Kayak Buying guide: How To Choose A Kayak For Beginners

by Ally Mash | Last Updated:   October 8th, 2022
Kayak Buying guide: How To Choose A Kayak For Beginners

In the following article, we’ll guide you through the different types of kayaks so you know which one to choose. Each kayak has a specific design that is tailored to a certain activity and here we’ll decipher why a certain kayak is better suited for a certain activity.

Thus, whether you are just starting out or thinking of purchasing another kayak, this kayak buying guide will provide you with all the information you need.

The Basic Anatomy Of A Kayak

One of the best things about kayaking is the vast range of activities that open up for you—from the adrenaline rush of running whitewater rapids to the placid serenity of a day out fishing on a lake. Each kayak activity has its own specific design of kayak to go with it, from the short and wide play boat to the long sleek lines of the sea kayak.

So, when choosing a kayak it makes sense to focus on kayaks that are specifically designed for the activity you plan on using them for. However, some kayak activities such as kayak fishing and recreational kayaking still require you to choose between a sit-on-top kayak and sit-inside kayak. No matter which kayak you end up with, it will always fall within one of these two basic kayak designs.

Therefore, let’s address the most common question to ask yourself when choosing a kayak: “should I get a sit-on-top or a sit-inside kayak?”

Anatomy of sit-inside kayaks (SIS)

How To Choose A Kayak

As the name implies, a sit-inside kayak is designed for paddlers to sit inside the kayak so that the legs are underneath the deck when kayaking. Depending on the kayak’s design, this style allows you to brace your knees off the inside walls of the hull to help with strong and more efficient paddle strokes.

The most significant advantage of a sit-inside kayak is protection from the elements. By using a spray skirt to cover the cockpit, water, and cold breezes are kept out of the hull. Thus, they are an ideal choice for paddling with comfort in cold weather. 

The downside of sit-inside kayaks is that they don’t offer a lot of space for maneuvering in and out of the kayak. As a result, it is much more difficult to get back into your kayak once you capsize let alone get rid of the water that entered the kayak. 

The following video will give you some tips and tricks for re-entering a sit-inside kayak in case you capsize.

Parts of the sit inside kayak

The hatch is a storage compartment in the body of the kayak that is usually covered with a waterproof lid. They are usually bulkheads, which are dividers that split the kayak up into different compartments in case your cockpit gets filled with water. All gear stored in the hatch should be put in a dry bag since water can still penetrate into the body of the kayak. 

The hull is the shape of the bottom of the kayak which influences how difficult it is for a paddler to keep moving in a straight line and the stability of the kayak.  Depending on the design of the kayak hull, a kayak will have different advantages and disadvantages. 

A flat bottom hull is an extremely flat and wide hull and is therefore very stable and maneuverable. This makes them ideal for beginners. The downside of this type of hull is that they are slower and have poor tracking (=moving in a straight line). Also, they will begin to feel less stable as the water gets rough.

A V hull is shaped like a “V” and is more suitable for intermediate to advanced kayakers. This design is much faster and will track extremely well compared to flat bottom and combination hull kayaks. It will be a bit less maneuverable and stable, but that is a compromise for excellent speed and tracking ability. These will feel less stable in flat water but have great secondary stability due to the ability to edge when they are in rough water.

A Shallow V/Combination Hull is a mixture of the flat bottom and the V-hull and is a great choice for beginners to intermediates. Kayaks with this hull design will be slightly less stable but a bit faster than your standard flat bottom kayak while offering better tracking. 

The keel is the strip that runs along the bottom centerline of the boat. It is the part that is most susceptible to damage by dragging the kayak over concrete and rocky surfaces onto the water. Some kayaks come with a replaceable keel making it easier to replace a damaged one. A kayak with a defined keel will be faster and track better than a kayak without a large or defined keel.

The coaming also referred to as the cockpit rim, is a rim of plastic or rubber attached to the edges of the cockpit. It’s used for attaching a spray skirt so that water is prevented from entering the inside of the kayak.

The following video will briefly explain how to wear and attach a spray skirt onto a kayak:

The cockpit is the opening of a sit-inside kayak where the paddler is seated. Generally, it is hard to capsize a sit-in kayak but also hard to get the water out of it once it occurs.

Here is a short video that focuses on how to sit inside a kayak the right way:

The rudder is a long, narrow fin-like blade that extends down into the water of the stern end of a kayak. It is used for steering a kayak and thereby reducing the need for making correcting strokes such as during windy weather. It is often operated side to side by foot pedals in the cockpit. Keep in mind that some sit-on-top kayaks also come with a rudder.

