Choosing a Kayak

Kayaks are divided into four rough categories - recreational, transitional, touring/sea and white water.  There is lots of overlap among the categories, any number of sub-categories, and probably some kayaks that don't fit in any category.  There are also alternate ways of grouping kayaks - fishing, racing/exercise, river, cruising and expedition, for example - that might contain boats from some or all of the other categories.  But for the purposes of this article, we'll stick with those first categories, with some tangents for the major groupings, like fishing or racing. 

What you plan to do with your kayak and where you plan to use it will usually tell you what category or categories you want to choose from.   This is because of an interplay of three main factors:  safety, performance and convenience.   Safety would tell us that a 10' recreational kayak is not appropriate for the open ocean; performance would tell us a 17' sea kayak might not work in small rivers and pond; and convenience would say that if you cannot transport a boat longer than 14' feet, you shouldn't get one.  Sometimes picking your category is easy - if you want to do multi-day expeditions on the Maine coast, you want a sea kayak- but other times it is a matter of refining how you really will use the boat, finding some likely matches and then testing them out.  And that is where a good paddle store is an invaluable asset.  Their expert staff can advise you, helping you figure out how you will really use a kayak, then then going through the process of choosing boats and narrowing down to the best one for you.   Even if you know your category, a paddle shop can offer advice on style (English? Greenland? North American?) and give you the opportunity to test boats.

Why do the categories exist?

Kayaks are divided into categories because no one kayak design can work for all purposes.  There are design characteristics that are common to the kayaks in each category, and often what makes it good for one category makes it poor for another.  For example, most recreational sit-in kayaks have large, open cockpits, which makes them easier to get in and out of, and easier to move around in.  But in a sea kayak, a large cockpit would be hazardous because it would make the boat vulnerable to swamping from waves, and inefficient, because sea kayakers need to be well connected to their boats. 

Sit-in vs. Sit-on-top:  Outside the categories we are working with is the distinction between sit-in and sit-on-top.  Sit-in kayaks are the traditional kayaks, with a cockpit that the paddler sits in with his or her feet below a deck.  A sit-on-top kayak does not have a cockpit, instead the deck is continuous and the seat is on or molded into the deck itself.  Traditionally, sit-on-tops are regarded as recreational, but with 16' ocean-going fishing sit-on-tops now available, it can be argued they are sea kayaks. More on sit-on-tops later

These general categories are just there to divide up a fairly broad sport.  They provide a bit of structure as you investigate buying a new boat, and once you've got your boat, help you avoid accidentally attending a white water kayaking event with your sea kayak.

A starting point: length

A good starting place for the kayak conversation is with length.  This is partly because length is one of the characteristics that frequently defines what a kayak is best suited for, and partly because people frequently have an idea what length kayak they want (even if they later change their mind).   Roughly speaking, this is how kayaks divide up:

Less than 9' - White water kayak

10'-12' (maybe 14')- Recreational kayak

14'- 15' (sometimes 12') - Transitional kayak

16' or more - Sea or touring kayak

And the primary reasons for this are fairly straight-forward:  The longer any boat is, the more efficiently it will travel through water.  The shorter a boat is, the more easily it will turn.  Thus, traveling long distances across open water= long boat, avoiding rocks in a river=short boat.  Certainly there are ways to make longer boats turn better, and shorter boats glide well, but this rule is fundamentally solid.  There are other factors that might keep a recreational boat short - ease of storage and transport - and a touring kayak long - additional carrying space in the hull - but these are secondary.

A frequent question that follows from this is "how big a difference does length make?", and the answer is that it is pretty significant.   At the recreational end, a minimum length is necessary so that a kayak can maintain a straight line through the water as the paddle applies force on first one side, than the other side of the hull.  This is why we did not include 8' kayaks in the recreational category, even though they certainly exist in discount stores, these boats simply do not have the length to function as much more than floaties (which have their place, but not in this conversation).  At 10', a kayak has enough length to become viable paddlers, but mostly as a knock-about sort of boat.  11' or 12' is where tracking really starts to bite and you have kayak that you can take out for a few hours and expect to cover some distance.  From there, the efficiency just improves with boat length.  How much?  You'll work significantly harder in a 12' boat to keep up with a 14'er, or a 14' with a 16', all other things being equal.  And this is not to say you can't paddle with someone in a boat 2' different, but someone will need to adjust.  One common mistake to avoid is getting a long boat for a husband and a shorter boat for a wife because it matches their heights.  Kayaks do need to be sized to match the paddler, but ideally length is not part of that.

Questions around length tend to revolve around the 10' to 14' range.  People often want to know if they can get by with a 10' kayak (usually because it fits in their truck), or they want to know if it is worth stepping up from recreational 12' to transitional 14'.  With the 10' question, the answer is basically this:  If you want to have a kayak to paddle around your dock, the beach, little ponds and the like, then a 10' is perfect.  If you still want a casual, easy kayak, but want to be able to go paddle a few miles sometimes, you should get a 12'.   The question of 12' to 14' is partly the next step in that analysis:  if you want to paddle a few miles pretty much every time you paddle, then you should consider a 14' because it will make your trips easier and therefore more enjoyable.  But the step from recreational to transitional also gets into other aspects of kayak design, the next thing we'll look at.

