Kayaks come in all shapes and sizes so it's important to understand the available options. Having the right kayak will not only get you the most enjoyment but it will also greatly impact your safety on the water. That being said, narrowing down your options is actually pretty easy and it starts with identifying how and where you'll be using your kayak.
How & Where?
Will you be paddling on small sheltered bodies of water like ponds or small lakes? Or will you be taking the kayak to big bodies of water that are exposed to wind and waves? What's the water temperature going to be like most of the time? And when it comes to paddling, is it more important to have a kayak that's fast and responsive or are you more concerned about having a very stable kayak that would be difficult to tip over?
With these questions in mind, your first and biggest decision is whether to go for a sit-on-top or a sit-inside kayak and there are pros and cons to both.
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Sit-on-tops (SOT's) are the most user friendly. They are very stable, easy to get in and out of and there is no feeling of confinement on them. They're also self-bailing which means that water drains through small holes called scupper holes that go right through the kayak. Another great thing about sit-on-tops is that you can slip on and off of them very easily which makes them a great choice for kids to play with.
All these features makes sit-on-top kayaks ideal for more cautious paddlers, for warm environments, for rougher water conditions, and for people who are paddling the kids who love to swim. The downside to sit-on-top kayaks is that you are guaranteed to get wet while paddling, while sit-inside kayaks allow you to stay dry.
Sit-inside kayaks are great for paddlers who will be in cooler water, who want to stay dry while paddling and who want a faster moving kayak. The only downside to sit-inside kayaks is that if you flip for some reason, recovering isn't a simple process because your kayak's going to swamp. Once you've decided on whether to go for a sit-on-top or sit-inside, you'll need to decide on the length for your kayak.
As a general rule, the longer and narrower a kayak is, the faster it will travel and the wider the kayak is the more stable it will be but the slower it will be. Most sit-on-top kayaks are considered recreational kayaks because they tend to be wide and ultra stable while sit-inside kayaks tend to vary a lot more in shape and size.
In fact, kayaks can be broken into a couple distinct categories. You've got recreational kayaks which are wider, shorter and have large cockpits that don't feel confining. Rec kayaks are usually 9 to 12 feet long. On the other end of the spectrum, you've got touring kayaks which are designed to be fast and to deal with any type of condition. Touring kayaks are long and narrow and they have small cockpits that are designed to be used with the skirt to keep the water out. A small cockpit also lets you use thigh hooks to grip the boat with your legs which gives you a lot more control over the kayak.
The trade off is that touring kayaks are lot less stable than rec kayaks and people can find the small cockpits confining even though if you flip it's very easy to get out of them. Now as a general rule, it's a good idea if you're going to paddle a touring kayak to take a sea kayaking course because among other things, it teaches you how to deal with a capsize.
Outside of recreational and touring kayaks there are many other specified kayak categories you can explore.
Explore More Kayak Categories
Sit-on-top kayaks (SOT's) are often regarded as the most user-friendly kayaks. They are super easy to get in and out of, their wider structure makes them very stable, and there is no feeling of being confined on them. A sit on top kayak is self-bailing, which means that water drains through small holes called scupper holes that go right through the kayak! Since they don't get flooded, this makes them great kayaks for cautious paddlers and kids.
Inflatable kayaks are one of the great innovations brought to the sport of kayaking because they have shattered constraints like storage or transportation and allowed so many kayakers more options for their craft. While the concept of inflatable kayaks was commercially available for some time (think rafting guides), it has been the last few decades that the technology, design, and innovation has really progressed.
A surf ski kayak is a type of kayak that is most known for being very long, narrow kayaks that are built for speed, performance, and racing. Typically carbon fiber, kevlar, or some combination of the two, their sleek, efficient shape design allows paddlers to maximize performance.
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Folding kayaks usually are canvas or nylon skins stretched over wood or aluminum frames. Newer innovations have allowed designers to use interlocking panels and fold patterns to create strong folding kayaks
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Packrafts have come ablaze as a niche category in the world of paddle sports. Distinguishing themselves as an excellent choice of craft for paddling lakes, rivers, and whitewater alike, packrafts have also grabbed the interest of those looking to mix in other adventures such as backpacking and biking.