Depending on what kind of water you are kayaking on, and what your kayaking style is, you will want to choose a kayak that suits your style. Whether you are kayaking on a lake, in the ocean, or in the river, there is a different type of kayak for each body of water. There are also different types of kayaks depending on what your goal is while you are kayaking. Do you want to carry overnight gear with you? Do you want to paddle around the lake with your family? Do you want to go fishing? Do you want to run whitewater rapids? Whatever it is that you want to do, it is important to choose the right kayak for your needs.
Here is a guide to help you choose between the different kayak styles and find the one that is right for you.
Kayak Design Basics:
Sit-on vs. Sit-in
Sit-on kayaks are kayaks that have grooves in the top, and often a bit of a backrest that you sit on. The kayak is made out of plastic and is moulded to have a comfortable seat and leg room. Sit-on kayaks are usually meant to be used as recreational kayaks or fishing kayaks. By recreational, I mean that they are meant to be used in flat or calm water for fun adventures. A sit-on kayak would be a good kayak for a fun day at the lake with your family. They are easy to use, do not require any training to get started, and are very stable. Additionally, if the kayak does happen to capsize, it is easy to exit since you are not actually inside the kayak. You do not have to worry about performing
a wet exit, and will simply fall off the kayak. Sit-on kayaks are a good choice if you feel claustrophobic in sit-in kayaks, or if you like having your legs stretched out in the open air.
Sit-in kayaks are kayaks that have a hollow opening in which your legs will go. You sit in the interior of the kayak with your legs covered by the deck of the kayak. Sit-in kayaks can be more versatile than sit-on kayaks because they can be used with a sprayskirt. A sprayskirt is a material connected to your torso that covers the cockpit (the opening) of a sit-in kayak and thus prevents water from entering the kayak. Sprayskirts are usually made of neoprene and are commonly used in sea kayaking and always used while whitewater kayaking. The sit-in kayak style is found in some recreational kayak, whitewater kayaks, sea kayaks, touring kayaks, and most surf kayaks. Sit-in kayaks are a good choice if you are wanting to kayak on any sort of water that may splash you, as you will need to have the protection of a sprayskirt in order to keep water out of your kayak. This includes whitewater, sea kayaking where there are big waves, or even kayak touring where there may be wind or you may be cold. The neoprene sprayskirt can help keep your legs warm by trapping heat inside the kayak. You also may want to choose a sit-in kayak if you plan on going on a multi-day kayaking trip. Sit-in kayaks can fit lots of camping gear inside them and can be very useful if you need to pack a sleeping bag, tent, stove, food, etc.
If you do decide to choose a sit-in kayak with a sprayskirt, make sure to seek out proper instruction for how to properly exit the kayak if you happen to capsize.
Related: Kayak Hull Design
Flat Hull vs. Rounded Hull vs. V-Shaped Hull
One of the key difference between different types of kayaks is the difference in the hull. The hull is the bottom of the kayak. It affects the speed, ease of turning, and stability of the kayak. There are different types of hulls in all different types of kayaks. The three most common types of hulls are flat, rounded, and v-shaped.
Flat hulls (also commonly called planing hulls) are most commonly found in recreational kayaks and whitewater kayaks. Flat hulls are easy to turn, but also track well through the water. Tracking allows the kayak to pick up speed quickly and maintain a good speed while going in a straight line. A flat hull won’t be as fast as a v-shaped hull, but it will be easier to turn.
Rounded hulls (commonly called displacement hulls) are common in whitewater creekboats. They “displace” the water when a kayaker paddles off a waterfall or through a big feature on the river, thus easing the impact that the kayaker’s body receives upon landing. Round hulls are easier to turn than v-shaped hulls, but not as easy to turn as flat hulls. They are also slower in the water than both flat hulls and v-shaped hulls. The benefit of a rounded hull in whitewater is that it is the most stable option of whitewater kayak.
V-shaped hulls are most commonly found in touring kayaks, sea kayaks, and recreational kayaks. V- shaped hulls are the best option if you want to kayak in a straight line for long distances. They do not turn or maneuver as easily as flat hulls or rounded hulls.
