First, what type of paddling are you going to do? Where are you going to paddle and for how long? Kayaks are very specific to use and come in several basic types. Whitewater Kayaks for fast moving rivers, Touring and Recreation Kayaks for flat water, (lakes, inlets, bays and slow moving rivers), and Sea Kayaks for open ocean paddling. What style kayak…Sit In or Sit On Top…you choose will depend upon the type of paddling you intend to do, your skill level and your personal preference.
Sit On Top style kayaks generally are (pros) very popular with paddlers who: like to play in the surf and have not progressed to having a bomb proof roll; great for getting an all over tan; provide a very stable fishing platform; have mobility or flexibility or emotional concerns that prevent them from using a sit in kayak. Almost all sit on top style kayaks are self bailing…no need to worry about swamping the boat! Sit on top style kayaks generally (cons) must be wider to compensate for the resultant paddlers higher center of gravity; are slower for their length due to extra width, do not allow (without thigh straps) a paddler to effectively use his/her body to control the boat; are a little more cumbersome to handle on and off the water.
Sit In style kayaks generally have a more efficient hull design; allow for greater gear storage; are dryer, allowing for an extended paddling season for most paddlers; a properly fitted cockpit (the area you sit in) will allow the paddler to very effectively use his/her body to control the boat. A properly fitted white water, sea, or touring kayak should become an extension of the paddler’s body. Some would say you wear the boat rather than sit in it. Sit in style kayaks will have different size cockpits depending on the type of boat and water conditions anticipated. The raised lip around the cockpit (the cockpit combing) allows a skirt (or spray deck) to be utilized by the paddler. Skirts keep water…either from dripping off the paddle, or from waves…from entering the boat. Just in case, be sure to have some means of bailing the boat…a pump, sponge or scoop. Bulkheads (walls within the kayak) form barriers limiting water infiltration, and with a properly fitted hatch cover, provide a margin of safety (flotation) and dry storage.
Foot Pegs To date, there are no records of indigenous peoples paddling sit on top kayaks…or white water kayaks…or using rudders. The modern kayak has been transformed from a hunting tool of survival to a recreational art form. There is an important feature of the original kayaks that every paddler should insist upon. A secure foot brace. No matter what style kayak you paddle, you will need a secure place to push your feet against. Some boats have adjustable foot pegs, some have molded in foot rests, some have a fixed bulkhead. What ever you paddle, be sure you have some form of foot rest…a boat without foot rests is essentially incomplete. Without footrests you will tend to slump forward, will not have proper and comfortable posture, and most importantly, will not be able to use torso rotation to effectively propel the kayak.
Whitewater Kayaks have no keel and don’t track in a straight line. This makes them very maneuverable and agile. The cockpit is tight and designed to keep you in the boat even in rough conditions. The boats are usually short, less than ten feet, many of the newer play boats are less than seven feet.
Recreational Kayaks attempt to combine tracking and turning in a smaller hull that will appeal to beginner and low intensity paddlers. These kayaks usually have high initial stability and large cockpits. These boats are perfect for flat water, lakes, ponds, and gentle rivers and creeks but usually not whitewater. Many serve as excellent platforms for fishing, hunting, or photography.
Touring Kayaks have a well defined keel for tracking, have fair initial stable, and high secondary stability, turning is enhanced by “edging”. These boats generally have a large cockpit interior for comfort on long paddling excursions. Most will have bulkheads and large access hatches, which allow for safe dry storage. These boats are perfect for flat water, lakes, gentle to moderate inlets, bays and wide rivers. Some are fitted with rudders, and some even have outriggers or provisions for a sail.
Sea Kayaks are designed for open ocean paddling. They are usually low in the water to reduce effects of cross winds, measure fifteen feet or more, most have smaller cockpit openings, many will have bulkheads and smaller access hatches. Some have skegs or rudders to help compensate for the effects of a wave or cross wind pattern. They will have features such as compass housings, deck mounted pumps.
Kayak Design Considerations
Turning versus Tracking The biggest trade-off in boat design is tracking vs. turning. Usually a boat that tracks well (goes straight) does not turn well. There are varying degrees of these two characteristics in all boats, and some boats that track well can be made to turn better if you are willing and able to edge them when you turn.
