Kayaking is a uniquely rewarding experience. You get all the quiet and relaxation of taking a boat out on open water, but somehow manage to work in some good exercise in the process. Essentially, it’s mountain biking for your upper body: A fun form of transportation that gets you out in the wilderness, helps you discover new places, and opens up a whole world of new skills and pastimes you never knew existed.
Unfortunately, the mountain bike comparisons don’t end there: Much like bicycles, there are countless different brands, styles, and disciplines to choose from, a huge range of different price points to try to get your head around, and about 100 poorly made models out there for every one good one worth buying.
This is our buyer’s guide for all the most common types of kayaks you’ll see out on the water today. Below we break down the different terms you’ll hear, the types of boats you’ll encounter in your search, and even make a few recommendations to help steer you in the right direction regardless of your current budget.
And while we can’t exactly help you figure out how to load a 15-foot boat on top of a 12-foot car, we can certainly turn you on to a few of the best kayaks out there that will fit conveniently in the trunk of any old sedan with room to spare.
Know Your Boats: Different Types Of Kayaks Explained
While there are numerous genres and subgenres of kayaks out there, they all fall under two main umbrellas: Flatwater or whitewater.
Flatwater kayaks are those made for recreation rather than sport and are commonly used for everything from lazy days on the lake with a few friends, a cooler, and some tunes to fishing in calm waters like rivers or ocean bays.
Whitewater kayaks, on the other hand, are the weapon of choice for paddling rapids, ripping down fast-moving creeks, dropping off waterfalls, or anything else that sounds dangerous (and therefore, fun).
This article focuses on all the different types of flatwater kayaks out there. And while kayaks like these could absolutely be described as “leisure” boats, there’s still a lot you’ll want to know to make sure you get the right one for your body type and intended use.
Your first step is to figure out what type of flatwater kayak will best suit you, so let’s dive into those first.
Sit-In Recreational Kayaks
A sit-in recreational kayak is your classic do-it-all one-person kayak. These boats are sturdy, have a decent amount of storage space for your cooler, electronics, and gear, and are small and light enough to be relatively easy to store and transport.
Sit-in kayaks also have the advantage of shielding you from the occasional splash since your legs and feet are typically down inside the nose of the boat, and are often built to accept a skirt as well to completely seal off the opening of the kayak. That makes them better than a recreational sit-on-top kayak for paddling in cooler weather or colder water, and also makes them better suited to the occasional class 1 or 2 rapids when you’re feeling adventurous.
The main features of a good recreational sit-in are comfort, easy and efficient paddling, and whatever convenience features you might want for an enjoyable day out exploring on the water.
Best Sit-In Kayak Overall: Wilderness Systems Pungo 125
The Pungo from Wilderness Systems sits at the top of many recreational kayakers’ wish lists. Since its introduction in 1997, the Pungo has grown and developed into one of the highest-rated and bestselling kayaks of all time, and it’s easy to see why. Bow to stern, the Pungo has just about everything you could ask for in a recreational craft.
The hull tracks extremely well in calm water, yet is stable enough for easy maneuvering on faster rivers. Wilderness Systems claims the Pungo is the fastest and most efficient paddling recreational kayak on the market, and thousands of yak enthusiasts seem to agree.
On the convenience side, the Pungo features a rear storage hatch, versatile bungee rigging on both front and rear decks, and a customizable dashboard that can be outfitted with a range of accessories from dry boxes to waterproof power banks. The seat is fully adjustable and all-day comfortable, providing ample lower back support and great ventilation for the hotter months.
Buying a Wilderness Systems kayak is certainly an investment, but we like that they back their products with a long list of replacement parts ranging from essentials like the rear skid plate right down to individual replacement parts for their seats.
We’ve listed the Pungo 125 model here (the 12.5-foot model, which is ideal for taller paddlers), but the Pungo also comes in a 10.5 foot model for shorter paddlers and a 12 foot model for folks somewhere in between.
Best Sit-In On A Budget: Old Town Vapor 10
While many budget recreational kayaks may look indistinguishable at first glance, not all hulls are created equal. If you’re looking for an affordable kayak without sacrificing quality or longevity, you’re going to want to focus on boats like the Old Town Vapor 10 which feature solid, one-piece hull construction that will last for years.
