Choosing the Right Kayak

A coworker asked me the other week if I had any suggestions of what kind of kayak to buy; she had looked at several but didn’t have a clue on which one would do what she needed. I told her I had written an article about it some time back, but after I started going through the 60 odd articles I’ve written over the years I realized that, somehow, I’d managed to not write that specific article. I’ve written about places to go kayaking, whether a kayak or a canoe is better, and about times I’ve gone kayaking. This article will be about what kind of kayak is right for you and the water you are paddling.

To start, let’s look at the general information that applies to all types of kayaks. Dimensions and shape are very important: length, width, hull shape, and the amount of rocker all make a difference in the capabilities of your craft.

Length: The longer your kayak, the faster it will be and the straighter it will track. With a fast boat that doesn’t pull side to side with each paddle stroke, even if your goal isn’t racing a boat that is efficient makes longer trips less of a strain. Many people go to buy their first kayak and think they’ll never want a “fast” boat, but once the reality of how exhausting it is to paddle shorter kayak, they’re on Craigslist looking for a longer one. The drawback is a longer boat isn’t as maneuverable or easy to turn, so if tight creeks and the Catawba at shallow water is your idea of a good time, I wouldn’t try to do it in a 16’ kayak.

While a dizzying array of lengths are available, for the purposes of figuring out what boat suits your needs lets break them down to the most common lengths: <9’,  9’, 12’, 14’, and 16’+. <9’ usually falls under the category of whitewater kayaks, 9’ – 14’ are all common lengths for recreational style kayaks, and 16+ falls under touring or sea kayaks; more on the different categories of kayaks later.

Width: This dimension has the greatest effect on initial stability, the feeling of steadiness when you’re sitting in the boat on flat water. The wider the boat, the more stable but also the slower and less efficient; the inverse is true, so the narrower the boat the less stable but also the faster and more efficient. Many boats in the 30” wide range are picked by first timers and if all you want to do is fish and lazily paddle short day trips, they’re great. If you plan on longer trips, or want to travel more efficiently, I would suggest a kayak in the 26-28” wide range as a first time purchase. While not as stable as a 30” wide kayak by no means are they unstable, and they offer the best balance of performance and accessibility to allow novice kayakers to grow into a boat. I’ve seen too many people buy a kayak, paddle it 5-10 times, and then try to sell it so they can upgrade to the performance they should have bought to begin with. As the old adage goes, you pay for cheap twice.

Hull shape: This is the secondary factor to stability as well as to the boats efficiency. Hull shape determines what’s called secondary stability, which is how far over the boat can be leaned before it finally flips. Flat hulls, similar to john boats, have excellent initial stability but if you lean them they’re actually pretty easy to flip. V-shaped hulls slice through the water much more efficiently and also allow a large amount of secondary stability, so you can put the kayak on edge and carve turns and more easily deal with waves and rough water. They do, however, have poor initial stability so it will be scary the first time you jump in one. There are lots of rounded hull shapes between a flat bottom and a true V which blends the strengths of each, working out a compromise between efficiency, primary stability, and secondary stability. The varying degrees between the two are call classified as hard or soft chine: the V hull having a hard chine with straight angles, and rounded and flat bottom shapes having a soft chine.

Rocker: Rocker refers to the upturn of the keel of the boat, basically how far off the ground the nose and tail ends are when sitting flat. A flat keeled boat tracks straight and true, but typically isn’t as maneuverable or handles rough water as well as a boat with some rocker to it. Again, these are all factors to consider based on what kind of waters you’ll be paddling; if you’re going to be taking long trips straight across large lakes like Jocassee, a flatter rocker might be best. If you’re wanting to tackle the ocean, with wave constantly coming across your bow, a kayak with more rocker might be best.

So now that we know what effect the dimensions have on a boats performance, let’s take a look at the categories of kayaks: Whitewater, Recreational, and Touring.

