What size kayak do I need? What length kayak do I need? What kind of kayak do I need? Is there such a thing as a kayak length chart? Those are often the first questions many new kayakers ask. The answer isn’t a specific number, it’s more questions!
First off, “What kind of kayaking are you going to be doing?” Good sea kayaks need to be at least 14-feet long for paddling in bays and inlets, preferably longer, up to 18-feet if you plan to paddle in open or rough waters. Eighteen to 20 feet is not an uncommon length to have in an open water ocean kayak.
Flatwater kayaking, whitewater kayaking, technical water, big water, steep drops, racing, playing, all sorts of things dictate the best length of kayak you’ll need, as well as the best beam (width) and the kind of material you’ll want your kayak to be made of.
You’ll also need to ask yourself whether you want a sit-on-top kayak or a sit-inside kayak. Are you going to be fishing from your kayak? If so, length isn’t as important as width (beam) because you’ll want stability when you’re reeling in a big fish. Rather than worry if your kayak is “long enough,” think about what you’re planning to use it for the most.
What’s the best length of kayak for me once I decide what I’m doing?
Once you decide what you plan to use the kayak for, then you can start looking at optimal lengths. Length is all about manuervability. The rule of thumb is, “Longer boats cruise more efficiently and offer lots of storage space for overnight touring gear, while shorter hulls turn more quickly.” Which is more important to you? Can you “split the difference?” Not really. You won’t get the best performance on either – turning or speed. Decide which is most important and go with that.
Don’t sweat the difference of a few inches on any kayak. You won’t notice a performance issue with just a few inches more or less, but you will notice a difference in performance with an additional, or lack of 2-4 feet. The type of paddling you’re doing will dictate the length you should have. Every type of water requires a different length and type of boat for safety, convenience, and ease of paddling. The best ocean kayak for instance, will be 17-to-20-feet long. The best squirt or play kayak for white water is 7-to-9-feet long.
You can use an 18-foot ocean kayak on a lake or quiet river with deep water, but you can’t safely or easily use a white water kayak on the open ocean. Understanding why different water requires different boats will help you decide which one to buy. The rule of thumb is still to buy the best boat you can for the kind of paddling you’ll do most, and rent a boat for other water adventures until you know if you want to invest in another boat.
The length of your boat is just one of the things to consider when buying a boat. If you do several kinds of paddling, you might want to consider buying more than one boat as well. And, before you buy a boat, you’ll want to “try it on,” just as you would a new pair of pants. Not all kayaks fit all people the same way, and that’s what you’re really going for—fit. No matter how highly a kayak is rated, if it doesn’t feel right, or “fit” when you get in it, it’s probably not for you.
Related: Different Types of Kayaks
Length is also determined by your weight. A grown man weighing 250 pounds or more will need a longer boat than a 99 pound child, or a 120 pound woman. Most kayaks have weight capactiy listed in their description.
To determine the best boat for you and your paddling lifestyle, start with a series of questions:
Where will you be using the boat the most?
Many paddlers enjoy exploring all kinds of water — from ponds to lakes, to ocean bays, open ocean, swamps, rivers, and whitewater. Some boats can do double-duty, but to really enjoy your time on the water buy a boat designed to paddle the water where you’ll spend most of your time. Consider buying a second or third boat for other venues, or simply rent a kayak for the times you’ll be trying something new. Remember you can always sell your boat and buy a more specialized boat later. Many new paddlers who honestly don’t know what they’ll be doing most should consider renting different kayaks until they find one they like. The average rental for a kayak can run from $10 an hour to $35 for an 8-hour day. Many boat manufacturers also have “trial days” where they let people come out and paddle a variety of boats at a local lake. If you can find one of these events near you, attend. They’re usually free, and you’ll learn more about the best boat for you in a matter of a hour or three.
Will you be day tripping for a few hours, or spending days or weeks in the boat?
Many paddlers use their boats on the weekend, or for a few hours a day. Others plan extended camping trips. The more time you spend in your boat the more you’ll need to be aware of comfort features like seats, back support and foot pads. Longer boats tend to track better, move easier, and require less effort to paddle.
Will you be solo paddling or tandem paddling?
