Summer’s not over yet, there’s still time to find the best kayak and enjoy it. If you’ve never kayaked, now is the time to think about giving this popular sport a try. You can be on the water and paddling on day one if you’re a beginner, and hitting your favorite rivers, streams or oceans in a new boat if you’re already paddling.
When’s the Best Time to Buy a Kayak?
Retail stores drop their prices all the time for holidays, so it just makes sense that sporting goods stores would too, right? Well, yes and no. While some stores do have end of season sales, it’s usually on the boats no one wanted to buy during the spring or summer. So, the best time to buy a kayak is when you’ve decided you want one and after reading the reviews and test paddling one if possible. Always be shopping and comparing of course, but if you think you’re going to save a bundle of money by waiting until late fall or winter, you probably won’t.
The Best Kayak for First Time Buyers
If you’re a first time kayak buyer it’s important to look at, rent, test paddle and read all the kayak reviews you can before you buy. Beginning kayak packages, including paddles and a life-jacket, may only set you back $300 to $1,500, but you still want to make sure that what you buy won’t ruin your day on the water. While it’s entirely possible to read reviews and buy a great kayak without ever getting your feet wet, at least try to sit in the kayak – yes, even in the store – before you buy. Boats this size are a lot like pants and shoes – they fit and feel “right,” or they don’t. A boat you loathe may be just the boat your friend or spouse loves.
When springtime rolls around most sporting goods stores and manufacturers will have paddle days where anyone can “test drive” a kayak to see if they like it. This includes recreational boats as well as the more high end, professional kayaks. Rafting companies and boat rental places are another great place to try before you buy. Tell the sales or counter person you want to try out a variety of boats. You may not get the range of boats you’d like to look at, but their quick and free introduction to kayaking will help you understand basic features you can look for later. For instance, telling a person about how a boat “tracks” through the water is not nearly as effective as having them experience bad and good tracking for themselves.
Related: Best White Water Kayak
Before and after you get hands on with a few boats, check out their reviews online. Look for the reviews of people who are verified buyers and who are writing about their personal experience with specific boats. Remember, no boat is going to get 100% approval. If it does, something’s not right! Look for boats with more than 100 reviews. The more reviews, the more balanced they’re likely to be. Look for “verified” reviews – meaning people who the site says have actually bought the boat.
Sites like Amazon, the manufacturer’s site, and message boards are great places to start. Don’t just settle for one site – or a handful of reviews. Read all the bad reviews and as many of the good reviews as you can. If there’s a true problem with a boat, and it’s not just a personal bias or preference, you’ll see patterns emerging as multiple users report the same issues with a boat.
Best Kayak 101: What to Look For in a Recreational Kayak
As with any sport, there is a range of costs, features, and must-have options when it comes to finding the best kayak for you. If you don’t know what features exist, you’re not going to know to look for them. If you’re new to paddling, or kayaking, here are the things you want in a kayak:
Stability means the tendency of a kayak to be tipsy, or “stable” when you sit in it. All boats are going to rock a little when you get in, and be a little tipsy until you settle into them – usually about 5 to 15 minutes. But if the boat makes you feel like you’re constantly tensing up so you don’t tip over, then it’s not the best boat for you. It may be great for someone else, or something you want to try when you have more experience. When you’re first starting out, or if you’re fishing, hunting, or taking photos from your kayak, stability is the number one feature you need to ask about and test for.
Tracking is the ability of a boat to go in a straight line, or hold its course when an outside force, like you paddling it, the wind, waves, or currents, are acting on it. It’s no fun to have a kayak wagging back and forth as you’re trying to cross a lake or get somewhere. It’s exhausting.
Some of that “wagging” (the bow or front of the boat moving left, then right with each stroke) has to do with how you’re paddling. That can be easily adjusted by learning how to paddle. It’s when the boat is just all over the water that it’s said to be a “bad tracker.” Does the boat keep moving straight forward when you stop paddling? Then it’s most likely a good tracking boat. The better a boat tracks however, the less maneuverable it is. These are all subtle differences you won’t notice until you’ve got a few hours paddling under your belt, but they’re good things to know about.
