How to Choose a Kayak, According to Science – 10 Factors to Consider

Many people enjoy kayaking for recreational purposes and to experience nature. So it’s no surprise that kayaking is not only a sports activity, but also a social one to escape the hectic urban lifestyle. 

There’s a lot of consider when choosing a kayak; this includes maneuverability, strength, bow flexibility, stability, and rock design. All these performance factors build the foundation of a kayak. And they help you determine your ideal fit in half the time! So are you ready to choose the right kayak, at a cost-effective price?

1. Choosing The Ideal Type

As with any large purchase, picking the right type before finalizing any purchase is essential. In the case of kayaks, there are a few common types you should be aware of.

Knowing each depends on your kayaking conditions and portability. So choose wisely.

Sit-on-top kayak: A sit-on-top kayak, as the name suggests, is good for beginners as well as children. If you’d like to indulge in some fun kayaking time, with the added effort of assembly and maintenance, buying a sit-on-top kayak is suitable for you.

A sit-on-top kayak comes with a sealed hull and molded depressions, which make it comfortable enough for long-time sitting. You will also notice that it has a higher seating level than other kayaks. This makes getting on and off the kayak much simpler.

Weather wise, a sit-on-top kayak works well in warmer climates. You can try a fishing kayak too, considering the taller and wider seats.

Inflatable kayak: An inflatable kayak comes with a manual or electric pump. It’s the only incomparable kayak on the market for its distinct portability and ease of use. They are usually 15 feet long, of PVC-coated polyester and rigid frames.

Unlike traditional kayaks, inflatable kayaks aren’t durable and fast. So using them on specific occasions would be a good idea.

Whitewater kayak: A whitewater kayak comes with a rounded bottom, minimal shines, and up to 10 feet long design. It’s customized to roll easily, making very less or no contact with the water surrounding it. And because of its design, a whitewater kayak is not as maneuverable as traditional kayaks. This makes them powerful for white water, which is a comparatively fast flowing environment.

Surf kayak: Just like a whitewater kayak, a surf kayak is specifically designed for surfing. It does the job of catching and gliding on waves, unlike most kayaks on the market. Features like a longer board, sturdier rocker, and flat bottom mark the make of a surf kayak.

Touring kayak: If you plan on exploring new, calm waters to coastlines, buying a touring kayak is more apt for you. They feature a longer and narrower design with stable paddles to increase effectiveness and speed. Also, they provide solitary stability, the kind to handle different kinds of water.

Folding kayak: A folding kayak is easy to use, very similar to using an inflatable kayak. It’s portable, convenient, and space-friendly. Once disassembled, a folding kayak can fit in a backpack-sized bag.

The advantages of using a folding kayak over an inflatable are many; for example, you get more storage space and a rugged frame. Folding kayaks are generally made up of tough aluminum which adds to its durability and sturdiness on the water.

Modular kayak: A modular kayak boasts of a basic, but extremely durable frame. They are divided into 3 parts, each boasting of stability and efficiency for long transport. You won’t find a hard-shell boat this powerful and balanced, that’s for sure.

Plus, a modular kayak can be handled, carried, and stored by a single person. They easily fit in most SUVs and compact trucks.

2. Determining The Right Kayak Size

You need to choose the right kayak size to be able to sit comfortably. Anything too cramped or wide will make entry and exit difficult. And it can culminate into a bigger problem if you find yourself stuck inside in the middle of nowhere!

The thing you need to look for is the paddle length. Whether you’re paddling by yourself or with someone else, finding the right size is always difficult. You need an efficient paddle length to be able to maneuver in different motions. This affects your paddling angle, contact with water, and face contact in case the paddle is too long.

To fit the correct size, don’t just measure your height. It is a possibility that a paddle length might seem comfortable for someone 6’5” and not so much for another with the same height. The trick here lies in the upper body and lower body height measurements.

Based on your torso length can you determine the right paddle length for your kayak.

The second thing to look for is whether the kayak is longer than usual. It’s obvious that a longer kayak requires a longer paddle for comfortable usability. For example, if you buy a wider kayak, and you’re a relatively short person, you need the same paddle length as a tall person using a longer and narrower kayak. It’s all about being accurate with your measurements.

This last method requires a bit of an effort, but if you’re willing to invest in something durable, this shouldn’t be a hassle. It’s what I call “demonstration” and it’s a sure-fire way to finding the right size. You need to take a tester model out on the water to make sure you’re comfortable using it.

The kayak size and paddle length might seem okay to you. But if you get to test it out yourself, on-water, there’s nothing like it! (3,4)

Most of you will immediately know which size to look for based on these parameters. Then it is much simpler to focus on body posture, stroke angle, and paddling efficiency when you’re kayaking.

