Kayaks: How to Choose
Author: REI Staff
A kayak allows you to reach scenic beachside campgrounds, quietly explore an estuary, enjoy breathtaking views that can’t be seen from shore, get in a morning workout around the lake or just play in the water with the kids.
This article explains how to find the right boat for you.
Shop REI’s selection of kayaks.
Types of Kayaks
Key considerations for the type of kayak that's best for you include where you plan to paddle and for how long, what conditions you’ll be paddling in, and how you plan to transport your boat.
All types of boats give you options for single paddlers or tandem boats that can accommodate 2 paddlers (and sometimes a small 3rd passenger).
Best for easy days on calm waters.
Recreational kayaks are affordable and easy to use, and offer initial stability that’s reassuring for novices, photographers, anglers or casual paddlers on placid rivers, ponds or lakes. They are not so good for open water or use in heavy wind or currents.
Recreational kayaks usually have a small storage area for short day trips, though some have a larger storage area for day touring. Most are 10 to 12 feet long and have a large cockpit for easy access and a wide beam for stability.
They don’t track (hold a straight course) as well as a touring kayak. If flipped, they can be a challenge to bail out.
Often made of polyethylene plastic, recreational boats can be heavy to transport and carry.
Shop REI’s selection of recreational kayaks.
Best for traveling long distances in open water, as well as performance in rough conditions.
Touring kayaks are better-performing and more versatile than recreational kayaks, though they’re typically more expensive.
They have more storage space (especially multiday boats) and bulkheads with sealed hatches enhance safety. These compartments trap air, which gives the kayak flotation even if the cockpit fills with water.
Touring kayaks are usually 12 to 17 feet long, and their hulls are shaped to increase lift in waves and rough water. Most have a tracking system such as a skeg or rudder, or a combination of the two.
Cockpits are likely to be built for paddling efficiency and use with a spray skirt, which may feel confining to some.
Touring kayaks can be made of plastic or a lightweight and durable composite blend.
Day touring kayaks have enough storage space for day or overnight outings. They are shorter and more maneuverable than multiday boats.
Shop REI’s selection of touring kayaks.
Best for easy transport and storage with the performance of a hard-shell boat.
Modular kayaks are as durable as a regular polyurethane kayak, but they quickly snap apart into 2-3 sections for easy transportation and handling by 1 person. The sections will fit in the back of most SUVs.
Modulars come in day touring, recreational and sit-on-top designs.
For occasional shipmates, buy a second cockpit section to turn your boat into a tandem (you can even add a third seat).
Best for recreational use in warm climates.
Sit-on-tops are great fun for kids, beginners or swimmers. They have a sealed hull and molded depressions on top for sitting. It's easy to get on and off of one whether you are on a dock, shore or in the water.
The seats are above water level so these boats are typically wider (and slower) than traditional kayaks. With a wider hull, sit-on-tops are generally more stable, making them a good fishing, swimming or diving base. Self-bailing drain holes add to the convenience.
Sit-on-tops are especially popular in warm climates. They’re less comfortable for cool locations because your body is exposed to the elements.
Size-wise, they hold single, double or more passengers. Some even have bulkheads and storage wells. Typically they are from 10 to 15 feet in length. Most are made of plastic.
Shop REI’s selection of sit-on-top kayaks.
Best for recreational use; easy to transport and store.
You might think of a blow-up kayak as a toy, but these are surprisingly sturdy and versatile. Inflatable kayaks feature compartments that you inflate by foot, hand or electric pump, and the air makes them more buoyant than traditional kayaks. Once deflated, most can be transported in a duffel-sized carrying bag.
Inflatables range from 10 to 15 feet long. They are light, easy to use and can turn on a small radius. However, they take more effort to paddle and they are slower and less rugged than a traditional kayak.
Some have rigid frames to aid performance, while others have optional stiffening bars the entire length of the floor panel. This reduces wave undulation and improves tracking. They are usually made of PVC-coated polyester.
Shop REI’s selection of inflatable kayaks.
Best for touring; easy to transport and store
Disassembled, most folding kayaks fit into a backpack-sized carry bag. Their advantages over inflatables are their ridged framework and greater storage space. The stiff frame allows performance similar to a hard-shell kayak. A tough outer skin is fitted over a stiff aluminum frame; most have inflatable chambers to aid in buoyancy and stability.
Once you’re experienced assembling your kayak, it takes only 15–20 minutes to go from car to water.
Shop REI’s selection of folding kayaks.
Other Types of Kayaks
Fishing kayaks are made specifically for anglers. They have rod holders, cooler holders and some even offer a built-in tackle box. They can be stable enough to stand on for better visibility and casting.
Whitewater kayaks are another fun option. These are 4 to 10 feet long, have a rounded bottom and turn up at the ends for navigating rapids. REI does not currently carry whitewater kayaks, but certain inflatable kayaks can be used for this purpose.
Length: Shorter kayaks, like recreational ones, are easier to turn and maneuver. Longer kayaks are easier to paddle over long distances and hold a straight line better to stay on course. If transporting a kayak is a concern, shorter kayaks are less cumbersome than longer ones.
