Beginner Guide: Common Types of Kayaks and Different Kayak Uses
By Natalie Ringel
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Updated June 29, 2021
When I first started kayaking, I had no idea that there were so many different types of kayaks let alone that the weight, shape, size and materials of a kayak greatly influence how it can be used in different outdoor spaces. In this kayak guide for beginners, we offer a comparison between the most common types of kayaks their best uses.
Whether you are new to kayaking or want to purchase your own kayak, knowing the differences between common types of kayaks can be very useful. Each of the kayaks in the guide below is built to target different environments. For example, a kayak used for whitewater paddling will look very different from a recreational lakeside kayak.
That being said, there is a kayak best-suited for every type of outdoor adventure. Hopefully, the beginner kayaking guide below will help you decide which kayak is right for you. With a paddle in hand, there is no shortage of epic places for you to explore by boat!
Different Types of Kayaks
As always, price should never be an obstacle in getting outside! Although purchasing a kayak can be expensive, it is a major investment for your time outdoors. After all, if you do not have a quality boat, you won’t get very far.
For convenience and clarity, we will use the price guide listed below to give you a glimpse at the cost of the different types of kayaks. With this in mind, hopefully you can make a decision about which type of kayak best suits your needs as a paddler.
Kayak Pricing Guide
$ = $500-$800
Traditional Types of Kayaks
Sit-On Top Kayaks
Common Uses: Recreational use on lakes, ponds, streams and slow-moving rivers
Pros: Easy to get in and out of boat, great for warm climates, self-draining, large cargo space
Cons: Heavier than sit-in kayaks, paddlers will usually get wet while kayaking due to seat positioning
One of the most traditional types of kayaks is the sit-on top kayak. This kind of kayak is commonly used for recreational paddling on lakes and slow-moving rivers. Sit-on top kayaks are unique because paddlers literally sit atop the kayak compared to sit-in kayaks which have seating inside the boat itself.
Many novice kayakers enjoy using sit-on top kayaks over sit-in kayaks because the elevated seating alleviates any sense of claustrophobia you may feel while inside the boat. Also, paddlers will long legs especially like sit-on top kayaks because the extra space means no leg cramping– an extra bonus!
For your lakeside adventures, we recommend a sit-on top kayak like the Hobie Mirage Passport 10.5 Sit-On-Top Kayak. Although sit-on top kayaks tend to be heavier than sit-in kayaks, the Hobie Mirage is made of lightweight materials so you can easily transport it from land to water. Best of all, the Hobie Mirage’s large cargo space allows you store and easily access all of your paddle trip essentials so you can spend the whole day out on the water.
CHECK REVIEWS & PRICES FOR THEHOBIE MIRAGE PASSPORTKAYAK:
Pros: Multiple points of contact with the body allows for greater control, lightweight and fast, covered cargo space
Cons: More narrow design means less storage space and leg room
The straight and narrow design of the traditional sit-in kayak makes it one of the best types of kayaks for lake and river paddling. Besides sit-on top kayaks, sit-in kayaks are the most commonly used type of kayak for recreational use in all types of water.
While the narrow design of most sit-in kayaks means less leg room, the ability to maintain many points of contact with the boat (with your arms, knees, buttocks and legs) gives you much more control of the speed and direction of the boat. Because of this, sit-in kayaks are better if you are paddling with a destination in mind; a lower center of gravity and lightweight design means you will fly through the water to reach your destination.
Whether you are exploring a coastline or are coasting down river, we recommend using a sit-in kayak like the Aquaglide Deschutes 130 Inflatable Kayak. This type of kayak is great for day trips and touring new places. Best of all, its covered cargo space will help protect your kayak gear from any spray so you can cruise through the water without worrying about getting wet.
