These small craft came on the scene with the Alaskan natives somewhere around 4000 years ago though we aren’t sure exactly. Those small watercraft have come a long way to get to the modern versions sold today. Not only in materials but in design and the way some of them are used.
We do want to look at some of the amazing products available today and their strengths and weaknesses but before we move on to that, let’s take a look at the specifics of a kayak.
Types of Kayaks
- Types of Kayaks
- Are Sit-In or Sit-On Kayaks Better?
- Kayak Propulsion Technology
- Buyers Guide
- Top Kayak For Beginners
- A Note on Kayak Brands
There are niche specific boats on the market but today many are designed to be somewhat multi-purpose. This adds a lot of value for the consumer if you want a general use boat but you may lose some specific functions and features.
Kayaks basically fall into 4 categories
These are your basic, general use boat. They may have some additional features and fall into either a sit-in or sit-on-top style. Often these are rather affordable for models that are of reasonable quality.
Though there are no hard classifications for a recreational kayak, you are probably looking for something basic. It would lack the rod holders, storage space, and other amenities. They are often wide and stable more than slim and fast. If you just want to get on the water, these are a great way to do it for a smaller investment.
Most touring models are sit-in style and are long and lean. They are made to be rowed efficiently to achieve great speed and distance without wearing out the user. These are not the most popular choice but, in the past, these were probably the most common and share their history back to those used by Native Americans.
Usually, a touring kayak will be less stable than most other types and are harder to maneuver in smaller areas. These are for the ocean and large lakes and they may have storage space for long trips. These are commonly used on large rivers, lakes, and the ocean to carry people for a week or more with a little resupply.
There are two distinct classes of fishing kayaks, those that are purpose built for fishing and those that are modified from other styles. For the most part, both do the same job and are about the same quality. The brand and overall setup are more important than whether the boat was designed for fishing. A fishing model will usually have multiple rod holders and additional storage for tackle and supplies. It may also have a live well for bait, a mount for a fishfinder, and other fishing specific features. These can be sit-in or sit-on-top though the latter is more common.
Sharing some traits with the touring craft, a performance kayak is purely built for speed. They often set a little higher in the water and are thin compared to their length. This makes them very fast but a little harder to keep upright for the beginner. With practice, they are quite stable but it takes more time to learn.
Performance Kayaks are universally sit-in to make the most of the thinner shape those provide. They rarely have more than a small amount of storage to keep them light and agile. The whole idea is to provide the most speed from the least exertion. If you want to see a large area on a big lake, these are the way to go.
Other Kayak Types
Worth mentioning but beyond the scope of this article are whitewater kayaks, inflatable kayaks, and tandem kayaks. While these are all viable choices in a niche market, they are not for everyone. This is especially true of those intended for whitewater which need special training to use safely and effectively.
Inflatable kayaks never perform as well as those with a hard body but can be a decent option for short trips when you have limited transportation space. Otherwise, leave them be and get a solid boat.
Tandem kayaks can be great for couples or kids. You can use one as for a single person but they are somewhat cost ineffective for what you are getting. You can get more boat for your money if you stick to a one-man craft.
Are Sit-In or Sit-On Kayaks Better?
Since they were briefly mentioned above, it’s worth going into the topic of seating position for those new to the market. Both make good boats and each has their strengths and weaknesses. Picking one will most likely be a matter of price and what you want to get out of it.
Sit-in versions are what comes to most peoples minds. You have a small hole on top that you sit down in. This puts your butt slightly lower than water level and typically creates a rather stable platform. The shape of a sit-in is often more streamlined with a more pointed keel.
Sit-on versions are more a floating shell with a seat on top. This is slightly recessed but not enough to put your butt below the waterline. To keep them stable, they are often wider with a more of a rounded taper to the keel. They are much easier to get in and out of than a sit-in.
Prices will differ between the two with the sit-on starting out cheaper but on the high end of quality, both styles cost similar. There are some specific touring and performance models that are sit-in and cost much more. These are very fine-tuned and exceptionally built if you are willing to pay the price.
Kayak Propulsion Technology
Though paddles are still the most common method of kayak propulsion, they are not the only method available on the modern kayak. You will always want to keep a small emergency paddle on hand just in case but you can get a kayak whose main propulsion is a peddle system or even a motor.