Whitewater kayaks are short, maneuverable, and are only good on moving water. I know from experience that if you decide to take a whitewater boat on flat water, the moment you stop paddling you’ll be spinning in circles which stops being fun about 30 seconds before it starts. If you purchase a “skirt” for your boat, it will also seal out most of the water not only going through rapids but also when needed to roll it right-side up. There are some cross-over style boats able to handle light whitewater and flatwater, but it falls under the banner “Jack of all trades master of none”; unless you live in an apartment and can’t easily store two boats, it’s better to just start your collection and have a kayak for every occasion. Whitewater boats are the cheapest on the used market, so while a crossover kayak might command a $300-400 premium, you can buy a whitewater kayak, paddle, skirt, and helmet for the same amount if you do some searching on Craigslist.

Recreational kayaks have the widest variety, the most availability, and the biggest differences in features. There are recreational boats that are as stable as a rock and slow as a sloth and there are day touring models 14’ long and 24” wide that give you nearly the performance of a touring kayak. Even in those differences, there are the sub-categories of sit on top kayaks vs sit in kayaks. A sit-in kayak is what most people think of, while sit on tops are open to the elements and self draining so that if any water washes in it immediately is flushed out the bottom. It’s great for fishing, especially when you want to jump in and out frequently to get to a better spot. If you’re the kind of person who hates tan lines, I’ve heard that sit on tops are much better at not leaving lines on your legs. It’s never been a concern of mine, but in the interest of giving you an informed opinion, there you go

Touring kayaks as a general rule are long, sleek, and have several storage hatches in case you want to try the water version of backpacking. If you get addicted to paddling, and enjoy taking long trips across great distances with the minimum effort, you’ll probably find yourself in a touring kayak sooner or later. The biggest problem with touring kayaks is they can be difficult to transport by yourself due to their size, and if you decide to do a river like the Catawba you will hate life at low water because unless you are a master class paddler you will be hung up on rocks for the majority of your trip. I have a 17’ touring kayak I take everywhere and it’s done a great job, but my whitewater kayak is what I choose when paddling through Landsford Canals lilies.

When you finally decide on the type of kayak you want to buy, it’s time to start looking at specific features to every model. The material the kayak is made out of is important for several reasons. Polyethylene is the most common material, and is durable, not as heavy as lead, and relatively inexpensive. The drawbacks are the material is not rigid which makes it inefficient in the water due to the constant flexing prevent it from cutting through the water, and it feels only slightly lighter than lead. For example, a 12’ sit-in recreational style kayak is going to be in the 50-55lb; a 12’ sit on top, which uses more plastic, will be in the 60+lb range so unless you’ve been doing a lot of deadlifts at the gym it’s not going to be easy to throw it on the roof of your car. A more expensive material option would be a fiberglass or Kevlar kayak, which is the exact opposite of polyethylene. It is very light (that same 12’ sit in would be in the 30-35lb range) and very efficient and fast due to the very stiff nature of the material. However, a solid impact with a rock will leave you learning kayak repair much sooner than you’d care to on a kayak that is going to cost in the neighborhood of $1000+.

The most important aspect of picking the kayak for you though is how comfortable it is to sit in, and how well it fits you. Sit in it, paddle to make sure you’re not banging your knuckles into the sides, are your feet constricted so they can’t move, does the seat give you proper lumbar support? It may not be a concern if you’re only taking it for a 15 minute joy ride, but on a 3-hour tour you’ll appreciate every ounce of foam that’s cushioning your backside. Many people prefer a high-backed seat and I would agree as long as you’re not expecting to ever put a skirt on the boat to seal out water. If that’s in your plans, it’s only going to get in the way.  

All of this information is great, but put it into practice. Many outdoor stores have demo days where you can go and try out various models of kayaks on a lake to find out what works best for you. Take the time to do your research and test drive a few, and you’ll have a kayak that will serve you well for many years.

Amish in the sense that, at one point, my family helped others raise barns.
Now I build websites to help others build their businesses.