Plastic Material vs. Carbon Fiber, Fiberglass, or Polyethylene
Most kayaks are made out of plastic. This is because plastic is a material that is both lightweight and durable. Plastic kayaks are not nearly as lightweight as carbon fiber, fiberglass, or polyethylene kayaks, but they are MUCH more durable. Carbon fiber, fiberglass, and polyethylene kayaks cannot take any abuse from rocks. They will break very easily when they come in contact with hard surfaces and need to be taken care of to avoid this happening.
Fishing kayaks, touring kayaks, recreational kayaks, and whitewateer kayaks are most commonly made out of plastic.
Sea kayaks, slalom whitewater kayaks, and surf kayaks are commonly made out of either fiberglass, polyethylene, or carbon fiber. These materials are very lightweight and stiff. However, with the lightness, you often sacrifice the durability found in plastic kayaks.
In addition to these materials, there are also inflatable kayaks that are made out of PVC and Hypalon. These kayaks are made out of material similar or the same as the material that makes up whitewater rafts. They are quite durable, but do have a small chance of popping if they come in contact with sharp rocks in the river.
The type of material you choose for your kayak depends entirely on your kayaking style, where you will be kayaking, and what your goals are with your kayaking.
Types of Kayaks:
Sea kayaks are designed for kayaking in open waters. They are good for kayaking in the ocean, large lakes, or bays. Sea kayaks are sit-in kayaks with the ability to use a sprayskirt. Sea kayaks are quite long (10-18 feet), and thus are very fast on the water. They maintain a high cruising speed due to their long length, but are also quite difficult to turn because of their length. Sea kayaks have ample room inside them for storage of camping equipment, food, and supplies. They are a good choice for multi-day kayak camping trips.
Sea kayaks often include hatches on the deck, either in front or back or both. Hatches are holes in the deck of the kayak that are sealed with a removable cover. Hatches allow for easy access to any gear or supplies stored within the kayak.
Sea kayaks also often include bungee cords along the deck. Bungee cords allow the kayaker to strap any additional gear items to the deck that may not fit inside, or that the kayaker simply wants readily available without having to open a hatch or their sprayskirt.
Longer sea kayaks often have skegs or rudders included in their design. Rudders and skegs are fins attached to the hull of the kayak that can be raised or lowered by a pedal near the kayakers feet. Rudders are fins that drop down, but also can be moved from side to side. By moving a rudder from side to side, it can aid the kayaker in turning the kayak. Skegs drop down as well, but do not move from side to side. A skeg is useful when the kayaker is paddling through strong winds, as it can help keep the kayaker on course even when wind is trying to turn the kayak in the wrong direction.
Most modern sea kayaks are built out of polyethylene , plastic, or fiberglass. Out of those three materials, plastic will be the most durable, but also the heaviest. Both fiberglass and polyethylene will be lighter than plastic, but not quite as durable.
Touring kayaks are sit-in kayaks that have the ability to be used with a sprayskirt. However, the use of a sprayskirt is entirely optional with a touring kayak.
Touring kayaks are a good choice if you are hoping to cover longer distances in your kayak, but you don’t want to deal with the length and weight of using a sea kayak. Touring kayaks are often wider than sea kayaks, making them more stable. This might be helpful if you do not know how to do the eskimo roll, or if you are simply not interested in worrying about capsizing.
Related: Kayak Camping Tips
Touring kayaks come in both day trip sizes and multi-day trip sizes. The multi-day trip sizes are longer and often have hatches for added storage space for camping gear. With the added length of the multi-day kayaks also comes added weight. So, make sure to keep that in mind if you are choosing between a day touring kayak and a multi-day touring kayak.
Touring kayaks are made out of plastic and are therefore quite durable. They can be bought with or without skegs or rudders.
Recreational kayaks come in both sit-on and sit-in styles. Recreational kayaks are meant to be used by people whose kayaking style is more accustomed to flat water on lakes or ponds. Recreational kayaks are a good choice if you want to paddle around a lake with your family, or get from one point to the other in a body of water that is calm and safe.