To be fair we need to give a little section over to the classic paddle variants and their specifics. What is good about paddling? Why would you want a simple paddle when other options are available? There are several reasons that you should probably be aware of.
Firstly, paddle models are always cheaper. Even after you factor in the cost of a good paddle, you can often save several hundred dollars for the same quality boat without the mechanical propulsion system.
Paddling provides more control in tight quarters and offers a shallower draft if you are in small water. That said, paddling is somewhat slower than a similar kayak with a different propulsion system.
You can get any of the above styles that rely on paddling. If you want mechanically propulsion, you are looking purely at a recreational or fishing kayak. Also, remember there is a difference between a canoe paddle and a kayak paddle. Make sure you get the appropriate type.
Those with peddles are becoming more common, especially for people wanting to fishing. They allow you to troll a line hands-free and still keep up a good turn of speed. They allow you more freedom to look around and just be comfortable. Not to mention they rely on leg muscles which often generate more power than arm strength.
However, they cost more and need more depth to keep the propulsion mechanism off the bottom. Where a paddled versions can go in inches of water without problem, with peddles you may need as much as two feet of draft.
Just a side note on the peddle mechanism, most are not like bike peddles but a few are. The most common mechanism uses straight back and forth movements that scissor a pair of blades on the bottom to provide propulsion.
These are quite rare and typically very expensive. Most use a dedicated and proprietary motor setup and can move quite quickly. Others use a common trolling type motor and rudder. Depending on the motor type, some are actually capable of going quite shallow where others may need as much as 3 feet of draft. Almost all are electric so you will also deal with the run time issues associated.
They allow more or less hands-free operation meaning you can troll with them. They are able to cover great distances and do so quickly. Mostly these are a niche product but may gain more popularity as time goes on. Most people who want a kayak are getting away from motors but to each their own.
Kayaking vs Canoeing
A common question is what differs between a kayak and a canoe and that is becoming more a blurred line with modern sit-on craft. Many are shaped similar to a canoe but are intended to float higher in the water.
The sit-in models differ by providing some cover to your body. This is a carryover from when they were used in arctic environments where getting wet was lethal. This shouldn’t a concern for most people who will only use them in fair weather.
Canoes are a sit-in setup but are uncovered. They are often used by kneeling rather than sitting and can be harder for many people to get used to. Both are great options but kayaks are taking the place of canoes mostly for their smaller size and lower weight.
My personal thoughts are that anything that gets you on the water is well worth it but kayaks tend to be easier to manage and transport. They are easy to use and very comfortable in most cases. I own both and use both but the kayaks are my favorites.
Though all of the topics above are valid points of consideration, those are likely things that you are already aware of when you start looking for a kayak but there is more you should be looking at. These are factors that all models and styles and will all greatly affect performance and satisfaction.
Generally you are looking at something between 8 feet and 13 feet with some being a little shorter and a few specialized kayaks being longer. There is a ratio between length and width that, along with hull shape, will govern how well you tracks. That is, how straight it stays as you paddle on each side.
A better tracking model will have greater speed and be easier to paddle but does have a downside. The longer a kayak is, the less maneuverable it will be. Typically, in a range of 9 to 11 feet, there is little difference in maneuverability unless you are in small streams or other crowded areas.
Longer is also heavier, takes more room to store, and can be harder to transport. That said, typically the longer you can get away with the better off you are. If you have to go a little shorter, do so but get as close to that 11-foot mark as possible.
Width covers a variety of features, the most obvious two are stability and seating size. A kayak that is too small or cramped will be uncomfortable on top of feeling a little tippy when you get in it. If you plan to use it much, you want a stable, comfortable ride that you can enjoy.
The downside of width is that it slows a boat down and can affect tracking. Most companies try to find a good middle ground for their general purpose models that provides decent tracking with good stability. This all changes if you start looking at touring or performance kayaks which focus more on speed than stability.
When you are after speed or long range, you will want a thinner boat that is more efficient. You will trade off some stability in the process. These are probably not the best novice boats but can be a very fun choice once you know more about handling a kayak on the water.
Let’s start this off by saying that a kayak performs best when sitting at a specific level in the water. The deeper or shallower it sits, the worse it will perform. Often the shape of the hull will still work decently with a lighter load but adding too much weight can cause the boat to wallow and make it more likely to turn over. Always consider your weight as well as the weight you plan to carry before you make a choice.
