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August 13, 2017

Choosing the best kayak suited for your needs – A Buyer’s Guide

Diffferent Types of Kayaks

A common question we get over here at Modern Kayaking is – “what kayak is best suited for my needs?” As a beginner to kayaking or even an experienced kayaker, the answer is not really as simply as it may seem. There are a multitude of different models, different kayak types (even some inflatable kayaks), and even different sizing in the same model or range. Shopping online or even in-store can become a daunting task, so we’ve produced a high level buyer’s guide that will get you on your way to buying your first kayak, or upgrading to or selecting a more appropriate model.

Our buyer’s guide is even sure to help you find the best kayak for beginners.

To simplify the categorization and ranges of kayaks, we can narrow the types of kayaks to just 5 or 6 major categories, as below:

  • Sit inside kayaks
  • Sit on-top kayaks
  • Whitewater kayaks
  • Sea / touring / Ocean kayaks
  • Kayak / Canoe hybrids
  • Fishing kayaks (although any of the above kayak types can really just be transformed into a fishing kayak)

1) Sit Inside Kayaks

Most recreational sit inside kayaks have a semi-enclosed cockpit, and the cockpits are normally larger than the cockpits found in other types of kayaks. By having a larger cockpit, this allows kayakers easy access to get in and out of the kayak. For sit inside kayaks, the open cockpit allows the paddler to climb into the kayak and the kayaker will actually sit inside the hull of the kayak. The kayakers legs will literally be underneath the deck, and dependent on the design of the specific sit inside kayak, will allow the kayaker to brace their knees off the inside walls of the hull – which assists with stronger and more efficient paddle strokes.

One of the key differentiators between a sit-inside kayak and a sit-on-top kayak is that if water enters a sit-inside kayak it will stay inside the kayak (that’s why it’s always important to carry a pump for sit-inside type kayaks). Most kayakers will actually purchase a skirt to fit around the cockpit that will serve the dual purpose of protecting the kayaker from the elements and ensuring water doesn’t enter the boat. The skirt is basically designed to cover up the cockpit opening of a sit-inside kayak, and is usually work around the paddler’s waist or is attached to the kayak itself. Most skirts would have some form of tightening device to allow the paddler to sit completely inside the kayak and stretch the skirt around the cockpit rim basically forming a water tight enclosure for the inside of the hull. An oft overlooked benefit of the skirt and sit inside kayaks is that they are great for colder weather paddling as the body heat is also trapped in the hull and specifically where you have chillier waters, a sit inside kayak could be beneficial.

Another key design feature of sit inside kayaks is the bulk head, which is designed to keep water from entering the boat should you roll and it also serves as a dry storage area. So let’s also just dispel a few myths whilst we are talking about rolling or flipping your kayak. Rolling your kayak is way harder to do than you may think. Most new buyers may be apprehensive for this exact reason, the so-called “flipping factor” of sit inside kayaks, but in reality it is not easy to roll your kayak over. And you will not get stuck inside it if the kayak were to actually flip over, as the paddler will simply pop out of the kayak and float back to the surface.

Sit inside kayaks are a popular choice amongst recreational kayakers, and many new buyers may initially opt for this type of kayak.

[box_success]Recommended for: new buyers and recreational kayakers[/box_success]

Sit Inside Kayak vs Sit-on-top Kayak

2) Sit on top kayaks

As the name suggests, kayakers actually sit ON TOP of the kayak as opposed to inside it. As opposed to the sit-inside kayak features, one of the key differentiators of the sit on top kayak is that if water gets inside the kayak it can actually drain out. One of the key features of the sit-on-top kayak is the tankwell area, which makes this type of kayak popular with anglers as they can access their fishing gear easily.

Most sit on top kayaks also have various hatches for dry storage purposes. One of the major benefits of sit on top kayaks is their stability, and they tend to be more stable than the other kayak types, and extremely easy to get in and out of. Most fishing kayaks tend to be of the sit-on-top kayak variety due to these benefits.
However, it is really much harder to stay dry if paddling a sit on top kayaks, especially if not on calmer lakes and water bodies.