Next, the cockpit

The first kayaks, built and used in Greenland, all had a closed deck with a hole in which the paddler sat with legs below the deck - the cockpit.  The hole was only slightly larger that a person's waist, and because of this these kayaks were comparatively difficult to get in and out of.  This was not a design flaw, it reflected were and how the kayaks were used.  A tight fit was essential to give the paddler ultimate control over the craft while hunting seals and other large creatures.  A small hole also made it easier to keep the kayak water-tight, critical to keep the paddler dry and the kayak from swamping.  And the fact that the kayak was difficult to exit was not important, because Greenland hunters never exited their kayaks in the water - to do so would be fairly certain death given the water temperatures.  If capsized, a paddler would roll always roll back upright, a skill that is fundamental to Greenland kayaking.

Few of us are likely to hunt seals in cold water in our kayaks, and for most of us there is at least a chance we'll 'blow a roll' and find ourselves upside down and needing to do a wet exit.   So few boats - really only specialist Greenland kayaks - are now made with the traditional tiny cockpit.  But the logic behind the Greenland cockpit still holds, it is just that different environments and uses lead to different results.  Looking at a chart of priorities related to the cockpit, see how a traditional Greenland boat compares to our categories:


                                                            Greenland                     Sea Kayak                Transitional               Recreational                                            White Water

Safe wet exit:                               Not important                 Essential                     Essential                     Essential                                                 Essential 

Watertight cockpit:                       Essential                        Essential                      Varies                      Not important                                           Essential

Body/boat connection:                 Essential                  Very important              Important               Less important                                           Essential

Ease of getting in & out:           Not important            Less important               Relevant                     Essential                                             Less important

Comfortable seating:                Less important     Important -but different   Important                    Essential                                             Less important


What does that all mean for cockpit design?  We already know about Greenland cockpits, here how it shakes out with our categories:

Sea Kayak:  The criteria here are similar to the Greenland kayak, just softened up a bit and with the addition of the need for a safe wet exit.  Sea kayak cockpits and seats are designed to allow you to efficiently paddle long distances by helping you sit comfortably upright, and have a low back to let you easily slide into the seat.  They are almost universally “keyhole” shaped - slightly wider than Greenland at the base to help with reentry without introducing “slop", then narrowing down for improved boat/body connection for solid boat control and efficient transfer from paddler to boat.

Transitional:  Being somewhere between sea and recreational, not surprisingly the transitional kayak cockpits will be mid-sized, and will vary a bit depending on the particular boat's focus.  Comfort and ease of access are becoming more of a factor, but watertightness may or may not be important depending on whether is a kayak intended for rougher water (ocean) or quicker cruising on flat water.

Recreational:  Having almost opposite criteria in every way to a Greenland boat, a recreational kayak will have the opposite cockpit - somewhere between large and huge.  This gives lots of room for a comfy seat, moving your legs around, getting in and out and carrying a picnic.    Keeping every drop out doesn't matter in safe waters, and the body/boat connection takes a back seat to comfort.

White water:  Despite the very different environments they are used in, whitewater boats and Greenland boats end up with almost the same cockpit requirements:  keep the water out and hold the paddler tight.  The main difference is the absolute need for a safe wet exit in a whitewater boat, so we're back to a small cockpit, but big enough to get out of when needed.

What about sit-on-tops?  Because there is no cockpit well, sit-on-tops are outside this part of the discussion.  In most ways, though, they resemble recreational - easy to get on to and off of, comfy, no tight body/boat connection.  The one significant difference is that while they do not have a watertight cockpit to keep the paddler dry, the boat itself is watertight and cannot swamp if a wave were to go over it as a recreational might.



Stability is another big concern for kayak buyers, with good reason.  Whatever your paddling ability, there are not many circumstances where you want a kayak that feels unstable to you (though there are a few).  So what creates stability and what kayaks have it?

Width:  It is safe to say the wider the kayak, the more stable it is.  A recreational kayak will almost always be wide, a sea kayak narrow, and a transitional somewhere in between.  But there are other reasons for a kayak to be wider or narrower, and there are other ways for a kayak to be stable.  So it may be true that if stability is your first and only priority, you'll end up with a wide kayak, you shouldn't get too hung up on width.

Hull shape:  The profile of the hull has an enormous effect on stability, and to understand how much, you need to understand the two main types of stability in kayaks:  Primary (or initial) and Secondary (or final).  Primary stability is how solid a craft is when it is completely upright, so how it feels when you first sit down in it on flat water.  Secondary stability is how solid a craft is when it is angled or on edge.

Recreational or flat-water paddlers are typically most interested in primary stability,  because it is generally their intension to stay upright and they want to feel stable and solid in their kayak from the moment they sit in it.  As a result, boats that are designed for them put primary stability at the forefront.  As noted above, this typically means a wider hull, but it often also means flatter hull, because this move more of the buoyancy out to the edges of the hull.  In the case of sit-on-tops, this can reach the extreme of tunnel hulls, where the flotation is mostly at the edges.  

If primary stability means sitting solid and flat on the water, who then would want a boat with less primary stability?  Usually, someone who might be sitting on angled water.  In rough seas or white water, a boat that doesn't like to tilt or edge into the water can suddenly seem like less of a good thing.  So paddlers who expect to be in waves and rough water prioritize secondary 





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