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Turner Falls - Adventure Sports Demo DayHow To Try Before You Buy A Sit-on-top Kayak

by Tom Holtey

New paddlers are often mystified by the multitude of kayaks to select from. They are hoping that there is one kayak make and model that is "good" while all the others will be "less than good". They wish they simply could ask what the "good one" is and then get that one. The reason there are so many kayak models out there is because of the diverse needs of all the many paddlers out there. No two paddlers are identical. Photo by Athena Holtey

Simply said: There is a kayak made for every person and useful for their individual purpose. You just have to find it. Like the saying goes; "You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince."

Kayaks are just like cars, there are many to choose from, they are not all in one place, some are small, some large, some are sporty, some utilitarian. Also like cars, you may be worried about spending a bundle with out knowing for sure what you will get. So you test drive.

Where To Find Demo Days

Adirondack Paddle FestTRY BEFORE YOU BUY ! You would not buy a pair of pants without trying them on first. Would you buy a car without a test drive? Why should a kayak be any different? The wonderful thing about the kayak business is that your local kayak shop wants you to try a kayak, because they know you will love it and get one.

Most kayak specialty shops offer test paddling in some fashion. Many shops sponsor an event, a Demo Day, where many kayaks will be at the ready on the water's edge with knowledgeable folks around guiding paddlers into the right kayak. We try our best to keep these updated on TopKayaker.Net's Calendar as we are notified by Kayak Manufacturers and their dealers.

These events will have representatives from the kayak manufactures, demonstrations, workshops and on-site sales. The atmosphere may be "fair like" even over stimulating, and possibly over commercialized. Non-the-less it is a good chance for a well-prepared would-be paddler to try a bunch of kayaks in an efficient manner and make a decision. Photo by A. Holtey

There are options to demo days - after all they only come once a year or so. Many shops will make arrangements to let you get a free test paddle of a few kayaks. Check our Directory Of Kayak Outfitters. They may offer to loan you a kayak for a day, one that you think is the best choice; or, you may have the option to apply a rental fee(s) toward your purchase of a kayak. Another way is to take lessons or join a tour. These strategies will allow you the chance to paddle a prospective kayak in real conditions for more than just an hour (rather than a few minutes at a demo day).

Coming Prepared

demo dazeWhatever test paddling venue you have at your disposal approach it in a methodical way to get the best results. Give it some thought and do you homework before you walk into the marketplace.

Identify your needs. The first thing to do is figure out what you would like to do with your kayak. Yeah sure, you say: "I want to paddle around." Photo by Henry E. Dorfman

  • What will you use it for? Get a bit more concrete about it. Are you adventurous with eyes on the horizon? Maybe a touring kayak. Like to kick back, have fun and take it easy? Maybe a recreational kayak. How about white water rivers, surfing ocean waves, fishing, racing; Are these possibilities? Ask about what kayaks are made for what activities.

  • What is your budget? Can you store the kayak in your space? (Don't worry about your car; it can handle any kayak regardless of length.)

  • Massachusettes Demo DayOne Man or Two? This is a big question for many. Can a tandem kayak work as a one-man kayak? Yes, a few can. Can I fit my child onto a solo kayak with me? Yes, a few can, but only when the kid is small. Tandem kayaks can be great fun for families and couples. If you plan to go together significantly most of the time then a tandem is the right choice. If you plan to go solo most of the time and only go tandem once in a while you will better served by a solo kayak or two, or renting a tandem for the once a summer trip.

  • Sit-in or sit-on? If you are a technical person who likes to dive into a sport and make a study of it a sit-in-side kayak may be a good choice. Sit-ins will require a bit more training and safety gear than sit-on-tops. If you are inclined to shorter learning cycle, have difficulty getting into a kayak or want the accessibility and ease of a SOT for fishing diving and surfing, not to mention the added safety of a self-bailing kayak, than a sit-on-top kayak will be a good choice.

  • Read more about Making A Kayak Choice.

demo daze

Basic Research

Do some basic research. Find out what kayak brands are available in your area. Specialty dealers are your best bet. These kayak shops will have knowledgeable staff and good selection. Yes, there are the "Big Box" chains and the Internet, but you will not be able to "try before you buy". Maybe you can buy, try and return, if you do not care for the kayak, I would double check on that detail before you write the check.

Once you know a bit about the brands at the local kayak shops make arrangements to test paddle a couple kayaks at a couple locations. A visit to a shop and a close look at potential "keepers" may eliminate, and add, a couple candidates.

Get the catalogs for each brand in question. Links to kayak makers can also be found in our Directory of Sit-on-top Kayak Manufacturers. Start taking notes, pros, cons, price, etc. You may think it sort of funny to take notes, but in no time your head will swimming with facts, figures, dimensions, weight capacity and marketing prose, many of these concepts will be new to you.


