Choosing a Kayak
A Guide for the First time Buyer

Many thanks to Louis Poulin who kindly agreed to share the information he compiled for the Durham Kayakers Club.

The most common question we find posted in the group is “What kind of kayak should I buy?” Unfortunately, this group or any kayak group may be the wrong place to ask that question.

Kayak selection is personal, driven by factors like your height, weight, body shape, level of fitness, experience goals, experience level, and bank account. Asking what will work for you is a bit like asking your running group what running shoes to buy when you just started running. Everybody has an opinion or a brand preference, and likely every person you ask will recommend the brand and model of running shoe they are using at that time. The same is true for kayaks. It’s not a bad thing – that’s simply the solution that they’ve found for themselves, and they’d like to share it with you.

Therefore, the only person who can tell you what kayak is best for you, will be you. Your answer will lie in a series of questions you'll need to ask yourself.

Short detour: Most kayak instructors will advise you to take a course before you even begin to consider what kayak to buy. Why? Learning basic characteristics of a kayak, as well as fundamental skills, will give you a better understanding of how a kayak works, and what characteristics you’ll prefer to have in your first kayak. You will also have the chance to try a variety of kayaks, and see what you like, and what you don’t like. Even better, come out to paddling events, and try out as many kayaks as you can. Most people are happy to let you try out their ride.

So, looking for your answer, it’s best to go through a series of questions.

Sea Kayak vs Recreational Kayak

    Sea Kayak  Recreational Kayak
 Length  Over 12 feet and up to 16 or 17 feet long  12 feet and under


 Narrow  Wide

Cockpit (Where you sit)

Smaller, usually used with a sprayskirt  Bigger


 2 watertight bulkheads (sealed compartments) in front and behind the cockpit  May have one watertight bulkhead which can be used for storage

 Fiberglass, kevlar or polyethylene (plastic)

 Polyethylene (plastic)

Lighter weight, especially if not made of plastic

 Heavier due to heavier construction materials

Suited for longer distances and waves, largely due to its length and shape;
It tracks in a straight line more easily.

 Tends to be less fast than a sea kayak and harder to paddle in a straight line

Primary stability (staying in one spot) requires more balance, but really stable when moving 

 Very stable when remaining in one spot,
 Speed  More efficient, Faster  Not as efficient as a sea kayak
 Capability Can be loaded up with gear for trips, easier to travel longer distances, can handle wind and waves better Shorter distances; for use on calmer water
 Cost More expensive Less expensive

What type of kayaking do I want to do?

People who have been involved in kayaking for a while will likely have several kayaks, simply because different kayaks fit different activities. The kayak you take on a camping trip will be different from what you paddle in white water, surfing waves, fishing for bass, day paddling on a quiet lake, or exploring the coast of Lake Superior. Therefore, it will help to decide what type of paddling you will mainly be doing. If you’re going to be using it to go camping, a 17’ kayak at 75lb will prove to be a challenge on the portage trails.

Make your decision on what you’ll be comfortable doing for the next few months, not based on what you think you might want to do a year from now. A high-end kayak is no good sitting in the rafters if you’re hesitant to take it out.

What’s my budget?

You can buy a kayak anywhere from $100 to $10,000. So, determine what your range will be. Keep in mind that you’ll also have to purchase some basic gear to go along with your kayak (PFD, paddle and safety kit will be the absolute minimum), as well as transportation equipment. When determining your budget include costs of gear, transportation, as well as storage if you need to rent it. Establishing these costs early in the game will be beneficial in the long run.

New or used?

Would you feel comfortable buying a used kayak? By buying second hand, you’ll be able to make your money stretch a little farther, and you’ll likely be able to buy a higher quality kayak second hand, than what you could buy new. And you may be able to get them to throw in some gear to sweeten the deal. Make sure to bring someone who knows kayaks so that they can help you avoid buying something that may bring you problems.

Where will I store my kayak?

Is this going to be an issue? If so, you may want to consider an inflatable kayak, or a folding kayak as an alternative. Both these types of kayaks have greatly increased in quality in the recent years. Not quite an option for white water or big waves, but you’ll have plenty of opportunity to get out for enjoyable moments on flat water.

Will transportation be an issue?

What kind of vehicle do you have? What kind of roof rack can you put on your car? Will that sunroof be an issue? Can you get a 17’ kayak on top of your Mini? If you can’t put up a roof rack, or don’t have a car, then you may be going back to the previous question’s considerations: inflatable or folding. Associated with this decision: will I be able to get my kayak up on the car’s roof by myself, or will there be other equipment costs associated? This is a great question to ask of a group, as there are a myriad of rack options, and you’ll likely find someone with the same type of car you do. Or quite possibly, you’ll learn of some creative ideas that will fit your budget nicely.

