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Canoeing & Kayaking™'s
Guide to Buying a Kayak

by Al Vazquez 

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Kayak Variety at the Hiwassee River, Tennessee USA
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The First Question; What Kind of Paddling Do You Plan?

The most important criteria for selecting a kayak is to pick one suitable for the type of water you'll be paddling. There are three basic types of paddling waters with boat characteristics typical to each type, though there are a lot of subcategories also. There are exceptions to the  characteristics listed, but these are the basic and typical ones. (You'll find paddlers have many varying opinions and are not shy about sharing them.)

3 Basic Types of Paddling Waters and Boats

Type of Paddling Waters

Typical Kayak Characteristics


Fast-flowing streams with obstacles and quickly changing currents

Surf kayaks are a variation designed for surfing that are usually sit-on-top foam-filled hulls with fiberglass skins much like surf boards.

e.g. rivers and creeks with rapids, waterfalls and substantial and changing drops in altitude over short distances

NOTE: There's a standard scale to describe the intensity and dangers of paddling waters by rating on a scale of 1 (flatwater) to 6 (extremely dangerous whitewater). You may find this scale on or books about paddling. Always remember however, that changes in weather can also change the rating and danger of any water body quickly.

• Quick-turning

• Typical lengths from 7' to 10'

• Braces the paddler into position firmly

• Durable hull to resist impacts (i.e. tough plastics such as polyethylene)

• Smooth deck to avoid entanglement

• Designed to keep water out of interior with lips for watertight "skirts"

• Designed to roll upright without exiting

• Flotation to surface the boat

• Sit-inside to protect the paddler from impacts and cold water


Normally calm waters with few large waves e.g. slower flowing creeks and rivers with steady and moderate drops in altitude, and smaller lakes,  bays

• Moderate-turning with good straight line tracking in moderate wind and small waves

• Typical lengths from 10' to 16'

• Faster straight-line paddling over distance

• Cargo space and deck straps for supplies

• Deck straps to assist deep water reentry

• Either sit-inside or sit-on-top

Seas and Large Lakes

Large bodies of water with frequent large waves, surf, or substantial tidal currents

• Long boats for speed over long distances and straighter tracking in wind and waves

• Typical lengths from 16' to 22'

• Faster straight-line paddling over distance

• Cargo space and deck straps for supplies

• Deck straps to assist deep water reentry

• Designed to roll upright without exiting

• Sit-inside to protect the paddler from exposure

For each of these three basic types of paddling, there are both recreational and high performance "competition" kayaks made of more exotic (and more expensive) materials to reduce weight and more extreme shapes and dimensions for higher skill paddlers.


Sit-On-Top versus Sit-Inside a Cockpit

Personal preference comes to play in deciding between sit-on-top and sit-inside, but I'll share my thoughts.

For whitewater or long distance paddling, I prefer to sit inside a cockpit to protect myself from elements or from rocks, trees, and other obstacles that can hit me in whitewater.

For moderate weather flatwater and even mild whitewater (e.g. Class 2), I prefer quality sit-on-tops for the following reasons:

- Easier entry and exit into the boat, which I use frequently to fish, explore shorelines or portage

- Easier reentry and exit into the boat in deep water, which I do to snorkel or swim

- For SCUBA diving, some sit-on-tops offer decks designed to hold tanks and gear securely, yet accessibly

- For fishing, most sit-on-top kayaks are more suitable to mount rod holders and keep tackle readily accessible

- No need to empty the boat in deep water; if water gets on deck it drains out through holes

- Exit boat quickly and easily if capsized in shallow surf to help avoid a face plant on the bottom.

My all around favorite kayak is a Current Designs Kestrel sit-on-top, a versatile, lightweight 14' Kevlar hull, fiberglass deck with good internal cargo space and solid performance. I also liked my 16' Heritage Nomad fiberglass sit-on-top for calm flatwater, but sadly it is no longer made in the lightweight fiberglass.

There are a couple of tradeoffs with paddling sit-on-tops however. In open water on a sunny day, use sunscreen or pants and shoes to protect your lower body from the sun. And if you're paddling creeks and swamps with lots of tree branches you may get scratched more than you would sitting inside a cockpit. In cold water or weather, I always wear a wetsuit or drysuit for safety in case I go in, so that's not a factor for me with either sit-inside or sit-on-top boats. Some people think they can avoid wearing protection from cold water by sitting inside a boat instead of on top. But I don't think that's a safe practice because water can get inside or the paddler might have to exit the boat in cold water.

