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Selecting a Kayak

Overall Advice

Kayaking is a fun sport to be enjoyed by people of all ages and skill levels. Before buying a boat, you should read this article completely. However, the bottom line is that you want to get a boat which will get you out on the water frequently to have fun. Once you feel safe, are having fun and your skills have improved, you may decide to "move up" to a more challenging boat. However, we suggest that you start with a boat which you feel comfortable with and can control in different water conditions.

We suggest the following strategies for selecting a boat:
* Join a Kayak Club - The major advantages of joining a kayak club before you purchase a boat are that you can get expert advice on which boat to buy, many members will let you try their boats and the club members often have good used boats for sale.

* Boat Fit - Kayaks are small boats. You almost put them on like clothes.  Therefore, your size and fit within the boat will definitely affect how comfortable you feel and the boat which you should choose. A kayak shop can help you decide the size and type of boat which you will "fit in".

* Take a Skills Class - Taking a class from a kayak shop before you buy has the advantage of both improving your skills and giving you an idea of what you want in a boat.

* Rent a Boat - Find kayak shops which rent boats and then rent them for trips until you find a type of boat you want to buy.

* Try Before You Buy - Try different boats until you find one which "feels" right. Tell the kayak shop your budget range and how you want to use the kayak. Most kayak shops will suggest several boats and then allow you to try them before you decide what you want to buy.

* Check the Internet - Check "Craig's List" and "Paddling.net" classifieds, to see what kayaks are for sale.  Used boats sell for about half the cost of a new boat.  Most major kayak manufacturers have a web site which describes their boats and will give you an idea of the types of boats which are made. Kayak club members and shops can give you the manufacturer's names. There are also classified ads on many kayak club web sites.

Types of Kayaks
There are many different types of kayaks, all used for different purposes.

  • Sit-On-Top Boats -  These are usually short (8 to 10 ft long) and wide (26+ inches).  The advantages are that they are very easy to get in and out and they are very stable.  The disadvantage is that they are very heavy, very slow, difficult to manuever and require a lot of energy to paddle.  These types of boats are often used by people new to the sport of kayaking and fishermen.  They are usually made of plastic.
  • Recreational Boats - These are usually short (8 to 10 ft long) and wide (26+ inches). These boats are normally 8 to 15 feet long, 24 to 30 inches wide and have flat bottoms. This make the boats very stable, but a little slow. They usually have very large cockpits.  The most affordable of kayaks, they are meant for calm, flat water trips.
  • White Water Boats:  These boats are short (about 6 ft ) and wide (about 30 inches) and are designed specifically for running white water on rivers.
  • Touring Boats - Touring boats are used to explore and travel distances.  Paddlers using these boats often travel from 5 to 20 miles in a single day - therefore the name "touring".  As these kayaks get longer (14 to 20 feet) and narrower (20 to 25 inches) they get faster and easier to paddle. However, these boat require more skill to keep upright (they are less stable). Touring kayaks, when spray skirts are used, can be use in rough water.


General Design Considerations
Kayaks have different shapes for a reason. No one boat can do it all. Form follows function and the exact boat for you is the one which meets your intended purpose (how you will use the boat), your size and your skill level.

* Length - Generally, the longer the boat, the faster it will travel through the water. However, the longer the boat, the less maneuverable it will be. Also, a very long boat (over 18 feet) is more difficult to control in high waves.

* Width - The wider the boat, the more stable (less tippy) it will be. However, the wider the boat the slower it will be.

* Floatation - A safe boat floats even when fully swamped with water. Floatation systems are built into most kayaks in the form of water tight bulk heads, solid bulkheads or foam filled tanks.  Inflatable inserts can be added after manufacture to some models. Good boat floatation is necessary to make rescues possible when you capsize.

* Hull Rocker - This is the amount of "smile" that you can see if you view the bottom of the boat from the side (sitting on dry land). It curves like the rail of a rocking chair. The more rocker (more upturned ends) means better turning ability. However, the more rocker the boat has, the less tracking ability - boat stays on a straight line.

* Chin or Bottom Shape - Bottom shape contributes to boat performance in different conditions. Flat bottom hulls are more stable in flat water. However, they are less stable in wind and waves.

Materials Used in Kayak Construction
* Plastics - Boats made of polyethylene plastic or other plastic are abundant, least expensive, most durable and most impact resistant of kayak construction materials.

* Composites - This includes fiberglass, carbon fiber and Kevlar boats. These materials make the boats stiffer, lighter and cost considerably more than plastic boats. These materials are used for higher end touring boats.

* Other - Less common materials include wood and skin/ plastic stretched over a wood or aluminum frame. Inflatable boats, which do not have very good performance features, are also available.

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