A kayak offers various opportunities, such as accessing picturesque beachside campgrounds, quietly exploring estuaries, enjoying breathtaking views unavailable from the shore, engaging in a morning workout on a lake, or simply having fun in the water with your kids.

With numerous options available, choosing the right kayak for you can be a daunting task.

To make this decision easier on how to choose a kayak, consider the following key points:

  • Paddling Location: Determine where you plan to paddle—whether it’s a lake, seacoast, or river. This will help narrow down your choices.
  • Sit-in or Sit-on-Top: Decide whether you prefer the enclosed feel of a traditional sit-in kayak or the open design of a sit-on-top kayak. If you’re open to either option, that’s perfectly fine too.
  • Kayak Weight and Budget: Consider the materials used in the construction of the kayak, as they directly impact the boat’s price, weight, and durability. This aspect is closely tied to your budget.
  • Shape and Size: Take into account the shape and size of the kayak as they affect its handling and cargo capacity.

By focusing on these factors, you can find the kayak that best suits your needs and preferences.

Remember, the ultimate goal is to enjoy your time on the water and make the most of your kayaking adventures.

Where Will You Use Your Kayak?

Although boats aren’t typically classified according to the type of water body, it’s beneficial to consider the environment you’re interested in exploring before choosing a boat.

Lakes: For lakes (not major ones like Lake Superior, but local ones), if the weather is pleasant and your destination isn’t far, any sit-on-top or recreational sit-in boat can make your day enjoyable.

However, if things get rough and whitecaps start to form, a purely recreational boat may not be up to the task.

Coasts: Coastal waters present challenges like wind, waves, currents, tides, and more.

In such circumstances, it’s wise to opt for a sit-in touring boat equipped with a rudder, fixed tracking fin, or a skeg (a dropdown fin).

If you’re living in a warm climate and don’t mind taking a dip, or you plan on kayak surfing, a sit-on-top can still be a great choice.

Rivers: When it comes to rivers (we’re not referring to complex rapids here – whitewater kayaks are outside the purview of this discussion), you’ll need a reliable, robust boat that can turn quickly.

A short, stable recreational sit-in or sit-on-top boat or a day touring sit-in kayak could be just the ticket.

Rivers & Lakes: For both rivers and lakes, a short recreational sit-in or sit-on-top kayak can serve you well.

These versatile boats usually come with a skeg, which facilitates responsive turning when raised and efficient tracking when lowered.

Alternatively, you could consider a short boat equipped with a rudder, though these are typically found on longer boats.

How to Choose a Kayak: Types of Kayaks

Kayaks can be categorized based on various factors, such as your seating position in the boat, their intended use, their structural design, and whether they’re designed for a particular purpose.

Sit-on-top Vs. Traditional Sit-in Kayaks

Sit-on-top kayaks are mostly used for recreational purposes, suitable for lakes and gentle rivers.


They’re also common in warm coastal waters, and a few of the larger models even have sufficient storage for an overnight trip.

If being inside a cockpit makes you uncomfortable or you don’t want to learn the “wet exit” technique for capsizing, then sit-on-top kayaking might be for you.

Here are some things to consider:

  • Sit-on-top kayaks are easy to get onto and off of, even in deep water. This makes them great for casual activities, like frolicking near a lakeside cabin, for use as a children’s boat, or as a swimming platform.
  • They’re comfortable to use when the air and water temperatures are warm, but keep in mind you’ll always get a little wet.
  • Scupper holes ensure they’re self-draining, eliminating the need to manually pump out water.
  • These kayaks feature some deck storage spaces, along with more challenging-to-reach storage areas within the hollow hull.
  • Sit-on-top kayaks are typically heavier compared to similar sit-in models.
  • For fishing enthusiasts, certain sit-on-top kayaks come with rod holders, or at least the option to install them.

Sit-in kayaks are available as recreational boats, day touring, and touring models.


They’re designed for speed and straight tracking, and come with covered cargo compartments, making them ideal for paddling to a destination.

Here are some additional factors to keep in mind:

  • Sit-in kayaks provide comfort when the air and water temperatures are cool.
  • If you’d like, you can attach a spray skirt, but you’ll need a bilge pump in case you capsize completely. Additionally, if you opt for a traditional, narrow sit-in kayak, you should learn how to perform a wet exit.
  • The way your body fits in a sit-in kayak, with multiple contact points – your buttocks, knees, and feet – provides you with greater control. This can be especially handy in choppy waters and also adds more fun when you’re maneuvering.
  • Furthermore, sit-in kayaks tend to be more efficient to paddle compared to sit-on-top models.

Kayak Categories

While it’s helpful to be aware of boat categories, remember that not all kayak manufacturers use the same terminology.

For instance, one brand’s “recreational” kayak may be similar to another’s “day touring” kayak. Here are some general guidelines to help:

Recreational kayaks (both sit-ins and sit-on-tops):


These are affordable, stable, easy to board and disembark, and simple to steer.

They’re perfect for relaxed activities on calm waters or slow-moving rivers.

They’re not designed for long journeys, waves, or rapids. Storage is generally restricted to a few essential items.

Day touring kayaks (sit-ins):


These versatile boats are sleeker and more efficient to paddle than recreational models, hence they may come at a higher price.

Day touring kayaks track straighter and offer better control in rough water compared to recreational boats.

Being shorter than sea kayaks, they are easier to transport and handle. They provide a moderate amount of cargo space.

Touring kayaks (sit-in sea kayaks):


These long, sturdy boats are extremely efficient for long-distance paddling.

