Sea (or “touring”) kayaks are long, with enough room to stow camping gear; they’re best for leisurely exploring coastlines and large lakes. Whitewater kayaks, which are shorter and more maneuverable in turbulent water, are meant for more adventurous pursuits: river running, surfing and performing tricks.
Where to Begin
The main difference between a beginner and an expert kayak is stability. Learning to kayak is easier on beginner boats, which have high primary stability and don’t feel like they’re going to tip over at any minute. These slower vessels don’t handle well in rough water, however, and they’re difficult to roll back up if you capsize. Expert boats are harder to balance at first, especially if you’re trying to fish or take pictures while you float around. But their higher secondary stability makes them much easier to roll once you learn how.
Plastic or Glass?
With the exception of inflatable and folding models, most kayaks are made of plastic or fiberglass. Plastic is cheaper, tougher, heavier — and harder to repair. Fiberglass is just the opposite: more expensive, stiffer (faster), lighter and easier to fix.
Get the length you need. For long-distance paddling, longer kayaks are the way to go. They’re faster and easier to paddle and keep on course, plus they hold more gear. Shorter kayaks, which are lighter and easier to maneuver, excel on smaller waterways.
Find the best width. It’s easier to enter and exit a wide, stable kayak. Narrow boats tend to feel unstable, but they’re easier to keep straight (and roll back up if you capsize) and more efficient at moving through the water.
Take it out for a spin. Most specialty shops have demo days, but even if you have to rent, test-drive as many boats as you can. Look for a kayak that’s comfortable, speedy, maneuverable, stable and easy to “track,” or keep in a straight line. (Don’t forget that kayaks handle differently when unloaded!)
Get enough storage space for the trips you take. Generally, bigger boats have more cargo space. Check the size of the hatches to make sure you can get your gear in and out easily. If the storage space is on top, you’ll need a way to strap everything down securely.