Kayaking is a fun and safe recreational activity enjoyed by people at all levels of fitness and mobility. Kayaking can be done on almost any body of liquid water, but I’m going to focus on flatwater and stillwater paddling since that is the entry point and maximum level of attainment for most people. Kayaking is a good low-impact exercise and enables fishing, nature photography, and camping. Nothing beats the relaxation of a day on the water.
The most frequent question I get from people who have never kayaked is: “Do I have to learn how to flip the boat back up?” No. Ideally you won’t turn over, but if you do you swim free. Which inevitably leads to domanda numero due: “Do I have to be strapped in?” Again, the answer is “no.” Recreational kayaks are designed for easy exit – they have large cockpit openings and ample, unobstructed under-deck space. Plus, there is a new class of sit-on-top, self-draining kayak where no part of you is enclosed at all. To complete the trifecta of answers to questions I am frequently asked by non-boaters – no, they are not as tippy as you probably think; kayaks are designed to keep your center of gravity low which stabilizes things nicely.
“The kayak was first used by the indigenous Aleut, Inuit, Yupik and possibly Ainu hunters in subarctic regions of the world.” And those dudes were totally badass hunting seals and contending with orcas in frigid waters in boats made of hide and bones. Modern kayaks are almost exclusively made of rotomolded polyethylene plastic, with a small number of specialty boats made of fiberglass or wood.
Kayakers sit with their legs stretched out ahead of them and use a two-bladed paddle; as opposed to canoeists who kneel, or sit with legs tucked under, and use a one-bladed paddle.
Ideally your first kayak experience should be in the company of two or more experienced paddlers. Kayak enthusiasts often have extra boats and gear and will outfit you for your first trip. Etiquette tip – spring for beers afterwards for your guides and outfitters. Offer to serve as a shuttle monkey or lunch bunny if you want a second invite.
There are kayak rental concessions at/near various lakes and rivers, some of which offer guided trips. These people are very conscious of their liability and will not put their customers in harm’s way. If your first kayaking experience is with other inexperienced paddlers, start with a one or two hour rental on a quiet lake in a party of three or more people all of whom should know how to swim even though you will use the PFD (life vest) you are issued.
So, you do a trip and you have fun and decide to buy your own kayak. The type of kayak you should purchase depends on the type of kayaking you’ll be doing. If you’re going to be paddling on ponds and smaller lakes (collectively, stillwater) then you can get by with a cheap department store boat for around two hundred dollars. Inexpensive recreational kayaks can also be safely used on rivers with no rapids (flatwater), or on Class I-II whitewater – caution or instruction recommended for the latter.
At the absolute minimum you will also need: a PFD (aka life vest, and yes you really, really need one), paddle (you notice I put this behind PFD on the list, right?), whistle or air horn, and a broad-brimmed hat. Appropriate footwear is sandals with ankle straps (no flip-flops), water shoes such as Nike Aquasock, or wetsuit booties. Always have with you water, sunscreen and a snack. Usual outdoor safety and first aid equipment, but Glibs know this already.
Please don’t buy a cheap polyvinyl inflatable kayak, aka pool toy. These things are truly POS, puncture easily and are not durable. There is a better class of inflatable made of rubberized fabric, but those cost as much as a rigid boat; they do have the advantage of portability and compact storage.
If you want to do bigger water, want to take long trips, or haul lots of gear then you’re going to need a bigger, more durable boat than they sell at department stores.
If you want to do long downriver trips, or haul lots of gear then I recommend a sit-on-top, self-draining recreational kayak such as Wilderness Systems’ Tarpon line of boats. These boats are sturdy, stable and durable. Recently Wilderness replaced the rubber cargo hatches with hard plastic hinged hatches – much more durable and reliable. The drain pipes go all the way through from the top deck to the bottom deck without letting water into the space between decks. Perhaps counterintuitively, the drain pipes add a huge amount of structural integrity to the hull. These boats can do up to Class III whitewater, and can even surf a bit, but they are not nimble.
Obligatory Stirring Kayak Anecdote: During rescue operations in chilly whitewater I had two men in a one-person, sit-on-top boat, exceeding the rated cargo capacity by over one hundred pounds. Although the boat sat low in the water and the cockpit was partially flooded, the kayak remained floatworthy and maneuverable; when the extra man got out of the boat the water drained out within ten seconds and full floatworthiness was regained.
The only disadvantage to self-draining kayaks is that they are slower than traditional kayaks – the drain holes add drag. And while you sit higher in the water in a sit-on-top than in a conventional kayak, the designers compensate for that by making these boats extra-wide for added stability. The drain pipes also provide an easy way to secure the kayak against casual theft using a chain or cable lock.
Another Anecdote: One of the recreational boaters I’m trying to get to level-up has long been wary of trying my sit-on-top. Once she finally tried it she was impressed by the stability generally solid character of the craft to the point of jealousy.
If you want to do Class III+ whitewater and be able to surf (including ocean waves) and do tricks then you will need a whitewater kayak – these are made of thicker plastic than cheap recreational boats and have internal supports to keep them from being crushed like a soda can in rough water. You will need to learn to roll – contact your local paddling club, Parks and Rec (SLD), or YMCA about rolling classes which are often conducted in pools. Expect to spend $1,200-$1,600 for all new whitewater kayak, PFD, paddle, skirt and helmet. Whitewater boats are short, and by design easily tip and spin.
If you are going to do long treks on open water (ocean, sea, bay, sound, great lakes, etc) you will probably want a sea kayak. These boats are long and narrow, relatively stable, but don’t turn well. Many deepwater paddlers learn to roll in case they are swamped by waves or wakes. Some sea kayaks are equipped with sailing rigs, retractable keels for speed and tracking, and outriggers for stability.
There are also a few pedal-powered kayaks on the market where the pedal rotation powers underwater flaps which help propel the boat; paddles are used for turning and maneuvering, and for additional propulsion. Pedal drive boats are not recommended for water with lots of vegetation, underwater obstructions, etc. Some of those pedal units are removable.
Fiberglass boats are great if you are a competitive whitewater kayaker, competitive flatwater racer, squirt boater, or want to make your own boat. They are certainly light, but break in situations where a polyethylene boat would bend or dent.
Wooden boats are so very pretty, but they are heavy and expensive. You don’t see many of them in river kayaking as the owners tend to avoid anything that might scrape them up, like rocks.
Buying a used boat is often a good way to break into the sport on the cheap without sacrificing equipment quality. Scrapes and scratches consistent with normal use are fine. Beware of dents, folds, creases, cracks, brittle plastic, dry rotted rubber, etc. Generic replacement nylon carry handles are readily available, but rotted handles are indicative of poor kayak storage. Best time to find a used boat is December through March as people get new boats for Christmas or for Spring.
A single short boat will fit inside a hatchback vehicle with the front seat folded forward. For longer or multiple boats you will need a roof rack, or a pickup truck. A Subaru Outback wagon can easily haul four kayakers with boats and gear for a day trip.
Tonio has been a canoeist since 1985, and a kayaker since 1990. Tonio’s maximum level of attainment was solid Class IV whitewater paddling skills, but he has dialed things back to Class III now that he is older. Tonio loves practicing kayak safety and rescue techniques. Tonio is not a real Italian.