Choosing a Kayak
There is no such thing as a "general purpose" kayak, which is why many die-hard paddlers own more than one. :) Each different type of kayak is tuned to perform well on a particular type of water and with a particular type of paddler, and it may not perform well under other conditions. Thus, this article attempts to describe the pros and cons of the various kayak designs, as well as the different styles of paddling, in order to assist beginners in determining which of these is right for them.
1. Where Do You Want to Paddle?
Flat water or ocean paddling only
Touring kayaks, which are typically 12-17' long, will provide the best flat water tracking (tracking = the tendency of the boat to go in a straight line as you paddle it), the best performance in windy conditions, and the best stability in deep ocean swells. However, the tendency of the boat to go in a straight line is precisely what you don't want when paddling a river or creek, particularly one with tight turns and/or swift-moving water. A touring kayak may be unsinkable like the Titanic, but it steers like the Titanic as well. Many models provide either a skeg (a vertical fin that drops down to improve tracking) or an actual rudder.
Combination of flat water, moving water, and moderate whitewater (Class II, shallow features)
Recreational kayaks, which are typically 9-12' long, are a good compromise between tracking in flat water and maneuverability in moving water. You probably wouldn't want to take a recreational kayak on the open ocean, nor down the Grand Canyon, but these boats are appropriate for most "tame" rivers and creeks, as well as any lake or estuary. Basically, any river in which it would be safe to tube or swim can be run in a recreational kayak. The lion's share of recreational kayaks are between 10 and 11 feet long, which is considered a good "middle-of-the-road" length.
Serious whitewater (Class III and above, deep features)
- You need a real whitewater boat with a good spray skirt to run these types of rivers. This would be necessary for running most rivers in the mountains, for running Central Texas rivers during big dam releases or rainfall events, or for surfing standing waves (see videos here: http://www.youtube.com/user/bajateam2.)
- Whitewater boats come in a variety of styles and are generally 6-9' in length. The style of boat is chosen based on the type of whitewater paddling you want to do (steep creeks, big rivers, or rodeo/freestyle.)
- Whitewater boats don't generally track well on flat water, since they are designed for rivers that have no flat water, but they are extremely maneuverable in rapids.
- You paddle a recreational kayak, but you wear a whitewater kayak. Paddling these boats is a different skill, as you use your whole body to steer the boat, not just your paddle. A skilled whitewater paddler will have no problem keeping a whitewater kayak straight on flat water, but beginners may find this frustrating at first.
- The key to the enjoyment of whitewater kayaking is developing a solid roll. Since rolling the boat is a non-intuitive thing to do, it generally requires formal instruction and a good bit of practice.
2. Choose the Right Boat for Your Size and/or Gear Requirements
- These hold the most gear, but they are harder to carry (both by hand, due to the additional weight, and on a car, due to the additional length.) A kayak cart is often necessary in order to move some of the bigger touring kayaks without the assistance of another paddler.
- Touring kayaks typically weigh in at 50-60 lbs. and can typically carry 250-350 lbs. (combined weight of paddler + gear.)
- Many (but not all) models of recreational kayaks have sufficient carrying capacity and storage for overnight trips.
- Some of the longer rec. boats, particularly the 12' models, have sufficient storage and can be outfitted for kayak fishing.
- Recreational kayaks typically weigh in at 40-50 lbs. and can typically carry 200-300 lbs. (combined weight of paddler + gear.)
- Each model of whitewater boat typically comes in different sizes to fit the paddler's height and weight.
- Creek boats or large river runners (see below) can be outfitted with special dry bags to allow them to be used on overnight trips, but in general, whitewater boats are designed to perform best within narrow weight ranges, so any kayakpacking that you do with one will need to be ultra-lightweight.
- Playboats typically do not have enough capacity for overnight trips.
- Is the kayak too big for your vehicle? Touring kayaks may require additional tie-downs (to the hood and/or the bumper) in order to haul them safely on a roof rack. Whitewater boats can usually be hauled in the back of a pickup or SUV (and sometimes even the trunk of a sedan, if the back seats fold down.) Recreational kayaks can generally be carried on a roof rack without using hood or bumper tie-downs, and these boats can generally be carried in the back of a pickup (but not most SUVs.)
- Is the kayak too big for you to lift by yourself? It's never a good idea to paddle alone, but many times you may need to load or unload your boat by yourself.
- If you are "vertically-challenged", then you will have more trouble controlling a longer boat, because your arms simply don't afford you as much leverage as those of a taller person (shorter people have to use shorter paddles.)
