Ultimate Kayak Buying Guide: Factors to Consider

April 08, 2024

Ultimate Kayak Buying Guide: Factors to Consider

Buying your first kayak can be difficult, primarily online. With hundreds of models produced by dozens of companies, it's not just about finding a kayak that fits your budget but also one that's safe & suitable for your needs & abilities.

Let this guide be your compass as you shop for a kayak, pointing you toward the right type, the most practical accessories, and all the must-have safety gear. Whether you're a seasoned paddler or a beginner, there's a kayak out there that's just right for you. Here are the significant factors worth considering.

Kayak Type

One critical aspect to consider when buying a kayak is the type. Different kayaks are available in the market, each with distinct features to serve particular water and activity settings.

  • Contrary to popular belief, folding and inflatable kayaks are suited for more than calm waters. Newer models are designed for touring, whitewater, and recreational paddling. 
  • Recreational kayaks are ideal for calmer water bodies like lakes and ponds with limited wind & currents.
  • Consider light touring models if you're getting into near-shore coastal paddling and inland waters with lighter winds.
  • On the other hand, touring kayaks are built for advanced paddlers who will navigate lakes and bays to open waters in light to moderate wind conditions.
  • Fishing kayaks are designed for anglers and rigged with fishing-related features like rod holders, anchor systems, and storage for your tackle and gear.
  • Whitewater kayaks are made to navigate steep, tight rapids and withstand quite a beating, thanks to their reinforced hulls, tight turning capabilities, and low profiles.

Sit-on-Top Kayaks

Suited for recreational beginners to intermediate-level kayakers, sit-on-top kayaks (SOTs) are great for leisure kayaking on lakes, ponds, or slow-moving rivers. Their open cockpits expose the paddler to sun, wind, and spray, making them a perfect choice for hot, sunny days. Sit-on-tops are also easier to re-enter than sit-inside kayaks and make great swimming and diving platforms. Kayak fishermen, including off-coast paddlers, love them as well. It is much easier to arrange tackle gear and catch/land fish in SOTs.

 However, due to their width and high center of gravity, they might become unstable in waves or rough seas. 

Their hull designs are less efficient than sit-inside kayaks, making them slower and requiring more energy to propel. If storage is important to you, remember that sit-on-top kayaks have less dry storage space. However, if your gear doesn't need to be dry, deck space may not be as much of a priority for you. Alternatively, you could store your gear in dry bags or boxes. Fishermen, in particular, prefer the open deck storage options for easy access. Also, being heavier than sit-inside kayaks, you might find them more challenging to load and unload.

Sit-Inside Kayaks

Sit-inside kayaks are a prime choice for navigating all types of water, from calm ponds to coastal waters, lakes, and rivers. They move faster, track straighter, and can carry more gear in their covered cargo compartments, which makes them perfect for longer kayaking adventures. With a lower center of gravity and more narrow beam (width), they're more stable in rough water and waves than sit-on-top kayaks. 

Their hull designs are more efficient, making them faster and less energy-demanding. The ability of the paddler to wedge themselves in by applying pressure to various points makes control and turning much more accessible. As for storage, they beat sit-on-top kayaks with significantly more dry storage space. Plus, they're lighter and less cumbersome to load and unload.

Your Kayaking Needs

Suppose you want the best possible kayaking experience. In that case, you must pin down your kayaking preferences and requirements before purchasing a kayak. Imagine your perfect kayaking journey:

  • Will your kayak primarily wind through freshwater ponds in pursuit of largemouth bass?
  • Will you travel swift streams and rivers for days at a time? 
  • Are you aiming to explore the expanses of the open ocean?
  • Are you more inclined toward poking around saltwater harbors, estuaries, and flats?
  • Will your kayak be exclusively a fishing vessel?
  • Do you envision a recreational craft you can share with your family? 

Usage by Type

Answering the questions above will help narrow your perfect kayak since kayaks are not one-size-fits-all vessels. They've evolved exponentially to cater to various water conditions, trip lengths, and activities. Below is a chart outlining the ideal use for different types of kayaks.

Type of Kayak

Ideal Use

Recreational kayaks

Leisurely water cruisers perfect for calm waters in lakes, bays, estuaries, and mellow rivers

Whitewater kayaks

Cater to adrenaline junkies and are designed to conquer rapid river torrents

Fishing kayaks

Provide anglers ample space for fishing gear and tackle

Tandem kayaks

Cater to multiple passengers, making them great for family trips


Kayak Size & Weight

As a simple rule of thumb, longer and narrower kayaks typically offer faster speeds. In contrast, shorter and wider ones provide better stability. Depending on your intended activities, choose a kayak size that gives the right balance — speed for racing, stability for fishing, or a blend of both for touring.

A shorter kayak might be enough if you are more into day trips. However, longer kayaks tend to carry more gear for multi-day camping trips. Consider your kayaking environment, too. Shorter kayaks are more maneuverable, making them suitable for narrow water bodies. In contrast, longer ones, due to their speed, are better for vast water expanses.

Finally, ponder on the kayak's weight. A lighter kayak can be easily carried and transported but may be expensive due to the light but durable material.

Kayak Weight Capacity

It's essential to evaluate a kayak's weight capacity. That's the total weight it can carry in the water without capsizing, including your weight and the gear and supplies you intend to haul.

A kayak's maximum capacity may be 400 or 450 pounds, but this will vary by kayak type and size. Choose a kayak with ample weight capacity to ensure your safety and the kayak's performance.

Kayak Materials & Construction

A kayak's material and construction will significantly impact its durability, performance, and cost. Remember, the choice ultimately depends on your needs, including your budget, purpose, and desired kayaking location. Whether you're a beginner or an experienced kayaker, getting the suitable material can affect your enjoyment of your padding adventure.

