What is it about the lure of waves? The power of the ocean builds as it nears the coast, heaving up and chundering into whitewater. Yet, instead of shying away, we paddlers say, “That looks awesome. Let’s go!” As paddlers, we seem drawn to the waves, and to enjoy them properly we need to find the best kayak for surfing waves.
Defining a surf kayak seems like it should be a simple task, but the best surf kayak can mean different things to different people. To most minds, a surf kayak is a lightweight sit-inside kayak designed for surfing coastal ocean waves. Though there are some attributes that all surf kayaks share like speedy and playful maneuverability, the types of kayaks deemed suitable for surf can be expanded to include certain touring kayaks, whitewater playboats, sit-on-tops and even fishing kayaks.
In this article, we share insight on finding the best surf kayak for the particular way you want to paddle and enjoy the energy of the ocean.
Our picks: Best surf kayaks for 2022
Find our list of the top surf kayaks of the year below. Start comparing models to begin your search for the perfect boat.
Shop for surf kayaks
The Paddling Buyer’s Guide is your ultimate resource for finding and learning about the various surf kayaks available on the market. In the guide we go over each model’s specifications, price and places to buy them. There are also reviews of each surf kayak model. To streamline your search we’ve also filtered the guide by type, material and brand.
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Shopping for a used surf kayak?
Looking to buy a used surf kayak? Know what type of surf kayak you are on the hunt for? If it’s a composite hull built specifically for carving up coastal ocean waves, a second-hand surf kayak may be hard to find. Builders for this niche discipline are limited, which means used stock is also scarce, but if you get lucky, buying used can be a great way to score a deal. Here are a few tips to help you buy a used surf kayak.
Exactly what kind of surf kayak are you looking for?
In the Buying Advice section below, we go over the various types of kayaks often referred to as surf kayaks. This should help your surf kayak search on Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace and paddling message boards. If you are seeking a high performance surf kayak use search terms like “composite surf kayak” or try “waveskis” for a sit-on-top style.
If you find a posting, get all the details on the kayak from the seller so you can look it up. Also ask the seller questions, including how they used the kayak, which may give you some idea as to whether this is the appropriate boat for you. Even reach out to the builder once you have the details and see what they can tell you about the shape.
Expand your search to other coastal areas
There may not be much of a surf kayak scene in your coastal region. Time for a road trip. Check classified sites in other coastal regions where surf kayaking may be popular. A great way to figure this out is to look up where events are hosted. This usually means there is a dedicated paddlesports community nearby, and with that along comes some boat stock. For surf kayaks, Wilmington, North Carolina, and Santa Cruz, California, come to mind.
Scope out the kayak in person before purchasing
Many surf kayaks are composite, which can be damaged. A spiderweb in the gel coat on the outside may look disturbing, but doesn’t actually mean the kayak itself is cracked.
Check for soft spots by lightly pressing around with your hands, look inside for signs a layer of composite has been busted through. Visible repairs on the outside are also a sign there has been damage to the kayak.
One of the best things about composite kayaks is that they are repairable. So a damaged boat isn’t necessarily a deal breaker as long as the price seems fair.
Take it for a rip
Bring your gear and ask if you can test paddle the kayak if conditions allow. Surf kayaking can have a tough learning curve and the seller will likely be happy to set you up for success. The only way you will ultimately know if a kayak is for you will be to get it on the water.
For more tips on what to look for when selecting a used kayak, read our article How To Buy A Used Kayak.
Surf kayak buying guide
You’ve likely visited this article with an idea in your mind of what a surf kayak is. Now that you are here, though, you may find the term surf kayak floats in turbid waters. So how, then, can you best go about finding the best surf kayak for your local waves?
Surf kayaks are high performance designs, adopting many of the characteristics of surfboard hull, nose and tail shapes. They are often constructed of fiberglass, carbon or Kevlar – sometimes plastic. Being specialty items, they are often made to order through boat builders, similar again to surfboards. Surf kayaks are usually less than 10 feet long, and have narrow hulls to provide speed and enable quick, edge-to-edge transitions.
For others, a surf kayak may refer to a waveski, which is a sit-on-top version of a surf kayak.
Plastic sit-on-tops with something less than high-performance edges and hulls may also be considered surf kayaks if their hulls are reasonably maneuverable.
Another crossover option is found in whitewater kayaks. These short, sit-inside kayaks are designed to surf river waves, especially the freestyle models. The best whitewater kayaks for ocean wave surfing would be known as playboats.
Surf skis are kayaks designed for open ocean racing. Solo surf skis are up to 21-feet-long, and as narrow as 16 inches. They are sit-on-top kayaks, and are designed to ride swells in the open ocean, not breaking waves.
