Kayaking

A kayak allows you to quietly explore an estuary, enjoy breathtaking views that can't be seen from shore, get in a morning workout around the lake or just play in the water with the kids.

This article explains how to find the right boat for you.

Shop REI's selection of kayaks.

Getting Started

First, ask yourself some questions:

  • Where will you go? Calm water such as a pond, lake or river? Or open water with potential extremes of wind and waves? This is the #1 factor.
  • How far will you typically go? Just a mile or so? Or on multiday outings where you'll be hauling camping gear? This affects your storage needs.
  • Will you paddle alone or in a tandem? Solo paddlers need a more portable boat for easy carrying. Paddling as a tandem or in a group gives you more options.
  • What is your skill level? And what are your aspirations?
  • How will you transport and store it? Hard-shell kayaks are bulky. Do you have a car rack? Do you have storage room at home?

Kayaks are fast, maneuverable and fun in a variety of conditions. However, if your focus is on relaxing family time on a flat-water lake, you should also consider a canoe. See the REI Expert Advice article, Canoes: How to Choose.

Parts of a Kayak

Recreational kayak

Types of Kayaks

What type of kayaker are you? Here's how boats are categorized:

Recreational Kayaks

Recreational kayak

These are best for easy days on calm waters. They offer initial stability that's reassuring for novices, photographers, anglers or casual paddlers on placid rivers, ponds or lakes. They are not so good for open water or use in heavy wind or currents.

Recreational kayaks usually have a smaller bulkhead (storage area) for short day trips, though some have a larger storage area for day touring. Most are 10 to 12 feet long, have a large cockpit for easy access and a wider beam for more stability. Most have no skeg or rudder and are made of polyethylene.

Pros: Affordable, easy to use and great initial stability.

Cons: They don't track (hold a straight course) as well as a touring kayak. If flipped, they can be a challenge to bail out.

  Recreational Touring
Duration: Day Day or more
Best for: Ponds, small lakes, calm bays, slow rivers Lakes, bays, slow rivers, currents, ocean
Skill level: Beginner to intermediate Intermediate to advanced
Stability: Best Better
Manageable: Best Better
Speed: Good Better
Tracking: Good Better
Maneuver: Better Good (depends on boat length and rudder)

Day Touring and Sea Kayaks

Touring kayak

These are made to travel long distances in open water and provide stability in rough conditions. Most are quite suitable for cruising around a pond, lake or lazy river, too. Touring kayaks are usually 12 to 16 feet long, and their hulls are shaped to increase lift in waves and rough water. Most have bulkheads with sealed hatch covers for dry storage and enhanced safety (these compartments trap air which allows the kayak to float even if the cockpit fills with water).

Most have a skeg or a rudder. The combination of a skeg and a longer waterline improves straight-line tracking and makes it easy to control the kayak in currents or side winds. A rudder allows you to turn with greater ease. Cockpits are likely to be built for paddling efficiency and may feel confining to some. They can be made of polyethylene, thermoformed ABS or composites.

There are 2 types of touring kayaks:

  • Day touring: These have enough storage space for day or overnight outings. They are shorter and more maneuverable than multiday boats.
  • Sea kayaks: These offer ample storage space for longer trips. They are longer so you give up some maneuverability.

Pros: Better performing and more versatile than recreational kayaks; more storage space (especially multiday boats); bulkheads with sealed hatches enhance safety.

Cons: More expensive than recreational kayaks; smaller cockpits are not for the claustrophobic.

Sit-on-Top Kayaks

Sit-on-Top kayak

Sit-on-tops are great fun for kids, beginners or swimmers. They have a sealed hull and molded depressions on top for sitting. It's easy to get on and off of one whether you are on a dock, shore or in the water.

The seats are above water-level so these boats are typically wider (and slower) than traditional kayaks. It's hard to capsize a sit-on-top, but if it does flip over, it's easy to flip it back and get on it. This makes sit-on-tops a good fishing, swimming or diving base. For this reason, sit-on-tops are especially popular in warm climates. Self-bailing drain holes add to the convenience.

