How To Choose A Kayak – What Kayak Is Right For Me?

The prospect of finally owning a kayak can be exciting, to say the least. But browsing the market and going through hundreds of different models of all shapes and sizes in hopes of choosing the right one?  That sounds a bit overwhelming, doesn’t it? So, if you found yourself wondering, ...
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Sam OBrien

Founder, Kayaking & Paddle Boarding Expert

Sam is the founder and editor of WaterSportsWhiz. With over 20 years of experience across various water sports, he provides trusted reviews and expert advice to help others pursue their passion for getting out on the water. When not working, you can find him kayaking, paddle boarding, or planning his next water-based adventure with family and friends.

The prospect of finally owning a kayak can be exciting, to say the least. But browsing the market and going through hundreds of different models of all shapes and sizes in hopes of choosing the right one? 

That sounds a bit overwhelming, doesn’t it?

So, if you found yourself wondering, “What kayak is right for me?” and you’re not quite sure where to start, stick around. 

I’ll share expert advice on how to choose a kayak and guide you through the kayak selection process, one step at a time.

Let’s get to it!

Choosing A Kayak: Narrow Down Your Choices In 6 Easy Steps 

Road signs with inscriptions of; Think, Consider and Decide

Here’s how this is going to work:

I’ll ask you six questions about your needs, preferences, intentions, and experience, and I want you to answer them one by one as realistically and in as much detail as possible. Then, refer to the guidelines and recommendations outlined in each stage to narrow down your choices.

Trust me; it’s going to make the process of choosing the right kayak a lot more straightforward – because it’s never a one-size-fits-all type of deal. 

With that said, here are the six questions you need to ask yourself to get a rough idea of what could work for you!

Step #1 Where Do You Intend To Paddle?

Yes, technically speaking, as long as it’s in the water, a kayak should have no problem staying afloat. It’s a boat – and that’s what boats do.

But it’s still a good idea to begin your search here, with this simple question, and think about the type of water environment you plan to explore in your new kayak.

3 Things to Consider for Beginners & New Kayakers - Kayak Hipster

In that sense, your options include the following environments:

  • Rivers – Water conditions in rivers can vary from slow-moving to intense whitewater rapids, so there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to choosing the best river kayak. Recreational kayaks generally fit the bill for river paddlers – unless you plan on running rapids, that is, which will require a whitewater kayak. But that’s an entirely separate discussion and not something recommended for beginner kayakers
  • Lakes – If paddling in small lakes is your thing, a recreational lake kayak will, again, be the ideal type of kayak for you, allowing you to explore the easy-going side of kayaking at your own pace.
  • Sea & Coastal Waters – While some bays can be relatively calm, open coastal waters are usually characterized by choppy conditions, strong currents, and winds. In these harsh environments, sit-inside touring kayaks – and, more specifically, ocean kayaks – are the best possible option.

If you’re not sure, you can explore some nearby paddling spots with the help of this interactive kayaking map.

Step #2 What Do You Intend To Use The Kayak For?

Whenever someone asks me for advice regarding choosing a kayak, one of the first questions I like to ask is usually something along the lines of:

Well, what type of kayaking activities are you most interested in?

So, I’m asking you the same thing. What will you use your kayak for the most, and what specific purpose – if any – do you expect it to serve?

Recreational, whitewater, touring, fishing, and racing kayaks exist for a reason – to perform in a specific way and meet specific requirements, based on what you want the kayak to do.

Here are a few common types of kayaks you should be aware of when choosing the right kind:

  • Recreational kayaks, known for being suitable for all skill levels and offering solid all-around performance and stability, are ideal for casual, short trips through calm waters.
  • Touring kayaks, as the name implies, are best suited for long-distance paddling and multi-day trips, which is evident by their sleeker and more efficient hull designs.
  • Whitewater kayaks are designed for fast-moving waters and more aggressive forms of kayaking and are characterized by shorter hulls and enhanced rocker profiles for greater maneuverability.
  • Fishing kayaks, with their extra-wide beam, above-average stability and capacity, and compatibility with various aftermarket fishing-specific accessories, are ideal for any avid angler.
  • Hunting kayaks, be it specialized or dual-purpose models for hunting and fishing, are a great alternative to a traditional Jon boat you might be used to as a hunter.
  • Racing kayaks – long, narrow, and made from lightweight composite materials – are built for achieving high speed and are reserved for advanced, highly experienced kayakers.
  • Folding Kayaks – also known as origami kayaks. The foldable design of these boats are perfect for adventurers, campers and hikers who like to be on the move as much as possible. Simply unfold it when the time comes – once finished, fold up and put away until next time!