Decide before you buy (when possible) who’s most likely to use the boat the most. If it’s a family boat, will you, your spouse, or your kids be using it most? Buy with their needs, size, and weight in mind.
- When comparing boats, be sure to ask if there’s a shipping fee. You may find a sweet deal on a kayak for $150 to $190 only to learn the shipping fee is $150.
- Ask if a paddle or lifejacket comes with it. If you can, try to get an upgrade in the paddle or other gear, even if you have to pay a bit more for it.
- Before leaving the store with your boat, make sure the seat is comfortable, and test a few kayak seat upgrades to make sure they fit your model in case you decide to get a new seat (usually highly recommended – especially with recreational models).
Best Kayak Features to Be Aware Of
Different brands, models, and types of kayaks have different features. It’s these features, or the lack of them, that make your boating experience fun, or painful. That’s where reading kayak reviews can come in handy. The primary features any recreational kayaker should be aware of are:
Every kayak comes with a seat. Most are molded into the boat itself, or are clipped into rings or other devices on the boat. Unless you are young, and even if naturally gifted with extra padding thanks to mother nature, these base seats will almost never be comfortable. They will do the job, and with time and constant readjustments you’ll be able to find a measure of comfort for short trips and just paddling around for short distances. However, if you plan to spend any time in a kayak of any kind this is the feature that will matter most.
The only way to tell if a kayak seat is comfortable is to sit in it. All kayak seats can be upgraded, and you can add plusher, softer, firmer, more adjustable seats down the road. What you want to look for in any kayak seat is whether or not there is room for you, your hips, your life jacket, and any additional padding if you choose to add it later.
Related: Best Tandem Kayak
If you sit in your potential boat and find it “fits you like a glove” and that you can easily rock it with your hips (which is normal and a good thing for white water kayakers), then realize that any additional seating, clothing, or a life jacket will probably not fit well in that boat. It depends on the boat of course, but be aware that the magic happens around your bottom, hips, and the seat of your boat.
Kayak Thigh, Hip and Knee Pads
Comfort is critical when you’re on the water for any length of time. It’s not like you can just get up and walk around to work the kinks out. Although, on some sit-on-top kayaks you can stand. If you’re thinking of buying a sit-in kayak however, make sure to check to see if there are thigh, hip or knee pads in the boat, or a place where you can attach these pads after you buy it. These pads will keep your lower limbs comfortable as you paddle, lean, and turn.
You won’t need them all, but it’s a nice option to have, and you’ll certainly appreciate them if your boat has them. Many experienced boaters will go so far as to custom build or install such pads to ensure their comfort. On an entry level recreational kayak this is overkill, but still – the more you know, the better choices you can make.
A “work deck” sounds like much more than it really is. Work decks are typically found in kayaks designed for fishing, hunting, photography or other hobbies. They aren’t so much an obvious thing, as they are indentations, cubbies, and various sized built-in storage (think cup holder) that allows the paddler to put things like fishing gear, etc. safely aside while they’re tying their lines.
Related: Best Fishing Kayak
While work decks in the best kayaks are practically a miniature console, and may include USB connectors, a place for a battery and other devices, it’s rare to find a work deck in an entry level, recreational kayak. You can, however, purchase aftermarket work decks that fit most sit-in-kayaks. The Harmony Kayak Console is one such popular work deck and console, but there are many others.
If you’re planning to fish from your kayak think about what kind of gear you use and if the boat you’re considering will be able to handle your tackle box, net, and other gear. If you prefer to anchor your boat rather than tie up to a log, tree, or other feature, make sure there’s room at the front or rear (bow or stern) for a small anchor and rope. Many anglers prefer to use a “stakeout stick,” that can be put through the scupper hole and into the ground in shallow waters. These poles, such as the YakGear – YakStick Floating Stake-Out Stick, can also be extended and used as a pole if you prefer to pole your way in shallow waters (usually in a sit-on kayak) while fishing.