Old Town’s Vapor line of kayaks has been in production for a long time, and we don’t know of anyone who has purchased one and gone on to regret it. These are essentially jack-of-all-trades boats that are roomy, comfortable, and stable, yet still have the chops to hit the occasional rapids, do a little fishing, and even try your hand at simple overnight trips and kayak camping.
Aside from the incredibly durable hull (which also features a replaceable rear skidplate), there are a few other features that make the Vapor a standout budget product. The seat, for starters, is miles ahead of other budget kayaks and has the best padding and support in its class. The high-volume hull design makes for a very roomy cockpit with decent storage front and rear and will support up to 325 pounds, which is great for a 10 foot model like this.
Two Person/Tandem Kayaks
Love kayaking but don’t love that whole “paddling” thing? Just get yourself a tandem kayak and bring a strong friend along to handle the paddling for you.
We’re kidding (mostly), but in all seriousness, because the paddling of a tandem kayak can be split between two people or done entirely by a single paddler, they make great options for anyone with a friend who is new to kayaking or for parents with children that aren’t quite ready to go out paddling on their own.
Plus, despite their larger size, the longer length of a tandem boat actually causes it to track straighter and paddle faster through the water than many smaller options. The larger profile of these kayaks also grants them some added width, making them more stable than your average solo yak as well. We’ll also point out that most tandem kayaks are also great boats to take out solo, so you can still enjoy them even without a plus-one.
Best Tandem Kayak Overall: Wilderness Systems Pamlico 145T
If we had to choose one kayak to take out with a friend tomorrow, the Wilderness Systems Pamlico 145T would be our first choice.
Yes, it tracks well, paddles fast, and maneuvers better than some solo kayaks out there, but if we’re being honest, the main attraction of the Pamlico is outright comfort.
That’s because the Pamlico tandem uses the same uber-comfortable Phase 3 AirPro seats as the Pungo 125 above both front and rear, which very well may be the most comfortable and supportive seats out there currently. We’ll also give some credit to the adjustable padded footrests both front and rear which allow you to dial in the ergonomics for both paddlers with room to spare.
Of course, if you’re looking to take the Pamico 145T out solo it’s happy to oblige, and we particularly like how easy it is to convert this tandem kayak into a single paddler setup. Simply slide the front seat back on the interior rails, then move the secondary footpegs back to your desired position. Doesn’t get much easier than that.
Best Tandem Kayak On A Budget: Perception Tribe 13.5
While there are a few tandem kayaks out there for a little less than the Perception Tribe 13.5, there’s a reason the Tribe remains one of Perception’s best sellers year after year.
The Tribe has always been popular for its above-average comfort compared to other budget boats, but Perception stepped things up even further this year with fully framed high seatbacks. They’re fully adjustable, too, which means you can lean them forward for optimal paddling leverage, then kick them back and recline in style when you reach your destination.
Aside from comfort, we also like the Tribe for its easy-to-live-with design. While the basic molded foot supports don’t have the adjustability of the Wilderness Systems above, they’ll never break and require zero maintenance. The same can be said for the molded side handles, which make the Tribe’s 79 pounds that much easier to carry or toss-up on the roof of the car.
The Tribe 13.5 also takes full advantage of its sit-on-top design, utilizing the open front and rear decks for bungee-secured storage. There’s also a dry bag storage compartment directly in front of both seats, so everyone has their snacks, electronics, and hydration within reach at all times.
Look, not everyone has a pickup truck or a roof rack, but that doesn’t mean we can’t transport our own boats to and from the water. Looking for a full-sized kayak you can fold down neatly into your trunk? An inflatable kayak is the ticket.
Inflatable boats are all about convenience. Sure, they may lack some of the performance and stability of solid-hull kayaks, but if you’re shopping for a flatwater kayak anyways, chances are you won’t be doing the kind of paddling that demands serious technical skill and a boat to match.
If you’re looking for the lightest, most portable kayaks around, consider these beauties.