Width (or Beam): Wide boats offer more initial (primary) stability in calm conditions while narrower boats go faster and offer better secondary stability if the boat is leaning on its side.
Depth: Larger and taller paddlers should check for ample depth to ensure enough space and leg room. Taller sides also help deflect water and may help provide more storage space. The downside is that they catch more wind, which can slow you down.
Weight capacity: Every boat has a recommended weight limit, which you can find listed under the “Specs” tab on any REI product page. Factors that will affect weight include the number of paddlers, length of trip and amount of gear.
Hull Shape: A kayak’s hull shape greatly determines its performance characteristics, particularly related to stability.
Flat-bottom hulls are often found on recreational boats. They have the most initial stability in flatwater conditions.
Rounded hulls are often found on day touring boats. They have good initial stability but travel through the water faster and easier than flat-bottom boats.
V-shaped hulls are often preferred for long-distance touring. They provide the least initial stability but offer better secondary stability, which means they can recover more easily when tipped hard on their sides. They respond well to leaned turns/edging and they also tend to track straighter.
Hull Rocker: This is the curvature of a boat’s hull running the length of the boat (keel line) from the center to the ends. More rocker makes a boat easier to turn. Less rocker means the boat tracks better in wind and strong waters.
Cockpit: A small, snug cockpit holds you inside the kayak better and helps you turn and maneuver efficiently, particularly in rough conditions. A large cockpit is easier to get in and out of (best for larger or taller paddlers) and allows you to put larger items in the boat.
Coaming: This is the rim of the boat that surrounds the cockpit where you can attach a spray skirt if you plan on using one.
Seats: Most seats, especially those on touring kayaks, are padded and can be adjusted up or down and forward or backward. Some have adjustable tilt angles.
Foot pegs: Bracing your feet on foot pegs that are attached to the inside hull helps keep you centered, trim and level. Adjustable pegs give more options for positioning, and they are good for multiple users or if you sell the kayak later. Not all kayaks have foot pegs or braces, but they can be added later.
Thigh braces: These offer foam-padded points of contact between your thighs and the boat; they can be easily adjusted to meet your comfort requirements.
Hatches: Touring kayaks have storage areas at one or both ends that are enclosed with a lid on the deck. When capsized, these bulkheads give buoyancy as long as the hatch lids are secured.
Skeg: This is the triangular metal plate under the stern that can be raised or lowered. It improves tracking in crosswinds and cross-currents by reducing the "weathercocking" effect of a boat. Hand controls near the cockpit are used to adjust it to different positions. While not intuitive for beginners, a skeg is a popular feature with kayaking enthusiasts.
Rudder: This is essentially a paddle that attaches to the top of the kayak’s stern and is lowered into the water with a hand lever. It goes up and down, left and right. Pushing the foot levers in the cockpit determines which direction the rudder goes to make turning easier.
These affect the boat's durability, weight and price.
Polyethylene (PE): This is the most popular kayak material used today.
Polyethylene is inexpensive and wonderfully impact- and abrasion-resistant. It does, however, have a lifespan, and years of sun eventually cause it to become brittle.
Polyethylene has a tendency to warp in hot temperatures, but returns to its original shape once cooled. Damages can be difficult to repair.
Thermoformed ABS: The fabrication of acrylic over ABS plastic creates a glossy kayak similar to composites in appearance and performance. Generally more expensive than polyethylene, it is lighter weight while still remaining durable. ABS is resistant to ultraviolet rays and less apt to soften in hot temperatures. Dings are repairable.
This high-end category includes fiberglass, Kevlar and carbon blends. These higher priced boats are lightweight and perform extremely well. Though strong, composite boats are vulnerable to damage when launching and landing. Composite boats can be repaired.
REI carries an assortment of inflatable and folding boats made from a variety of cloth-like materials. These durable materials come in a variety of thicknesses and are able to withstand abrasion and punctures. Patch kits are available for repairs.
While a boat is your biggest kayaking purchase, it should not be your only one.
Paddle: The correct paddle is specific to your type of kayaking. For example, the paddle you use on the river may not be the same one you should use in open water. See the REI Expert Advice article, Kayak Paddles: How to Choose, for details.
Spray skirt: This fits snugly around the paddler and attaches to the cockpit combing (rim) to keep water out of the kayak. It’s a must for open water or rough conditions. A spray skirt usually has a large loop on the front for a quick release. You may not need one when paddling calm waters, though it adds warmth on windy days and keep drips off anytime. For more information, see the REI Expert Advice article, Spray Skirts: How to Choose.
PFDs and safety gear: Always be prepared by wearing a properly sized, USCG-approved personal flotation device. For more info, see the REI Expert Advice article, PFDs: How to Choose.
Bilge pump and sponge: To remove water from the inside of your kayak.
Car rack: Unless you have an inflatable, folding or modular kayak, you need a rack on your vehicle to transport your boat. There are many rack-vehicle-boat combinations. See the REI Expert Advice article, Cartop Mounts: How to Choose, for more information.
Cockpit cover: This keeps your cockpit clean and dry while in storage or transport.