These days there seems to be a kayak for everything. There are recreational kayaks, mid-sized kayaks, full-sized kayaks, fishing kayaks, whitewater kayaks, inflatable kayaks, and more. What do you need to know when choosing your first kayak?
There are three basic categories of kayaks and then a number of specialty categories. Familiarizing yourself with the differences can make choosing your first kayak much easier when you can start to rule out entire categories.
These are generally 12’ long or less. They can be sit-on-top, or sit-in and are usually meant for tooling around smaller bodies of water. They serve well as knock-around boats or the extra boat available for visitors to use.
Recreational sit-in kayaks are strictly for calm, flat water because if you take on water, or flip one over, you will have a formidable struggle to right it and get back in. Sit-on-tops are more versatile and all you to venture into rougher waters. But since recreational boats are built for stability over performance, they are not the most efficient in rough conditions.
Mid-sized kayaks are usually in the 12’-14’ range. They fall between recreational and full-sized boats though they are still used mostly recreationally. If you have some kayaking experience, you are somewhat more adventurous, and you are relatively athletic you might want to look at a mid-sized boat.
Mid-sized kayaks are designed to be able to tip over. Since there are bulkheads in front and in back of you, only the cockpit can take on water. It is still going to be much easier to get rescued than to self-rescue, but with proper instruction both are possible.
They are narrower than rec boats and will typically be faster. These kayaks usually have thigh braces to help you control your movements using your hips rather than having to rely solely on the paddle. They provide a more specific fit than rec boats. You should still take a rescue class if you are going to be paddling a mid-sized boat.
Full-sized kayaks are for adventurous people looking for performance and the option to paddle anywhere. These boats are much more efficient and will cover more ground more quickly than the others. But you sacrifice some stability and comfort for that. These kayaks can be loaded up for long trips and can handle rough water much better than the other types. You will need to be willing to overcome a learning curve and take more classes to safely and efficiently paddle full-sized boats.
The other categories of kayaks are much more specialized and if you are in the market for one, you probably know what you’re looking for.
Fishing kayaks are designed for your fishing needs with rod holders, sometimes pedal drive systems, platforms stable and flat enough to stand on, and room for more gear.
Whitewater kayaks are specifically designed for handling whitewater. You will need to work with an instructor to learn how to navigate whitewater.
Inflatable kayaks are for those with transport and/or storage issues. Typically if you can transport and store a plastic kayak, you will be better off with one of those for the sake of ease and performance.
When you are choosing your first kayak the most important things to consider are the type(s) of paddling you want to do and the amount of time and effort you are willing to invest to make that happen.