Buying Your First Kayak

There are several things to consider before purchasing a kayak. This guide breaks down all the things to consider, different types of kayaks, and how to choose the correct paddle size.

Questions to ask yourself before purchasing…

  • Where and how do you see yourself kayaking?
  • How much time do you expect to be on the water?
  • What are your storage needs?

If you only plan on using it a couple times during the summer, an advanced kayak isn’t necessary. Same thing goes if you only see yourself kayaking lakes, calm-flat rivers and streams. If kayaking in the ocean, large rivers with strong currents or big lakes that can become choppy—it will cost a bit more.

  • Are you more comfortable on a sit-on kayak or sit-in kayak?

Is it important for you to have speed? Or more important to be stable? This answer depends on if you are trying to cover long distances or not. Speed that comes from a sit-in kayak is nice to have when going long distances. The sit-on kayaks provide a lot of stability and good for beginners and kiddos.

  • Do you want more speed or more maneuverability?

Shorter kayaks are easier to maneuver. Longer kayaks tracks better and go faster. Tracks = stays on course.

  • How tall are you?

A 6′ person will be less comfortable in a 10’ kayak than someone who is 5’2”.

  • How are you going to transport the kayak?

If your car isn’t big enough for a long kayak or you don’t have a trailer, an advanced kayak isn’t going to work. Is your car capable of carrying kayaks on top? Do you have a rooftop rack and a kayak rack? If not, there are some that can be transported inside cars—like foldable and inflatable kayaks.

  • How much do you want to spend?

Kayaks can range from as low as $300.00 or even less if on sale to $5,000+. There are huge differences between these kayaks though. The saying “you get what you pay for” is true – you’re paying for material, comfort and customization. On the other hand, if you’re out for a casual day paddle on the lake or river, plastic kayaks are great!

Kayak Categories

There are actually several different types of kayaks, but there are 3 main categories: recreational (sit-in, sit-on, flatwater), whitewater and touring.

  1. Flatwater kayaks: sit-on top, recreational, inflatable, touring, and pedaling.
  2. Whitewater kayaks: river runners, playboats, creek boats, and inflatable.
  3. Touring-Sea kayaks: ocean, wind and waves.

Kayak Types

1. Basic – Recreational

Beginner, basic, early stages, recreational… it’s the kayak that has the large cockpit or you can sit on top of. Most of these come with paddles, making it a budget friendly first-time purchase. While recreational kayaks don’t go as fast and as straight as advanced kayaks, you can buy them for half the price. Plus plastic kayaks can also take a lot of abuse for years – we’ve had ours for 5 years!

  • Weight: a bit heavier because the plastic is very thick for durability.
  • What makes them stable: width + length.
  • Designed for: kids, people who don’t want to worry about currents or rapids, dragging the kayak to the water across rocks, built to be durable and last for years.

Sit-On-Top (SOT) vs Cockpit Kayaks

Some say the SOTs provide more stability. Others think the cockpit kayak is just as stable. I think the main question is: are you comfortable sitting on top of kayak or in a kayak? If on top, pick the SOT. Look at cockpit kayaks if you’re comfier inside of the kayak.

  • SOT: It’s important to know that SOT kayaks are self-bailing and have water drains—a cockpit kayak does not. A great option for those who don’t want to learn how to get out from under a flipped kayak and little ones. People also use these to fish on and as platforms because you can easily hop on and off them. Your legs are also not confined and stuck in 1 position with SOTs. You are prone to get wet because you are exposed.
  • Cockpit: great for rougher water because you can stay protected from wind and can buy a skirt. There’s typically more control over cockpit kayaks as opposed to the SOTs.

2. Intermediate – Recreational

You can tell if a kayak is an immediate model by the material it’s made of. Intermediate kayaks are made of carbonite rather than polyethylene plastic (found in most basic kayaks). They do cost a tad more than your basic-recreational kayak, but are more durable.

  • Weight: more lightweight than basic-recreational kayak.
  • What makes them stable: width + length.
  • Designed for: people who want to do.