The skeg is a fin that is centered on the keel of a boat, either fully back at the stern or slightly forward of the stern. Like the rudder, the skeg is also used to aid in maneuvering a kayak to reduce fatigue and discomfort. Keep in mind that some sit-on-top kayaks also come with a skeg. If you are interested in knowing more about the rudder and/or skeg, look at the following article.

The shock cord also referred to as bungee cord or deck line is used to store gear such as a kayak paddle on the deck of a kayak. Keep in mind that most sit-on-top kayaks also come with a shock cord.

Anatomy of sit-on-top kayaks (SOP)

How To Choose A Kayak

Sit-on-top kayaks are user-friendly because you simply have to sit on a molded-in depression on top of the kayak and you are ready to go. Unlike sit-inside kayaks, sit-on-top kayaks are very easy to get in and out of. Furthermore, they have a significantly higher center of gravity and are generally much wider than most sit-inside kayaks. As a result, they tend to have a much higher degree of initial stability.

For these reasons, sit-on-top kayaks are considered an ideal choice for beginners who still need to learn basic kayaking skills. That being said, some experienced paddlers also prefer these types of kayaks since they offer more storage space on the deck for carrying gear that you quickly need access to such as fishing equipment.

The drawback of sit-on-top kayaks is that they are relatively slower than sit-inside kayaks due to being much wider. Another drawback is that the open cockpit exposes the paddler to the elements such as waves and wind. This explains why they are best suited for slow-moving rivers, calm lakes, and protected coastal waters.

Parts of the sit-on-top kayak

The tank well is an on-deck storage area where kayak fishermen like to carry their fishing gear such as a milk crate or cooler.

The scupper holes are molded-in drain holes and depending on the kayak, you’ll find one to six of them. Their purpose is to drain water from the deck of the kayak so that water doesn’t collect in the open cockpit area of the deck or tank well. There are also scupper plugs, which cover the scupper holes. This is useful when you don’t want to get wet such as during cold weather conditions. 

The foot braces allow a paddler to sit comfortably in a kayak while maintaining a correct paddling position and posture so that you can paddle efficiently. Both sit-on-top and sit-inside kayaks have some form of foot support that can adjust to different-sized paddlers. However, some kayaks tend to come with footwells, which are molded-in footrest positions. If you are planning on spending a full day on the water, then you’ll want to use foot pedals, because they offer more support. 

In case you are wondering how to adjust the foot braces so that your legs are correctly positioned, check out the following video:

How To Choose A Kayak For Beginners

Several sit on top kayaks

According to the American Kayaking Association, kayaks can be divided into two main categories: flatwater and whitewater.

Flatwater kayaks are designed for kayaking on water that is sheltered from waves, excessive wind, and current. It most typically takes place on small lakes, ponds, and other tranquil bodies of water such as marshes or swamps. As there are fewer obstacles and challenges, flatwater kayaking is a great fit for beginners.

Whitewater kayaks are designed for kayaking on rough waters such as any river or creek that has a significant number of rapids. These rapids are classified by the International Scale of River Difficulty into six categories that reflect both the technical difficulty and the degree of danger. For instance, grade I refers to flat or slow-moving waters with few hazards while grade VI refers to the hardest rapids, which are extremely dangerous even for expert paddlers and are rarely run.

In what follows, we’ll discuss the different types of kayaks that are associated with each category.

Flatwater kayaks

How To Choose A Kayak

Fishing kayaks

Fishing Kayak

Fishing kayaks are simply put sit-on-top kayaks with built-in features that make it easier for fishing out of a kayak.

These features include a comfortable kayak seat, molded-in rod holders, an accessory track mounts for mounting more features such as a fish finder and phone holder. In most cases, they also feature an open center platform making it easy to fish while standing up, and plenty of on-deck storage so that your fishing gear is easily accessible.

They usually feature a flat bottom hull which implies that they are quite stable and easy to maneuver. Although this reduces the chance of capsizing with all your on-deck fishing gear, it also makes the kayak much slower than other types. Another disadvantage is that you get wet from splashes, which is nice in the summer, but not so nice in the winter.

Recreational kayaks

A recreational kayak is a basic beginner kayak and is designed for the casual paddler interested in recreational activities on a lake or flatwater stream.

They have a closed cockpit, which is usually a fairly large opening making it super easy to get in and out of. This design makes them adequate for all seasons since you can leave the cockpit open during the summer and use a spray skirt to cover the cockpit during winter.

They are mostly made out of plastic known as polyethylene making them very sturdy but also quite heavy. They are not to be confused with touring kayaks because they are much cheaper and shorter, usually 10 feet or less. Being shorter also makes them slower than touring kayaks because they don’t track as well.