It seems so obvious doesn’t it? Yet many people don’t stop to think about how they’re going to carry their new boat to the water. Most recreational boats do have some sort of rope and toggle handle on each end to make carrying, loading and tying your boat down easy, but some don’t. You have to grasp the boat by the edges of the cockpit – usually difficult to do. Pick up the boat in the showroom and see if the handles are adequate. This is rarely a deal breaker in anyone’s world, but it is a feature to think about. You can always add better handles and grips later by the way. This means looking at the thickness of the hull wall to see if it can handle the added stress.
If you thought only cars had cup holders, you’d be wrong. People like to enjoy their favorite beverages on the water as well. Whether it’s a soda, bottled water, or something a little stronger, it’s always nice to have a place to store your drink securely, and without having to reach for it or risk capsizing your kayak to get to it. Fortunately most recreational kayaks manufacturers understand this and place a cup holder, often referred to as a “water bottle holder,” either in the seat or in front of the seat along the cockpit. Some kayaks have the holder behind or to the side of the paddler, making it harder to reach. No matter where this feature is, sit in the kayak and make sure you can reach it without any undo contortions or rocking the boat.
Sit-on-top kayak models have something called a “scupper hole.” These holes are safety features, designed to let water drain out of the boat from top-to-bottom. They also keep you from sitting a puddle, or worse, sitting in a kayak shaped bathtub full of water which is prone to capsizing. A little water in your kayak is normal, a lot of water is not. These holes are used with scupper plugs, which are designed to fit in the scupper hole. It’s pretty basic. Think of bathtub stoppers. It’s the same principle.
The scupper plugs keep water from coming in, which can happen in choppy water, when a power boat’s wake washes over you, when there are waves, or when there is enough weight in the kayak to push the hull deep enough in the water to force water into the cockpit. No matter how the water gets in, the scupper holes are designed to move it out. If the sight of water splashing in through the scupper holes makes you nervous, or you simply prefer not to remove your scupper plugs to drain water in your kayak, use a sponge, bilge pump or even a scoop cut out of an empty, gallon milk jug to remove the water.
It’s a good idea to carry one or all of those alternatives with you any – just for safety and convenience. No matter what you do, water will always find its way into your boat. That’s part of the sport. Only sit-on-top kayaks (not sit-in) have this feature, and your boat will perform well with or without the plugs in it.
Kayak storage in a recreational kayak was never intended to hold enough items for a weekend cruise, but it should hold things like a windbreaker, a few snacks, a camera, a flashlight, extra water, and maybe a first aid kit, sunscreen etc. Think of your kayak’s storage as your beach bag – not a suitcase. If you plan to spend any time on the water you’ll need somewhere to store the things mentioned above, unless you plan to paddle back into shore for them. Your storage compartment will get wet.
Even if your compartment’s lid has cords holding it down, or a rubber gasket, water will still get in. That means the compartment should be deep enough, and large enough to hold either a “dry bag” (which you put all your stuff in and then put in the compartment), or all of your things. In other words, look for a compartment that will hold the things you plan to bring with you. Some compartments are shallow and will hold no more than a windbreaker and a sack lunch. That’s fine, if that’s all you plan to bring with you. Think about whether or not you’ll be using this boat for camping, fishing, or photography. Is there enough storage for your gear? Are there places you can lash your gear on the front or rear of the boat?
Kayak Reviews: Finding The Best Kayak For You
Kayak Weight: 40 pounds
Max. Weight Limit: 250-pounds
Water: Good for quiet lakes, ponds, Class I-II water
Without a doubt, the Sun Dolphin Aruba 10-Foot Sit-in Kayak is the hottest sit-in kayak of the year. Pricing has something to do with it, but it’s the sturdy, well-built, comfortable, and lightweight design that has most users loving it. With a 4.5 or higher rating on Amazon, kayak reviews from all kinds of retailers show this kayak has everything a beginner could want, while still being a fun, professional boat for experienced users as well. It’s sturdy enough to stand up to the use and abuse of a rental business, camp, school, or community paddling program without all the extra weight usually associated with beginner kayaks. At under 40 pounds most teens and women and seniors have little problem moving or loading this boat.