Step #3 Are You Able To Transport And Store A Kayak? 

It might seem like a weird, out-of-place question that doesn’t have much to do with choosing a kayak, but it essentially comes down to deciding between a hard-shell and an inflatable.

Going with one or the other makes a pretty significant difference in terms of transportation and storage.

The average recreational hard-shell will weigh somewhere around 40 pounds; inflatable kayaks, on the other hand, usually clock in at about 25 to 30 pounds. And that’s without factoring in the sheer dimensions of a hard-shell kayak compared to an inflatable that packs to the size of a duffle bag. 

Kayaking | How to Transport a Kayak || REI

Owning a kayak also includes carrying it, transporting it to and from the water, and storing it in a suitable area. So, the kayak’s weight and dimensions are something you might want to consider before making your choice. 

However, if you’re struggling to choose between an inflatable kayak or a hard-shell kayak, then a modular kayak might be the perfect solution! These ‘yaks are essentially hard-shell kayaks that can be transformed into manageable pieces, just like splitting a bar of chocolate. They make transportation and storage a breeze, saving you from the frustrating game of car-trunk Jenga. Not only do they offer the sturdy performance of a hard-shell kayak, but they also provide the convenience of an inflatable one.

Step #4 Sit-In Or Sit-On-Top: Which Is Right For You? 

sit on versus sit in kayaks

Everything we talked about so far – water environments, intended uses, preferences – will, to a degree, impact your choice between a sit-on-top and a sit-inside kayak.

So, which is better – a sit-in or sit-on-top kayak?

I’m afraid that’s not how things work; one isn’t better than the other. The choice comes down to what you need regarding your paddling style and the water environment – and what you prefer comfort-wise. 

Take a look at the two options:

  • Sit-on-top kayaks, which feature an open deck, with self bailing scupper holes, are more comfortable and easier to get in and out of, especially for beginners. Anglers prefer them because they allow for some movement, and they’re generally considered more stable and user-friendly.
  • Sit-inside kayaks, characterized by a traditional-looking, closed cockpit, will be a better fit for challenging environments, as they keep the paddler protected from the elements – if fitted with a spray skirt. If you are doing long-distance paddling or want greater control and efficiency, sit-in kayaks are the way to go.

Step #5 Pick Your Propulsion Method

You might think that this mostly has to do with personal preference, and for the most part, you’d be right. It does. But the propulsion method plays into other things, like price tag, versatility, and convenience – and that’s where it becomes more than a matter of preference.

You generally have three options here:

  • Paddles are the golden standard of kayak propulsion, allowing for a more traditional on-the-water experience. Even if you choose a more “sophisticated” propulsion method, like a motor or a pedal drive system, it’s still advisable to keep a spare paddle on board just in case.
  • Pedal drive systems that essentially turn kayaking into a bike-riding-like experience are an excellent alternative if you’d like to free up your hands for other things, like fishing. It also allows you to put your leg muscles to work, save some energy, and contribute to a faster ride.
  • Motor drives aka trolling motors, typically powered by a battery, redefine kayak propulsion methods. It lets kayakers experience speed and range that would otherwise be impossible to achieve through traditional means of propulsion. Plus, motorized kayaks are an excellent choice for those who may have difficulty pedaling or paddling. 

Step #6 Single Or Tandem: Will You Kayak Alone?

The sixth and final question you should answer before choosing a kayak is whether you plan to kayak alone or with a paddling partner?

Some people generally prefer kayaking as a solo hobby, in which case, a single-person kayak is their best bet.

But others might enjoy sharing that experience with others, like their significant other, a friend – or even a child. And since buying a tandem is almost always more affordable than buying two one-person kayaks, you might want to look into getting one.

It’s that simple – for the most part, anyway. If you’re on the fence about this and want to try both solo and tandem kayaking, sit-on-top kayaks that can switch from a one-person to a two-person configuration are an option worth considering.