Tracking is a term used to describe how straight a kayak glides without any steering or paddling. Lastly, there are also kayaks that accommodate more than one person and are referred to as tandem or double kayak. 

Packraft kayaks

Have you ever wished you could combine backpacking or mountain biking with rafting? If so, then purchasing a packraft is the right choice for you.

Packrafts are built to be lightweight, packable, durable, and easy to inflate. They are tough enough to handle everything from a lazy river to class III rapids. They often weigh less than 9 lbs and usually carry a single passenger.

This makes it possible to navigate through rough terrain while carrying the rafting equipment along with supplies, shelter, and other backcountry equipment. Most often they are paddled from a sitting position, although kneeling can be advantageous in some situations.

Touring kayaks

Touring kayaks, also referred to as ocean or sea kayaks, are designed for paddling on open waters of lakes, bays, and the ocean.

They are usually 12 feet or longer, have a smaller cockpit and are much narrower than recreational kayaks. They trade off the maneuverability of whitewater kayaks for higher cruising speed, cargo capacity, ease of straight-line paddling, and comfort for long journeys.

For that reason, these kayaks are more often used on long trips across large bodies of water and are not as useful for the family on an afternoon trip to the lake where a recreational or sit-on-top would be better.

Finally, touring kayaks are quite expensive ranging around $800 for a second hand and $1200 or more for a new one. 

Surfski Kayaks

Surfski kayaks are the longest of all kayaks and are performance-oriented kayaks designed for speed on open water. They are commonly used for racing down rivers and oceans with varying degrees of big weirs and waves, particularly in South Africa. Single surfski kayaks are referred to as K1s, doubles as K2s, and four-man boats as K4s. Surfskis are steered by foot-controlled pedals connected to a stern rudder.

Their performance design and steering system make it possible to paddle onto and ride open water wind swells on the ocean and other large bodies of water. The ease of remounting the craft is another major benefit and safety consideration that has helped lift the surf ski’s popularity. The open hull design also offers those paddlers, lacking the flexibility required for getting into the tight cockpit of a sea kayak, a competitive craft that can be paddled fast and in rougher waters.

At an average weight of 16kgs, surfski kayaks are extremely lightweight. Although they have a base cost of $2,600, it is difficult to find a comparable sea kayak that matches its price and weight ratio. Thus, the weight is often a key consideration for most paddlers who have to transport their boat on a car and need to be comfortable lifting it onto a roof rack by themselves and with the bonus and pleasure of paddling a lighter craft.

The following video shares some useful tips when choosing a surf ski. 

Inflatable kayaks

inflatable kayak

Inflatable kayaks, also known as duckies, consist of three or more air chambers that need to be inflated before they can be used. The air chambers are not connected with each other so inflation is guaranteed even if one chamber is punctured. That being said, they are made of durable material such that the likelihood of a puncture is reduced to a minimum. 

As a result, there are inflatable kayaks for different kayak activities such as recreational, fishing, and even whitewater rafting. Their biggest advantage lies in their portability since they don’t require a roof rack or trailer for transportation and can be easily stored away once deflated.

Some inflatable kayaks are even so compact that they can be carried around like a backpack. On the other hand, hardshell kayaks will always offer better performance such as better speed and tracking than inflatable kayaks. Also, an inflatable kayak needs to be laid out to dry fully before it can be folded up and stored.

This means you’ll either need to wait at the take-out (which, unless it’s a sunny or breezy day, isn’t the most efficient option) or lay it out to dry at home.

Folding kayaks

Until recently, folding kayaks were made of a collapsible frame made out of some combination of wood, aluminum, and plastic, and a skin made of tough fabric with a waterproof coating. Although some manufacturers still produce these kinds of kayaks, the newer wave of folding kayaks, led by Oru Kayak, implements more of a collapsible kayak making for quick setup.

Similar to inflatable kayaks, folding kayaks are highly portable and compact so that the required storage space is minimal. However, unlike inflatable kayaks their performance is much like a hardshell kayak and has a frame that can give a slight flex in response to the water, enhancing the touring experience.

Pedal kayaks

So far, we have discussed kayaks in which a paddler is required to use a kayak paddle in order to move forward. However, pedal kayaks require a paddler to use his/her legs to operate the pedals beneath the kayak to move forward.

Thus, they are great for people who have back or shoulder problems because the only time you need to use your arms is when pulling into shore. Within the product range of pedal kayaks, there’s a further distinction between push pedals and rotational pedals. 

Rotational paddles are pedals that are very similar to a bicycle in that it allows you to rotate and push the pedal system forward and backward which then gives your kayak the ability to move forward and backward.

