All you need to choose the perfect kayak
I guess you're here because you want some help choosing a kayak - you want the best kayak reviews around. I know how you're feeling - it's pretty overwhelming, isn't it? There are so many different types, shapes, colours, construction materials.
I'm talking about hull rockers, touring kayaks, fishing kayaks, camping kayaks, sea kayaks, inflatable kayaks, rigid body kayaks... and so on so forth forever. I could keep going, but I don't want to put you off by overloading you with information.
Not yet, anyway!
In this guide, I'm going to go over the essentials, starting from the very basics and going all the way through to helping you choose your first (or next) kayak.
A little background about myself
I'm Dave. I grew up around the water; I was lucky enough to be raised on a farm within walking distance of the coast. Some of the most beautiful coastlines in the world, I might add - in my opinion anyway.
So, naturally, I enjoyed going to the sea, and I enjoyed getting in the sea. I mainly loved fishing, especially surf fishing or beach casting. If you want to read more about fishing, click here.
But you know what? I wasn't very good at it. Maybe there weren't any fish around, or perhaps it was just bad luck, but more often than not I would catch a hunk of seaweed or lose my rigs altogether.
These are my top picks - they're not specialist kayaks, these are ideal for someone looking for their first kayak or a great all-rounder. The best beginner kayaks, essentially. If you want more in-depth advice, read on to the rest of this guide to kayaks or click through to the individual reviews.
These include inflatable and rigid bodied kayaks.
Advanced Elements Advanced Frame Kayak
Intex Explorer K2
Coleman Quikpak K1 Kayak
Intex K2 Challenger
On one occasion, I was on a pier, and the sea was flat calm, blue sky. I cast out, was feeling pretty good about it and THEN - totally out of the blue - an enormous wave struck the pier, almost knocked me off my feet and took my rod and tackle over the edge, never to be seen again. That ended that fishing trip.
So anyway, I bought my first kayak thinking I would be able to get out beyond the surf and simply drop a line in and come back with dinner. But I found that kayaking was so much more fun than that!
You know what a kayak is, I'm sure. But just in case, here it is from Wikipedia:
A kayak is a small, narrow watercraft which is propelled by means of a double-bladed paddle. The word kayak originates from the Greenlandic language, where it is the word qajaq (pronounced [qajaq]). The traditional kayak has a covered deck and one or more cockpits, each seating one paddler. The cockpit is sometimes covered by a spray deck that prevents the entry of water from waves or spray and makes it possible for suitably skilled kayakers to roll the kayak: that is, to capsize and right it without it filling with water or ejecting the paddler.
Some modern boats vary considerably from a traditional design but still claim the title "kayak", for instance in eliminating the cockpit by seating the paddler on top of the boat ("sit-on-top" kayaks); having inflated air chambers surrounding the boat; replacing the single hull by twin hulls, and replacing paddles with other human-powered propulsion methods, such as foot-powered rotational propellers and "flippers". Kayaks are also being sailed, as well as propelled by means of small electric motors, and even by outboard gas engines.1
So what I think of as a kayak is a variation on what it traditionally means. I am thinking of, yes, a small narrow watercraft which is propelled by a paddle - but from there on out it can be pretty different from the traditional variety. We'll get into the various types below.
The Sea Eagle brand is famous for its inflatable kayaks, having been manufacturing inflatables since the late 1960s. They are very well constructed and reasonably priced - more expensive than some, but mid-range in terms of price. But the construction quality is excellent.
The SE 370 Pro is an excellent all-purpose, inflatable kayak. It has the capacity for three people but is better with two. You can take out one (or both) seat to make extra room.
The SE 370 comes with the option of deluxe seats (I like to use simple bucket seats myself because I find that inflatable seats tend to.. well, deflate) and even a sail - at an extra cost, of course.
Two skegs fitted on the underside really help with the manoeuvrability of this kayak. It has a bit of extra length on some other inflatables at a respectable 12'6", which is another advantage.
Advanced Elements' AdvancedFrame is a folding kayak, meaning it has aluminium ribs in the body and folds up for storage, but the floor and sides are inflatable. This gives it the advantage of exceptional rigidity and tracking, while being much easier to store and transport than a fully rigid kayak.