Many families with young children and couples prefer to tandem kayak. That means the kayak has two seats, two openings so two people, or a paddler and their dog, can paddle together in one craft. One tandem kayak is cheaper than two solo kayaks, they’re easier to paddle since there are two people paddling versus one. You can trade off paddling, or move in unison to go further faster. Besides being fun to share the paddling experience, there are a lot of advantages to a tandem boat. Again, weight is a factor in the length. Two 250 pound adults may be able to use a shorter tandem kayak, but not be able to take on any extra gear, depending on the length of the boat.
One person can paddle a tandem alone, but they’ll need to put something up front to balance out the boat. This weight (referred to as ballast) can be a cooler, a dog, camping gear, or even rocks if need be. The kayak will move, but not at its optimal level. If something happens to upset the boat, unless you’re with another boat, there’s no one to help rescue you.
Tandem paddling is often safer, and almost always cheaper than buying two boats. There are a few tandem sit-on-tops that have a jump seat between the front and rear seat wells so you can solo if you choose, without the ballast and balance issues.
How will you get your boat to the water?
Getting your boat to the water means everything from loading the kayak on your car, to taking it down and moving it to the water. The lighter the boat, the easier all that is. Many paddlers find a “put-in” (a place to launch their boats) and rarely have to carry their kayak more than 30 yards to the water. Others may have to portage (carry) their boats for 1-5 miles around waterfalls or obstacles, or even water too shallow to paddle. The difference of 10-20 pounds on a 50-80 pound kayak can be a huge difference, especially if you’re carrying another 40-60 pounds of camping equipment.
What’s your budget?
Money matters. Most beginning kayakers want to buy the cheapest boat they can, regardless of what it’s designed for. They may use it a few times over the summer, and either love the sport or hate it. If they hate it the kayak will sit around until they get tired of it and sell it. If they love it, they’ll sell or trade the cheap boat in for something more expensive and better suited for the sport they love. If this sounds like you — ie “try before you invest,” you might be better off renting several kinds, styles, lengths and types of kayaks before buying any boat. Not only will this give you a better feel for whether you prefer plastic, wood, fiberglass or aluminum, it will cheaper in the long run than buying and selling a boat.
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No matter what your budget is, try to buy the best boat you can afford—even if it means buying a used boat. Unless the used boat is trashed—meaning it has severe damage, has been wrecked or is structurally unsound etc., a used $1,500 ocean kayak is better than the best $600 new boat.
How does it fit?
Picking the right length, type and size of kayak go beyond just the “right length.” Your height and weight matter too. People carry their weight and body proportions in different ways. Your physical body—including torso size and length, leg length, arm length, weight, and hip width all translate into how you balance in a kayak. You can always learn how to work with different kinds of kayaks by adjusting your foot pegs, seat, and other things. Experts tend to balance faster in a new boat better than beginners, but it takes time and practice, especially if you’re in a specialized kayak. If you really like the kayak, try a different seat. Sometimes adjusting the back straps, swapping out a more expensive seat, or adding some padding can make all the difference. You’re going to be spending hours in this boat and it can be hard on your lower back and knees. If it’s not comfortable the minute you get in it, it’s only going to feel worse after a few hours on the water.
Types of Kayaks
There are many different types and styles of kayaks. Just visit any boating store that specializes in non-powered boats and you’ll see. But here are the basic types and their advantages and disadvantages.
Whitewater kayaks don’t track in a straight line, and don’t have a keel. This makes them very maneuverable and agile because you don’t really need to track in a straight line in whitewater. The cockpit is tight, in fact it’s so tight most kayakers say they “wear” their boat. Their hips are wedged into the seat and the paddler literally uses their hips to turn, shift, roll, and move in rough conditions. This tight cockpit is designed to keep you in the boat even in rough conditions, or when the boat flips over. The boats are usually short, less than ten feet. The shorter the better, especially if you plan to “play” in the waves or holes created by whitewater waves. In fact, many of the newer play boats are less than seven feet long. This is why knowing what you’ll be doing in your kayak is important. Depending on your weight, height and size, and what kind of whitewater kayaking you plan to do, whitewater kayaks should be 9-12 feet long.