Push pedal kayaks work by pushing your feet back and forth onto the pedal and since your feet are strapped onto the pedals, pulling back causes the kayak to move forward as well. Usually, these types of pedal kayaks use underwater flaps to move the kayak forward (like how fish fins move fish through the water). The picture illustrated above is an example of this kind of kayak. The major drawback of these types of kayaks is their price.

Considering that there are options up to $6000 and more, it is clear that price is relative when looking for cheap pedal kayaks.

Motorized kayaks

Motorized kayaks offer the speed, efficiency, and maneuverability of standard kayaks, combined with the ease of moving around like a boat. Of course, most kayak motors won’t give you the raw power or muscle of a powerboat, but you don’t need that.

Electric kayaks — or even kayaks with a gas motor — are more than capable of towing you and your gear around the lake for hours on end. The motor, battery, and throttle box don’t add a ton of weight to your kayak, and operating the motor is as easy as casting a rod.

When you’re shopping for a motorized kayak, be sure to check and see if the kayak comes equipped with the motor or if it’s motor-ready and the motor needs to be purchased separately.

Whitewater kayaks

Whitewater kayaking

Playboat kayaks

Playboat kayak

Playboat kayaks are generally short in design, have planing hulls and edges, and are specifically designed for playboating. This is a form of freestyle kayaking where various whitewater features are being used such as waves, holes, and eddylines to surf and perform tricks. Volume centered around the cockpit ensures stability in this vertical realm.

It features a planing hull, which is a very flat bottom from edge to edge. This gives them an advantage in whitewater due to easier turning, faster turns, and more maneuverable with less effort. The squashed decks allow the ends to sink underwater, so paddlers can perform vertical play moves but this also makes them rather unsuitable for river-running without the proper experience.

Thus, these kayaks are not suited for starting from one spot on the river and traveling down the river to another spot. They are mostly equipped for going to a spot on and staying and playing on the standing waves and holes.

River runner kayaks

River runner kayaks are usually about 7-8 feet long making them longer than playboats. They feature a displacement hull which is a round curve that dips farther below the waterline and ‘displaces’ water along with harder edges. This allows for efficient river running, with the additional benefit of turning on the edge for quick playboat-like movements.

It’s long enough to give a little bit of tracking for the long flat sections of the river that you inevitably have to go through, but short enough to manage the tight turns that the river makes. This makes it a fantastic versatile kayak for running rivers with the type of features that allow for performing freestyle tricks on waves, holes, and eddylines.

Creekboat kayaks

Creekboat kayaks have a high volume that is equally arranged around the cockpit and are usually 8 feet or longer making them longer than river runner kayaks.

They are designed to run long continuous stretches of whitewater, punch through holes and descend very steep low-volume waters, also known as creeking.

The consistent volume distribution, rounded edges, displacement hulls, and a progressive rocker mean that less time is spent reacting to holes, waves, and features and that there is quicker resurfacing when running bigger drops.

They are pretty comfortable, and usually a little more heavily built to withstand the drops. Some creek boats have a displacement hull which is nice for drops but can prove to be a bit tricky in holes and crossing eddy lines, especially for beginners. 

Inflatable whitewater kayaks

Inflatable Whitewater Kayaks, also known as duckies, are designed to survive devastating impacts into rocks and trees, falls over ledges, and are pounded by massive waves.

They are very stable because of how wide they are and can haul a lot of gear. Chances are high that you have probably used them if you have done any whitewater rafting with a company.

The ability to run Class IV rapids is what separates whitewater inflatable kayaks from even the best quality recreational inflatable kayaks. Waves are large and irregular, and rapids run for considerable periods while drops up to five feet may be encountered. The current is very strong due to the steep slope of the river and the water has significant turbulence.

Also, large amounts of water almost always pour into the boat regardless of paddler skill, thus requiring that the kayak has the ability to drain the water away quickly.

Key Insights & Takeaways

If you have made it this far then you have noticed that there are a variety of kayaks on the market. By now you should be well-versed with the different types of kayaks and hopefully know which type of kayak suits you best.

To summarize, there are 5 factors to consider when choosing the best kayak: 

  1. Budget 
  2. Material
  3. Skill level
  4. Type of activity
  5. Type of water

If you are just starting out paddling, then consider purchasing a recreational kayak so that you are stable enough on the water while being able to easily get in and out of the kayak. It is not recommended to tackle whitewater unless under the supervision of an experienced kayaker.

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Ally is an avid outdoor enthusiast who has spent most of his free time backpacking through South America, Iceland, Vietnam, and Europe. He loves sharing his experience through blogging. His mission is to get more people in the mindset of protecting our planet by sharing its beauty.