What material would I prefer?

If you’re just starting out, you’ll likely be looking for something that can take the bumps and bruises of the learning process. A polyethylene or ABS (plastic) kayak may be a better choice. As your skills increase, you may be looking at more efficient kayaks made of Kevlar, cedar strip, fibreglass, or a composite. Higher end usually means more expensive, but it also means that it’s more prone to damage and will need greater care and upkeep.

How does my unique body type factor in?

A kayak should fit the paddler like a glove. Factors that affect the fit include foot size, leg length, torso height, waist/butt, and maximum capacity. Be sure to try the kayak(s) on for size – don’t be shy, get right into that kayak! You want the kayak to fit around you snug - not too tight (cramped or rubbing), and not too loose. If you feel any discomfort in a few minutes of sitting, it will only be amplified out on the water. Have the salesperson check for fit and make any adjustments to the foot pedals and back support that might accommodate for your unique fit. Only by “trying it on” will you know if it fits you or not. I’ve been in kayaks built for petite people, and my size 10 feet were too cramped to fit comfortably on the foot pedals. If you’re generously proportioned, a narrow cockpit may be a difficult squeeze and greatly frustrating, no matter how highly recommended the kayak comes. If you’re a heavier paddler, you may also want to keep an eye on maximum capacity – if you’re around 250 lbs, and plan on camping with another 50 lbs of gear, you’ll need a kayak that can accommodate that type of load.

How does my experience level fit in?

You may hear terms related to hull design, such as “hard chine”, “moderate chine”, and “soft chine”. You’ll also hear terms such as “rocker”, “skeg” and “rudder”. Concepts such as “primary stability vs secondary stability” may also be thrown around. Since this is your first kayak, you will likely be looking for a kayak that will offer you a little more stability (wide, flat bottom) with a larger cockpit for easier entry. As your skills progress, you’ll learn to feel more comfortable in kayaks that are a little more advanced. This is where having taken a course will come in very handy. You will likely have heard of these terms, learned the difference between a kayak with a skeg or a rudder, and learned if you feel comfortable in a kayak with a hard chine.

Can I test out kayaks?

Yes, try out as many kayaks as you can. The club has quite a few members who would be willing to lend you a kayak for a trip, and let you get a sense of what this kayak feels like. The more kayaks you try out, the better sense you’ll get for what feels best for you.

It’s always a good idea (read: highly recommended) to visit an outfitter - a store that has a wide selection of makes and models, and in which there is the option to take it on the water for a test paddle. Sometimes a kayak that fits you, may feel quite uncomfortable to you when you take it out on the water. If it feels too “tippy”, you may be intimidated by the kayak and not fully enjoy the experience. Conversely, you may find that you feel completely comfortable in a more advanced kayak after all. Men tend to have a higher center of balance than women, so quite often, the same kayak that feels “tippy” to a man will feel quite stable to a woman. Having said that, we’re all built quite differently, and you’ll find that the choice is highly personal.

Final decisions

If you’ve done all your research, tried out an assortment of kayaks, and narrowed down your list to two or three kayaks, this is a good stage to take your question to a group. You may want to ask them how long they’ve had the kayak, if there are any points of weakness, if the kayak company was supportive of any repairs that needed to be done, etc. The feedback you get may be exactly what you need to determine which kayak you’ll purchase.

Last words

Be aware that this kayak will likely not be your last kayak, and that’s OK. Kayaks don’t need to be long term decisions. You may find after paddling for a season, that you’re ready for a kayak that will challenge you a little more. As you grow in skills and experience, the kayak that you had last year may not be the kayak that you’ll want for next year. Time to sell the old one and buy a new one.

Or you may look for a kayak that will allow you to explore different types of paddling. Perhaps you’ve gained greater confidence on the quiet rivers, and you’d like to get out into faster running water, or into the waves of the Great Lakes, or to take camping through the routes of the old voyageurs, or to learn the rolling techniques of the Greenland paddlers. Buying and selling kayaks is all part of the learning process.

Welcome to the wonderful world of kayaking!

Additional Resources

Moving from a Recreational Kayak to a Sea Kayak

Kayak Reviews *

*Please be aware that people tend to favour the kayaks in which they’ve invested time or money.

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