Advanced Elements are based in California, and they make several models of watercraft. They are definitely more "premium" than the other models listed here, meaning they are more expensive, but with that price you get fantastic quality and reliable construction.
The design and aesthetic of this model is also excellent - they don't look like inflatable kayaks, they look like rigid kayaks. And they cut through the water like knives.
Intex makes great, cheap and cheerful kayaks. There, I've said it. The most affordable model on my list, also the most cheerful (can you say "bright banana yellow"?).
The reason this is so cheap is that it is somewhat restrictive - it's great, if you stick to the conditions it is suitable for. That means calm, inland waters - no choppy seas, and no whitewater. They are so light, and the tracking and maneuverability are just not good enough for swift water.
Nonetheless, this is a great kayak for the price - fantastic actually. Definitely a contender if you're not looking for a challenge!
Old Town has been making canoes and kayaks for over a century. They really know their stuff. This is evident in the Old Town Vapor 10 - a 10' recreational kayak that is suited to beginners. Not the cheapest of all my choices but actually not that expensive either considering the quality.
It's a rigid bodied kayak, so you'll need somewhere to store it and a way to transport it. It tracks really well, and it great for calm waters. However, the cockpit is huge, and so you can take on a lot of water if you give it the chance - maybe not so good for whitewater! It's also not as manoeuvrable as you'd like for swifter water. Nonetheless, it's a great casual recreational yak.
Sevylor is like the Blossom Hill (wine) of inflatable kayaks. Really popular, pretty cheap, much derided. However this is where I first made my entry into the world of inflatables, and I still have my Colorado (shown left) after many years. It doesn't leak yet! And it's really great.
Maybe comparing Sevylor to Blossom Hill was unkind. The construction quality is actually pretty good for the price, and the tracking and performance of the QuickPak is pretty good too. Where it really shines is in the, erm, well the speed of packing and unpacking. You'd never have guessed from the name!
It takes about five minutes to go from the trunk of your car to on the water, and when you get back, it takes about as long to deflate and then pack it away into something the size of a rucksack which you can carry on your back with the integral straps. That's pretty amazing!
Sun Dolphin make a few different types of watercraft, and have been going over 30 years. The Aruba is a great entry-level kayak, suitable for beginners and recreational use.
It's pretty lightweight, being made from polyethylene plastic - this also means it is rigid and pretty robust. The downside, as you now know, is storage and transport. It's in the sort of price range that might make you fall for an inflatable instead, so know what it is you are looking for before choosing a kayak.
This model is particularly suited to calmer waters such as rivers and lakes, but the tracking on it (ability to keep on a straight course) is pretty good so it could be used on a calm sea if you are confident in your abilities.
An inflatable kayak is a great choice for a beginner or indeed for anyone who doesn't have the space to store or ability to transport a full-sized rigid boat. Here's to all the apartment dwellers in the world!
They're great for all sorts of uses, including fishing, going out on the ocean and of course lakes, rivers and even a bit of whitewater - but don't go beyond your capabilities.
If you are thinking of buying an inflatable kayak, you need to take a few minutes to read my inflatable kayak reviews page to find the best one for your money.
The different types of kayak of quite numerous - for instance, we have whitewater kayaks, recreational kayaks, sea or touring kayaks, sit-on-top kayaks, fishing kayaks, inflatable kayaks, and many more I'm sure.
Of course, there is major overlap between the types - a fishing kayak can be an inflatable fishing kayak, a sit-on-top kayak can be rigid or inflatable, a recreational kayak could be sit-on-top and so on.
I'm going to give the game away right here though - I'm a huge fan of inflatable kayaks. Whereas a rigid bodied kayak requires you to either have a roof rack or a boat trailer to transport it (unless you're really keen on portage), an inflatable kayak can literally be packed into the size of a backpack. A backpack kayak, would you believe it?
So you can genuinely take your 'yak on pretty much any camping trip, you can stick it in the trunk of your car "just in case". Imagine taking a ten-foot long fibreglass boat "just in case". People would think you're insane!
I'll get into inflatables with a bit more detail below.
First, here's a quick rundown of the various other types:
A recreational kayak is a fairly general purpose type of kayak, suitable for going out on calm water like lakes or rivers - it's not ideal for whitewater kayaking or for going out to sea, however.
