A recreational kayak is just what it sounds like - a kayak that's easy to take out for a casual, fun paddle. Typically they are designed to be convenient to get in and out of, have comfy seats and maybe some creature comforts like a cup holder, and are in the 10' to 14' range. A good recreational boat will handle well on the water, efficient and maneuverable. They are generally limited to use in ponds, lakes and sheltered bays because their design emphasis on ease and comfort makes them less safe in adverse conditions.
Recreational kayaks are divided into two basic categories: sit-in and sit-on-top. A sit-in is your traditional kayak, with a cockpit that allows the seat to be on the bottom of the kayak. A sit-on-top kayak does not have a cockpit, but rather a well in the deck for the seat and paddler. Both sit-in and sit-on-top recreational kayaks tend to put an emphasis on stability.
Sit-in Kayak: Paddler sits inside a cockpit, lower to the water.
The advantages of a sit-in include some greater efficiency and performance, a more sheltered seat position - so a less wet ride and lighter weight. Some people prefer the lower seating position when paddling, but this is a personal choice and others prefer the more upright sit-on-top. Disadvantages include the potential for swamping - so no open ocean paddling or hazardous conditions, and some find the lower seating position harder to get into (many do not).
A few features distinguish a sit-in recreational kayak from a touring kayak: First, a large, open cockpit for easy entry and exit and comfort; there is a range of exactly how big the cockpit is, and this can be one factor to consider in choosing a kayak, but they are always fairly open. Next, a comfy seat, generally with an adjustable back and other features. Other comfort features are common as well; cup holders, a spot for a wallet or phone, things like this. Last, minimal sealed bulkheads; this is not a feature, but a drawback, because it means that if a recreational kayak fills with water, it will become difficult or impossible to paddle - and it is worth noting some recreational kayaks have enough sealed chambers to remain function where other do not, another possible factor in your choice.
Sit-on-top Kayak: Paddler sits on the deck, in a well.
The primary advantage of a sit-on-top kayak is ease of entry and exit, but some people also prefer the openness to being inside a cockpit. Another big possible advantage is that sit-on-tops cannot swamp - the lack of a cockpit means the hull is sealed, and the seating well and storage wells are self-bailing. Disadvantages include a loss of efficiency - though a good sit-on-top can be an excellent handling kayak, increased weight, and a wetter ride.
There is really no touring sit-on-top class to distinguish a recreational sit-on-top from. Surf-skis are something like a racing sit-on-top, but a bit of a different beast. Much more common are fishing sit-on-tops, which are really only different from recreational ones in being typically wider, bulkier and sometimes longer. All this adds up to a more stable, heavier kayak. They do also typically have fishing-specific features like rod-holders and such.
Other things to consider with a recreational kayak:
Materials: Most recreational kayaks are made of rotomolded polyethylene. They tend to be tough, affordable, brightly colored and a little heavy. A few manufacturers offer recreational kayaks in thermoformed polyethylene. These typically have white hulls and colorful decks and are significantly lighter than rotomolded. They are plenty tough, if slightly less than rotomolded, and generally cost a bit more. At the top of the recreational heap are the Lincoln Big and Little Diamonds, made out of Aramid (Kevlar). These stunning kayaks are by far the lightest of the bunch, and once again a bit more expensive.
Length: Recreational kayaks range in length from 10' to 14'. It is true that 8' recreational kayaks are sold, but these are more float-toys than kayaks. A kayaks performance is directly related to it's length. With any type of boat, the longer the hull, the more efficient it will be in a straight line. With kayaks, there is an additional factor of the turning pressure created by each paddle stroke because it is only on one side of the kayak. A stroke on the right side of the kayak tends to drive the boat left, then the next stroke on the left side pushes the boat right. While this may result in generally forward motion, if there is too much of it it is very inefficient. The longer the kayak, the better able it is to resist this, and the magic number in recreational kayaks seems to be about 12'. A 10' kayak is great for knocking around, and fun for a short paddle. But at 12' or so the efficiency increases enough that you have a boat good for a real trip. 14' is going to be a bit better, and ideal if you would really like to cover some distance, but it is certainly uncommon in the recreational range (the Pungo 140 is the main one). Generally 14' is where the Transitionals take over (click HERE for an overview of Transitionals.)
Cost: As the saying goes, you get what you pay for. NK&C has chosen to carry only kayaks that meet basic quality requirements, which is why we can't match the cheapest kayak you'll see at a big-box or discount store. We only sell kayaks that are worth owning, so or prices start at about $XXX for a 12' kayak, $XXX for a 10, and for that you get a quality kayak. From this baseline, the price tends to go up for two main reasons: more expensive (usually lighter) materials; and more features. So a Pungo Ultralite costs more than a Pungo rotomolded because thermoformed polyethylene is more expensive (and lighter) than rotomolded polyethylene, though both come from the same quality manufacturer. Equally a Pungo costs more than a Prodigy because it has a nicer seat, easier hatches and nicer fit and finish, even though they again come from the same manufacturer, albeit under different brand names. So all the boats we sell are quality made, it is the materials and the features that change the costs.
Examples of Sit-in Recreational KAyaks
Pungos: The Pungo series from Wilderness Systems are the classic Rec Kayak - easy, fun, and great boats to paddle.
Prodigies: The Prodigy line from Perception offer a great value recreational kayak.
Santees: Hurricane Santees are some of the lightest Rec Kayaks, with excellent handling.
Diamonds: Lincoln's Big Diamond and Little Diamond are the most elegant Rec Kayaks available - and amazing performers.
Examples of sit-on-top recreational kayaks
Tarpon: Wilderness Systems' Tarpon is a stable, nimble all-around performer. The standard setter for a recreational sit-on-top.
Skimmer: The skimmer from Hurricane offers the advantages of a sit-on-top with much less weight.
Pescador Pro: A simple, affordable fishing sit-on-top with great performance from Perception.