I get asked that question literally thousands of times over the course of the summer. Unfortunately there is no “one” perfect kayak. If there was, everyone would have one and this article would be about choosing the perfect color. What most people should be asking themselves is – what will I primarily be using my kayak for and where will I be using it?
All kayak designs are a combination of tradeoffs. For example, a kayak that is stable and easy to maneuver (short and wide) is going to be shaped quite differently than one that is really fast (long and narrow). So maybe you want a kayak that is kinda stable and kinda fast. You have to determine your own set of compromises. Over the years I’ve heard of some interesting ways in which some people have chosen their kayak, including: the length of their shed, the color of their car, whether or not it would fit in their vehicle, and one of my favorites was a person who bought a particular kayak because it was “the color that the dolphins preferred”.
Before deciding on a kayak it is helpful to be familiar with the three basic styles or types of kayaks. Although there are many exceptions, these are the most prevalent.
The first type of kayak is the sit on top (also referred to as a SOT). With these boats you literally sit on top of them, so they dispel any fears of someone flipping over and becoming entrapped. They are usually self-draining due to holes in the bottom, easy to get into and out of, and are quite user-friendly. On the downside they can be a bit bulky and they leave you exposed to the elements (you are usually sitting in about an inch of water due to the drain holes). Their biggest drawback is that they are quite slow.
The second type is referred to as a recreational or open cockpit kayak. These boats have gained great popularity in recent years due to their stability, dry ride, and comfort. They look similar to a canoe except that you sit much lower, thus making them the most stable of the three boat styles listed. Their big downside is that, unlike the SOT, if these boats were to capsize they would fill up with A LOT of water. This makes them unsuitable for rough or open water. If you capsize in a SOT you can just turn it upright and climb back on. If you capsize in a recreational kayak there is a good chance you will be swimming to shore.
The final category is the sea kayak or touring kayak (not to be confused with an Ocean Kayak which is actually a brand name of a company that makes mostly sit on tops). These boats are longer and sleeker and are most often associated with longer trips or expeditions. Sea kayaks are much faster than the previously mentioned kayaks and usually come equipped with several hatches for dry storage. Although less stable in flat water, with proper training these kayaks are more stable in rough, wavy conditions. Because of a smaller cockpit, these boats are a little more difficult to get in and out of but afford better protection from the elements. In the event of a capsize, most people with training can learn to reenter and drain the water by themselves. Additionally, because of more points of contact between the paddler and the boat, sea kayaks allow the trained paddler much better control.
So how should you decide on which kayak to buy?
5 steps to choosing the best kayak for You!
- Where will you be paddling?
Will you be in protected bays, small lakes, creeks and other flat-water environments close to shore? If this is the case then any of the above kayaks should work for you. Is there a chance that you will be paddling in deep water away from shore, or in the ocean or large bays? If this is the case then the recreational style kayak is out; the sea kayak is an option if you are willing to get some training.
Exercise, bird watching, fishing, camping, surfing, exploration? Determining this will help you decide what characteristics are most important to you such as stability, speed, storage, etc.
- Take a lesson (before purchasing your kayak)
It’s unfortunate, but a large number of students who sign up for one of our beginner lessons have just purchased their first kayak. An important element of any beginner kayak course is explaining and showing students the design characteristics of different kayaks. In addition, students are shown how they should sit and properly fit in a kayak in order to paddle comfortably and efficiently. With so many different body types and sizes it is not uncommon for us to put someone in two or three different kayaks before we find one that fits them properly. By taking a class prior to purchasing you will have a much better idea of what type of kayak you want and how it should fit you.
- Ask questions about manufacturers and quality
It’s best to ask people who own kayaks and even better to ask rental or tour companies that don’t sell new boats. At Coastal Kayak because we put so many people in different kayaks we know the characteristics of each boat, such as who fits best in them, how they handle in different conditions, whether or not they hold up well. And most importantly, since we don’t sell them, we don’t mind telling you what we think.
- Try – Try – Try before you buy!
The most important element to you enjoying your new kayak is comfort. You can’t tell how comfortable a kayak is going to be by sitting in it on the showroom floor. You can only tell by spending some time paddling it. Trust me on this one. I have heard (I don’t know if this is true) that some manufacturers actually designed their kayaks to be comfortable when customers were seated in them on the ground because that is what most people based their buying decision on. Take for example the kayak whose seatback comes up to just above your shoulder blades (picture a Lazy-boy). This set up could not be more comfortable when you are just idly sitting there. Start paddling and rotating your torso (torso rotation is key in good paddling technique) and all of a sudden your Lazy-boy is digging into your back and after a short while you can hardly paddle. Another important consideration is boat handling. Obviously you cannot tell how a boat will handle until you get it on the water, preferably with a little bit of wind. Will the boat track straight? Will it constantly weathercock (turn into the wind)? These are things you can only tell by paddling it.
So how do I try out the boat?
Most reputable kayak shops will let you try before you buy. This is especially good if the shop is located on the water and you can easily try out lots of different boats. Perhaps a better way is to go to a rental facility (take Coastal Kayak for example). For the cost of a one hour rental fee our customers can try as many of the 100+ kayaks that we have within that hour. Going to a rental facility is also good because you don’t have the added pressure of a salesperson trying to push you into a certain boat. The best way to try out boats is by going to a manufacturer’s demo day. You can find these all over, especially in the spring and also during a lot of kayak symposiums. At these events many different kayak manufacturers will bring their boats so that you can try as many as you would like and you can try them back-to-back which is always best for comparison.
So remember, when thinking about purchasing your first kayak:
Determine where you are going to be paddling.
Determine what your primary activity will be.
Take a lesson.
Ask lots of questions.
Try as many kayaks as you can before you buy.
And most of all – Have fun!
ACA Open Water Instructor Trainer
BCU Level 3 Coach
Owner Coastal Kayak Inc.