Kayak Length for Recreational Kayaks
Recreational kayaks are a basic beginner kayak. They are designed for people who want to do a lot of different things in their boats — from Class 1-2 whitewater, lake paddling, fishing, or just enjoying the calm flat water of a lake or pond. They’re not good for any specialized forms of kayaking, but are able to be used in recreational settings. They’re perfect for flat water, lakes, ponds, and gentle rivers and creeks but usually not serious whitewater. Many kayakers find them perfect for fishing, hunting, or photography. They usually have large cockpits, wider beams (width) and more stability. It is very easy to get in and out of, it is adaptable to all sizes of kids and adults. They’re a bit heavy, but this makes them very stable. Depending on your weight, height and size, recreational kayaks should be 9-14 feet long.
Kayak Length for Touring Kayaks
Touring Kayaks do have a keel as they’re designed for navigating flat water, lakes, bays, ponds, gentle rivers and swamps. Their keel is well defined, they’re fairly stable, and turning is enhanced by “edging” (turning the boat up on one side or the other with motions from your legs). These boats generally have a large cockpit interior for comfort on long paddling excursions. Most will have bulkheads and large access hatches, which allow for safe dry storage. Some are fitted with rudders which are controlled with your feet. Depending on your weight, height and size, touring kayaks should be 14-to-18 feet long.
Kayak Length for Sea Kayaks
Sea Kakaks are designed for open ocean paddling. They can be used for any ocean paddling along a shore, in a bay, or on larger lakes, and flat water. They are not designed for, and should not be used in white water. Sea Kayaks usually ride low in the water to reduce the effects of cross winds and ocean swells and waves. They typically measure a minimum of fourteen feet or more— an average of 17-to-18 feet average. Most sea kayaks have smaller cockpit openings, bulkheads, and smaller access hatches to hold extra gear, food, and water. Some have skegs or rudders to help compensate for the effects of a wave or cross wind pattern. They will have features such as compass housings, deck mounted pumps to make navigation easier, and water breaking over the boat easier to remove. Ocean going kayaks also have something called a “skeg,” which helps them track (turn, steer etc) better in high winds. They don’t have to be used, but they’re there because wind and wave conditions often require them to be used.
Depending on your weight, height and size, ocean kayaks should be 14-to-20 feet long.
Kayak Length for Whitewater Kayaks
Whitewater kayaks are for paddlers who enjoy paddling rivers, streams, and creeks where white water, or rapids, are present. Within the broad term “whitewater kayaking,” there are also different types of kayaking such as the most common river running, but there’s also playboating, squirt boating, and creeking. Each type of whitewater kayaking is experienced best by using the proper boat for each sport. For instance, playboarding, and squirting are better done in shorter boats 9-to-10 feet. They’re designed to do “tricks” in, and shorter is better.
Kayak Length for Surf Kayaking
Surf kayaking takes place in the ocean and is basically surfing, but instead of using a surfboard the paddler sits in or on a kayak. (Recreational kayaks, by the way, are not designed to be used, and should not be used in ocean surf.) The only kayaks that should be used to surf in the ocean are whitewater kayaks fitted with spray skirts or sit-on-top kayaks that are made for the ocean. Depending on your weight, height and size, surf kayaks should be 9-11 feet long.
Kayak Length for Sit-On-Top Kayaking
Sit-on-top kayaks are very popular rectreational boats. About one out of five kayaks purchased is a sit-on-top kayak. While most kayaks are traditionally sit-in boats — meaning the paddler’s leg are inside the kayak there are advantages to sitting on top of the kayak—like fishing, diving, and surfing. Anyone can paddle them and they’re nearly impossible to sink. If you flip over, it’s kind of like a surf board—you just flip it back over and climb back in. Depending on your weight, height and size, sit-on-top kayaks should be 9-14 feet long.
Kayak Length for Sport Kayaking
Sport kayaking is kayaking with a specific sport or purpose in mind. The kayak is designed to be used for a specific sport, be it hunting, fishing, diving, or photography. For instance, fishing kayaks have rod holders and wet wells for holding your fish, and even specialized seats for the paddler. If you like to scuba dive, your scuba diving kayak will be a sit-on-top. You’ll have a cutout or compartment in the bow (front) for your gear, and another at the stern (rear) dive tank to fit into as well as other modifications for flying a diving flag. Depending on your weight, height and size, sport kayaks should be 10-14 feet long.