A recreational yak should be pretty stable - they're usually for people who have a bit less experience and just want to paddle around for a bit of fun. No harm in that whatsoever! In fact, their wider beam (width) makes them seem a reasonable choice if you like the idea of fishing from a kayak. The only problem is that they tend to be smaller which means much less room for equipment. For this reason, I'd stick to casual paddling around a lake.
The other consequence of a wider beam, apart from improved stability, is reduced speed and manoeuvrability. With a wider hull, they don't track so well, so it's a tad more difficult to keep them on the straight.
This type of kayak is the most popular, and it's easy to see why - paddling is great fun, and these provide a great, easy route to the water.
If you're floating around on a placid lake, you could always take a cooler with some chilled drinks too. In fact, a cooler is a great thing to have even on longer trips.
Almost the polar opposite to a recreational kayak is the tourer or seagoing kayak.
Although sea yak and touring yak are often used interchangeably, some would probably argue that the two are distinct types, but they do share many of the same characteristics. I'd say that although a sea kayak is almost certainly suitable for touring, a touring kayak is not necessarily going to be suited to ocean use.
The reason for this is stability and manoeuverability. A touring kayak will, generally speaking, have greater primary stability than a sea kayak.
Primary stability is the ability of the boat to remain upright (or capsized!) - mainly a function of its beam width in a kayak. A sea kayak, however, will have great secondary stability (edge stability) than a general touring kayak.
Obviously, the purpose of this class of kayak is to get from point A to point B. Of course, you can just paddle about in them for a lark but they're designed to be efficient movers. Part of what gives them their efficiency is their length - generally speaking, the longer the kayak, the better it is at staying on a straight course.
It's simple hydrodynamics, guys!
This means it's more efficient to travel along a route in a longer kayak, because you don't have to waste energy keeping the boat on track.
An ideal sea kayak would be about 16 feet long, to really improve the tracking and stability in the swell of the ocean.
Another feature of a touring kayak is the ability to store lots of gear - many come with at least one, usually two gear hatches as well as the cockpit. This is essential if you actually intend on touring in your kayak. You're going to need camping gear as well as your essentials and emergency supplies. The benefit of a touring kayak is that the extra length = extra capacity.
By the way, a little tip - if you want to go touring in a kayak, and you're not expecting any really difficult conditions, a good inflatable kayak can also serve as a brilliant camp bed!
A sit-on-top kayak is another very broad category - it can certainly include whitewater kayaks and recreational kayaks, you could very well have a sit-on-top fishing kayak or tandem yak. It means just what it says - it as a kayak upon which you sit, rather than sitting "in" the kayak, in the cockpit.
Any model without the top part is a sit-on-top yak. You might think of it as a sort of weirdly shaped surfboard that you paddle. In other words, a kayak, I guess!
The real advantage of this design is safety - if you roll your boat over, you come straight out. Yeah, you might get separated from your yak but at least you can surface, whereas a very inexperienced paddler might find themselves in a spot of bother if they capsize in a sit-in kayak and can't get themselves out!
I'd say that this makes this types of kayak ideal for beginners. It's not just for beginners however - they are good for many reasons, especially fishing in my opinion. They tend to have a wider beam, so they're less likely to roll in the first place. For casual kayakers it's great, you don't have to learn to roll them (right them after capsizing) and you don't have to learn how to get out if you come a cropper. You can just jump in and go.
The hull of a sit-on-top kayak is pretty similar to that of any other kind of kayak, it's only the top. A rigid kayak will be moulded with a seat or a place to put a seat, and sometimes with places to store your gear.
Obviously, the downside to a sit-on-top is that you're going to get wet - no two ways about it. Some may be able to be fitted with a spray deck or a spray skirt, but you're not going to be fully enclosed as you would in a sit-in kayak. You also have to consider the fact that splashes will sit in your kayak since there is nothing to stop it getting in there - so they tend to be self-bailing, meaning they have holes put through the body to allow the water to drain out on its own.
I mentioned fishing - sit-on-tops are great for fishing. You have lots of room, can access all your gear easily, and essentially have a deck you can put things in and not worry (too much) about them going overboard.
I touched on fishing just now, but here I'll go a bit more in-depth about the best fishing kayaks.
