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Kayak Shopping Guide
As the summer starts warming up, you’re going to start dreaming about lake days, fishing trips, and bathing suit season. You don’t need a cumbersome motorized boat to get you near the water — hauling a boat can require large tow capacity, extra manpower, and more money. Instead, you can get an inflatable or hard-shell kayak to get you out on the water with so much less hassle.
Sure, you might get a bigger fishing boat one day as your retirement gift, but that doesn’t mean you should be missing out on fishing afternoons in the meantime. We’ve rated and compared kayaks that serve as fishing boats, recreational floats, and low-flow performance rafts based on everything from quality to user reviews.
It’s easy to want a new kayak, but now you need to know what to look for so you’re not sinking in the middle of your favorite lake. So, dive into the different features you should look out for in your next kayak.
Standing to Fish? Go Fish.
Sure, there’s something to putting on your waders, standing at the river’s edge, and throwing a line out into the stream to catch your next fish. That’s tradition, so why mess with it?
Because you can sit on your kayak and fish from the middle of the lake!
With the right raft, it is easy to inflate your kayak, throw it on your truck, trailer, or the top of your car, and launch it from the shore of your favorite river. Have a small car? Not a problem. Just bring an air pump with you and inflate your kayak on the shore before launching it. Kayaks amplify your summer fishing and rafting experience, by putting you on the water versus forcing you to stand in the mud at the water’s edge. While you wait for the next catch, you can sit and enjoy the views, floating on the waves and forgetting all your troubles.
Since boaters all have different ideas of fun - calm floating, fishing, rapids-chasing - there are kayaks that match each sport. A kayak built for calm lake days won’t be the same as one designed for class IV rapids, so it’s important to understand how you’ll be using your raft. From the hull to the shape to the boat, kayaks are built to be proficient at certain water specialties, and if you’re dishing out some money for your new kayak, you don’t want to buy the wrong one.
We’re going to break down the types of flatwater kayaks that you’ll see in our top choices. If you’re interested in whitewater kayaks, we recommend taking a swiftwater course so you can understand which kind of raft is best for your skills and abilities.
We’ll be leaving whitewater kayaks out of our kayaks breakdown, but most outdoor retailers will be happy to give you all the specs you need to know on finding the perfect kayak to take you down Class III rapids and beyond.
Flatwater kayaks are perfect for the avid fisherman or fisherwoman, someone who wants to paddle through calmer water, family trips to the lake, or tours through large bodies of water. Kayaking out on the lake can be a great way to see an area without hiking dozens of miles to loop around the lakeshore. For busier weekends where you want to avoid the crowds but still fish, kayaks are the perfect solution.
There are a few different types of flatwater kayaks to consider, and each model has its appeal along with its disadvantages.
Sit-On-Top Kayak: You might associate kayaks with that cockpit seating arrangement where the boater is halfway inside the kayak. Sit-on-top kayaks take the boater outside the boat, raising the seat to be above the shell of the boat. Because of its external seating as well as wider base, sit-on-top kayaks have better stability when someone is getting in or out of the boat, making it easy to stand on when you’re fishing or just getting into the boat. This is vital when you’re casting a line or just reaching for the cooler to grab another beer.
Sit-on-top kayaks are usually preferred by fishermen and women, especially with their comfortable seats, added legroom, and added gear storage. Along with this, if you happen to fall out or tip over as you’re going for that whopper of a fish, your kayak is self-bailing, meaning water will be drained from the hull of the boat without sinking.
Ideally, you’d be using this type of kayak in the summertime. With its open-air design, you’ll have little protection from splashing.
Inflatable Kayak: Inflatable kayaks are incredibly convenient in terms of storage and transport to and from the water. These are perfect for anyone without a trailer and limited vehicle space. These are great for beginners that are wanting something for flatwater and have even been reported to perform well at a Class III level (we don’t suggest using the inflatable kayaks for anything above Class II unless you’re an experienced kayaker).
If you see the term “Duckie” being used, this describes a whitewater inflatable kayak with more durable and performance-driven design. These are intended for use on high-level rapids but come with many different parameters than the flatwater inflatable kayaks we’re describing.
An inflatable kayak such as the Sea Eagle usually comes with self-bailing valves, durable material that won’t be popped by the claws of your pets, are lightweight, and efficient.
On the downside, critics have noted the difficulty in which an inflatable kayak might track (or steer) through open water. You might have less control in an inflatable kayak, depending on the make, model, and shape of the vessel.
Touring Kayaks: A longer, narrower raft with a smaller cockpit for the single user to navigate longer trips on the water. These are designed to travel faster and be controlled with more ease since users might find themselves in more narrow bodies of water with them. Depending on how efficient you want to get with these, you can easily spend well into the thousands finding the right model for you.
