Choosing a Kayak

Father and son shopping for kayaks
Zigy Kalluzny/The Images Bank/Getty Images

Many people want to get into the sport of kayaking. They’ve rented a kayak or gone with a friend before and have finally decided to take the plunge for themselves. The question then becomes what type of kayak to buy and what to look for when choosing a kayak.

There are lots of factors to consider when choosing a kayak. The type of kayaking a person will be doing, where they will be kayaking, how large they are, their experience level, and a person’s budget all factor into the kayak that this would be paddler should end up with. 

What Type of Kayaking Will You Be Doing?

Kayaking actually encompasses a collection of different sports rather than it being a sport unto itself. There is whitewater kayaking, sea kayaking, kayak touring, sit-on-top kayaking, surf kayaking, and recreational kayaking, just to name a few of the different types of kayaking out there. A person can’t buy a sea kayak and expect to paddle whitewater in it.

The very first question that needs to be asked, therefore, is what type of kayaking the paddler will be doing. If you're not sure what type of kayaking you'll be doing, chances are you will want to paddle around in some local bodies of protected waters. In which case, you are looking for a recreational kayak. If you are still unsure, go to your local kayak outfitter or knowledgeable sporting good store and ask to speak to someone who knows about kayaks. Tell him or her exactly where you expect to be kayaking and they will tell you what type of kayak you need.​

What Should My Kayak Be Made of?

Some beginners want to buy the best boat they can get their hands on right from the start. Others just want to get started and expect to upgrade down the road. The latter approach is the one we recommend as most kayakers will eventually own multiple boats over the course of their life. For this reason, we recommend that most beginners start out with a used plastic kayak.

The gist of the plastic or composite kayak discussion is like this. Plastic kayaks are more durable, less expensive, and heavier than composite boats. Fiberglass, Kevlar, carbon fiber, and even wooden kayaks are all lighter and faster, but more delicate than their plastic counterparts. Unless you have lots of kayaking experience to know exactly what you want and how to take care of it, we recommend going with plastic at first.

What Size Kayak Should I Buy?

Once the first two questions above are answered, you can then begin to speak about kayak size. While there are many dimensions that make up a kayak, kayak size generally refers to the volume of the kayak, the length of the kayak, the width of the kayak, and the weight of the kayak.

There are two factors that should be considered when it comes to these dimensions. Since every kayak is designed differently, the manufacturer will give a suggested weight range. Stick to kayaks within your weight range. Then sit in the kayak. The most important way to size a kayak is to get in and make sure that you are comfortable. Be sure you fit, that your feet can reach the foot supports, that your legs make comfortable contact with the thigh braces, and that the backrest supports you properly.

Solo or Tandem Kayak?

Many people who want to buy recreational kayaks initially think they may want a tandem kayak, that is one that can hold two people. The idea is to then take their spouse or friend with them. Unfortunately, this rarely happens and the paddler is stuck with a kayak that is difficult--if not impossible--to paddle alone. For this reason, solo kayaks are the best option for beginners. You can always rent a kayak for your partner the few times they join you.

What About Accessories?

There is nearly an infinite number of accessories that can be on a kayak. There are bungee deck rigging, different types of hatches or storage compartments, ratchet adjustable backrests, and fishing rod holders to name just a few of the various kayak equipment. This is just a matter of research and preference. So do your homework and you’ll know exactly what you want. Bear in mind that most of these things can be added to your kayak down the road, so they needn’t factor into the type of kayak that you buy.