Kayaking is a great way to stay active and enjoy the outdoors on the lake, river or ocean. While you may have borrowed a friend’s kayak, owning one of your own empowers you to explore your local area or destination in an entirely new way whenever you want. Kayaking is always an adventure and can be very fun both alone and with a group. Also, compared to other activities kayaking offers an impressive workout without noticing it. A couple hours or kayaking can generally burn 500 to 1000 calories depending on your weight.
Before you start shopping for your first kayak make sure you truly enjoy kayaking and intend to use it enough to justify an investment. Many buy them for one event and let them sit in their garage, taking up space and collecting dust. We recommend borrowing or renting a kayak at least once before making your decision to buy. Not only does this make sure you enjoy the activity but it gives you exposure to various kayak designs and can further narrow your search.
Now that you’ve had some experience with kayaking and are enthusiastic about going more often, it’s time to start your search. First off, it is important to understand the different types of kayaks available as they each have a specific design goal that makes them better or worse suited for different conditions. We’ll help you choose your first kayak and explain the pros and cons of each kayak style.
Recreational Kayak (sit-in design)
Recreational kayak is a relatively general description of kayaks designed for casual use but in this case, we’re referring to kayaks where the seating position is within the haul. It is common to have ½ to ¾ of your legs covered by the top of the kayak. These kayaks are an excellent choice for a first-time buyer due to their low cost, ease of transport and availability at most sporting retailers – they are often on sale out of season.
- Cost: due to their simplicity recreational kayaks are cheap to manufacture and thus cheap to buy. While prices vary for all kayaks, it is common to find these between $400 and $600.
- Weight: Simplicity also means lightweight. Recreational sit-in kayaks are very easy to load, transport and launch. This is a big benefit. Many heavy kayaks are a frustrating to load and transport.
- Tight turning/Maneuverability: For kayakers that plan to tackle rivers or tight bodies of water maneuverability is important. Recreational kayaks are generally shorter and their bow design enable quick turning and intuitive turning.
- Cold Weather: Kayaking in the early spring or late fall can be chilly and the cold breeze can sour your experience. Any kind of sit-in kayak provides an extra layer of cold temperature and wind protection. It is also forgiving for beginners who have not tuned their paddling to minimize splashing.
- Comfort: Recreational kayaks make some sacrifices with comfort since they are not designed for extended use. It is common to find back supports that do not go very high and have a limit to how far they can recline. The sit-in nature of these kayaks also makes them more restrictive in leg movement. Some kayakers can find a claustrophobia associated with sitting low and inside the hull as well.
- Tracking: Recreational kayaks often do not track well compared to sea or touring kayaks. Tracking is the ability of the kayak to move forward in a relatively straight and smooth motion under paddling. If you plan to cover large bodies of water a recreational kayak may be frustrating to paddle since every paddle stroke causes the kayak to turn significantly.
- Storage: Storage varies considerably from kayak to kayak but generally budget focused or entry-level recreational kayaks do not offer much storage, sometimes none beyond the cavity of the hull.
- Drainage: Water that gets into your kayak is not easily removed. If you find yourself frequently splashing or entering the kayak from the water a sit-in-kayak could give you a wet bum.
- Safety/Re-entry: Not all, but some kayaks in this category have design flaws that prevent re-entry in the water of proper buoyancy in the event water is taken on.
Recreational Kayak (sit-on-top design)
Recreational sit-on-top kayaks are sealed haul kayaks where the seating and leg position is entirely on top of the boat. This style of kayak has gained a lot of popularity over the years for their new approach to kayak design. This style is also a great choice for a first kayak.
- Comfort: Comfort is generally a pro for sit-on-top kayaks. While some have seats molded into the hull many offer highly adjustable chair-like seating that offers the most comfort among any kayak design. In addition to seating comfort, sit-on-top kayaks also give you the freedom to move and adjust your feet at will. You can also more easily relieve yourself from any numbness or discomfort since your body is not restricted by the hull of the kayak.
- Launching: Getting in and out of a sit-on-top kayak is easy relative to their sit-in alternatives, especially from a dock.
- Stability: although the center of gravity is higher on a sit-on-top kayak, there is a generous amount of stability offered by the typically wider design of a sit-on-top kayak. Some are so stable they can be used as stand-up-paddle boards.
