The three most popular types of kayaks are touring kayaks, recreational kayaks, and whitewater kayaks. Each obviously has its specific purpose, which means there are some key differences in their designs.
When evaluating whether you need a touring kayak vs recreational kayak vs whitewater kayak, there are a handful of important factors that will help you make the best decision possible.
We’re going to discuss all of those factors in this article so that you can use this guide to make side-by-side comparisons of these kayak types in the future. We’ll also suggest at least one great kayak option for each type if you need a buying recommendation!
- Jargon Buster
- Kayak Definitions
- Kayak Design
- Paddle Compatibility
- Best Options
- Final Thoughts
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But before we get into all of that, we need to define some key kayaking terminology that you’ll encounter as you continue to read.
Let’s bust up some jargon confusion so that you’re well equipped to get the most out of the remainder of this article!
The hull is the bottom part of your kayak and its design largely dictates how a kayak performs on the water. There are four main types of kayak hull designs: flat, rounded, V-shaped, and pontoon hulls.
Some kayaks have an additional keel that’s at the stern section of the kayak’s hull. The degree to which a kayak’s keel is well-defined dictates how well it tracks in a straight line or how easy it will be to maneuver quickly.
In some cases, kayaks have a retractable or adjustable skeg at the stern that also helps with straight-line tracking and maneuverability.
These skegs act as a fin that extends down below the hull of your kayak and are often controlled by foot pedals for easier maneuvering.
A kayak’s cockpit is the place where you’ll sit while you’re paddling. Some types of kayaks have smaller, more clearly defined cockpits that require you to pay attention to their dimensions to make sure you’ll be comfortable inside.
Other types of kayaks have more open, less-defined cockpit areas.
But what you should keep in mind is that a kayak’s cockpit is also home to its unique seating system, which will play a large role in how comfortable you’ll be while paddling.
Gunwales are the fancy term for the sides of your kayak. The size of a kayak’s gunwales can play a large role in how well you can stay dry while you’re paddling.
Also Read: Tandem Kayak vs Canoe
The next step on our journey is a better definition of these kayak types. So let’s dive a little deeper into what defines a touring kayak vs recreational kayak vs whitewater kayak.
What is a Touring Kayak?
A touring kayak is designed to be the most efficient kayak for covering long distances on the open waters of lakes, bays, and even the ocean. They are sometimes also referred to as sea kayaks and they typically boast a sit-inside design.
This type of kayak is also known to be compatible with one of the best kayak spray skirts for better weather protection. They tend to have the highest cruising speed and the largest storage capacity of these three types of kayaks.
What is a Recreational Kayak?
A recreational kayak is a type designed for the most casual of paddlers out there. They come in both sit inside and sit on top varieties and they typically offer the most minimal number of features of these types of kayaks.
They are designed for paddling on flat, calm waters and they are arguably the most popular kayak type of these three. They also represent the vast majority of kayaks that you’ll find out there on the market.
What is a Whitewater Kayak?
A whitewater kayak is designed for running rivers and playing in whitewater rapids. They are generally recognized by their sit inside design and they are also typically much shorter in length than the other two types in this article.
In a whitewater kayak, you’ll also have a flatter hull design that makes them much easier to maneuver and turn quickly.
This type of kayak is also categorized by a smaller cockpit and they are the only kayak type of these three that gives you the ability to perform surface tricks and aerials on the water.
When it comes down to finding the right type of kayak for you, you’ll need to know what features and design elements to compare and contrast. We’ll discuss how to compare these three kayak types based on the following six factors:
The design elements included in a given kayak dictate how well it performs in different environments and water conditions. Let’s discuss the design elements for each of these three types of kayaks.
In terms of design, touring kayaks tend to be the longest and skinniest of these three kayak types. Most of them boast a sit inside cockpit and a relatively deep, V-shaped hull so that they can achieve higher top speeds.
This type of kayak is also designed with internally sealed bulkheads that give you dry storage compartments for carrying extra gear. These compartments also improve the overall flotation of the kayak as a whole.
Recreational kayaks tend to be designed with rounded hulls because they offer great primary stability. And because stability is often the top priority for casual paddlers, these kayaks also tend to be wider than the other two types on our list.
Additionally, recreational kayaks come in both sit on top and sit inside designs. This means that you can choose a recreational kayak with your preferred type of cockpit, depending on your primary paddling locations.
Most whitewater kayaks boast a flat hull design because this makes them extra maneuverable and quickly responsive to your paddle strokes.
This is important because you’re often moving fast on whitewater and need a kayak that can be redirected or spun around at a moment’s notice.
This type of kayak also tends to be much shorter than a recreational or touring kayak. And in terms of width, they typically fall somewhere between recreational and touring kayaks in terms of that design element.
The next feature that we’re going to compare is comfort. Depending on how long you’re going to spend in your kayak, this feature may be more or less important to your specific needs, but it’s still worth discussing.
