Understanding how you intend to use your kayak is really important for you to choose the right type and size for a new kayak. It should go without saying that a recreational kayak isn’t going to perform well in ocean conditions.
But aside from the specific activity a kayak is designed for, an even simpler choice you’ll need to make is to simply ask yourself, “What kayak size do I need?” There are certain important considerations that will help you answer this question.
In this article, we’re going to go over some of the most common kayak sizes to help you figure out which size you need. We’ll also highlight several other important considerations for choosing the right kayak size.
Table of Contents
- 1 Jargon Buster
- 2 What Kayak Size Do I Need?
- 3 Other Important Considerations
- 4 A Final Note
In order to help you better understand the differences in kayak sizes, there are a few important terms you should know. In this section, we’ll define some important kayak jargon that you’ll want to know for the rest of this article.
The bow is the front (or nose) of your kayak. We like to remember this because it is customary to bow FORWARD as a greeting in some cultures.
The stern is the back (or tail) of your kayak. A clever way to remember this is to think of the stern face your mother might give you when you want to take something BACK.
Gunwales are the sides of your kayak. A kayak’s width is typically measured from gunwale-to-gunwale and the height of the gunwales plays a role in determining how dry the cockpit remains while paddling in windy or wavy conditions.
The cockpit is the area in which you sit when you paddle a kayak. Depending on the design of the kayak, some cockpits are more open and others are more closed to the exterior environment.
A bulkhead is a sealed barrier on the inside of a kayak that functions to separate different compartments. They are primarily found on sit-inside kayaks to provide flotation and structure for internal storage compartments.
Tracking is the fancy term for a kayak’s ability to hold its course (i.e. stay straight) while you paddle. In general, longer kayaks are able to track straighter over distance, but many kayaks include a retractable skeg to boost their tracking ability.
What Kayak Size Do I Need?
Unless you already know you need to focus on kayaks made for big guys and gals, most of us will decide on kayak size based more on comfort and performance. So let’s go over the pros and cons of various kayak sizes.
While there are certainly shorter kayaks out there, an eight-foot length is one of the smaller options. This is a great kayak size for kids and small adults who are relatively new to the sport.
An eight-foot kayak can also be useful for whitewater applications. Their shorter length makes them more maneuverable, which should be a higher priority than top-end speed if you’re using a kayak for running rapids.
Another upside to an eight-foot kayak is added stability. Most shorter kayaks tend to be more stable for recreational paddling because they have a better length-to-width ratio.
That being said, not all eight-foot kayaks are super stable because some models are designed to be skinnier. You should always take both length and width into consideration when looking into a kayak’s stability.
If you’re looking for a fun, stable kayak that you can play in gentle rapids with, you should definitely consider an eight-foot model. These kayaks can also be great for smaller paddlers on frequently calm waters.
A 10-foot kayak is one of the more common sizes for recreational kayaks. These kayaks boast similar stability to an eight-foot kayak while offering additional storage capacity for longer day kayaking trips.
Most 10-foot kayaks will offer open storage compartments in both the bow and stern areas of the kayak. While you might need a dry bag if you need to keep anything from getting wet, these areas give you extra space to bring more gear and supplies on the water.
As you might imagine, 10-foot kayaks come in many shapes and styles. Generally, however, this is a great length for novice paddlers that are looking for a stable kayak at a reasonable price point.
This kayak size also retains excellent maneuverability for paddling in tight spaces. That’s another reason why some kayak anglers choose a 10-foot kayak for fishing in swampy locations or on rivers that require more precise maneuvers.
If you’re relatively new to kayaking and you plan to paddle primarily on calm lakes or slow-moving rivers, a 10-foot kayak is a great place to get started. This length is also good for recreational kayakers that like to bring a small furry companion with them out on the water.
As the length of a kayak increases, the potential for speed also tends to increase. That’s why a 12-foot kayak can be a great choice for intermediate paddlers that are starting to cover more ground on their day kayaking trips.
This kayak size offers a great balance between speed and maneuverability. Many 12-foot kayaks can achieve higher top-end speeds than their 10-foot counterparts.
As kayaks get longer they tend to be able to achieve higher top speeds because of their larger length-to-width ratio. This gives you, the paddler, more ability to cover more ground in shorter amounts of time.
Additionally, 12-foot kayaks tend to retain more maneuverability than a 14-foot kayak. This will especially come in handy if you tend to paddle on rivers or inlets that get skinnier as you head upstream.
If you’re confident in your basic kayaking skills and you’re looking for a kayak that you can use to start planning and enjoying longer paddling trips, definitely look into a 12-foot kayak size.
