The 8 Best Kayaks (and What to Know Before You Buy)

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Learn how to find the best kayak for your experience level, budget and style.
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Kayaking is the ultimate choose-your-own-adventure sport. Heading out on the water in a kayak can be serene and peaceful, fun and daring or anything in between.

But choosing a kayak can be overwhelming, particularly if you don't know what to look for. Below, you'll find expert tips for selecting the perfect one for you, no matter your budget, aspirations or experience level.

Start exploring with these eight best kayaks of 2021.

1. Best Overall Kayak: Delta 14

The best kayaks are versatile, lightweight and easy to handle. Enter: the Delta 14, which offers an expert blend of stability and speed. Though it weighs just 45 pounds, this sea-touring kayak has a 340-pound weight capacity, 19 gallons of bow dry storage and 34 gallons of stern dry storage.

Delta's multi-position Contour II seat system offers supreme comfort and adjustability, while the Press-Lock Hatch System keeps all your essentials safe and dry no matter what conditions you encounter.

Buy it​:OldCreel.com; ​​Price​:​ $2,175

2. Best Inflatable Kayak: Advanced Elements AdvancedFrame Sport Kayak

This recreational, flatwater pick from Advanced Elements takes the cake when it comes to inflatable kayaks. It's lightweight at just 26 pounds, but sturdy enough to support up to 250 pounds.

With its roomy cockpit, aluminum rib-frame design and three durable layers of material for puncture resistance, this kayak is ideal for recreational and day touring outings.

Buy it​:DicksSportingGoods.com; ​​Price​: ​$539.99

3. Best Fishing Kayak: Native Watercraft Titan Propel 12

If you're going to spend all day on the water fishing, you might as well do it in comfort with the Titan Propel 12 from Native Watercraft. This recreational fishing kayak features convenient foot pedals so you can go farther faster.

The 12 is a slightly smaller version of Native Watercraft's popular 13.5 model, which makes this flatwater kayak easier to transport but still roomy enough for a full day on the water. It's stable, comfortable and has all the bells and whistles you need for a successful day of fishing.

Buy it​:FishUSA.com; ​​Price​:​ $2,799

4. Best Sit-on-Top Kayak: Wilderness Systems Tarpon 120

For the ultimate sit-on-top kayaking experience, the Tarpon 120 from Wilderness Systems really delivers. This recreational flatwater kayak is stable, speedy and easy to maneuver, thanks to its adjustable Phase 3 AirPro seating system.

It also features a DryTec Case for keeping your valuables safe and dry and tons of cool add-ons, like a magnetic water-bottle holder. This roomy model is dog-friendly and offers plenty of rear storage.

Buy it​:Amazon; ​​Price​:​ $999

5. Best Tandem Kayak: Ocean Kayak Malibu Two XL

This two-person tandem kayak is awesome for families, couples and dog lovers — it's also light enough to be paddled solo. The Malibu Two XL from Ocean Kayak weighs 68 pounds and can hold up to 500 pounds of paddlers and gear.

It's made from a durable single-layer polyethylene and features handy molded-in seat wells and side carrying handles. This recreational kayak is designed for lakes and other easy-going bodies of water.

Buy it​:BackCountry.com; ​​Price​:​ $949.99

6. Best Kayak for Beginners: Intex Challenger K1

The best beginner kayaks offer an affordable price point and easy setup. The Challenger K1 from Intex definitely fits the bill, thanks to its entry-level price and seamless assembly, which takes just a few minutes.

This sporty inflatable kayak is made from long-lasting vinyl and built for one adult. You can easily adjust the inflatable seat and backrest of this flatwater recreational kayak for maximum comfort.

Buy it​:Walmart.com; ​​Price​:​ $134.37

7. Best Budget Kayak: Pelican Argo 100X

This recreational, flatwater kayak won't break the bank, but it doesn't skimp on any of the core kayak features, either. The Argo 100X from Pelican is just 36 pounds, which makes it easy to carry to the water and maneuver.