Hardshell Kayaks

When it comes to hardshell kayaks or rigid kayaks, you'll typically encounter four common types of materials:

  • Wood: Wooden kayaks have been around for centuries and are known for their excellent maneuverability. Despite their weight and lesser durability, the traditional aesthetic continues to charm kayak enthusiasts.
  • Fiberglass: Fiberglass kayaks are lightweight, cost-effective, and demonstrate good performance. However, their susceptibility to damage requires extra care.
  • Plastic or polyethylene: Among the most affordable options, plastic or polyethylene kayaks are durable, repairable, and beginner-friendly. Although they can be heavy, their resilience makes them a popular choice.
  • Hybrid kayaks: As the name suggests, these embody a blend of two or more materials. They balance performance and durability, taking the best from each material.

A rigid kayak's weight largely depends on its size and the material used. For instance, a small inflatable kayak for recreational use may weigh under 25 pounds. In contrast, a plastic kayak, which is resilient yet heavier, can weigh between 45 and 75 pounds. More advanced options, such as a composite touring sea kayak made of Kevlar or carbon fiber, could weigh between 30 and 40 pounds.

Inflatable Kayaks

Inflatable kayaks are known for being portable and easy to store. They are built to roll neatly into a bag, making them ideal for those with limited storage space or a love for off-the-beaten-path paddling spots. Most inflatable kayaks feature sturdy and highly durable rubbers, ensuring they can withstand a fair share of adventures.

Due to their flexible frame, inflatable kayaks provide a different sensation when paddling over waves. They're not as rigid as plastic or composite kayaks and can require more effort to paddle. Still, an inflatable kayak might be your best bet if you're looking for a lightweight, budget-friendly option or want to save money on storing your kayak for the winter.

Composite Kayaks

Composite kayaks often feature a polyethylene, fiberglass, carbon fiber, or Kevlar construction. Polyethylene kayaks are generally the most durable, and fiberglass & Kevlar designs can also be, depending on the layup used. Carbon fiber boats are lightweight and stiff but are more fragile than their counterparts. A composite construction results in a lightweight kayak that performs well on water. 

Polyethylene (PE) Plastics

Polyethylene (PE) plastic is the material most common in rotomolded kayaks and is an affordable option. However, a potential drawback is that some rotomolded boats are vulnerable to UV rays over extended periods, though composite, ABS (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene), and inflatable kayaks are also susceptible. Most modern rotomolded boats include UV inhibitors, which will last as long as their composite counterparts with proper care and storage.

The advantages of rotomolded boats are that they're relatively affordable and durable. It's what almost all hardshell whitewater kayaks are made from, and it is a trendy option for recreational, touring, and fishing boats. Polyethylene plastic kayaks are heavier, and their design could be more refined, limiting their maneuverability and efficiency in the water. However, they provide a stable paddling experience that is convenient for beginners. They can also be more challenging to repair than composite boats.

ABS (Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) Plastics

ABS plastic kayaks strike a balance between polyethylene and composite kayaks. They provide stability and maneuverability while being less burdensome to transport than solid polyethylene. Despite their relative affordability compared to composites, they come at a higher price than polyethylene alternatives.

Kayak Accessories

Having the right kayaking supplies can make your experience more enjoyable and safe. From paddles to life jackets to kayak carts and beyond, here's a list of essentials you'll want to consider adding to your kayaking gear.

  • Paddles: Pick a paddle that's an appropriate length and feels comfortable, which you can determine by trial and error. Remember that efficient paddling requires less effort and maximizes your speed and control.
  • Life jackets: Regardless of your skill level, it's law in every jurisdiction to wear a Coast Guard-approved life jacket or personal flotation device (PFD) when you hit the open water.
  • Kayak cart: Kayaks' weights can vary greatly, sometimes up to 80 pounds. A lightweight, easy-to-use kayak cart can prove invaluable if you're transporting it alone. 
  • Kayak trailer: Designed to attach to the back of your car or truck, kayak trailers can pull your kayak from one location to another, whether for a short trip to a nearby lake or a longer journey to explore new waters.
  • Kayak rack: A versatile accessory, a kayak rack for a truck or pickup mounts onto the vehicle, providing a secure and convenient way to transport your kayaks.
  • Kayak clothing: Specialized garments like wetsuits or drysuits, dry tops, paddling jackets, helmets, gloves, and footwear are designed to keep you warm, dry, and safe while on the water.
  • Kayak spray skirt: A crucial piece of gear, a kayaking spray skirt forms a watertight seal around the cockpit, keeping you dry and secure in rough waters.

Frequently Asked Questions

What size kayak is the most stable?

The stability of a kayak significantly depends on its width. Wider kayaks are more stable than narrower ones, although narrower kayaks generally have more incredible speed and agility.

What is the 120 rule for kayaking?

The "120° rule" suggests wearing a wetsuit or drysuit when the combined air and water temperature is equal to or less than 120°F. This rule emphasizes that warm weather does not negate the danger of cold water. Wearing the appropriate kayaking clothing will keep you safe, warm, and dry. 

What is the most accessible kayak to get in and out of?

Sit-on-top kayaks are generally the easiest for getting in and out of a kayak. They are comfortable and user-friendly, making them the most popular option for kayak anglers, scuba divers, spearfishermen, freedivers, snorkelers, and beginners just learning to paddle. Plus, they are significantly more straightforward to transport and store.

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Erika PaciniHead of MarketingErika is a novice adventurer and dedicated member of the Outdoorplay family for over two years. With a passion for hiking, biking, and all things outdoors, she's always on the hunt for new trails, waterfalls, and secluded beaches to explore. Erika's passion for the natural world and mindfulness fuels her desire to inspire others to deepen their connection with themselves and nature through outdoor adventures.