They track well and are equipped with a rudder or skeg to handle wind and currents. You’ll find ample storage space and a higher price tag in this category.

If you’re fully committed to long trips and coastal kayaking, a sea kayak could be more cost-effective from the outset.

If you’re unsure, a day-touring boat is a less expensive option to start with and can facilitate the development of your paddling skills.

Specialty Kayaks 

The following categories could be suitable options for certain specific scenarios, such as limited storage space, paddling with a partner, or prioritizing fishing:

Folding kayaks:


If you live in a small apartment, intend to travel, or want to trek to a secluded spot for kayaking, then a folding kayak could be an ideal choice.

Although it might not be as durable as a hard-shell kayak, it usually offers handling and storage space comparable to many touring boats.

Inflatable kayaks:


These kayaks, like folding ones, are excellent for saving storage space. They’re surprisingly robust and versatile.

Recreational models aren’t designed for speed and are best for close-to-shore activities.

Wide, sturdy inflatable kayaks are suitable for flowing rivers as they can bounce off obstacles.

Some inflatable models are specifically designed for serious touring.

Tandem kayaks:


These can be an economical option if you and your paddling partner are considering purchasing just one boat instead of two individual kayaks.

Tandem kayaks are typically more stable than solo ones, and they’re a fantastic option if you’re planning to bring children along.

However, you’ll sacrifice having an extra rescue boat and the flexibility to venture out on your own.

If you’re confident that you’ll always paddle together, a tandem kayak can be a wise choice.

Pedal-powered kayaks:


These are great if you want your hands free for activities such as fishing, photography, or wildlife viewing with binoculars.

They come equipped with advanced pedal propulsion systems, which could be bicycle-like pedals driving a propeller, or push-pedals powering a pair of fins.

Steering is controlled by a rudder, manipulated using a hand control. You’ll be seated higher to allow for pedaling motion.

These kayaks are generally wider, providing a stable platform (in calm conditions).

As pedaling utilizes your stronger leg muscles, you might be able to maintain longer stretches more comfortably.

However, there are a few drawbacks. The pedal technology increases the cost and maintenance of the kayak.

You’ll also need to be cautious of the propeller or fins beneath the kayak when in shallow waters.

Maneuvering quick turns or tackling rough waters won’t be as efficient as in a traditionally paddled kayak.

Pedal kayaks are also heavier, affecting their handling both in and out of the water (it’s advisable to transport a pedal kayak using a trailer as it might be too heavy for a roof rack).

How to Choose a Kayak: Materials, Weight, and Price

A lighter kayak offers various advantages. It’s easier to carry, simpler to load onto your car (especially if you’re alone), and quicker to gain speed.

Additionally, a lighter boat allows you to carry more gear, as less of the weight capacity is consumed by the boat itself.

However, the use of lightweight materials can significantly increase the cost of a kayak.

Polyethylene plastic: This material is affordable and resistant to wear and tear, making it a popular choice.

However, it’s the heaviest option and can degrade under prolonged exposure to the sun’s UV rays.

Hence, it’s best to store these kayaks under cover.

ABS plastic: This is slightly more expensive than polyethylene but offers similar durability.

The added cost results in a lighter weight than polyethylene and some degree of UV resistance.

The distinctive two-tone designs of thermoformed ABS boats are due to the separate construction and bonding of the deck and hull.

Composites: Fiberglass and ultra-lightweight carbon fiber boats offer a significant improvement in performance but at a higher price point.

UV rays aren’t a major concern for these materials, but a significant impact with rocks can cause substantial damage.

Additional Factors to Consider

Boats of similar design are likely to have comparable specifications. However, weight capacity and length can differ, making them crucial specs to examine.

Weight Capacity: This includes the total weight of the boat, your equipment, and yourself.

This specification is particularly important if you plan to carry gear for a multi-day tour.

If the boat is overloaded, it will sit too low in the water, hindering your paddling efficiency.

Length: Longer boats cruise more efficiently and provide ample storage space for overnight touring gear, while shorter hulls turn more quickly.

A difference of a few inches in length won’t have a significant impact, but a difference of two feet or more will be noticeable.

Depth: Deeper hulls provide more room for long-legged kayakers and slightly more storage. Shallower hulls are less impacted by wind.

Width: Wider hulls offer more initial stability, while narrower hulls are faster.

Skegs, tracking fins, and rudders: These accessories aid in maintaining a straight path in windy conditions.

  • A skeg is a dropdown fin that assists in preventing the boat from being pushed off course by a side wind.
  • A tracking fin serves a similar purpose. However, unlike a skeg, it cannot be retracted while you’re paddling. It’s most commonly found on inflatable kayaks. If you prefer quick turns over maintaining the course, you have the option to remove the tracking fin before paddling.
  • A rudder is a fin that flips down from the back of the boat. Unlike the others, it isn’t fixed in one position. Its angle can be continuously adjusted via foot pedals, making it more responsive to changing conditions while you’re on the move.

Seats: A high-quality seat can increase a boat’s cost by $100 or more.

However, considering the many hours you’ll spend in that seat, an option that is more adjustable, more padded, and more ergonomically tailored to you might be worth the extra expense.

Cockpit Size: A small, tight cockpit offers more control and protection in rough conditions.

A large cockpit, on the other hand, makes it easier to enter and exit the boat.

Hatches: These grant access to internal storage areas. Larger touring boats usually have two, while day touring boats and some recreational boats have one.

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