Kayaking is a growing outdoor activity that combines some of the best of what nature has to offer: sun, clear water, and beautiful scenery. It is an easy sport to get hooked on and we almost always see first-time paddlers come back for more. Whether you’re looking for a tranquil, smooth tour through the morning fog and yonder or a thrashing, adrenaline inducing (possibly even life threatening) experience through class 6 whitewater rapids, there’s something for everyone. There are many types of kayaks fitting a wide range of paddling skill sets and different applications. Feel free to peruse our list of the kayak reviews in our section below.
The most common type of kayaks is recreational kayaks, which are a shorter and wider variation and provide excellent stability. These make for great fun in cruising around lakes and calmer sections of rivers. In this kayak reviews story, we provide readers with information on the nine most common categories of kayaks, things to consider before buying a kayak, followed by our reviews of the best kayaks section.
The Nine Categories of Kayaks
When shopping for your first (or fifth) ‘yak it is helpful to have an overview of the most common groupings of kayaks. There is some overlap in some of these categories, but these are the popular distinctions vendors and shops will use to label their types of watercraft.
- Beginner Kayaks: These are your most basic models and are typically inflatable, but not always. They are used for recreational purposes; mostly easy paddling through lakes and flat water sections of rivers. These kayaks are less expensive than thicker, hard sided kayaks but are still durable enough to last awhile. These are a great way to get into this addicting water sport without breaking the bank.
- Inflatable Kayaks: Inflatable kayaks are also commonly classified as beginner kayaks and/or recreational kayaks. However, this is not always the case as some fall within performance-oriented type kayaks. Most first-time, inexperienced paddlers buy an inflatable for their first ‘yak. The greatest benefits of inflatable kayaks are their price and portability. They cost less than rigid kayaks and can be deflated and put in a bag for easy transportation as well as storage.
- Recreational Kayaks: Barring longer tours, ventures into the ocean, and kayak camping, recreational kayaks are a broad umbrella classification. There are many subsets of recreational kayaks as you can see from this list. These are the most popular kayaks and there are many styles to choose from. The primary attribute is stability and these are generally shorter and wider.
- Sit-on-Top Kayaks: Another subset of the recreational type kayak, the name says it all. Instead of sitting inside a cockpit, you sit right on top. Many times these will feature numerous holes in the hull of the vessel, allowing them to be self-draining. This results in what is usually a wetter ride than other types of kayaks, as water oftentimes splashes through the holes. Some folks, particularly with larger builds, find these less confining and more comfortable. It is also more difficult to get trapped inside if the kayak flips thanks to their open deck.
- Tandem Kayaks: These are also called “doubles” and are a great way to share the experience with someone else or as a couple. They are also a wonderful option for taking out a pet or child for a casual, relaxing trip. Many times experienced paddlers find this one of the best ways to get newcomers who may be a little leery towards going out. Conversely, if occupied by two experienced paddlers who are able to work in unison, high speeds, and quick travel is within their grasp.
- Fishing Kayaks: Within the last few years, kayaks have grown in popularity among some in both the saltwater and freshwater fishing communities. They are a great alternative to what can be an exceedingly expensive initial purchase cost and ongoing maintenance upkeep of customary fishing vessels. Twin hull or catamaran style boats allow fishers to paddle and fish while standing, which can be a relief from sitting for hours on end waiting for a bite. Many angler kayaks allow the user to pilot them by feet powered flippers or propellers making them hands-free. The most popular choice of material for fishing kayaks is polyethylene because of its practical balance of low cost and durability. You can read our fishing kayaks review here.
- Touring Kayaks: The factor separating touring kayaks from recreational kayaks is their length. Touring kayaks, like the sea kayaks we discuss below, are longer and made to traverse greater distances. These kayaks are generally over 10 feet long. Longer kayaks track a straighter line than shorter kayaks. This is important when navigating from point A to point B because you do not want to be wasting precious energy frequently correcting your course. The other distinguishing characteristic is that they have more storage space for gear. This makes multi-day trips with a few nights of camping in the realm of possibility.
- Sea Kayaks: A subset of the touring kayak, sea kayaks are usually even less wide than their touring ‘yak colleagues. The means you sacrifice slightly less stability for a little more ability to keep an edge. These kayaks are usually about 15 feet or longer. Their very long length makes it easy to navigate in a straight line, but much harder to turn. Because of their size and consequent material and labor requirements, sea kayaks naturally remain one of the most expensive types of kayaks. The key features of sea kayaks are covered decks, spray decks, and comfortable design for longer journeys. While most sea kayaks can also be used for touring, most touring kayaks should not be used at sea. This is particularly true when tackling rougher ocean conditions such as larger swells on the open coast. This type of kayaking is not for beginners. Before purchasing one of these and venturing into the ocean, it is critically important to take a few classes on sea safety.
- Whitewater Kayaks: Whitewater kayaks are for the pros and the wild things. These have become very specialized and get up there in price. These are finely tuned to offer the right balance of weight, stability, and maneuverability. Crafted for mastering higher classification, extreme, and “exploratory” rapids, this category of watercraft is for experienced paddlers only.
