What to Know About Buying a Kayak

I remember buying my first kayak several years ago. Until then, I never had to think about which kayak to choose – I was typically just using whatever was provided to me at a lake cabin or summer cabin.

When I needed to evaluate my own options, I was a little overwhelmed. I wanted about four different kayaks, which was not practical at all!

There are lots of different kayak types, and maybe the most important decision you will make is the one you can make right now, before you are even at the kayak dealer:  How do you plan to use the kayak?  Answer that, and everything starts to fall in to place.

My Kayak Experience

I’ve been paddling since I was a kid, but it was when I was in my late 20s that I started taking the different types of kayaks seriously.

My first real kayaking was done when I lived in Oregon years ago. The Pacific Northwest kayaking is pretty special — you have sea kayaking in places like Port Townsend, WA, all along the Pacific Coast, on inland lakes and rivers like the Deschutes, and up into British Columbia.

Then, I got in to kayaking in Northern Minnesota, on the pristine waters. This is a great place to kayak because it is just made for it.

Later, I tried my hand at some white water rafting — albeit in a little different type of kayak.  Today, I still do some kayak fishing, which is a great way to get on the water.

Understanding Kayak Types

sea kayaks
Sea Kayaks

When it comes to buying a kayak, there are a few different types of kayaks. Most people only have one choice where they are, so they don’t pay lots of attention to it. Basically, you have a few decisions to make.

Sit-On-Top vs. Sit-Inside

The first decision to make is whether to go for a sit-on-top or sit-inside kayak. Sit-on-top kayaks are generally wider and more stable, making them a popular choice for beginners and those looking for a more relaxed experience. They are also easier to get in and out of, and offer more space for gear. On the other hand, sit-inside kayaks are more streamlined and faster, making them a good choice for more experienced paddlers and those looking to cover longer distances. They also offer interior storage which is nice for touring.

Recreational vs. Touring

Recreational kayaks are designed for short trips on calm waters, such as lakes and gentle rivers. They are generally wider and more stable than touring kayaks, making them easier to maneuver and less likely to tip over. If you have ever used the kayak available at a lakefront resort, the odds are it was a recreational kayak.

Touring kayaks, just like they sound, are designed for longer trips on open water, such as the ocean. They are longer and narrower than recreational kayaks, making them faster and more efficient, but also less stable.

Inflatable vs. Hardshell

recreational kayaks
Recreational Kayaks

Finally, you’ll need to decide whether to go for an inflatable or hardshell kayak. Inflatable kayaks are lightweight, portable, and easy to store, making them a good choice for those with limited space. They are also more affordable than hardshell kayaks. They are also the type you will often use when whitewater rafting, because they can take a bit of a beating without cracking.

Hardshell kayaks are more expensive and harder to store, but they offer better performance and durability except against rocks. They are generally more expensive, at least once you get beyond the entry level.

Intended Use

How you plan to use the kayak is a HUGE factor in which kayaks you should be considering. You don’t fish easily in a sea kayak. You don’t tour for 25 miles in a fishing kayak. Most kayaks are designed for a specific purpose, and choosing the right one can make all the difference.

Sea Kayak

Sea kayaks are designed for open water and are typically have a nice combination of length for cruising and enough stability. They are built to handle rough conditions and offer great stability and maneuverability. They often have 2 spaces for paddlers.

Sea kayaks are, for many, a great combination of durability, stability, and speed when you need it.


whitewater kayaks
Whitewater Kayaks

Recreational kayaks are shorter and wider, placing a priority on stability. These are the kayaks you find at summer camps and lakefronts, and are usually used on lakes. They are shorter and wider, making them more stable and easier to maneuver. Recreational kayaks are great for beginners or those who just want to enjoy a leisurely paddle or families who just need an all-purpose kayak.

Fishing Kayak

Fishing kayaks are designed to be able to fish from, often in shallow water. They are typically wider and more stable than other types of kayaks, making them ideal for fishing. Many fishing kayaks come equipped with rod holders and storage compartments for tackle and gear.

A fishing kayak might have mounts for a tall-backed chair.

