The three main types of kayaks you’ll find out there are sea kayaks, river kayaks, and lake kayaks. While there are different designs for each of those kayak types, there are some major factors that separate them on a more general level.
- Sea Kayak vs River Kayak vs Lake Kayak – What Are The Differences?
- How To Choose The Right Kayak For You
- Final Thoughts
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If you’re new to the sport of kayaking, it makes sense to invest in your own kayak sooner than later. Otherwise, you’ll end up spending too much money renting when you could be saving that money for your own kayak.
And while you could always opt to buy a used kayak, you should be aware of what to look out for when buying a used kayak.
Whether you choose to buy a new or used kayak, you’ll have to choose a sea kayak vs river kayak vs lake kayak and know what are the differences between them.
Lucky for you, that’s exactly what we’re going to focus on here today! And we’ll also provide some useful tips to help you choose the right kayak for your needs. So let’s get started.
Sea Kayak vs River Kayak vs Lake Kayak – What Are The Differences?
The body of water they are designed for isn’t the only difference between these three types of kayaks. Here are the main differences between sea kayaks, river kayaks, and lake kayaks.
One of the first differences you’ll notice when you look at these different types of kayaks is their length. And this is actually a very important element of their design that makes them ideally suited for their respective bodies of water.
Sea kayaks tend to be the longest of these three types. This is because they are generally used to cover longer distances and because their extra length allows you to strap more supplies onto the deck.
Sea kayaking tends to have the longest list of essential sea kayaking accessories that you should always keep on your kayak. So this is one of the major reasons why most sea kayaks are longer than their river and lake kayaking counterparts.
Lake kayaks are going to fall somewhere in the middle of most sea kayaks and river kayaks. They are also the most common type of kayaks for beginner or recreational paddlers because they tend to offer greater stability.
River kayaks are generally the shortest of these three types because they need to be able to maneuver very quickly.
When paddling on whitewater, rocks and other obstacles can come at you fast, so you’ll need a kayak that can turn and redirect on a dime.
All of that being said, you’ll notice that we’re speaking in very general terms throughout this article. While the majority of sea kayaks are longer than lake kayaks, for example, you’ll certainly find exceptions to the rule, so be sure to keep that in mind as you continue your search.
When it comes to width, the widest kayaks are generally going to be designed for lake use. This is because most recreational and inexperienced kayakers should start gaining experience in calmer lake waters.
These types of paddlers require the most stable kayak design possible. And stability in a kayak is largely a function of its width and how the hull is shaped (more on that later!).
River kayaks can also be pretty wide because of the same reason lake kayaks need extra width. Stability is supremely important when you’re dealing with rapids and river currents, so these kayaks tend to be just as wide (if not sometimes wider) as lake kayaks.
The narrowest of these three types of kayaks is the sea kayak. It tends to be more narrow because it needs to be able to continue making headway when you encounter strong ocean currents.
In general, a larger kayak is bound to be more susceptible to wind, waves, and currents. But sea kayaks are built slimmer so that your paddle strokes remain efficient even when the weather isn’t at its finest.
Moving on, we need to spend some time discussing hull design because it has an impact on a kayak’s stability and performance. But before we start, you’ll see us refer to primary versus secondary stability a lot in this section, so let’s take a second to define those terms.
A kayak’s primary stability refers to the initial stability of the kayak when you’re paddling on flat water. This type of stability is more important for lake kayaks because they tend to come with calmer water conditions.
As you might imagine, a kayak’s secondary stability refers to its ability to remain stable and resist tipping when it’s turned on its side. This type of stability is more important for sea kayaks and river kayaks that tend to be used in less favorable water conditions.
Now that we’ve cleared up the differences in those two types of stability, we should be clear that each of these three kayak types can be available with multiple different hull designs.
In other words, there is no singular hull design that is only used in sea kayaks vs river kayaks vs lake kayaks. However, there are benefits of using certain hull designs for these types of kayaks, which is what we’ll now discuss.
Round Bottom Hull
Kayaks with a rounded bottom hull typically have a sort of torpedo shape. The shape of this hull reduces resistance when the kayak is moving forward and allows the kayak to achieve higher top speeds.
However, that decreases the kayak’s primary stability even if it increases its secondary stability. This hull design is common for higher-performance sea kayaks used for surfing applications.
V-Shaped Hull with Soft Chines
The V-shaped hull cuts through water more efficiently so that kayaks with this hull design tend to track straighter than others, which is why it’s common for expedition-style sea kayaks.
Kayaks with a V-shaped hull are generally considered tippy because they offer better secondary stability than primary stability.