Best Inflatable Overall: Oru Beach Foldable Kayak
No, our top pick for the best inflatable kayak isn’t actually inflatable at all. But it certainly will pack down into your trunk.
That’s because the Oru Beach is a foldable kayak that folds down from a full-sized boat into a suitcase-sized box in about 60 seconds. So while it isn’t technically inflatable, it’s everything you want from an inflatable vessel and then some.
At 26 pounds, it’s about as lightweight as they come. Anyone can one-hand carry an Oru kayak, which can’t be said for most of the boats on our list. And as for durability? Well, Oru claims every foldable boat they make is tested to withstand 20,000 fold/unfold cycles, which means you’ve got about 55 years of use ahead of you if you use this kayak every single day for the rest of your life.
And since it’s essentially a rigid boat once you’ve got it unfolded, it also tracks exceptionally well, paddles with ease, and provides great stability overall.
As you might imagine, the Oru Beach comes at a considerably higher price than your average inflatable ‘yak. We think the overall quality and design of the Oru Beach is well worth the money, but if you’re interested in getting into an Oru product for a little less cash, check out the Oru Inlet. It’s less expensive, packs smaller, weighs ever less, and still outperforms 99% of the inflatable boats out there.
Best Inflatable Kayak On A Budget: Intex Excursion Pro K1
An inflatable kayak can be a tricky proposition. Yes, they’re portable, packable, and convenient as can be, but there’s always the lingering question of durability. Especially when shopping on a budget. We’re happy to report that the Intek Excursion pro is plenty durable with its three-layer PVC laminate body. And that’s not the only surprising feature about the Excursion.
In fact, this inflatable kayak is full of surprises. For instance, it’s wide enough to be surprisingly stable, even with a small cooler and some fishing gear on board thanks to its 220-pound weight capacity.
It also tracks surprisingly well, especially with the help of a detachable plastic fin (it actually comes with two of those, one for deep and one for shallow water).
The Excursion Pro also comes with a surprising amount of accessories at this price, including both an air pump and a paddle as well as a mount for a phone or Go-Pro, dual fishing rod holders, an inflatable seat height adjuster, an adjustable footrest, and removable mounting hardware for whatever gadgets and gizmos you might want to throw into the mix.
And unlike some inflatable “sit-in” models, the Excursion pro has a large open seating area, so you don’t have to stuff your legs into a rubber tunnel to paddle efficiently. We’ll just let you imagine how much better that feels during the sweatier months of summer…
Because the primary activity of these kayaks is fishing rather than simply paddling or hanging out on the water, the main feature of the best fishing kayaks is a stable platform.
One of the biggest differences when fishing from a kayak versus fishing from a traditional boat is your distance from the water. On a traditional fishing boat, anglers typically have a captain’s chair or similar elevated platform they can cast and work lures from. Not so much on a kayak, where you’re just inches from the water when seated.
For that reason, the best fishing kayaks are those that are so stable, you can literally cast and reel while standing up inside them. So as you might assume, just about every serious fishing kayak is an open cockpit, sit-on-top design rather than a closed cockpit.
Yes, you can still cast a rod from many of the sit-inside kayaks on our list just fine, but if fishing is your #1 priority, you’ll want to consider one of the boats below.
Best Fishing Kayak Overall: Vibe Shearwater 125
Here’s the thing about fishing kayaks: There’s almost no limit to the amount of money you can spend on factory options. These things can be propelled by traditional paddling, pedaled by foot, or even outfitted with gas or electric motors that blur the line between boating and kayaking. The Vibe Shearwater 125 can use all three but isn’t beholden to any signal setup.
That’s because with Vibe’s “Base Pod” system, you can swap out pedals, motors, or just stick to good old’ paddling if you prefer. We’re a fan of this setup because while you can easily spend over $3,000 on a fishing Kayak, the Shearwater 125 is a premium kayak with a ton of features that can be built up over time depending on your preferences.
Nearly every other aspect of the Shearwater is modular as well, with multiple fronts and rear rails for mounting accessories, an adjustable seat that converts into an elevated casting platform, removable electronics pods, a replaceable skid plate… The list of features is just outrageous.
