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The 4 Types of Kayaks: A beginning paddler’s guide

No matter which type of kayak you end up with, you’re sure to enjoy the unique freedom and adventure that has made kayaking one of America’s favorite pastimes. We’ll show you the best kayak for beginners, experts and everyone in between. Keep reading for a rundown on the 4 main types to see which is right for you.

The feeling of gliding through the open water – sometimes peacefully, sometimes propelled by the full force of nature – is one of the many things that have experienced paddlers and newbies alike flocking to kayak retailers in record numbers.

Kayaking is growing in popularity, with an estimated 16.4 million Americans participating in kayaking in some form during 2018. And these aren’t all just fairweather fans – the average kayaker goes on seven kayak outings per year.

If you’ve got your eye on a lightweight adventure-vessel of your own, you’re in the right place. In this article, we’ll review the four different types of kayaks to help find the right one for you, plus some advice for shipping your boat of choice.

What are the two categories of kayaks?

There are two categories of kayaks; sit-on-top kayaks and sit-in kayaks. Categories indicate the position of the paddler, while types more specifically identify each kayak’s use and best environment.

Sit-on-top Kayaks
For most beginners and casual kayakers, sit-on-top kayaks are the preferable choice. In general, these kayaks are easy to get in and out of, stable and comfortable. Because you’re sitting just above the water, you should expect to get at least a little wet while paddling in a sit-on-top kayak.

Sit-in Kayaks
These kayaks are generally built for longer distance paddling. They’re generally straight, long and contain a covered area for cargo. Sit-in kayaks can be better than sit-on-top ones in rough water because they’re more efficient to paddle and give you greater control.
Within the two categories, there are 4 main types of kayaks.

The 4 Different Types of Kayaks

1. Recreational (Sit-in)

type of kayak recreational
Recreational boats are some of the most common types of kayak, thanks to their versatility and stability. Sometimes, they’re categorized more generally simply as “sit-on-top kayaks.” They’re great for beginners thanks to their wide girth and closed cockpit.

There are many variations of recreational kayaks, such as those built for fishing. Some come with fishing rod holders, but those that don’t can usually be outfitted if fishing is a priority. If you’re looking for a refreshing dip, these kayaks allow easy entry and exit both in and out of the water.

For the casual kayaker, a recreational kayak offers stability, affordability and plenty of fun.

2. Touring (Sit-in)
type of kayak touring

If you’re more serious about your paddling, a touring kayak may fit the bill. They’re usually more narrow and longer than recreational kayaks – at least 12 feet. This makes them much more capable of smoothly cutting through the water.

Touring kayaks have a small cockpit opening and thigh braces to help with stability and control. Traditional Touring kayaks are built for long-distance paddling and have a rudder for smoother, more precise control. They can be cumbersome and difficult to transport and store, so a possible alternative is a day touring kayak.

Day touring kayaks are typically shorter than touring kayaks, making them easier to transport and store, while offering a similarly smooth ride. For paddlers hoping for something a little more advanced than a beginner’s boat, the day touring kayak may be a great balance between the convenience of a recreational and the performance of a touring kayak.

3. Inflatable 

inflatable boat
If you’re wild about paddling, but don’t have the storage space to match, you can always consider an inflatable kayak. The recreational versions of inflatable kayaks are intended to be used pretty casually – think: a fun day hopping in and out of the kayak with the family near the shore and not much more. Inflatable recreational kayaks aren’t especially strong or reliable, so be sure to understand what you’re getting if you go this route.

Inflatable whitewater kayaks, however, are quite robust and offer some uniquely appealing features. For paddlers hoping to dip their toes in the excitement of whitewater, an inflatable boat is an easy step up that comes with the benefit of a seriously compact size for storage. Typically, inflatable whitewater kayaks are roomy, stable and affordable.

4. Whitewater

When you picture the really exciting, fast-paced kind of kayaking you see on postcards, you’re probably thinking of whitewater kayaking. These short, flat-fronted boats are built to take on rapids, making them some of the most stable kayak types on the water.

You might find that whitewater kayaks could really be a class of their own – there are many types, specially made for specific conditions or activities.

If you’ve decided you’re ready for a whitewater kayak, it’s worth visiting a shop with an experienced paddler who can give suggestions based on exactly what you want to do with your kayak.

Now that you know the four types of kayaks by name, you’re well on your way. Whether you decide on a recreational kayak for a breezy day out, or are ready to dive into the adventure of whitewater, there’s a perfect kayak out there for you. With a little preparation, a paddle (or, pedals), and a lot of enthusiasm you’ll be set to start cruising through the water.

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