Many modern kayaks barely resemble the long, narrow traditional crafts of a few years ago. These days you can choose between sea kayaks, tandems, sit-on-tops and white-water kayaks.
Look at boats designed for the type of water you are most likely to encounter. Do not expect a single model of kayak to excel in all bodies of water. A touring kayak, for example, would be downright dangerous on river rapids.
Understand kayak design. White-water kayaks tend to be less than 9 feet (2.7 m) long and are intended for tight maneuvering. Sea kayaks range from 10 to 22 feet (3 to 6.7 m) long, with shorter boats more appropriate for beginners. Longer boats are less maneuverable but are favored by more experienced paddlers for speed, paddling ease and improved tracking.
Spend time inspecting and paddling kayaks before you buy. Make sure you're comfortable sitting in the boat. Check the footrest, seat and backrest adjustments. Bring a paddle you're comfortable with to isolate differences between boats. Take several boats out for a paddle.
Bring any kayak equipment you already own. Check that your spray skirt is compatible with any new boat you're trying out.
Analyze hull advantages: Shorter molded plastic hulls are a good choice for beginning sea kayakers. This material, while not indestructible, is extremely durable and will tolerate scrapes and bumps. Inexpensive molded plastic may not be rigid enough to satisfy some users. Fiberglass hulls are more rigid but won't tolerate a lot of bumping and scraping. Wooden hulls, while very beautiful, require extra care and frequent maintenance.
Move up to faster, lighter and longer hulls of Kevlar or Kevlar-fiberglass combinations as you gain expertise and can handle a less-stable sea kayak. Experts savor the even longer ultralight, super-fast hulls made of Kevlar and carbon fiber.
Consider the kayak's aesthetic qualities. Many people find a high-quality fiberglass boat better looking than a molded plastic one. If this is important to you, get a fiberglass boat, but understand that it may require more care and attention.
Buy a boat with a rudder if you're a long-distance paddler. Rudders help the boat track, which means less work for you.
- Other type of kayaks include white-water boats, inflatable kayaks and sit-on-top kayaks. Ask an outdoor-sports expert on which type is best for you.
- Perception and Old Town (OTCanoe.com) are popular brands of touring boats with a wide range of models. Expect to pay $1,500 and up.
- Some kayaks have a rigid frame covered with waterproof material. Designed to come apart for storage and travel, they are lightweight and convenient, but don't paddle as well as a rigid boat and won't carry gear either.
- Inspect the watertight compartments. If you can test the boat in the water, check for leaks. If not, check to see that it has been tested and guaranteed. Examine the compartment seals; they need to fit very securely.