A kayak gives you numerous ways to enjoy the water. Some are built for exhilarating white water rides, some for a gentle paddle in the great outdoors, and others for fishing trips. You can take one to your local lake or the ocean. Unsurprisingly, there are lots of choices with kayaks to suit all experience levels and budgets.
Our research can help you understand exactly what to look for when selecting the best kayak for your personal needs. Our favorite by Vibe Kayaks is a superbly made example with great all-around performance and special features for the enthusiastic angler.
Considerations when choosing kayaks
Choosing the right kayak design
There are two kayak designs: sit-inside or sit-on-top (often called SOTs). Sit-insides provide you with a cockpit. If you use a sprayskirt, it can keep you completely dry. Serious paddlers tend to choose this type. The downside is that if you capsize, they're awkward to right.
Sit-on-tops have a shallow recess that you sit in, supported by a seat. They're usually wider and, thus, more stable. You can slip on and off the kayak easily -- something you might want to do at sea, in particular. However, on an SOT you definitely get wet.
You also want to consider length. A short kayak is more maneuverable. Shorter sit-ins are used for white water kayaking. Shorter SOTs are great for beginners. A longer kayak is faster in a straight line and can carry more gear. Longer sit-ins are used for touring, and longer SOTs are used for fishing.
Hull material is important. Children's and adult budget kayaks in the $100 to $350 range are almost always polyethylene. They are quite heavy and not particularly durable -- fine for lakes and calm rivers, but not for sea or sports kayaking. Mid-range kayaks, from $350 to $1,000 are ABS/thermoplastic, which is lighter and tougher. High-end kayaks, which can run to over $4,000, are usually composite, which can be kevlar, graphite, and fiberglass. They are very light and extremely rugged.
While short kayaks are good for beginners, your own physicality has an impact. If you're tall or large, check length and weight ratings (all kayaks should have one).
A sprayskirt is an accessory for sit-in kayaks that fits over your body and around the cockpit edge to keep all the water out. Edges are elasticized, so it shouldn't be difficult to find one to fit your kayak.
How much storage do you need? Some kayaks provide none. Others have a variety of hatches and compartments (called a tank well) for your gear. It's safest to assume they're not 100% waterproof, so pack stuff in plastic bags. You might also get deck rigs or bungies to store things on top. Be careful with balance when loading.
Touring kayaks in particular might offer a rudder as an option, which is usually operated by your feet.
It surprises a lot of first time kayak buyers that a paddle is usually not included. If they are, it's recommended to upgrade them as soon as possible. This is because the paddles are quite a personal accessory and should match a number of criteria.
Q. What's the difference between a kayak and a canoe?
A. Traditionally (and in Olympic sport) you kneel in a canoe and sit in a kayak. A canoe is open, a kayak is enclosed. A canoe paddle has one blade, a kayak paddle has two. However, outside of competition, the definitions can be blurred: there are sit-in canoes and sit-on-top kayaks. The rule about paddles stays the same.
Q. Do you have to wear a life jacket in a kayak?
A. Each state has its own laws, but in general, any child under 12 must wear a PFD (Personal Flotation Device) on recreational vessels. In some states it's 14. But frankly, why wouldn't you wear one, whatever your age? In the event of an accident, it will save your life. Some are specifically designed for kayaks to maximize comfort and freedom of movement.
Kayaks we recommend
Best of the best: Vibe Kayaks Sea Ghost Fishing Kayak
Our take: Sleek craft, built with anglers in mind but great for recreation, too.
What we like: Hull designed to be stable but fast. Good support from dual-position seat. Lots of fishing-focused storage, plus rod holders. Fresh or saltwater use. Foot-controlled rudder for extra control.
What we dislike: Not much. Hatches not entirely watertight.
Best bang for your buck: Sun Dolphin Aruba SS Sit-In Kayak
Our take: Budget solo kayak great for river and lake use. Popular with beginners.
What we like: Lightweight craft with retractable carry handles. Adjustable seating and foot braces. Portable accessory carrier can be stowed or towed, though not 100% waterproof. Console for your personal electronic device.
What we dislike: Not for larger users. Not constructed for sport or sea kayaking.
Choice 3: Ocean Kayak Malibu Two Tandem Kayak
Our take: Tremendous flexibility allows you to paddle solo, tandem, and more.
What we like: Very stable sit-on-top design. Clever, supportive seating and foot wells designed for one or two adults plus child or dog. Good weight capacity. Lifetime warranty on hull. Competitively priced.
What we dislike: Very little. No dry storage. Some found tracking difficult.
Bob Beacham is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.
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