There are so many different types of kayaks that it can be hard to get a handle on which one is right for you. Kayaks differ in materials, design, number of seats, intended use and means of propulsion. Understanding the differences will help you buy the right kayak for your goals, budget and aspirations.
The discussion below will help you learn the basics and put you on the right path to finding the kayak that’s right for you. Once you’ve covered the basics, be sure to check our detailed article on how to buy a kayak.
Types of kayaks by structure
Rigid or hard-shell kayaks
The largest category of kayaks is rigid or hard-shell kayaks. There are hundreds of designs on the market in a wide range of materials, from rotomolded and blow-molded plastic kayaks to thermoformed ABS plastic kayaks to composite constructions. The one thing all these constructions have in common is that they are rigid. They don’t fold up, they don’t roll into bags, and (for the most part) they don’t come apart into pieces.
Hard-shell kayaks are where you should start your exploration. Most people who purchase kayaks will find a hard-shell design that matches their needs, whether they’re looking for a fishing kayak, a lightweight recreational design or something for serious ocean exploration. Nearly every category of kayak design is dominated by some sort of rigid design, whether it be fishing kayaks, recreational boats, whitewater designs or touring kayaks.
Rigid kayaks differ in both design and materials. We’ll discuss some design characteristics a little later on. For now, we’ll focus on the differences between rotomolded, blow-molded, ABS/thermoformed and composite constructions.
Rotomolded polyethylene (PE) is the most common material for rigid kayaks. It’s durable and particularly impact-resistant, which is why nearly all whitewater kayaks are rotomolded. Rotomolding can be used to create an almost infinite range of kayak designs. The toughness of the material makes it a good choice for many paddlers, as does its modest cost.
The biggest downside of rotomolded kayaks is they tend to be heavier than boats made from other materials. Rotomolded boats are also a little more flexible than composite designs, so the material isn’t quite as good for high-performance designs like racing kayaks and sea kayaks.
Blow-molded plastic kayaks are often the least expensive and least durable designs. A handful of high-quality manufacturers make heavy-duty blow-molded kayaks, but most of the blow-molded designs you’ll find are economy models sold at department stores and mass merchant retailers. These blow-molded kayaks are lightweight and inexpensive, but are much less durable than rotomolded plastic designs.
Composite kayaks are made from layers of fiberglass or aramid cloth laminated together with some sort of resin. In general, composite kayaks are lighter and stiffer than rotomolded designs. This makes composite a good choice for longer touring kayaks. Composites are also the best choice for building a kayak that is ultra-lightweight or a high-performance racing design.
ABS plastic kayaks fill a middle ground between rotomolded PE designs and composites. They cost more than rotomolded boats but less than composites, and they’re roughly in between the two materials in terms of stiffness and impact resistance. Many light touring and touring designs are built in this material and offer excellent value.
The one category of kayaks you’ll rarely find in hard-shell designs are folding or collapsible models. There are some rigid kayaks that come apart into two or more pieces for transportation or storage, but the category of travel kayaks is dominated by inflatable and folding designs.
Inflatable or blow-up kayaks are a good option for kayakers with limited space to store their boats. Inflatables typically come in whitewater, fishing and recreational designs. Whitewater and fishing inflatables are usually made from tough materials similar to those used in whitewater rafts. Recreational designs use lighter materials and are usually a little less durable but more affordable.
Whitewater inflatable kayaks offer an option between rafts and whitewater kayaks for paddlers looking to explore wild rivers. Recreational designs are suitable for quiet water adventures. Both are available in solo or tandem designs.
The chief advantage of inflatable designs is their compactness for storage and travel. They are also among the most affordable options in collapsible kayaks. Inflatable kayaks are less rigid than hard-shell designs, so they don’t perform quite as well. They also offer fewer design options and features than rigid kayaks, but if you’re looking for a kayak to store in your closet or a tough boat to bomb down the river, they’re a great option to consider.
Folding or foldable kayaks typically offer the most high-performance options in collapsible kayak designs. Traditional folding kayak designs use a rigid frame covered by a flexible waterproof skin. Some newer designs use folding panels that form the hull of the kayak when snapped together. Either option creates a hull that is stiffer than an inflatable and in some cases approaches the performance of high-end hard-shell touring designs.
Folding kayaks come in recreational and touring designs. They are often wide and stable, particularly tandem folding designs.