If you're buying your first boat, please read further in this article about "Dimensions and Shape" and "Weight" because there are many sit-on-top models sold that are too short (too slow), too wide (too slow) or too heavy. Many of these boats are sold to beginners playing on the typical fear that they are more likely to be trapped inside a cockpit if they flip or that they need an excessively wide boat for stability. The bottom line is that a boat that does not perform well is not a safer boat in the long run.


Dimensions and Shape

Very frequently I've observed that people new to paddling buy a boat that is too flat on the bottom or too wide because they are too afraid of "tippier" boats with more rounded or narrower bottoms. Because such boats are slower, they quickly regret their choice when they find themselves falling behind other paddlers and getting exhausted paddling harder than those with faster boats.

The length, width (also called the "beam"), and hull shape all determine how easily the boat turns, how quickly it paddles through the water and how stable it is on the water. The table below explains how different characteristics affect kayak performance and provide general guidelines on what we consider to be effective dimensions in some cases.

Overview Guidelines on Kayak Dimensions and Shape

Hull Characteristic

Effect and Guidelines


The key dimension is the "waterline length"; the length of the hull normally at the surface of the water with a given weight paddler on board.

• The longer the boat hull, the faster it is.

• Because kayaks move through the water by displacing water around them, a kayaks top "hull speed" is determined by it's waterline length. (Paddling any faster than the hull speed is very inefficient and very tiresome.)

Width or "beam"

The key dimension is the "waterline beam"; the width of the hull normally at the surface of the water with a given weight paddler on board. However, a beam that is not normally in contact with the water may contact the water if there are waves, thereby slowing the boat down in rough conditions.

• The narrower the boat hull, the faster it is.

• The wider the boat hull the more stable it is

• But the shape of the hull across the bottom from side to side also determines stability

• I prefer no flatwater or sea kayak wider than 26" in overall beam or it feels too slow and hard to paddle.


The longer, wider and more bulbous shape (fat) the boat, the larger volume of air it holds and the heavier a load it can carry (weight of paddler and gear).

• Heavier paddlers need to make sure the boat they buy is rated to carry their weight or they'll sit too low in the water.

• Volume is also especially important to whitewater boats, which are sized not only by length and width models but also by volume within a model. This is because whitewater boat maneuverability and stability can be affected significantly if it floats too high or too low for a given paddler weight.

Rocker; hull curve fore and aft (from front to rear)

The cucumber and the banana…

If you place a straight cucumber on a table and try to turn it, it resists. But if you hold a banana upright on a table like a kayak, it turns easily since it only contacts the table at one point in the center. Kayak hull rocker is the same idea.

• The more curve in the bottom of the hull from the front of the boat to the rear of the boat, the more easily it turns; like the banana on the table.

• The less curve in the hull over the length of the boat from front to rear, the more efficiently it will track and paddle in a straight line through the water.

Stability; hull curvature side to side

Aside from the width, the hull shape also affects how stable it is. 

Secondary Stability means that the hull shape changes stability as the kayak tilts more e.g. Heritage Nomad had a section of hull that normally only made contact with the water when the boat tilted, serving to help keep it from tilting any further. This had the advantage of keeping the hull normally in contact with the water narrow and fast while still providing "secondary stability".

• Looking across the bottom of a hull, a flat shape (or even catamaran hull) gives the most stability.

• A more rounded hull is faster since it has less contact area with the water to carry the same weight.

• A more rounded hull is usually easier to turn as well, especially with more advanced turns tilting the kayak up on one side.

• Some hulls are designed to provide more stability as the boat tilts more. There are tradeoffs and paddlers should try a boat for some time and distance to get a feel for its performance.



Don't overlook the weight of a boat. Not because less weight does make a boat faster, but because if you like paddling, you'll want to transport your boat to new Places to Paddle™. So you'll need to lift it onto your vehicle or trailer and then carry it from the vehicle to the entry point on the water. Can you say hernia!

For myself, I prefer that a flatwater kayak weigh no more than 40 pounds.

Weight is determined by two things; size and material. Unfortunately, for a larger, higher performance flatwater or sea kayak, you'll have to pay more for lighter materials. There are now lighter plastics however, with the weight of fiberglass that are cheaper. The most expensive and lightest boats are kevlar or carbon fiber.


