Marybeth from Connecticut wrote asking advice on picking kayaks for her and her husband: “We are looking for something for the lakes, but have an opportunity to kayak on a quiet ocean inlet in Maine where we vacation.”
By knowing where she wants to paddle, Marybeth has made a good start on getting the right boats for her and her husband.
There’s no way I would ever recommend a specific kayak for anyone. Kayak preferences are as personal as underwear. But there are some general considerations which can help you find a kayak you can live with happily.
Not all kayaks are created equal. Sadly, there are lots of slow, clunky kayaks that aren’t much fun to paddle. They are cheap, so people buy them thinking they are getting a bargain. Typically, however, they get used a few times, then abandoned. It’s like trying to pedal a clunker bicycle — despite best intentions you don’t go far or stay with it. Good equipment makes a difference.
There’s also a safety issue with inexpensive sit-in kayaks. If a kayak doesn’t have either sealed compartments at the ends, or foam blocks or inflated airbags, it will take on so much water if you capsize that you’ll never be able to right it, get back in, get the water out and paddle to shore. Of course you are always going to be wearing a PFD when you are in a kayak, but some kayaks should never go far from shore!
So here’s my advice for what it’s worth:
1. Know yourself. What’s most important to you? Do you want to go far and fast? Or are you content to paddle just far enough out on the quiet pond to see the sunset? Do you have good balance? Do you want performance from your kayak? Are you agile enough to get into and out of a tight cockpit.Do you need the protection of a sit-in kayak with a spray skirt, or would lounging in the warm sun on a sit-on-top work better for you? Do you paddle alone? Do you want to carry camping gear? Are you strong enough to load a kayak onto a car rack by yourself?
2. Know where you want to paddle. There’s really no such thing as an all-around kayak. Do you paddle on high-water turbulent rivers? Gentle-but-rocky rivers? Placid, slow-moving rivers? Ponds and marshes? Small lakes with some motorboat traffic? Big lakes with lots of wind and boat wakes? The ocean surf? Protected saltwater bays? Or the open ocean? The best boat for paddling on a quiet pond is not the best boat for a wild, whitewater river, but the boat that takes you Inn to Inn on Lake Champlain might be perfect for camping the Maine Island Trail. Decide where you paddle most and buy the best boat for that. If it works in other situations, great. If not, rent when you need to , or own more than one kayak!
3. Based on the above answers, you should be able to narrow your choices. A salesperson at a good paddling shop can help you begin to focus in on specific boats. Generally, shorter boats are lighter, more maneuverable, but slower and less seaworthy than longer ones. Wider boats tend to be more stable but harder to paddle. Longer boats are faster, heavier, handle bigger water and carry more gear. Smaller cockpits are harder to get into but aid performance once you are in. Sit-on-top-boats are fine for bathing suit paddling when the weather and water are warm, and they are great for fishing, but leave you exposed to sun, wind and water.
What do you want for materials? Composite (fiberglass, Kevlar) boats are very expensive, lighter, sleeker and faster, but more fragile (though they are easier to repair). Rotomolded plastic boats are heavier, cheaper, stand up to more abuse than composites. (Personally, I think plastic boast are generally the best choice for rocky New England, and I really like the stiffer, injection-molded kayaks from Prijon). Thermo-form boats (Airlite, Duralite, etc.) sort of split the difference. There are always trade-offs.
4. Try as many kayaks as you can before your buy. Rent! Borrow! If someone has a used kayak for sale near you, ask if you can paddle it. Go to a paddling demo or buy from a shop that lets you actually get in the boat and paddle it before you buy.
5. If you buy a boat and eventually find isn’t perfect for you, don’t despair. There’s a strong market for used kayaks. Just sell it and get another one that suits you better. You’ll know more about yourself and what you want and will be more likely to get it right the second time.
Picking A PFD
You never just buy a kayak. You also have to buy, at least, a paddle and a PFD (flotation vest). Let’s start with the PFD, since no one should EVER get into a kayak without one. The only two criteria you really need to worry about for kayaking are fit and flotation.
To fit properly, a kayaking vest has to be the right size for you and it has to let you sit comfortably in the seat of your kayak and move your arms in a natural paddling motion. If it pushes up, binds or limits your paddling motion, it doesn’t fit. Women will typically appreciate the anatomic contoured fit of a woman’s vest.
PFDs are categorized by Type. Type I and II vests, for example, will turn an unconscious user upright in the water, but the need for unrestricted paddling motion usually eliminates most of these bulky PFDs for kayakers. Kayaking-specific Type III or Type V vests are your best choice if you intend to paddle regularly. The only difference between Type II and Type V is that a Type V vest must be worn at all times. Since you should always have on a vest in a kayak, the distinction is meaningless.
Vest have different buoyancy ratings, usually marked on the hang tag. My advice: get as much flotation as you can in a vest that fits.
Marilyn and I both use paddling specific vests from Kokatat. Hers is a Type III MsFitTour woman’s vest with 16-plus pounds of lift. Mine is Type V Orbit Tour with 15.5 pounds of flotation. Both are so comfortable we don’t mind wearing them whenever we are paddling.
Kayak paddles come in different lengths for different boats and paddling styles, with different blade shapes for different purposes. One general rule with paddles: all else equal, lighter is better, which is why carbon fiber is the (expensive!) material of choice.
Some paddles have the blades in the same plane, others are “feathered” with one blade offset from the other. Most are adjustable. Most paddles today allow you to adjust the blade offset angle (feathering) to your personal preference. As someone who grew up paddling canoes, I prefer an unfeathered paddle, but it seems I’m in the minority these days Try different configurations and find what’s right for you.
If you are paddling a sit-in kayak where there’s any chance of encountering really turbulent whitewater, a wave or boat wake big enough to wash into the cockpit, you really should have a fitted spray skirt. Personally, I think every sit-in kayak needs a spray skirt—it just makes the boat more versatile. Take paddling in the rain, for instance—it can be a lot of fun and a lot more comfortable with a spray skirt than without. Lot’s of times, you don’t need them, but when you do, you do. I always have one with me in the boat, and if there’s any chance of rough water I have it on (you wear them like a funny-looking skirt, hence the name) and ready to snap into place around the cockpit if the wind, waves or boat wakes kick up. To be effective, a spray skirt needs to fit the boat it’s being used on. In my experience, the fit of Seals sprayskirts is always excellent, and they offer a range of options and prices.
For paddling on quieter waters, a splash deck can keep paddle-drips off your legs and protect them from the sun. I don’t own one, but if I did a lot of paddling on ponds and quiet rivers, I sure would.
Rudders and Skegs
A rudder or skeg isn’t always necessary, even on longer boats, but there have been many times I’ve appreciated having one or the other, even though they add cost, weight and complication to your boat. Both can be very handy, especially on big water to keep you tracking straight in the wind and waves. Boats that don’t have a rudder or skeg require more finesse with a paddle. If you want to add a rudder to a kayak you already own, Harmony makes re-fit kits for many popular boats.
Are You Confused Yet?
Don’t be. As we said at the beginning, once you’ve made some basic decisions about where and how you want to paddle, your choices narrow and you can start having fun.