Buyer’s Guide to Kayaks
Looking for an easy way to get out on the water or go fishing without the expense and maintenance of a regular boat? Kayaks are an affordable answer. Whether you enjoy being alone or desire the camaraderie of friends or family, live near the ocean or an inland waterway, want to get a workout or just sit back and relax, there’s a kayak for you. If you’re new to kayaking or have limited experience, where do you start? We’ve collected some things to consider, as well as some advice on how to begin. The key is in knowing what to ask. If you’re short on time, we invite you to try our Kayak Selector.
Where do you want to go with your kayak?
One of the most important things to consider is where you’d like to paddle your kayak. Do you want to float down a lazy river on a sunny day or push through the surf and cruise along the migratory route of gray whales? Do you live on a private lake and want to explore all the coves with your kids? Any kayak could get you there, but there are features to look for that will make your time on the water more comfortable and efficient.
Slow Rivers and Calm Lakes: If the water you’re interested in is usually calm and the weather fair to moderate, you can’t go wrong with any kayak. A short, stable kayak will provide hours of fun for beginners and more experienced paddlers on both flowing and still waters.
Coastal and Ocean: Tides, waves, currents and wind all add up to a more challenging experience. You’ll want to consider a longer kayak, preferably with a skeg or rudder to help control tracking (hold your course) while underway.
Sit-Inside, Sit-On-Top or Hybrid?
Another important consideration is what type of kayak will not only suit the type of water you’ll be paddling, but the water and air temperature, your physical dexterity and how stable you want the kayak to be. Your basic choices are kayaks you either sit in or sit on; however, there are a few hybrid models available as well.
Sit-Inside: Just as the name implies, your lower body is inside this type of kayak while you’re paddling. Advantages to sit-inside kayaks include being easy to paddle, easy to control, more stable and more sheltered. Disadvantages include being harder to reenter after a capsize and some people feel cramped in their enclosed cockpits.
Sit-On-Top: With this type of kayak, your lower body is on top of the kayak. Advantages to sit-on-top kayaks include being above the water so you’re better able to see your surroundings and obstacles in your way, easy to get on or off, easy to get back on if you capsize (particularly helpful for beginners), you have the option of standing up on the more stable ones while you’re underway and they’re self-draining if water gets inside them. Disadvantages include you’re more likely to get wet and you’re more exposed to the elements if the air and water are cold.
Sit-On-Top/SUP Hybrid: So are these kayaks or stand-up paddleboards? Yes. These are the perfect compromise when you can’t decide if you’d rather have a kayak or an SUP, or if you’re prone to change your mind about what you want to do after you get to the water’s edge. You’ll find the hybrids to be really stable whether you’re sitting down or standing up (a real confidence builder for beginners and a bonus for fishing). And being made of the same roto-molded polyethylene as most rigid kayaks, they’re also more durable than rigid epoxy stand-up paddleboards.
Should I choose a rigid, inflatable or foldable kayak?
It used to be if you were a serious paddler there was only one choice—rigid. Fortunately those days are gone. Today’s inflatable and foldable kayaks are designed for high performance paddling as well as a high degree of portability. Which one is best for you? Below are a few advantages and disadvantages for each.
Rigid: What most people think of when they hear the word kayak, rigid models are made most commonly from roto-molded polyethylene, but also ABS plastic or fiberglass composite. Strong, durable, almost-indestructible roto-molded polyethylene is the least expensive, but it’s relatively heavy. Kayaks made of thermoformed ABS plastic and fiberglass, sometimes with aramid or carbon fiber, are very light and lively, but stiffer, more fragile and more expensive.
Inflatable Kayaks: Easy to store and easy to transport, inflatable kayaks are now available with performance and features that rival most rigid kayaks. Bouncing one off a rock or another kayak won’t mean an ugly ding or scrape. A disadvantage is that, yes, you’ll have to spend a few extra minutes inflating your kayak when you use it and deflating it when you pack it up to leave. But that disadvantage pales in comparison to the benefit of being able to take your kayak anywhere—on a plane, train, bus or bicycle, in a taxi, even rappelling down the side of a cliff.
Foldable Kayaks: The Oru Kayak folding kayaks we sell are made from custom polypropylene with a 10-year UV treatment. Like the origami you learned as a kid, but these are rated for 20,000 folds. That’s enough times to fold and unfold every day for over 27 years. These high performance kayaks are more expensive, but when folded they fit in a box so small you can stow and carry it literally anywhere.
What about the latest pedal-drive or motorized kayaks?
If your favorite waterlife activities are things like fishing or photography, which require the use your hands, or you’d really like to get a lower body workout, or you just want to float around and sip a cold beverage, a pedal-drive or motorized kayak might be your ideal mode of transportation. We’ve got pedal-drive and motorized models from Native Watercraft, Ocean Kayak, Old Town and Perception, plus pedal- and motor-compatible models from Wilderness Systems.
What do you want to do with your kayak?
Now that you have a general idea about the conditions you’ll face and the advantages and disadvantages of sit-inside vs. sit-on-top models, you’re ready to choose what you want to do with your kayak.
General Recreation: Your idea of fun centers around relaxing or playing on calm lakes, slow-moving rivers and protected bays.
Touring/Camping: Weekend trips, long days on the water, making a run down the coast, all activities that require specific features from your kayak to be successful. Longer boats have plenty of options for stowing all the gear you’ll need. Some even include rudders so they’re easier to turn and steer.
