When it comes to exploring the world’s rivers, lakes, inlets and coastlines, there are few better ways to experience incredible outdoor settings than by kayak. Whether you want to glide across pristine lakes, explore majestic seaways or navigate heart-pounding rapids, you’ll need a kayak and gear that is well-suited to your paddling preference.
Before you buy your first kayak, you should decide whether you want a sit-on-top kayak or a sit-in kayak. Both have advantages for different applications.
Sit-In Kayaks are the most traditional and versatile style. The main advantage of a sit-in kayak is paddling efficiency, as well as the protection of a completely enclosed cockpit. To keep water from splashing into the open cockpit, a spray skirt (purchased separately) acts as a flexible gasket, which wraps around the paddler and is affixed to the outer edge of the cockpit. Ocean kayaks, touring kayaks and whitewater kayaks from brands like Current Designs are good examples of this style. In order to operate a sit-in kayak safely, however, special paddling techniques like rolling must be mastered (see the Paddling Technique and Kayak Safety section of this guide for more info).
Sit-On-Top Kayaks are affordable and offer an easy learning curve. Unlike traditional kayaking, sit-on-top kayaking does not require the use of a spray skirt or mastery of specialized techniques, which makes it ideal for entry-level and recreational paddlers. Sit-on-top kayaks from brands like Wave Sport make excellent beginner kayaks. Of course, this style also offers enough performance to grow with you as your paddling skills progress.
For the most part, kayaks can be grouped into five main sub-categories, and some kayaks are also available in tandem models.
Recreational Kayaks: If you’re most interested in paddling lakes, ponds and calm rivers for fun or fitness, a recreational kayak is a great choice. Recreational kayaks are built for stability, comfort and ease of use. Recreational and beginner kayaks are available in both sit-in and sit-on-top varieties, as well as tandem models.
Touring Kayaks: If you intend to paddle long distances in a range of currents and conditions, including the open ocean and large rivers, a touring kayak is best. The long, hydrodynamic design of touring kayaks and ocean kayaks makes them the most energy-efficient category, allowing you to paddle further and faster. These boats also feature ample storage space for overnight and multiday excursions.
Whitewater Kayaks: If you want to tackle rapids, a whitewater kayak is a must. Made of extremely rugged, high-impact plastic, whitewater kayaks are much smaller and more nimble than touring models. The whitewater kayak class has two major subcategories: play boats, designed for maximum maneuverability and trick competitions, and creek boats, designed for overall versatility.
Fishing Kayaks: If you’re primarily interested in fishing from your kayak, you’ll appreciate the angler-friendly rod holders and storage spaces of a fishing kayak. The simplicity, better access to remote spots and stealth offered by fishing kayaks make them a great choice for dedicated anglers.
Inflatable Kayaks: Inflatable kayaks are a newer style, but are becoming increasingly popular. The key benefit of an inflatable kayak is ease of transport, since it takes up relatively little space when deflated. Most inflatable kayaks fall under the recreational category, and are crafted of rugged, high-denier nylon and PVC.
Tandem Kayaks: Available in both sit-on-top and sit-in models, tandem kayaks accommodate two paddlers and are great for families or couples. Most tandem kayaks fall under the recreational and touring categories.
Kayaks are generally made of either plastic or fiberglass. Plastic boats are more durable and usually less expensive than fiberglass boats. On the other hand, fiberglass boats tend to be lighter and faster. Most plastic kayaks are made of polyethylene, which is a flexible, durable plastic that offers high-impact resistance, making it the perfect material for whitewater kayaks. Airalite thermoplastic is stiffer and lighter than polyethylene, and is generally used to make touring kayaks.
Selecting an appropriate paddle is crucial to an enjoyable experience, so be sure to choose a paddle that is well-suited for the style of kayaking you’ll be doing and sized properly for your body size and strength.
A one-piece paddle will either be feathered (offset blades) or nonfeathered (parallel blades). Feathered kayak paddles allow for more efficient strokes, although some whitewater kayakers prefer non-feathered blades. Two-piece paddles, also called take-apart paddles, often allow for the feathering to be adjusted, and break down for easier storage and transport.
Touring and recreational paddles are typically lightweight and long, with asymmetrical blades. They can be made from a variety of materials, including fiberglass and carbon fiber, and usually have a two-piece shaft with adjustable feathering. Whitewater paddles are stronger, shorter and more durable than touring paddles. Whitewater paddles usually have a solid, one-piece shaft for rapid, powerful strokes.
A PFD life jacket is absolutely essential for kayaking safety. Although a PFD may not be the most attractive or comfortable thing you’ve ever worn, modern PFDs from brands like Extrasport have become much more functional over the past several decades. Most kayakers should choose a Type III PFD vest, which is specifically designed for boating and water sports. However, some kayakers prefer a Type V PFD vest, which is less bulky, but also offers slightly less flotation. Certain PFD manufacturers also make gender-specific vests to ensure the best fit for any body type.
Things to consider when buying a kayaking PFD:
Wearing a kayaking helmet is always recommended, but is absolutely essential for whitewater conditions. Kayak helmets are designed to be lightweight, functional and offer solid impact protection. The ‘baseball-style’ helmet with a short brim is one of the most popular styles, although full-face variations for extreme whitewater are also available.