Size-wise, they hold single, double or more passengers. Some even have bulkheads and storage wells. Typically they are from 10 to 15 feet in length. Most are made of polyethylene.

Pros: You sit up high and don't have climb into it like a traditional kayak; great for warm climates.

Cons: Slower than traditional kayaks; your body is exposed to the elements in wet and cold conditions.

Inflatable Kayaks

Inflatable kayak

You might think of a blow-up kayak as a toy, but these are surprisingly sturdy and versatile. They are inflated compartmentally by foot, hand or electric pumps, so they are more buoyant than traditional kayaks. Once deflated, most can be transported in a duffel-sized carrying bag.

Inflatables range from 10 to 15 feet long. They are light, easy to use and can turn on a small radius. However, they take more effort to paddle and are slower than a traditional kayak. Some have rigid frames to aid performance, while others have optional stiffening bars the entire length of the floor panel. This reduces wave undulation and improves tracking. They are usually made of PVC-coated polyester.

Pros: Highly portable so they're easy to store and transport; multiple compartments enhance safety.

Cons: It takes time to inflate it before you get in the water; slow moving in the water; less rugged than hard shells.

Folding Kayaks

Folding kayak

Like inflatables, foldable kayaks are easy to transport and store. Disassembled, most fit into a backpack-sized carry bag.

Their advantages over inflatables are their ridged framework and greater storage space. The stiff frame allows performance similar to a hard-shell kayak. A tough outer skin is fitted over a stiff aluminum frame; most have inflatable chambers to aid in buoyancy and stability.

Once you’re experienced assembling your kayak, it takes only 15–20 minutes to go from car to water.

Pros: Highly portable for easy storage and transport; better performance than inflatables.

Cons: Assembly time; less rugged than hard shells.

Modular Kayaks

Modular kayak

This is another option if you're short on storage space. Modulars quickly snap apart into 2-3 sections for easy transportation and handling by 1 person.

For occasional shipmates, buy a second cockpit section to turn your boat into a tandem (you can even add a third seat).

Each section will fit in the back of most SUVs; assembled, they are as durable as a regular polyurethane kayak. Modulars come in day touring, recreational and sit-on-top designs.

Pros: Easy to store and transport; quick, simple assembly; additional sections can be purchased to make a double or triple kayak.

Cons: They don’t collapse as small as inflatable or folding kayaks.

Other Types of Kayaks

A couple of other categories worth noting: Fishing kayaks made specifically for anglers. They have rod holders, cooler holders and some even offer a built-in tackle box. They can be stable enough to stand upon for better visibility and casting. Whitewater kayaks are another fun option. These are 4 to 10 feet long, have a rounded bottom and turn up at the ends for navigating rapids. REI does not currently carry whitewater kayaks.

Paddleboarding

Often called stand-up paddling or SUP, this growing activity started on the shores of Hawaii but has caught on virtually everywhere. A paddleboard looks like an oversized surfboard propelled by a long, slender paddle. It's fun and offers a great core workout. See the REI Expert Advice article and video, Stand-up Paddleboarding: How to Get Started, for more information.

Kayak Design 101

A kayak's hull size and shape greatly determines its performance characteristics. Here are the most useful design considerations.

Length

As a rule, short kayaks (up to 12 feet) turn easier while longer boats (13 feet and over) track and glide easier. Keep in mind that it's actually the length of a boat's waterline (the line where a boat actually sits in the water) that is most important. A boat's waterline may be significantly shorter than its overall length.

Shorter Kayaks Longer Kayaks
Easier to turn and manueuver. Easier to paddle over long distances (once you get them up to speed).
Able to make quicker turns. Able to hold a straight line better to stay on course.
Best for estuaries, small lakes, rivers; less suitable for long trips. Best for open water; good on smaller bodies of water.
Weigh less. A bit heavier.
Less affected by winds. Able to carry heavier loads with less performance loss.
Less cumbersome to transport. Glide farther per stroke for greater efficiency.
A bit slower. Move faster.
Good for kids and small adults. Hold more gear.

