How to Choose a Kayak: The 3 Most Important Factors for Finding the Best Boat
What’s the “best” kayak? Whether you’re new to this activity or have a bit of experience under your belt, a few major points become apparent very quickly: Kayaks are designed for specific water types and uses, so matching the model to your expectations is fundamental.
With these considerations in mind, ask yourself if you have access to a lazy river, pond, lake, or saltmarsh for quiet explorations. If so, a flatwater kayak will fit your bill. If you live on the coast and will paddle in swells and tides to explore the bays, and put some miles under the hull, a sea touring kayak is a better option. If you will do a little bit of everything, from poking in flat water to cruising across bays, a light touring model blends the performance and safety of a sea touring model with the maneuverability of a flatwater design. Finally, if you wish to play in moving water, like moderate whitewater, surf, or ocean rock gardens, a crossover kayak is an appropriate design.
A note about safety, kayak design, and your experience:
Always use the kayak in the water for which it’s designed. For an analogy, think of the downhill skiing trail rating system: green circles for beginner, blue squares for intermediate, and black diamonds for expert terrain. An expert skier can safely navigate a green circle beginner slope. But, a beginner, on the other hand, does not have the skills to safely navigate the trees, moguls, and turns of an expert slope.
The same principle applies to kayaks: While a sea touring kayak works perfectly well in flatwater, taking a flatwater model into open or swift water carries some risk. Once capsized, flatwater kayaks need to be brought to shore to be emptied – not an easy feat a mile from the beach. Sea kayaks, on the other hand, can be fully swamped in deep water, re-entered, and emptied all by a solo paddler. So, taking these scenarios into account, pick a kayak designed to meet the conditions of your home waters, and when you venture beyond the capabilities of the boat, borrow or rent one, and consider it a demo for your next model!
Sit-Inside or Sit-on-Top? Fishing or Inflatable?
Kayaks with cockpits you sit within usually have built-in seats and adjustable foot pegs to ensure a solid connection between your body and the vessel. This helps you propel it forward, turn, and stop. With a spray skirt sealing from your belly to the cockpit, splashes, sun, and bugs are kept out, while warmth stays inside. With a good paddling jacket and spray skirt, you can go for a tour in a sit-inside kayak and remain largely dry.
Sit-on-top models usually have molded foot pegs and accessory seats that create your connection to the kayak, and include self-draining open decks. Sit-on-tops easily accommodate extra gear in the form of dry bags, coolers, tackle boxes, dogs, and even kids. If you are concerned about feeling confined, a sit-on-top may be a great choice. When you paddle one, you are not enclosed in a cockpit, so remember to dress for the additional winds and splashes you will encounter.
Fishing kayaks come outfitted with rod holders and angler-specific rigging, and can even be equipped to the max with baitwells, electronics, and everything else needed for landing the next trophy. Because fish come in all sizes and inhabit all types of waters, you can purchase fishing-specific models in each of the categories (flatwater, light touring, touring, and crossover).
Finally, inflatable kayaks are the easiest to store. Just deflate, roll, and pack away – no roof rack or garage space needed! Inflatables fit the bill for folks with limited storage space.
Stability, Shape, and Size: Form Follows Function
Folks often oversimplify the concept of stability. Most believe that kayaks are either stable or not, and they only want the former, so they don’t swim unexpectedly. To dispel the myth that “responsive” models are simply logrolling machines, let’s look more carefully at stability as a concept.
Imagine the raft you swim out to on the lake. It’s a big square floating platform you can climb on, lay on, and back flip off. In flat water, it’s a super design, because it’s wide and flat and very difficult to flip. Now, think about riding it down the Colorado River through big rapids. It would be pretty tough to stay on board as it pitched and rolled out of sync with the current and waves on the surface. The same concept applies to kayaks that have wide flat bottoms, or hulls: In flat water, you sit within them, and moving your hips or head and shoulders side to side doesn’t feel tippy. In rough water, they become difficult to control. Kayaks with more rounded bottoms, on the other hand, will go with you as you rock your hips or move your head and shoulders to the side.
Stability is a measure of how the kayak responds to your movements: Kayaks with high flat water (or initial) stability tend to be wide and have flat cross-sections. Kayaks with higher rough water (or secondary) stability allow you to rock confidently to the side without “tripping” over. Secondary stability allows you to hold the kayak on edge to “carve” a turn like you would with skis. On edge, the front (bow) and back (stern) ends come a bit out of the water, and by using a wide stroke on the side you’re leaning toward, you may learn to turn the kayak all the way around in a single motion.
Put simply, a kayak that feels twitchy at the dock may be just right for a beginning paddler with an athletic background of cycling and skiing who wants to explore some windy, wavy water. On the other end of the spectrum, a family with a cabin on the pond may want a more “raft-like” kayak, as it seems like the “boat for everyone.”
Generally speaking, longer kayaks slice through the water straighter (known as “tracking”), and therefore with more speed, than their shorter siblings. Shorter kayaks, however, swing from left to right a bit with each forward stroke, making them super maneuverable for “skinny” waters. On the downside, longer kayaks take more space and finesse to turn quickly, while shorter kayaks need more strokes to cover a given distance. Depending on the water and your expectations, one may be preferable. If you need a little of each, a light touring model may be the perfect, one-boat-fits-all choice.
On the shorter end, sit-inside flatwater kayaks under 12 feet have little room inside beyond the paddler. Some have a bulkhead, or waterproof wall, behind the seat, and a matching hatch and cover on the back deck. This creates an airtight compartment where you can store things like a soft cooler with your lunch and a dry bag of warm clothes. But, in front of the paddler’s feet, there is not enough length in the hull to install another bulkhead and hatch. This design has important safety ramifications; in the event the boat capsizes, the cockpit and bow will fill with water, while the rear hatch will remain full of air. The kayak then resembles a feeding duck with its tail in the air. Continuing a trip in this boat involves getting it to shore to empty it first.