White Water Kayak

White water kayaks are designed for navigating rapids and fast-moving water. They are shorter and more maneuverable than other types of kayaks, with a rounded hull that makes them easy to roll. Most are made of a very durable rubber, but some are made of a solid material.

Touring Kayak

Touring kayaks are my personal favorite, and they can be works of art. They are designed for longer trips and multi-day expeditions. They are longer and narrower than recreational kayaks, making them faster and more efficient. Touring kayaks are also designed with ample storage space for gear and supplies.

Material and Durability

Most people who are pretty in to kayaks are really particular on the material it is made from. The material used to construct the kayak can influence its aesthetics, weight, durability, and ease of transportation and storage. There are several materials used to make kayaks, and each has its advantages and disadvantages.

Hard-shell kayak materials

Rotomolded polyethylene kayaks

fishing kayak
Fishing Kayak

Polyethylene is a versatile and durable plastic that is used for various applications. It is the most widely used and inexpensive plastic kayak material. The manufacturing process involves pouring plastic pellets into a hollow metal mold, which is then heated and rotated in an oven to distribute the molten plastic throughout the mold. The result is a single-piece kayak that requires only light hand finishing, such as outfitting the cockpit and hatches, to be ready.

Rotomolded polyethylene kayaks offer great performance-to-price value and are suitable for whitewater, rocky shorelines, and years of maintenance-free use. They are also popular for entry-level touring and sea kayaks, as well as those designed for surfing and ocean play.


  • The most inexpensive, widely available hard-shell kayak material
  • Unparalleled versatility and design options
  • Impact-resistant, nearly indestructible construction is suitable for whitewater, rocky shorelines and years of maintenance-free use
  • High-quality, rotomolded kayaks offer great performance-to-price value


  • Heavier than other kayak materials
  • Polyethylene is degraded by UV. To ensure greater longevity, treat your plastic kayak with 303 Protectant or a similar UV-blocking spray or wax
  • Speed-sapping hull weakening and warping (called oil-canning) can occur in older, sun-damaged plastic hulls (or even new kayaks strapped too tightly to a roof rack on a warm day). Not great if you are a finely-tuned paddler wanting to go fast.
  • Abrasions from rocks and barnacles leave fuzzy, curly, tufts of plastic, increasing drag and decreasing hull speed

Thermoform kayaks

Thermoform kayaks offer a mid-range compromise between polyethylene and composite kayaks. They use an advanced plastic laminate construction to combine the affordability and durability of plastic with the lighter weight, shiny aesthetics, and sleek feel of composites. The manufacturing process involves wrapping heated plastic sheets over the kayak molds using a vacuum, allowing designers to produce finer lines and more complex shapes while using less material than rotomolding.

Thermoform kayaks are priced only marginally above rotomolded kayaks and provide a glossy finish that looks like fancy composite kayaks. They are more scratch-resistant and lighter than rotomolded polyethylene kayaks and are easier to repair than polyethylene. Thermoform kayaks are suitable for a premium rec kayak, lighter weight fishing kayak, or expedition-ready touring kayak.


  • More scratch-resistant and lighter than rotomolded polyethylene kayaks
  • Acrylic outer layer provides a glossy finish that looks like fancy composite kayaks
  • Attractive price-to-performance ratio
  • Easier to repair than polyethylene and can be recycled at end-of-life


  • UV-exposed ABS base layer will degrade over time, even with proper maintenance. Store your kayak indoors, if possible, or upside-down on an outdoor rack
  • Be cautious in cold climates. At below-freezing temperatures, hard impacts can shatter thermoformed plastic laminate
  • Many manufacturers don’t offer thermoformed kayaks—this material might not be an option if you have your heart set on a specific design

Composite kayaks

Composite kayaks are made from resin-impregnated laminates of fiberglass, aramid fibers, carbon fiber, or a blending of these and other high-tech synthetic fabrics. Some manufacturers also add foam or honeycomb cores between the fabric layers for extra rigidity. The primary differences between these various composite kayak materials are weight and cost, with the lightest materials being the most expensive.

