Choosing the right kayak for you is primarily determined by what rivers or lakes you want to paddle. There is no real do-everything kayak any more than there is an do-everything car or bicycle. Do you want to run whitewater? Then you need a river runner, creek boat, or possibly eventually a playboat. Want to do casual day trips? A recreational or touring kayak will do fine and save you some money. Headed for the ocean, or want to do multi-day trips on flat rivers or lakes? You’ll want a sea/touring kayak.

Examples of the various kayaks are shown here:

mobius-red-l Playboats are extremely short and are suitable for all boaters but not always the best boat for a beginner kayakers. They are very maneuverable in all directions–including vertical, so require the paddler to be very active and in charge. New paddlers should get some river time and test drive several other kayaks before trying one of these.
 River Runners
wavesport-diesel-3983-0-1300883612000 River runners are good all-around boats for the beginner to advanced whitewater paddlers. They handle all types of rapids but start to get challenging when getting into class 4 & 5 Rapids. They can roll, eddy, surf, and ferry well. The hull has rocker from front to rear which allows the kayak to turn on a dime. This ability to turn easily causes the kayak to be more difficult to paddle straight. It can go straight, but it requires some skill.Unless you want to be a rodeo star or attempt the steepest creeks, a well-chosen river runner will last you a long time.
 Creek Boats
545878754_jackson_karma_ Creek boats have lots of volume to help the boat pop back to the surface fast on steep drops. Their rounded contours also reduce the likelyhood of some types of pins, and many find them to be more stable and forgiving in big water. Creek boats tend to be more suited for the Intermediate to advanced boater.


Cross Over Kayaks
dagger Katana

Crossover style kayaks are designed as a compromise between recreational kayaks and river runner kayaks. Many of them have a retractable skeg that helps the boat track straight on flat water. The latest designs of Crossover boats are much improved and handle both whitewater and flat water fairly well. You can find them in class IV whitewater expeditions but they are really designed for a paddler looking to paddle Class II and below.

They are typically 9′ or 10′ long, so they are faster than river runners, and can be less maneuverable. Depending on the hull design their width could be slightly less than recreational kayaks, but are more stable than river runners. This additional width makes them challenging for new paddlers to learn to roll. Heck, even experienced paddlers have a hard time rolling them.

Recreational Kayaks
blue_rec Recreational kayaks are a very popular style that lets new paddlers get on the river or lake fast with confidence. This popularity has caused them to dominate showrooms at Dick’s Sports, REI, etc. They tend to be the lowest cost kayaks. Don’t mistake that dominant placement as being the right boat for you.The open roomy cockpit makes them easy to escape from during the inevitable swim, but also makes them prone to swamping in a rapid. When swamped, the stability will disappear and a swim will result. These kayaks can not be rolled.Their width makes them very stable. Newer models are designed with keels at the back to help them track well. This same keel reduces the kayaks ability to manuver.Recreational kayaks are generally 9′ to 11′ long which makes them slow, but with a some extra effort, you can still can keep up on group trips.
Sit On Top Kayaks
Sit-on-top Sit On Top kayaks probably deserve their own separate page due to the large number of varieties. They are a popular choice among new paddlers for fishing, whitewater, and touring. They compete with recreational kayaks for the attention of new paddlers. They come in a different lengths, widths and hull designs for a variety of purposes.  Unlike recreational kayaks, these kayaks do not swamp when the rapids get bigger.  You stay wet in these kayaks, so they aren’t ideal for cool weather paddling.The Dagger Torrent shown here is suitable for up to class III rapids. The width, weight, and length combine to make this kayak painfully slow on flat water.New paddlers will quickly feel comfortable in these kayaks. They are fun!
Touring Kayaks
kayak-OrangeRed_Touring A very popular class has longer (up to 14′) and narrower (around 25″) hulls for a little more speed and more storage. These make great day boats for flat water lakes or rivers. You can do a weekend camping trips, but need to pack carefully and share gear with a partner.
Sea Kayaks
Orange_Sea_Kayak Sea Kayaks come in a variety of materials: Composite construction (fiberglass, Kevlar, carbon fiber) or roto-molded plastic.Roto-Molded plastic kayaks cost about half of the price of a composite kayaks and are the cheapest. They suffer from being heavy, but they are more durable than their composite sibling.Composite kayaks are lightweight, fast, and very pricey. 
 Sea kayaks have lots of space for gear, like 2 big backpacks worth. Since it’s not on your back, weight isn’t much of an issue. You can easily carry everything you need for a week, plus luxuries like wine and fresh veggies. Typical sea kayaks are in the 16′-17′ range, although some are shorter or longer. Generally, longer boats are faster and shorter ones are more maneuverable, but paddler skill makes a big difference.Some sea kayaks are equipped with foot controlled rudders or drop-down skegs that help maintain your direction during windy conditions. That’s right, rudders are for going straight, not turning.Your weight and size also make a difference. You don’t sit in a kayak, you wear it. Modern kayaks come in multiple sizes, so pick the one that fits you well. If you’re between weight ratings, beginning paddlers should probably go with the next larger size.

Ultimately, the best first kayak is the one that gets you on the water doing what you want to do the quickest. Your first kayak probably won’t be your last, and if you buy a pre-enjoyed kayak, you can almost always sell it for close to what you paid for it.  Don’t ever hesitate to ask more experienced paddlers for boat-buying advice. We love to talk boats!

See you on the water!

September 2011
William Gatling & Steve Cramer