To best enjoy kayaking, you should take the time to find a boat that fits your frame, your paddling style and the conditions you most want to paddle. There is no one-size-fits-all kayak and no one kayak can do it all. For this reason, many avid paddlers own several different boats to suit a variety of water conditions. If you are just getting started in the sport, choose a boat suited to the type of kayaking you hope to learn.
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Kayaks come in three basic types: recreational or fishing, sea or touring and whitewater. Whitewater kayaks also come in several different types, including river runner, creek boat and play boat. Whitewater boats are the shortest of the three major types, ranging in size from 5 to 8 feet long. Touring kayaks can be more than 20 feet long and recreational boats fall in between at 9 to 15 feet. All three types are available with the sit-on-top alternative to the traditional, enclosed cockpit.
Touring kayaks and recreational kayaks do not flip easily, and they are easy to paddle in a straight line. This makes them perfect for long stretches of flat or deep water and for carrying gear. The long, narrow structure of the touring kayak is especially designed to slice quickly and efficiently through waves, but this design also makes them difficult to turn. This means a touring kayak may not be the best choice for fishing, which often requires the ability to maneuver into promising fishing holes.
Whitewater kayaks are designed to turn quickly and to help the paddler maneuver through unpredictable, fast-moving and rocky waterways. The design features that make these moves possible also make the boat tip and rotate easily, which may make some newcomers uncomfortable. These boats are also sluggish and difficult to paddle on flatwater, which can make calm sections between rapids far less enjoyable.
If you are looking to paddle around a lake or go for a leisurely paddle down a lazy river, with or without fishing, then a recreational kayak is probably your best choice. If you want to go on multi-day river or sea adventures and need to pack plenty of gear, a sea or touring kayak is probably for you. If you would like to try running rapids, technical maneuvers or river rodeo tricks, you should buy a whitewater boat.
Once you decide on the type of kayak, you still have to find one that fits your frame. Recreational boats have large, wide cockpits and can be adjusted to fit most people. Touring kayaks are narrower, and some people may have to shop around to find one that's comfortable. For a whitewater kayak, you want a fairly snug fit. Most can be adjusted with hip pads and foam to fit thin people, but tall, short, large or wide-hipped people may have to look a little harder to find a boat that suits them.
To shop for a kayak, talk to people who actually paddle. Large sporting goods stores may not have the staff expertise or a wide enough selection to get you into the right boat. If at all possible, demo a boat before purchasing it. Many outfitters host large sales several times a year and will allow you to demo several boats, both used and new. You could also check online sites and paddling message boards for used boats in your area.
The American Canoe Association recommends kayaking classes for all beginners, even if it is just a one-day or three-day lesson. Classes will help you improve your skills more quickly and more safely than learning from trial and error. Kayak classes will also teach you what you need to know about kayak safety and gear.