How to Choose a Kayak
Whether you’re headed to a local lake for the day or off on an extended paddling tour, you want to make sure you’ve chosen the boat that will let you get the most out of your time. The information that follows will help you sort through the options for flat water paddling.
Types of Kayaks
Kayaks, or portable covered boasts with cockpits, are designed for use on lakes, oceans and rivers. Take a look below at the types to select the right one for you.
These all-around boats are stable, easy to handle, fun and affordable. Most have large open cockpits for easy entry and exit. They are great for lakes, tidal areas and slow-moving rivers.
This wide ranging category includes everything from small touring boast to canoe/kayak hybrids. In general, day touring boats are designed beginners and recreational boaters in mind. Most are shorter and lighter than regular touring kayaks so they’re easy to turn, maneuver and transport. They have less capacity for carrying gear than the larger boats. They’re also easy on the wallet? These boats can be used just about anywhere, short of white water rivers.
Multi Day Touring
Touring kayaks are built to handle long trips and big gear loads. They’re roomy and comfortable, with covered decks to protect you and your cargo from the wind and water. They’re also quite easy to paddle with sleek, efficient designs that cut through the water, track well and keep a low profile so you don’t get blown off course. These boats are ideal for open water paddling on larger lakes.
Inflatable kayaks let you enjoy the fun of kayaking without the hassles of transporting or storing a full-sized boat. Some are even built for handling serious white water! Inflatables typically cost less than rigid-hulled boats, and most can slip right into your backpack or the back of your vehicle.
Sit-On-Top kayaks are designed for fun. They’re easy to use and a breeze to get on and off. Sit-On-Tops make great bases for swimming, snorkeling, diving and more. Shorter models are great for surfing! Most are designed for day use, but some are built to handle everything from river running to overnight touring. Some styles even feature hatches for internal storage.
Fiberglass is lightweight and stiff, and can be shaped into extremely efficient, responsive hull designs. (stiffer hulls are more responsive and require less internal bracing. This means a lighter boat with more room inside for lots of gear. ) Fiberglass is most often used in superior kayaks. Fiberglass hulls are made of layers of woven fabric bonded together with a polyester resin for strength and rigidity. An outer gel coating provides protection against abrasion and exposure to ultraviolet light.
This category includes Kevlar, a fiberglass and carbon blends that is extremely durable and lightweight. They tend to be more expensive than polyethylene or roto molded plastic boats. Airalit is a thermo-formed material similar in appearance, stiffness and weight to traditional composite materials, but it’s considerably less expensive.
Polyethylene plastic is less expensive, more impact-resistant, and more abrasion-resistant than fiberglass. Polyethylene can be molded into complex shapes using a variety of molding processes. Polyethylene boats can be a bit slower than the slick fiberglass or composite models. Exolar resin, a newer plastic material that’s being used in kayaks, is 40% stiffer and more durable than superlinear polyethylene.
PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride)
This flexible, cloth like thermoplastic material is used to make inflatable kayaks and rafts. It’s tough and abrasion- and puncture-resistant, and it comes in a variety of thicknesses.
Nitrylon is also used to make inflatables, Nitrylon is a combination of tough, nylon fabric and a Nitrile/natural rubber coating. It offers excellent abrasion resistance and cold weather flexibility.
Longer kayaks tend to be easier to paddle over long distances than shorter boats (once you get them up to speed). They also stay on course better and hold more gear. Shorter kayaks weigh less, are less affected by winds and are easier to turn, maneuver and transport. Recreational kayaks are typically shorter, between 9 and 15 feet long. Touring boats are anywhere from 12 to 18 feet, with an average being about 16 feet. Tandems, (two-person kayaks with two cockpits), average about 18 feet.
Wider kayaks are easier to enter and exit and are more stable on the water. They also have more room for hear. These include most of the recreational boats that range from about 25 to 30 inches in width. Narrow boats are a little more “tippy” but they tend to be lighter and more efficient through the water. They also track better. Narrow boats are usually easier to “roll” back up after a capsize than wider boats. Touring kayaks are usually a bit narrower than recreational boats, and range in width from 21 to 25 inches. Tandem touring kayaks are typically a bit wider.
The point at where a kayak bottom turns upward and becomes the kayak’s side is called the cine. Smooth, rounded chines provide good secondary stability and easier bracing and rolling. Sharper, more pronounced chines can enhance tracking and initial stability.
The edge of a kayak’s hull where it cuts through the water is called its entry line. Sharp entry lines slice through the water efficiently for better speed and easier paddling. Blunt bows ride up slightly on incoming waves for better buoyancy and drier paddling in windy, rough conditions.
Don’t Overlook the Details!
Rudders and Skegs
Rudders and Skegs are typically used on touring kayaks for steering and stability. Depending on your paddling ability and the types of trips you’ll be taking, you may choose to get a boat with a rudder or a skeg or you may be a purist who prefers a boat with neither. A rudder helps you turn, maintain a straight course and keep your boat steady in rough water. It is operated by maneuvering foot pegs attached to wires and can be raised when not needed.
A skeg, or a keel that can be lowered and raised offers stability and causes the boat to react with wind and current, depending on its position. You should know how to turn using bodyweight and paddling strokes when considering buying a boat with a skeg. The same can be said for boats with neither rudder nor skeg. These boats are a joy to paddle for their smooth lines, but you need to be proficient at turning and handling the boat if you venture into anything more than calm, sheltered waters.
Choosing a Kayak
Large cockpits are easy to enter and exit, and they allow you to store larger items inside the cockpit area. Small cockpits help hold you inside the kayak for easier rolling and maneuvering in rough conditions. Small cockpits are also easier to protect with spray and skirts which keep water from getting inside. Before you buy any kayak, make sure the cockpit and seat are comfortable.
To kayak efficiently you need to brace your feet against the kayak hull. Make sure the foot pegs (or heel pockets) designed for this task are comfortable. Adjustable pegs allow more than one person to paddle a kayak.
Make sure you have enough storage space for the kinds of trips you have planned. If your storage space is inside the kayak check for reliable seals on the deck hatches and internal walls (bulkheads) If the storage space is on top of the boat make sure you have some way to strap down all items securely.
Airtight hull sections closed off by bulkheads or inflatable air bags will keep your kayak afloat during a capsize. Make sure the bulkhead walls are sealed well, or that the air bags are tough and well-made and can be secured inside the hull. If you’re considering a sit-on-top kayak, it should have self-bailing drainage holes.
Take a Test Drive
If possible, after you’ve narrowed your choice down to two or three models, try them out. It’s the best way to choose a kayak. You could also borrow a boat from a friend or attend a symposium where manufacturers let you test gear. Local paddling clubs are a good source of information for these types of events.
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