Kayak Types: How to Choose the Right Kayak For You?

“Kayaking is food for the soul.”

Kayak types: Choosing the Best

It offers sightseeing of scenic forests through the estuary, beachside areas, and other breathtaking views that can only be seen from the waters and not from the shore. Through it, you can get in a good workout or simply relax after a long day of work.

Here I have explained all the ways in which you can kayak, the places in the world, the moves, and here I have talked about what you can wear while kayaking in different conditions, so, now, we are left with the types of kayaks and which one is the right for you.

However, before we go into the different types, let’s take a look at the anatomy of the kayak. This is a general kayak with parts that all kayaks have. Then, as I talk about the different types, I’ll list the parts of those specific kayaks as well.

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Kayak Anatomy

  1. The bow is the pointy part that’s pointed in the direction where you are headed (the front side of the kayak)
  2. Stern is the part pointed in the opposite direction of the bow (the rear end of the kayak)
  3. Port is the boatspeak name for the left side of the boat
  4. Starboard is the boatspeak name for the right side of the boat

With that said, here are some guidelines that should help you decide which boat you need for your kayaking adventures.

  • Where will you paddle? Lake, river, sea coast?
  • Sit-in or sit-on-top?
  • Would you like to have the traditional protection of a sit-in kayak?
  • Or the open space of a sit-on-top type of kayak?

The next in line that largely determines the price is the weight of the kayak and the materials used that impact quality and durability. Also, the size and shape won’t only determine what type of kayaking you do but will also affect the handling and cargo space.

Kayaking-Close-Up

Where will you kayak?

Kayak boats’ designs aren’t determined solely by the water type, however, thinking where you’ll kayak can bring you one step closer to choosing your boat.

Lake

Local lake sites can be toured around in a sit-on-top or recreational sit-in boat whenever the weather is pleasant. However, if you see any whitecaps and you are with a purely recreational boat, then you could be at a disadvantage.

Coastline

The coastline has waters that are more playful and unsettling so that you may find yourself in the middle of many waves, currents, tides, and strong wind, thus having a sit-in touring boat with a rudder, fixed tracking fin or a skeg (a dropdown fin) will be super-helpful.

Coastlines also tend to be very pleasant and calm in the warmer months, so if you also want to go for a swim and you like kayak surfing, then a sit-on-top kayak will be a great choice.

River

If you live nearby a river and you like floating there, then having a stable, sturdy craft that turns quickly should be your choice. With that said, you can get a short, stable recreational sit-in or sit-on-top boat, or even a day touring sit-in kayak.

Now, just note that when I say rivers, I don’t mean the technical rapids that need whitewater kayaks. That’s beyond this article, and if there’s interest, you may find me writing about that too somewhere in the future.

On the other hand, if you plan on using your kayak in both running and still water environments, then I would suggest buying a short recreational sit-in or sit-on-top kayak. Why? Because these crossover boats typically have a skeg. And with that type of setup, you will be able to turn the boat responsively when the skeg is up and track efficiently when the skeg is down. Also, if you can find a short boat with a ruder, that would make a great choice too!

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You don’t have to pick a beautiful environment, you can also pick the dirty green river near you 😉

Kayak Types

Now that we have talked about surroundings in which you might kayak, we’ve touched down on types of kayaks. Still, since I haven’t explained each type separately, I have probably left you wondering why that specific type was recommended over the other in certain situations.

So, to clear things up, here are the most common kayak classifications.

The Sit-on-top Kayaks

Sit-on-tops are recreational kayaks above all, and they are mostly used in lakes and tranquil-flowing rivers. People in the warm coastal waters use them too.

The sit-on-top kayaks have enough storage space for an overnight trip if you choose a longer kayak in size.

This kayak is for you if you don’t like the “wet exit,” or you simply feel claustrophobic inside a cockpit. Then a sit-on-top boat will be a much better option for you.

Additionally, sit-on-tops are very easy to get in and out of, so I would recommend them for casual uses too. They are very comfortable when the air and the water temperature are both warm, but you should be aware that almost every time you will get wet.

These kayaks have scupper holes for draining, so there is no need to pump out water.

Inside their hollow hull, you have hidden storage spots, plus you have other stash spots on deck.

The sit-on-top kayaks are more massive than the sit-in kayaks, and for that, some people consider them more stable in the right conditions.

Another upside to the sit-on-tops is the rod holders or the spots left to install rod holders for those who like to go fishing.

kayaking-sunglasses
A sit-on-top kayak with luggage space in front and back

The Anatomy of a Sit-on-Top Kayak

(Note that not all boats will have the same things)

1.  Deck: the topside

2.  Hull: the bottom piece

3.  Keel: the bow-to-stern ridge on your hull

4.  Seat: your base of operations

5.  Foot braces or footwells: foot braces are adjustable while footwells are built into the boat at intervals

6.  Deck line: This can be stretchy (a bungee) or nonstretchy (static)

7.  Hatch: your portal to an inner cargo area

8.  Carry handles: a secure place to get a grip; many sit-on-tops have them in multiple locations.

9.  Scupper holes: drain holes for water that sloshes across your deck

10.  Rudder or skeg: A skeg is a static dropdown fin, and a rudder is an adjustable flip-down fin. Either of these helps keep you on track.

