The Beginner’s Guide to Buying a Kayak

It’s easy to understand the appeal of owning a kayak. They are easy to operate in virtually any body of water, a day (or just a few hours) on the water constitutes a healthy workout, and most current models are reliable and relatively affordable. But when it comes to selecting a kayak, there are some important considerations to make.

First identify the style of kayak that best serves your recreational needs. The four most common types are:

Recreational: Designed for lakes, inlets, and other relatively calm bodies of water, these are ideal for people who prefer to paddle less and fish more; many have grooves or holders built into the seating area to accommodate rods.

Sea: These are intended for use in the open ocean, so they sit fairly low to counter cross-wind, and some may feature rudders or skegs to mitigate large waves.

Touring: These usually have a wide cockpit, roomy bulkead, and additional storage hatches to accommodate multi-day excursions; larger versions may also feature rudders or outriggers.

Whitewater: Designed for agile maneuvering in fast-moving rivers, these are typically seven to 10 feet in length and outfitted with a deep cockpit to prevent you from falling into the water. These models can withstand rocks and other sharp objects better than other kayaks.

Other models include kayaks designed for competitive racing or riding the surf. Aditionally, sit-on-top kayaks have become increasingly popular in recent years. Instead of a compartment, these models feature a flat sitting surface and one or two separate storage compartments. There is a trade-off with this design: it’s easier to recover if the kayak overturns, but also more difficult to remain in the boat if the surface becomes wet or the water becomes turbulent. Double kayaks are also available.

Regardless of the intended use, kayak design principles follow two general rules:

A model designed to excel at one of two functions: tracking (traveling in a straight line) or turning. Consequently, kayaks built for consistent tracking are not as suitable for agile turns, and vice versa.

The longer and thinner the kayak, the faster it will move and the less you’ll need to paddle.

Each individual model is constructed to different specifications and dimensions. Your goal should be to select a kayak that is comfortable for your body type. Does the cockpit sit low or high enough in the boat to allow for easy paddling? Is there adequate legroom? Are the oar handles adjustable, and if not, does their placement prevent you from paddling with full range-of-motion? A “test drive” is a great way to ensure your new kayak won’t clash with your body type ― but of course, this might not be possible for online shoppers.

The kayak material and its cost are two important factors that are somewhat linked. Plastic models are generally the cheapest (typically between $300 and $1,500); acrylic fiberglass models tend to be more expensive ($1,500 to $3,000); and models built from custom materials will cost even more. It’s important to note that plastic will scratch easier than fiberglass, but plastic is also more resistant to punctures and major damage from sharp objects.

Finally, you’ll want to make sure the paddles you select match your kayak model type. As noted by the kayak experts at Paddle Shack: “A recreational paddler with a wide boat and very relaxed paddling style will typically use a blade with a moderate surface area and slightly longer length. The touring or sea kayak paddler will typically use a narrow blade. A white water or surf paddler will use a very large blade and short shaft, allowing for better grip on aerated water and quicker acceleration”.

Have you purchased a kayak lately? Tell us about your experience, and feel free to share any expert buying tips we might have missed.