What Size Kayak Do I Need: Your Go-To Guide To Sizing A Kayak

How can I know what size kayak do I need for my height and weight? Is there a formula that will give me some exact numbers to go by when sizing a new kayak? Or am I supposed to make an educated guess? 

Do these questions ring a bell? 

You’ve come to the right place, then. I’ve put together a kayak sizing guide that could help you find a kayak that’s “just right” for you!

Kayak Dimension Explained: Length, Width, Volume & More 

Graphic of Kayak Dimensions explained as funny equations

Choosing a kayak goes beyond the classic sit-on-top or sit-inside debate? Or should you purchase an inflatable or hard-shell?

Kayak dimensions – length, width, volume, length to beam ratio, and capacity – directly affect various aspects of the kayak’s performance. As you’re trying to figure out the answer to “what size kayak should I get?,” remember to consider these factors. 

More importantly, aim for the middle ground where they all line up to deliver the kayaking experience you want. 

Kayak Length 

Kayak length is probably the first thing to come to mind when talking about kayak sizes – and that’s a good thing. 

Why? 

Because the kayak’s physical length – measured bow to stern – dictates its on-the-water performance

Longer kayaks are generally faster, have better tracking, and offer a “smoother” cruising experience, the downsides being the added weight and not-so-stellar maneuverability. 

On the other hand, short hulls sacrifice cruising speed to ensure agility, controlled movements, and quick and precise turns. 

Kayak Width (Beam) 

The hull’s width – also referred to as its beam – is a major contributing factor to the kayak’s stability. While this is a somewhat oversimplified way to put it, a wider beam does make for a more stable kayak. 

That doesn’t mean you should go with the broadest possible kayak you can find: 

Width already impacts speed and agility; going too wide would only make the kayak feel overly bulky and unwieldy. 

Also, keep in mind that kayaks have two types of stability

  • Primary, which refers to the kayak’s initial stability in flat water conditions 
  • Secondary, which kicks in adverse water conditions and indicates the kayak’s ability to remain stable even when tipped on its side 

Kayak width is also a major factor in selecting the correct paddle length – so whatever width you settle on make sure you have the right size paddle to match. 

Kayak Length-To-Beam Ratio 

Sure, this ratio isn’t an exact, science-based metric – more of a general indicator – but it’s useful, nonetheless: 

Dividing the length by beam gives you some insight into how the kayak will “behave” on the water in terms of speed, stability, and maneuverability. 

A higher length-to-beam ratio indicates a narrower hull and, in turn, a sleeker and faster kayak. 

Kayak Volume 

Although often misunderstood, kayak volume is a measurement that’s supposed to give you a better idea of how much room a kayak has inside the cockpit. The available space is relative to your body type, though. 

It’s typically listed as: 

  • Low volume, suitable for paddlers under five foot six and weighing less than 140 pounds 
  • Medium volume, suitable for paddlers between five foot seven and five foot ten and weighing up to 180 pounds 
  • High volume, suitable for paddlers over five foot ten and weighing over 180 pounds 

You’ll also find that some manufacturers list volume as gallons or cubic feet to indicate the actual physical space inside the kayak. 

But, unfortunately, kayak volume doesn’t tell you much about how that space is distributed – especially when it comes to onboard storage space. 

Weight Capacity 

Every kayak will have a weight capacity, or the maximum weight it can carry and stay afloat. It’s typically affected by the hull’s length and width, as well as water displacement volume

Remember that it’s not an indicator of the paddler’s weight

A kayak with a 275-pound load capacity isn’t designed for a person with a body weight of 275-pound. 

Aim to keep the total weight below the specified weight rating – at about 30% under the limit, to be exact – to avoid overloading the kayak. 

How Long Is A Kayak: Kayak Size & Dimensions By Type 

Kayak Length - tape measure extended on on white background

Kayaks are a bit like golf clubs, which, I know, sounds like a weird comparison – but hear me out: 

You’d use a driver for off-the-tee distance. You’d reach for a putter when you’re on the green. And if you’re trying to get out of a bunker, you’d go with a sand wedge. 

The point is, you wouldn’t use the same golf club for every shot – and the same goes for kayaks: 

Kayaks come in different types, shapes, and sizes, each designed for optimal performance in specific environments. 