Top Considerations before Purchasing a Kayak
Here are a few of the basic specifications of kayaks. They are worth a quick gander to help you narrow down what type of kayak is best for you.
- Length. All other factors being equal, a longer kayak will be faster but harder to turn.
- Width. All other factors being equal, a wider kayak will offer more stability.
- Boat weight. Weight of the kayak, most effected by size and type of material.
- Transport. This can be a limiting factor because of your vehicle. Inflatables, modular, and folding kayaks rate highest in this area.
- Size of the cockpit. The sitting area, which is non-existent in SOT (sit-on-top) kayaks.
- Cargo. How much storage capacity the watercraft features.
- Weight Limit. Marked under most product specification lists.
- Durability. Life expectancy and what type of conditions the kayak was built for.
- Material. Plastic (polyethylene), thermoformed ABS, soft shells (cloth), and composite.
- Price. Hinges on many factors, but beginner kayaks are usually on the low end of the spectrum and touring/sea kayaks as well as whitewater on the higher end.
- Appearance. Color design comes down to personal preference.
Kayak Reviews: The Best of 2016
Best Beginners Kayak: If you are a newcomer to paddling, or just looking for something for a relaxing journey around the lake or river, the Intex Challenger is a great inexpensive option. It comes with everything you need to get started and is tough enough to handle slow moving rivers. The package also comes with a repair patch when the probable jagged rock strikes again. We like the cargo net that makes the most of this little one seater, allowing the user to store gear or perhaps a beer or two with no worries.
Best Youth Kayak: Holding up to 130lbs and featuring multiple footrest positions, this is a great choice for kids of all ages. This comes with a paddle and is great for activities such as exploring a lake or surf riding at the beach. The molded finger handles are a great design, for those unavoidable flips and rougher rides it provides another layer of security for the young ones. It’s a wide kayak that provides a sturdy and stable platform to help keep children safe in the cockpit. The wave is the perfect recreational kayak for kids.
- Alternative: Sun Dolphin Bali
Best Inflatable Kayak: This is a sturdy, two-seater kayak that is backed by a three year manufacturer warranty. As far as larger two person kayaks go, this is a very portable 26 pound package which fits into an included 26 by 48 inch carrier bag that can be carried like a backpack. It has a weight limit of 500 pounds and is durable enough to handle up to class three white waters. The design includes two skegs for more precise tracking, preventing your paddling efforts from being all for naught. It comes with many add-ons and two oars contributing to the Sea Eagle 330 being one of the best values for the reasonable price point.
Best All-Around Recreational Kayak: The Aruba by Sun Dolphin is a solid watercraft measuring 10 feet in length. It is composed of a plastic (polyethylene) hull that holds up extremely well under most water conditions. This kayak also features foot braces, a high-backed adjustable seat, and a spray deflector collar for conquering rapids in comfort and style. It is designed for stability and not speeds like those in the touring category.
- Alternative: Old Town Vapor 10
- Step up: Dagger 12.0 Axis
- Two-person: Lifetime Manta
- Three-person: Coleman Big Basin
Best Sit-on-Top Kayak: The QuickPak is a comfortable, versatile kayak that can be set up and deflated in under 5 minutes. The backrest offers plenty of support and the sit on top design doesn’t leave the user feeling constricted. A common choice among backpacker, camping, and kayaking hybrids because it weights around 12 pounds and has a weight capacity of 400lbs. It is also a good choice for fishers heading out to their secret spot in calmer waters. Dual fins combined with the smaller size make maneuvering easier even for less experienced paddlers.
Best Whitewater Kayak: The heavy-duty plastic PVC tarpaulin hull is constructed to stand up to the roughest whitewater you dare paddle into. In other words, this is a waterfall proof kayak. The 35 inch width, 9 foot 6 inch length, and 34 pound weight provides the best combination in stability and maneuverability. You’ll be prepared for a whitewater battle with thigh straps, self-draining mechanism, welded seams, covered cargo area, and self-bailing ports.
Best Touring Kayak: This 13-foot kayak is an excellent choice for day trips. It has the versatility to enable some types of light sea kayaking, but it excels in the day tour category. Riot came up with a nice mix of stability and length when designed this kayak. The custom-fit seating system ensures comfortable ‘yaking and plethora of bonus features justify the price tag. The Edge weighs in at 44 pounds which isn’t bad considering its size. The maximum capacity of this kayak is 300lbs and it comes with a 5 year warranty.
Best Sea Kayak: This is a British-style marine and sea kayak. If you’re looking for a vessel that can handle the persistent bashing of the ocean the Reval is up to the challenge. This Kayak offers an excellent blend of navigability and stability. The hull is constructed with rocker to handle breaking waves and robust winds. There is enough storage capacity for weekend-trips and other expedition ventures which can be accessed using an easy-entry day hatch. Sixteen feet long and sixty-three pounds, the Reval is the ideal kayak to embark on ocean adventures.
- Step up: Boreal Design Epsilon C200
Best Angler Kayak: The Fishing Kayak from Coleman comes with all the bells and whistles you need for an optimal fishing experience. Rod holders for hands-free fishing, paddle holders, and back-up air chambers are just a few of the key features of this kayak.
We’ve got a bunch of great options in our dedicated fishing kayak page.