- How big is your garage?
- The specifications for recreational kayaks often list a "maximum carrying capacity". This is the amount of combined weight (paddler + gear) that the manufacturer thinks the boat can safely carry. Determining the maximum carrying capacity is not an exact science, however, so realistically, you want to stay well below this threshold. The closer you get to overloading the boat, the more unstable it will become. Often, the only way to truly determine whether a kayak will hold your weight is to paddle it.
- Whitewater kayaks are often designed for a specific weight range, and it's best to stay near the middle of this range if possible. Whitewater kayaks can lose stability if overloaded and performance if underloaded.
3. Types of Recreational Kayaks
Recreational kayaks come in two basic varieties: sit-on-top (SOT) and sit-inside. The general advantages and disadvantages of these are as follows:
- SOT boats are generally less intimidating to beginners, because you will be thrown clear if the kayak flips. For this same reason, however, SOT kayaks have a built-in limitation as to the level of whitewater they can safely do. Not that you would want to take any recreational kayak down the Grand Canyon, but you will be able to negotiate larger rapids with a sit-inside rec. boat (and a good spray skirt) than you would with a SOT boat, all else being equal.
- SOT boats are typically self-bailing. If you swamp or flip the boat, the cockpit will automatically drain itself. Thus, if you flip a self-bailing SOT boat, you can easily get back into the boat in the middle of the water ("wet entry"). If you flip a sit-inside boat far from shore, then you would have to either roll the boat (assuming you were wearing a spray skirt), do a self rescue, or perform a T-rescue or X-rescue with another paddler to empty the water from the cockpit.
- SOT kayaks have lesser gear requirements. With a sit-inside boat, you will need to purchase a spray skirt and helmet if you want to do much whitewater with it, or a spray skirt and a bilge pump if you plan to take it on open water. The spray skirt is necessary because, otherwise, you would have to drain your cockpit after almost every rapid or wave. The helmet is necessary because, when wearing a spray skirt, you will tend to remain attached to the boat for a few seconds if you flip. If you want to do moderate whitewater in a SOT kayak, then the only additional gear you really need is a pair of thigh straps (these help you to stabilize the boat as you cross strong eddy lines, etc.)
- SOT kayaks are cooler in the summer, since your legs are exposed to the air and you are constantly splashing water on them with the paddle. For the same reason, however, you really need a full-body wetsuit or drysuit in order to paddle one in cold weather or cold water. Personally, I find that the only time I really get hot in my sit-inside boats is on flat sections of river, so I just pop the skirt for those sections and put it back on again before entering a rapid.
- Sit-inside kayaks are generally faster, or rather, they are easier to paddle quickly.
What About Tandems?
The target market for tandem kayaks seems to be new couples who are still in that lovey-dovey phase in which they can't stand being more than 10 feet away from each other, even on the water. The problem is, however, that after trying to paddle a tandem kayak down a moving river, the couple usually finds that the honeymoon is over. I am convinced that tandem kayaks are responsible for 80% of divorces in America (and canoes are responsible for at least another 10%.) If you want to find out what your partner is made of, this is a good way to do it. If, on the other hand, you're interested in getting down the river safely, quickly, and with minimal drama, a tandem kayak is not what you want. If you want to buy a tandem kayak so you can enjoy a sunset paddle on the lake with your sweetie, knock yourself out. Just understand that the lake is about the only place where you'll enjoy that kayak.
Tandem kayaks, simply because of their length, are already at a disadvantage for maneuverability and will require generally more skill to turn than a solo kayak. Additionally, tandems require both paddlers to be coordinated and to have a similar understanding of the basic paddling strokes and when to use them. Two beginners "lily-dipping" their paddles, like most beginners do, is a recipe for a primarily diagonal or horizontal course down the river. Another drawback of tandem kayaks is that one partner can't use the boat if the other partner isn't available.
4. Types of Whitewater Kayaks
There are four basic types of whitewater kayaks:
Playboats are the sports cars of the whitewater highway. They are, in general, the smallest whitewater boats, both in terms of length and volume. Playboats are lightweight, extremely maneuverable and agile, and extremely responsive to changes in current, which makes them ideal for surfing standing waves and doing rodeo/freestyle (vertical) tricks. However, you will really "feel the road" in a playboat. Playboats displace less water than other whitewater boats, and thus they will get caught by holes and tossed by waves that a larger boat would plow right through. Pure playboats (as opposed to river running playboats-- see below) are not recommended for beginners.