Modern companies make kayaks exceeding 500-pound capacities for longer trips and more gear. This also factors in the pressure exerting when hauling on a large fish. You will often notice that fishing kayaks have more capacity than recreational.
If you want a performance kayak, you want to be very close to the weight capacity of the boat to get the most out of it but as you get right on the mark, the boat will start to suffer in performance. The same with being too light for the boat to get a good bite and track properly.
Recreational models are pretty forgiving of weight being designed to handle a variety of users. The same is true of fishing kayaks. Just don’t overload your boat or you may end up falling overboard more than you want to.
While it is not the most major consideration for most people, you should look at the overall weight of the boat. This will affect how easy it is to store, load, transport, and get to the water and back out again. There are some products that can make some of these processes easier but that will be an added cost.
There is not a connection between how a boat performs and its overall weight, which is already factored in the design. It is out of the water that you really have to deal with how much it weighs. If you are trying to decide between two kayaks that are similar, this could be a tiebreaker. Otherwise, just go with the one you like more and don’t worry much about the weight.
Kayaks can be as simple as a molded plastic shell or have a purpose-built reclining seat and adjustable foot pegs. It’s all a matter of what you want to pay for and how much comfort you expect. Most beginning kayaks are very simple and each of the major brands seems to have their own preferred setup.
If you are willing to spend the money, always opt for the best seat you can get. You will be thankful for it from your first moment on the water. If you have back or mobility issues, this is even more important. A molded plastic seat is fine for younger people who have good joints but as you get a little more mature, you are going to need a better seat.
Footpegs are preferable to molded in foot pockets as long as they are well made. They can be more fragile but a good set will greatly improve how well you paddle. It may sound crazy but the more stable your feet are, the better you can transfer force to the paddle without sliding.
Most of these are more commonly associated with sit-on but you may see some of these features in a sit-in kayak.
Accessories & Accruements
No significant modern purchase should be explored without looking at accessories. There are a lot you can add but some will come with your purchase. If you really want to get the most out of your hard earned dollar, you may want to consider these as great add on features.
Most recreational kayaks will come with an absolute bare minimum. The idea is to be simple, very affordable, and uncomplicated. You may see some padding on the seats and a little storage space but otherwise, you are going to get just the basics.
Those designed for fishing are the kings of accessories. Often, they will come with several rod holders and may have a wet well, scupper for mounting a fish finder, and additional storage for your gear. These are versatile features, especially the storage which can be used for any number of things when you aren’t on a fishing trip.
Touring kayaks are all about storage space and efficiency, they usually won’t come with much else as far as accessories go. If you are in the market for a touring model, you won’t be looking to add much more anyway.
True performance kayaks are not likely to have any accessories that do not directly add to the efficiency and speed. You just want them to cover distance quickly and anything else would detract from that goal. For those wanting a performance kayak, keep it simple.
Two features that you may see on any type are scupper holes and rudders. Scupper holes are drainage ports for water that gets into a sit-on. This keeps the boat dry when conditions are rougher but can be plugged in many models to prevent you from getting wet in when conditions are calm. Sit-ins do not have scuppers.
Rudders help you track straighter and get better speed and efficiency. These are a normal feature on performance and touring models but can pop up on kayaks of any type. Commonly peddle kayaks have a rudder to help control since you lack the ability to do so with a paddle. Any time you can add a rudder, you are better off to do so.
Top Kayak For Beginners
Native Watercraft Slayer 10 Propel
Anyone familiar at all with kayaks has surely heard of Native which formed from a c combination of smaller companies, all of which produced quality products. Under a single brand, the best features were brought together to make amazing boats. This is also the only peddle drive boat on this list.
The molded hull of the Slayer 10 is rigid and durable which gives it a great ability to glide across the surface and get a good turn of speed. Combine with natives own peddle drive system, it is quite quick despite its 10-foot length. It is also quite maneuverable and can be peddled in forward or reverse, among the only kayaks that can do so. With a broader 34” beam and weight of just over 90 pounds, this is a very stable craft. It’s also sturdy enough to load down with gear, as much as 500 pounds of it.