Fiberglass is the original, tried-and-true composite material. It offers an excellent strength-to-weight ratio and affordable cost, making it the most popular choice for premium sea kayaks. Aramid fiber, synonymous with the brand name Kevlar, offers strength and rigidity similar to fiberglass but is lighter and more expensive. Aramid and fiberglass-aramid blends are more common in weight-saving light touring kayaks, expedition kayaks, and surf skis. Carbon fiber is the lightest and most costly composite kayak material. It is typically used for elite sport and racing kayaks, but ultralight carbon rec and touring kayaks are also available.

Composite kayaks are beautiful to look at and efficient to paddle. They allow for sleeker lines than rotomolding or thermoforming, and composites are stiffer than plastics, making them faster and more responsive on the water.

Length and Width

The length of a kayak affects its speed and maneuverability, while the width affects its stability. Just like with a stand-up paddleboard, you typically need to choose one or the other: speed or stability.

A longer kayak will generally be faster and track better in a straight line, making it a good choice for longer trips or open water paddling. Once you get a longer kayak going at a good clip, there is nice momentum that makes it easy to cover lots of miles. However, longer kayaks can be more difficult to maneuver in tight spaces or narrow waterways.

On the other hand, a wider kayak offers more stability, making it a good choice for beginners or those who plan to fish or take photos from their kayak. It is also good for people who just want to putz around and get on the water. However, wider kayaks can be slower and less efficient to paddle, especially in windy conditions.

A good rule of thumb is to choose a kayak that is long enough to provide good speed and tracking, but not so long that it becomes difficult to maneuver. Similarly, choose a width that provides enough stability without sacrificing too much speed or efficiency. As you become better at paddling, you can get by with a narrower, faster kayak.

Weight Capacity

The weight capacity on a kayak refers to the maximum weight that the kayak can safely support, including the weight of the paddler, gear, and any other items that may be carried on board.

Look for a kayak with a weight capacity that meets your needs. If you plan to carry a lot of gear or go on longer trips, you will need a kayak with a higher weight capacity. On the other hand, if you are a smaller paddler and don’t plan to carry much gear, a lower weight capacity may be sufficient.

Remember that it is not just about the weight of the paddler and gear. You also need to factor in the weight of the kayak itself. A heavier kayak will have a lower weight capacity than a lighter kayak of the same size.

It is also important to keep in mind that exceeding the weight capacity of a kayak can be dangerous. A kayak that is overloaded can become unstable and difficult to control, increasing the risk of capsizing. Therefore, it is essential to choose a kayak with a weight capacity that meets your needs and to always stay within that weight limit.

To make it easier to compare weight capacities between different kayaks, many manufacturers provide a weight capacity chart. This chart lists the weight capacity of the kayak based on the paddler’s weight and the weight of any gear that will be carried on board. Be sure to check the weight capacity chart when selecting a kayak to ensure that it can safely support your needs.

Kayak Design Finer Points

I love looking at kayak design, it is an area where you really see the difference between a low-end and high-end kayak. Your kayak’s design will determine how the kayak performs in different water conditions, how comfortable it is, and how easy it is to maneuver.

Hull Shape

The hull shape of a kayak is one of the most critical design elements. The hull shape will determine how the kayak performs in different water conditions. A flat hull is stable but slow, while a rounded hull is faster but less stable. A V-shaped hull is ideal for speed and maneuverability in rough water conditions.

Cockpit Size

The cockpit size is another important design element to consider. The cockpit should be large enough to allow you to enter and exit the kayak comfortably, and sit with a lifejacket on and still have enough range-of-motion to paddle. However, a cockpit that is too large can make the kayak less stable.

Some kayaks, especially sea kayaks, might have designated spots for multiple paddlers.

Weight and Length

The weight and length of the kayak are also important factors to consider. A longer kayak will be faster and more efficient, but it may be more challenging to maneuver. A shorter kayak will be slower but more maneuverable. The weight of the kayak will also affect its performance. A lighter kayak will be easier to transport and maneuver, but it may be less stable in rough water conditions.

Skeg or Rudder

A skeg or rudder is a design element that can significantly affect the performance of a kayak. A skeg is a retractable fin that helps to keep the kayak on course in windy conditions. A rudder is a movable blade that helps to steer the kayak. A rudder is ideal for kayaking in rough water conditions, while a skeg is better suited for calm water conditions.

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