How to choose and buy a kayak
When my wife and I went out to buy kayaks a few years ago, we were faced with a lot of choices, choices that have multiplied tenfold as the popularity of paddling grew exponentially.
For my family, kayaks became a priority after we purchased a travel trailer. We could no longer tow our boat on camping trips, so we needed something to throw on the roof of our pickup.
After years of pairing in a canoe, we knew a tandem (two-seater) kayak was out of the question. You need a lot of harmony in a marriage for two people to paddle one boat, especially explorers who seek side trips.
It was a no-brainer: we were going solo.
The next issue was whether we to buy a sit-inside or a sit-on-top. Taking a cue from friends, we bought one of each. My wife preferred the security of a sit-inside, while I liked the idea of a sit-on-top for ocean surf, or rolling off the boat for a swim in open water.
And then there was weight. We wanted kayaks light enough to hand-carry and throw onto the roof of our truck without extraordinary effort.
We tried several kayaks. Kathy settled on a wide-beam, 9-foot , 34-pound Perception Sparky, an entry-level yak with a large cockpit that would make it easy to jump ship. The bonus was that the cockpit was large enough that she could take our dog for a paddle.
As a Hobie Cat aficionado from my beach sailing days, I chose a narrow-beam 12-foot sit-on-top Hobie Pursuit instead of my researched choice, a sit-inside Wilderness Systems Pungo. The Pursuit is a fast and nimble boat, and it’s easy to re-board in open water after a swim or snorkeling, but it’s not a very stable platform for fishing. (I still long for the Pungo.)
Everything, you will learn, is a compromise
Tandem vs. Solo
As I mentioned, Kathy and I decided to get solo kayaks. We still paddle together but have the option to go our own way, and we often do. Tandem kayaks offer the idyllic dream of togetherness, but they sometimes require extraordinary patience. Rent one and take a long paddle with your partner to see if your relationship can withstand it. (Paddles make formidable weapons!)
On the other hand, you can build up a great deal of speed when two people are paddling, and full synchronization of paddle strokes as you zip along the water can be a lot of fun. Even a leisurely paddle takes less work with two people powering the craft. Keep in mind that most tandems can be difficult to maneuver if you take one out solo.
Wide vs. Narrow, Short vs. Long
The wider the kayak, the more stable it will be but harder to paddle. The longer the kayak, the faster it will go and the easier to paddle. Longer kayaks tend to track better in a straight line, but they are more difficult to turn. If you paddle the narrow Loxahatchee River, a short, nimble kayak is in order. If you plan to traverse open bays with the potential of high winds, then you want a longer kayak that holds its track.
In Florida, you have many water environments to try – swamps, bays, open ocean, rivers and small creeks — so the best choice will probably be a compromise.
Speaking for myself, speed turned out to be not as important as I thought it would be. I like leisurely paddle trips and wish I had a better platform for fishing, so I should have gone a little wider with more deck space for tackle and storage for my catch.
Flat water vs. Surf
If surf-riding in modest seas is your intent, almost any wide-beam sit-on-top will do the trick. If you capsize, you get thrown from the boat rather than going under the surf strapped into a cockpit. A decent keel is also desirable for stability as your ride the waves, and more advanced surf yaks have rudders and/or underwater fins (like surfboards) to enhance maneuverability.
If long-distance ocean paddling is your goal, then a well-designed sea kayak should be in your sights – long and narrow with a small cockpit, a rudder, and secure spray skirt to keep out the always-invasive seas. Sea kayaks are as long as 15 to 20 feet and can get quite expensive. Comfort is paramount.
For most of us, though, a versatile, inexpensive 9- to 12-foot sit-inside or sit-on-top yak will serve our needs — perfect for paddling our numerous slow-moving rivers, lakes, bays and backwater estuaries.
Sit-on-top vs. Sit-inside
Newbies worry about “the roll” of a sit-inside, and it is essential that you know how to survive in an emergency. If you are afraid of the roll, or don’t want to learn it, then get a large cockpit that will let you slide out, or buy a sit-on-top that lets you slide off. Either way, practice rolling out of your boat in calm, shallow water.
Rolling off the boat for a swim, snorkel or a dive is far easier from a sit-on-top. Most have a deck surface to store your wet gear, and sit-on-tops are much easier to re-board — something to consider, especially if you frequent the Florida Keys.
Sit-insides are more stable and feel more secure because your center of gravity is lower. With the sit-on-top, your body is above the water line, requiring more balance and alertness.
Keep in mind that you get more storage under the decks with a sit-inside, although with either sit-ins or sit-ons, you’ll need dry bags for overnight camping trips.
Most kayaks are lightweight boats that can be handled and transported easily. My wife likes her little 34-pounder because she can carry it alone, grabbing the lip around the cockpit with one hand. Sit-on-tops have limited handholds, although most kayaks have handles. Heavier kayaks like mine require a little more muscle, but two people can carry most kayaks easily. If you are alone, you’ll probably want a wheel cart. Dragging on the ground is an option but will eventually tear up your boat.