As a Sit-On style, this does have a number of scupper holes for better drainage that can be plugged if need be. It also has a rudder for paddle-free steering and to keep you in line. The seat is among the best you will find and adjustable enough to get you perfectly in line with the peddles for an effortless experience.
Though it was designed for fishing it could easily serve well as a recreational model if fishing isn’t your thing. If it is, you get a ton of rod holder options and room to mount a fishfinder. There is a small amount of storage in the bow for any supplies you may want and cargo space behind the seat for larger items. With a ton of features like this, it is no wonder Native is always among the top-rated manufacturers.
Ocean Kayak Prowler Big Game II
If you are in the market for a sit on top fishing kayak, this is, in my opinion, the absolute best on the market for a number of reasons. If you aren’t familiar with Ocean Kayaks as a brand, they are among the oldest and best out there. This particular model represents the best they could bring to the table and it is amazing!
At 12’9”, this is quite long and has a comparable 34” width. This provides excellent tracking and incredibly stable in one package. Partially this is because of the shape Ocean uses on their molded hull but regardless, you can stand up and cast from this boat with no issues what so ever. And with a 600-pound total capacity, this 70-pound kayak can hold you, your gear, and still have enough to haul in any fish you would care to catch.
As far as features, you have to start with the seat which is the best you will ever find. It lowers into the boat for travel and when you stop to fish, you can elevate it for a better cast. Combine this with the rail mounted foot pegs for the best paddle position and you have all day comfort for all day fishing.
It also has ample rod holders and mounting options all around the boat including a mounting point for a fish finder. There is a huge amount of storage in the bow and a middle console to keep anything you want to get to easily. Behind the seat is the standard cargo area which is large enough to fit a crate of gear. This is an amazing fishing platform and because of the stability and capacity works well for beginners, those after a recreational craft, and even some touring uses.
Riot Kayak Evasion
Right now, most companies are investing more in fishing kayaks than any other type but many people aren’t interested in fishing. For those that want something multi-purpose but a little better than your standard recreational model, this is the one for you! Usually, when a company tries to make something to cover two markets it fails. However, this hybrid of touring and performance is a great option.
At over 15 feet in length, this is a beast but is only 24” wide, making it sleek and very fast in the water. This level of effortless paddling does come with a small cost to stability. It may not be a great choice for a first timer but if you have a little time in a boat or are willing to give it some practice, this is easily one of the best.
As a touring kayak, you want it to track well and paddle easily. This boat does that already but the cockpit controlled rudder makes it track all the easier. Even loaded down with the max 325 pounds of people and gear, it won’t wallow at all. To store all your extras for multi-day trips, you get both fore and aft storage along with an easy access cargo area right in front of the seat.
This is a sit-in style which are typically lighter anyway but this boat comes in at only 35 pounds which is mind-boggling. It packs a lot into that weight including a nice seat and plenty of tie-downs. Add a good paddle and you are set for adventure. This really is an astonishing product and a great choice for any larger waters. Streams would be tougher due to the length but not impossible.
Vibe Kayaks Sea Ghost 110
Vibe is another brand making it big in the kayak world with their sit-on recreational and fishing models. They succeed mostly by keeping their quality high and their selection small. This allows them to focus on the details and get everything right consistently. Even the fishing models are modified from the recreational craft to keep everything specialized.
In respect to the Sea Ghost, it is an 11-foot boat that is 33 inches wide and weighs in at 62 pounds. This is a perfect size for a boat for any medium to large waterbodies that tracks well and can get a good turn of speed. The stats above are for the fishing model which is recommended just for the extra comfort and versatility. Either model can support a whopping 425 pounds so carrying gear and hauling on fish is a non-issue.
If you do opt for the fishing model, one of the best features is the toe controlled rudder system which can both keep you straight and true or help you steer without losing momentum. This is a feature often missing on even those with rudders. This works well with the adjustable leg length and amazing seating for a very comfortable ride.
For those times you are in rough weather, windy days, or battling a tide, this is a very nice kayak to have. The way it sits in the water and the glide you get will keep you moving even against the currents. The seat is height adjustable and you have plenty of below deck and back cargo storage for longer trips or more gear. Overall, this is just a great buy for the money.