Width (or Beam)

Wide boats offer more initial (primary) stability in calm conditions while narrower boats go faster and offer better secondary stability if the boat is leaning on its side.

Narrow Wide
More secondary stability. More initial stability.
Easier to roll upright after capsizing. Easier to get in and out of.
Lighter weight. Heavier.
Tracks better. The wider it is, the slower it is.
More efficient to paddle through the water. More effort to paddle because it's heavier and pushes more water.

Tip: When kayak shopping, get in and out of the cockpit several times to see how easy (or hard) it is. Also, consider the clothes you'll wear while kayaking to fine-tune the fit.

Depth

A touring kayak's depth—the height from the hull to the top of the deck—can be 13" to 16". On sit-on-tops, depth can measure from 11" to 16". Larger and taller paddlers should check for ample depth to ensure enough space and legroom. Taller sides help also deflect water and may help provide more storage space. The downside is that they catch more wind which can slow you down.

Skeg

This is a triangular, metal plate under the stern that can be raised or lowered. A skeg improves tracking in crosswinds and cross-currents by reducing the "weathercocking" effect of a boat. Hand controls near the cockpit are used to adjust it to different positions. While not real intuitive for beginners, a skeg is a popular feature with kayaking enthusiasts.

Rudder and skeg

Rudder

This is essentially a paddle that attaches to the top of the kayak's stern and is lowered into the water with a hand lever. It goes up and down, left and right. Pushing the foot levers in the cockpit determines which direction the rudder goes to make turning easier.

Weight Capacity

Every boat has a recommended weight limit. Some questions to keep in mind:

  • Will your boat be carrying 1 or 2 paddlers?
  • Will it be used for day trips or multiday outings?
  • Will you be carrying gear for yourself and others?

Do the math, then compare against the weight capacity listed under the "Specs" tab on any REI product page.

Hatches

Touring kayaks have storage areas at one or both ends that are enclosed with a lid on the deck. When capsized, these bulkheads give buoyancy as long as the hatch lids are secured.

Various types of hatch lids have their pluses and minuses:

  • A plastic lid that has a gasket attached to the lid and/or deck and closes with cargo straps. It works well in most situations.
  • A neoprene cover stretches over the hatch. It can be used in combination with a hard outer cover and secured with straps. This seals well, but stretching it can be difficult. It works only if it is properly in place.
  • A rubber hatch cover snaps to the hatch ring or molded deck lip like Tupperware. Use a hatch strap to keep the cover from getting lost.
  • Toggled hatches feature a gasket and toggles to seal a plastic lid.

Hatch tips:

  • Use a number of smaller drybags rather than one big one.
  • Replace old gaskets when worn.
  • Float bags can be put in the hatches to add extra buoyancy in case of capsizing.

Cockpit Comfort

Once you've decided on a category of kayak, the next consideration should be your comfort in the cockpit. A good-fitting cockpit (especially for touring boats) is one where you sit comfortably but have firm contact everywhere your body touches the boat: feet, thighs, butt and lower back. A snug fit makes it easier to edge a turn, brace in rollers or keep yourself from capsizing in rough conditions.

Here's what to consider:

Cockpit size: A small cockpit holds you inside the kayak better and helps you maneuver efficiently in rough conditions. A large cockpit is easier to get in and out (best for larger or taller paddlers) and allows you to put larger items in the boat. Whenever possible, try out a cockpit for size. Is it big enough for comfort? Or is it too big and you're wiggling around inside it?

Seat: Most seats, especially those on touring kayaks, are padded and can be adjusted up or down and forwards or backwards. Some have adjustable tilt angles. When shopping, sit in the seat and be sure you can adjust it to suit your comfort needs.

Foot pegs: Bracing your feet on foot pegs that are attached to the inside hull helps keep you centered, trim and level. Adjustable pegs give more options for positioning, and they are good for multiple users or if you sell the kayak later. Not all kayaks have foot pegs or braces, but they can be added later.

Thigh braces: These offer foam-padded points of contact between your thighs and the boat. They can be easily adjusted to meet your comfort requirements.