Touring kayaks are perfect for the more advanced kayaker looking to get into the overnight camping trips, the solo adventurist, or the river searcher. For beginners, this could be an over-investment that might not immediately benefit someone just getting into the art of kayaking.
Recreational Kayaks: Recreational kayaks are the classic 10-foot hard-shell kayaks that you’re likely most familiar with. These come with a small cockpit that can be skirted off from water when necessary. They also might have adjustable feet rests to make you comfortable, no matter how tall you are. These might have some storage for a cooler and your water gear, but they’re not exactly ideal for a day out on the lake fishing.
With low stability as you get in and out of the boat, this can be a difficult kayak to fish with. These are great for the beginner kayaks who want to paddle through flatwater or get to their next campsite with limited gear. You can consider this type of kayak as your own floating backpack.
Recreational kayaks are easy to understand for the beginner, and their short length is easy to transport if your vehicle accommodates for such travel. These are great for short tours of a lake or family outings, making these a fun way to get around flat, calm waters.
Features of a Kayak
While shopping for a new kayak, you’ll see kayak jargon that might not be a part of your day-to-day conversation. To better understand your future purchase, it’s helpful to know what these features mean and how they add to your kayak. If you’re going to pay extra for a skeg, you should know what it does, right?
Skeg: Skegs are fins at the bottom of your kayak designed to keep your raft straight in case of crosswinds. Not all kayaks are built with a skeg, because not all kayaks need them. Skegs help your vessel “track” better, which we’ve previously mentioned. Tracking is your boat’s ability to stay straight and not turn, which is what a kayak is prone to doing. In some models, such as the Sea Eagle SE370 Inflatable Kayak, skegs will be added to the bottom for improved tracking, ultimately improving the boat’s performance.
Spray Skirts: You’ll see these mentioned in several of the models that we’ve suggested. A spray skirt is a flexible, waterproof covering that can cover up the cockpit opening, protecting your waist and any gear inside the kayak from getting wet. An added spray skirt is a great way to keep you dry in colder times of the day, or just when you want to keep your favorite shorts from getting soaked.
Drain Valves: Inflatable kayaks will come with plenty of valves, all of which serve different functions. In order for the kayak to be safely inflated without the risk of popping all at once, the kayak has different air chambers with valves that let the air in and out when you’re inflating and deflating it.
Separately from this, these kayaks will likely come with drain valves that let any collected water out of the boat as it accumulates. While this isn’t a must-have feature with inflatable kayaks, because accumulated water will not automatically sink the boat, this makes self-bailing possible and way more convenient.
Air Pump: Make sure your inflatable kayak has an air pump that is easily compatible. You don’t want to find yourself at the lakeshore unable to pump up your deflated kayak. Or maybe even more frustrating, getting an intense leg workout because your foot pump takes 30 minutes just to fill up one air chamber.
With an air pump, reviewers will keep you informed on how well they work. This is something that users are extra sensitive about, because this is the part that makes an inflatable kayak convenient or a hassle. Take a look at what users have to say about the ease of inflating the boat to get a real insider look at your potential purchase.
What to Avoid When Buying a Kayak
The biggest things to avoid when buying a kayak is getting one that is overpriced for what you need, one that is simply unsteerable and leaves you floating uncontrollably in the water, and one that is too large for you to transport. When you’re starting your new hobby of kayaking, or just want a raft that does one specific thing, you don’t want to get an advanced raft that has features only advanced rafters will enjoy.
For anyone who wants to fish out of their kayak, you want to make sure that you’re finding the kayak that allows you to comfortably get in and out of the raft, move around the raft while you’re casting a line or grabbing snacks and drinks from the cooler, and one where you can control without spinning in circles. Fishing should be enjoyable, not frustrating, and if you’re in a kayak not suitable for fishing, you can find yourself gritting your teeth and cursing out your new kayak.
Lastly, you want to make sure that your kayak is practical for your transportation vehicle. Sure, it’d be great to get a long kayak that can fit all our friends and pets, but if you can’t fit it in your car to take it to the lake, then your kayak will end up taking space in the garage. Make sure that you find a kayak that can be transported with the vehicle you have, otherwise your $200 investment will turn into a new car lease. That’s a vicious cycle that you want to avoid, for now at least.
Trusting our Top Pick
Navigating the many choices for every consumer purchase can be challenging. Our team spends hours doing research, combing through forums, and reading consumer reviews on even the most basic of household items, and we summarize that information in clear, precise comparisons.
Join the millions that have trusted BuyersGuide.org to help them make smarter buying decisions. We help our readers spend their money wisely and find the right product to suit their specific needs. Our independent expert reviews and data-driven shopping recommendations empower you to find the kayak that's right for you.
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