Over 12 feet is where you gain enough length in a kayak to add the safety of a bow bulkhead and hatch, which keep the boat floating high enough for unassisted self rescue in deep water. With a little technique and some gear, such as a paddle float and bilge pump, you can re-enter this kayak, empty it, and continue your trip.
If you want a sit-inside kayak and will frequently travel well away from shore, in open water with significant wind exposure, you will greatly benefit from the additional tracking and safety of a boat over 12 feet long. Finally, if you will be camping overnight from your kayak and traveling many miles each day, a boat over 14 feet will be easier to load with gear and more efficient than a shorter model.
Kayak Fit: Where it All Comes Together
In a perfect world, we would all have kayaks custom-fitted to both our bodies and our local waters. In reality, the off-the-shelf offerings are not custom, but they are pretty darn nice. Padded seats recline, foot pegs move, and adjustable thigh and hip pads come in some sea kayaks.
Now, it’s tempting to let your backside decide the boat for you, based on which has the squishiest seat. But that is not the only ingredient in the recipe; after all, your arms have to be able to hold a paddle and reach the water comfortably, too, like a thousand times every time you go! So, once you find a couple boats designed for where you will paddle, have a seat in them. You should be able to adjust the foot pegs to a distance where, with your lower back firmly against the backrest and the balls of your feet against the pegs, you have a slight (less than 30-degree) bend in your knees.
If you choose a sit-on-top, find a foot rest that is most comfortable. To do so, simply flex your ankles to press the foot pegs or rests and effectively “lock” your back against the backrest. That way, when you pull on the water with your paddle, the energy goes directly into pushing the kayak forward, not just moving you around on top of the boat.
The seatback fit also needs to work with your PFD, so if you own one already, try it on in the kayak and adjust the seatback accordingly. When they do not work together, folks experience the discomfort of the PFD riding up too high or creating a pressure point. Fortunately, many PFDs have mesh lower backs, and many flatwater and light touring kayaks come with seatbacks whose height adjusts, so the odds of a good match are very high. If you will wear a spray skirt (recommended for any open water trips), put it on, then add your PFD, get in the boat, and secure the skirt to the cockpit rim, back to front, leaving the grab handle loop out.
Other fit refinements that influence sit-inside light touring and sea kayak choices are width, deck height, and cockpit size. Width needs to match your hips in a way that when you lean the kayak on its side, you do not slide across the seat or, conversely, feel like you’re wearing skinny jeans after a gluttonous Thanksgiving meal. Sliding leads to instability and difficulty reaching the water to control the boat, and squeezing is just plain uncomfortable.
Cockpit size should be roomy enough for easy entry and exit but narrow enough to secure a spray skirt onto the rim and hook the knees or thighs under the deck for maximum contact and control. Deck height comes into play so you can paddle without cracking your fingers on the cockpit rim with every stroke. Deck height also determines foot comfort: If you have size 15 feet, you need a high deck for your big dogs to be able to relax; otherwise, they’ll be pointed into a narrow area.
Folks with short torsos (with very little distance between their bottom rib and hip) and children using adult boats that are too deep and wide for them have to hold their paddle uncomfortably high and experience undue fatigue as a result. For these reasons, manufacturers often make kayak models in multiple sizes (for instance, S, M, and L), scaling a hull designed for particular type of water to fit a few different individuals.
For the couples out there, tandem kayaks can really bring you together. But, they take a special relationship to paddle well! If you are looking for a pair of kayaks, consider carefully that each needs to fit its user, like a motorboat engine needs to accommodate its boat: If one person is notably smaller than the other, try not to get twin boats, as a small paddler in a too-big kayak may be miserable trying to keep up with their more efficiently matched partner. A 100-lb. person in a 14-foot, 22-inch wide light touring kayak will be more likely to match a 250-lb. person in a 17-foot, 25-inch wide sea kayak.
A final note about fit:
Be mindful of reclining seats. When you’ve stopped paddling, it’s really nice to have a super comfortable seat that reclines to fully soak in the joys of being on the water. But when it’s time to paddle again, make sure that thing is upright! Beyond the blister that forms at the base of their thumb, the most common complaint of beginning paddlers is a sore back, because they slouch. Kayaking efficiently requires upright posture and torso rotation to engage the core muscles. Lounging facilitates neither and leads to undue fatigue. In a well-fitted kayak, with good form, 20-mile days are not out of the question. So, sit up straight to paddle! Your back will thank you.
And, on a similar note, ease up on the paddle! That nagging thumb blister is from the paddle shaft rubbing against your skin. Loosen your grip, extend your fingers, hold the paddle in the crook of your lower hand’s fingers to pull it, and push the shaft with the base of your upper hand’s fingers. Instead of wrapping your thumb around, place its pad against the shaft. Over-gripping causes blisters and stiffness, so loosen up and let the good times roll.
- PFD (personal flotation device, or life jacket) – Get one that you like to wear, so that you WILL wear it.
- Paddle – Do not skimp on your paddle; it’s your motor.
- Car Rack – Get your kayak to the water and back safely and securely.
- Kayaking Clothing and Shoes – Dress for cold water, sunny weather, and rainy, windy weather.
- Dry Bags – Keep your lunch and extra clothes from soaking, and then set them on the shoreline.
- Whistle and Safety Gear – Remember to always have an audible and visual signal with you.
- Spray Skirt – For sit-inside kayaks, these seal from your belly to the cockpit, keeping in warmth and preventing bugs and biting flies from getting in.
- Cockpit Cover – These keep the weather, spiders, and mice out of the kayak during transport and storage.
For a more comprehensive paddling checklist, click here