For new kayakers, you are probably seeing many different styles of kayaks out there on the water. When you are evaluating whether a long vs short kayak is better for you, it is natural to ask which is faster and more stable.
There are more factors that go into the speed and stability of a kayak than just length. Things like hull shape and kayak width also play a vital role, which is why we are going to talk about them at length in this guide.
We will also explore which types of paddling are better for long kayaks versus short kayaks. It is our hope that, in doing so, we can help you choose the right length and style of kayak that suits your preferred type of paddling.
Over the years, kayak manufacturers have created so many kayak designs that it can sometimes feel tough to keep up with all of them. Fortunately, we are going to use this guide to break things down so that your kayak selection process is more simple moving forward!
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- What Defines A Long vs Short Kayak?
- Which is Faster?
- Which is More Stable?
- What Else Determines Kayak Speed and Stability?
- Should You Choose A Long vs Short Kayak?
- What About Transporting A Long vs Short Kayak?
- Final Thoughts
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There is no natural cut-off that separates a short kayak from a long kayak. We wish we could say that all short kayaks are 10 feet long or shorter and long kayaks are everything from 10’1” and up.
The vast majority of kayaks fall somewhere between 10 feet and 14 feet in length. There are certainly longer and shorter kayaks out there, but these tend to be considered more as outliers that are built for very specific purposes.
To be honest, it depends more on the type of paddling the kayak is made for. Kayaks that are made for long-distance touring, of course, are going to be much lengthier than sit-on-top kayaks that are made for kids.
To help you with your kayak selection process, here is a general breakdown of the different types of kayaks and their length ranges:
- Kid’s Kayaks: 8 feet and under
- Recreational Kayaks: 8 to 12 feet
- Fishing Kayaks: 10 to 14 feet
- Whitewater Kayaks: 6 to 10 feet
- Touring Kayaks: 12 to 20 feet
- Tandem Kayaks: 12 to 24 feet
Please keep in mind that these kayak length ranges are all averages. You may find some models on the market that fall outside of these general ranges, but the purpose is to help you identify which lengths are primarily used for different applications.
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To make a broad generalization, longer kayaks are typically able to achieve higher top speeds. This is also dependent on several additional factors, but longer kayaks tend also tend to be narrower, which reduces drag as you are paddling.
The top speed your kayak can achieve can also depend on things like the shape of the hull and your fitness level as a paddler. We will discuss more about what determines a kayak’s speed as we move forward.
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Again, this is going to be a very general statement, but shorter kayaks tend to be more stable because they also tend to be wider. This makes it more difficult for them to capsize and force you to execute a wet exit.
A kayak’s stability, however, also highly depends on other elements of its design and your familiarity with that style. So we are going to dive deeper into the many factors that impact a kayak’s stability in the next section.
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Kayak stability also isn’t a cut-and-dry issue because there are two different types of kayak stability.
Primary stability refers to how stable your kayak feels when you first sit inside of it and you haven’t begun moving yet. It also refers to a kayak’s stability when you are sitting relatively flat in the water.
Secondary stability refers to your kayak’s stability when it is tipped onto its edge. In other words, it refers to how easy it will be to maintain stability in rough water conditions or when practice more advanced edging techniques.
To give some clear examples, a kayak with better primary stability would be a good fit for kayak anglers that spend a lot of time sitting still in the water as they cast and handle those massive fish they catch.
On the other hand, a kayak with better secondary stability is preferred for touring sea kayakers that often experience large waves and strong currents. It is also really important for whitewater kayakers that do a lot of recovering from being buffeted around by river rapids.
There is more to kayak speed and stability than simply length because there is a ton of variation in kayak design these days. Aside from length, these factors will have a dramatic impact on how a kayak performs once it is on the water.
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There are many different types of kayak hulls that manufacturers use for varying purposes. From pontoon-style hulls to deep, V-shaped hulls, the design of the bottom of your kayak has a tremendous impact on speed and stability.
The way that a kayak’s hull is shaped combines with its length (and other factors) to impact speed and stability. While we said that shorter kayaks are generally more stable and longer kayaks are typically faster, there can be outliers depending on hull design.
For example, you could easily have a longer kayak with a pontoon-style hull that is much more stable than a shorter kayak with a flat hull that is made for running particularly large stretches of whitewater.
Deeper, V-shaped hulls tend to be commonplace on the fastest sea kayaks because they provide the least resistance. Rounded and pontoon-style hulls are more common for beginner’s kayaks because they tend to be more stable and forgiving when you are still learning.
Kayak rocker is defined as the amount of curvature in the hull between the bow and stern.
Chine is a kayaking term that refers to the style in which the bottom of the kayak intersects with the sides (gunwales) of the kayak.
Both of these elements play an important role in how the kayak moves and maneuvers on the water. So they must be addressed before we move on any further.
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Kayaks with a lot of rocker (aka a higher degree of curvature from bow to stern) tend to give the paddler less resistance when maneuvering. They lend themselves well to quick turns but are not so good when it comes to tracking straight over long distances.
Kayaks with less rocker (aka flatter kayaks) will be more difficult to turn on a dime if you are paddling in a narrow creek or stream. However, this type of kayak will generally track very well and require fewer corrective paddle strokes when you are on your next multi-day kayak camping trip.
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The design of a kayak’s chine will dictate whether it appears to be more rounded or boxy when you examine the intersection of the hull and gunwales (sides). You will see manufacturers referring to “hard” or “soft” chine, however, instead of using terms like round or boxy.
A kayak with hard chine will have more defined edges where the hull meets the sides. In other words, it will look boxier.