3. Choose A Durable Kayak Body

Since kayaking is becoming a significant part of people’s lives, the demand for more durable kayaks has drastically increased. For the kayak to be incredibly durable, it needs to be made of the right materials. This affects the kayak’s weight, price, and efficiency on water. (5)

Plastic: You might have seen many plastic kayaks in local shops. It is the most popular and rugged material used on the market. Polyethylene, which is plastic, comes with a longer shelf life, better resistance against water and impact, and is easy to lift.

The only disadvantage of using a plastic kayak is that it warps in hot climates. But it comes with expert conformability features that molds back to shape when cooled down. Even though a plastic kayak is impact-resistant, repairing any other damages can be a bit difficult.

The other popular plastic material for the best kayak is thermoformed ABS. This material is the combination of ABS plastic and acrylic. It costs more than polyethylene, but it’s as durable, conformable, and effective as it. While polyethylene doesn’t work well in hot climates, thermoformed ABS does. It has excellent UV-resistant qualities.

Composite: Second to plastic, composite is yet another common kayak material. It includes other materials including fiberglass, which is lightweight, expensive, and rugged. Generally, higher-priced kayaks are made up of composite. They are less likely to damage, but can also be repaired in case of accidents.

Fiberglass, on the one hand, has incredible reflectivity features. What this means is that it has the potential to resist obstacles in the water without turning over. It also increases portability, which could help alleviate sensitivity to stronger currents. (6)

Soft shell: Soft shell kayaks aren’t as popular as plastic or composite materials. They feature cloth-like materials to resist punctures and abrasions. Using a soft shell kayak is good for beginners and children as it feels light and is easy to maneuver.

4. Is The Cockpit Comfortable?

A cockpit is what keeps you inside the kayak. A good cockpit allows better maneuverability and space, even during rough conditions. Considering a snug cockpit, based on your body size, is a good way to start. If a cockpit doesn’t allow easy entry or exit, it’s a waste of both money and effort, right?

There are different types of kayak cockpits you should know about.

Ocean cockpit: An ocean cockpit has many shapes ranging from oval, round, or elliptical. It’s generally 20 inches wide and 26 inches long. The best part about sitting in an ocean cockpit is the compact and snug space. Your knees and thighs touch the kayak’s deck, so you quickly take turns on fast-flowing streams.

However, an ocean cockpit might be uncomfortable for heavier kayakers. It is hard to get in and out of the kayak.

Keyhole cockpit: A keyhole cockpit is as wide as an ocean cockpit, but the only difference is that it’s 32 inches long. It even comes with thicker braces and an adjustable seating arrangement. The fact that keyhole cockpits are more adjustable, they allow comfortable sitting. You can stretch your legs and move them around inside, especially when out fishing or kayaking for a couple of hours.

However, they might pose maneuverability issues. Modern keyhole cockpits aren’t fit for handling rough waters, so you might want to stay on calm streams.

Recreational cockpit: A recreational cockpit is exactly how a recreational kayak is. It’s is usually in an oval or square shape. And it’s more than 20 inches wide and 36 inches long. It offers plenty of space for comfortable entry and exit.

However, they’re basic cockpits with little or no control over maneuverability. These might be comparatively large in size, but they’re safe on calm, open waters.

Most cockpits, especially those designed for competitive purposes, come with thick padding and weather-proofing qualities. Some even offer smart adjustability features. At the end of it all, considering the right cockpit shape and size sets the tone of how well you use your kayak.

It also affects the distance between your legs and the kayak’s deck for better control. So choose wisely.


5. Considering The Right Paddles

A correct paddle choice is can make big difference for a kayak. You need to be able distinguish the best paddle based on its build material, size, and comfort level. (7,8)

Standard kayak paddles vary from 210 cm to 260 cm, in length. But this standard can vary depending upon your body size, height, and comfort level. There are 2 common types of paddling styles you should know about.

Low-angle paddling: Low-angle padding boasts of a slower cadence and a flatter angle than other models. It comes with slim blades that turn in water for better navigation and stability.

High-angle paddling: Professionals use high-angle paddles for faster performance. It features a more aggressive paddling style for acceleration and precise navigation. High-angle paddling requires more physical effort for each paddling stroke than low-angle paddling.

The next thing to consider when choosing the right paddles is blade material. Kayak paddles are mostly made up of fiberglass or carbon fiber or nylon aluminum materials. Depending upon your budget and kayaking skills can you find the correct paddle material.

Fiberglass: Fiberglass paddles are good for touring and recreational kayaks. They offer sufficient durability and are lightweight to handle. The best part about using fiberglass material is that they’re available in a wide range of colors.

Carbon fiber: Carbon fiber has a more distinctive look and feel than fiberglass. It’s a good choice when you want a rugged kayak for high-performance paddling.

Nylon Aluminum: Nylon aluminum paddles are relatively lightweight with less maintenance. They’re good for beginners and recreational kayakers. Due to the aluminum build, they get too hot or cold in specific climates.