For paddling in more turbulent waters, for each wave or splash the paddler may get increasingly wetter as there is really nothing to protect the paddler from the splashes. There is not a defined cockpit as such, and the deck area really is where the paddler would be sitting, so nothing really protects the paddler from splashes onto the paddler’s torso and legs. Obviously, sit on top kayaks are more popular in sunnier climates and more tropical areas, as splashes onto the body are probably actually welcomed for some relief and cooling off. Mounting and dismounting onto your kayak from within the water is also usually a lot easier with a sit on top kayak, as it is fairly easy to climb back into the kayak from the water.

Sit On Top vs Sit Inside Kayaks

[box_success]Recommended for: new buyers and recreational paddlers in warmer climates[/box_success]

3) Whitewater kayaks

Whitewater kayaks are fairly similar to recreational sit-inside kayaks, however the cockpit on the whitewater kayak is much smaller than that of the sit-inside kayak. By having a smaller cockpit, it allows for more control of the kayak. Whitewater kayaks tend to be much shorter in design and tend to have rounder hull designs which allows for more manoeuvrability amongst the rapids. Obviously whitewater kayaking is not really appropriate for a complete novice so it is suggested to get some kayak training for rapids.

4) Sea Kayaks

Sea or ocean kayaks are once again similar to sit-inside kayaks but are much longer and thinner which contributes to a quicker and more efficient paddling experience. The benefits of the sea kayak can definitely be seen on long distance kayak trips. Sea kayak designs are made such that you can roll the kayak more frequently, whilst the extra length ensures extra storage space for extra gear.

The modern sea kayak comes in a variety of designs and materials as well as differing sizes as there are a multitude of intended uses for sea kayaks. They are suitable for all waters including open water and exposed crossings. What you will find with the sea kayak is that the kayaks have a distinct bias towards straight tracking, and with a very efficient hull form they are exceptional when used for long distance kayaking and kayaking more exposed crossings. The sea kayaks benefits are achieved through a reduced rocker and relatively longer waterline length than other kayak categories.

Obviously with the benefits comes some compromises and the sea kayak compromise is that they are not that manoeuvrable. A noticeable feature for most sea kayaks is that they may come with rudders or skegs which allow for enhanced straight line tracking. Obviously, sea kayaks need to deal with pounding waves, and most feature upturned bow or stern profiles that allow them to “shred” the waves and allow the kayakers to get into calmer waters quicker.
From a storage perspective, sea kayaks usually have two or more bulkheads that provide watertight below-deck storage options, specifically for storing things like PFDs and other rescue situation items. Kayakers going on longer expeditions will also appreciate the enhanced storage options for storing provisions and camping gear if required.

When deciding on a sea kayak, take into account the width and length of the kayak, its hull design and your intended usage of the kayak. Other factors to consider are the cargo capacity and the size of the cockpit, especially if you are planning on going on longer expeditions.

[box_success]Recommended for: long distance paddling[/box_success]

5) Kayak / Canoe hybrids

Kayak / canoe hybrids combine the best features of both a canoe and a kayak in one. The hybrid looks more like a canoe but the reality is it paddles more like a kayak. Most hybrid kayaks have wide open cockpits which allows for multiple options for storage and are especially favour3ed by anglers and kayak campers. Hybrid kayaks tend to be the most stable of all the kayak types and are designed such that the kayaker can actually stand in them – quite beneficial for fishing. The most notable feature of the hybrid kayaks are the seats, probably again the most comfortable amongst the kayak categories.

Within each of the kayak categories, you will still get a multitude of different features and sizes and costs may vary widely even within a specific kayak category. Also, as mentioned before, any one of the different types of kayaks can be transformed into a fishing kayak, so although we listed it as its own category, it really is just some extra features on the base kayak category to which it pertains.

The team at Modern Kayaking will ensure we provide you with in-depth reviews of the latest and greatest kayaks for each of the various kayak types, and we will make sure that you select the best kayak that is geared towards your needs. We hope to see you on the water soon!


I have been kayaking since I was 10 years old and am now the Editor-in-Chief of ModernKayaking magazine. My role allows me to spend time out on the water whilst requiring me to review the latest kayaks and kayaking gear, and when I'm not working you will usually find me doing some fishing from my kayak out on some lake somewhere!

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