The most important question you need to ask yourself before spending any amount of money on a kayak is, “How will this kayak be used?” It’s a simple but meaningful question that will help you decide each design aspect of your kayak such as weight, length, width, hull type, rocker, etc.
We used this question as the basis for creating a detailed but straight-forward buying guide that will help you make a logical and informed decision on what kind of kayak to purchase. Whether you are a beginner, intermediate, or advanced kayaker you’ve come to the right place!
To address the question, “How will this kayak be used?” we wanted to start this buying guide by discussing the main “kayaker profiles” that you typically see. One of them is probably you!
Recreational Kayaker – Family Man Frank
Family Man Frank loves taking his family and friends to the lake to hang out on the beach. Frank is looking for a kayak that his kids can play on as well as a kayak that he can take to paddle around the entire lake. In addition, Family man Frank likes to fish and wants to bring a couple of drinks out with him while he’s fishing! Luckily, there are a wide range of kayaks that Frank can choose from.
Touring Kayaker – Calvin the Camper
Calvin the camper needs to get off the grid sometimes. He wants to go on multi day trips where he is self-sufficient in nature, briefing fresh air, and never has to hear the painful “chirp” of his phone indicating more work emails. He needs a kayak that can support all his gear as well as offer comfort for long periods of sitting.
Sea Kayaker – Seaman Sarah – Seaman Sarah lives by the ocean. Sarah is somewhat adventurous but always ensures that she is safe when doing any activity. She understands that the ocean can change rapidly and wants to be prepared. Sarah is looking for a kayak that can handle the open ocean.
Whitewater Kayaker – Wilson Whitewater
Wilson Whitewater loves an adrenaline rush. He’s an experienced kayaker that is ready to take on some serious whitewater. He is expecting to be in tight situations where he will have to be able to maneuver quickly and out of harm’s way.
Fishing Kayaker – Bob the Bassman
Bob the Bassman is a serious fisherman. Luckily, he lives in California where he can fish the ocean as well as freshwater. Bob is ready to outfit himself for some serious kayak fishing but needs to find a kayak that will suit his needs.
Surf Kayaker – Gnarly Charley
Like Wilson Whitewater, Gnarly Charley is ready for an adrenaline rush. He already understands the how to surf waves on surfboard but now wants to ride a wave on a kayak. Gnarley Charley understands that he will need a kayak that can catch waves easily and will be able to easily cut through waves.
Which kayaker are you?
Chances are that you fit the bill for one of our kayaker profiles but you most likely don’t have as cool of a name (no offense). Before deciding an appropriate kayak for each of out kayakers, lets go though some basic kayak design aspects to understand how a kayak’s design will affect performance. If you already have an understanding of kayak design then feel free to skip to kayaker profile kayak choices or directly to our kayak comparison posts.
Basic Kayak Design
The intention of this section is merely to give you an overview of kayak design so you can understand the different types of kayaks. This way when you’re looking at two similar priced kayaks and you ask yourself, “What is the difference between these two kayaks?” you’ll be able to spot that small difference in the kayak’s design that could be the deciding factor.
Length and Width
If you’re comparing any aspect of a kayak it sometimes helps to picture an example. Let’s take kayak length and width to the extreme compare an 8ft x 2ft kayak to a 5ft x 4ft kayak with equal weight. Imagine both kayak’s moving through water and being paddled by paddlers of equal strength and weight. Which one moves faster? The 8’x2’ kayak would have less water resistance due to the narrower shape thus allowing the kayak to move quicker through water. The wider (4ft) shape would plow more water thus creating more drag and less speed.
In general, the longer your kayak is the easier it will be to move faster through the water.
Now let’s compare maneuverability. Imagine the two kayakers are attempting to turn. Would the longer or the shorter kayak turn easier? Probably the shorter kayak. As you turn the kayak there is water resistance to the sides of your vessel. The 8ft kayak must push more water than the 5ft kayak making it harder to turn.
In general, the shorter your kayak is the easier it will be to handle and maneuver through water.
The width of your kayak is directly related the stability of your kayak. Imagine the two kayakers decided to stand in their respective kayaks in flat water. The kayaker in the wider (4ft) kayak stands in a wider stance then the kayaker in the narrower (2ft) kayak. Which kayaker has an easier time standing? Probably the wider kayak.
In general, the wider your kayak is the easier it will be to balance.
Please understand that this is and example of primary stability which is the measure of how stable a kayak is in flat water. Secondary stability is the measure of how stable the kayak is when it is turned on its side (aka when it is in choppy water). Secondary stability is heavily affected by the chine, hull, and the rocker of a kayak which will be discussed in later sections.
The length and width are overarching factors when it comes to speed, maneuverability, and stability. To optimize kayak design further we must start discussing more advanced design aspects.
The hull refers to the shape of the bottom of your kayak and can have a significant effect on the performance of your kayak. There are dozens of different hull types online and they all stem from the four main hull types. The four hull shapes are the round shaped hull, v-shaped hull, flat hull, and pontoon hulls.
Rounded hulls have rounded sides and typically move quickly through the water because of less water resistance. One thing you will notice when first entering a rounded hull kayak is that it rolls easily because of its rounded sides. This contributes to less primary stability but more secondary stability. In addition, rounded hulls are easier to maneuver.