- Creek Boats
These are the whitewater equivalent of jeeps. Creek boats are designed for running steep creeks in the mountains, which can often contain unavoidable recirculating hydraulics. Thus, creek boats are longer and more streamlined than other whitewater boats (which gives them additional speed) and have a larger volume (which gives them additional buoyancy.) Both of these become critical when trying to escape the churn of a big waterfall or pourover. The added length also makes creek boats easier to paddle in flat water than other types of whitewater boats, and the large volume allows them to carry more gear. However, creek boats are often designed with a "rocker" hull, so they provide less primary stability than a flat-bottomed boat (translation: to a beginner, they will feel "tippy".) And, like Charlie, they don't surf.
- River Runners
These are the sedans of the whitewater world. A river runner is a mid-sized whitewater boat that has sufficient volume to punch through (or ride on top of) waves, holes, and other big features on rivers. Some models, called "river-running playboats", are designed with a hull that can surf or throw tricks like a playboat. These are excellent choices for beginners who want to learn how to surf but don't want to get tossed around too much. However, if your goal is to do vertical tricks like cartwheels and such, a river-running playboat will generally require bigger whitewater features in order to execute those maneuvers, whereas a true playboat can get vertical almost anywhere. "Pure river runners" are designed solely to run rivers, and "river-running creek boats" allow the paddler to run rivers and dabble in steep creeking as well. Pure river runners or river-running creek boats are similar in size to creek boats, but they generally have more primary stability. Thus, both types of boats are also excellent choices for beginners or for those wanting a good all-around whitewater boat that can hold extra gear.
Increasingly, whitewater kayak manufacturers are selling 9-10' hybrid whitewater kayaks to compete with the recreational market. On the whitewater highway, these would be like luxury SUVs with turbo-charged engines. Hybrid whitewater boats typically have a hull that is designed for maneuvering in whitewater, but most also include a drop skeg that makes them track well in flat water-- sort of the kayak equivalent of shift-on-the-fly 4-wheel-drive. Almost all of them have a large storage compartment behind the seat, which can accommodate overnight gear. Given the large size of these boats, they are not necessarily the best choice for whitewater that requires very tight turns. Beginners, in particular, may find them difficult to steer in swift current. However, an experienced paddler can take one of these boats into some serious whitewater, and to be clear, although they may be more difficult to steer in whitewater than a "regular" whitewater kayak, they will still steer much more easily than a recreational kayak. You can learn to roll a hybrid just like any other whitewater boat (although it's generally best to learn how to roll a smaller boat first.)
What About Inflatables?
The lure of a boat that you can deflate and shove into your trunk may seem irresistable, but there are some things to bear in mind when looking at inflatable kayaks:
- Inflatables require deep water in order to operate. If the rivers in your part of the world run shallow most of the time, like the ones in Central Texas do, then an inflatable is not a good choice. Whereas a hard-shell kayak can skate over shallow, rocky rapids, an inflatable would stop cold (inflatables sit deeper in the water, in general, than hard-shell kayaks.)
- Inflatables are less durable than hard-shell boats and are susceptible to tears from rocks and vegetation.
- Inflatables are hard to steer. They steer like a raft, which makes them a bad choice unless you're running really big, fast-moving water with a nice, wide channel. Inflatables do not steer well at all on flat water.
- Inflatables behave like a big sail in even a modest breeze.
- A good inflatable is typically more expensive than a good whitewater or recreational kayak.
- It takes forever to inflate/deflate them, which somewhat cuts into the advantage of having a kayak that you can shove into your trunk.
5. What About SUP?
Get a real boat, you hippie!
6. Try Before You Buy
Take it from a guy who went through three boats before settling on the "right" one-- don't jump into the decision. If you live in an area in which there are a lot of places to paddle, then chances are that there is at least one club or other organization that can introduce you to the sport and maybe even lend you a boat. Additionally, most stores that sell kayaks (including REI) also rent them.
For those in the Central Texas area:
- You can rent recreational kayaks from REI's North Austin and Round Rock stores or Austin Canoe & Kayak for the weekend and take them out on the lake or on river trips to see how they perform. REI has discounted rental rates for members. The ACK location in San Marcos generally has more whitewater-friendly models available to rent, but because of liability concerns, very few outfitters in the U.S. (and none in Texas) will rent "true" whitewater kayaks.
