Are you thinking about taking up kayaking? Great choice. It’s one of the most fun sports around. Nothing beats the thrill of getting out on the water for a kayak camping trip or a tour around the lake systems up north. America has some of the best kayaking spots in the world. From the Grand Canyon in the south to the Florida Keys in the east.
However, you need the right kayak for the task. If you’re into fishing, buying a playboat is the wrong move. The American Kayaking Association says kayaks come in two categories – flat water and whitewater.
There are several models in each of these categories. You’ll need to choose the right kayak for your chosen activity if you want to get the most out of your boating experience. Our buyer’s guide unpacks all the models in both categories. Are you ready? Let’s dive in.
- How To Choose A Kayak – Flatwater Kayaks
- Whitewater Kayaks
- How to Choose a Kayak – Our Recommendation
How To Choose A Kayak – Flatwater Kayaks
Flatwater kayaks are suitable for use on lakes and slow-moving rivers. You can’t take these models into the rapids. Here are the types of flatwater kayaks available.
The recreational or “rec” kayak is the ideal choice for beginners. This model features a closed cockpit with a large opening to make it easy to mount and dismount the kayak.
This design suits summer and winter use. When the weather gets cold, you can fit a spray skirt around the cockpit coaming to keep you dry and the water outside of the kayak.
Rec kayaks typically feature design and construction with plastic polyethylene materials. It is a strong and sturdy boat, but it’s pretty heavy. A rec kayak measures around 10-feet in length, and they are the most affordable hard-shell hull kayak available.
However, they don’t track very well, and they are much slower than touring kayaks. Rec models are available as single-seater or tandem models.
If you’re into fishing, buy a dedicated fishing kayak. These models come with built-in features for fishing, such as rod holders. You get a comfortable fishing seat, accessory track mounts for other accessories, like your GoPro, and mounts for fish finders and GPS units.
Fishing kayaks come with plenty of onboard storage for your gear and tackle. Most models have a flat-bottom hull, allowing you to fish in the shallow flats in rivers and lakes. The flat bottom also makes the kayak very maneuverable.
The hull design also minimizes the risk of capsizing. However, you’ll compromise speed for stability with these models. These kayaks have an open cockpit design, and there’s no option for attaching a spray skirt.
The touring kayak, also known as the ocean kayak, is designed to cut through ocean chop and waves. They have a much longer length and can measure up to 12 to 16-feet. They are ideal for long distances on flat water or for paddling in the open ocean.
These kayaks have small cockpits, and they are narrower than other kayaks. This design improves the glide and speed of the kayak, making it easy to cover long distances. While these models are great for straight-line speed, they are terrible in turns. Most models come with rudders to make turning easier.
However, you get a comfortable ride and excellent performance in the ocean. You can also fish from touring kayaks, and they have plenty of onboard storage for your gear. Touring kayaks are the second-most expensive models, behind the surfski. Top brands charge up to $1,500 or more for the premium models.
The surfski kayak is a longer version of the touring kayak. It has the same narrow body and sleek design, helping you cut through the chop in open water conditions. Surf skis are performance kayaks designed for power and speed on open water, like the ocean.
Surfskis are also suitable for river racing, but they can’t handle whitewater rapids. They also feature foot-operated rudder controls for assisted turning. The open-hull design offers paddlers lacking flexibility and an easy option for getting in and out of a sea-faring touring kayak.
Surfskis are lightweight, and most weigh around 35 to 40-lbs. However, they are expensive kayaks, with an average sticker price of $2,600. However, if you kayak alone and you need a lightweight boat to carry from the car to the launch by yourself, you won’t find a lighter boat.
If you don’t have space to store a kayak at home and value convenience, compact storage, and affordability, check out a folding kayak. These models come with collapsing frames that fold up and store in the trunk of your car.
There’s no need for roof racks, and assembling the kayak is easy. Most folding kayaks have inflatable panels, requiring you to inflate the boat before taking it out on the water. However, folding kayaks lack the strength of a fiberglass hull, and they may not have the same paddling performance as fiberglass models.
Folding kayaks are affordable, and the top models retail for $1,000 to $1,500. They are the ideal choice for kayakers that want the convenience of an inflatable with the performance of a hard-shell hull.
Inflatable kayaks are growing in popularity with recreational kayakers. Inflatables offer you the most compact boat on the market. They deflate and fold away into a convenient carry bag you can store in the trunk of your car. You don’t need storage space at home. Just pack it in a closet and pull it out when it’s time to head to the lake for the weekend.
Inflatable models might seem dangerous. After all, what if you get a puncture, won’t the boat sink? Most inflatables come with a tri-chamber design, separating the hull and sides in separate inflation chambers. So, if you pop the floor, the pontoons will still float, and you can make it back to shore.
However, inflatables are durable, and most manufacturers use durable tri-layer PVC plastic with a foam core for the hull. While they aren’t indestructible and lack the strength of fiberglass models, they aren’t very easy to puncture.