Did you know kayak paddles are feathered to increase durability and efficiency? You will both, feathered and non-feathered paddles on the market. Using feathered paddles can boost wind resistance and stability, especially for whitewater kayaking.

Feathered paddles also come with larger handles and angles for high-performance paddling. You will be able to maintain control and stability on different water conditions, for as long as you have a feathered paddle with you.

6. Are You Kayaking With Kids?

It’s always exciting to take your kids along for kayaking. But is the kayak of your choice fit for children? There’s only one way to find out.

Apart from taking your kid’s swimming abilities, age, and location into consideration, it’s time to pick the right “family” kayak. The kayak seat, paddle length, and comfort level is equally essential. If you’re kayaking with a child under 7, it’s safe to have him sit in the bow of the kayak. But for 7 and higher, buying a bigger kayak or canoe should do the trick.

Consider buying a kayak with a spray deck made of a durable (waterproof) fabric. When your child is experience enough to learn some kayaking abilities, taking the safety net off might be a good idea. Most adult kayaks do not come with such additional accessories, so requesting for one is important.

Buying a sit-on-top kayak, on the other hand, can be a good thing for warmer climates. You can fit up to 3 children without compromising on comfort and storage space. An inflatable kayak or tandem kayak in this case might be an excellent alternative if you have little space to work with.

Paddle boards, as heavy as they might seem, are also available in kid sizes. You want something as comfortable as a 200 cm long paddle with a narrower shaft and handle.

You also need to make sure the kayak you’re buying comes with proper safety standards and features including lines, floats, and PFDs (Personal Flotation Devices). Lines and floats are extra precautions you take in emergency situations. Features like a throw-bag, tow line, and paddle float can keep your kid safe and worry-free when paddling.

On an ending note, buying a kayak for children isn’t easy. You need to create a safe and welcoming environment for you kid to learn kayaking in. If you’ve learned how to kayak by yourself, you’ll understand how important it is to stay safe and comfortable, before all else. So it’s good to let your kid experience the same thing, but only under supervision. (9)

7. What’s The Hull Shape?

It’s also important to take the shape of the kayak’s hull into consideration. There are 3 main types of hulls including flat, rounded, and V-shape. The hull shape determines a kayak’s stability to travel through water.

Round hulls: Rounded hulls offers less water resistance, allowing better maneuverability and speed. They work well with touring and recreational kayaks.

V-shaped hulls: V-shaped hulls offer a striking and edgy hull shape. This means the kayak is able to cut through water, allowing better navigation on fast-flowing waters. The problem with v-shaped hulls is that they might tip over easily, considering its narrow shape and edges.

Flat hulls: Flat-bottom hulls can be seen on most types of kayaks. They offer secondary stability and help with navigation. The disadvantage of using flat-bottom hulls is that they lack speed and stability, unlike rounded hulls. But they’re tougher in comparison to V-shaped hulls in terms of tipping over on harsh water conditions.

The next thing you should know about is primary and secondary stability. The difference between the two is simple to understand, but you need to know more about the hull shape of a kayak for choosing the right fit.

Primary stability can be categorized as the initial stages of sturdiness and steadiness of the kayak. This is how the kayak balances itself on flat water. The secondary stability is the ability to resist tipping over due to harsh water conditions.

It can be said that some kayaks that offer primary stability, lack secondary stability, and vice versa. So it’s important to distinguish between the two to find your perfect match.

When you look at the various hull designs of a kayak, considering the chine is essential. The chine is the part where the kayak’s bottom touches the sides. A rounded chine is usually softer in design than a boxy one. That said, hard chines offer primary stability, while soft chines offer secondary stability on the water. (10)


8. Do You Need An Inflatable?

The only concern for traditional kayaks is storage. So as an efficient alternative, using an inflatable is both cost and space-friendly. You can easily store them in compact spaces including in a car, RV, bus, or in the trunk of a vehicle. (11)

Using an inflatable is absolutely essential for traveling. It makes portability simple, quick, and easy. That said, here’s what you need to look forward to when choosing an inflatable kayak.

Inflatable kayak style: You can opt for either a self-bailing, an open-style, sit-on-top, or stand-up inflatable kayak.

A self-bailing inflatable kayak is typically ideal for whitewater kayaking. It’s durable, conformable, and offers incredible stability on fast-flowing waters.

Sit-on-top kayaks have a more open and flexible design than a self-bailing kayak. They’re good for people who dislike an enclosed shell for easy entry and exit.

An open-style inflatable kayak is a canoe-style version. It comes with higher side walls and a lower seating arrangement. This is ideal for people who want like more room to move around without compromising on quality.

Moving forward, modern inflatable kayaks come with extra features for better usability and stability.

Tracking fin: A tracking fin is located at the bottom of an inflatable kayak. It’s what keeps the kayak stable to paddle in a straight line.