When you get up to the 14-foot length, you’ll be looking at kayaks that are primarily made for longer paddle trips. Whether that’s on the ocean or an inland waterway, most longer kayaks are built for top-end speed over a longer distance.
A 14-foot kayak is typically going to offer great top-end speed. These kayaks generally have a larger length-to-width ratio, which means they have less drag for you, as the paddler, to overcome on the water.
This also means that 14-foot kayaks tend to track straighter so that you don’t constantly have to correct your course to go where you want to go. It also helps that many of these kayaks come with a permanent or retractable skeg that further aids with tracking.
One downside of a 14-foot kayak is that it can be more susceptible to heavy winds. This is mostly true if you’re battling a crosswind because of the extra length of the kayak that allows wind to impact your course.
Overall, if you intend to do a lot of ocean kayaking, a 14-foot kayak size is a great place to start. This length is also great for anyone that’s planning a multi-day kayak expedition because these kayaks typically boast plenty of storage capacity.
Other Important Considerations
Aside from selecting the right length for your kayak, there are a host of other important considerations to keep in mind before finalizing your decision. In this section, we’re going to provide the rest of the essential criteria to help you select the best possible kayak for your applications.
Sit on Top Versus Sit Inside
In addition to length, deciding between a sit on top or a sit-inside kayak is arguably the most important decision when buying a new kayak. Each style has its unique advantages and disadvantages.
In general, sit on top kayaks are more stable and maneuverable than sit inside kayaks. That is why you’ll find a lot of kayak rental companies offering sit on top kayaks rather than the sit inside variety.
Many rental companies also choose to offer sit on top kayaks because they tend to be easier for people to climb in and out of when getting started. This type of kayak can also be more stable for larger individuals.
Another reason is that sit on top kayaks tend to be easier to climb back into in deep water. If you do happen to capsize in your new kayak, the ability to get back in and get settled is probably going to be important.
However, the downside of a sit on top kayak is that they almost always include scupper holes in the hull.
This is a useful feature for your kayak not to accumulate water if you capsize, but it also means that your backside is likely to get (and stay) wet when paddling a sit on top kayak.
In contrast, sit inside kayaks offer a much drier ride because of their more closed cockpit design. They tend to have higher gunwales that keep water from splashing or dripping into the cockpit while you’re paddling.
Sit inside kayaks are most commonly used by companies that specialize in ocean kayaking. For this application, a dry ride can make or break their guest’s overall kayaking experience.
Another major benefit of a sit-inside kayak is the ability to cover the cockpit with a spray skirt. This helps you keep the core of your body warm and dry in adverse conditions, as well as to keep any gear you have stored in the cockpit dry.
Because of the bulkhead design that gives sit-inside kayaks their flotation, these kayaks also tend to offer more storage capacity than their sit on top counterparts. This makes them a great option for long day trips or multi-day expeditions.
On the flip side, a downside of sit-inside kayaks is that they are more difficult to climb into when you’re starting out. Their closed cockpit design tends to offer slimmer dimensions than a sit on top kayak, which can prove difficult for some larger paddlers.
Sit-inside kayaks are also considerably more difficult to climb back into in deep water.
This skill can actually require quite a bit of practice and, before that, anyone loo
king to buy their first sit-inside kayak should certainly be familiar with the wet exit technique in case of a capsize.
For newer kayakers, sit-inside kayaks can also feel very squirmy and unstable when you first climb inside. They simply take a little bit more time to get comfortable with than a sit on top kayak.
The width of a kayak is measured from gunwale-to-gunwale (i.e. side-to-side). This measurement plays a large role in the stability of a kayak, but it can also impact your comfort while you’re paddling.
A wider kayak tends to mean a larger cockpit, which can be an important consideration for larger paddlers. That being said, more width can lead to less straight-line speed and tracking ability.
To keep it as simple as possible, wider kayaks tend to offer more stability and greater comfort for recreational applications. In turn, narrower kayaks boast higher top-end speeds and better performance over long distances.
Primary Versus Secondary Stability
Some kayaks that feel very stable in calm waters can suddenly become unstable when conditions get rough. Perhaps surprisingly, the opposite can also be true and this is due to how the kayak’s hull design impacts its primary and secondary stability.
Primary stability refers to a kayak’s initial stability on flat water. Secondary stability is a function of how well a kayak stays stable when tipped on its side, which can become extremely important in adverse water conditions.
The design of a kayak’s hull impacts its overall performance. There are many different hull designs and all of them serve varying purposes that often depend on the intended activity for the kayak.