Ocean Kayak Prowler 13
Above we covered the Big Game sit on top model but this is the original by Ocean Kayaks that started it all. It is overall less refined with less high-end comfort features but comes in at a much lower price. Don’t be fooled into thinking this is somehow a bad choice. It isn’t, the Big Game is just such an amazing watercraft that it overshadows most any other model.
So, what about this one in particular? It is narrower in the beam at only 28 inches and slightly longer at 13 feet. This makes it a good bit faster than the Big Game and can still hold plenty of cargo at a capacity of 325 pounds. Overall weight comes in at 56 pounds, a good bit lighter than the big game model.
It should go without saying that you will be well set up for fishing. It has plenty of rod holders, scupper mount, and all the usual. If you don’t fish, this is still a great choice overall with cup holders, a ton of storage options in the bow, under the seat, and in the rear. The seat is reasonably comfortable though nowhere near the Big Game. Still, in pure value, this is very, very good for the money.
For a beginner or someone who is not ready to invest in a more expensive option, this is among the best in value that you can find. It is fully molded to keep it stiff and smooth on the water. Even at its slimmer profile, it is amazingly stable and very easy to maneuver. This was my first high-quality kayak and one that I will always have fond memories of.
Vibe Kayak Sea Ghost 130
Above we covered the 110 model and this is a perfect illustration of the time that less is more. It may be a matter of opinion, but for the money, there are a lot of benefits to a kayak that is 11 feet long rather than this one which comes in at 13 feet. While it does track better, it is far less maneuverable and more suited to large waters.
Still, at the moment this is among the best deals that you are likely to see. Though the length has increased to 13 feet, across the beam, this is still a 33-inch wide kayak that weighs in at 75 pounds and holds a whopping 550. This is one of the best tracking paddle propulsion, sit-on versions around. Not only because of the narrow beam and longer length but it comes with a toe-controlled rudder like the above Sea Ghost.
Though it’s set up for fishing, this is actually perfect for touring if you are one of those interested in kayak camping or other longer trips. Even a day kayaker that wants to cover a lot of distance will greatly benefit from this particular model. It has plenty of space for provisions, gear, and even a cooler on board with plenty of capacity for an adult left over.
The 13-foot model features the same amazingly comfortable seat and adjustability of the smaller option for all-day comfort. It has gear tracks for anything you want to mount and a ton of rod holders. Storage is under-deck in the bow, behind the seat, and cargo in the rear. It even has a large console with cup holders to keep your most important gear for a relaxing, all-day paddle.
Sun Dolphin Aruba SS 12 Foot
Where many of the brands are specialized and a little rarer, Sun Dolphin has made their name in the by producing budget craft and selling them virtually everywhere. 10 to 1, you see more of these on the top of cars in good weather, heading to the lake. While their sit-ons are not that great, their sit-in models like the Aruba are actually quite good.
Though there are several lengths of Aruba, the 12 foot is probably the best for its overall ability to track well and remain stable. This is purely are recreational craft and will fall short of any performance choices out there. However, for the value and sheer fun, this slender 29” sit-in is the best budget kayak around.
Made for touring, this could serve a decent roll with quite a bit of storage in the bow through a small hatch and a larger cargo hatch in the rear. There is even a small dash panel for important items that you want at quick access. As far as capacity, you can stack in a total of 375 pounds of gear and person without losing stability in the boat.
The seat is relatively comfortable, more than you would expect from something costings so little. It is slightly evaluated over the bottom to give your legs a more natural angle. Amenities wise, that is where you save money. This is a pretty bare bones craft that is suitable for medium and large water. It isn’t maneuverable enough for smaller streams but can work if they are open without a lot of obstacles. For sheer fun for the money, this is a solid buy.
Ocean Kayak Frenzy
We already had two products made by Ocean Kayak above but this smaller boat is a purely recreational craft and probably the most fun on the list. What makes it so fun is its turn on a dime mobility thanks to its shorter 9-foot length while featuring a full-length keel that makes it track surprisingly well despite its shorter length.
These small, 44 pound sit-ons are a common feature around beaches and on summer lakes. Usually, they serve as rentals do to the great value, outstanding durability, and ease of use. They are an amazingly stable boat, being short and quite wide at 31 inches. They also have a high weight capacity of 325 pounds which just to cover the paddler and a very small amount of gear.