Kayak Materials and Construction

These affect the durability, weight and price of a boat.

Polyethylene (PE): This is the most popular kayak material used today. It supports a variety of molding processes. Most common is rotomolding (short for rotational molding), a process in which plastic pellets are heated in a mold to melt. As it cools, it is rotated to get an even thickness. Polyethylene is inexpensive and wonderfully impact- and abrasion-resistant. It does, however, have a lifespan, and years of sun eventually cause it to become brittle. Two popular types of polyethylene:

  • Linear: Also known as single-layer polyethylene, it offers good performance at an affordable price.
  • Superlinear: Also known as high-density polyethylene, it is considerably lighter, tougher, stiffer and more UV resistant than linear PE, and it costs more as a result.

PolyLink3/Triple Tough: This material is also referred to 3-layer polyethylene or cross-linked polyethylene. All of these constructions consist of a foam core sandwiched between linear polyethylene layers. The foam core adds insulation, flotation and stiffness. A newer variation of these is called variable-layer polyethylene. This strategically places varying layers of foam-core thickness throughout the hull for improved paddling efficiency.

Thermoformed ABS: The fabrication of acrylic over ABS plastic creates a glossy kayak similar to composites in appearance and performance. Though a bit heavier than composites, thermoformed ABS costs much less. It is lighter than polyethylene and is more resistant to gouges. If it does get a ding, it's repairable.

Composites: This high-end category includes fiberglass, synthetic and carbon blends that are extremely durable and lightweight. Composite boats are more expensive than polyethylene or thermoformed ABS boats.

PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride): This flexible, cloth-like thermoplastic material is used to make inflatable kayaks and rafts. It comes in a variety of thicknesses. It is generally tough and resistant to punctures and abrasion.

Other materials: Once common, fiberglass is seldom used by itself anymore (it is an ingredient featured in some high-end composite boats). Nitrylon is a trademarked material used in a few inflatables. It features a tough combination of nylon and a Nitrile/natural rubber coating.

Kayak Design 201

The following elements of kayak design are less important for novices to know when shopping for a boat, but they do help explain how a kayak works.

Chine

The point at where a kayak bottom turns upward and becomes the kayak's side is called the chine. There are 2 types:

  • Soft chine: Its smooth, rounded shape provides good secondary stability and easier bracing and rolling. The rounded shape also enhances your speed. "Multi-chines" are a type of soft chine.
  • Hard chine: Its sharper, more pronounced shape enhances tracking and initial stability. A hard chine can also help when hitting a wave and making a turn.

Sides

The sides of a kayak—from the waterline to the deck—affect stability and the ability to right a flipped boat.

  • Flare: This is the angle of a kayak's sides outward from the hull. The greater the flare, the greater the stability is because the boat sits deeper in the water. Kayaks with flared sides have greater stability but are more difficult to turn rightside-up.
  • Tumblehome: Associated mostly with canoes, this term can apply to wider kayaks where the sides can curve inward as they come up. This creates a narrower deck which makes it easier to paddle yet still offer good stability.
  • Straight: This shape is in-between a flare and tumblehome.

kayak sides

Hull Shape

This, the body of the kayak, is another determining factor in how a boat handles on the water.

  • Rounded hulls: Have less forward water-resistance and thus greater speed.
  • V-shaped hulls: Provide the least initial stability but offer better secondary stability and straight-line paddling.
  • Flat-bottom hulls: Have the most initial stability in flat-water conditions.

kayak hull shapes

Hull Rocker

This is the curvature of a boat's hull running the length of the boat (keel line) from the center to the ends.

  • More rocker: The easier it is to turn.
  • Less rocker: Tracks better in wind and strong waters.

Symmetry

Asymmetrical kayak have a front and back of different shapes. They track well, but do not turn as fast. Two types:

  • Swede form: The bow is longer and more slender so paddling strokes may be more efficient. The widest part is behind the paddler.
  • Fish form: There is more volume in front of the paddler to give better tracking. It's popular on surf (whitewater) boats.

Symmetrical kayaks are the same shape front and back. They maneuver well in whitewater or small waterways.

