Paddling 101: Choosing a Kayak, Part 3

Inflatables, sit-on-tops and folding kayaks

In part three of our series on how to choose a kayak, we look at popular variations on the four basic types we introduced in parts one and two. While there is a far wider variety than presented here, these options account for other considerations besides straight-ahead purpose, namely beginner-friendliness, ease of storage and, naturally, impact on your wallet. We consulted Paddling Life’s editor-in-chief Eugene Buchanan for advice.

Sit-on-Top Kayaks

An increasingly popular option for beginning and casual paddlers are sit-on-top (SOT) kayaks. This highly stable variation on the traditional kayak eliminates the cockpit, substituting instead one or more depressions for paddlers to sit in.

“There’s no sprayskirt,” says Buchanan, “so it eliminates that feeling of claustrophobia.”

Tall paddlers, or those who aren’t used to being sealed in—kids, for example—tend to find them more comfortable since there’s freedom to move one’s legs and shift position.

Because they tend to be high in the water and have flatter hulls, they don’t tip easily. But if they do, self-rescue doesn’t require specialized skills like Eskimo rolling. You simply climb back on.

Because they’re mostly made from plastic, SOTs are generally cheaper versions of rec and touring kayaks. (See the Emotion Spitfire 8, pictured above, for a good example of an entry-level rec SOT. These run for $269 at REI.). However, their simple design means they’re easily specialized for uses like diving and fishing—activities that require getting off the boat or moving around on it.

“There’s a whole market of sit-on-tops designed for fisherman,” says Buchanan. “They have every bell and whistle you can imagine. It’s one of the big growth areas of the whole market.”

As versatile as SOTs are, they’re not good for situations where staying dry is important. “They’re best for warmer climates,” Buchanan says. “You don’t see a lot of them in Alaska.”

Inflatable Kayaks

If finding space to stow a 12-foot craft is an issue for you, you might want to consider an inflatable kayak.

“They’re good for storage and portability,” says Buchanan.

Often weighing in at less than 30 pounds and packing down into a portable bag, inflatables are also more durable than you might think. They’re usually made from the same materials as whitewater rafts, meaning some are even rated for use on moderate rapids. Some, like the NRS Outlaw I (pictured), can even be purchased with hard floors for extra security. They typically inflate with hand, foot or electric pumps.

The tradeoff is that they don’t move quite as well in the water. “With an inflatable you lose a little bit of hull speed because they’re not as rigid,” Buchanan says. “If you’re looking to make miles, inflatable might not be the best choice because they’re not as responsive.”

Folding Kayaks

For more committed kayakers, another choice for storage and portability is a folding kayak. Based on old skin-and-frame designs, folding kayaks assemble almost like tents and can have many interchangeable and customizable parts.

Handling almost as well as hard-shell kayaks, good folding kayaks don’t come cheap. The TRAK T-1600 (pictured), comes highly recommended by Canoe & Kayak—and sells for $3,399.


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