Kayaking-Cold-Ice
You can kayak even on the coldest days – Just make sure you wear protective clothing!

The Sit-in Kayaks

The sit-in kayaks come as recreational boats and touring models.

They are designed to move fast, have covered cargo compartments, and they track straight. This makes them a good boat for paddling to a destination.

Furthermore, here are some of the additional pros of getting a sit-in kayak.

They are more suitable for year-round kayaking in both warm and cold water and air temperature. You are more protected inside the cockpit, and you won’t get as wet as when you are with a sit-on-top kayak.

To protect yourself further from the water, you can add a spray skirt. However, they are not self-draining like the sit-on-top kayaks, so you will need to have a bilge pump if water enters your kayak. Also, if you have the traditional narrow sit-in kayak, then knowing how to do a wet exit will be mandatory for you!

The sit-in kayaks are significantly more stable, and you have greater control over them since your body is inside and has multiple points of contact inside the boat. This is very useful when in rough waters. Plus, you are fully engaged with what you are doing, so the experience is more fun in general.

As you paddle, you can go further in a sit-in kayak than in a sit-on-top because these are more efficient overall.

kayaking-woman
The legs are completely hidden inside the kayak

The Anatomy of a Sit-in Kayak

(Note that not all boats will have the same things)

1.  Deck: the topside

2.  Hull: the bottom piece

3.  Keel: the bow-to-stern ridge on your hull

4.  Cockpit: where you get in and command your craft

5.  Seat: your base of operations that sits within your cockpit

6.  Coaming: boatspeak for the edge of the cockpit

7.  Deck line: This can be stretchy (a bungee) or nonstretchy (static)

8.  Hatch: your portal to an inner cargo area

9.  Carry handles: a secure place to get a grip

10.  Rudder or skeg: A skeg is a static dropdown fin, and a rudder is an adjustable flip-down fin. Either of these helps keep you on track.

11.  Bulkhead: a wall inside your boat that keeps water from swamping your cargo space (not pictured)

12.  Foot braces: adjustable rests inside the footwell; you control your rudder with these (if your boat has one)

13.  Thigh braces: the pads that hug your thighs in the cockpit of a well-fit boat

kayaking-beautiful-surroundings

Categories of Kayaks

Before going into each group to explain it further, you have to be aware that these aren’t generalized terms. You see, not all brands use the same terminology. For instance, I have found that one brand’s “recreational” kayak is another brand’s “day touring” kayak so that it might get a bit confusing at first.

Still, as you get familiar with the categories, just by reading the description or seeing the shape, you will be able to distinguish between kayaks.

With that said, here are some general guidelines:

Recreational Kayaks

These can be both the sit-ins and sit-on-top kayaks.

The recreational kayaks are pretty affordable when compared to the rest. They offer stability and are quite easy to navigate as well as get in and out of the kayak quickly. They are also pretty easy to maneuver and turn.

The storage of the recreational kayaks is quite limited to stash spots for a few essentials. Because of their lightweight design, they aren’t suitable for longer trips, waves or rapids, but being in flatwater fun or meandering rivers will be a real joy!

Kayaking-Lake-Mountains

Day Touring Kayaks (sit-in kayaks)

The day touring kayaks are also quite versatile, but they are a lot more efficient and sleek than the previous category of recreational boats. With their more vast use, they cost more too.

These kayaks track straighter and give you more control in rough waters than the other kayaks.

Their design is shorter than the sea kayaks, so you will have an easier time transporting, storing, and handling them.

As for the storage place, they have moderate space and can hold more than the recreational kayaks, so longer trips are possible too.

Touring kayaks (sit-in sea kayaks)

The sit-in sea kayaks are longer and more robust and will give you greater efficiency when traveling long distances.

Their tracking is excellent, and they can be used in not such calm waters and windy conditions because of their rudder or skeg to deal with more challenging conditions.

These are excellent for longer trips since they have plenty of storage room, but they also come at a heftier price range than the other two categories of kayaks above.

All in all, if you aren’t quite sure what to pick from the three types of kayaks above, then just think of it this way. If you are absolutely committed to long kayaking trips often, year-round, then the touring kayaks are the best option.

On the other hand, if you’re not so sure, and you will probably kayak few times a month and only in the warmer months, then a day-touring boat will be great and will give you fantastic paddling skills.

kayak-cave

Specialty kayaks

The specialty kayaks are a category on their own with several subcategories as types of kayaks to choose from. These specialty kayaks, as the name suggests, as for specific situations. Some are designed for if you are tight on space, or you want to paddle with your partner, or maybe you want to fish only, and you aren’t interested in any kayaking as a sport.

With that said, here are the 4 kayak categories within the specialty kayaks:

Folding Kayaks

If you struggle with storage space, I hear ya! Many of my friends would love to paddle board and surf and kayak, but they don’t have the storage room for a single air mattress, let alone a couple of boards and a boat.