CHECK REVIEWS & PRICES FOR THEAQUAGLIDE DESCHUTES INFLATABLE KAYAK:
Pros: Lightweight yet durable, specifically designed to protect paddlers from waves
Cons: Unique design is best for sea kayaking so it is more difficult to use on other waterways, narrow design
The name says it all; sea kayaks are uniquely designed to be used recreationally for paddling in the ocean and along coastlines. Therefore, if you live near the coast or are planning an ocean adventure, using a sea kayak is a wonderful way to get the most out of your experience paddling.
Upon first look, sea kayaks do not appear to be too different from traditional sit-in kayaks. However, sea kayaks are different from traditional types of kayaks because they are made from lightweight materials that allow you to easily maneuver through ocean waves. Unlike freshwater lake or river kayaking, sea kayaking is a whole different type of kayaking– we recommend that you practice paddling and get your sea legs on calmer waters before heading out into the ocean.
For your thrilling ocean adventures, we recommend using a sea kayak like the Advanced Elements Convertible Inflatable Kayak. This kayak’s long and narrow build enables you to fly through the roughest of whitecaps. Pro tip– if the waves start to become a little daunting while you are paddling, try aligning your kayak perpendicular to the waves. This helps you to cut through the waves with more control and stability, always a plus when sea kayaking.
CHECK REVIEWS & PRICES FOR THEADVANCED ELEMENTS KAYAK:
Unlike the fiberglass and composite mixtures of traditional types of kayaks, inflatable kayaks are made of flexible and puncture-resistant materials that perform well in most types of moving water. The natural flexibility of inflatable kayaks not only makes them great for paddling around lakes, rivers and streams, but also makes them super portable. Therefore, if you are planning a paddle trip with a portage, using an inflatable kayak will certainly lighten your load!
In general, inflatable kayaks are easy to use for all ability levels and often come in single person and tandem kayak styles. This type of kayak is truly all about flexibility– both in its design and use. Although it may not be as durable as traditional types of kayaks, it offers a great starting point for anyone interested in kayaking and exploring the great outdoors.
Best of all, this alternative type of kayak has dominated many recreational and touring boating shops, so they are relatively inexpensive compared to fiberglass kayaks. If you are new to kayaking or want to test out owning your own kayak, purchasing an inflatable kayak like the Aquaglide Chinook 100 Inflatable Kayak is an awesome way to ease into paddling.
CHECK REVIEWS & PRICES FOR THEAQUAGLIDE CHINOOK INFLATABLE KAYAK:
Cons: Not as durable as traditional kayaks, expensive
Folding kayaks are a relatively new kind of kayak that have totally changed the way outdoor lovers can interact with nature! If you live in an apartment or plan to paddle in a remote destination that requires hiking to water, a foldable kayak is great option to make your travels easier.
In almost every spect, folding kayaks are the same as traditional sit-in kayaks. However, their ability to fold in half means that the materials are slightly less durable. For most kayakers, the many benefits of using a folding kayak outweighs this one con; the ability to easily store, portage and pack a folding kayak is making it one of the most commonly used types of kayaks today.
So, if you are tight on space or are eager to travel with a kayak, we recommend purchasing a folding kayak like the Old Town Loon 106 Angler Kayak. This kayak is similar to the other common types of kayaks listed above, and will provide you with the flexibility to kayak anytime and anywhere.
CHECK REVIEWS & PRICES FOR THEOLD TOWN LOON ANGLER KAYAK:
Pros: Durable, specially designed to move with the rapids
Cons: Can be more expensive and heavier than traditional kayaks
Most avid kayakers interact with whitewater rapids at some point in their paddle careers. Whether happening upon whitewater rapids is an intentional choice or not, paddling through rapids is equally thrilling and treacherous. Therefore, it is extra important to be equipped with the right kind of kayak when paddling through these fast-moving waters.
If you know that you will be encountering whitewater rapids on your paddle trip, it would be wise to use a robust kayak specifically designed to handle the rapids. These types of kayaks can be used recreationally on all types of waterways, and often have additional safety features to help make them more durable.
