What is the best way to choose a kayak?
You have several options to start with: recreational kayaks, touring and sea kayaks, whitewater kayaks, fishing kayaks, and many of these offer a choice of sit in or sit on designs, and even solo or tandem seating. There are positives and negatives that need to be weighed when deciding on the right model for you.
The most important factor in choosing the right kayak is to have a good idea of what kind of paddling you want to do. Renting or demoing a kayak from a store or an outfitter on a local river or lake is a good idea since no two kayaks perform the same even if the dimensions are similar. Some colleges, universities and parks offer kayak and other outdoor equipment rentals to students and community members, as do military bases for service members. Since you will usually own your kayak for quite a while, picking the right one is essential for your enjoyment of the activity, and you want to choose the one that is suited to your preferred paddling destinations and activities while on the water, such as fishing.
In making your choice, consider the places you want to go and the type of water you expect to encounter. With this information in mind, here’s a closer look at your options.
Recreational kayaks of the variety with cockpits that allow you to sit close to the surface of the water and possible use a spray skirt are a great choice for entry-level or beginning kayakers. They are in the 9 to 11 foot range and are often referred to as “poke-around boats,” with the understanding that due to their shorter length they are not going to be used for long multi-mile trips hauling a lot of gear. They are just kayaks for adults or children to have fun with on gentle streams or placid ponds. They are typically wide, stable, lightweight, easy to get in and out of, and priced competitively. This makes them popular with beginners, children, seniors, and others for whom paddling is a just few hours out on the water with no particular destination in mind. The short length makes them quite easy to transport and store as well.
It is important to understand the limitations of these boats, however, and realize that they will be slow in the water (compared to longer designs) ride deeper, and have poor handling in rough water or windy weather. Their initial stability does make them useful for anyone who pursues other activities while kayaking, such as fishing, photography, or bird watching (as long as conditions are not too rough). While even the economical and tough, roto-molded plastic nine foot boats are light enough for most people to lift and transport, composite materials such as Kevlar and carbon can make these boats weigh in at 25lbs or less, truly light enough for anyone to carry. Getting a composite boat can cost much more that the basic plastic models, however.
Several different options in recreational kayaks are available at Alpine Shop. Sit-on-top, recreational (with a cockpit and possibly bulkheads) and tandems are the most common models. Depending on your recreational kayaking needs, one of these will be likely be the perfect choice .
As mentioned earlier a sit-in recreational kayaks with cockpits do allow one the option of using a nylon sprayskirt that offers wave/sun/wind/rain protection that is not found on sit-on-tops, and usually allows one to sit lower in the kayak for even greater stability. The cockpit styles usually come with one bulkhead sealed, dry storage compartments, and sometimes two. Contrary to popular belief wearing a sprayskirt will not trap you in your kayak although practicing exiting the boat with on near shore builds confidence. Basic kayak classes are very useful for getting started in the sport as well. For whatever reason the sit-in or cockpit style has been far more popular over the years in Missouri than the sit-on variety but both have their uses and proponents.
Some of the main points about Sit-on-tops are these:
-They are stable and self-draining. They are easy to climb on to from the water even unassisted. If they capsize you merely have to climb back on.
-They are an excellent platform for swimming, snorkeling, sunbathing, or fishing from.
-Since you are exposed to the elements you will get wet and have no sun protection other than your clothing and sunscreen. Conversely in the cooler months you have to dress more warmly with fleece, wetsuits, or drysuits more than a sit-in style of kayak. Your gear is more exposed and should be kept in waterproof bags bungied to the decks.
-Fishing rod holders, fish finders, and even livewells are commonly used on these types of kayaks.
Tandem kayaks, whether cockpit style or sit-on-top, are very popular so that small children can paddle with their parents, or your canine friends can come along as well. Many can be paddled solo if the other party elects not to come on occasion.
Sea or Touring Kayaks
Sea touring kayaks are performance boats for more advanced paddling. Coming in lengths of 14 to 18 feet, and chosen for your size, ability, and speed you wish to travel, a sea kayak can take you to hard to reach places you perhaps felt you could not get to on your own, such as that ideal campsite in the middle of the Mississippi River or on a distant arm of Lake of the Ozarks.
Sea touring kayaks are designed for long distances, multiday trips, rough water conditions, and advanced maneuvers and rescues. Sea kayaks are generally longer and somewhat narrower than recreational kayaks. They have two bulkheads, fore and aft, and at least two hatches. The cockpit area is enclosed, and the cockpit coaming allows for attaching a spray skirt. Inside the cockpit, thigh braces and adjustable foot pegs aid in both stability and maneuverability. Foot pegs are also used to adjust the rudder angle when the boat is so equipped (although rudders are only recommended for wide, windy ocean and lake crossings.)
A good Sea kayak has deck lines (rope) running around the deck perimeter which are an important safety feature that allows a swimmer to grab on to when doing a deep water rescue..
Because they’re longer (and faster), sea kayaks are often heavier than other kayaks, especially in the economical plastic layups. You can counter this weight by choosing a boat constructed from lightweight material like fiberglass or a carbon-Kevlar mix.
Whitewater kayaks are designed for all types of rivers—and paddlers. Don’t look at these if you’re planning a lazy float down a placid river, because these boats are designed for fast-moving whitewater conditions.
One thing that holds true for all whitewater boats is that they are shorter and more maneuverable than the other types of kayaks but there are also major and subtle differences in the various kayaks designed for true whitewater.
There are creek boats-around 8 or 9 feet long- for narrow runs and big drops. There are river runners that favor stability and tracking than go up to 10 feet and are great to run rivers without a lot of stopping and playing. Then there are playboats, with hard edges and flat hulls around 6 to 8 feet, designed for acrobatic moves. All come in varying lengths, widths, volumes, and hull designs. Each variable affects performance. No matter what the literature says, no one boat does it all perfectly.
However the new river runner and crossover styles of whitewater boats such as the Liquid Logic Remix 9 and 10 foot models, are truly all purpose. They have the rockered (banana shape) hull to handle serious whitewater, but when you drop the attached skeg on the Remixes, they paddle acceptably on lakes or slow rivers too.
-Rich Orr, Paddlesports Director