There is a small amount of storage in the front and rear cargo areas but nowhere you would want to store important gear. You won’t be touring out of this boat but you could manage some light fishing if you didn’t plan on going far and were willing to hold your pole. This is really intended as a fun; purely recreational craft and it does that well.
As for comfort, the seat is decent for support but not great on padding. The plastic hull is contoured and shaped in a way that somewhat resembles a seat. This also isn’t a great choice for taller people, those more than 6’5” or so. You will run out of leg room! Still, for small water, short trips, and general playing around, nothing beats the Frenzy!
Old Town Vapor 10
If you like the idea of a shorter, purely recreational craft but want a sit-in model, you are going to have a hard time finding one to beat an Old Town, especially for the money. While they make a variety of both styles, they have always seemed more at home with the sit-in models. This is probably because the founding of the company was in canoes.
The Vapor is a pretty basic 10-foot recreational style that you sit in rather than on. It is 28 inches wide and very, very stable in the water. Speed is not amazing being so short but you can get a decent clip going with some effort. Tracking is less than ideal so shorter trips and just romping around are better uses for the Vapor.
The seat is adequately comfortable for short-range day use but storage is all but non-existent. That was never the point. The point was to have an affordable way for people to enjoy themselves in the water. In that way, is an absolutely top notch choice! At a capacity of 325 pounds with no storage to speak of, this is really an option for just cruising around short distances.
Old Town has always had a reputation for making boats that were very heavy. While this one isn’the heaviest, at 47 pounds it is heavier than comparable kayaks. The reason for this is Old Town’s commitment to durability. This boat is nearly indestructible and will last a lifetime with a little care. It is also very easy to transport and a breeze to paddle.
Sun Dolphin Aruba 10
Above we talked about the Aruba 12 and this is just the smaller brother. This little 10-foot boat is still a better offer than any of Sun Dolphin’s sit-on boats and is quite the capable little craft if your main goal is short trips and general playing around in the water. For a very budget-friendly price, this will get you out on the local lakes and streams in a big way.
This is a slender little craft at only 30 inches wide but matches well with its shorter length. Tracking isn’t great being a shorter boat but you can get it moving quite well with a little effort. Where this kayak excels is its maneuverability. On smaller, tight streams, this is the boat to have!
You do get a little storage space in the rear and a bottle holder up front. Otherwise, it’s just you which works out well with the lower weight capacity of just 250 pounds. The craft its self only weighs about 40 which is great for those with limited space and transportation. You can fit this anywhere with ease.
The seat is mostly comfortable but not for all day use. The support is there but it lacks in padding. The seat is still slightly evaluated for better leg position just like in the bigger model but there is overall less give in the shorter body. But if you are short on funds, this is a choice that you can get for a fraction of the cost of most other models. One that is very usable and amazingly fun!
A Note on Kayak Brands
There are dozens of companies, both large and small, making these simple watercraft today. Above are only a few of these brands that were chosen for their value, availability, and general quality. If you are interested in exploring other options, you will find great models for fishing from companies like Feel Free. Amazing peddle versions from Hobie, one of the most popular but most expensive. Outstanding performance and distance craft from Petrel. And those for touring from Eddyline and Dagger. Companies like Wilderness Systems make a variety of models suitable to most people and are definitely worth a look.
The issue with these companies is a mixture of high cost and difficulty in finding them. They are not commonly sold at your every-day online retailers and local retailers are rare. If you do find one, the markup is often very high. They sell at a premium.
Any of these are worth the money if you can get them and are willing to shell out the bucks.
Regardless of your reason for wanting a kayak or how you plan to use it, the best thing you can ever do is simply to bite the bullet and get one. I started with a cheap second-hand model from a local sporting goods store that was barely capable of keeping me afloat. I graduated quickly to a boat by Wilderness Systems before investing in an Ocean Kayak Prowler. Both of those were great boats but I have since moved past those as well.
I own a small fleet now and love many of them for different reasons. But I love all of them for the same reason, there is nothing like hitting the lake for a day of paddling. I have fishing models and use them frequently. I have one meant for touring and take several camping trips a year with it. All of them do the same thing, get you on the lake for a little fun. When you factor that into your budget, any of those kayaks above are well worth the investment!