Stability An important consideration when purchasing any boat is the level of stability you require. Stability is defined in two ways. “Initial Stability”, (AKA “primary stability”) is the sensation of tipsiness that a boat has while at rest. This will influence the ease with which one can enter or exit the boat. This will also determine how comfortable the boat will be in low motion activities, such as bird watching, fishing, or sunbathing. “Final Stability”, (AKA “secondary stability”) is the sensation of tipsiness a boat will exhibit when the boat is underway. Generally speaking, a boat with high initial stability will not be as stable in rough conditions as a boat with low initial stability. Conversely, a boat that feels tipsy while sitting immobile will feel to become very stable while being paddled, and will increase in seaworthiness as conditions build. To determine where you fall in your requirements, with regard to stability, means that you need to assess what kind of activities you intend to do in your boat. Keep in mind that your stability comfort level is likely to rise as your paddling expertise increases, and this will be determined by how much time you can devote to paddling. The most noticeable difference in beginner boats and advanced boats is in initial stability. Advanced boats often have less initial stability than beginner boats. Advanced paddlers want a boat with high final stability because it is essential in difficult sea conditions. Advanced paddlers also want a fast boat, and in many boats initial stability, which generally is achieved with a wide beam, is traded off for speed.
The choices are plastic, fiberglass, kevlar, carbon, wood, inflatable plastic & fabric with frame.
Plastic is the heaviest of all popular materials, but more resistant to damage. Polyethylene, (HDPE #2), is the most common plastic used. It can be recycled from post consumer and industrial scrap and is easily recycled again after its useful life.
Polyethylene requires welding or use of mechanical fasteners to repair a leak. Fiberglass is lighter, (about two thirds the weight of HDPE), but is two to three times the cost of HDPE.
Fiberglass is more rigid than plastic, (and more efficient in the water), but can crack on impact. Fiberglass can not be recycled. Exotic materials like kevlar or carbon fiber are lighter still, but are even more costly. Wood boats are rare. They are attractive, but sophisticated techniques are required for a classic look. A few companies manufacture wood/epoxy-construction kit kayaks.
Fabric over a wood or folding metal frame offers a light although sometimes expensive option. The classic wood frame with fabric can be purchased in kit form, but require hours of assembly. The metal frame boats are good for hiking since they can be collapsed into a small carry able bag. These boats are generally more expensive to buy than any other kind of boat.
Inflatable boats are another option for a more portable and storable kayak. Generally speaking, these boats are better suited for whitewater or surf conditions, as most will not track as well as a hard shell kayak. Prices (relative to a hard shell kayak) range from very inexpensive to very expensive. The quality and performance generally follow the price curve.
The contact points with the boat are your feet, (on the foot brace), knees (on the underside of the deck, or thigh braces), hips (on the sides of the seat), and your bottom (on the seat). All of these points should provide you with support and be comfortable. When paddling you will need to brace your feet and your knees for stability and turning. A whitewater boat will be padded to provide a tight fit and keep you in the boat during a roll. A looser fit inside a touring or sea kayak as compared to a whitewater boat is desirable for space to stretch and move about on long excursions. If you have large feet be sure they fit comfortably under the deck and upon the foot braces.
The cockpit rim opening size is important for entering and exiting. Newer Whitewater Kayaks have snug but fairly large keyhole cockpits. This type cockpit holds the paddler snug, but also allows for an easy and rapid exit. Touring Kayaks also favor a keyhole cockpit very similar to the fit of a whitewater kayak. True traditional Sea Kayaks have small cockpits, sometimes not much larger than the paddlers waist. Small cockpits reduce the possibility of a large wave caving in the skirt and swamping the boat. Recreation Kayaks usually have very large cockpits, without the ability to keep the paddler in the boat should it turn over.
The length of the boat is important for several reasons. The longer the boat, the faster and more efficient it will be in the water. The volume of the boat is important depending on how much gear you are going to carry in it, and how big you are. If you are planning overnight trips, enough room for tents, sleeping bags and provisions are necessary.
Single vs. Double Kayak
If you like to paddle together then a double is right for you. Like a canoe, you go everywhere together. Single kayaks are much more maneuverable than doubles. Doubles can carry more gear, but they need to carry twice as much gear than a single. Most doubles can not be paddled effectively alone. Some doubles are more stable than a single but are more difficult to rescue and pump dry.
Shock cord that crosses the deck in front and behind the cockpit are handy for stowing gear where it is easy to reach. Deck netting is handy for storing small items such as gloves. Paddle float rescues are aided by effective deck rigging. Perimeter safety lines are a nice addition to open water kayaks. Built-in compasses and pumps are useful for long trips.
