Kayak Buying Tips part II | Adventure Kayak Magazine | Rapid Media
Kayak Buying Tips part II Photo: Goh Iromoto / courtesy Ontario Tourism

Choose the boat that's perfect for you

There’s a kayak for every style of paddling and every type of paddler. Here’s how to choose the perfect kayak for you.


Kayak Types

“Do you just want to dabble around or do you wish to refine your skills?” Larry and Christine Showler, owners of Ontario’s Frontenac Outfitters Canoe & Kayak Centre, ask prospective boat buyers. The answer can help you choose between a sea kayak, light touring kayak or recreational kayak.

Sit-inside designs offer the most protection from weather and water, especially important in colder climates and on exposed coastlines. They also offer more interior dry storage than other kayak types.

“If you’re an expedition paddler, bring all your gear to the shop and stuff it the boat to see if it fits,” suggests Rutabaga's Darren Bush.

Sit-on-top kayaks are self-draining and easy to scramble back aboard after a capsize or upset.

Folding and inflatable kayaks are easy to store and transport and come in a huge variety of styles, suited to everything from tame pond paddles to extreme expeditions (see exclusive reviews of 10 grab-and-go portables in the Summer/Fall 2014 issue of Adventure Kayak magazine).


Find Your Fit

“A boat is like a pair of shoes. If you want to run, you need proper fitting running shoes,” says Kelly McDowell of The Complete Paddler. “Your slippers are comfy around the house but a little sloppy for sprinting. A loose-fitting boat is like a pair of slippers. The tighter the fit, the higher the performance.”

Sit in it first. “You can do all the research and find the perfect boat, then come into the store and sit in it and it doesn’t fit,” says Ocean River Sports staffer Julien Huard. Make sure the seat, backband or backrest and outfitting are comfortable and adjustable.

“Test paddle the boat loaded,” suggests Bush. It may handle well empty, but if you plan on tripping with the hatches full, “it can feel like a totally different boat.”


Performance: Speed, Stability and More

“You can’t tell anything from numbers,” says McDowell. Longer kayaks are typically faster and track better, while shorter kayaks boast better maneuverability. But, “there are so many factors aside from feet and inches,” he continues, “two boats with very similar dimensions can paddle completely differently.”

As a rule, wider hulls are more stable and narrow hulls are faster. Still, when it comes to buying a fast boat, there’s theory and then there’s reality. “The fastest boat may not be the skinniest boat,” cautions Bush. “It’s not just boat design, it’s also you. If it’s too narrow, you may waste energy on keeping it upright that you could have used to paddle faster.”

Along with width, the shape of the hull affects stability. A flat-bottomed kayak is initially very stable, but if leaned too far, it quickly capsizes. Kayaks with shallow V and shallow arch hulls prioritize secondary stability, offering better performance and stability on edge, useful for open- and rough water paddling.

“The most stable boats quickly become the most boring,” warns Huard. “Many people, especially new paddlers, pick the boat that feels most stable, not the one that suits them best for the long-term.”

Reader Tip: Don’t be intimidated by that tippy feeling—it will go away after a few trips as you improve,” says Ned Roulston of Syracuse, New York.

Look at the chines—the place where the sides of the kayak meet the bottom. Chines can be rounded, hard or multi, and will determine how a kayak feels when edging and how aggressively it carves turns.

A final factor—rocker—describes the upward curve of the bow and stern. Heavily rockered boats turn very easily and are ideal for playing in rough water. Kayaks with minimal rocker track well and are suitable for fitness paddling and long-distance touring.


Why Weight?

“Buy the lightest boat you can afford,” advises Bush. “If you can’t lift it, you won’t paddle it. You’re better off writing yourself a check and stapling it to your garage.”

“Learn the pros and cons of each material before buying,” suggests McDowell. Modern construction materials include rotomolded polyethylene (durable and affordable), thermoformed plastics (lighter and attractive shiny finish) and composites like fiberglass, carbon or Kevlar (stiffer, lighter still and the priciest option).

Paddlers with an eye for traditional aesthetics and feel may prefer a boat made from ultralight wood panels.


Skeg or Rudder?

“Skeg boats are usually higher performance than rudder boats,” notes McDowell. “The skeg and rudder themselves have nothing to do with it: it’s the manufacturers who have decided that rudders go on lower performing boats and skegs go on high performance boats.”

A skeg assists with tracking in crosswinds or currents and pairs with fixed footrests for optimum stroke efficiency. The fin’s placement closer to the cockpit keeps it in the water more than a stern-mounted rudder when the waves are standing up.

Rudders aid tracking and turning, making them ideal for kayak fishing, sailing and longer boats like tandems and race kayaks.

Many recreational kayaks sport neither. “If you go paddling only on nice days, you’re not paddling in wind, or your boat is shorter than 14 feet, you don’t really need a skeg or rudder,” says McDowell.


A Final Word of Advice…

“Think of kayak selection not as an intellectual pursuit, but a physical one,” advises longtime waterman Jack Elliott of Ontario’s White Squall Paddling Centre. “Get in lots of kayaks with the features you want and do lots of test paddling.”

“Try it before you buy it!” agree Adventure Kayak fans, making this nugget our top reader tip. “Beg and borrow, make friends trying boats,” suggests Alex McGruer, a reader from St. John’s, Newfoundland. Paddle as many models as you can before settling on the kayak of your dreams.




BG kayaktipsGet dozens more buying tips here in the Paddling Buyer's Guide 2015. Read the entire issue on your desktopApple or Android device.


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