The biggest advantage of folding kayaks is they offer a compact option for storage and travel. Folding kayaks are more expensive than inflatable options but typically offer superior performance on the water. Because of their rigid design, folding kayaks are a poor choice for whitewater paddling where impacts with rocks could bend or break their frames.
If you’re looking for a compact kayak for storage or travel and you can afford to spend a bit more money on your kayak, folding designs should be at the top of your list.
Types of kayaks by design
As with other designs, sit-on-top or sit-on kayaks come in a wide range of designs. There are sit-on-top recreational kayaks, sit-on-top fishing kayaks and specialty racing sit-on kayaks called surf skis.
There are two main advantages to sit-on-top kayaks. First, they won’t fill with water if flipped over. This makes them easier to get back onto in deep water and is one of the reasons sit-on-tops are a good choice for a recreational kayak that you plan to paddle far from shore. Second, they are easy to move around on, whether you are turning around to grab a fishing rod or getting onto them at the beach. Almost all fishing kayaks are sit-on-top designs for this reason.
If you’re paddling a sit-on-top in cold water you might get wet and cold. This is the biggest disadvantage of sit-on-top designs. Another is that sit-on-tops tend to be heavier than similar kayaks with a cockpit.
Sit-on-tops are an excellent choice for recreational paddlers who paddle farther from shore, anglers who want a versatile kayak for fishing and for anyone who gets into high-performance surf ski racing.
The most common type of kayak is a sit-inside or sit-in kayak. The full range of designs in this category is staggering. There are sit-in recreational kayaks, whitewater kayaks, touring kayaks, sea kayaks, racing kayaks, tandem kayaks—the list goes on and on.
The biggest advantage to sit-inside kayaks is they can be sealed off from the elements with a sprayskirt. This means they are warmer and drier to paddle in cool weather or on cold water. A closed cockpit can do anything from seal out a light drizzle to protect a paddler from smashing surf or turbulent whitewater—it just depends on the design.
Sit-inside recreational designs are found everywhere and are a good option for paddling close to shore on calm water. Longer touring designs are faster and frequently have safety features that come into play for open-water touring or camping. Whitewater designs will run steep drops or surf a river wave. The choice of designs is almost endless.
The biggest disadvantage of sit-inside designs is they can be tricky to get back into if you fall out in deep water. Sea kayakers need to learn special skills to get back in their kayaks. Recreational paddlers should stay close to shore. Whitewater kayakers will want to learn to roll their kayaks to avoid a swim if possible.
There are so many options in sit-inside kayaks it can be difficult to provide a short summary. For more details, make sure to check our article on sit-on-top vs. sit-inside kayaks.
Types of kayaks by activity
Fishing kayaks or angler kayaks are specialized recreational designs. Most fishing kayaks are sit-on-top designs. These allow for good mobility, ease of landing fish and safety when far from shore.
Some fishing kayaks are wide enough for standing. These designs are typically slower than narrower boats, but their wider beam provides ample stability. An added benefit of wider designs is that seats can be mounted higher for more effective vision and casting.
Pedal-drive fishing kayaks are popular, especially in tidal or river environments where strong currents can make paddling challenging. There are a variety of different designs of pedal-drive kayaks, including those with fins and others with propellers. All allow a kayak angler to keep his or her hands free for casting and handling fish.
In colder climates, some kayak anglers prefer closed cockpit designs. These kayaks are a little more difficult to get into and out of, but offer more protection from cold water and air temperatures.
Whitewater kayaks are specialized designs for running river rapids. Most whitewater kayaks are sit-inside designs with smaller cockpits that can be sealed tightly with a neoprene sprayskirt. Some sit-on-top designs offer hard-shell kayak performance to those who prefer to sit on instead of inside their kayak.
Whitewater kayaks are typically shorter than touring or recreational kayaks. They are the most maneuverable kayaks and often have hull shapes that plane on a wave like a surfboard. A few of the most common types of whitewater kayaks are discussed below.
River runners are whitewater kayaks intended for covering miles and playing on river features along the way. In many cases, these boats share characteristics with some of the other categories, like creek boats or playboats. River runners may have a surfboard-style planing hull for wave surfing. Most are roomier and more comfortable than playboats. They typically have less volume than creek boats. River runners are usually longer than playboats and creekboats and faster than either on the water.