Entry Line

This refers to the edge of a kayak's hull where it cuts through the water. Sharp entry lines cut through the water for better speed and easier paddling. Blunt bows ride up slightly on incoming waves for better buoyancy and drier paddling in windy, rough conditions.

Key Kayaking Accessories

While a boat is your biggest kayaking purchase, it should not be your only one.

Paddle: The correct paddle is specific to your type of kayaking. For example, the paddle you use on the river may not be the same one you should use in open water. See the REI Expert Advice article, Kayak Paddles: How to Choose, for details.

Spray skirt: This fits snugly around the paddler and attaches to the cockpit combing (rim) to keep water out of the kayak. It's a must for open water or rough conditions. A spray skirt usually has a large loop on the front for a quick release. You may not need one when paddling calm waters, though it adds warmth on windy days and keep drips off anytime. For more information, see the REI Expert Advice article, Spray Skirts: How to Choose.

PFDs and safety gear: Always be prepared by wearing a properly sized, USCG-approved personal flotation device. For more info, see the REI Expert Advice article, PFDs: How to Choose.

Bilge pump and sponge: To remove water from the inside of your kayak.

Car rack: Unless you have an inflatable, folding or modular kayak, you need a rack on your vehicle to transport your boat. There are many rack-vehicle-boat combinations. See the REI Expert Advice article, Cartop Mounts: How to Choose, for more information.

Cockpit cover: This keeps your cockpit clean and dry while in storage or transport.

Kayak Safety

Before heading to the water, be prepared and make sure you know what you are doing. This is especially important in open-water situations.

Go with an experienced paddler or local paddling club. Take a kayaking class with the REI Outdoor School or other reputable club or outfitter. Or go on an excursion with a kayak-guiding company such as REI Adventures to learn the basics.

In any event, you should always wear a personal flotation device (PFD), check weather conditions and, if going in open water, have a map and compass and be aware of tides and currents.

Kayak FAQs

Q: I'm new to paddling, so should I get a kayak or a canoe?

A: It depends. In a kayak, you sit lower and use a double-bladed paddle for more efficient propulsion. They're generally fast, easy-turning and fun. The enclosed cockpit of a kayak, however, is not comfortable for everyone. Canoes hold more people and gear and can be ideal on flat-water lakes in calm conditions. You sit up higher and are not in an enclosed space, but this has the downside of less stability (depending on the model of canoe).

Q: Isn't kayaking expensive?

A: The most expensive part is the kayak itself. Those new to the sport should consider a recreational boat—which is the least expensive option—or a day touring boat, which costs a few hundred dollars more up front but offers several advantages in the long run. Once you have the basic gear, kayaking becomes quite inexpensive—just pack a lunch and hop in a nearby waterway.

Q: How can I "try before I buy?"

A: Ask your local REI if there are any upcoming "demo days" where you can try several kayaks out on the water. You also might consider renting a kayak for a test run. At a minimum, sit inside and adjust the cockpit to make sure it is comfortable for you.

Q: Does boat color matter?

A: Color is largely a personal preference, but keep in mind that a red or yellow kayak is more visible to powerboaters or other kayakers if you need rescue. This is more important for touring kayaks that venture out in rough conditions.

Q: Why does boat weight matter?

A: Less weight has several advantages: It makes a boat easier to transport, easier to turn and less affected by wind.

Q: How do I carry a kayak?

A: Ideally you would have someone to help you by each carrying an end. However, it's possible to carry a kayak yourself. For more information, see our Lifting and Carrying Kayaks article.

Q: What is primary versus secondary stability?

A: Primary refers to the initial stability when getting in a kayak. Recreational kayaks have the width and hull shapes that offer more primary stability. Secondary (or final) stability refers to the resistance to capsizing. Touring kayaks have more secondary stability.

Q: How likely is it that my boat will roll over?

A: There is always a chance of tipping. The rougher the water, the more your chance increases. In general, the wider your boat, the more stable it becomes, at least initially. See our Kayak Wet Exits and Rescues article for tips on righting a capsized boat.

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