Fish-tailing: Most inflatable kayaks are lightweight, so this increases the chances of directional movement, especially during strong winds. With proper fish-tailing support, an inflatable kayak is easy to maneuver, control, and it also allows better stroke support for long-term use.

9. Is It Easy To Maintain?

If your kayak is difficult to maintain and repair, it’s not worth the investment. One thing that most kayakers will tell you is taking care of it before anything else. The last thing you want to happen is when you pull your kayak out of storage, only to find it rusting or with cracked edges. (12)

Taking little steps of maintenance for long-term use is mandatory, especially when using something as big a purchase as a kayak. Here are a few simple steps to exercise proper kayak maintenance.

  1. The first thing you’d want to check is hull design. In case you take your kayak out on special occasions, long-term storage can cause hull damage. Before taking it out on the water, you might want to keep the kayak out in the sun for a couple of hours to retain its proper hull shape.

  2. The riggings of the kayak are as important as checking for hull damage. All the perimeter lines, wiring, and bungees need to be in proper shape. The best way to carry this step out is peeking over the skeg to evaluate its pedals and other hardware. If anything needs repairing, it’s better to find out on land than on the water!

  3. Various parts of a kayak such as seats or the bulkhead need to be replaced from time to time. For before the paddling season begins, it’s good to physically test each part and then proceed on the water.

  4. Consider using soapy water and a sponge to keep your kayak clean. This will eliminate corrosion, rust, and dust buildup. You can even use a spray hose to splash water on the kayak, including its interior parts for a good wash. Do this a couple of times a year and you’ll notice a major difference in overall performance.

  5. If rainfall is common where you live, buying a cockpit cover to keep the debris and rain out isn’t a bad idea. It also prevents mosquitoes and mold from forming around the cockpit.

  6. Your kayak needs to be protected from the sun rays. And not every modern kayak is UV-resistant and weather-sealed for long-term use. A kayak left out in the sun for hours can damage the exterior, resulting in cracks, punctures, and other problems. You can eliminate this problem, for good, with the help of a UV protectant spray. This is especially helpful if you’re unable to store your kayak indoors, away from sunlight.

10. Looking At Extra Features

You might call these accessories, but most modern kayaks come with the correct features, to begin with. For example, a spray skirt is a durable kayak cover to keep water out. The same applies to a pump or storage bag for an inflatable kayak. Considering the right accessories when choosing a kayak add to its efficiency and cost-effectiveness.

That said, let’s study each accessory in detail so you know what to look forward to.

Paddle: If you’ve read this far, you already know what a paddle is. Finding the right paddle depending upon its correct size is important for any kayaker, regardless of profession. It’s also important to know that a paddle that works in open water conditions may not be suitable in rough, fast-flowing waters.

Safety gear: Expert kayakers will tell you how critical safety gear is, especially flotation devices on windy and rough days. PFDs, on the other hand, is a certified flotation device which is a must-buy for all kayakers. Some might even call it a life vest or life jacket. The proper size, fit, and feel can only be decided once you know what to look for.

Car rack: Kayaks with a bulky frame come with a sturdy car rack for better storage and portability. If you have a folding or inflatable kayak, you do not need a car rack. But finding a proper car rack mount for a kayak is of utmost important if you plan on using a traditional, rugged model.

Spray skirt: As mentioned above, a spray skirt keeps water out of the kayak. It’s especially important when you have a sit-on-top or standing kayak. And also when you’re close to rough waters. Even heavy winds and rainfall can fill up a kayak easily.

You can also use a spray skirt when paddling in fast-flowing waters.

Conclusion

Buying your very first kayak can be challenging. But after reading this guide, I can sense you feel more relaxed than what you felt just a few minutes ago. Kayaks, regardless of their type, are designed with certain specific features. And while you master the art of kayaking, even as a beginner, it’s always good to know what you’re getting yourself involved in.

One of the many things science tells us is the importance of structure and efficiency when using a product. If you have a kayak that makes you feel uncomfortable and isn’t “up-to-the-mark”, it’s not worth investing in. This you should be able to tell during the first few weeks of kayaking.

This guide spells out what you need to know about choosing a kayak. It also helps you decide which kayak is best for you and why. If anyone tells you about the one-and-only kayak that’s best for everyone, don’t buy it. Look for its features, design, ease of use, and durability before finalizing your purchase. What’s good for your companion may not be for you.

Even though there isn’t a single “best” kayak out there, it’s always good to know a few guidelines by your side. Ask yourself these questions before choosing your ideal fit:

  • Where are you most going to kayak? Is it on calm waters, ponds, or white water?

  • Are you kayaking alone?

  • Are you kayaking for recreational, touring, or competitive purposes?

Answering these questions will give you a rough idea of what works in your favor and what doesn’t.


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