What kayak should I buy? It’s the first question a kayaker asks—and the hardest to answer. The trick is finding the boat that’s perfectly suited to your specific needs. With dozens of companies producing hundreds of different models, there’s a kayak for every style of paddling and every type of paddler. If you can’t decide, buy two. There is no better way to grow kayaking than taking a friend.
Where Do You Paddle?
If you paddle open water and big seas, look at touring kayaks with longer, narrower kayaks with smaller keyhole cockpits. If you paddle protected lakes and quiet rivers, check out shorter, more maneuverable recreational models. Photographers, anglers and birdwatchers will appreciate the stability of a wider hull and the easy access of a larger cockpit or sit-on-top design. Rough water playboaters will want a shorter ocean-play kayak with plenty of rocker. Touring and camping aficionados will benefit from a longer waterline, higher volume and two, three or even four hatches for storing gear.
A classic sit-inside design offers the best protection from the weather and water, especially important in colder climates and on exposed coastlines. They also tend to be lighter and offer more interior dry storage than other kayak types. Like kayaks themselves, cockpits come in all shapes and sizes—smaller equals dryer, larger offers easier entry and exit. Sit-on-top kayaks are self-draining and easy to scramble back aboard after a capsize or upset. The open deck makes it simple to hop on or off, and these designs are also usually more stable than their sit-inside counterparts. Folding and inflatable kayaks come in a huge variety of styles, suited to everything from tame pond paddles to extreme expeditions. These boats are lightweight and easy to store and transport.
Length and Width
If you want a boat that is faster, tracks better and carries more gear, choose a kayak over 12 feet long. If you want better maneuverability in tight waters, opt for a shorter kayak suited for ocean play or recreational use . Wider hulls are more stable and roomy, but take more oomph to get going. Narrow hulls are faster and easier to roll and brace.
Along with width, the shape of the bottom and chines (where the sides of the kayak meet the bottom) determine primary and secondary stability. A flat-bottomed kayak with excellent primary stability 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. Chines can be rounded, hard or multi, and will affect 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 and determines maneuverability. 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.
Kayakers have a plethora of choices when it comes to construction. Popular 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). Still others are made from beautiful, ultralight wood panels or traditional skin-on-frame models featuring a stretched polyurethane or nylon skin over an aluminum or wood frame.
Skeg or Rudder?
A kayak skeg assists with tracking in crosswinds or currents and pairs with fixed footrests for optimum efficiency. Rudders aid tracking and turning, making them ideal for kayak fishing, sailing and longer boats like tandems and race kayaks. Most rough water boats feature skegs, since 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. Many smaller recreational kayaks sport neither, since these boats are already supremely maneuverable and designed for more protected waters.
Does the kayak have a place for everything you want to carry, inside or on the deck? If you’re planning to take overnight trips or paddle open water, make sure your boat has waterproof storage hatches and bulkheads. For safety and convenience, look for safety lines, deck rigging and grab or carry handles on bow and stern. You’ll be spending a lot of time on your backside, so make sure the seat, back band or backrest and outfitting are comfortable and adjustable.
The only way to really know whether you are going to love a boat is to paddle it. Buy from a kayak shop that offers on-water test paddling and try as many models as you can before settling on the kayak of your dreams. —Virginia Marshall