So, if space if your problem and you would like a kayak that’s easy to transport, then a kayak that folds itself would be a pretty sensible option.

You will find it to be a little less rugged compared to a hard-shell kayak, but it won’t be an issue when it comes to performance.

Inflatable Kayaks

Inflatable boats also give you quite a lot of space, just like the folding ones. Thanks to the modern-day perfected materials they use, these kayaks are sturdy and versatile and perform well in general.

They aren’t as efficient as some of the kayak types above, so longer trips in whitewater aren’t recommended but are better for close to shore kayaking. Recreational, to be precise.

Inflatable kayaks, just like inflatable stand up paddle boards are even more durable than the sturdy ones because they bounce off obstacles. So these kayaks are great for flowing rivers.

Among these kayaks, you can find some (although pricier) designed for some serious kayak touring.

Read more about inflatable kayaks and inflatable canoes in my complete guide

Tandem Kayaks

If you and your friend or partner love kayaking, why not save money and chip in for a tandem kayak both?

These kayaks are more stable than single kayaks and are great for taking the whole family on a kayak trip during a sunny summer’s day.

Pedal Kayaks

If you want to fish off of your kayak or photograph the scenic views around you or watch the wildlife with binoculars, then pedal propulsion system kayaks are just the thing for you.

These kayaks use bike-like pedals that turn a prop or push-pedals that power a pair of fins. They are super easy to use, and the steering of such kayak is done via a rudder operated by hand control.

In such kayak, you are sitter slightly higher so that you can make the pedaling motion in full. This kayak is also wider than the rest and is quite stable. Plus, since you are using your legs and your movement doesn’t only depend on your arms for pedaling, you can get in greater distances in a shorter timeframe without getting too tired.

One of the downsides of such kayak is that the whole pedaling system adds to the cost of the kayak, and it requires more maintenance than the other regular ones.

Also, you have to be mindful of how shallow you are in the water because of the prop or fins beneath. Also, with such a system, you aren’t able to handle quick turns or rough waters like you would in the other types of kayaks.

Another additional downside is the weight of these kayaks. They are quite more massive than the other kayaks and bulkier, so you have to consider that when planning for storage space and transport.

kayaking-sundown-fishing

Kayak Materials, Weight and Price

When buying a kayak, no matter the category and the type, you should always go for the lighter one. This will allow you straightforward handing, and you can pack more gear to carry with you without being weighed down by the overall weight.

However, there’s a catch. The lighter the kayak is, the pricier it will be.

Namely, the cheapest option out there is the polyethylene plastic. It is inexpensive and abrasion-resistant, but it is the heaviest option. Plus, if you take longer trips in it, you will start to notice the wear and tear from the sun. So, you have to store it in a covered location when not in use.

The ABS plastic weighs slightly less and is slightly more expensive than polyethylene, but it offers the same reliable durability. It has a better UV resistance as well.

The kayaks made of composites are the lightest out there but also the most expensive options.

These are made of lightweight fiberglass and ultralight carbon-fiber and offer the best performance. They won’t suffer from UV rays, but that’s why when it comes to rocks, they are the most vulnerable.

Kayaking-fun

Additional Kayak Guidelines

Weight capacity determines how much the boat can carry, including the boat itself, you and the gear you can take on with you. This is a crucial spec to follow because if you overload your boat, you will slow it down and compromise your paddling efficiency.

The length is another thing that will determine the efficiency. Namely, the longer the boat is, the better will cruise, plus you’ll have more storage space, but it won’t turn so easily. Shorter kayaks will turn more quickly.

The depth is also a significant one since having a deeper hull will give you more room for long-legged kayakers and more storage space. Shallower hulls, on the other hand, are less affected by wind.

The width offers more initial stability, but you give up speed. On the other hand, narrower hulls can go faster but are less stable.

Skegs, tracking fins and rudders as additional accessories help a boat track straighter in the wind.

A skeg is a dropdown fin with which you can prevent a side wind from blowing the boat off course.

A tracking fin also prevents a side wind from blowing the boat off course, but it cannot be retracted while you’re paddling while a skeg can. The tracking fins are most commonly installed on inflatable kayaks.

You can remove your tracking pin if you want to prioritize turning your kayak swiftly and more easily over the ability to stay on course.

A rudder flips down from the back of a boat, but unlike the fin, it isn’t fixed in one position. You can readjust the rudder via foot pedals, which is why it is preferred over the other 2 – because it is more responsive to changing conditions when you’re on the move.

The seats are essential because you will be spending a lot of time in your kayak, so you might as well pay a little extra (up to $100) so that you will be sitting more comfortably.

The cockpit size is also important since a small, snug space gives you the maximum control and protection in rough conditions. Through it, you have more maneuverability over the boat. However, having a larger cockpit enables you to get in and out of the boat more easily.

The hatches provide you with access to interior storage areas. If you have a bigger touring kayak, then you might have two hatches in place, while a day touring boat or a recreational one will have only one hatchet.

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Review written by: kay

Hi! My name is Tom. During the year I try to be on a paddle board as much as possible. By reading this blog you'll stay updated on everything I test on the water :)