- Unsinkable/drains water: While kayaking you may find yourself bringing or splashing water into your kayak. While this is problematic for a sit-in-kayak, it is essentially a non-issue for a sit-on-top kayak. Since the hull is sealed there is no way to sink the kayak and water that is splashed on top drains through scupper holes.
- Weight: Sit-on-top kayaks generally weigh more than a regular recreational kayak. They have more complex hull designs needing more material to build. A heavier kayak takes more effort to paddle and can sometimes make it harder to keep up with others. Weight also has an impact on transportation. If you plan to carry the kayak on the roof of a car or SUV, loading can be frustrating and can be demanding on your body.
- Cold Weather: Due to the seating position being on top of the kayak, your body is not shielded from the wind, cold temperatures or accidental splashing. Splashing water all over your legs in early November can ruin your day.
- Price: While price varies, generally, sit-on-top kayaks that deliver the pros cost more than regular recreational kayaks. Good ones are commonly found in the $700 to $1,300 range.
Sea/Touring KayakIf you’re a serious enthusiast conquering nature on extended long trips a sea kayak may be the kayak for you. These kayaks are not commonly a beginner choice due to their specialized design and high cost. Sea kayaks today are inspired by the 4,000-year-old design invented by natives in living in the Arctic Circle. Northern cultures like the Inuit depend on their sea kayaks to this day to hunt for food on the open water. Sea kayaks enabled long-distance travel and efficient hunting in a very desolate place.
- Stability: Sea kayaks are offer uncompromised stability. These kayaks are long, 15 feet or more is a common length. This design also sits extremely low in the water to reduce surface area for crosswinds to catch and alter the paddling direction. Another benefit is the seating position. The seat is located as low as possible reducing the center of gravity.
- Tracking: When covering large distances on the water keeping the kayak straight is important. The ultra-smooth silhouette design reduces water resistance and enables the kayak track straight.
- Cold Weather Protection: Sea kayaks offer excellent cold weather protection. They feature a very small opening isolating the lower body from the elements. The use of a skirt to truly seal off the kayak maximizes warmth. These kayaks can be used year-round with the proper attire.
- Speed: Since the original intent of these kayaks was to cover long distances, speed was always a priority. Sea kayaks provide superior speed and paddling efficiency.
- Comfort: Comfort is always a priority for sea kayak design. You’ll find higher quality seating and better support in many sea kayaks.
- Weight: while long, sea kayaks are often very light for their size. Builders often use more advanced techniques and materials in building kayaks that minimize weight.
- Storage: The long design of a sea kayak lends itself to copious storage.
- Price: Sea kayaks are often designed for true enthusiasts that depend on their kayak to get them to shore. This market expects a high level of quality and features in their kayaks and this comes at a price. Sea kayaks often start at $1,000 or more and most commonly found at or well above $1,400. Some handmade kayaks can even approach $20,000.
- Tight Turning and Maneuverability – While some sea kayaks can accommodate tight turning most do not excel. Kayaking on a stream or river in one can be frustrating and cumbersome and is not recommended. Open water is the best fit for a sea kayak.
Other Kayaks to Consider
- Fishing Kayaks: if you plan to fish from your kayak there are a handful of manufacturers that offer designs adapted to the needs of fishing. Fishing kayaks offer ample storage and ease of access to storage. They also feature threaded mounting points for attachments like rod holders, cup holders or platforms for tying knots and working with gear. Some even have live wells for keeping fish, mounting points for trolling motors and depth finders. Fishing from a kayak can be very exciting, especially if you hook a large fish.
- Inflatable Kayaks: Almost every kayak design can be found as an inflatable. The weight and transportation benefits are making these options more popular. Manufacturers are finding ways to make them less puncture resistant and durable. This resistance to puncturing will normally vary by price. Do not expect much durability from a $150 inflatable kayak, however, more expensive inflatables can provide years of worry-free use in a variety of conditions.
- Tandem Kayaks: Tandem or two or more person kayaks are a popular option for some. A tandem kayak is often cheaper than buying two individual kayaks. The success of a tandem operated kayak is the cooperation between the two partners. If you have found trouble or frustration canoeing, a tandem kayak may not be for you.