Recreational kayaks are not used with a sprayskirt, as it is usually not necessary to keep water out of the kayak when you are paddling in calm water. This type of kayak is usually made out of plastic, but can be inflatable as well. They are a good choice if you are looking for a kayak that is easy to use and won’t require any training to get started using it.
Inflatable kayaks are so much fun! This type of kayak can be used for whitewater, recreation, or fishing. The benefit of using an inflatable kayak is that they deflate and can be easily packed into a smaller space for storage, or the drive home. Inflatable kayaks are not going to allow you to paddle as fast as hard-shell kayaks, but they will still allow you to get where you want to go and have fun out on the water.
Whitewater inflatable kayaks are much more stable in the river than hard-shell whitewater kayaks, however they do not gain speed as well or turn as easily. They are sit-on kayaks that do not require the use of a sprayskirt.
Inflatable fishing kayaks often come with comfortable backrests for long days on the water and some storage space for a cooler or fishing rods.
Inflatable kayaks tend to be fairly durable, but I have seen them pop on occasion when swept into sharp rocks on the river. Be careful and always carry a patch kit with you!
Whitewater kayaks are sit-in kayaks that are meant for kayaking in the river. They require the use of a sprayskirt. Before using a whitewater kayak, the kayaker must obtain proper instruction on how to properly exit the kayak, do the eskimo roll, turn and paddle the kayak, and read whitewater. This is imperative for the safety of the kayaker.
Depending on your style of kayaking, there are multiple different types of whitewater kayaks to choose from. Additionally, each whitewater kayak design comes in a variety of different sizes. This allows the kayaker to choose the kayak best suited for their exact body build and weight.
Playboat: A playboat is a style of kayak designed for catching and surfing river waves. They are less than 6 feet in length and have a flat planing hull with hard chines. The flat hull and hard chines provide ease of maneuverability, but at the same time make the kayak quite
tippy and easy to capsize in whitewater. Kayakers are able to perform aerial tricks in playboats, including front flips, barrel rolls, and 360 degree aerial spins.
Playboats are most commonly made out of plastic, but some professional whitewater kayakers use playboats made out of carbon fiber. Carbon fiber kayaks are both lighter and stiffer than plastic kayaks, thus allowing the kayaker to perform more difficult tricks with less energy output.
Creekboat: Creekboats are designed for a high level style of kayaking. They are used in difficult and consequential whitewater, where a high skill-level is required for safe passage. Creekboats are longer than playboats (around 9 feet) and can have either flat hulls or rounded hulls. Creekboats with flat hulls will be better at picking up speed, and will also turn easier in whitewater. Creekboats with rounded hulls are more stable and comfortable to paddle. The rounded hull is a safer option when kayaking very difficult whitewater that has waterfalls or steep rapids. Creekboats in general are more stable than
playboats, but do not turn as quickly. They also pick up speed faster and maintain speed much better than playboats due to their longer length. Creekboats are always made out of plastic so they will be able to handle the abuse of river rocks.
River Runner: A river runner is a type of kayak that will take the kayaker downstream through whitewater with ease. These kayaks often have flat hulls and hard chines, like a playboat, but are long like a creekboat. This combination of length and flat hull allows the kayak to turn easily, but also maintain good speed through whitewater. They are not meant to go through as difficult of whitewater as creekboats, but will manage difficult whitewater better than a playboat. River running kayaks are most often made out of plastic.
Slalom Kayak: If you have ever watched whitewater kayaking in the summer Olympics, this is the type of kayak that is used. Slalom kayaks are meant to go fast and turn very quickly. They are made out
of carbon fiber, which makes them super lightweight and easy to maneuver. Slalom kayaks are not meant to be paddled downriver in difficult whitewater, since the carbon fiber can break very easily if it hits rocks.
In-between Kayak: Recently, kayaking companies have begun designing kayaks that are half playboat and half river running kayak. Or half creekboat and half slalom kayak. These kayaks are designed to go down the river with ease, but also have an added amount of playboat-type features to allow for surfing of river waves. Kayakers can even perform tricks in these kayaks that aren’t possible in normal creekboats. These kayaks often have the bow of a creekboat and the stern of a slalom kayak. The creekboat bow allows for the kayak to break through big river features in rapids, while the slalom stern allows for the kayaker to slice the stern through features in the river and stand the kayak up on end, thus performing tricks.