My friend Warren Richey, a long-distance sea kayaker and author of “Without A Paddle,” has a boat that weighs 200 pounds when packed with camping gear and supplies, as it often is. He carries wheels on the boat for portages. Empty, his boat is light and fast but still requires wheels because of its length (17 feet).
Kayaks come in a variety of colors and hues, and while you may think the color choice is strictly a vanity issue, it’s not. There are safety issues to consider.
Being small boat with a low profile on the water, a kayak is not easily seen by other boats. If you paddle in open water or along waterways and canals where bigger, motorized boats are present, you want to stand out against the color of the water and nearby land.
Choose a bright yellow, or a bright orange, so you can be seen.
Black is sleek, blue is cool, and dark reds are studly, but when that yahoo in a speedboat cuts across your bow or rides up your ass, you’ll wish you had made a smarter color choice.
While I’m on the subject, choose a bright-color life jacket as well.
I’m often asked about inflatables, and I usually recommend against them unless storage space is a high priority. Inflatables have their place, but can be a pain. First, they are inflatable. That means you have to blow them up with each use, then deflate them and fold them up when you’re done.
Inflatables can also be sluggish, although some of the newer inflatables have a hard-shell hull, making them easier to paddle. But then you compromise portability, which is why you buy an inflatable in the first place.
If you have a motorhome or a sailboat, inflatables can be packed into a relatively small space and stored out of the way. They also tow better behind sailboats because of their buoyancy.
Inflatables can also be fun in the surf, though they lack the control you may want in the surf zone.
Personally, I don’t see any reason to buy one as long as you are able to load a hard-hull yak on a roof rack and you have a place to store it at home.
Try your kayak before you buy it. Many dealers are located on the water. Others schedule “demo days” on nearby water. Sitting in it — on the water — before the purchase allows you to gauge your comfort level.
A Kayak Sampler
This is not a review of quality or performance. All of the brands mentioned are reputable. Most rotomolded polyethylene kayaks are fairly equal in quality, unless they have seams. Avoid seams.
Your comfort will vary, depending on seating pads and foot placement. Always try before you buy.
General Purpose Recreation (Solo Sit-Insides)
My wife’s Perception Sparky is not included because the model has been discountinued. You’ll find a similar boat with the Old Town Otter. (Or find one used; they hold up well.)
Perception Impulse. 10’ x 29.5”. Hull weight 44 lbs. Capacity 275 lbs. Solid, fun, family-friendly sit-inside kayak with good stability, made by one of the most reliable names in kayaks. $458 plus free shipping on Amazon.
Wilderness Systems Pungo 120. 12’x29”. Hull weight 49 lbs. Capacity 325 lbs. Popular boat with an excellent balance between length (for speed) and beam (for stability). $929 plus $95 shipping on Amazon.
General Purpose Recreation (Solo Sit-On-Tops)
My Hobie Pursuit has been discountinued, but you’ll find a similar craft in the Hobie Maui.
Ocean Kayak Frenzy. 9’x31”. Hull weight 43 lbs. Capacity 275-325 lbs. This is a basic, entry-level sit-on-top that is popular not just in surf, but also on rivers and streams. A friend has one, and she thinks it’s the bomb. $560 plus Free Shipping on Amazon.
Perception Tribe 9.5. 9’6”x 32.25”. Hull weight 46 lbs. Capacity 300 lbs. A small but versatile sit-on-top that will be a family favorite in the surf. Comfortable and easily controlled. $408 with free shipping on Amazon..
General Purpose Recreation (Tandem)
Wilderness Systems Pamlico 145T. 15’6”x33”. Hull weight 88 lbs. Capacity 550 lbs. Comfortable seating for two adults with a rudder and below-deck storage. Front paddler might feel cramped. $1,049 plus $120 shipping on Amazon.
Old Town Dirigo Tandem Plus. 15’3”x29.5”. Hull weight 80 lbs. Capacity 425-475 lbs. This is an interesting take on the tandem with two cockpits, and a removable child seat. A little narrower than the other tandems I mention. $1,175 includes free shipping on Amazon.
Hot tip: Fall brings clearance sales as dealers clear out model-year inventory. Demos are often reduced substantially all year.
Almost any wide-beam sit-on-top is surf-friendly, such as the Ocean Kayak Frenzy mentioned above. But you may want to indulge with a kayak specifically designed for the surf. Riot Kayaks carries a full line of surf kayaks, their specialty, and this one seems to rate highest.
Riot Kayaks Boogie 50. 7’9″ x 24.7″. Hull weight 35 pounds. Explicitly designed as a surf kayak and features a surfing power seat for a wide range of motion. Planing hull is narrow with a low rocker, allowing it to accelerate and achieve superior speeds and carving power. $792 includes free shipping on Amazon.
