G etting into any new sport requires a huge investment, both in time spent researching and in money itself. If you’re thinking about buying a kayak, you’re probably already aware that there are a variety of different types of kayaks, from touring and whitewater to expedition and recreational.

So what is a recreational kayak? Designed for casual fun on the water, recreational kayaks are for day trips on smooth, sheltered waters. They are shorter and wider than touring boats, making them more stable. This extra width makes them a little slower in the water, and they drag a bit in the wind. They’re usually between 10 and 12 feet in length, which makes them more manoeuvrable, but they don’t track quite as well as a longer boat.

Is a recreational kayak right for me?

The recreational kayak’s ideal habitat is the cottage. You can use your kayak to explore sheltered, flat lakes or slow-moving rivers, take the occasional dip in the water and paddle over to a friend’s cottage. It’s also an ideal craft to share with people who have never kayaked before. If you have friends visiting, they can hop right in and figure out how to use it immediately. There’s no dealing with skirts, rudder pedals or a tippy hull design. A recreational kayak is simply that—a boat to use recreationally.

You don’t need to own a cottage to have one either. If you’re going to paddle casually on slow-flowing rivers and still lakes, mostly for a couple hours here and there, the recreational kayak is the boat for you. They’re rugged and light enough that you can throw them on the roof of your car and take them just about anywhere.

Two people on kayaks
A recreational kayak is will allow you to explore your favorite lakes and rivers with ease. | Photo by: Old Town Canoes

How to choose a recreational kayak

So you’ve made the decision—the recreational kayak is the right boat for you. So what do you look for in a recreational kayak? Great question. Here are some of the variables to consider.

Inflatable vs. rigid

When you think inflatable, a rainbow unicorn pool toy may come to mind; but inflatable kayaks are the real deal and, depending on your situation, may be the perfect boat for you. The advantages? Inflatable kayaks are generally lighter than hard-shell kayaks, making them easier to get from the car to the put-in. They’re more compact, deflating and folding up small enough to fit in the backseat of your car and in a closet or cabinet at home. They’re practically unsinkable—these things are built with tough-as-nails materials that are nearly puncture-resistant. They’ll bounce off rocks, roots and stumps with nary a scratch. And finally, inflatables are, as a rule, cheaper than hard-shell kayaks.

The disadvantages of inflatable kayaks include performance, launch time and drying time. Performance-wise, hard-shell kayaks are always faster. The inherent flex in inflatables creates a loss of speed. But for recreational boaters, this shouldn’t be too big of a deal. When it comes to launching, an inflatable will also take a bit longer to set up. Pumping up a boat from zero air to fully inflated can take anywhere from seven to 10 minutes. It’s hard work and you’ll be sweating before you’re even in the boat (unless of course you purchase an electric pump). And, of course, once you’re off the river you’ll need to dry it off before rolling it up, requiring more time than it would take to put away a hard-shell.

Sit-on-top vs. sit-inside

With recreational kayaks, there are sit-inside or sit-on-top decisions to make as well. What we generally think of as a “classic kayak” is the sit-inside. They have a cockpit that allows you to literally sit inside the boat. These are great for colder climates; they’ll keep the weather and water out of the boat and off your legs. They have more interior storage as well.

Sit-on-top kayaks are self-draining and are easy to get back onto if you capsize. There is no protection from weather or water on a sit-on-top kayak, so they’re best used in warm climates. If you’re really stuck on what’s best for you, check out this article for a more detailed debate.

Size

The final decision to make when buying a kayak is the size. What size recreational kayak do I need? What length of recreational kayak is best for me? Here’s how it works. Most recreational kayaks are between 10 and 12 feet long—of course, there are some recreational kayaks that fall outside this range. This makes them easy to maneuver both on the water and on land. When choosing from either end of the size range, there are two things you need to consider: weight capacity and comfort.

Weight capacity should be listed somewhere on the boat’s specifications. Be sure to include your weight (not your “ideal weight”) when considering a boat, plus the weight of whatever items you plan on packing along regularly. Secondly, make sure you can fit in the boat comfortably. If you’re 6’9” and 250 pounds, finding a boat that fits is going to be a bit more challenging, but figuring this out now will save you a lot of discomfort in the future.

This is why it’s a great idea to shop at a local retailer. Many will allow you to demo boats before you buy, ensuring you get just the right size for you.

Recreational kayak brands

Like all sporting goods, a boat made by a reputable manufacturer will not only increase your enjoyment of the sport, it will also function better and last longer than a pool toy brand. It’ll also be safer. Some of the tried-and-true brands that make recreational kayaks are listed below.

Recreational kayak reviews

Here are a few recreational kayaks our team at Paddling Magazine have reviewed:

How much do recreational kayaks cost?

The price of a recreational kayak can range dramatically. Yes, you can buy one for $150, but it’ll be a sit-on-top boat that is a glorified pool toy with questionable safety features. Realistically, to buy a kayak worth investing in, you’re looking at about $800 to $2,000. It’s a huge price range, but when it comes to boats, you generally get what you pay for. The more expensive boats will be lighter and probably more comfortable. It’s up to you to decide what you’ll be using the boat for, how often you’ll use it and what your budget is.

Your local paddling shop should be able to help you with those decisions and point you in the right direction. Overall, it’s best to remember that when it comes to sports equipment, investing in quality gear almost always enhances your enjoyment of the sport. Kayaking is no different.

Where to buy

A great place to start your recreational kayak search is the Paddling Buyer’s Guide. Having access to models from all the top brands will allow you to get a good handle on what’s out there. And it’ll help you start narrowing down your search. You can filter between inflatable and hard-shell, sit-on-top and sit-inside, length and weight, solo and tandem, and more to really hone in on what you’re after.

These days you can often buy directly from the manufacturer. This is a good option if you live close by, otherwise we recommend going to your local paddling shop. They’ll have expert staff who can answer all your questions and really get you set up with everything you need. They’ll often let you try the boat before buying it too, which is a seriously beneficial perk.

Yes, it’s hard to argue against the ease of use that Amazon offers, and they can have great deals, but don’t be tempted by the $150 wonder boats. As always, you’ll get what you pay for. If the price is too good to be true, it probably is. And it probably isn’t very safe either. Using the Paddling Buyer’s Guide beforehand will give you a good idea of reasonable price ranges for the boat of your dreams.

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