How To Pick A Kayak

Marilyn Donnelly enjoying her 16-foot Prijon SeaYak on a quiet river. Having a boat you love to paddle means you paddle more often and longer. (EasternSlopes.com)

Marybeth from Connecticut wrote asking advice on picking kayaks for her and her husband: “We are looking for something for the lakes near our home in Connecticut, but have an opportunity to kayak on a quiet ocean inlet in Maine where we vacation every summer.”

By knowing where she wants to paddle, Marybeth has made a good start on getting the right boats for her and her husband. She and her husband may actually end up with four kayaks: two for the ocean, two for the ponds. That’s the way it is with kayaks.

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 just 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 your 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!

This 14-foot Perception Carolina handles ponds, flatwater rivers, lakes and ocean bays.  (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com)

So here’s my advice for what it’s worth:

How To Pick A Kayak In Six Easy Steps

1. Know yourself. Only you can pick the right kayak for you. So start with 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 want performance from your kayak or are you content to just loaf along? Do you have good balance? Are you agile and strong enough to get into and out of a kayak easily. Do you paddle alone? Are you comfortable in the water or do you want to avoid getting wet at all costs. Do you want to carry camping gear or an elaborate gourmet picnic? Do you want a kayak you can onto a car rack by yourself? Do you want to fish or shoot lots of photos from your kayak?

You also need to feel comfortable fitting in any kayak you choose. Are you S, M, or XXXL? No one wants a boat that’s too small, but some people prefer to feel like they are part of the boat (which enhances performance) while other like to lounge in more spacious comfort.

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? Protected saltwater bays? The ocean surf? Open ocean? Decide where you want to 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. Learn A Little About Kayaks. Just some of the basics: Wider boats feel generally feel more stable but longer, narrower kayaks are faster and require less effort to paddle than shorter, wider ones. Shorter kayaks turn more easily (sometimes too easily if your goal is to go in a straight line). A sit-on-top kayak is easy to get into and out of, but doesn’t offer you any protection from cold water or bright sun. A sit-in kayak with a big cockpit is easier to get into and out of, but a smaller, tight-fitting cockpit makes the boat easier to maneuver. Smaller cockpits are also easier to seal with a spray skirt to keep out spray and waves. Bulkheads and hatches make it easier to carry gear, and help keep you boat afloat should you capsize. Everything else equal, molded plastic boats are heavier, more rugged, less expensive than composite or thermoform, but composite and thermoform boats are more efficient to paddle.

4. Narrow Your Choices. Based on Steps 1, 2 and 3, you should be able to narrow your choices. A salesperson at a good paddling shop can then help you begin to focus in on specific boat models. 

This Wilderness Systems Pungo 120 is a stable, versatile, and lightweight, at home on rivers and ponds, but some people will want more paddling performance. (EasternSlopes.com)

5. 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.

6. Don’t be afraid of making a mistake. If you buy a boat and eventually find isn’t perfect for you (hint: no boat is ever perfect), 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 two criteria you really need to worry about for kayaking are fit and flotation.

These folks are out having fun on a lake in kayaks that are just right for them and where they are paddling. (EasternSlopes.com)

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.

For expert advice on picking the right paddling PFD for you, go here

Picking a Paddle

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. Try different configurations and find what’s right for you.

Sprayskirts 

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 you’ll 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 it’s easier to find the right kayak and  start having fun.

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About Tim Jones

Tim Jones, Founder and Executive Editor, started skiing at age 4 and hasn't stopped since. He took up Telemark a few years ago and is still terrible at it. In the summer, he hikes, bikes, paddles and fly fishes. In addition to his work at EasternSlopes.com, Tim also writes a pair of syndicated weekly newspaper columns.