For adventure-seekers looking to paddle through whitewater rapids, we recommend using a kayak like the Aquaglide McKenzie 105 Inflatable Kayak. Its price and materials are comparable to traditional types of kayaks plus it is made of extremely flexible materials so you will be able to work with, not against, the rapids you encounter. As always, safety first! If you plan on kayaking through whitewater rapids, we also recommend wearing a helmet or form of protective head gear just in case it gets really rowdy out on the water. Check out some of our favorite whitewater helmets here.
CHECK REVIEWS & PRICES FOR THEAQAUGLIDE MCKENZIE KAYAK:
Pros: Ability to kayak with friends and family, very stable, able to be used on most waterways
Cons: Robust design makes tandem kayaks heavy, more expensive than one-person kayaks
While many of us in the kayak community enjoy paddling as a peaceful, solo activity, kayaking is also an extremely fun outdoor activity to do with friends and family! Built like sit-in kayaks, tandem kayaks are offered at most rental shops and are often used recreationally for tour groups on lakes and streams.
In a tandem kayak, you can enjoy exploring new places with another paddler with one person sitting in front of the other. Best of all, most tandem kayaks have extra lining on the seats which makes them one of the most comfortable types of kayaks on the market. The extra length of a tandem kayak also means more leg room so you can feel free to really stretch out and enjoy the beautiful scenery on your paddle trip.
If you want to experience the outdoors with a partner, there is no better way than to literally go kayaking in the same boat! With two people paddling, you can really fly through the water and will barely feel the boat’s extra weight. Tandem kayaks are especially popular for people paddling with young kids or novices– experienced paddlers can help control the boat while novices improve their skills.
If the dual design of a tandem kayak fits your needs, we recommend looking at the STAR Raven II Tandem Inflatable Kayak. The inflatable design further helps to keep the boat lightweight and makes it pretty portable. From beach getaways to rivers and streams, using a tandem kayak is a great way to introduce new paddlers to the joy of kayaking and share meaningful moments in nature with others.
CHECK REVIEWS & PRICES FOR THESTAR RAVEN II TANDEM KAYAK:
Pros: Pedal-powered means hands-free paddling, great for kayak fishing and long paddles
Cons: Not suitable for shallow waters, requires extensive use of the legs
Peddle-powered kayaks are one of the newest kinds of kayaks to hit the kayaking market, and they have certainly taken the paddle community by storm. Peddle kayaks are similar to sit-on top kayaks in that you sit slightly above the rest of the boat and use your legs to power the kayak. While the sit-on top design is more roomy than a sit-in kayak, it is a little less stable. Therefore, this type of kayak is best used in still or slow-moving waters.
Since you are using your legs and feet to move the kayak, your hands are left free to be used for fishing, birdwatching or can simply relax. Besides being extremely compatible with these other outdoor activities, peddle kayaks offer a unique alternative to traditional kayaking and is easy for novices and elderly paddlers to get used to being in a boat.
If you are looking for a fun new way to experience kayaking, then trying a peddle kayak is an awesome alternative to the more common types of kayaks listed above. Peddle kayaks like the Hobie Mirage Passport 10.5 Sit-On-Top Kayak are especially great for activities like kayak fishing, and have a fin to help you steer the boat with ease.
CHECK REVIEWS & PRICES FOR THEHOBIE MIRAGE PEDAL KAYAK:
Since there are so many different types of kayaks, it can be a little challenging to know which type of kayak is best for you. Below, we have listed a few factors to consider when purchasing a kayakso you can make the best choice possible.
1. Where do you want to paddle?
Lake kayaking is one of the most peaceful ways to explore your local area or a new destination. The best type of kayak for lake paddling is a sit-on-top or sit-in recreational kayak. These boats can handle small waves and currents, but are best for calm lakes and ponds where you can remain easily in control.