It’s important to know the basics of how a kayak’s hull design will impact your ability to get the most out of your kayak on the water. So let’s go over some of the basic designs that you might find while shopping.
Kayaks with rounded hulls generally can achieve good speeds while staying relatively stable. Their round edges give these kayaks a torpedo-like shape and also make them very maneuverable.
Kayaks with rounded hulls tend to have more secondary stability than primary stability. This is why you’ll see many kayaks designed for river or whitewater applications using a rounded hull design.
Many sit-inside kayaks boast a V-shaped hull because this hull design is great for straighter tracking and reduced drag. This means that kayaks with a V-shaped hull are also faster than most kayaks with other hull designs.
V-shaped kayaks also tend to have more secondary stability than primary stability. This is why many ocean kayaks have a V-shaped hull design because they are built to handle heavy winds and ocean currents.
Flat hulls are most common in whitewater playboats and even some fishing kayaks. This type of hull design offers a great balance between primary stability and easy maneuverability.
Kayaks with flat hulls offer great primary stability but poor secondary stability. This high-level primary stability is the reason that you’ll sometimes see kayak anglers able to stand vertically in their fishing kayak with a flat hull.
The pontoon design is less common, but it’s most alluring feature is stability. Although kayaks with this type of hull design aren’t known for their speed, they offer good maneuverability and exceptional stability for novice kayakers.
Kayaks with pontoon hulls combine the secondary stability of a rounded hull design with the primary stability of a flat hull design. This hull design is the most stable out there, which is why you’ll see it on many recreational kayaks designed for beginners.
As you gain experience and comfort with kayaking in general, it can be natural to have the desire to head out for longer trips. Before doing so, however, you’ll need to know how to pack your kayak for longer trips.
You’ll also need to know that your kayak has enough storage capacity to fit all of your desired gear comfortably and securely. The amount and design of a kayak’s storage areas are an important consideration even if you’re buying your first-ever kayak.
Sealed storage compartments are essential for anyone that envisions multi-day kayaking trips in their future. While some sit on top kayaks will offer a small sealed storage hatch, you’ll need a sit-inside kayak if you really require multiple liters of storage space.
On the other hand, if you intend to use your kayak for recreational use and simply want to bring along a phone or wallet for emergency purposes, you’ll be just fine with a sit on top kayak that has a small storage hatch in front of the kayak’s seat.
Weight capacity is another important consideration when narrowing down your kayak options. In general, we recommend choosing a kayak that’s rated to hold at least 100 pounds more than your body weight.
This gives you plenty of ability to bring extra gear and supplies on your kayak. It also gives you the freedom to take a small child along with you or to sit your four-legged companion in the bow storage area.
In many cases, the weight capacity of a kayak (combined with your body weight) will determine how high or low your kayak sits in the water.
If you prefer to always sit up high and out of the water, you’ll want a kayak that offers a weight capacity well in excess of your body weight.
The downside of sitting up too high in the water is that your kayak can be more susceptible to the effects of wind. It can also make your paddle strokes less effective because it will make it more difficult to dip the paddle’s blades deeper into the water.
These are just a few extra considerations related to a kayak’s weight capacity, but there’s really one golden rule: make sure that the kayak you choose is rated to hold your weight plus the weight of any gear or freeloaders (i.e. your dog) that you plan to bring along.
This factor is more relevant to sit-inside kayaks than their sit on top counterparts, but it’s still worth mentioning. The dimensions of a kayak’s cockpit will impact your ability to get (and stay) comfortable once you’re inside.
A good rule of thumb is to make sure the kayak you choose will offer at least three to four inches of clearance for your body on either side.
This allows for the extra room that your PFD will require when you’re practicing safe kayaking habits.
It’s also good to look at the height of the cockpit and determine whether or not you’ll be comfortable with your knees slightly bent while paddling.
This is the most ergonomic paddling position, so you’ll want a kayak with cockpit dimensions that allow you to bend your knees and engage your core muscles.
A Final Note
If you’re passionate about ocean kayaking, you’re obviously going to need a much different kayak than someone who likes to run rapids in their free time. Make sure you know the primary activity you’ll be using your kayak for before finalizing your selection.
Once you have that aspect dialed in, your body size will play a large role in selecting a kayak that you’ll be comfortable in.
If you choose a sit-inside kayak, for example, make sure that you feel comfortable with the cockpit dimensions because this is where you’ll be spending all of your time.
At the end of the day, shorter kayaks offer more maneuverability and stability while longer kayaks offer higher top-end speeds and better tracking.
These are, of course, generalized definitions, but we hope they help you answer the simple question of, “What kayak size do I need?”