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How to Choose a Kayak

Jun 5, 2008
I was about to start this article on the assumption that anyone reading it would have some experience of kayaking. Assumptions are dangerous things and if you have not experienced kayaking before your first task (before even considering choosing a kayak) is to decide what type of kayaking that you are interested in.

Why? Well like much of todays modern equipment kayak designs differ radically according to their intended use. Sure you can get models that will suit the vast majority of water types but these will never be as good as those built for a specific purpose. Imagine taking a Cadillac off road compared to a jeep - the difference is huge.

So for messing about on ponds, lakes, bays and rivers your choice would be a recreational kayak. These boats are really all rounders and usually have large open cockpits for easy entrance and exit. A recreational kayak will typically be less than 12 feet in length. They have a wide body and are thus very stable but lack the speed of narrower framed boats.

For pacier rivers, with rapids and/or waves you would want to consider a whitewater or surf kayak. The craft used in recreational whitewater kayaking is different from those used in competition. Competition boats are usually made from kevlar due to it's light weight. Recreational boats are rotomoulded from a tough plastic that is slightly flexible and very durable. Kayaks range from around 6 ft up to 12 ft. The 6 ft models are also known as play boats and are used to perform many tricks.

On the other hand if you were looking at long distance trips on open water a sea kayak or touring kayak will more likely be suitable. These boats are much longer - between 16ft and 19ft. They are also narrower than recreational boats and surprising more stable. They trade off the extreme maneuverability of whitewater kayaks for cargo capacity, ease of straight-line paddling, and comfort for long journeys. Sea kayaks (depending on the model you choose) can hold up to three paddlers together with room for camping gear, food, water, and other supplies.

Then there's inflatable kayaks which are great because the hassles of storage and transportation are significantly reduced. The quality of inflatables varies dramatically. With prices ranging of $100 up to a $1000 or more there are plenty of choices. What you will get the more you spend is not just improved design but a greater resistance to scratches, abrasions and punctures. You can even use some inflatables on whitewater so don't skimp on the cash and you will get an inflatable than can serve for many years to come.

Sit-on-top kayaks are designed for fun. They're easy to use and simple to get on and off. They are generally used in warmer climates because you tend to end up wet. This is a fun boat and can be used for snorkeling, fishing and surfing.

Once a decision has been made on the right kayak for you, you should ask of yourself:

What's your budget? - How much to you have to spend. It almost goes without saying that you get what you pay for. Better design, quality, maneuverability, speed, robustness etc. Don't just splash the cash though as many cheaper models are as good or better than their more expensive brethren. Check out some reviews to identify a short list of potential purchases.

How heavy it the kayak? Can you lift it own your own or is it a two man job. How easy is it to get out of the water, place it on a trailer, put it into storage? These are very important and often overlooked considerations of which you should take account.

Where will the kayak be stored? Will it fit in the chosen storage area? Do you need to consider a different size boat or even, an alternative place to store your kayak?

Do you need hatches? If you plan on storing gear in your kayak then hatches are a must. These are water tight containers where gear can safely be stowed eliminating the need for a dry bag.

What about a skeg and rudder? A skeg and rudder keep the kayak moving in a straight line in challenging weather. I remember trying to kayak in open water without a rudder once and found it incredibly draining to stay on course. In fact, at the half way point I was all but completely spent. On the return trip with the rudder in place far less energy was required to keep the boat moving straight ahead.

How about a knee brace? Knee braces are an essential item for ocean paddlers as they make it less strenuous to both steer and paddle in challenging conditions. It is important that they fit you properly and that they're comfortable, especially if you're making a long trip.

Remember as well that it's not just about the boat. To fully enjoy kayaking other gear is needed and you should include an allowance for this in your budget if necessary. You may also need, deck lines, a trailer, drain plug, bow and stern grab handles, foot braces and a spray skirt to name just a few other essential items.

So, if you've got this far you'll see there's a lot of information and options to take account of to ensure you buy the kayak that is right for you. I'd suggest you start out by renting and speaking to others about the equipment you need. Buy a couple of magazines and check out a few internet forums. Once you know what you want it's time to consider whether to buy new or used equipment and with the purchase made get kayaking and start to really enjoy this great sport.
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