The Aruba is made from high density polyethylene. You can relax if running in shallow water. It will survive underwater obstacles as well as run-ins with the occasional rock. The shell may dent, but can be easily repaired at home by most owners, and without any special tools. The Aruba carries a two year warranty for added protection and peace of mind.
The Aruba has a narrow bow and stern to help keep it on track. Instead of pushing the water (making paddling harder) it slices the water. The light weight means this kayak sits lightly on the water, not low in the water for added tracking ability. At 30-inches wide and with a flat bottom, this is one of, if not the most stable and “untipsy” kayaks on our list.
- Large open cockpit with adjustable padded seat with high back support
- Convenient gear storage with shock cord deck rigging
- Adjustable foot braces
- Rugged UV-stabilized Fortiflex High Density Polyethylene
- Carrying handles and water bottle holder
- For the price, it’s impossible to beat for a recreational kayak for beginners or experienced paddlers. This is just a fun little kayak to have around for kids, seniors, teens, anyone wanting to enjoy some time on a quiet body of water.
- The high back support means less pain and more comfort.
- There are three positions for the foot braces, meaning someone 5-foot-3-inches tall can find as much comfort leg wise as someone 6-foot-3-inches tall.
- Easy to transport, load, and unload.
- Very trackable.
- This makes it a great kayak for plus-sized figures and people who get a little claustrophobic at the thought of being wedged into a kayak.
- There is a shoe-box sized compartment, but it’s good mostly for a windbreaker, or handful of snacks, not for real gear. The lid is not secured and has no gasket, making it not waterproof or even water resistant.
- There is no padding on the seat. You’ll be looking at adding an aftermarket kayak seat if you want long-term sitting comfort.
- It will handle choppy water from other boaters, but if you’re expecting to be in water over a foot high it’s not a safe choice.
2. Brooklyn Kayak Company BKC UH-TK181 12-foot 5-inch Sit On Top Tandem 2 Person Fishing Kayak with Paddles, Seats, and 7 Fishing Rod Holders included
Kayak Weight: 68 pounds
Max. Weight Limit: 440 pounds
Water: Good for quiet lakes, ponds, fishing, class I-II rivers
If you fish and you’re thinking of joining the growing number of people who fish from kayaks, you can’t find a better boat. Not only is this kayak stable, it’s perfect for the solo paddler as well as someone fishing with a partner. You don’t have to fish from it. Photographers and hunters will also appreciate the size, durability, storage and handling of this kayak.
The rod holders and sealed storage compartments in front of each seat ensure both paddlers can keep their own gear close by and easily accessible. With three foot peg ribs, and plenty of legroom for the average paddler, feeling cramped is not an issue.
- 7 Rod Holders: The Brooklyn Kayak Company BKC UH-TK181 Sit on Top Tandem Kayak features 3 articulated fishing rod holders and 4 flush-mounted rod holders. Get multiple lines in the water at once and get more bites
- Waterproof Storage Hatches: Stash a wallet, keys, snacks, and more in the twin watertight storage compartments, which are conveniently located between each paddler’s legs
- Twin Paddle Rests: The Brooklyn Kayak Company BKC UH-TK181 Sit on Top Tandem Kayak features two secure paddle rests, so you can free up your hands without the risk of losing your paddles
- Secure Cargo Area: An inset rear cargo area uses a secure bungee tie-down system so you can stash larger pieces of gear and extra clothing, lashed down for good measure
- Multiple Carrying Handles: The Brooklyn Kayak Company BKC UH-TK181 Sit on Top Tandem Kayak four carrying handles make overland transport almost as easy as paddling the Brooklyn Kayak Company BKC UH-TK181 Sit on Top Tandem Kayak
- High stability means less tipsy
- Lots of storage, both in front of each seat, and behind each seat
- Non-branded, but high quality rod mounts
- Ergonomically designed, adjustable seats
- Four webbed handles on the sides to make carrying easy
- No work deck but room behind the rear seat for securing gear
- May be heavy and hard to load on a car for some solo users
3. Intex Explorer K2 Kayak, 2-Person Inflatable Kayak Set with Aluminum Oars and High Output Air Pump
Kayak Weight: 35 pounds
Max. Weight Limit: 300-pounds
Water: Good for quiet lakes, ponds, class I-II rivers
Not everyone has the storage space for even a 10-foot rigid kayak. That’s where inflatables save the day. If you’re a recreational or first time kayaker, or even an experienced paddler, there’s a lot to be said for a tandem inflatable.