If you guessed that V-shape hull kayaks have a V-shape bottom, you guessed right! The V shape of the kayak allows it to slice through water easily which makes it easier to move in a straight line. In addition, it can also help slice through choppy water which makes their secondary stability good.
The best feature of a flat-water kayak is its primary stability. It’s main disadvantage ability to stabilize in choppy water. It has average quickness and solid maneuverability.
Probably the only hull that is not self-explanatory if you are new to kayaking is the pontoon hulled kayak. The hull is almost an inverted U shape which forms a tunnel down the center of the kayak. The main disadvantage of the pontoon shape is that it lacks in speed. But what it lacks in speed it makes up for in its ability to stabilize in calm or rough waters. It has average maneuverability and usually requires a larger area to turn.
The chine of a kayak refers to the sides of the column meet at the bottom of the kayak. Chine is categorized into two categories: soft or hard. Soft chines do not have edges on the sides or the bottom of the kayak and give the kayak a round look. Hard chines typical have a few edges and give the kayak a boxier look.
Soft chines typically roll easier, have better secondary stability, and are typically quicker than harder chines. Hard chines track straighter and offer better primary stability.
If you are no stranger to outdoor sports such as surfing, wakeboarding, snowboarding, etc. then rocker is no foreign concept to you. Rocker refers to the curve of the kayak from the front to the back of the kayak.
Typically, the more rocker the kayak has the easier it is to maneuver. This is due to the fact that less of the hull is in the water thus having less water resistance moving through water. A disadvantage of having more rocker is that the kayak will have less tracking ability.
Sit-On-Top vs. Sit In
There are some advantages and disadvantages of choosing one type over the other but it mainly comes down to preference. Sit in kayaks are usually a drier experience than sit on top kayaks which makes them good for dry storage. Sit on top kayaks are typically ore stable and easier to get back in if you fall out.
So what type of kayak did our friends choose?
Family Man Frank
Family Man Frank was able to narrow his kayak search down to the following features:
- Sit on Top Kayak – A sit on top kayak allows Frank or his family to easily get on and off the kayak in the water. They don’t mind getting wet when using the kayak since they are typically playing in the water anyways.
- Flat Hull or Pontoon Hull – Frank isn’t worried about speed or maneuverability. He is more interested in primary stability.
- Hard Chine – Frank wants his kids to be able to easily paddle the kayak forward in a straight line. In addition, he isn’t concerned with secondary stability because they are kayaking in a relatively calm body of water.
Frank is now ready to find the specific kayak for him. All he has to do now is compare recreational kayak models and find the right brand for him.
Touring Kayaker – Calvin the Camper
Calvin was able to narrow his search down to the following features:
- Sit in Kayak – Calvin the Camper wants to stay dry and keep his camping gear dry as well. He also wants to ensure that his kayak is wide enough to
- Round or V Shape Hull – The water Calvin is kayaking in won’t exactly be whitewater but it’s not as calm as a lake either. He wants to have solid secondary stability.
Calvin can now compare touring kayaking models. Although Kayak Design is important for kayak camping, the accessories you bring with are extremely important as well.
Sea Kayak – Seaman Sarah
Sarah was able to narrow her search down to the following features:
- Sit in Kayak – Sarah wants to keep the water out because of the cold water.
- Long and narrow – To move quickly through the water Sarah knows she has to have a long and narrow kayak with a small cockpit.
- V shape Hull– Sarah wants to be able to cut through waves easily.
Sarah can now compare sea kayaks on the market today. Like kayak camping, there are many accessories that one needs while out at sea to ensure safety.
Whitewater Kayaking – Wilson Whitewater
Wilson has discovered that whitewater kayak design is similar from kayak to kayak:
- Rounded Hull – Allows for great secondary stability as well as easy rolling abilities if Wilson ever flips his kayak!
- Short – Maneuverability is key for Wilson dealing with whitewater. Also, speed is not an issue since the river will be moving quickly.
- Sit in Kayak – Wilson definitely does not want to sit on top of the kayak because he does not want to fall out
Wilson doesn’t have much variety in his kayak area but he can still compare whitewater models on the market today.
Fishing Kayaking – Bob the Bassman
Bob realized that ocean and lake fishing are two entirely different beasts to deal with. Freshwater conditions are much different than ocean conditions.
- Sit on top – Bob wants a sit on top kayak so he can accessorize the top of the kayak.
- V Shape Hull – Bob could have chosen a Flat or Pontoon shaped Hull for freshwater but realized that those types of hulls would not perform well on the ocean.
Bob can now compare fishing kayaks on the market today. Fishing kayaks might be the most customized type of kayak out there. There are dozens of difference customizations and accessories that you can add to your kayak for both ocean and freshwater fishing.
Surf Kayaks – Gnarly Charley
Like whitewater kayaks, surf kayaks have similar kayak characteristics from kayak to kayak.
- Planing Hull (in between a flat and v shaped hull) – Planing hulls are design to be pushed up to the surface of water when a wave hits the kayak.
- Short – Surf kayaks tend be on the shorter side to allow for easier maneuverability
Gnarly Charley can now compare surf kayaking models and choose the best one for him.
Is that all?
Of course, not. Our friends Family Man Frank, Calvin the Camper, Seaman Sarah, Wilson Whitewater, Bob the Bassman, and Gnarly Charley don’t encompass all the different types of kayakers out there! Nor does our kayak design guide encompass all the design characteristics of a kayak! It’s up to you to decide what kind of kayak you need.