Also, if you plan on kayaking with kids, but they’re too young to get their own kayak, choose one that has a kid-friendly middle seat. Better still invest in a 3-person kayak, this way everyone has adequate room

Time To Get Technical: Specs & Features You Need To Consider 

Mathematical equaltions

Now that you’ve answered all six questions and have your needs and wants sorted out, but before you run off to the store to buy a kayak it’s time to think about the kayak’s specs and features. This next section is all about the factors that’ll contribute to – or take away from – the kayak’s performance and help you decide if it’s a good fit for you.

Top tip- If you are a beginning kayaker, the most important thing is to learn what each part of a kayak is called. Understanding the key terms, jargon and kayaking lingo can make the experience less overwhelming or stressful.

Brand: Why Kayak Brands Matter

When you start browsing the market, the first thing you’ll notice is that there are many brands to choose from, which doesn’t make your choice any easier. 

And that brings us to one crucial question:

Do you need a branded kayak?

I’m afraid the answer is yes – there are several notable benefits of purchasing a kayak from a reputable brand over a generic, no-name one, even if it means spending a bit more.

Here’s what leading kayak brands have going for them:

  • Reputation – There’s a reason why some kayak manufacturers have a reputation for being trustworthy, and it’s usually because they put effort into consistently making high-quality kayaks backed by excellent customer service.
  • Safety Regulations – Manufacturing methods and the use of quality materials that are in line with safety standards, both national and international, along with quality control, will contribute to the safety and reliability of your vessel.
  • Warranty – You’d be surprised by how much warranty policy can tell you about a kayak manufacturer. It’s a good indicator of a brand that stands behind its products. More often than not, kayaks will come with some form of warranty; if not, run.

The only actual benefit of buying unbranded would be the lower initial cost.

If price is a major factor in your decision to buy, I recommend waiting until the end of the kayaking season or around major sales events like Prime Day, Black Friday, or Cyber Monday because new kayaks are typically at their cheapest at these times.

Kayak Length: What Is The Right Size Kayak For Me? 

Three people each in a long touring kayak

One thing to remember when deciding on appropriate kayak length is how the length affects handling and other aspects of the kayak’s performance:

Shorter kayaks will generally be easier to turn, agile, and more maneuverable – and longer ones will be faster, more efficient, and have a better tracking performance.

That’s why whitewater kayaks tend to be short – 9 feet, at most – while you find that a touring kayak can sometimes measure up to 20 feet long. And then, there are recreational kayaks as the middle-ground, clocking in at 12 feet max.

My point is that all these different kayak lengths are designed to ensure optimal performance in a specific environment.

But you also have to wonder, “What size kayak do I need for my height?” Comfort matters, too – and you should make sure that you can, in fact, fit inside the kayak, especially if it’s a sit-inside.

Check out this guide on kayak sizes for some recommendations!

Kayak Width & Stability 

Are wider kayaks more stable?

Generally speaking, yes. Although that’s a somewhat oversimplified way to look at it, there’s a definite correlation between a kayak’s width and stability. But given that the beam can also impact speed and agility, choosing the correct kayak width can be a balancing act.

So, how wide should a kayak be, then? 

The answer depends on several factors, mainly the type of kayaking you’ll be doing and if you’d prefer more primary or secondary stability. As a reference, though, the average recreational ‘yak will have a beam of 28 to 34 inches.

Go wider than that, and you’ll gain a lot of initial stability, as seen in fishing kayaks that typically have a 30 to 42-inch beam. Go narrower than that, and you might get better secondary stability, as seen in touring kayaks that often measure no more than 28 inches in width. 

Kayak Weight: Why Does It Matter? 

Set of weights to represent kayak weight

If you ever had to carry a kayak for more than a few minutes needed to reach your put-in spot, you’ll know why weight is such a big deal.

Kayaks – especially extra-wide, fully rigged fishing ‘yaks or extra-long touring kayaks – can get super-heavy, to the point where portaging becomes virtually impossible without an extra pair of hands to share the load. Most weigh between 20 to 80 pounds – but some do go beyond the 100-pound mark.

If you know that you can’t manage a heavier kayak single-handedly or you paddle in areas that involve a lot of portaging, you may want to consider an inflatable kayak. Or, at the very least, a hard-shell made of lighter materials.

Either way, you should make sure that you’re comfortable with the kayak’s weight – otherwise, things like loading, unloading, and carrying the kayak will be literal hell.

Kayak Weight Capacity: What Size Kayak Do I Need For My Weight?