Touring kayaks can serve as surf kayaks if they have certain aggressive and playful hulls design characteristics that help them handle waves. They would need to have increased rocker and a peaked bow. This keeps the bow riding high, instead of diving, while surfing a wave. A touring kayak designed to surf may also feature hard chines (an abrupt or sharp transition from the bottom to the side of the kayak) which gives it great carving ability.
For others, a surf kayak is a fishing kayak that handles the breaking waves and choppy swell of near shore conditions well. In a fishing kayak, the objective is staying upright more than it is shredding the face of a wave.
A fishing kayak which will perform well in surf often has a peaked bow, and substantial rocker to ride through surf and swell. A fishing kayak suited for riding out surf will also have solid secondary stability, which allows the boat to tilt from side to side as waves pass underneath without capsizing it. Secondary stability is often achieved by edges that round from the bottom of the kayak to the side.This allows the kayak to have a greater surface area on the waterline when it is not laying flat.
Now that you know the various types of kayaks that might be referred to as surf kayaks, you’ll see that, ultimately, the best kayak for surfing waves will depend on how you are looking to drop in.
Your local paddling shop is a great place to get additional insight on surf kayaks. Paddlesports professionals have a great understanding of the various disciplines of paddlesports and playing in the waves. You can see models in person, and even go for a test paddle.
For the composite surf kayaks specifically built for coastal waves the greatest resource may be speaking with a surf kayak builder. These manufacturers are smaller than plastic kayak makers, and often will provide a great deal of education on the kayaks they produce.
Still have more questions about surf kayaks? Here are some of the most common.
What is a surf kayak?
To experienced ocean paddlers, a surf kayak is a kayak designed for the specific use of surfing ocean waves breaking along the coastline. These kayaks are made to mimic many attributes of a surfboard with some modifications to meet the needs of a kayaker, such as increased bow rocker.
More broadly, though, the term surf kayak has come to be used to define various kayaks including whitewater boats made for river waves, touring kayaks with a high-performance design and fishing kayaks for near-shore angling.
Types of surf kayaks
Surf kayaks made to surf coastal ocean waves are available in various styles. They are available as sit-on-top kayaks as well as sit-inside kayaks. Surf kayaks can be constructed of rotomolded plastic, but more often high performance surf kayaks are built with composites such as fiberglass, carbon or Kevlar. Much like a surfboard, a surf kayak can be shaped to incorporate various hull, nose and tail design shapes.
The term surf kayak may also refer to other types of kayaks including waveskis, freestyle whitewater kayaks, fishing kayaks meant for nearshore angling, surfskis or touring kayaks with playful designs.
Waveski vs surf kayak
A waveski refers to a high-performance sit-on-top style surf kayak. The paddler on a waveski sits in a molded seating area on the deck of their surf craft. On a waveski the paddler is held in place by a seatbelt and foot straps.
A surf kayak generally refers to a sit-inside kayak designed specifically to surf coastal ocean waves. The paddler wears a sprayskirt over their cockpit opening. The interior seating position has a seat, thigh hooks and foot braces. A roll is required to use a surf kayak effectively, as you will likely flip in the surf zone.
Both a waveski and surf kayak have the same principles built into hull design to maximize wave-surfing performance.
Surf kayak design
Imagine someone has taken a surfboard and attached a seating cockpit to the deck. This is the general premise behind the design of a surf kayak, though it only tells half the story.
A surf kayak requires sufficient volume to float a kayaker high enough above the water to paddle around effectively. Surf kayaks also tend to have increased rocker in the bow to prevent the paddler from pitching over in steep ocean waves. Surf kayaks are also narrow for speed and quick transitions from edge to edge.
You’ll find surf kayaks listed with varieties of hull, tail, and nose shapes that are intended to perform different ways. A surf kayak maker building your boat may want to walk you through a discussion of how different shapes would suit your needs.
Surf kayak manufacturers
Surf kayak brands you may come across include Mega, Murky Waters and Riot.
Surf kayak reviews
At Paddling Magazine, we’ve taken a deep dive into many of the kayak models available and compiled detailed reviews. In the reviews you’ll find discussions of on-water performance, brand history, specifications, prices and places to buy.
- Recreational Kayak Review: Ocean Kayak Frenzy
- Boat Review: Point 65 Whisky 16 Kayak
- Boat Review: P&H Delphin Kayak
- Boat Review: Dagger Stratos 14.5 Kayak
- Boat Review: WaveSport Diesel 65 Kayak
- Boat Review: WaveSport Diesel 70 Kayak
- Sea Kayak Review: Nigel Dennis Explorer
- Sea Kayak Review: Tiderace Xplore-S
- Sea Kayak Review: Current Designs Rumour
- Sea Kayak Review: Seaward Quantum