In The Shop - "Test Sit" the kayaks right on the show room floor to ensure that you will fit into the seat. Large and tall folks should do this before they put a rental kayak on a car. Pay special attention to the backrest (aka kayak seat), if the "floor kayak" is outfitted with one. Take the time to adjust it properly to fit you.

demo dazeOn The Water - Once on the water, at the demo day, rental beach, tour destination or kayak school, be ready to pay attention to how the kayak(s) performs and how you feel in it. The very first kayak you ride in will feel tippy, even if it is a wide tandem. The more kayaks you try the less tippy they all will feel. On thing to note about stability is that after a few weekends of paddling your own personal kayak you will no longer feel the tippyness, so be careful not to base your selection on this one criteria. Photo by Henry E. Dorfman

Once you have tried a kayak collect your thought and take some notes; what you like about the kayak, what you didn't. Make comparisons; this kayak is faster than that kayak, more stable than the other kayak. The features can play a big roll too. Does it have the storage hatches to hold my stuff? Are there handles to make car topping easy? Is there a place to mount a fishing pole holder? Is this kayak comfortable, more comfortable than the others? A demo day will be a whirlwind of kayaks, renting one at a time will be a slow process. Notes will help you remember.

demo dazeBe sure to try a variety too. Try out a long sleek kayak, even if you are a recreational paddler, at least just to get a feel for it. See what it is like to paddle a surf or white water kayak. Are you dead set on a sit-in-side kayak? Try a sit-on-top at least to broaden your mind. (That goes for SOTers to, try a SINK if you can.) Photo by T. Holtey

Some things to try on the water during your test paddle: (A kayak lesson will really prepare your for these trials.)

  • Paddle in a strait line at a good speed. Does it keep strait? What way is the wind blowing? (Try a different course.) Does the kayak move through the water efficiently enough for you? Stop paddling and let it glide. Does it still stay on course, does it keep moving or stop? Turn the kayak 180 degrees around to test its agility. Will it maneuver in the spaces you need it to? If you plan to paddle open waters, tracking (keeping strait) and glide will be important. If you plan to paddle in confined waters, like wetlands and small rivers maneuverability will be important.

  • Rock the kayak to test the stability. Try your bracing skills. (Be prepared to get wet!) Don't worry too much about stability, but can you land a big fish, haul up a scuba tank or ride your big dog? Hopefully you will fall in, not too far from shore, and you can test how easy it is to re-board the SOT kayak from deep water. (SINK paddlers can try rolling at this point, or at least their wet exit.)

demo dazeAll kayaks are wet, but how wet? Some SOT kayaks ride high & dry, while others have a low center of gravity and are wetter. If you paddle in colder water you may be looking for a drier ride, but bear in mind that all kayakers should dress to swim for safety.

Car Topping - You should also try to test load the potential kayak onto your car. That is the beauty of the "take-away-rental test paddle". Car topping can be a big hurdle for some. The best kayak cars are sedans and wagons. SUVs and minivans are harder to load a kayak onto. Yes, there are techniques and devices that can will help greatly. Ask about them at a kayak shop. Photo by T. Holtey

Accessory Challenges

Turners Falls Demo DayWhen you are at a demo day, renting a kayak, on a tour or taking a lesson, chances are you will be loaned a very basic, no frills life vest, and probably the wrong size too! This could be the same for the kayak paddle as well. Photo by T. Holtey

These two very important accessories get over looked while the kayak steals the spot light. Try to do your best to use a paddle and PFD that are properly fitted your size. The life vest will affect your comfort in a kayak, and the paddle size will affect performance. You may have few to none to select from. If you are planning on taking your time in the kayak choice, you may want to buy your PFD in advance. You could also buy a paddle in advance, but the paddle size is to some degree determined by the width of the kayak you will end up with. Apply your "demo skills" to selecting a paddle and PFD with the same care as you would the kayak.

See the articles: "Choosing A Kayak Paddle" & "Choosing A PFD".

Final Decisions

demo dayOnce you have tried a bunch of kayaks, taken your notes, thought out carefully your needs and how the kayak in question will fill those needs - you will have to take the plunge and make your choice. Photo by Henry E. Dorfman

Still unsure? Bear in mind that you are not married to your kayak. Unlike a spouse you can trade it in, or trade up, and have more than one! You will learn a lot about yourself and what kind of kayak is best for you, but only after you have logged a summer's worth of weekends on the water. You have to start somewhere. Your needs will likely change a bit from what you first imagined. You may find that you will out grow your recreational kayak, or discover ocean surfing on your touring kayak and add a wave ski to your collection. Be prepared to grow and expand in the sport.

More Resources: The articles below and more can be found in our Buyer Guides Index

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