First of all, it’s not just your bodyweight that you should take into consideration. Any equipment and supplies you bring onboard, your clothes, water bottles – in essence, every ounce of weight you add through cargo – contributes to the total.

So, for example, a kayak with a 200-pound weight rating isn’t designed for a 200-pound person. Instead, it’s designed to carry a total of 200 pounds while staying afloat.

Considering that exceeding this limit will decrease stability and maneuverability and cause it to sit lower in the water, be sure to always stay below the specified capacity by roughly 30 to 40 percent.

Kayak Construction Materials 

When it comes to construction materials, your options are anything but limited – from PVC hulls of inflatable kayaks to wood, plastic, and composite materials of hard-shells.

The most commonly used materials – at least for hard-shell kayaks – are:

  • Polyethylene plastic, the most frequently used material for making rotomolded kayaks, is known for its affordability and impact resistance. However, it results in heavy kayaks susceptible to UV damage.
  • ABS plastic, used for making thermoformed kayaks, can be a solid mid-range solution. It weighs less than “Tupperware” kayaks, offers some additional UV resistance, and is available at a fraction of the cost of composite materials.
  • Composites, including fiberglass, Kevlar, and Carbon fiber, will result in a considerable leap in performance, accompanied by a much higher price tag. But if you hope to keep things extra-light and responsive, composite materials are your best bet with their great strength-to-weight ratio.
How it's made - Kayaks

I could probably go on about construction materials and how it impacts performance, durability, price, and even looks – but I have this guide that covers kayak materials in-depth. So, be sure to check it out! 

Hull Shape & Its Effect On Performance

Another thing you shouldn’t overlook when it comes to a kayak’s construction is the hull shape. Beyond the kayak’s performance, the shape of the hull – along with some additional factors that I covered earlier – will also affect its stability. 

Although there might be some variations in design, you can generally expect kayaks to feature one of the following four hull shapes:

  • Flat hulls might lack speed, but they offer a great deal of primary stability, which is why you’ll usually find them on beginner-friendly and fishing kayaks.
  • V-shaped hulls feature a more striking, sharp V-shape bottom designed to cut through the water and improve speed and tracking. They’ll usually provide more secondary than primary stability, though.
  • Round hulls will offer less resistance and allow the kayak to tilt in either direction, which results in improved speed, maneuverability, and secondary stability, making them ideal for rougher waters.
  • Pontoon hulls boast stability, both primary and secondary, as their number one feature, but they aren’t known for their speed.

Storage Space & Gear-Mounting Spots

You generally want to have some basic storage solutions onboard. But storage and gear mounts become even more crucial in specialized kayaks, such as sea kayaks and fishing kayaks, where you regularly require a lot of additional gear. So, my advice is to think about how much storage and cargo space you might need on average, based on your kayaking habits:

There’s no point in getting a kayak with three storage hatches if you never go paddling for more than an hour. And there’s certainly no point in attempting multi-day trips in a touring boat that has no onboard storage at all. 

Again, this will mostly be a matter of preference and needs – but when it comes to storage and mounting options, you should look for the following:

  • On-deck bungee rigging
  • Front and rear open storage areas 
  • Deck netting and mesh pockets 
  • Water-tight hatches for dry storage
  • Tie-down areas
  • Gear tracks
  • Molded-in recesses for aftermarket accessories

So now you’re armed with all the information you need to help you choose the right kayak for you. But to make things that little bit easier I have reviewed this year best beginner kayaks make you sure you check my top picks!

How To Choose A Kayak As A Beginner – The Summarized Version

When it comes to how to choose a kayak, remember that it’s never about this one universally fitting one-and-only kayak that works for everyone. What kayak is right for me – that’s the main question you should be asking.

Ultimately, your choice of a kayak comes down to the following factors:

  • Where you intend to paddle – lakes, rivers, or coastal waters
  • How you intend to use the kayak – for recreational, touring, fishing, or competitive purposes 
  • Do you paddle solo or with a partner
  • Do you prefer a sit-on-top or a sit-in kayak
  • What size kayak you need length- and width-wise
  • How much weight you’re comfortable with carrying
  • Which propulsion method you prefer 
Photo of author

Sam OBrien

Sam is the founder and editor of WaterSportsWhiz. With over 20 years of experience across various water sports, he provides trusted reviews and expert advice to help others pursue their passion for getting out on the water. When not working, you can find him kayaking, paddle boarding, or planning his next water-based adventure with family and friends.

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