And this is a perfect opportunity to go over different types of kayaks and their typical dimensions

Recreational Kayaks 

Lazy paddles down a slow-moving river or an afternoon of gliding across a lake; fun, leisure, and comfort are what recreational kayaks – sit-inside and sit-on-top – do best. 

They prioritize stability and ease of use over efficiency, speed, and storage. 

For this reason, recreational kayaks tend to be shorter and lighter than most other specialized kayaks, measuring anywhere from 9 to 12 feet in length. They’re relatively broad, as well, often featuring a 28- to 34-inch beam for added stability. 

Touring Kayaks 

These long and narrow sit-in kayaks – often referred to as sea kayaks – offer superior tracking and maximize efficiency on long-distance trips. They’re the go-to choice for navigating large bodies of water, such as oceans and bays. 

Because they’re designed to cover large distances, touring kayaks are longer and sleeker than regular recreational boats. 

Recreational vs Sea Kayaks - Pros, Cons & Features - Weekly Kayaking Tips - Kayak Hipster

Single-person models measure anywhere between 12 to 20 feet – and tandems can reach up to 26 feet in length. Meanwhile, they maintain a narrow hull, typically 18 to 28 inches wide. 

Racing Kayaks

Performance – or racing – kayaks are built for speed and paddling performance, primarily flatwater sprints and marathons. And since a kayak’s speed is generally related to its length and width, racing kayaks are usually long, narrow-beamed, and lightweight

There are some variations design- and construction-wise, but the basic dimensions of racing kayaks, set by international regulations, are: 

  • Single-person racing kayaks (K1) – a maximum length of 17 feet 
  • Two-person racing kayaks (K2) – a maximum length of 21 feet 
  • Four-person racing kayaks (K4) – a maximum length of 36 feet 

Whitewater Kayaks 

Whitewater kayaks are designed to run adrenaline pumping whitewater rapids – hence the name – and prioritize maneuverability, responsiveness, and buoyancy. 

But while their primary purpose stays the same, the design and dimensions of whitewater kayaks can vary: 

  • Creek boats are relatively long – for whitewater kayaks, anyway – and speedy, measuring 7 to 9 feet, and are best suited for charging over rapids. 
  • Playboats are super-maneuverable and tiny – often measuring no more than 6 feet – making them perfect for performing flips, rolls, and aerial tricks. 
  • River runners incorporate a little bit of both “play kayaks” and creek boats and are typically 7 to 9 feet long, and are great for demanding whitewater rapids or carving your way back upstream.
2018 Short Film Awards Winners Reel (Whitewater Kayaking)

Tandem Kayaks 

Most types of kayaks – whitewater kayaks being the only exception – are also available in two-person configurations, meaning tandems are in a class of their own

Since the whole idea of tandem kayaks is that they can accommodate two paddlers, they are, by design, longer and broader than their single-person counterparts: 

Two-person kayaks typically measure anywhere from 10 to 14 feet in length – with some going up to 16 feet – although 12 to 13 feet seems to be the “sweet spot.” 

Fishing Kayaks 

While they are similar to recreational kayaks in a sense, a fishing kayak is designed for maximum stability and serves as rock-solid fishing platforms

They need to maintain their steadiness even as you’re standing up, casting, reaching for the tackle box, or reeling in your catch; you get the idea. 

That’s why fishing kayaks tend to be among the widest – they typically have a 30- to 42-inch beam – and larger than average, measuring 10 to 16 feet long. 

How To Determine What Size Kayak Do I Need: Factors You Need To Consider 

graphic of a sign saying 'Things to consider'

The one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t apply to kayaks, so don’t even bother looking for a “universal fit.” Instead, base your decision on where and how you plan to use it, where you intend to keep it, and how much you’re willing to spend. 

Intended Use 

The fastest way to narrow it down and set parameters for the right kayak size is to ask yourself how and where you intend to use your kayak

Do you plan on cruising lakes and slow-moving rivers? 

Would you like to get into whitewater kayaking? Will you be going on long excursions or hitting open waters? 

Would you mostly use it for fishing? 

Once you know what you hope to get out of it, focus on kayak types suited for the activity – and find the right size within that specific category. 

While we’re at it, consider the following: 

  • Number of People – If you plan on sharing the kayak with your kids or another adult, a longer tandem kayak with a two-person capacity will be a must. 
  • Pets – Will you share your kayaking adventures with your four-legged best friend? If so, the kayak’s stability and spacious deck should be your top concerns. 
Teaching my dog to kayak!