A V-shaped hull with soft chines will give you the ability to enjoy smooth edging at unlimited angles because it features a smooth transition from the bottom of the hull to its sides. These chines won’t, however, increase the kayak’s stability.
V-Shaped Hull with Hard Chines
Just like the previous example, kayaks with V-shaped hull and hard chines generally offer better secondary stability than primary stability.
However, the hard chines actually improve the kayak’s primary stability significantly, which is why some sea kayak manufacturers prefer this hull design.
This design features a well-defined edge where the bottom of the hull meets its sides. This provides you with more defined edging angles and will also help you hold an edge when making quick maneuvers.
Flat Bottom Hull
The flat bottom hull design provides excellent primary stability but can sometimes leave something to be desired when it comes to secondary stability. It is really an attempt to strike a decent balance between stability and maneuverability.
You’ll find flat bottom hull designs on both river kayaks and lake kayaks. The lake kayaks with this type of hull are most often used for fishing purposes while playboats for performing whitewater tricks sometimes feature a flat bottom hull as well.
The pontoon hull is sort of a hybrid because it offers the primary stability that you’ll find with a flat hull and combines that with the secondary stability you’ll get with a round bottom hull design. This translates to the most stable kayak hull design out there.
This is why you’ll see the pontoon hull design used on many lake kayaks for recreational paddling or kayak fishing. However, this hull design tends to make for a slow kayak, which is why you generally won’t find it on sea kayaks or river kayaks.
The cockpit design is another area where these types of kayaks can differ greatly. This is mainly due to the types of environmental conditions that are most common to oceans, rivers, and lakes, but there are a few other reasons as well.
The two different types of cockpits you’ll find on almost all kayaks are sit-inside cockpits and sit on top cockpits. You might also hear some manufacturers refer to these as ‘closed deck’ (i.e. sit inside) or ‘open deck’ (i.e. sit on top) kayaks.
The reality is that you might see all of these types of kayaks with both sit inside or sit on top cockpits. But that being said, the sit-inside variety is the cockpit design of choice for both river kayaks and sea kayaks.
This is because the weather conditions on rivers and oceans tend to result in more splashing water that can get inside your kayak.
One of the best advantages of a sit-inside cockpit design is that it allows you to attach one of the best kayak spray skirts to keep your legs dry.
The sit-inside cockpit is also better suited for a more ergonomic paddling position because it allows for the inclusion of adjustable foot braces inside the cockpit.
This can be essential for river kayaks and sea kayaks because they tend to be the kayaks of choice for more experienced paddlers.
On the other hand, lake kayaks are more commonly designed with a sit on top cockpit because it makes it much easier to climb in and out of the kayak if you decide you want to go for a swim on a hot day.
Because lake kayaks are generally also made for beginner and recreational paddlers, their sit on top cockpit design also makes them easier to flip over if you accidentally capsize as you’re still learning the basics, such as how to overturn the “right way.”
Sit on top cockpits also typically feature scupper holes, which is a design element that you won’t find on kayaks with a sit-inside cockpit design. Scupper holes allow any water that enters the cockpit to drain naturally and without the use of a kayak bilge pump.
This can be very useful if you’re new to kayaking and you don’t want to have to pump the water out of your kayak every time you capsize learning a new paddle stroke, like the draw stroke.
But it also means that some water will come up into the cockpit even when you’re not messing around, which isn’t ideal for colder days on the lake.
Seat designs can also differ when you’re comparing these three types of kayaks. And while these differences are generally not massive, they can have some impact on your overall comfort with these different types of kayaks.
The most basic lake kayaks tend to have removable seats that clip into place at four distinct locations when you’re ready to use them.
While the don’t offer the most padding, they do provide decent adjustability so that they can work with the widest variety of body types.
Some lake kayaks, however, offer elevated seats with aluminum frames and mesh backing material. These seats are more common to fishing kayaks and pedal kayaks like the Hobie Mirage.
The main advantage of this seat design is the elevated viewpoint that anglers can enjoy to spot fish under the water. But they can also provide more comfort for taller individuals because they won’t force your knees up into your chest as other seats can.
Sea kayaks and river kayaks tend to have seat bottoms that are permanently mounted in the cockpit.
This seat bottom is also generally separate from the seatback, which is generally more of a minimal design than the seatbacks that are common for lake kayaks.
The seatbacks on sea kayaks and river kayaks are also lower and usually only provide support for your lumbar spine. This is because too much seat material sticking up out of the kayak’s cockpit can present a hazard for both river and sea kayakers.
Storage capacity is another way in which these kayaks differ. By far, sea kayaks tend to offer the most storage capacity of these three types because they have the largest bulkhead compartments, which provide both additional flotation and storage space.