Collapsible Kayaks

Sometimes there's nothing quite as nice as being able to take your own boat with you in a duffel bag when you travel. Collapsible kayaks offer that capability. The tradeoffs are usually the amount of time and effort to assemble or repack the boat, more money and some performance compromise. Though with many contemporary models, the performance of modern collapsibles is as good as many high-performance regular kayaks.

There are cheap inflatable kayaks sold that are not as durable as others and are much slower. I would avoid these.

There are three basic types of collapsible kayaks.

3 Basic Types of Collapsible Kayaks

Collapsible Kayak Type

Typical Characteristics


These typically have multiple air chambers to provide flotation in case one leaks, though the boat may not be navigable with a deflated chamber. Better inflatables have air bladders that tension against a low-stretch fabric shell to stiffen the hull when the bladders inflate and tighten against it.

• Easy and fast assembly and repacking in as little as 10 minutes

• Somewhat slower to paddle straight

• More suitable for flowing streams or shorter distances

• Materials range from durable composite fabrics to cheap flimsy PVC

• Flotation from multiple air chambers in case of a leak

• Typically sit-on-top or canoe designs, though there are a few sit-inside designs that even take spray skirts


These are typically wood, aluminum or synthetic material sectional rigid frame whose pieces are assembled into a basic hull shape inside a strong, low-stretch kayak skin. Levers expand the assembled frame to provide tension that stiffens the hull into a high-performance shape.

• Assembly time ranges from 15 minutes to over an hour

• High performance, light weight designs exist at a price

• Aluminum frames require cleaning and lubrication to prevent oxidation and ease assembly.

• Sand and grit must be washed from the frame and skin to prevent wear especially at joints and stress points.

• Flotation must be added for safety.


These are simpler assembled frames that are tensioned by inflating air bladders in a taut synthetic skin.

• Assembly time as low as 15 minutes is almost as quick as inflatables

• Good performance, light weight designs exist at a price

• Flotation from multiple air chambers in case of a leak

• Typically sit-on-top design

Innova, Feathercraft and Folbot are well established, reputable brands building excellent collapsible kayaks. My favorite hybrid collapsible is a Feathercraft Java, a versatile 16' that can be assembled as either a single or a double in 15 to 20 minutes.


Options and Accessories

There are many special adaptations of kayaks.

A couple of the most common accessories are removable skegs that help boats track better to maintain course without a lot of extra paddling effort, especially in wind. But skegs can become annoying in shallow water, so some boats have skegs that are retractable by the paddler from the cockpit. Similarly, rudders can make for more efficient control of the boat, especially in the wind or when fishing or taking photographs with both hands.

For fishing, I have a sit-on-top fitted with a rod holder in the console between my knees that makes it ideal for trolling a line over my head while paddling; a great way to catch trout. Other fishing accessories include a variety of stabilizing floats that can be deployed to allow the paddler to stand and cast in deep water, trolling motors, bait wells, catch wells, and tackle holders.

Others fit navigational aids such as compasses or GPS mounts on their boats.

And of course there are a variety of water resistant hatches, straps, netting or brackets to hold everything from camping gear and food and water to your paddle so you can take photographs or fish with both hands.

The latest gadget mounts are for waterproof high-definition video cameras like the excellent Contour GPS.

For paddlers that also like sailing, there are a variety of sailing and kite rigs that can let the wind propel your boat under the right conditions. There are more popular with sea kayakers that have long distances to paddle in sea breezes over unobstructed open water.

One of the best things I saw for paddling in hot sun was a cleverly designed, rear-mounted bimini shade that could be deployed or stowed by the paddler on the water, but I have not seen it sold in years now.

Because paddlers enjoy finding new uses for their boats, the variety of accessories and customization will never end.


A Few Final Thoughts

There are other factors to consider, but I don't want to over-complicate things, so I'll just mention a few I think should be considered.

Repairability may be important to you. You may want to research how repairable a kayak material is and how costly the repair. Fiberglass can be repaired by a handy paddler with no outward sign of the repair left. Some plastics are almost impossible to repair in an invisible manner. For example, polyethylene plastic usually requires welding by a professional with the right equipment, material and skill. But fortunately, polyethylene is a tough, heavy material that's less likely to need repairs (unless it's been exposed to the sun too long which makes it brittle).

The most important final thought is to try out the boat for enough time to know how it performs. A day paddle with a group is best since you can gauge how it paddles relative to others. Don't take a 5 minute paddle and make up your mind on a boat; it's not enough time.

Talk to other paddlers that own the boat. And read internet search results and unbiased reviews.


Good Paddling
Al Vazquez