As with all boat designs, there is a lot of variation in this category. Some river runners tip toward the creek boat end of things with more volume and rocker. Others are closer to playboats with low volume sterns that can be sliced underwater to pivot and squirt. Choosing the right river runner for your needs requires deciding how much you want to play the river and how important stability and forgiveness is to you.
Creek boats are designed to make running very steep whitewater safer and easier. They typically have more volume than river runners and often have softer edges. Most creek boats have ample rocker for maneuverability and forgiveness when landing steep drops.
You probably know if you need a creek boat. Paddlers who are comfortable on class III and are interested in challenging themselves on harder water often choose a creek boat to make class IV more accessible and fun. If you’re a class V boater you probably already have a creeker.
Playboats are about fun on the water—surfing waves, cartwheels, squirts. They’ll almost always have a planing hull for precise surfing. Playboats have less volume than river runners and they’re usually shorter. This makes them easier to slice under the water for vertical play moves.
The lower volume of playboats means they have less room for comfort in the cockpit. If you decide to choose a playboat instead of a river runner remember you’ll be trading plush for play in most cases.
Freestyle kayaks are a more specialized version of playboats. They’re the shortest kayak designs, have planing hulls, slicy ends and centralized volume around the cockpit. Freestyle boats can be used to execute the most advanced play moves including aerial moves, loops and a host of other specialized maneuvers part of freestyle competitions.
As with creek boats, paddlers who are looking at freestyle boats are often looking for a new challenge—in this case, learning challenging play moves and improving their boat handling skills.
Like playboats, freestyle kayaks won’t offer the most comfort for a long day on the water, but they will unlock the potential of any play spot on the river.
Crossover kayaks bridge the gap between whitewater kayaks and touring kayaks. They have long, whitewater-style hulls that can easily cover long distances on the river. Crossovers also have hatches and bulkheads for dry gear storage. Most of them have a retractable skeg that improves tracking in flatwater sections of long river tours.
Many kayakers who plan to paddle easy whitewater but want a versatile boat choose crossover kayaks instead of river runners or touring kayaks. They are an excellent option for beginner river paddlers, even those who will rarely, if ever, venture into whitewater rapids.
Recreational kayaks are about fun, stability and value. Whether they are sit-inside or sit-on-top, recreational designs put a premium on stability. They aren’t as fast as touring kayaks, but they are more stable.
Recreational kayaks often offer very basic features and come at an affordable price. In some cases they are just a simple kayak hull with a seat and little else. Nicer designs incorporate some touring kayak features, like hatches and bulkheads for dry storage and deck elastics for stashing a water bottle.
Like all kayaks, recreational kayaks come in a wide range of lengths and designs. Few are shorter than nine feet and most are no longer than 14. All are wider than touring designs of similar length.
If you’re considering a recreational kayak, take a look at designs around 12 feet long first. Boats shorter than this are lighter and less expensive, but noticeably slower. Those longer are faster but heavier. Longer recreational boats are a good choice for covering lots of miles.
As mentioned in the sections above, the best recreational kayaks for paddling far from shore are sit-on-top designs. Sit-inside recreational kayaks are great for anyone who paddles close to shore.
Touring and sea kayaks
Touring kayaks are specialized sit-inside kayaks designed for long distance travel and camping. Sea kayaks are a more specialized set of touring kayaks that are typically longer and narrower than general purpose touring boats.
Touring kayaks typically pick up where recreational kayaks leave off. They are usually longer than 14 feet and narrower than 24 inches. Most touring kayaks are fitted with bulkheads and hatches front and rear for dry storage and floatation. Many have rudders or retractable skegs to help control direction in wind. Safety features like decklines are common.
Sea kayaks are similar to general purpose touring kayaks in many ways. They are usually 16 feet long or longer and commonly 22 inches wide or narrower. Sea kayaks are faster than other touring kayaks but usually not as stable. They almost always feature as skeg or rudder and often have extra compartments and hatches that allow easy access to equipment while on the water.
Most touring kayaks are made of rotomolded polyethylene. Many sea kayaks are made of lighter, stiffer composite materials like fiberglass or aramid fibers. Generally, these composite kayaks offer better performance than their PE cousins but cost substantially more.
If you’re interested in paddling larger bodies of water like the ocean or the Great Lakes, touring kayaks are a good choice. Especially if you plan to do multiple day trips involving camping.
