Paddling 101: Choosing a Kayak, Part 1

A primer on choosing the right kayak for you

If you’re considering buying a kayak, chances are you’ve done some recreational paddling—maybe with a rental or as part of a package tour—and you’ve discovered the joys of an afternoon on the water and the freedom to explore that a kayak allows.

But that first big purchase—the kayak—can be daunting. There’s a wide variety of styles and even wider range of prices. You don’t want to skimp, but you probably don’t want to overcommit, either.

We asked the founder and editor of Paddling Life, Eugene Buchanan, to give us a quick primer on the types of kayak out there and what they’re best for.

Recreational Kayaks

If you’re a beginner, this is where to start. Best for flat water and good weather, rec kayaks—like the Old Town Heron 9, pictured above—are designed for “recreational entry level paddlers,” says Buchanan. “Your grandmother can get in and paddle on the pond from day one. They’re not super tippy.”

Generally from 9 to 12 feet in length, rec kayaks have wide, flat bottoms that make them the most stable type of kayak. They’re easy to maneuver and hold a straight line reasonably well in calm water, such as on a lake, bay or slow-moving river.

They generally have large cockpits, so you can get in and out of them easily, and find a comfortable position.

Rec kayaks have limits, though: “Because they’re wider and more stable, they’re not as fast and don’t track as well as a touring kayak, so they’re not good for a long crossing,” says Buchanan. You also wouldn’t use one on whitewater.

Rec kayaks are also the most affordable option for beginners: “They’re at a good price point,” says Buchanan. “You can get them for a couple hundred dollars at big box stores, and when you figure out what kind of kayaking you like, you can graduate to [a] whitewater or touring [kayak].”

Touring/Sea Kayaks

“Touring kayaks are designed to make miles and go straight,” Buchanan says. “These are more streamlined, longer, sleeker, narrower, and faster.” They can be anywhere from 12 feet to over 20 feet long, and accommodate one or more paddlers, depending on the craft. The 17-foot Looksha Elite by Necky Kayaks is pictured above.

Not quite as maneuverable as a rec kayak, a touring kayak—also known as a sea kayak—is meant for open water, such as larger lakes and sea crossings, places where the water can be choppy and you don’t want want to stray off course. Think exploring the Everglades’ 10,000 Islands or Acadia’s rugged seashore.

Good for single or multi-day trips, touring kayaks typically have storage hatches for stowing your travel gear, spray skirts to seal you in and keep you dry, and more comfortable designs for those long hours on the water. The longer the trips you plan on using it for, the more storage space you want.

A touring kayak is also more likely to have a skeg, which is a fin that helps the kayak maintain direction in crosscurrents and crosswinds, or a rudder.

“Tandems usually have a rudder geared by the person behind with foot pedals,” says Buchanan. “Some singles have rudders too, but you don’t necessarily need them.”

“Unlike whitewater kayaks, which are all plastic, with sea kayaks you have a whole range of materials at different price points: from plastic at the bottom, to fiberglass—which is lighter and more expensive—to carbon, which is very light, but can be very expensive.”

Tomorrow: whitewater kayaks and crossovers.


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