Types of Kayaks and Kayaking

Couple kayaking on Jordan Pond in Acadia National Park, Maine, USA

Jerry Monkman/Aurora Photos/Getty Images

To some, kayaking conjures up ideas of serenity, peace, and leaving cares aside. To others, it evokes imagery of adventure and excitement. It can be fast paced or laid back and everything in between.

As varied as the paddlers themselves, kayaking is a sport for all ages, abilities, and preferences. Here' we'll explore the different types of kayaking and the boats used for each.


family recreational kayaking in river

Ariel Skelley/Getty Images

Recreational kayaking is the basic kayaking that is seen on well-protected lakes and other safe bodies of water. They are the boats used in rental fleets and local parks and are found on the shores of lake homes across the country.

Recreational kayaks are usually wide and stable. No experience is required to paddle them and they are not meant for speed nor necessarily for comfort. Their primary purpose is to have fun on the water.


woman kayaking

gradyreese/Getty Images

While touring also takes place on protected bodies of water, it is not necessarily reserved for beginning paddlers. Touring is for paddlers who take paddling serious and can be used over long periods of time with a reasonable amount of comfort.

Touring kayaks are long and they track (go straight) very well. While touring kayaks look a lot like sea kayaks, they only have one sealed bulkhead which is behind the paddler.

The bow area of the kayak is not sealed which will allow the kayak to fill up with water if flipped. This is the primary reason why touring kayaks are meant to be paddled on protected bodies of water.


Kayak paddling at sea

Geir A. Granviken/Getty Images

Sea kayaking is done out in the ocean or on other bodies of water that are large and unpredictable. For this reason, sea kayaks have two sealed bulkheads, one in the bow in front of the feet and the other in the stern behind the seat.

The bulkheads and hatches allow the kayaker to stow a lot of gear and they're perfect for camping or long trips.

Sea kayaks are easy to paddle once you get used to them and they often include a rudder to help you steer on open water. They can also cut through sizeable waves because of their aerodynamics. These are heavy boats and typically range from 15 to 19 feet long.

It is necessary to understand the principles of navigation as well as the essential safety practices for sea kayaks. Practice rescues and re-entry of the boat on calm water so you know what to do.


Woman whitewater kayaking

Dennis Welsh/Getty Images

Whitewater kayakers paddle rivers, streams, and creeks where rapids -- or white water -- is present. The whitewater classification system rates the different rivers and rapids by their level of difficulty to help paddlers weigh their own abilities against the obstacles.

Whitewater is exciting and extremely dangerous. Paddlers need to learn many skills in order to face the biggest rapids and it should never be done without a partner.

Within whitewater kayaking, there are also different types of paddling such as playboating, river running, squirt boating, and creeking. Depending on how serious of a paddler a kayaker is, they can require very specialized boats for each type of whitewater paddling.


kayaking the Northern beaches , Australia

Simon Burns/Getty Images

Surf kayaking takes place in the ocean but uses kayaks similarly shaped to whitewater boats. It is basically surfing, but instead of using a surfboard the paddler sits in a kayak.

Surf kayaking is another dangerous genre of paddling and requires special instruction and understanding.


couple on sit on top kayak

Justin Lewis/Getty Images

About one out of five kayaks purchased is a sit-on-top kayak. While kayaks are traditionally sit-in boats -- meaning the paddler’s leg are inside the kayak -- this type of kayaking has gained popularity in recent years.

Sit-on-top kayaks are made for both recreational and also very specialized purposes, such as fishing, diving, and surfing. Anyone can paddle them. They’re nearly impossible to sink. If it flips over, the paddler just needs to flip it upright and climb back in.


Kayak fishing on calm and sunny seas

Mypurgatoryyears/Getty Images

This last category is not really an official one. It’s just to say that there are many kayaks that are designed and outfitted with specific purposes in mind.

  • Fishing kayaks have rod holders affixed to them.
  • Scuba diving kayaks have a cutout in the kayak for the dive tank to fit.
  • Kayaks for excursions can fit camping gear.

There’s really no limit to what you can do with a kayak!