Fishing: If you like to wet a line more than occasionally, you’re going to love what kayaks for fishing will allow you to do. Today’s fully outfitted fishing kayaks are not that far removed from a flats skiff or bass boat—only without the expense and maintenance. You’ll also be able to float your kayak where those other boats can’t go.
Fishermen love their gear, so you’ll want a fishing kayak (most commonly a sit-on-top) that lets you bring everything you’ll need to stalk your favorite prey, with the capacity to also bring back your sizeable catch, in a stable platform that will also let you stand up as needed. Options for kayak fishing include pedal or motorized drives so your hands will be free to cast, fight and land the trophy fish you’ll be telling everyone about back at the bait store. This sport has become so popular we’ve even created a special page devoted just to Kayak Fishing.
Diving: A good diving kayak shares many of the same features as a fishing kayak. You’ll want a stable sit-on-top kayak with a large bow hatch, a spacious rear deck tankwell, an anchor and a mount for your diver down flag.
Surfing: Would you like to experience waves that are usually just the domain of surfers on surfboards? Surfing kayaks are short, highly maneuverable sit-on-tops with planing hulls and lots of rocker. You’ll also want one that is easy to reenter if you wipe out (something you should plan on happening often, particularly in the beginning).
Fitness: Let’s face it, paddling any kayak requires some effort on your part. Your choices for fitness range from tackling waves with a short kayak or going for an extended paddle with a long touring kayak. Don’t have a lot of time? Paddle faster. Don’t want to paddle as fast? Paddle longer. Sit-insides are more efficient and stable. Sit-on-tops are easier to learn and easier to get back on if you should tip over. Our West Advisor article and video provide additional info on this activity: Kayaking for Fitness.
Do you have a place to store your kayak?
One of the most important considerations in choosing a kayak is where you plan to store it. If you’re a bachelor or bachelorette, having a 12-foot-long orange plastic coffee table in your apartment might just be an interesting conversation piece. Add a significant other into the mix and it often will lose some of its appeal.
If you have a decent size garage or shed you can utilize for storage (either standing your kayak(s) on one end in the corner, mounting on a wall with a cradle or raising to the ceiling with a hoist system), your kayak will be secure and protected. Another option, though less secure, is leaving it outside (preferably with a tarp or kayak cover keeping it protected from UV exposure). Finally, if you live in an apartment or small home, you might want to consider an inflatable or foldable kayak that will fit in a comparatively small bag or backpack when deflated or folded up.
How will you transport your kayak?
Of almost equal importance when choosing your kayak is knowing how you’re going to get it from wherever you store it to the water. This can be as simple as carrying any kayak from your garage to the water if you are lucky enough to live on a lake, river or the ocean. If you live too far from the water for that, but not too far, carrying an inflatable or foldable kayak in a backpack on your bike, on a hike or while taking public transportation is the next best option.
Okay, so none of those options works for you. Now what? Your choices do get a little more complicated here since in addition to figuring out whether it makes sense to strap your kayak on top of your car or SUV or put it in the bed of your pickup, you also have to assess whether you have the height and strength to load it yourself. Hoisting a 75-pound kayak over your head and placing it carefully on the roof rack of your tall SUV might be a bit too challenging if your height is south of six feet. Equally important is whether you have the strength to lift and maneuver your awkwardly long kayak over your head without damaging the paint on your shiny ride. If you are height- or strength-challenged, your choices are either enlist the aid of an NFL defensive lineman (or two tall friends), learn how to use leverage to your advantage and do it yourself or buy an inflatable or foldable kayak and simply put it in the trunk or on the back seat.
Will anyone be joining you?
Some paddlers prefer to spend their time on the water getting away from it all. Whether quietly exploring the coves on a new lake, catching their limit at a secret fishing hole or floating a river while camping in tranquil solitude, all point to having a solo kayak. Do you have a big family or just want a fleet of boats ready for raft-ups with friends? Multiple solo kayaks make sense when paddler size and skill level is varied.
Tandem kayaks let paddlers of different skill levels enjoy the same experience, and all things being equal, a tandem kayak will be faster than a solo boat. A tandem lets you bring your significant other, a kid or two, a physically-challenged friend, your favorite canine or even a date along. (Although more than one relationship has been called into question after an inadvertent rollover has occurred.) You can also put the kids in a tandem to work out their differences while you keep a safe distance in your solo.
Which paddle is right for you?
You don’t want to be up a creek (river, lake or ocean either) without a paddle. We’ve gathered some general guidelines in the following West Advisor article and video: Selecting the Right Kayak Paddle.
What accessories will you need for your kayak?
After getting the requisite paddle and life jacket, most paddlers turn their attention to getting kayak accessories and gear that will add even more enjoyment to their time on the water. Some of the common accessories we carry include: seats, skirts, clothing and shoes for greater comfort; electronics, anchors, rudders, bilge pumps, mounts, scupper plugs, inflation pumps, motors and coolers for greater utility; dollies, storage and transport racks, covers, bungees and straps to help move, store and secure your kayak; first aid kits for your safety; dry bags to protect essentials from getting wet; and fishing gear to let you pursue your favorite pastime.
What techniques do you need to learn and are there safety considerations?
We’ve created a West Advisor article and video that would be a good starting point if you’re new to kayaking: Beginner’s Guide to Kayaking.
What can you do to prepare for the exertion of kayaking?
We’re glad you asked. We have a West Advisor article devoted just to this: Off-Season Paddling Fitness.