Inflatable kayaks are also very affordable, and you can pick up models for anything from $150 to $800. However, they are meant for recreational users. Inflatables don’t track well, and they have more drag in the water, requiring more paddling power.
Let’s face it, paddling is overrated. There are those times when your arms feel like lead after a day on the water. A pedal kayak helps you reduce the effort needed to power the boat through the water. With pedal kayaks, you use your feet to do the work. It’s like riding a bike but in the water.
Pedal kayaks are a great choice for people with back or shoulder problems that find paddling painful or uncomfortable. You only need to use your arms with a pedal kayak when launching the boat and carrying it to and from the car.
Push pedal kayaks come in push-pedal and rotational pedal models. The rotational pedal kayaks feature a similar setup to what you find on a bicycle. The kayaker can push and rotate the pedals, with forward and reverse motion available.
The push-pedal kayaks feature pedals like your accelerator in your car. The pedals have foot straps to secure your feet, and you press each pedal one at a time to propel the kayak forward. The pedals have a dual action, moving the boat forward on the pedals downward and upward, pressing and pulling.
The pedals power a fin system under the hull, pushing the boat forward in a fish-like swimming motion. While pedal models are uncommon, you’ll see them from time to time.
Electric and Motorized Kayaks
If pedaling and paddling sound like too much work, you always have the option of investing in an electric-powered kayak. These models come with lithium-ion battery packs attached to a small motor. The motor turns fins that propel the kayak forward or backward.
You get the maneuverability of a kayak with the function of a power boat. Sure, you’re not going to get the raw power of an outboard motor with this model. However, the kayak provides a steady pace, and it’s ideal for kayakers that carry a lot of gear and need extra assistance powering the kayak.
Some models come with more powerful motors than others and a range of other onboard features. However, the price tag is astronomical, and you can expect to pay $6,000+ for one of these boats.
Next up, we have whitewater kayaks. Whitewater models have a performance design that makes them ideal for whitewater sports. There are four types of whitewater kayaks. Let’s look at each in detail.
The creekboat kayak has plenty of “volume,” referring to the water it displaces. High-volume creekboats, with the bulk of the volume around the cockpit. They come in average lengths of eight feet, making them compact boats that are easy to transport.
Creekboats have a design for navigating tight creeks and waterways. This sport, known as “creeking,” can involve dropping off waterfalls or punching through holes, making for some exciting fun in the whitewater.
The even distribution of the volume throughout the kayak provides excellent balance, and they feature displacement hulls with rounded rails and progressive rockers. As a result, you have a responsive boat ideal for reacting to waves, holes, track eddy lines, and other whitewater features. You also get fast resurfacing after taking a big drop.
The creekboat comes with a cockpit and coaming, allowing you to fit a spray skirt to stop water from entering the boat.
The playboat kayak is similar to the creekboat. However, it has a short length and design features like planing hulls. They are suitable for “playboating” activities in whitewater rapids. This freestyle kayaking sport allows riders to perform tricks like riding waves, plunging in and out of holes, and surfing eddylines.
They also have a high-volume design centered around the cockpit, and you get spray skirts to keep water out of the boat. Playboats have flat bottoms from edge-to-edge, otherwise known as “planning” hulls. As a result of the flat bottom design, riders get easier and faster turns in whitewater conditions.
The squashed deck allows the ends of the playboat to sink, allowing paddlers to perform vertical playboat moves. However, they are unsuitable for river running due to the lack of balance and stability when paddling.
River Runner Kayaks
The river runner kayak measures seven to eight feet in length. They displacement hulls with rounded rails and plenty of rocker. The curve in the boat dips further below the waterline than playboats and creekboats.
As a result, you get better water displacement and harder edges for better kayak tracking. River runners give riders an efficient kayaking experience when running rivers. These boats offer the benefit of sharp turns for playboat-like reactions and performance.
The river runner kayak is long enough to enhance tracking on long straights and short enough to provide tight turns. It’s a versatile model for running rivers with features allowing for freestyle tricks on holes, waves, and eddylines.
Inflatable Whitewater Kayaks
Also known as “duckies,” inflatable whitewater kayaks feature design and construction with durable PVC materials. They don’t puncture easily, and they usually have plastic or fiberglass hulls with inflatable pontoons on the boat’s sides.
Duckies can withstand impacts into rocks and falls over steep ledges. They also handle well in the waves. The duckie has a wide body, providing exceptional stability on the whitewater. You also get plenty of storage room for your gear, and some duckies can carry up to eight passengers.
Duckies can run Class IV rapids and navigate the roughest waters, where recreational inflatables would burst or lose control.
How to Choose a Kayak – Our Recommendation
Choose a kayak that matches what you want to do in the water. Take some time to shop around for your kayak before settling on your purchase. Newbies should stick to flat water if you want our recommendation, and they will do well with a recreational inflatable model.