Few hatches have a completely waterproof seal! Hatches should be able to keep most of the water out if you roll. If you have food and clothing you need to keep dry, place them in a waterproof dry bag and then put them in the hatch compartment. If you take large items, you’ll need large hatch openings. Heavy seas and surf can break or blow off hatch covers, so make sure they are securely attached to avoid losing them. It is always advisable not to depend entirely on the hatches for water tight integrity and for floatation of the boat. If the compartments aren’t full of gear, it’s smart to use floatation bags. Cargo space is related to size of the boat, but also to position of the bulkheads. Generally speaking, it is better to have the bulkheads closer to the cockpit, reducing the amount of water that can be shipped in the event of accidental swamping. The cockpit can also be used for cargo, but may not stay dry. A sea kayak should have bulkheads that are water-tight.
Rudders & Skegs
This is one of sea kayaking’s great debates. Most touring kayaks don’t need a rudder or a skeg. For long sea kayaks, (over 15 feet in length), a rudder is useful to go straight in a cross wind. Some people like to use a rudder to steer, but that is easily accomplished with your paddle. If you must have a rudder, look for a design that is durable, easily stowed, and which has a foot brace design that is easy to use. An alternative to a rudder is a retractable skeg. It will not steer as a rudder, but will help you trim the boat to be more controllable in varying wind/sea conditions. Remember that any mechanical system such as a rudder is easily damaged, and is no substitute for learning effective boat control.
All of us have to get the boat to and from the water, on and off the top of the car, or even portage sometimes. At these moments, weight becomes significant. In simple terms, rotomolded plastic is heavier than vacuum formed acrylic or fiberglass or kevlar. Constant advances in design and materials seem to result in lighter boats each year. Kayak carts are very handy with helping to move the boats.
Durability of Construction
Plastic stands up to abuse better than fiberglass. It may scratch easier, but will resist a puncture or fracture far better than fiberglass. Repair of a damaged boat, (made of any material) is difficult if you don’t have the tools or experience. You should always consult the maker of the boat for the best way to fix damage The intended use of the design also has a lot to do with durability. Most touring boats are rigid and may be damaged with a hard hit on a rock. Whitewater boats fair much better with hard objects.
Plastic boats run $300-$1500, Vacuum formed acrylics Fiberglass $1500-$3000, other materials such as carbon fiber can cost even more. The bigger or longer the boat, generally, the higher the cost.
Try it first
We can’t say this enough! The way to choose a boat is to try it first. Take time to try as many boats as you can before you decide to buy. Look for dealers that rent boats or have demo models available. These are excellent for trying different manufacturers and boat types. Call the “Shack” and discuss when you might demo the boat of interest.
A common mistake of many new paddlers is to under rate the importance of their paddle. Your body is the engine, your paddle is the transmission, your very connection with the water. The best car in the world is useless without a good transmission. Your paddling enjoyment and ability is closely related to the quality of your paddle. Although high price is not always a guarantee of high quality, low price is a usually a good indicator of low quality. Besides your PFD, your paddle is the most important piece of paddling gear that you will buy. Get the best paddle you can afford!
The typical bargain paddle with heavy shapeless ABS blades is a great gift for someone you hate. Do you hate yourself? Set aside a reasonable amount of your paddling budget for a good paddle…you will never regret it. Enjoyable paddling begins with proper paddling technique and good equipment. A light paddle will allow you to easily maintain your “paddle’s box” resulting in less effort and better boat control.
Paddle shape and length will vary with the type of paddling you do, the boat you paddle, and your paddling style. A recreational paddler with a wide boat and very relaxed paddling style will typically use a blade with a moderate surface area and slightly longer length. The touring or sea kayak paddler will typically use a narrow blade. A white water or surf paddler will use a very large blade and short shaft, allowing for better grip on aerated water and quicker acceleration.
What else will I need to paddle the boat
You need, at minimum, a whistle, a paddle and a Personal Flotation Device (PFD). Please give some thought to how you will remove unwanted water from your kayak; consider always having a pump and sponge with you. It is highly recommended that you learn the skills required to safely handle your boat before you go out on the water. There are several very good videos and books that we recommend. The best course of action is to receive some professional instruction from certified instructors before you paddle. The Paddle Shack offers a variety of paddling skill development programs from basic introductory sessions to rolling and advanced skills.
Article from the Paddle Shack