UV resistance. On a side note, thermoformed ABS boats’ distinctive two-tone designs come from having the deck and hull made separately then bonded together.
Composites (fibreglass and carbon-fibre): Lightweight fibreglass and carbon-fibre are the most advanced materials currently utilised in kayak construction. They are a lot more expensive than the plastic alternatives but also offer a huge leap in performance. UV rays aren’t a problem with these materials, but a big impact with rocks can be.
Where will you use your kayak?
Even though kayaks are not normally categorised by water type, it’s still a useful thing to consider since different types of kayaks will behave differently depending on the water conditions.
Lakes: In this case, we’re talking about ‘standard’ sized lakes and not the Great Lakes in the US (these are more like oceans). But, if the weather is good and the water is fairly calm, then any recreational sit-on-top or sit-in kayak should be suitable. If the conditions are a little more choppy, however, then a lower-end recreational model may struggle.
Coasts: Wind, waves, currents and tides all come into play here. In this case, a sit-in sea kayak/touring kayak with a rudder or a skeg is a wise choice. However, if you live in a warm environment and don’t mind going for a swim, or you plan to do some kayak surfing, then a sit-on-top can also work well.
Rivers: In this case, we’re not talking about technical rapids (for this you will need a whitewater-specific kayak). For general use, if you’re floating along a river, you want a stable, sturdy craft that turns quickly. A short, stable recreational sit-in or sit-on-top, or a day touring sit-in kayak would be ideal.
Rivers and lakes: If you plan to use your craft in both flowing and still waters, go with a short, well-rounded recreational sit-in or sit-on-top kayak. These crossover boats typically have a skeg. This setup will help you turn responsively when the skeg is up and track efficiently when the skeg is down. A short kayak with a rudder would also be an option, but rudders are typically only found on longer models.
Additional factors when choosing a kayak
Once you’ve narrowed down the type of kayak and price point, you’ll likely find that there are a few different models to choose from. So, to narrow down your choice further, consider these additional factors.
Weight capacity: This is the total weight capacity of the kayak, your gear and you. This spec is particularly important if you plan to haul gear for a multiday tour; if the boat is overloaded, it will sit too low in the water and compromise your paddling efficiency. Consider, also, the weight of the kayak; a lighter boat will allow you to carry more gear because less of the weight capacity is taken up by the weight of the hull itself.
Length: Longer kayaks paddle more efficiently and have more storage space for overnight touring gear, while shorter models have better manoeuvrability. A few inches won’t make a noticeable difference, but two or more feet will have a substantial impact.
Depth: Deeper hulls offer more leg and storage space. On the other hand, shallower hulls are less affected by wind.
Width: Wider hulls offer more initial stability, while narrower hulls are more efficient to paddle and, therefore, can reach higher speeds.
Rudders and skegs: These accessories help a boat track straighter in the wind. A skeg is a simple dropdown fin that helps prevent a side wind from blowing the kayak off course. A rudder is an adjustable fin which flips down from the back of the boat and connects to foot pedals inside the kayak (so that you can make adjustments with your feet). Becuase of this, a rudder is more responsive to changing conditions when paddling.
Seats: A good seat can make all difference to a long paddle session; since you’ll be spending a lot of hours in the seat, having one that’s more adjustable, more padded and more ergonomically suited to you might be worth the extra cost.
Cockpit size: A large, open cockpit makes it easier to get in and out of the kayak, whereas a small, snug cockpit gives you more control and protection in rough conditions.
Storage hatches: These provide access to interior storage areas inside the hull. Bigger sea kayaks will have two, while day touring and larger recreational models will have one.
Featured and additional images: Pixabay