Fair warning: Serious anglers love these things so much Vibe struggles to keep them in stock throughout the year. We’re convinced there’s really no better fishing kayak out there, so if you want the best of the best, keep an eye on the link below.
Best Fishing Kayak On A Budget: Perception Pescador 10.0
If you’re looking for a great fishing kayak but aren’t looking to drop serious money on premium features, the Perception Pescador 10.0 is a simple yet well-made craft that is often recommended by the pros as the perfect first fishing boat.
Perception kayaks are made by the same company that designs and manufactures the premium Wilderness Systems fishing kayaks, and a lot of that DNA and fishing know-how comes through in the entry-level Pescador 10.
While you won’t be likely to find a fishing kayak with “stand up” stability at this price point, the Pescador is exceptionally stable for paddling and spirited casting and is rated to hold a full 325 lbs. of angler, gear, and tackle. Adjustable footrests allow you to dial in the ideal seating position for your height, while a ventilated and adjustable seat provides above-average comfort and lumbar support.
It’s also got a replaceable skid plate that greatly extends the life of the boat, twin accessory rails at the front for add ons like rod holders, fish finders, and GPS systems, and a ton of storage capacity via the front-mounted dry well and the large rear tank well.
Important Kayak Questions To Consider
While finding the right style flatwater kayak for your next adventure is half the battle, there are a few more things you’ll want to take into consideration to get the right boat for you. Here are some of the most common FAQs we get about kayaks.
What Type Of Kayak Is Right For Me?
There’s no single right answer here. As you read above, some recreational kayaks are great for fishing, some tandem kayaks are great for solo use, and some inflatable kayaks are great for everything.
We recommend starting out with the activity you plan to do the most and picking out a few models at a similar price point that address your primary needs. Then, compare the options out there to see which one is best suited to any other kayaking activities you might want to pursue.
For example, if your main interest was just getting out on the water to paddle and hang out with some friends, we think a good sit-in recreational kayak like the Vapor 10 is the right place to start. If you decided you might want to try kayak fishing sometime in the future, you might want to consider looking at something like the Vapor 10 Angler instead, which uses the same basic design, but adds in some fishing-friendly features like rod holders and an anchor trolley system for a couple of extra bucks.
How Do I Know What Size Kayak I Need?
In a perfect world, every kayak would fold down like the Oru Beach above and fit easily into your trunk or back seat with room to spare. Unfortunately, most of them are much longer, heavier, and more awkward to transport.
There’s a reason kayaks come in multiple sizes though, and it’s not just for convenience or personal preference.
Both taller and heavier paddlers may need to consider larger sizes than some of those listed above. The same could be said for shorter paddlers as well. Take our favorite sit-in kayak, for example. The Pungo is available in both a 10.5-foot length and a 12.5-foot version. Aside from outright length, there’s one determining factor that will decide which one you need: Weight capacity.
That’s because larger boats have larger volume hulls, which means they’re more buoyant and can support more weight without taking on excess water (you definitely don’t want that). So while the full-length model is rated to hold up to a full 425 pounds of paddler, gear, and optional canine companion, the 10.5-foot size is only rated to 300 lbs.
Even if you’re 6’6″ and fit comfortably into the shorter boat, you’ll probably have to leave the pup at home to preserve your ride quality, and no one wants that. Once you start approaching the maximum weight capacity of a kayak, performance starts to suffer and the boat ultimately becomes unsafe.
Do I Need To Buy A Paddle?
You might notice some of the budget-friendly kayaks on our list come with a paddle, a carry bag, and even an air pump. It’s important to know that unless expressly stated in the product description, that’s not the case for most boats. And even if your kayak does come with a paddle, you may still want to buy a separate one.
That’s because while budget-friendly paddles are more than capable of getting you from point A to point B on the water, they tend to be heavier, less rigid, and less comfortable than the paddles you buy separately.
We recommend budgeting at least another $150 for a paddle you’ll really enjoy, although you can certainly spend several times more than that on a premium model. Buying a separate paddle also gives you an opportunity to find one that’s the correct size for your build, which will make paddling that much easier.
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