When we started selling canoes in the 70s, there was no such thing as online ordering. Customers came to Farmville and walked through our warehouse, and our staff found and loaded the perfect boat. Over forty years later, we still love to do that, but with a global pandemic, a nationwide customer base, and an increasing amount of online orders, we realized we need to put some of that information in an easy place, where you can start narrowing down your choices from the comfort of your living room.
We're starting a blog series called the Kayak Buying Guide. In these posts, we'll take apart the process of choosing a kayak and break it down into small, individual topics to help you find your perfect boat. With that said, the people who help you in-store are the same folks who answer our phones (yay, small business!), so if you still have any questions or need recommendations, don't hesitate to give us a call and one of our experts will be happy to help!
In this first post of the Kayak Buying Guide, we go through the first and most basic questions: why are there so many different kinds of kayaks, and what's the difference? Which one will be best for me?
Well, there are so many kinds of kayaks because there are so many kinds of water and so many kinds of paddlers. Kayaks are usually separated into categories based on what kind of water or activity they are best for.
Recreational Kayaks: These are the most popular kayaks on the market because they're versatile, easy to use, and usually good for beginners. Recreational, or rec kayaks, are well suited to calm, flat water, like lakes, ponds, and slow rivers. They vary widely in design and features, but they're usually somewhere between nine and twelve feet long, and in the range of 25-35 inches wide, although some are a little narrower. Most rec kayaks weigh between 35 and 70 lbs, so they can be very easy to carry and transport.
They can be sit-inside or sit-on-top style kayaks, and some can can accommodate a spray skirt, which we'll talk about more in the context of whitewater and touring kayaks. Recreational boats are not suitable for whitewater or offshore use. Rec kayaks are excellent for a relaxing day on the water, but don't usually offer exceptional speed, stability, or maneuverability. They're the happy medium that blends comfort and ease of use.
Whitewater Kayaks: Whitewater kayaks are usually short, sturdily-built, and very maneuverable. They're designed to be paddled down rapids ranging from class I to class V, so they're made of thick, heavy plastic and have safety features like positive floatation, bulkheads, and customizable outfitting (we'll talk about all those terms in another guide). You'll usually find a whitewater kayak somewhere between seven and nine feet, although some twelve foot models are popular for racing. Almost all are sit-inside, but a few sit-on-top models are made for class I-II rapids.
Whitewater kayaks have snug cockpits (the part of the boat where you sit) and low backbands so that they can be fitted with neoprene spray skirts. Skirts keep water out of a boat, and enable the paddler to roll the boat after a flip, although this is a skill that takes instruction and practice. Whitewater boats are also outfitted with hip pads, thigh braces, and adjustable bulkheads to give the paddler the most possible contact and control over the hull. They are meant to be nimble so that the paddler can pick between rocks easily, but that means that they are also very slow on flat water and don't hold a straight line well. Even though they're so small, they tend to be heavier than some rec boats because they are thicker and have heavier-duty outfitting.
Touring Kayaks: Touring kayaks are used for multi-day open-water trips. They're almost always sit-inside and usually somewhere between fourteen and seventeen feet, and the longer the kayak, the longer trips it's capable of. These kayaks are very speedy and efficient, but are designed more for performance and safety than for comfort. Like whitewater boats, a touring kayak usually has a small cockpit, a low backband, and thigh braces, so the paddler can control, steer, and roll the kayak. These boats are also meant to be outfitted with spray skirts. Some touring kayaks feature drop-down rudders or skegs, two varieties of steering mechanisms that make kayaks more efficient. A touring kayak usually has a deep V-shaped hull, which often rounds out on the edges, and sharp bow and stern, and you often find a keel (raised ridge) running from front to back, or at least at the ends.
Fishing Kayaks: Fishing kayaks are exactly what they sound like. They usually offer very supportive frame seats and other comfort features for folks who will be out on the water for a while. Most fishing kayaks are sit-on-top styles between twelve and fourteen feet long, and are designed to be very stable. In fact, you can stand up in most modern fishing kayaks. They are usually wider than recreational kayaks, and have a more pontoonized, or W-shaped hull design. In addition to comfort and stability, fishing kayaks usually feature high weight limits, lots of storage space, and fishing-specific accessories like rod holders, gear tracks, tackle box pockets, and transducer mounts. While they are incredibly stable, more stability usually means a slower and heavier kayak. Some of these fishing kayaks can weigh over 100 pounds. They are the best options for people who will spend a lot of time sitting and waiting for a fish and need the features and accessories to build the ultimate angling rig.
Crossover Kayaks: Crossovers are more of a miscellaneous category, because there are just so many different types. Some crossovers offer good performance in both flatwater and moderate whitewater, and some are kayak/canoe or kayak/paddleboard hybrids. Manufacturers are coming up with a lot of great hybrid designs these days, so if you can't decide what you'll be doing, or you live by a river that's 70% flat but with a few class II rapids, look to a crossover kayak to find the right mix of features.