Fishing from a kayak isn't exactly a new thing, but I think it's been gaining a bit of popularity more recently. If you want a fishing boat, you're talking a LOT of money - but a kayak is pretty inexpensive and you can fish in deeper water or harder to access areas with ease. Of course, you also have the benefit of portability, especially with an inflatable fishing kayak.
Inflatable? Yes! Be careful of the hooks, mind you. A good inflatable will be made from quite heavy duty materials though, so a Sevylor Colorado, for instance, will be able to take a bit of abuse. Nonetheless, don't stick your hooks right through the bladder wall!
You can use virtually any kayak for fishing - a few features you will want, of course, are good initial stability, so a general purpose recreational kayak or a sit-on-top would likely be better than a narrow sea kayak for fishing from. However, dedicated fishing kayaks often have extra features such as rod holders and are designed to be able to maintain their stability as you reel in your catch.
A fishing kayak often has the means to mount a trolling motor and a fish finder too. If you go down the road of getting a trolling motor, you could probably do with reading this article about marine batteries suitable for trolling motors.
A tandem kayak is just what it says on the tin - a yak in which two people can travel. It can be a sit-on-top or a sit-in with two cockpits, it could be a touring kayak or a recreational kayak. The inflatable kayak mentioned above, the Colorado, is a tandem kayak but when I use mine I use it on my own and make use of the extra room for storing gear (and my legs).
A great thing about a double is that you have twice the paddle-power - this means, if you work in unison, you can go further and go faster. It takes a bit of practice before you get it right and stop whacking one another's paddle but it's not the hardest part of tandem kayaking - the hardest part is making sure you and your kayak partner agree on getting the same kayak!
Obviously, if you've never owned a kayak before you are better off buying a yak suitable for a beginner. I would recommend an inflatable kayak, myself, but it depends on the sort of use you envision getting from your boat. A sit-on-top is almost certainly the best choice for a beginner because it's much easier to get out if you get into trouble, such as capsizing - although it's not at all impossible to get out of a sit-in, if it's your first time it may take you by surprise, to say the least!
The other good thing about a sit-on-top kayak or a beginner's inflatable kayak is that they are much more stable. I've been out in pretty big swells on the ocean in an inflatable and never felt like the boat was going to flip. It's more likely that I would come off than capsize - it's like a raft!
The other good thing about an inflatable is that you don't need a dedicated storage area and you can transport it very easily. This makes it a much lower initial investment. They're also pretty cheap.
If you're a bit more experienced, have a look at my various guides for the best kayak for your purposes.
Kayaks tend to come in three different formats nowadays, those are:
A rigid kayak could be made of any durable material, such as moulded plastic, fibreglass, wood, fibreglass and wood, carbon fibre and so on.
Plastic is the cheapest type of rigid kayak, but they're not the lightest. This can make them a bit unwieldy in the water and a bit more sluggish when it comes to manoevrability, which isn't ideal in some conditions such as whitewater kayaking.
Fibreglass is very strong, but if it takes a bit of a beating it can break - fortunately fibreglass repair kits are easy to get hold of. It won't look pretty, but it will hold water!
If you're thinking of making a kayak, a fibreglass and wooden construction would probably be the easiest for you (unless you have a big injection moulding machine!?). My current project is building a 14' fibreglass kayak.
A folding kayak is pretty rare, but a really good example is the Advanced Elements kayak I mentioned further up the page. They're pretty expensive, however, but performance is somewhere in between a rigid and an inflatable.
Other folding kayaks can be made of fabric stretched over a frame.
Folding kayaks are pretty good, and will last longer than a straight up inflatable, and have the advantage of being easier to store and transport than a rigid bodied kayak.
When I first came across the notion of an inflatable kayak, what came to mind immediately was the sort of lilo you could get from a seaside shop really cheap; the sort of thing that would have a puncture in it by the end of the day, which you might try to fix with a bicycle tyre repair kit but quickly realise it's futile in the face of the seams tearing open.
Well, let me assure you, that's not what inflatable kayak means!
A decent quality inflatable will set you back a few hundred dollars, but they can last for several years and can be repaired if the need arises.
They are also actually seaworthy, in some case, and can certainly be used on rivers and lakes.
They are usually made of a tough fabric coated in rubber or plasticised to make it waterproof with a rubber bladder sheathed inside the fabric outer, which holds air at a pretty high pressure. They are rigid and can take the weight of a grown adult standing or sitting in one without buckling.