Rigged for Fishing
Most anglers prefer a sit-on-top to make it easier to get out of the boat and wade in shallow water. Almost any kayak can be fitted for fishing by adding rod holders, accessible tackle box and hatch storage for your catch. Some are better suited than others.
Wilderness Systems Tarpon 120 Angler. 12’3″ x 29”. Hull weight 54 lbs. Capacity 325 lbs. Sit-inside comes complete with anchor, 3 rodholders (2 flush mount), deck rigging, stern hatch and an easy-to-reach dashboard console where you can cut bait and rig your tackle. $949 includes shipping from Amazon.
Hobie Mirage Pro Angler 14. 13’8” x 38”. Hull weight 63 lbs. Capacity 600 pounds. This is a cool little fishing boat with an adjustable full-size seat rising above the gunnel. Very wide with stability to stand. Carry six rods with on-deck storage for tackle boxes. Unique Hobie MirageDrive paddle system that lets you paddle with your feet while your hands are occupied. Expensive at $3,849 plus $311 shipping from Amazon.
Wilderness Systems Tusnami 165. 16’6″ x 23.75”. Hull weight 66 lbs. Capacity 350 lbs. Suitable for mid- to large-sized paddlers wanting to cover long distances. Touted as ultra-comfortable, this kayak has three hatch ports and a rudder system. $1,628 includes free shipping from Amazon.
Necky Looksha 17 Poly. 17’4” x 23.75” Weight 68 lbs Capacity 325-375 lbs. A venerable name in sea kayaks, this sleek boat is billed as a coastal explorer with great stability and quick response. High initial stability, excellent glide and outstanding acceleration to face strong currents, tides or wind chop up to four feet. $1,899 retail. Find a dealer.
Current Designs Solstice GT. 17’ 7” x 24.5”. Hull weight 54 lbs (Kevlar 49 lbs). Capacity 475 lbs. Two of my friends own this highly regarded touring kayak, one of whom is into long-distance racing and touring off the Florida coast. The other friend cruises the Hudson River. Shallow ‘V’ design slices through the water with excellent tracking. Fiberglass (poly) construction with optional kevlar upgrade. Priced for the serious paddler from $3,499 (poly) to $3,899 (Kevlar) retail. Check these specialty retailers for information.
Hobie Mirage Adventure Island. 16’ x 44” with retractable outriggers, daggerboard, mast and boomless sail. Full outrigger width, 9’6″. Fully rigged weight 185 lbs. Capacity 350 lbs. This is essentially a sailing trimaran with a kayak hull, underwater MirageDrive pedals/fins for moving in light air. Solo and tandem versions. I love this boat. Wish I could afford it! $4,799 plus $379 shipping at Amazon.
When purchasing your kayak, most dealers offer discounts on accessories up to 30 days after your purchase. At the least, you’ll need paddles and life jackets that provide freedom of movement. (I use a lightweight fishing vest with mesh shoulders in shallow water). (About $50)
Sometimes dealers will throw in paddles, but you may want to spend a little more and get a lightweight composite paddle instead of standard aluminum. ($100 and up, up, up) And you’ll also want a spray skirt for sit-insides if you plan to paddle open water. (About $50.)
If you are carrying your kayak on your car or truck, you’ll need a roof rack. Yakima and Thule are the most popular brands. (About $200)
Paddling gloves, or paddle grips, are also nice to have ($10). And it’s a good idea to purchase a kayak cart so you can wheel your yak from the car (or campsite) to your launch point. Balloon wheels are best for the beach. (From $50 to $150)
If you have the right boat but not the right seat, talk to your dealer about upgrading. Seats and back pads come in all sizes and shapes, and having a comfortable seat makes all the difference after an hour or two in your boat. ($25 to $125)
Helmets are a smart idea in surf and whitewater, where you can get thrown from your yak head first into rocks, hard sand and coral on the bottom. ($50-$200)
If you add accessories to your deck, such as rod holders or cleats, remember that these are obstructions that will interfere with your movement. And they can cause injury. Flush-mount rod holders are the way to go, and cleats are best left off the boat.
Where to Buy
We include links (above) to Amazon for the convenience of readers who don’t have access to a local kayak outfitter, but we feel strongly that you buy local when possible.
Visit a local, proprietor-owned kayak/canoe dealer where you can try a variety of kayaks before you buy. Almost all dealers have access to water where you can test ride. Many have weekend “demo days” at the beach, at the lake or on a river.
Your local dealer will also teach you the basics and recommend accessories, usually discounted if you buy a boat. And many plan outings with instructors to help you get the most out of your paddling experience.
It’s rare to find a high-pressure salesman at a mom-and-pop yak shop. These guys and gals are paddlers who take their sport seriously, and most are not in the business to get rich.
Big-box retailers rarely save you money, and there is no ongoing personal service. Kayaks are very personal watercraft.