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How To Choose A Sit-on-top Kayak

by Tom Holtey, ACA Open Water Instructor,
Guide, and Author of "Sit-on-top Kayaking, A Beginner's Guide"

There are now sit-on-top kayaks designed for virtually every possible use in mind, so when purchasing one it is important to ask yourself some questions. Once you've read through this article visit our Interactive Kayak Research Tool to type in your criteria and find links to the kayak that is right for you:

  • What will you use this kayak for?
    Will you be surfing, fishing, diving or touring and camping?

RTM Mambo

There are kayaks specifically designed for riding ocean surf and others that can surf and cruise. Surf kayaks are typically short, rockered, and slow on flat water.

Tarpon 120 Angler

Any kayak can be a fishing kayak, but most kayak makers now have an "angler model" of their popular "regular models" that sport rod holders and other "fish friendly" accessories. Any kayak can be outfitted with fishing gadgets. Look for boats with easy to reach storage spots and a bit extra stability.

Ocean Kayak Sucpper Pro TW

If you are planning to Scuba dive from a kayak an extern cargo well, or tank well, is best. (Some large hatches can handle a tank too.) Double check the fit with your gear. An internal cargo hold is handy for mask, fins and snorkel. Just about any kayak will do for snorkeling, tank well or no.

Cobra Expedition

Touring is a pursuit that requires one to cover distance on a kayak. Look for longer sleeker models with space for a day's worth of cargo. If you plan to go on a kayak expedition you will need a kayak that can carry a week or so worth of cargo. Look for many cargo hatches with larger openings, as well as a longer sleek hull. See also: Packing Your Sit-on-top Kayak For Camping & Touring

  • Will you paddle it alone, or take your spouse, child or dog?

Cobra's Tandem - Hey, where are those PFD's?If you plan to paddle solo most of the time be sure to get a solo kayak. Two person kayaks that claim to go both solo and tandem do so, but at the cost of loosing solo performance. It would be worth it to rent a tandem kayak, sometimes named "Double," "Triple" or even "Quad", for the few times you need to bring a buddy, rather than struggle with a boat too big and wide for most of your solo paddling.

Forum member on Ocean Kayak's Mars soloIf you plan to go with a partner, both in the same boat, most of the time, then a tandem is the way to go. The few times you may go solo will be ok despite the extra bulk. Most tandem kayaks are heavy and require two to lift it easily. (FYI: For expeditions two solo kayaks can carry more cargo than one tandem.) See also: "Tandem Sit-on-top Kayaking: How To Avoid A Mutiny"

There are now some tandems and "semi tandems" that are ideal for riding a child or dog. Some solo kayaks that have large cargo wells can carry a small child or dog, but never an additional full grown adult.

  • Think about your desires and goals.
    Are you looking for action or adventure, exercise or solitude?

Ocean Kayak ScramblerIf you like action look for a kayak that is made for white water rivers or riding ocean surf. If it is adventure and exploration you desire get a touring kayak that can cover a lot of territory and bring into the wilderness.

Any kayak can be used for exercise, in fact a short slow moving inefficient kayak may help you burn more calories than a sleek racing kayak, but most folks who like fitness also like speed and competition that will require a long sleek kayak.

  • What is your primary goal?

Heritage NomadDecide what is most important to you and target kayaks that support that goal. Let other side interests take a back seat. Almost all kayaks can be used for almost all pursuits. Some kayaks just do much better at one task than another.

No kayaks do everything well. So choose the kayak that will do the best on your primary interest.

  • What design of kayak hull and shape is best for your needs?

For an overview of kayak design and hull shapes read our article Kayak Design Terminology Defined

Kayak Symposia & Demo Days are a big help.Address these questions with those who are helping you to make your purchasing decision. A salesperson at a kayak shop can be very helpful, but also seek a second opinion from a kayaking friend, club member, an instructor, Internet forums or from magazines and books.

When you have narrowed it down to a few top kayaks models, try them on the water in a safe environment, focusing on the test drive. Most shops will help you do this. Take your time and make your choice carefully. At the very least test-sit some kayaks on the show room floor to ensure that they will fit your leg length and feel comfortable for your body shape and size. (Tip: proper backrest accessory adjustment makes a big difference in comfort. See also "Demo Daze" to get the most out of a kayak demo event.)

Things to consider in choosing the best kayak for you are:

  • Stability: Don't pick the most stable, as you will learn to balance quite quickly, and a very wide stable kayak may hold you back in your development.
  • Speed: The wind in your hair is a nice feeling, and having a good hull speed can also make for safer kayak when the elements are against you.
  • Capacity: Most kayaks will carry most people. But pay special attention to the weight capacity if you are planning on a heavy load: that means you plus your gear.
  • Performance of the boat in the specific conditions you will be in.