- Join one or more of the paddling Meetups in Central Texas, such as Austin Area Paddlers and Central Texas River Runners. These groups do quite a few recreational river trips during the year, some of which contain moderate whitewater. For most of these trips, on-site kayak rentals are not available, so if you are still deciding on a boat, you will usually have to rent off-site and bring it to the river.
- There are several outfitters along the Guadalupe River that provide on-site kayak rentals and shuttle service. Bergheim Campground runs trips on several stretches of the Upper Guadalupe between F.M. 474 and Guadalupe River State Park. Guadalupe Canoe Livery runs trips on several stretches between Guadalupe River State Park and Rebecca Creek Crossing. Although these stretches of river do not generally contain rapids more difficult than Class II (U.S. 281 to Rebecca Creek Crossing is the most difficult stretch, with at least one rapid that is more like Class II+ or III- at certain levels), it is still strongly recommended that beginners run the river with a more experienced paddler. Generally, you need between 200 and 1000 cfs (cubic feet per second) of flow to do a recreational whitewater trip on the Upper Guad, and in recent years, that has been a rare occurrence.
- San Marcos is home to Rio Vista Falls, a series of artificial standing waves on the spring-fed San Marcos River that are an ideal place to learn surfing, rolling in current, eddy turns, and other whitewater skills.
- The semi-annual Austin Canoe & Kayak Demo Days gives paddlers a chance to try out various recreational and hybrid whitewater boats. There is one of these events in Austin, San Marcos, and Houston.
7. Boat Recommendations
These recommendations are geared toward people who want to paddle all of the different kinds of water that Central Texas has to offer:
Hybrid Whitewater Kayaks
- LiquidLogic Remix XP10 (CKS review #1 and review #2)
When you look at the Remix, you see a boat that looks like a whitewater boat, but with its 10' length and drop skeg, this boat would be as comfortable on Town Lake as on the Lower Guad during a big dam release. All of that, and storage too. This is about as close to a "general-purpose" kayak as you can get. Smaller paddlers may want to consider the Remix XP9. Anyone who thinks that these boats can't do "serious" whitewater should read this.
- Pyranha Fusion RT (CKS review)
The Fusion RT is similar to the LiquidLogic Remix XP, and the specs for the "Large" model compare fairly closely to the XP10 (the Large Fusion RT is 1" narrower, 1 pound lighter, and displaces 9 fewer gallons.) The "Small" Fusion RT is 5" longer, 1" narrower, 5 pounds lighter, and displaces 7 fewer gallons than the Remix XP9. However, the lighter weight comes at a price, which is the use of thinner plastic. Furthermore, the Fusion RT costs about $50 less than the Remix XP, but this comes at the price of less plush outfitting. Due to being narrower and lower-volume, experienced paddlers will likely find the Fusion RT to be faster and easier to steer than the Remix XP, but beginners may find it to be less stable. The Fusion RT comes in a "Medium" (80-gallon) size, which is a great compromise for larger paddlers who want to carry some gear but who don't want to paddle a 100-gallon boat. However, in general, the carrying capacity of a Fusion RT is not going to be as large as that of an equivalent Remix XP (160 vs. 220 lbs. for the small model, and 250 vs. 300 lbs. for the large.) Two distinct advantages of the Fusion RT: (1) its cockpit will accept a standard XL spray skirt, whereas the XP10 requires a special "3XL" size that is hard to find, and (2) the rear hatch on the Fusion RT has a better design.
- Jackson Karma Traverse (walk-through video)
Jackson took the Karma, which is widely regarded as a bomber river-running creek boat, elongated it, and added a hatch and a skeg to make a new hybrid whitewater boat to compete with the LL XP9/XP10. There aren't many reviews yet, since the boat is so new, but the specs and pictures suggest a hybrid that is more tilted toward the whitewater side than the recreational side. The Karma Traverse has the same prominent rocker as the Karma, which (speaking from experience with the Karma) will make it easy to turn in rapids but difficult to keep straight on flat water (without the skeg, that is.) Additionally, it lacks the hull channels that improve the flat-water tracking of the XP and the Fusion RT. On the other hand, this boat has the same outfitting as a Karma, so it is more of a true whitewater boat and should be capable of running bigger, more technical water than the other hybrids listed here.
- Dagger Axis 10.5 (CKS review)
The Axis is Dagger's answer to the hybrid whitewater kayak, but it leans more toward the recreational side of the fence. It has a fairly pronounced keel that will make it more difficult to maneuver in whitewater, and it lacks the more aggressive outfitting of the Remix and the Fusion. Still, however, with a good spray skirt, you could run some reasonably big water with this boat, and, like the Remix, it has a drop skeg for flat water and plenty of storage space for overnight trips. It is also less expensive than the Remix or the Fusion.