For more information on bulkheads, check out our article all about understanding kayak bulkheads. But, for now, let’s move onto to discuss why river kayaks and lake kayaks tend to offer less storage capacity than sea kayaks.
For starters, river kayaks tend to offer the smallest and most minimal design of the three types.
And because they are typically used for single-day whitewater river runs, you generally don’t need to bring all that much extra gear and equipment with you on the water.
Some lake kayaks can actually offer comparable storage capacity to sea kayaks. The difference, however, is that it tends to be with storage areas that are open to the environment and likely to get water in them while you’re paddling.
Sea kayaks will not only give you the most storage capacity, in general, but they will also offer the largest dry storage capacity. If you strap one of the best kayak deck bags to your sea kayak, that amount of storage capacity only increases.
The last major difference between these kayaks comes down to how easy they are to transport when you’re not on the water. Because of their larger size, sea kayaks tend to be the heaviest and most difficult to transport of these three types.
It’s also rare that you’re going to find an inflatable sea kayak that can deflate and store in a compact space. Inflatable technology has somewhat changed the kayaking game, and you’ll now find inflatable river kayaks and inflatable lake kayaks out there.
These offer the best portability of all kayaks on the market these days because they are the lightest kayaks and they also require minimal storage space once you fully deflate them.
That being said, even hardshell river kayaks take the prize for the easiest kayaks to transport once you’re off the water.
This is mainly because they have to be small and light enough for whitewater paddlers to carry around large, un-runnable rapids (provided they know how to lift and carry a kayak the right way!).
Lake kayaks can be somewhat of a toss-up when it comes to portability. You’ll find some lake kayaks, such as the line-up from Pelican Kayaks, that are extremely lightweight and easy to move around.
But on the other hand, some lake kayaks are made specifically for kayak fishing or kayak sailing applications. And because of the extra accessories and features they need for these applications, they can be extremely heavy and difficult to move unless you have one of the best kayak carts.
How To Choose The Right Kayak For You
Now that you know the major differences between a sea kayak vs river kayak vs lake kayak, here are some easy criteria you can use to help you choose which of those three kayak types is best for you.
This one should be pretty self-explanatory. You’re probably not going to find much benefit in choosing a sea kayak if you live in Colorado unless you are regularly committed to planning an annual ocean kayaking expedition.
Conversely, it doesn’t make sense to purchase a whitewater kayak if you don’t live near any good whitewater rivers. To be honest when you’re assessing where you live and where you’ll most typically be paddling when you head out.
Your experience level can also dictate your kayak type choice. River kayaking and sea kayaking simply require a greater degree of expertise and experience than lake kayaking does, in general.
While conditions can change quickly on some lakes and require more skills than a beginner might possess, the conditions are usually going to be much more favorable for beginners or casual kayakers.
On the other hand, the ocean presents arguably the most unpredictable weather conditions of any potential paddling location. So those of you considering buying a sea kayak should make sure you have the experience to kayak safely on the ocean.
The same can be said for river kayaking because it arguably comes with the most high-speed risk of any type of kayaking.
While there’s nothing quite comparable to the thrill of reading and running Class IV and V river rapids, it certainly also requires more experience and skills than casual lake kayaking.
In spite of what we covered in the previous section, we also want to mention that it’s extremely important for you to follow your ambitions when assessing the differences between these three types of kayaks and selecting the right one for you.
If you’ve been watching river kayaking videos and you can imagine yourself running rapids like the one pictured above, there’s nothing that can keep you from learning the requisite skills and techniques to do so, and you’ll definitely need a river kayak for that.
Additionally, if you imagine one day embarking on a multi-day kayaking expedition along a route like the Inside Passage (just to pick one of our favorite examples!), then you’ll obviously need a quality sea kayak in order to practice the skills you’ll need for a trip of that magnitude.
If you’re not quite that ambitious with your kayaking dreams, that’s okay too! If you simply want to paddle casually or enjoy a few hours of kayaking fishing on the closest lake to your home, then a lake kayak will serve you best.
Accessibility Of Paddle Partners
If you’re really struggling to decide which kayak type is right for you, look around at your friend group and in your community.
This will give you an idea of what kinds of paddlers are living near you and will help you choose the right kayak so that you can join in on local paddle days or community gatherings.
In our opinion, all types of outdoor adventures are better with friends or partners. So make sure you ask around to see what kinds of adventure partners live near you and what kind of kayaks they already have!
As you head off into the sunset on your next paddling trip, remember to stay safe and adventure responsibly. We hope you’ve enjoyed the tips and insights in this article and we hope to see you next time!