Because of their sit inside design, most touring kayaks are best suited for small or medium-sized paddlers. That’s not to say that there aren’t some of the best touring kayaks out there with cockpits that are designed for larger paddlers, but they are a bit rarer.
Most touring kayaks boast permanently fixed seat bottoms with lower seatbacks that extend up to the middle of your back, at the highest.
And while the best options include adjustable foot braces and thigh pads to prevent your legs from uncomfortably rubbing directly on the plastic of the kayak, they aren’t considered to be the “most” comfortable kayaks out there.
However, they do give you the ability to attach a spray skirt to keep the lower half of your body dry while paddling.
So if you typically paddle in locations where rain or waves can cause a significant amount of water to enter the cockpit of your kayak, a touring kayak with a spray skirt can drastically increase your comfort on the water.
If comfort is your absolute highest priority, it’s hard to beat a recreational kayak. Because they come in both sit inside and sit on top varieties, they give you the freedom to choose the setup that you feel most comfortable with.
This type of kayak typically has a higher seatback to support more weight and take less strain off your back. This is why recreational kayaks are also typically the most comfortable option for larger paddlers.
Whitewater kayaks tend to have the smallest cockpit dimensions of these three types. They are made to be light, fast, and maneuverable, but that often leaves little room for you to move around once you’re in the cockpit.
That being said, they still include adjustable seatbacks and foot braces to help you achieve a comfortable, ergonomic paddling position.
The best options also include thigh pads to prevent your knees or thighs from banging uncomfortably against the rotomolded plastic of the kayak.
In addition, most hardshell whitewater kayaks are compatible with an appropriately-sized spray skirt.
While this isn’t the case if you opt for an inflatable variety, attaching a spray skirt in less-than-favorable weather conditions can significantly improve your comfort in a whitewater kayak.
The features included in a given kayak type can make or break your ability to enjoy your time on the water. So let’s briefly look at some of the most important features that are common to these three kayak types.
Touring kayaks are equipped with a number of features that make them best suited for longer paddling expeditions. One of those features is the inclusion of large, sealed bulkhead compartments that give you a place to store overnight camping gear.
These bulkheads also provide extra flotation for the kayak as a whole. Another feature that you’ll find on most touring kayaks (and not on other types) is the addition of an adjustable (and/or retractable) skeg.
These skegs extend into the water below your kayak to aid in your ability to keep the bow pointed in your desired direction.
When you encounter strong winds or ocean currents, the inclusion of an adjustable skeg is often essential for the efficient maneuvering of a touring kayak.
The kayak pictured above is a great example of a recreational kayak and some of the common features that they come with.
But the feature that arguably sets recreational kayaks apart from touring and whitewater kayaks is the addition of scupper holes in the hull.
Scupper holes are designed to naturally allow any water that accumulates in the cockpit to drain out without the use of a bilge pump or sponge.
This ability is why recreational kayaks are often recommended for beginners who have a higher likelihood of capsizing while learning how to paddle a kayak.
Some recreational kayaks also feature small, sealed storage compartments, but they are better known for open storage areas at the bow and stern.
These give you room for some extra gear, but they also mean you’ll need a proper kayak dry bag if you have any gear that can’t get wet while you’re paddling.
Whitewater kayaks are primarily designed for maximum maneuverability when rivers are at their peak flow rates (typically measured in cubic feet per second, or CFS). As a result, they don’t include many “luxury” or “comfort” features as you’ll find on some recreational or touring kayaks.
Nevertheless, one feature that is very common to whitewater kayaks is a hull design element called rocker.
While other types of kayaks have more or less rocker depending on their primary use, whitewater kayaks typically have more rocker than other types.
Rocker is the curve of the kayak’s hull that naturally raises the bow and stern up out of the water.
A whitewater kayak with more bow and stern rocker will handle large waves better and also retain more flotation when landing from drops off small whitewater falls.
When choosing a new kayak, one must also consider the right kind of paddle that’s going to be most compatible with their new kayak. So let’s address paddle compatibility for each of these kayak types as well.
Because touring kayaks are designed to cover long distances in the most efficient manner possible, they are best suited to paddlers that feel comfortable spending long days on the water.
But this also means holding (and operating) a paddle for extended periods of time.
As you might imagine, this makes weight one of the primary concerns when choosing a paddle to go with your touring kayak.
You’ll want a lightweight paddle that allows you to minimize the amount of effort you need to exert over the course of a full day on the water.
Paddlers in recreational kayaks often enjoy the widest selection when looking into paddles to go along with their new kayak.
Because they are best suited to casual paddlers, you don’t necessarily need to pay for a high-end, carbon fiber paddle to pair with your recreational kayak.
However, recreational kayaks do tend to be wider than both touring and whitewater kayaks.