Hull shape affects performance
Now that you’ve got the type of kayaking you want to do in mind, and you have a length, it’s time to think about the boat’s hull (bottom). Should it be U-shaped or V-shaped? Wider hulls offer more initial stability, while narrower hulls can go faster. Deeper hulls offer more room for storage, and for long-legged kayakers. Shallower hulls are less affected by wind.Flat or smooth- bottomed kayaks (U-shaped) have more secondary stability, while keeled kayaks (V-shaped) have more primary stability.
Primary stability is the relative stability of a boat that is sitting flat on the water right-side-up. A boat with a wider base gives the boat increased primary stability.
Secondary Stability is about how stable the boat is when it’s turned on its side. The more surface area touching the water equals better stability. Good secondary stability helps keep the kayak upright when the paddler’s balance goes beyond the primary stability, like when you’re turning (edging).
U-shapes may feel tippy and unstable at first, particularly when you’re trying to get into them for the first time. However, they tend to stay more stable in moving water (rivers, surf, etc.) while V- shapes feel most stable in flat water.
Most sit-on-tops have what is called a tri-shaped hull. It combines both primary and secondary stability with a long center keel to keep the kayak going straight, and two “shoulders” that act like pontoons for secondary stability. This tri-form hull generally sacrifices a little speed, but it adds a lot of stability which is good if children are using the boats, or adults are using the kayak for fishing, diving, or other sports where they don’t want to worry so much about tipping over.
There are lots of different hull shapes, but basically, V-shapes encourage a boat to go straight (good for touring), and smooth bottoms encourage a boat to spin (good for surfing, playing in whitewater rapids, or river running). Whether or not a kayak goes straight is referred to as “tracking.” If you’re planning on paddling flat water where you want to go a distance of any sort, you’ll want a kayak with good tracking. If you’re running rapids, you’ll want less tracking.
Chances are, for recreational paddling, you’ll want a kayak with a keel (some kind of V-shape on the bottom), so you can travel more efficiently. If you expect to spend equal time on flat and moving water, consider buying a short kayak with a keel.
Plastic, carbon, wood, metal or fiberglass?
Okay, so you’re not likely to find many metal or wooden kayaks around, but they’re out there. Some purists prefer them, and a handmade cedar kayak is a dream to own and paddle. It takes a lot of upkeep year-to-year though. Since 90% of kayaks are plastic, composites of kevlar, carbon, or fiberglass let’s focus on them.
Kayak material and why it matters
Kayaks are made of many things — the most common, and the least expensive, being plastic. Fiberglass or composites (fiberglass and carbon-fiber typically) are a very popular option because they’re much lighter weight than plastic, track better in the water, and tend to track better. Plastic is a good option if the boat is just a recreational boat that will receive a lot of wear and tear or be used where rocks, shallow water, and other water obstacles pose a threat. Here are the most common types of construction:
Polyethylene plastic is inexpensive and abrasion-resistant. You’re more likely to find these boats at a big-box retailer. Polyethylene plastic though is the heaviest option and the sun’s UV rays will degrade it after an extended time in the sun so store it in a covered location or under a tarp.
ABS plastic: This is a slightly lower weight than polyethylene, which also makes it slightly more expensive. The durability is about the same, but the higher price gets you a little more UV resistance. ABS typically come in a two-tone design because the tops and bottoms are formed separately then bonded together.
Composites: Jumping to a composite means a huge jump in price. But it also means a great jump in performance too. You won’t have to worry about UV rays with a composite, but you will have to worry about rocks, grinding on the bottom of shallow water, and dropping your boat while loading, unloading etc.
Weight Capacity: This is the total of the boat, your gear and you. This spec is important if you plan to haul gear for a multi-day tour: If the boat is overloaded, it will sit too low in the water and compromise your paddling efficiency.
That’s all a lot of information to take in if you’re not familiar with kayaking at all. The important things to remember when trying to decide what kayak length or kayak type to buy is to know what you plan to do with it. Will it be something the kids will use at the lake, or do you plan to take up flatwater or whitewater kayaking? Have you kayaked before? If not, take a few classes. Many local park and recreation centers, state forestry departments, and colleges offer free or low cost lessons. Rent a kayak at a local rafting or paddling center and have them show you the basics. Try before you buy. Ask lots of questions, and remember, you can sell what you’ve bought and get a different kayak if you change your mind.
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