Basic and intermediate-recreational kayaks will not be more than 14’ in length. They are heavier than advanced kayaks, but still durable and very stable. If you plan on launching from shorelines and docks, it will be a good fit for you.

3. Advanced

Ocean, sea, touring kayaks…

If you progress your paddling skills, a touring style kayak is another option. It’s a lot thinner, longer (14’+), and have different cockpit sizes. They travel faster and straighter than your recreational kayaks. The longer the kayak, the better the tracking.

Buying advanced kayaks as a beginner isn’t uncommon and that’s fine if that’s what your budget allows. Keep in mind, if you don’t plan to kayak outside of the summer season and don’t see yourself kayaking in the ocean, across the San Juans or overnight—a recreational kayak is just as good.

  • Weight: most lightweight option.
  • What makes them stable: the paddler, less table than a recreational kayak.
  • Designed for: experienced paddlers, rainy-rough weather conditions, different types of paddling.

Other types of kayaks…

  • Tandem – good for friends and furry pals
  • Modular/Foldable – come apart for storage + transporation
  • Fishing – made specifically for fishers with built-in road holders, more stable, extra storage…

Hull Type

Also consider the kayak’s hull design when purchasing one.

Hull = shape of the kayak’s bottom.

There are 2 different types of stability…

  • Primary stability: how stable the kayak is when you get in and out.
  • Secondary stability: how stable the kayak is when you’re paddling.

And 5 types of hulls…

  • Flat hull: the flatter the hull, the more primary stability. A good choice for beginners.
  • Rounded hull: increases speed, more secondary stability, easy travel through water, more maneuverable.
  • V-shaped hull: helps kayak travel in a straight line, good for recreational kayaking, touring and long-distance trips. Better secondary stability but offers less primary stability.
  • Pontoon hull: a bit slower, but combines flat hull’s primary stability and rounded hull’s secondary stability.
  • Chine hull: the softer the chine, the more secondary stability. A harder chine has more angles where the bottom of the boat meets the sides. Whereas when the bottom of the boat meets the sides in a rounded manner, it’s “soft.” Most kayaks fall somewhere in between. 

Terms

  • Weight capacity = paddler’s body weight + additional items (coolers, packs, gear, etc.)
  • Length = how long the kayak is from tip to tip
  • Width = how wide the kayak is from the widest part across the kayak

What We Have

  • Name: Pelican Odyssey 100X – discontinued! Pelican’s Argo model is very similar
  • Type: Basic-Recreational
  • Material: Polyethylene
  • Weight: 40 lb
  • Length: 10’
  • Width: 29”
  • Cockpit Width: 25”
  • Cockpit Length: 47”
  • Height: 14”
  • Max weight: 300lb
  • Includes: waterproof hatch in front, bungee storage in back, knee pads, adjustable footrests, 2 water bottle/phone holders, foam blocks inside kayak for extra floatation and prevents water from completely filling the kayak if flipped, padded backrest and seat cushion
  • Bought from: Costco in Bellingham, Washington for $250.00, normally $300.00. 5 years ago, now discontinued model. Pelican’s Argo model—which is similar—goes for $270.00 to $519.00.

We’ve had these babies for 5 years now and they still work just as well as they did the first day. We get in our kayaks at least once—if not multiple times—a week, during the summer and on warm spring and fall days. I consider ourselves casual paddlers and usually spend anywhere from 2 – 6 hours on the kayaks during our outings. I absolutely love them. They’ve never failed us after kayaking all over Washington and Oregon, even some spots in Idaho!

I personally think Pelican is the first brand you should look at for recreational kayaks if wanting to buy from a bigger company that has a good reputation. They have a wide variety to choose from and from personal experience, last for years!

Where To Buy Kayaks

You can buy kayaks from big box stores, local outdoor companies, second-hand outdoor stores. Even company websites like Pelican or through Facebook marketplace, Offerup, Letgo. I’ve seen recreational kayaks as low as $100.00 and 2 kayaks for $300.00 total on Facebook marketplace—even touring kayaks can be $650.00.