There are some cons to inflatables. Because they’re lighter than rigid kayaks they can be harder to control or steer. It’s important that you get the proper inflation to get the best performance from your boat as well. Cold water can cause the air inside your boat to compress, and hot temperatures can heat up the air inside, meaning you’ll have to inflate, deflate, or adjust the air in temperature extremes.
- Kayak includes an adjustable inflatable seat with backrest
- Cockpit designed for comfort and space
- Kayak measures 20 x 36 x 123 inches
- Removable skeg for directional stability
- Bright yellow means better visibility in case of emergency
- Requires less maintenance than a hardshell or rigid kayak
- Great kayak for small bodies of water: Explorer K2 is made for smaller bodies of water including lakes and mild rivers
- Heavy duty, puncture resistant vinyl
- More stable than a rigid kayak, less tipsy
- Perfect “learning” kayak for youngsters and seniors and those afraid of the tipsiness of a rigid kayak
- Good recreational boat if you have rigid boats
- Boston valves for easy inflation and deflation
- Two separate air chambers
- Inflatable I-beam floor for more stability
- Upturned nose helps keeps water from splashing into the boat
- Not recommended for use on larger bodies of water or the ocean
- You must thoroughly dry it out after each use or it becomes smelly
- It must be inflated and deflated for each use
Kayak Weight: 28 pounds
Max. Weight Limit: 220-pounds
Water: Good for quiet lakes, ponds, small bodies of water, class I rivers
With more than 1,700 Amazon reviews and a 4.5+ rating, it’s hard to beat either the price or quality of this one-person inflatable. Experienced kayakers rate it as the “best dollar-to-fun-ratio” on the market. Not made for long trips or heavy loads, it’s still the perfect “day-yak” for fun on the lake, tubing, or paddling around a lazy river. One-to-three days usage will pay for itself if you’re considering renting a kayak for a family vacation, or summer usage.
For the small home, apartment dweller, or occasional user this is an excellent alternative to a rigid kayak.
- Nimble, durable kayak is made of durable welded material with eye-catching graphics for added safety on the lake or slow-moving river
- Cockpit is designed for comfort and maximized space, and inflatable I-beam floors add stability
- Cargo net to store extra gear, and grab line on both ends of kayak; inflatable seat with backrest
- Comes with 84-inch aluminum oar, repair patch and Hi-output manual hand pump
- Measures 30-by-15-by-108 inches (W x H x D), with 27.2-pound weight and 220-pound maximum capacity
- Inexpensive and affordable for most people
- Portable – fits in most car trunks, closets for easy storage
- Lightweight and easy for teens, seniors, and women to carry alone
- Fast inflation – typically under 10-15 minutes
- Not as durable as a rigid kayak
- Not recommended for use on larger bodies of water or the ocean
- You must thoroughly dry it out after each use or it becomes smelly
- It must be inflated and deflated for each use
Weight: 23 pounds
Once you decide on a kayak you’re going to need someplace to store it. We’ve found the Stoneman Sports KC-103 Sparehand Freestanding Catalina Double Kayak or Canoe Storage Rack is just the place. This rack has a 175-pound maximum weight capacity and is a convenient storage solution for any style of kayak or Stand Up Paddleboard (SUP).
Related: How to Store a Kayak
This rack will store a maximum of two kayaks off the ground and out of the way. You can use it indoors or out as it has a rust resistant coating. Plus, it features a flat top cradle that lets you store a larger kayak or canoe on the top level. There’s a sturdy 48-inch by 46-inch base to keep the rack from tipping over and keeps even the heaviest kayak stored securely.