A kayak with soft chine will have less defined edges with a smoother transition from hull to gunwales.
Kayaks with hard chines are really only used in playboats that experienced kayakers use to perform tricks or catch ocean waves. They tend to be quite tippy in stormy weather if you are not familiar with how they feel.
Most kayaks, therefore, have softer chines or an effective compromise between hard and soft, depending on their intended use. Soft chine helps to provide better secondary stability and also makes the kayak faster.
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The ratio of a kayak’s length compared to its width actually has a larger impact on speed and stability than length alone. In the simplest terms, this ratio dictates the kayak’s total surface area.
More surface area tends to lend itself well to better stability while less surface area is preferred by kayakers that want to achieve higher top speeds. An inexperienced kayaker in a kayak with less surface area may easily feel unstable and, as a result, uncomfortable.
A good metaphor is to examine why early humans developed wide, tennis racket-shaped shoes to walk on top of several feet of snow. These shoes increase the surface area of your feet and keep you from sinking down into the snow.
Unfortunately, kayaks tend to be much more banana-shaped than the relatively rectangular shapes of snowshoes. This means you can’t simply multiply the length by the width in order to determine the amount of surface area that a kayak will have.
That said, this ratio can be most helpful when examining kayaks of similar length. If you have two 12-foot kayaks with widths of 36 inches and 24 inches, respectively, it is reasonable to assume that the former will be more stable and the laster will be faster.
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On a final note here, your experience level and fitness will also play into the speed and stability you feel when on the water. More experienced kayakers tend to feel more stable in narrower kayaks, for example.
In addition, if you put a kayaker that paddles 3-4 times a week in the exact same kayak as someone who paddles 3-4 times per year, you probably have a good guess of which paddler will be able to win in a race.
Also Read: Best Kayak Paddles
So, how do you determine whether you should get a long vs a short kayak? The answer really depends on the type of kayaking you plan on doing and your body’s physique.
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In addition to the factors we have already outlined, your physical stature comes into play when choosing a kayak. Taller paddlers are going to be quite uncomfortable, for example, when trying to paddle a short kayak with minimal legroom.
On the other hand, smaller paddlers may have trouble maneuvering a particular long kayak when on the water. They can also become fatigued more quickly when exerting the kind of effort a larger kayak will require.
At the end of the day, you need to be able to maneuver your kayak confidently and feel comfortable sitting inside of it for several hours at a time. This is why taller individuals need longer kayaks and shorter individuals tend to like shorter kayaks.
A kayak’s volume can also be a useful metric to pay attention to when you are trying to select a kayak that matches your body type. While there is no better way to determine whether you will be comfortable sitting in a kayak than to actually sit inside of it, knowing its volume gives you a better idea of the amount of space in the kayak’s cockpit.
Kayak volume is usually measured in cubic feet or gallons and this information should be provided by the manufacturer. If it is not, you may have to do a little digging to get a better sense of the cockpit space and how it will be compatible with your stature.
Most manufacturers break their kayaks into low, medium, or high volume categories. Here are some specifics on the type of paddlers and trip styles that each is best for:
|Shorter than 5'6
|5'7 to 5'10
|Taller than 5'10
|Less than 140 pounds
|140 to 180 pounds
|More than 180 pounds
|Best for day trips with minimal gear
|Best for overnight trips with essential gear
|Best for multi-day expeditions
Hope that helps!
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There are also many motivations that drive kayakers to get out on the water. Some examples include fishing, bird watching, catching up with friends, exploring undeveloped stretches of coastline, running whitewater rapids, and challenging body and mind on multi-day expeditions.
You would not use the same kayak for a kayak camping trip that you would for running Class IV whitewater. So your activity preference will factor heavily into your choice of whether to use a long vs short kayak.
Here are a few general thoughts on the right kayak length for your preferred activity:
- Whitewater kayakers tend to lean towards shorter kayaks because they are easier to maneuver quickly.
- Long-distance kayakers err on the side of longer kayaks because they are more efficient when paddling for multiple hours a day.
- Fishing kayakers prefer short and medium-sized kayaks that are quite wide because they provide both stability and extra storage space for fishing accessories.
- Beginners tend to find short and medium-sized sit-on-top kayaks to be easiest to use because they are forgiving and easy to climb back into if you capsize.
- Tandem kayakers need longer kayaks simply to have extra legroom for two paddlers.
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The ease and convenience of transporting a long vs short kayak must also factor into your selection process. You can probably imagine which will be easier to transport: shorter kayaks.
If we are specifically talking about transporting kayaks on a kayak trailer or kayak roof rack, however, shorter kayaks tend to be easier because they can be secured without the use of bow and stern tie-down straps (depending on your vehicle).
Shorter kayaks also tend to be lighter, which makes them easier to load and unload from the top of a vehicle. While it is not as heavily weighted of a factor as the degree to which length impacts the on-water performance of your kayak, the ease with which a short vs long kayak can be transported should also be considered before you buy a new kayak.
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All of these factors we have mentioned should be equally considered when you are shopping for a new kayak. That is why the process can quickly feel complicated for kayaking beginners and overwhelm can easily set in.
As you go through your process, we recommend prioritizing these factors according to personal preference. Ideally, you can find a kayak that checks all of your boxes, but if you are struggling to do so, it helps to know which factors are the most important to you and which you can compromise on.
We hope that the tips and insights we have provided in this guide have been helpful as you decide whether a long vs short kayak is best for you. As always, we want to wish you the safest and most enjoyable of paddling outings in the months and years to come!