Big box stores have affordable options, but they don’t allow you to demo the kayaks. Whereas most local outdoor companies and kayak stores do allow you to demo before purchasing. Googling ‘kayak stores near me’ is one way to find local places to purchase a kayak. 

Local outdoor companies around the Portland-metro area are…

  • Alder Creek Kayak & Canoe
  • Cascade Paddle Boards
  • Clackamas River Outfitters
  • Next Adventure Paddle Sports Center
  • Portland Kayak Company

Big box stores in the area…

  • Big 5
  • Cabela’s
  • Costco
  • Dick’s
  • REI
  • Sportsman’s Warehouse
  • Walmart
  • West Marine

Local places to rent kayaks…

SW Washington –

  • Lacamas Lak
  • Ridgefield Kayak Rentals LLC

Portland –

  • Alder Creek Kayak & Canoe
  • Next Adventure Paddle Sports Center
  • Portland Kayak Company

Other areas in Oregon –

  • eNRG Kayaking – Oregon City
  • Hood River SUP & Kayak – Hood River
  • Gorge Paddling Center – Hood River
  • Kayaking in Seaside – Seaside

Paddles

Most recreational kayaks I’ve come across include paddles, but I do know that some don’t. Just like with most outdoor gear, the correct size can make the activity easier and more fun – a kayak paddle is no different.

Length

  • Wider kayaks need longer paddles.
  • Taller people need longer paddles.
  • Kayakers with a higher stroke angle may prefer shorter paddles.
  • Kayakers with a lower stroke angle may prefer longer paddles.

Paddle Blade

Paddle blade = paddles at the ends of the shaft, part that goes into the water.

The material used to make the blade can make a difference.

  • Plastic / Nylon: heaviest of the blades, lowest-priced blades, good choice for beginners, hard to snap in half.
  • Fiberglass: lighter than plastic/nylon blades, strong durability, efficient performance in the water.
  • Carbon Fiber: lightest of the blades, very stiff, helps with energy transfer as you paddle.

While the design of the blade can have an effect on performance.

  • Smaller blade: easier to paddle for longer.
  • Longer blade: more powerful, but heavier.

Also consider the symmetry of the paddle blades.

  • Asymmetrical blade: top edge of blade is longer than the bottom, most common shape, greater surface area for a more efficient paddle.
  • Symmetrical blade: same shape on top and bottom of blade, popular with beginners because it it can held in any direction.

The difference between dihedral and spoon paddle blades are…

  • Dihedral blade: ridge runs across the center of the blade, helps with water flow over the surface of the blade for a more comfortable paddle.
  • Spoon blade: scoop water, provide more power, but can flutter with incorrect paddling.

Shaft

Just like with the paddle blade, the material used also makes a difference. Tip: smaller hands tend to do better with smaller shafts.

Shaft = area between the 2 paddles that you grab when paddling.

  • Aluminum: budget-friendly option, durable, but can become hot or cold depending on the weather. Gloves help on cold days.
  • Carbon and fiberglass: durable and lighter than aluminum, less temperature sensitive. Lightweight shafts can be helpful with paddling for longer durations and distances.

Most paddles are made with straight shafts, but some are bent which helps with wrist issues. Sometimes there is a difference in the diameter of shaft.

Some shafts have adjustability features to change the length. Which helps if you are sharing the kayak with someone or want to switch between feathered or matched paddles.

  • Matched paddle = blades aligned with each other.
  • Feathered paddle = blades on different planes, helps increase speed.
  • Some paddles do not have blades, which is ok!

*We found feathered paddles at Next Adventure Paddle Sports Center on sale for $30.00.

If you are ready to get out on the water, check out my Kayaking 101 and Kayak Launch Spots blog posts! You’ll read all about what you need to know to get started, how to pack your kayak, download a free checklist, and 20+ spots to launch from around the Portland-metro area—including 32 miles of waterways in Vancouver, Washington.

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