River kayaking offers the best of both worlds: rapids and obstacles make for an exhilarating, yet safe, paddle adventure. Because river kayaking usually involves both flowing and still waters, you can use a sit-on-top or sit-in recreational kayak. However, the best type of kayak for river kayaking is a short kayak. The shortened length allows you to have more control while navigating through rapids and make quick turns if needed.
Ocean or coastline kayaking consistently proves to be one of the most beautiful ways to engage with the outdoors. However, keeping control of your boat can be difficult due to choppy waters, waves and tides. Therefore, the best kind of kayak for paddling in coastal waters is a sit-in kayak with a rudder or a sea kayak so you can maneuver through the water easily without worrying about capsizing.
2. How do different kayak materials affect your paddling?
The materials of your kayak will affect its durability and weight. Most kayaks are made from a combination of plastics or fiberglass. These types of kayaks are lightweight, durable and will move quickly down flowing waters. In general, kayaks made from fiberglass are the most durable and scratch-resistant. While these sturdy kayaks are of high quality, they tend to be heavier and more expensive because of their fine construction. So, if you are an avid kayaker looking to head out on intense outdoor adventures, a fiberglass kayak is a great option to support your needs.
Kayaks constructed of plastic are a sort of middle ground between fiberglass kayaks and inflatable kayaks. Today, most kayaks are made of a combination of plastics and synthetic fibers which makes them lightweight and somewhat durable. Although they are not as sturdy as fiberglass kayaks, they tend to be less expensive and more lightweight. This makes plastic kayaks a great option for novice and intermediate paddlers or those looking to spend less money on a boat.
Inflatable kayaks are made differently than the composite fiberglass and plastic kayaks mentioned above. The main materials used in inflatable kayaks are the synthetic fabrics PVC and Hypalon. While these materials are made to maximize durability, they are not as durable as the hard shells of traditional kayaks. However, they are extremely portable and lightweight. Therefore, if you are on the go or want to paddle on clam waters, an inflatable kayak would be a great alternative to traditional plastic kayaks.
3. Do you need additional support or accommodations?
Kayak seats offer some support while you paddle, but if you plan on sitting in a kayak for a long period of time you may want to consider buying a kayak with extra lumbar support. Or, you can purchase a kayak seat cushion for additional support and comfort. Many kayakers enjoy using Yakpads Paddle Seat Cushion to make kayaking more comfortable.
Kayak paddle clips or leashes are also a handy tool to help you stay comfortable while paddling. Many paddlers enjoy using paddle clips like Yakclips Removable Paddle Clips because it allows you to release your paddle without fear of it floating away. If you are a novice paddler, paddling with a child or like to rest your arms and hands while kayaking, then these inexpensive removable clips would be a great addition to your kayaking gear.
Now that you know some more information about the common types of kayaks and their uses, you can get out on the water and truly embrace the outdoors. To help your trips run smoothly, check out these kayak carts (kayak carts can be a lifesaver when trying to move your kayak from land to water). Otherwise, grab your paddle, life jacket, and head to our kayak destinations page to begin your next great adventure!
What to Pack for Kayaking Trips
Swimsuit: Wearing a swimsuit is essential for being out on the water! When canoeing and kayaking, chances are you are going to get wet, so best to be prepared! Click here to compare men’s and women’s styles and prices for our favorite swimsuits.
Sunglasses: Being out on the water is beautiful, but the water can really reflect light! Make sure to bring a pair ofsunglassesand croakies to keep them from falling off.
Hat: It’s best to keep the sun off of your head to keep you cool. Whether you prefer a nice bucket hat or a vintage baseball cap, keeping cool will ensure an awesome trip.
Water Bottle: Keeping hydrated is no joke! Paddling is a great way to exercise and relax, but that means it takes a lot of energy too! Make sure to drink plenty of water throughout your trip withthese cool water bottles.
Sunscreen and Bug Spray: Don’t let the elements stop you from having an amazing paddle! I recommend bringingsunscreen and bug spray in the boat with you to ward off any pests and sunburns.
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