How to Select Your First Kayak: Info on Recreational, Day-Touring and Expedition Boats

If you were to walk into a kayak shop and look at the designs sitting in their inventory, you would see kayaks of all different hull designs, lengths and prices. The vast number of kayak models available can make buying your first kayak a bit of a mystery. Throw in practical issues like your budget or body size, and your list of kayak questions only grows. Here are some pointers that will help explain what all those kayak models are about and which one is right for you.

The first question you should ask yourself when selecting a kayak is, “What kind of water and conditions do I want to use my new kayak in?” Finding the correct answer to this question will automatically help you select from the right range of kayak models. All of those kayak hull-designs and lengths are available for a good reason – each kayak hull is suited to a different use, and different sized person. So, first of all, which kayak design should you select? Flat water kayaks (as oppossed to whitewater, which we won’t be discussing here) come in three general types. They are “Recreational” (or “Rec”) kayaks, “Day-Touring” also called “Light-Touring” kayaks, and “Touring” also called “Expedition” kayaks.

Recreational kayaks are generally wider and shorter (8-13ft) than the other kayak designs and afford their user a great amount of stability on calm water. Recreational kayaks are made for calm lakes and ponds or slow moving creeks and rivers. They tend to move slowly through the water, but are easy to turn in calm water and generally good for maneuvering through twisty areas. Recreational kayaks also tend to have large cockpits. If you are going to be fishing or photographing from your kayak on calm lakes and rivers, or marshy areas, a rec kayak might be perfect for you. If you think you are going to be kayaking on large lakes in potentially choppy, windy conditions, or if you are going to be going on long paddles, stay away from a recreational kayak. Also, many rec kayaks lack sealed bulkheads. Not only are sealed bulkheads a place to keep gear dry, but they will also keep your kayak afloat if it gets swamped. Without that air pocket, a kayak could quickly be transformed into a bathtub (at the bottom of the lake).

If you thought you were in the market for a rec kayak and now, after reading the last paragraph, aren’t sure anymore, you might be the perfect candidate for a Day-Touring kayak. These boats combine the wider stance (stability in calm water) of a rec kayak, with the typically smaller cockpit, longer hull length and sealed bulkheads of an Expedition kayak. If say, you are going to be spending a lot of time on calm water fishing, but from time to time will be going on weekend trips with your buddy up on the big lake, this is the perfect boat. The Day-Touring kayak’s bulkheads will provide you storage for your gear and that bouyancy factor too. The kayak’s longer hull length (12-16ft) will give you more speed in the water and a better ability to deal with rolling water. Often Day-Touring kayaks come with an optional foot-controlled rudder. Kayak rudders are great for compensating against wind and current, allowing you to use your paddle for forward momentum instead of steering. On a long trip in foul weather, this can make a big difference.

If you expect to kayak on big lakes, the ocean, over a long distances or just like to move real fast on big water, you will definitely want to be paddling an Expedition kayak. Their longer (15-18ft) , often rounded, hull design is exactly what you need when the big waves get stirred up and you have some distance to cover. To a beginner, a expedition kayak will seem very tippy, but it is this tippiness on calm water that make the Expedition kayak a star in big waves. The kayak’s design allows it to ride over the waves not only front to back, but side to side too. Expedition kayaks have enough storage for a week long (or month long with food replenishment) trip. With a spray skirt and a lot of practice, an Expedition kayak can be rolled (the ‘eskimo’ roll), further enforcing its big water raiting. Expedition kayaks will definitely come with a foot-controlled rudder as an option and can often be purchased with deck mounted compasses too. As these boats tend to get pretty heavy, you may want to factor that into your decision. Sometimes, when you don’t need the ‘extra boat’, it’s nice to be able to throw your kayak on the car roof or carry it down a twisty path with ease.

So, you are almost ready to buy the right kayak, but now, which length do you want? Each of the kayak designs I mentioned typically come in three lengths. If look at the kayak’s specs, you will see each length can carry a certain amount of TOTAL weight. Factor in your body weight and the weight of your gear, and you’ll be able to select the right kayak. If you and your gear’s total weight is close to a boat’s max, you will probably want to jump up to the next size up. These hulls are designed by engineers, computers and kayaking pros to ride in the water in a certain way. Over loading or under loading a kayak can lead to an underperforming hull design. Of course, with an increase in boat performance and length, comes an increase in price. Buy the most suitable boat you can afford. Also, kayaks really don’t wear out. Often you can find a great deal on the used market.

Now you are ready to select your next, or first, kayak. If you can, test paddle a few different kayaks or even rent one for a day or two. Often stores will deduct the rental fee from your purchase price if you decide to buy that kayak. If their policy doesn’t state it, ask them to do it anyway. With the big chains getting involved in the kayak game, every sale counts. Okay, enjoy selecting your next kayak, learn the safety fundamentals and always wear a life vest.

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