Fishing kayaks are most often sit-on style. The reason they are sit-on kayaks is so that the fisherman or fisherwoman can have easy access to their fishing gear on top of the kayak, and can also have ease of movement for looking around the water and spotting fish. Some fishing kayaks are even made to be stable enough so the fisherman or woman can stand up while fishing, thus providing them with more leverage for reeling in fish, or a better view for spotting fish.
Fishing kayaks are not as fast as touring kayaks, and do not turn as easily as whitewater kayaks, but they are so stable that it makes up for those things. Fishing kayaks are also often equipped with accessories for holding fishing rods, coolers, or other things you may need while on a fishing trip.
There are many different types of kids kayaks. Kids kayaks are built the same as adult kayaks, but on a smaller size scale. There are kids fishing kayaks, kids whitewater kayaks, kids recreational kayaks, kids inflatable kayaks… you get the idea.
The main thing when choosing a kayak for your kid is to choose the correct kayak for their style of kayaking. Is your child going to be kayaking on a lake, river, or ocean? Is your child going to be kayaking in whitewater or flatwater? Is your child going to be using the kayak for fishing, or just for paddling?
Kids fishing kayaks come with all the same accessories and stability that adult kayaks come with, but they are built for a smaller paddler.
The same is true for kids whitewater kayaks. They are just as maneuverable and durable, but are quite a bit smaller than adult whitewater kayaks. Kids whitewater kayaks, like adult whitewater kayaks, come in a variety of different sizes for different sizes of kids. The smallest kids whitewater kayak built today is made for children weighing 30-80 pounds.
Folding kayaks are built with the idea of saving space in mind. They come in a variety of different materials and designs. The idea is that the kayak folds down to a small package, and then can be folded back out into the shape of a kayak that will float just like any other kayak.
The two main types of folding kayak designs are with a “skeleton” or without one. By skeleton, I mean there are foldable, aluminum poles, that can be fit together to form the basic shape of the kayak. The poles are then surrounded by waterproof material that will allow the kayak to float.
The other type of folding kayak is simply foldable, waterproof material that folds out into the shape of a kayak (like origami), and folds into a smaller packable shape.
Folding kayaks are a good choice if you are planning on traveling with it, but they are not as durable as plastic kayaks or even inflatable kayaks.
Tandem kayaks are built for two people to use at once. There are many different types of tandem kayaks. These include tandem sea kayaks, tandem touring kayaks, tandem whitewater kayaks, tandem inflatable kayaks, and tandem fishing kayaks.
Tandem kayaks tend to be longer than single kayaks, thus making them much heavier to carry. The benefit of tandem kayaks is that you can go with your partner, child, or friend. It can become a very good bonding experience that can bring you closer together (or not, depending on if it is a successful outing or not!).
Tandem whitewater kayaks and sea kayaks pick up speed much faster than single kayaks. This is both because of the added length on the kayak, and because there are two people paddling it and adding to the momentum of the kayak. When using a tandem whitewater or sea kayak, it is important to have good communication between partners so that you know what to do in case the kayak capsizes. This is less likely in a sea kayak than a whitewater kayak, but it is still a good thing to discuss just in case. Tandem kayaks can be rolled back up, but this must be done by the person in the back of the kayak. The person in the back of the tandem kayak is usually the heavier of the two. Generally speaking, the person sitting in the back of the tandem kayak is responsible for turning the kayak, while the person in the front of the kayak is responsible for paddling forward and gaining momentum.
Surf kayaks are a specialty type of kayak that are made out of carbon fiber and are specifically built for surfing large ocean waves. Surf kayaks are sit-in kayaks that require a sprayskirt. They have extremely flat hulls and extremely hard chines that connect the hull to the sidewalls. The hull of a surf kayak looks very similar to a surf board, and also performs in a similar way on an ocean wave. Being that surf kayaks are built out of carbon fiber, they are not as durable as plastic kayaks. They are very likely to break if they come in contact with rocks, however, this is unlikely to happen in an ocean setting.