Spray skirts are essential items for use with sit-in kayaks, except in extremely calm waters. Most spray skirts are made of either neoprene or waterproof nylon. Your spray skirt should fit snugly around your waist and stretch over the cockpit of the boat to prevent water from seeping in. The skirt will also keep water out during a roll or capsize.
Cockpit covers are designed to completely seal the cockpit in order to keep out dirt and debris during transport or portaging.
Float bags are special, inflatable bladders that provide additional flotation and water displacement in the event of a breach (water entering the boat through a cracked hull or open cockpit). Float bags will help keep your kayak from completely sinking in the event it becomes full of water.
The rule of thumb to follow when dressing for a kayaking trip: If you're not willing to fully submerge yourself in the water at the beginning of the day, you're not adequately prepared. No matter how warm the air may be, the water can be significantly colder. The best way to combat the cold is by wearing a wetsuit, drysuit, dry top or a paddling shirt from brands like Kokotat and Helly Hansen.
Wetsuits: A wetsuit is a neoprene bodysuit that insulates the body from the cold water and protects against hypothermia. Wetsuits for kayakers are typically different from those used by surfers and divers. The neoprene is thinner, and they are usually sold as a one-piece, tank-top style with full legs, called 'Farmer Johns' or 'Farmer Janes.' This style allows your legs and core to stay warm while keeping your arms and shoulders free to move.
Drysuits: A drysuit is a loose-fitting, insulated and waterproof nylon garment worn over clothing and designed to keep water out completely. Drysuits often have a Gore-Tex® membrane and rubberized gaskets to seal water out and keep you warm even in sub-zero temperatures. Drysuits are typically only necessary for paddling in the coldest conditions.
Dry Tops and Paddling Jackets: A dry top or paddling jacket is made from nylon and typically includes a waterproof breathable membrane, such as Gore-Tex®. Dry tops and paddling jackets incorporate features like neoprene cuffs and special gaskets designed to keep the water out. Dry top are ideal for cold to moderate conditions.
Semi-Dry Tops (Splash Tops): Sometimes called splash tops or paddling shirts, a semi-dry top is a lightweight, semi-waterproof top that may or may not include a fitted neck, wrist gaskets, adjustable waist closure and taped seams to help keep water out. Paddling shirts and splash tops are ideal for moderate to mild conditions.
Paddling Shorts and Pants: Shorts and pants designed for kayaking are made using lightweight and fast-drying materials, usually nylon or polyester. Some kayaking shorts and pants include built-in UPF sun protection, making them excellent for sit-on-top kayaking.
Aside from the paddling apparel we already mentioned, there are a range of accessories available to provide additional protection on the water. Neoprene hoods and gloves are designed to protect the head, neck and hands when kayaking in very cold water. Kayaking boots and paddle shoes are also made of neoprene, and feature slip-resistant rubber soles for grip when entering and exiting your kayak.
Avoid shoes that have laces or straps that could get tangled in the foot rests of your kayak. Sandals and water shoes that fasten securely are your best option. Water shoes from brands like Columbia Sportswear and Teva also have drainage ports to expel water and dry quickly. In colder water, wool or fleece socks can be worn in addition to your shoes for increased warmth (avoid cotton socks). Wool socks are generally warmer, but fleece socks dry more quickly.
Dry bags from companies like Outdoor Research and Seattle Sports are a necessity for kayak touring expeditions. If your gear gets splashed or even completely submerged, you’ll definitely be glad you stowed it in a dry bag. Dry storage bags are typically made using welded, vinyl-coated polyester or seam-sealed, polyurethane-coated nylon. Some bags feature manual or automatic air-purge valves, or you can manually expel excess air by compressing the bag and closing it tightly.
Before you leave on a kayaking trip, be sure to pack a first aid kit with basic medical supplies. If you plan on venturing into remote territory or traveling long distances, you'll also want to pack emergency supplies. Take special preparations for ocean kayaking, as currents can unexpectedly carry paddlers off course or even out to sea. The following list will serve as a baseline:
Receiving qualified instruction in proper kayaking technique and safety is highly recommended for all beginners. Proper instruction will help ensure a safer, more enjoyable experience. If you plan on using a sit-in kayak, you’ll need to learn how to “roll,” or return the kayak to an upright position after a capsize. If a paddler is unable to right a capsized boat and must exit underwater, a technique called a “wet exit” must be used. This involves quickly detaching the spray skirt to allow the paddler to surface without becoming entangled. If these techniques are intimidating or you feel you may not have the strength to perform them, consider choosing a sit-on-top kayak. Finally, always wear a secure-fitting, USCG-approved PFD when kayaking, and always tell someone where you will be kayaking, and when you expect to return.
The most common method of kayak transport is a specialized roof rack, or a kayak adaptor kit that can be used with a factory roof rack. When transporting your boat using a kayak rack, it’s very important to periodically check that your boat is secure, as straps can become loose when traveling at highway speeds. Fiberglass kayaks in particular should be well padded in order to prevent scrapes and abrasion. If you use your kayak in salt water, always wash the kayak inside and out with fresh water and a light detergent before storing, as salt buildup can cause damage over time. Consider purchasing a repair kit that is compatible with your boat, just in case.
Finally, check out our Kayaking Checklist for a full inventory of everything you’ll need for your next adventure. Stay safe out there!