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Guide to Buying a Kayak

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Buying a kayak can be overwhelming, here are some things to consider if you're thinking about purchasing

Comparison of an Expedition, Day Touring, and Recreational Kayak

What do you want to do with your kayak?

What type of paddling you intend to do dictates what style of kayak you should look for. Kayaks can be broken down into a couple of categories based on their intended uses. For this guide we are going to stick to sit-inside kayaks for use on flat water. Whitewater, pedal, and sit on top kayaks have their own set of considerations.

Recreational Kayaks are designed to fit most people and be very stable. They’re intended to stay on calm water such as small lakes, or near the shore on larger bodies of water. They typically have large openings that make them easy to get in and out of, and potentially have enough room for a dog or very small child to fit between the paddlers legs. They may or may not have bulkheads and hatches meaning if a paddler capsizes they can fill completely with water and potentially sink. Generally these kayaks are under 13’ long and over 24” wide. Being shorter and wider they should be easy to maneuver, stable, and relatively slow. Recreational kayaks are also well suited to being used on larger boats.
Touring Kayaks, sometimes called sea kayaks, or expedition kayaks are designed to cover distance efficiently, carry cargo, and handle rougher water. These kayaks typically have a much smaller opening designed to accept a spray skirt, are over 14’ long and are under 24” wide. Being longer and more narrow they are faster, less stable initially, and can be harder to turn quickly. They should have at least 2 bulkheads and hatches for carrying gear and keeping the boat from completely filling with water if a capsize occurs.

Light Touring Kayaks, sometimes called day touring kayaks fall in between recreational and touring kayaks. These kayaks are designed to handle more challenging water, can accept a spray skirt, and haul some cargo, but are shorter than an expedition kayak. Typically these kayaks are between 11’-15’ long, under 25” wide, and have at
least 1 bulkhead and hatch. In terms of performance and handling characteristics they fall in the middle of recreational and touring kayaks–they should be relatively stable, relatively quick, and relatively easy to turn.

 

It’s worth keeping in mind that you can always use an expedition kayak to paddle on calm water safely but the reverse isn’t true; you can’t use a recreational kayak safely on rough water.

turtles on a log as seen from a kayak
Kayak Cockpit Size Comoarison

Considerations of a more personal nature

Do you need extra leg or hip room? Maybe you have a short torso, and need a lower deck so you don’t feel like you’re swimming in the kayak. Kayaks are not one size fits all. For folks who are bigger you’ll need a kayak designed with the larger paddler in mind. This can mean more room for long legs, wider hips, and more carrying capacity. This can be accomplished by raising the deck height on the kayak, as well as by making the kayak itself wider and longer. Sometimes these are called a large model, sometimes HV (for high volume). For folks who are smaller, a kayak that is designed with you in mind is also a good idea. A lower deck, narrower kayak and cockpit, and a shorter kayak overall make for a boat that fits more snugly. These are sometimes called a small size, LV (low volume), or LP (low profile).

There are also personal preferences to consider. Do you want a skeg, rudder, or neither? Do you find the seat comfortable? Do you like the way the kayak paddles? The answer to some, if not all of these questions might not be immediately clear. The absolute best way to determine the right kayak for you is to try different kayaks out. As long as you are buying a kayak suited to the type of paddling you plan to do, and you fit in comfortably, everything else will be your personal preference. 

Anchor 1

Kayak Construction Materials

Excluding inflatable, folding, and traditional wooden/skin on frame kayaks, there are 3 basic materials to consider. 

Rotomolded polyethylene kayaks, or what most people commonly refer to as plastic kayaks was for many years the most ubiquitous option. You can find recreational, light touring, and expedition kayaks made out of rotomolded polyethylene. Rotomolded kayaks are in a lot of cases the cheapest of the 3 materials we will discuss as well as the most durable. The big drawback is they are also the heaviest. 

Thermoformed kayaks have become increasingly popular over the past decade and offer some benefits over rotomolded kayaks. Thermoformed plastic is lighter and stiffer than rotomolded plastic but also more expensive. In a lot of cases kayaks made from thermoformed plastic are more durable than composite kayaks (discussed below), although not as hardy as rotomolded kayaks. There is a reason whitewater kayaks are made out of rotomolded plastic. 

The third and final material we will discuss is composite kayaks–this includes kayaks made from fiberglass, Kevlar, or carbon fiber. Many people consider composite kayaks to be the most high performance, and indeed racing kayaks are almost exclusively made from composite material. They can be the lightest and stiffest, and the most expensive of the materials we have discussed. It is getting increasingly difficult to find composite kayaks that are not custom built to order, so if you’re considering a composite kayak you may have to account for build/delivery time by the manufacturer. 

Bulkhead and hatch
a kayaker pulling a kayak on wheels

Weight Matters

A note on kayak weight: it’s not uncommon for people to get hung up on how much a kayak weighs. While weight is an important factor, in a lot of cases it is not as impactful as people make it out to be. Unless you're carrying the kayak, you likely won't notice the weight. Whether you’re putting it on a roof rack, or carrying it to and from the water, this is where you are going to feel how much your kayak actually weighs. Having a lighter boat will make transporting your kayak more pleasant, but there are also things like load assist racks or portage wheels to make things easier. 

 

All that being said, the less barriers to going paddling you have, the more you will actually go. If transporting your kayak is a huge chore, that will equate to less time spent on the water enjoying it. My best advice is to pick up any kayak you are considering buying. Think about how hard it would be to lift one end onto your vehicle, if that seems impossible it’s likely you’re not going to have an easy time loading and unloading your kayak. While you may not have to do that to transport the kayak it’s a good exercise to figure out if a particular kayak is in fact too heavy for you. 

Budget

Unfortunately, budget plays a role in purchasing a kayak. If your kayaking goal is to sit on the water and hang out, you can pick up a recreational kayak from a big box store for under $500 and go to town. As of writing this guide in early 2024, a well designed, new recreational kayak will run you in the neighborhood of $1000. A paddle, PFD, and basic safety equipment will be another $200-$500. Light touring kayaks can be anywhere from $1600-$2600, expedition Kayaks will start at around $2000 and can be upwards $6500 for a custom composite model. 

Mt. Rainier as seen from a white kayak
Size Comparison of Delta Kayak Models

Final Thoughts

Unless you plan on doing extended overnight trips, a light touring kayak tends to be the sweet spot for a lot of folks paddling in the Puget Sound. Assuming you have the skills to be out in rough conditions like wind, waves, or current, the kayak can handle it. They may not be as fast as an expedition kayak, but they are lighter and easier to transport which hopefully means you’re more likely to use it. 

 

One final piece of advice for people looking to buy a kayak is to go take a class. This will provide you with the essential skills you need to kayak safely. It will also offer you an opportunity to try out at least one kayak in different situations. You should also be able to chat with the instructors about their recommendations for kayaks and other gear. 

Cliff Notes/TLDR

  • Buy a kayak designed for the type of paddling you will be doing

  • Try out or at a minimum sit in different kayaks to see what you like and what fits you well

  • Take a class!

A triple kayak on a beach with sunset in the background
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