The dimensions of a kayak do make a difference to its performance, it's not just about the motion of the ocean.
A longer kayak will be a bit more difficult to turn, but conversely it will go in a straight line more efficiently. A good example is the contrasting length of a whitewater kayak versus a touring kayak. The longer touring kayak is more efficient for its purposes - getting from point A to point B - but the shorter whitewater kayak gives better agility for descending swift waters.
The wider the kayak, the more stable - this is why a recreational kayak, or a beginner's kayak, is wider. On the flip side, the narrower the kayak the faster is can be, because of decreased drag.
There are a few other things if you want to really get in depth about it. Boat design is a science! But for now I'll leave it at that with respect to size and shape.
The price of a kayak can range from under $100 to over $1000 and beyond. You won't get much on the lower end, and unless you are a seasoned pro you won't get much benefit from spending bags of cash.
The cheapest kayak I know of that looks pretty decent is the Intex Explorer K2. Personally, for my purposes (fun on the waves, fishing, paddling around), the mid-range options are the best. But you can still get a great kayak even if you're on a budget.
A lot of these kayaks, especially the inflatable ones, come with various accoutrements - some come with paddles, seats, spray decks, wet bags, PFDs (personal floatation device) etc. However, I would recommend that you get these extras yourself rather than relying on whatever bargain bin bits and bobs the manufacturer or retailer throws in.
Take the PFD - this is a pretty essential piece of equipment which could save your life. Do you want one that you know is of high quality, or do you want one that came free with your boat, one which you know nothing about?
Having said that, you can get some good deals which on non-essential things, like waterproof bags and stuff. But your paddle - get a good paddle. The one that came free with my first inflatable was too short! The grips were positions such that with every stroke I skinned my knuckles on the sides of the boat.
Okay, maybe it was my technique too. But still, my point is valid.
Another good thing to have is a dry bag - this will help to prevent your phone and other valuables from water damage, and it is essential for things like matches, VHF radio, power bank etc.
The weight is a big factor you need to consider. You're not going to be able to shift it if it's too heavy. An inflatable or folding yak is almost certainly going to be lighter than the rigid counterpart - and easier to transport. Make sure you aren't getting a yak that will be delivered by courier, only to sit on your lawn forever because you have no way to get it down to the water!
Enough said really - if you want to go paddling with your partner or a friend, or even go kayaking with your dog, you'll feel a right fool if you buy a kayak that will only handle one person. Silly billy. Of course, if you want to go camping along the river you need to be able to fit your gear in comfortably.
I love fishing, and paddling around the coast where I live to see the hidden beaches and secret coves (and Smuggler's Cave) that no one else can get to. But you might want to go down the rapids, or just paddling around your nearest lake. What you envision yourself doing in your yak will be a big consideration in your final choice.
One last time, longer kayaks with narrower beam and sharper hulls track better. Shorter, shallower kayaks turn better. There aren't many that do both exceptionally well, but there are plenty that do both serviceably well.
Depending on what you enjoy doing, you may need various other bits and bobs to go along with your kayak.
Essentials for when you are out on the water are of course a paddle and a PFD. A PFD or personal floatation device, will keep you afloat if you go overboard. You'll never need it, until the day you do, and you'll be glad of it when that happens. Many people say they keep on on deck, but don't wear it until necessary. Don't be that person, because it's the same attitude as only wearing a seatbelt when you're just about to have a car accident.
Other safety equipment includes paddle floats, flares, torches, compasses, radios, GPS systems etc. For your comfort, you may decide you need a dry suit, or you may be happy with a standard wet suit or even swimming gear. Remember to dress for the water - if it's cold water, dress warm.
Feel free to browse around my website and see if there is anything that catches your eye. You will notice that lots of online retailers sell kayaks and can deliver them to your door - that's how I got my first. Heck, with next day delivery I was on the water less than 24 hours after buying it!
If you really don't know what you're expecting, it might be worth finding a shop that is close enough for you to visit it. Then you can get a feel for the various types and how big they really are - honestly, 12 foot long is pretty big up close. 16 foot is even bigger. You will also be able to ask for advice on transporting your kayak as well as get tips on how to use it.