So this means that you’ll often need to find a paddle with a bit more length so that you’re not constantly bashing your knuckles against the gunwales of your kayak while you’re paddling.
Whitewater kayaks typically call for the shortest paddles possible because of the sometimes shallow nature of the waters in which you’ll be paddling.
A shorter paddle prevents you from clipping it against rocks and chipping or breaking the blades.
But the likelihood that you’ll hit your whitewater kayak paddle against rocks or other river debris is still higher than for other types of paddling.
So it’s also worth it to spend a little extra on a paddle that you know is going to be durable when whitewater kayaking.
Now that you know how to compare a touring kayak vs recreational kayak vs whitewater kayak, here are three great kayak options in each of those categories!
Whitewater Kayak – Aquaglide Mackenzie 105
While there are many great hardshell whitewater kayaks out there, we chose an inflatable model for a few reasons. For starters, consider the fact that many of the best whitewater rafts out there are inflatable and hold up just fine when they bump against river rocks.
The Aquaglide Mackenzie 105 is a 10’2” kayak with a width of 33.5 inches. It offers a maximum weight capacity of 300 pounds and it has a total of four mesh drains that allow water to drain out of the cockpit quickly and effectively.
It uses Halkey-Roberts valves to contain air without allowing any to slowly escape. The floor inflates to a maximum pressure of two PSI and the main tubes inflate to a maximum pressure of three PSI.
The comfortable Core 2 seat uses velcro to lock in place and the seatback can be adjusted for all-day comfort. You will need to choose your own paddle, pump, and one of the best kayak PFDs to go along with this kayak because it doesn’t come with its own.
One of the best factors of this kayak is that it weighs only 24 pounds. So, if you know how to portage a kayak, this one will be really easy to lift up and carry around any large rapids that you don’t quite feel comfortable running yet.
It comes with its own storage backpack for easy carrying. This also makes it a great whitewater kayak for running sections that require you to hike in a bit before putting in.
Touring Kayak – Wilderness Systems Tempest 170
The Wilderness Systems Tempest 170 is a 17-foot touring kayak that was voted as the “Best Day and Weekend Touring Kayak” by Reader’s Choice magazine.
It’s best suited for mid-sized paddlers and also received Outside Online’s vote for the best beginner sea kayak.
This touring kayak weighs 57 pounds and it measures 22 inches across. It offers a maximum weight capacity of 325 pounds and it boasts a deck height of 13.5 inches.
The Phase 3 AirPro Seating System in this kayak is easily adjustable for all-day comfort. This is critical for a kayak that you’re planning to spend a full day (or even multiple days!) sitting inside.
And speaking of inside, the interior cockpit of this kayak offers adjustable foot braces that allow you to keep your knees bent comfortably while you’re paddling.
This keeps you in the most ergonomic paddling position possible so that you can maximize the efficiency of your paddle strokes.
You’ll also love the TruTrak adjustable skeg system that comes along with the kayak. The skeg drops down below the kayak and can be retracted to allow you to smoothly transition from straight-line kayaking to easy maneuverability.
The cockpit dimensions of this kayak measure 34 inches long and 18 inches wide. It also offers plenty of storage capacity with midship, stern, and bow hatches, in addition to bungee deck rigging for attaching one of the best kayak deck bags on top.
Recreational Kayak – Ocean Kayak Malibu Two
The Ocean Kayak Malibu Two is a tandem recreational kayak that can also be set up for a single, larger paddler. It also has an optional third seat in the center that’s a great place for a child or furry paddle companion to sit safely while you’re on the water.
The seats in this kayak are removable and easily adjustable for comfort. While they might not be the most comfortable seats out there, you can always look to replace them with one of the best kayak seats if they don’t quite offer the comfort you’re looking for.
The great part about this kayak is that it has an open cockpit design so you don’t have to worry about fitting into a closed cockpit with tight dimensions. It also has multiple footrest positions so it will fit kayakers of many sizes.
It’s 12 feet long and offers a maximum width of 34 inches. Because it’s a tandem kayak, it also has a super high maximum weight capacity of 425 pounds and it comes with Ocean Kayak’s lifetime warranty on the hull.
And speaking of the hull, you’ll find a rounded hull design on the bottom of this kayak. This design offers great primary and secondary stability, which is precisely what you’re looking for in a recreational kayak.
Even though this kayak weighs 57 pounds, it offers toggle handles at the bow and stern for easy carrying with your paddle partner. But there are also molded-in handles on the gunwales if you need to maneuver it on your own.
Having the right type of kayak makes all the difference when you begin to get more serious about your preferred type of kayaking.
You’ll never be able to progress if you’re trying to use a recreational kayak for whitewater pursuits, or vice versa.
We hope you’ve found this article useful and insightful. We wish you the best of luck in all of your touring, recreational, or whitewater kayaking pursuits!