- Wilderness Systems Tarpon 100
One of the biggest pluses of the Tarpon is that the deep, recessed storage area in the stern is exactly the right size for a mini cooler. I call it the "beer boat" for this reason. The same rear storage area can also hold a large dry bag which, when combined with the smaller storage areas in the hull, gives the Tarpon a surprising amount of cargo capacity for its size. The keel makes it somewhat slow to maneuver in swift current, but it is definitely possible (although not ideal) to take this boat on some medium-sized Class II rivers. Wilderness Systems also sells a version of the Tarpon 100 (the Tarpon 100 Angler) that is designed for paddlers who want to do occasional kayak fishing.
Whitewater boats are very much a personal choice, and there are few generalizations that can be made about what model is the right boat for you. I can, however, speak to my personal experience. I personally learned how to paddle in a Jackson Fun series, a river-running playboat. Although you wouldn't want to take it on a steep Class IV or V creek in the mountains, there are very few rivers that this boat can't run. People take Funs on the Ottawa, which is one of the biggest rivers (if not the biggest) in North America. The Fun series also surfs like a champ. River-running playboats are, in general, great boats for beginners who are looking to get into serious whitewater and want a boat that is forgiving but that they won't outgrow. However, if you are looking to own only one boat that you can take on whitewater, on placid rivers, on lakes, on overnight trips, etc., this isn't it. Also, there is a limit to the type of playboating you can do in a river-running playboat. They work great for surfing large waves and holes on rivers, and you can get them vertical if you have a big enough whitewater feature, but in general, they are less than ideal for playing in small features (such as at Rio Vista Whitewater Park in Central Texas.)
For many years, my second boat was a 2006 Jackson Hero series. I used the Hero whenever I wanted to paddle big, crazy water (particularly anything unfamiliar), but on most Class II-III stuff, the Hero just wasn't as fun as the Fun. It was like driving a jeep on the Autobahn. The older Heroes like mine (pre-2008) were very long and had sharply-pointed bows and sterns, which gave them exceptional speed (for a whitewater boat) and a hint of flat water tracking. Thus, I used this boat on the rare occasions that I paddled flat water or non-whitewater rivers. The Zen is probably the closest equivalent in Jackson's current fleet. Jackson no longer sells the Hero (it was obsoleted by the Karma), but if you come across a used one, I personally don't recommend it. In 2008, the Hero was redesigned with a shorter, more high-volume hull, which made it more stable but also more difficult to steer, more difficult to paddle in flat water, and slower than the older Heroes or the Fun Runner (also now discontinued) or the Zen.
The boats I own now are a 2010 Jackson Star series (a true playboat) and a 2013 Jackson Karma (a creek boat.) These are more advanced, fit-for-purpose boats. The 2010 Super Star, which is now my go-to boat for Texas paddling, was basically a shortened 4 Fun with a square stern. It is higher-volume than the '06 4 Fun I used to paddle. If you have enough experience to be able to control such a short boat in current, then they can be fun boats for river running (basically, paddling a playboat on a river adds an additional degree of difficulty.) I would not generally want to run anything more than Class III in a true playboat, however. The Karma is Jackson's modern answer to a river-running creek boat, and despite being a very high-volume boat, the Karma is exceptionally nimble and maneuverable and easy to roll. It also has enough room behind the seat and in front of the foot blocks to store gear for overnight trips. I have personally self-supported for 4 days in this boat, using ultra-lightweight backpacking gear and four large Wildwasser Overnighter tapered dry bags (unfortunately discontinued.)
While we're on the subject of high volume, some people recommend big, high-volume boats for beginners. Personally, I don't, as a general rule. They can be good for learning certain skills, such as rolling, because high-volume boats can generally only be rolled or controlled successfully using the correct technique (that is, they aren't forgiving of bad habits.) However, that same aspect makes them frustrating boats for beginners to paddle on real rivers. I speak from experience on this. I didn't really start to learn whitewater paddling in earnest until I bought my river-running playboat, and it was largely because the maneuverability of that boat, as well as the ease in rolling it, gave me additional confidence. I recommend river-running playboats for beginner whitewater paddlers, because you can basically learn every whitewater skill using the same boat. If you decide later on that you want to specialize in playboating or river running or creeking, then you can buy a more fit-for-purpose boat. Like I said, most of us own more than one. :)