- Constructed of durable steel with a black finish
- Will hold kayaks and canoes with a length up to 20-feet and a hull size up to 36-inches wide and 18-inches deep.
- Fast easy assembly with no need to drill into walls or ceilings.
- Comes with a 1-year limited manufacturer’s warranty to protect against defects in material and workmanship
- Heavy Duty Storage: for two kayaks up to 160 pounds
- Freestanding, Portable
- No mounting to walls required, move this rack around your home, garage, shop, deck and more
- Indoor-Outdoor: black, powder-coated steel finish to store your kayaks indoors and outdoors
- Also ideal for SUPs, canoes, windsurfers and other gear
- Fits boats up to 20 feet long
- Only holds two boats
- There is no way to attach it to a wall if you want to
6. Driftsun Teton 90 Hard Shell Recreational Kayak – Single Person Sit On Top Kayak Package with EVA Seat, Paddle, Fishing Rod Holders
Kayak Weight: 47 pounds
Max. Weight Limit: 300 pounds
Water: Good for quiet lakes, ponds, class I-II rivers
This sit-on-top kayak is made for semi-serious fishing. It’s stable, and designed with the fisherman in mind. With four capped, flush mounted rod holders and an additional mounting point if you decide to add optional accessories, there’s no way you’re not going to catch fish from this kayak. Or, even if you don’t catch anything, you’ll feel like you should have. There’s plenty of storage for your gear, and while it does lack a “work deck” where you can put your hooks, sinkers, and assorted small gear, there is a storage compartment in the deck in front of the seat where you can stash your fishing gear, and more space behind the seat for either a cooler or live well.
- Recreational Kayak – 9’ Foot Single Person Kayak is Perfect for Solo Fishing, Family Fun, Travel, or Touring
- Tough and Rugged Design – Hull is constructed from Single Piece Rotomolded High Density UV Resistant Polyethylene
- Adventure Ready – 4 Capped Flush Mount Rod Holders and Optional Mounting point for Scotty Accessories, Rear Tankwell Storage with Bungee, 2 Watertight Storage Hatches and Built in Cup Holder
- Fully Outfitted – 4 Fixed Carry Handles for Easy Transportation, Two Paddle Parks Holders to Secure Paddles when not in use
- Package Includes – Premium Adjustable EVA padded seat w/ High Back Support, Anodized Aluminum Performance Kayak Paddle and (8) Scupper Plugs for Self-Bailing Capability
- Behind the seat recessed paddle holder makes getting in and out of the boat easier – no more paddle rolling off the cockpit
- There are four foot position ribs making this a good boat for both short and tall paddlers
- More storage than usual for a sit-on-top kayak
- Two sealed dry storage hatches
- Factory seat is one of the more comfortable on the market
- No work deck for fishermen or for other outdoor hobbyists
- Heavy for most women and teens to load on a car easily
Kayak Weight: 47 pounds
Max. Weight Limit: 395-pounds
Type: Sit-on Top
Water: Good for quiet lakes, ponds
Some users report sit-on-top kayaks are “tipsy,” but users claim the Sun Dolphin SS 10-foot is very stable, and less likely to turn over. This feature alone makes it highly desirable for new paddlers, children, teens and seniors.
This particular boat has a small “work deck,” meaning there are indentations or open storage that allow the user to put fishing lures, weights, hooks, or other gear into these indentations while fishing, making them easier to access. There’s room up front for a small cooler or other gear, and bungee cords to secure it there.
This is a very easy kayak to get in (on) and out of. It’s lighter and easier for one person to lift onto a car as well.
- Adjustable back rest and higher back means better back support
- Large, comfortable seating area with protective thigh pads
- Large storage area with easy-grip handle, and bungee cord strapdown on top of screw-on storage lid
- Good tracking for a recreational model
- Comes in six bright, easy to spot colors
- Perfect kayak for kids, teens,
- Adjustable foot pegs – fits short to medium sized people
- Less tipsy than most
- This model comes in a 12-foot length as well
- No padding in the seat bottom – buying a seat upgrade is recommended
- Not good for someone 5-foot-10 or taller unless you buy the 12-foot length