Surf kayaks are specialized kayaks for playing in ocean surf. They differ from whitewater kayaks because they have a specialized edge that grips a breaking wave and allows for a diagonal run like a surfboard would make.
Sit-inside surf kayaks come in two types. High-performance or HP boats are short and have a flat planing hull like a surfboard. Longer International Class (IC) boats have a rounder hull and are typically longer. Either may be fitted with surfboard fins, but it is more common to find fins on HP boats.
A specialized kind of sit-on-top surf kayak is called a wave ski. This is essentially a surfboard with a raised seat and a seatbelt to keep the paddler in place. Wave skis are similar to HP boats in their length and width. A few other sit-on-top surf kayaks are also available for beginners who are just getting into the sport.
There are lots of different kinds of racing kayaks. There are whitewater racing kayaks, whitewater slalom kayaks, downriver racing kayak, racing surf skis and flatwater sprint kayaks. There are also long, fast sea kayaks that are used for certain categories of kayak racing.
People buy racing kayaks either to compete in a particular discipline or because they like the speed and performance of a certain design. Many fitness paddlers choose racing kayaks as the right tool for training on the water.
If you’re considering competition, it’s probably best to explore the community around your chosen discipline before jumping in and buying a racing kayak. Other racers and coaches will have lots of recommendations for where to start and what to look for.
Types of kayaks by number of seats
Solo kayaks or one-person kayaks are the most common type of kayaks sold. The advantage of a solo kayak is that only one person is needed to go out on the water. Many kayakers prefer solo kayaks because they can choose their own course and pace. Solo kayaks are lighter than similar tandem kayaks and less expensive.
Tandem kayaks, two-seater kayaks, two-person kayaks—there are many ways to describe them, but the basic idea is the same. Two people in one boat. There are tandem versions of all the different types of kayaks, from recreational to touring and even racing. Some tandems can be paddled solo, while others have separate cockpits and are best used by two people. A single tandem kayak usually costs less than two solos, but is heavier to carry and can be more challenging to transport. One of the biggest advantages of tandem kayaks is they allow two paddlers of different skill levels or strength to stay together on the water.
Types of kayaks by propulsion
The most common way to propel a kayak is with a two-bladed kayak paddle. Just about any kayak on the water can be paddled this way, as long as you use a paddle that is correctly sized to the boat. Wider kayaks require longer paddles, narrower kayaks use shorter paddles. Different styles of kayaks perform better with different types of paddles, but one thing is universally true—a lightweight paddle makes paddling your kayak much more enjoyable and is a worthwhile investment.
Some kayaks come with pedal-drive systems that allow them to be propelled using your legs rather than arms. Since the leg muscles are stronger than those in the upper body, pedal-drive kayaks can be less fatiguing to use. Pedal-drives are primarily found in recreational kayaks, particularly fishing kayaks. Pedal-drive kayaks allow you to keep your hands free for fishing, which is a big advantage when you’re trying to cast and hold position. Pedal kayaks can develop a lot of power and many anglers prefer them when fishing water with currents, where they can be used to hold the kayak in position without setting an anchor. Pedal-drive kayaks have lots of advantages, but they do tend to be more expensive than similar sized recreational kayaks. The largest pedal kayaks can also be quite heavy.
Motorized kayaks are similar to pedal-drive kayaks but power is provided by a marine battery rather than the kayaker’s legs. Motor drives are frequently offered as an add-on option for pedal-drive kayaks, or as a kit to fit onto a conventional recreational or fishing kayak. A motor moves the kayak swiftly through the water and eliminates any need to paddle or pedal. Motors do add complexity and cost to a kayak and marine batteries require charging, but some anglers find the hands-free power of motors to be a worthwhile investment.
Types of kayaks by audience
Kids’ kayaks, youth kayaks or child’s kayaks can be found in a range of styles and designs. There are fewer choices in youth kayaks than there are for adults, but if you look into the options you’ll find whitewater kayaks, touring kayaks, sit-on-tops and recreational kayaks sized smaller to fit children. Oftentimes children’s kayaks are simply smaller versions of similar adult boats. In this case, you should expect them to come at similar prices. Other children’s kayaks are stripped down to the basic features in order to keep them affordable. Regardless of what type of kayaking you enjoy, you’ll likely find a child-sized option to help you get out on the water with the whole family.