The 10-foot length and 275-pound weight capacity help make this model stable, even for beginner paddlers. The adjustable Ergoform padded backrest is comfy for long days on the water, too.

Buy it​:WestMarine.com; ​​Price​:​ $299.99

8. Best Kayak for Kids: Old Town Heron Junior

For little ones just starting out with kayaking, you can't beat the Heron Junior from Old Town. It has a lightweight build and padded kid-sized seat. Its Tag Along system lets you easily tow your kiddo with you when they need a break from paddling.

This recreational kayak works well on both flat water and gentle rivers.

Buy it​:BackCountry.com; ​​Price​:​ $429.99

Best Kayak Brands

Though there's no one-size-fits-all approach to buying a kayak, you really can't go wrong when you go with one of these best kayak brands:

  • Old Town
  • Lifetime
  • Delta Kayaks
  • Ocean Kayak
  • Sea Eagle
  • Pelican International
  • Sun Dolphin
  • Advanced Elements
  • Vibe Kayaks
  • Wilderness Systems
  • Intex
  • Hobie

How to Pick the Right Kayak for You

When shopping for kayaks, first think through exactly how you want to use your kayak.

Flatwater vs. River vs. Sea Kayaks

Flatwater Kayaks​: If you're aiming to paddle on a smooth lake or a body of water that doesn't have a lot of waves or wind, consider a flatwater kayak. These vessels are meant for recreation, so they're stable, comfortable and not likely to tip over.

"They're built to relax and be comfortable but not really high performance in any sense — they're not really fast or maneuverable," says Brandon Slate of Rocky Mountain Outdoor Center in Buena Vista, Colorado.

River Kayaks​: River kayaks come in an array of styles and subcategories but, generally speaking, they're designed for fast-moving rivers, including rapids. River kayaks are designed to be sturdy and responsive for navigating quick turns and avoiding obstacles while traveling downstream.

Sea Kayaks​: If you live near a coast or you're planning a road trip to the ocean, consider a sea kayak. These vessels tend to be longer and narrower than flatwater and river kayaks, and they also offer more storage space. Because of their size and sturdy construction (which can withstand ocean winds and currents), they tend to be more difficult to transport. Sea kayaking requires more expertise, so these vessels are really intended for more advanced paddlers.

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Sit-In vs. Sit-on-Top Kayaks

Sit-In Kayaks​: These traditional kayaks have a comfy hole for you to sit inside. They take slightly more effort to get in and out of, but they're ideal for longer, more adventurous trips. Since your body is touching more of the kayak, you have more control over the vessel, making them better suited for rougher waters.

Sit-on-Top Kayaks​: With these kayaks, you'll sit up on top rather than down in a hole. They're easy to get onto and off of, which makes them fitting for family lake days or playing around on smooth rivers. Sit-on-top kayaks are also usually the preferred choice for fishermen and ideal for anyone who feels confined in tight spaces. Just know they tend to be a bit heavier than sit-in kayaks.

Recreational vs. Touring Kayaks

Recreational Kayaks​: As the name suggests, recreational kayaks are meant for fun, short stints on the water. Generally speaking, they've got less storage than touring kayaks, but they also tend to be affordable and easy to maneuver.

Touring Kayaks​: Thinking of planning a multi-day river excursion? Then you'll want a touring kayak, which has more storage and offers greater control for rough water and currents. Touring kayaks also come with a higher price tag, too.

Additional Kayak Features to Consider

Pedals​: A standard kayak is meant to be propelled with a hand-held paddle, but some are also equipped with foot pedals. These can be great for longer trips or times when you want to have your hands free for other uses, such as fishing, birdwatching or taking photographs.

Storage​: If you're planning a longer tour, including overnights, you'll want to pay close attention to the amount and type of storage offered on the kayak. Some kayaks come with watertight hatches, while others simply offer room for you to stack your gear. Most kayaks are equipped with handy bungee cord storage at a bare minimum.

Rod​ ​Holders:​ If you're planning to fish from your kayak, you'll want to look for angler-specific features like rod holders (or the option to add them yourself).

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