Your Body Type (Height & Weight) 

Your body type – and by “body type,” I mean your body size; height, weight, the length of your legs, waist size, and even foot size – can affect the kayak’s fit and comfort

Your height and the amount of legroom you need will be significant factors when deciding on a sit-inside kayak. However, it won’t impact the fit and size of a sit-on-top as much – as long as you keep an eye on the kayak’s weight limit, that is. 

Keep in mind that two similarly sized kayaks can “feel” wildly different depending on their specific configurations. Be sure not to overlook comfort when sizing kayaks; that’s all I’m saying. 

Transport & Storage 

Unless you’re lucky enough to live right by the water, you’ll have to consider how you’re going to transport your kayak to and from your favorite kayaking spot. 

What is the kayak weight? Can you even lift it by yourself? Will your car’s roof rack handle the kayak’s weight and size, or will you need a kayak trailer? 

The bigger the kayak, the harder it is to transport.

Also, figure out where you’re going to store it

If you have a large garage at your disposal, then sure, the kayak’s size likely won’t be an issue. Otherwise, storage will be something to keep in mind; a 14-foot kayak won’t precisely fit in the closet. 

Check out this post for some practice and space-saving kayak storage ideas.

Budget 

Cost is a real – and, might I add, important – factor for most of us. And while we’d all like to get the best possible kayak for the least amount of money, that’s not always an option. 

You should watch your budget and stick to it – but try not to lose sight of everything else I talked about today: 

You don’t want to disregard your needs and preferences for the sake of buying whatever is cheapest. Instead, try to find the best possible deal that still works for you. 

Special Considerations: What Size Kayak Is Best…? 

8 kayaks of of different sizes lined up -what size kayak is the best

For Tall People? 

Taller people tend to have longer legs and bigger feet, a higher center of gravity, and, more often than not, wider hips and waist. However, the kayak’s physical length shouldn’t necessarily be your primary concern; the cockpit’s dimensions should. 

If you’re over 6 feet tall, focus on high-volume kayaks that measure around 12 to 14 feet in length. Get a feel of the legroom, seating comfort, and the overall fit they offer and go from there. Top Tip – make sure it has adjustable foot pegs 

For Short People? 

You might think that there’s no harm in going with a kayak that’s too big, but having too much space has its downsides, including having less control over the kayak. 

You have a lower center of gravity, shorter legs, and, more often than not, weigh less; your choice of kayak size should reflect that. That’s why, for paddlers who are five foot six or shorter, low-volume kayaks between 8 and 10 feet long are usually the way to go. 

For Overweight People? 

Don’t let the fact that you’re overweight discourage you. Despite what you may think, kayaking is suitable – and enjoyable – for people of all shapes and sizes, and there are kayaks designed to accommodate larger paddlers. 

You do have to consider seating requirements, legroom, kayak’s weight capacity, and ease of access, though. Look into wide-beam sit-on-top kayaks, as they’re much more “forgiving” in that sense. 

For Kids? 

Kids-friendly kayaks are, in many ways, similar to beginner kayaks; the goal is to find the middle ground between stability, maneuverability, and performance. 

With that in mind, a sit-on-top kayak that measures 6 to 8 feet in length should work for most kids. They’re often grouped based on height and weight ratings – rather than specialized hull designs and sizes – which should make your decision easier, too. 

For People With Reduced Mobility? 

Searching for the right kayak for people with reduced mobility sometimes feels like looking for a needle in a haystack. That said, I would recommend a sit-on-top kayak to anyone with mobility issues. 

Size-wise, there are no hard and fast rules; go with as long a kayak as you can handle. Stability, ease of access, flexibility, comfort, and the ability to configure the kayak to your exact needs should be your top priority-  and make sure you know how to get in and out of a kayak safely

What Size Kayak Do I Need: Summing It Up 

Although “What size kayak should I buy” sounds like a relatively straightforward question, as I’m sure you understand by now, the answer is anything but: 

It’s not exactly rocket science – but you can’t expect it to be summed up in a few simple numbers, either. 

Understanding how different dimensions, along with other factors, contribute to your kayak’s performance is only part of the equation in finding the right kayak size. The best kayak size for you is one that lines up with all your needs and preferences. 

As long as it suits your style of kayaking, fits you and your gear, and you feel comfortable paddling in it, I’d say that counts as the right size kayak.