How to Choose a Kayak: The Most Important Questions for Finding Your Perfect Boat
What’s the best kayak? The answer is, “it depends.” Kayaks are designed for specific water types, people, and uses. To narrow down the selection and find the best boat for you, this guide will help you answer 2 questions:
Where will you paddle?
What size kayak do you need?
WHERE WILL YOU PADDLE?
Calm Rivers, Small Lakes,and Marshes
Ideal boat: Recreational or Fishing Kayak
Lakes and marshes are typically "flat-water" which is a paddler’s way of saying conditions are calm. You don’t need anything fancy to paddle these waters. Anglers may prefer a sit-on-top kayak with rod holders and tie-downs for coolers, tackle boxes, etc.
Large Lakes, Bays, and Ocean
Ideal Boat: Touring Kayak
Bays and oceans can be calm, but frequently they’re choppy because they’re so open and exposed to the wind. In choppy conditions a touring kayak is ideal because it offers better tracking (ability to go straight, aka speed), and more buoyancy. Improved tracking comes from the boat’s extra length and sometimes a skeg or rudder. Large, air-tight compartments that double as gear storage, provide buoyancy which makes the kayak ‘rescue-able’ by a solo paddler in deep water.
Swift Rivers & Waves
Ideal Boat: Whitewater Kayak
Whitewater comes in 6 classes, ranging from small rough areas that don’t require any special skills to maneuver, all the way up to class 6 which is considered impassable. Whitewater kayaks are typically shorter to make them more maneuverable, and contain a rocker that allows the boat to ride over waves.
WHICH SIZE KAYAK DO YOU NEED?
Boats in all categories come in a range of sizes to accommodate different size paddlers. Each kayak has a “weight capacity” rating to help paddlers choose the right size. It’s rarely a good idea to choose a boat whose weight capacity is the same as the paddler’s weight…you want there to be some cushion because more buoyancy translates to more control.
Generally speaking, longer kayaks slice through the water straighter (known as “tracking”), and therefore go faster 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 flip side, 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 shorter touring model may be the perfect, one-boat-fits-all choice.
Boats also come in a variety of weights. Consider how much the boat weighs and the challenges of loading it onto the roof of your car. Load assist racks help paddlers load their kayak, but they don’t do all the work…you still need to get the kayak up to waist height.
FINE-TUNING YOUR SELECTION TO THE PERFECT KAYAK
There are a lot of nuances to kayaks, and when you find the right match for your water, size, and skills, the boat becomes an extension of you.
The contact points with the boat are your feet (on the foot brace), knees (on the underside of the deck, or thigh braces), hips (on the sides of the seat), and your bottom (on the seat). All of these points should provide you with support and be comfortable. When paddling you will need to brace your feet and your knees for stability and turning. A whitewater boat will be padded to provide a tight fit and keep you in the boat during a roll. A looser fit inside a touring or sea kayak as compared to a whitewater boat is desirable for space to stretch and move about on long excursions. If you have large feet be sure they fit comfortably under the deck and upon the foot braces.
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.
Width, ideally, 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.
With flat bottom hulls in flat water, the boat doesn’t feel tippy when you sit in them and move your hips or head and shoulders side to side. 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.
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.
No matter what style kayak you paddle, you will need a secure place to push your feet against. Some boats have adjustable foot pegs, some have molded in foot rests, while a few have a fixed bulkhead. Without footrests you will tend to slump forward, will not have proper and comfortable posture, and most importantly, will not be able to use torso rotation to effectively propel the kayak.
Shock cord that crosses the deck in front and behind the cockpit are handy for stowing gear where it is easy to reach. Deck netting is handy for storing small items such as gloves. Paddle float rescues are aided by effective deck rigging. Perimeter safety lines are a nice addition to open water kayaks. Built-in compasses and pumps are useful for long trips.
Few hatches have a completely waterproof seal! Hatches should be able to keep most of the water out if you roll. If you have food and clothing you need to keep dry, place them in a waterproof dry bag and then put them in the hatch compartment. If you take large items, you’ll need large hatch openings. Heavy seas and surf can break or blow off hatch covers, so make sure they are securely attached to avoid losing them.
Tandem, or Two Singles?
For the couples out there, tandem kayaks can really bring you together, as you explore new waterways without risk of getting separated. 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 match its boat. If one person is notably smaller than the other, try not to get twin boats. A small paddler in a too-big kayak may be miserably inefficient while trying to keep up with a partner whose kayak fits better. A 100-lb. person in a 14-foot, 22-inch wide kayak will be more likely to match a 250-lb. person in a 17-foot, 25-inch wide kayak.
A Note About Safety
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 a more suitable design, and consider it a demo for your next upgrade!
A personal flotation device, lifejacket, or PFD, whatever you call it, get one that you like to wear, so that you WILL wear it.
Do not skimp on your paddle; it’s your motor.
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.
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.
For sit-inside kayaks, these seal from your belly to the cockpit, keeping in warmth and preventing bugs and biting flies from getting in.
These keep the weather, spiders, and mice out of the kayak during transport and storage.
For a more comprehensive paddling checklist, click here