Generally speaking:

  • Longer will be faster
  • Shorter will be more maneuverable
  • Wider will be more stable

There are several classifications of kayaks. Take note of them so you can be informed when shopping for a boat that fits your needs:

Touring, sometimes called Sea kayaking is the endeavor to cover distance and explore. Longer sleeker boats, typically about 14 to 17 feet are considered touring kayaks.

WS Tarpon 160 Tour kayak

Seat and back comfort for long hours on the water and the ability to store cargo are important features; however, backrests and hatches can be added at any time. See article: Backrests, Knee Straps & Paddle Leashes

Emotion's Maneyak Rec Kayak

Recreational kayaks are smaller and shorter. While all kayaking is "recreational" the term refers to a more relaxed and causal attitude toward kayaking fun. Some times called "rec boats" these kayaks have limited capabilities and should be used only as intended.

Perception Torrent Whitewater

White water kayaks are for running rapid rivers. There are very few models to choose from in the SOT style. White water kayaks do poorly for distance on flat-water rivers and lakes. River running requires special training to be safe, take a lesson.

Cobra Strike surf kayak

RTM's Slide Super Waveski

Wave skis and surf kayaks are for use in the surf zone for riding breaking ocean waves. They often have a flat planning hull, sometimes with skegs or fins, like a surfboard. There are numerous models and sizes of wave skis designed for every paddler height, weight and skill level.

Epic's V10 Sport Surfski

Surf skis and racing kayaks are very long, slender and sleek. They are the fastest of all kayaks, used in competitive races and by fitness buffs. They can be quite tippy and take some time to lean. Some surf skis fit only a certain length of legs, essentially coming is "sizes".

(In some paddling communities the terms "surf ski" and "wave ski" are transposed and/or interchangeable.)

Feathercraft's Jet Stream

Inflatable kayaks come in all kinds, from touring to recreational. They are best used by those with limited storage space and by travelers. Pay special attention to the quality of design and material, there are many pool and beach toys that appear to be kayaks, but they are really toys. You can judge that by the cost in most cases, with costly kayaks being quality dependable boats that perform well with safety.

Robson's Croco Kids Kayak

Other "kayaks" may include such craft as bike boats with foot peddle power, specialized sailing rigged kayaks, twin hull catarafts and "concept sculpture kayaks" that look like sharks or crocodiles. There is also an assortment of kayaks made specifically for the small frames of children, proving a craft suitable for them to get "adult like" performance from a kayak.

Practical Considerations:

See "Packing Your Kayak"Check to make sure that your cargo will fit in the hatches or on the deck. Not all kayaks have large hatches, or much internal storage space.

Consider paddler(s) weight and that of your cargo and compare it to the kayak's capacity. Most manufacturers supply specifications on each boat. Some boats come with hatches; others can accommodate a later installation, while quite a few kayaks do not have any hatch possibility.

Also consider how you will transport this kayak. A kayak cart that straps your kayak's hull for transporting over-land can come in handy.

Any car can carry any kayak with the proper roof rack system. You do not need to buy or have a large SUV to carry a kayak or two. You can put a couple touring kayaks on a sedan or wagon, and you have don't have to lift them as high.

Don't make the mistake of choosing a small kayak, easy to lift onto your car, if your safety and enjoyment will be compromised. There are roof rack systems that assist you in lifting heavier models.

Roof racks can be very simple and inexpensive, or very high quality. Make sure that the rack is secure, and that the kayak tied to it is also secure. Some roof racks are made only to fit certain cars. Other racks will fit all cars. Make sure the rack is the right kind for your car, by researching them carefully. Regardless of what system you choose, good quality tie-down straps are essential. Be sure to follow the roof rack and accessory instructions to the letter.

The paddle choice is just as important as the kayak choice. It is not uncommon to think the performance of a kayak is poor, when the paddle is the problem. The more you intend to use the paddle or the greater you will depend on it, the higher the quality should be. See "How To Choose A Kayak Paddle"

How To Decide On Gear:

Choose your accessories with care. All of the United States require by law that a Life Jacket or PFD (Personal Floatation Device) be on you or within reach. Make sure it fits, does not restrict paddle movement, and it is appropriate for your size. Special designs are available for women, children and even dogs.

Other accessories to consider to make the most of your enjoyment of the sport are: (Links take you to our TopKayaker Shop departments)

Tom HolteyTake a look at our Safe Kayaking Check List for more considerations.

When you are far from home and in rough conditions you will be depending on your gear. The best quality gear will then be essential. However, if you will be using your kayak just once in a while for short distances, then a lower quality purchase will be sufficient. Apply this evaluation to all your kayak and accessory purchases. Some shops will let you try the accessories that you are considering along with the kayaks that you are test paddling.

We wish you well in all your choices as you embark on this exciting, fulfilling sport. Happy paddling!


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