Which Kayak Is Right for You? How to Choose Your Next Craft

By Lori Janeson

In the market for a new kayak?

Sorry to say, there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all kayak. Kayaks come in several different forms, and it’s critical that you choose the right one for your needs.

What follows is a general overview of the major types of kayaks and their suitability. Use it as the basis for further research as you work toward what’s hopefully the most gratifying purchase of your recreational career.

Calm-water Kayaks

More popularly known as “recreational kayaks,” calm-water kayaks are what most people picture when prompted to imagine a kayak. They’re usually at least 10-feet long and relatively heavy, so they’re not great for portaging.

However, they’re quite wide, and therefore stable in calm water. That makes them ideal for laid-back paddles and for excursions on which the kayak is a means to an end — for instance, fishing trips. With generous cockpit openings, they’re also fairly easy to enter and exit without assistance. Their biggest weakness is poor tracking: It takes a lot of effort to keep them moving on an efficient heading.

Modular Kayaks

Modular kayaks are great for mobile paddlers. If you don’t have a large vehicle with roof or rear racks adequate for safe kayak transport, opt for a modular kayak.


“Most separate into two or three pieces small enough to fit into a large trunk (or seat-down cargo area). They’re ideal for paddlers with limited storage space at home as well.”—Lori Janeson


Modular kayaks are more easily customized than other types of kayaks. For instance, if you sometimes paddle solo and sometimes paddle with a partner, you can buy an extra cockpit section and turn your boat into a tandem at will.

Inflatable Kayaks

Inflatable kayaks are even more space-efficient than modular kayaks. Despite the flimsy-sounding name, they’re nearly as sturdy as fixed-frame kayaks. The major downside: They’re harder to paddle. Some do have rigid skeletons or floor bars that help them move through the water, but those only go so far.

Folding Kayaks

Folding kayaks blend the space-efficiency of inflatable kayaks with the sturdiness of modular kayaks and the reliability of touring kayaks (see below.) They have rigid frames, which means they’re easier to paddle in open water, but they can fit into a bag small enough to sling over your shoulders for storage.

Folding kayaks’ portability makes them ideal for excursions on remote bodies of water that are difficult or impossible to access with your passenger car or truck. If you’re planning to do a lot of kayak camping, this type of kayak should be at or near the top of your list. Plus, as long as you’re not in a rush, folding kayaks are great for portaging — you can assemble and disassemble them in less than 15 minutes.

Touring Kayaks

Touring kayaks are also ideal for long-distance travel. They’re long, rigid craft designed to track well with minimal effort and resist the sort of mild to moderate wave action you’re likely to encounter in normal open-water conditions. They have ample room for gear as well. The Achilles heel is, of course, the portage — since touring kayaks are long and rather unwieldy, they’re difficult to carry long distances overhead.

Sit-on-top Kayaks

You might know sit-on-top kayaks as “sea kayaks,” which is fine. However, sit-on-top kayaks aren’t the only type of kayak that works well in open water — touring kayaks are arguably even better for the purpose.

Since sit-on-top paddlers essentially sit at the waterline, they’re completely exposed to wave action. This is fine, and even pleasant, in warm climates, where some splashing is welcome. However, it’s harder to store gear (and keep it dry) on sit-on-top kayaks, so they’re not great for multi-day excursions. And, due to the inevitability of dousing, they’re not ideal for any length of time in colder climates.

Be Ready for Your First Kayak Excursion

Once you’ve selected your kayak, there’s only one thing left to do: try it out on the water.

Actually, that’s not quite accurate. Before you head out on your first excursion, mind the basics of kayaker preparedness. You’ll want to keep these five things in mind:

  • Bone up on kayak lingo: Know how to talk the talk. (No, you don’t have to swear like a sailor — just know the basic terms for important pieces of equipment, parts of your boat, maritime directions, and so on.)
  • Don’t paddle alone: This is especially important for first-timers, but paddling alone isn’t recommended for anyone. It’s much safer to use the buddy system or go with a larger group. If you find yourself in distress, you’re much likely to get out of the situation unharmed when you’re with someone who can assist you or find you some help.
  • Always use a paddle float: Always remember your paddle float — a handy piece of equipment that reduces your risk of paddle loss and can help you with an unassisted re-entry into a capsized boat.
  • Get a lesson first: Learning to kayak is a lifelong journey. Those who excel at the pastime tend to be humble. When they’re first starting out, they admit that they don’t know much, and they trust in others to set them right. Start your kayaking career off right by taking a lesson and learning what you don’t know.
  • Over-prepare: You can never be too prepared, even for a leisurely afternoon on the water. Before you head out on your first excursion, speak with an experienced kayaker (preferably a friend or teacher) to get a handle on what to expect and what you need to bring.
  • When in doubt, call it off: A lot can go wrong out on the water. If things aren’t coming together properly, don’t be afraid to call off your trip and wait for a better time. For instance, if the weather looks iffy or your buddy cancels on you, your trip might not be worth the risk.

With the right gear, adequate preparation, and a positive attitude, your first kayaking trip will be a blast. And remember — it all starts with the perfect kayak for your needs.


Lori Janeson is an outdoor enthusiast and avid kayaker living in Winnipeg, Manitoba