Beginner kayak for calm lakes

I want to start kayaking and wanted to hear if my choice makes sense.

Location: Madison, WI with 4 connected calm lakes (and possible other nearby waters)
Experience: very little with an 8’ paddle kayak on vacation
Local market: not many good used choices
Type of kayaking: only recreational (no fishing), exploring the wider water network, NO overnight or camping, getting wet occasionally is not bad (typically warm here)
Frequency: maybe weekly in summer?
Car: Honda CRV with the roof rails, but no roof rack (seems easy to add?)
Other sport: bicycling (fatbike, tours etc.)
Timeline: now, or wait over next winter depending on actual availability
Purchase type: don’t mind online, REI member (10% discount)
Quality requirement: should be OK for the purpose and have reasonably priced spare parts for parts that typically need replacement.
Me: male, mid-40s, 5’-11" @ 175#
Storage: have garage with other crap in, but can manage to squeeze a kayak in

I saw pedal kayaks and like the idea of more speed and alternating between legs and arms. So I thought I either get a used cheap used paddle-only kayak, or a pedal kayak. For long distance exploring the really may be useful.

I researched the propel vs. MirageDrive. For non-fishing (need to pedal forth and back without hands etc.), the mirage seems a bit better: less damage with kick-up fins and seems a bit more efficient and less susceptible to get entangled in plants. I can totally see myself drifting over shallower water and hitting the ground or logs.

I found the Mirage Passport 10.5 . I realize this is an expensive kayak for a beginner. But I’m talking myself into needing the pedal thing for more speed and endurance. I’m also planning to keep it long and think if I like it better and it works better, I use it more.

I realize I still need to buy the following:

  • wet-sack to keep my small supplies and electronics dry
  • life vest
  • one of those dollies to roll the kayak from the car to water (not sure, if needed - our landings can be accessed by car)
  • roof rack / straps

I also looked at the Oru folding kayaks and inflatable kayaks (Hobies also has inflatable version of the Mirage kayak). but figured they are less stable, possible less streamlined. Obviously not needing a roof rack and storage would be nice, but if they ruin my actual kayaking experience, I rather deal with a solid kayak. In case of the Hobie the inflatable version seems much more expensive and a roof rack seems cheap(ish).


  • Am I on the right path or am I missing obvious flaws with this plan, or am I missing better options?
  • Is the pedal mechanism really as great as it looks?
  • any other things I need to buy? (the Hobie seems to come with paddle)
  • should I look at a propeller instead?
  • if the pedal-fins are the best, is Hobie the best since they invented them (or made them commercial first)?
  • Is the 10.5’ length OK, or is the 12’ version better? Only advantage I could see is better hydro-dynamics and more speed.
  • Looks like all pedal kayaks are sit-on kayaks. Is there an advantage to the sit-in? Only advantage I see for sit-in is lower center of gravity.

Thanks in advance.

Pedal drive kayaks are NOT fast. If speed is your goal you will move much faster in a regular kayak without the weight and drag of such a model. The pedal option is only “great” if you need to keep your hands free for fishing or photography. And those boats are mostly wicked heavy and a pain to load on a car. Any inflatable is going to be harder to manage on windy lakes. The bulk of them catches wind and can be hard to propel or keep on track.

Most moderately priced sit on tops are also pretty wide and a wider boat means slower, and heavier for the same length as a sleeker sit-inside model. Generally, longer kayaks are going to be faster than shorter ones, so you would be better served by a 12’ to 15’ kayak. You will need a crossbar roof rack to transport it – the size of your car is not a detriment: I haul 18’ kayaks on the short roof of my Mazda CX5. The paddles that “come with” most new kayaks tend to be heavy and too long crap. You want to invest closer to $150 into a decent paddle. The paddle and you are the “engine” of the kayak so you want the right size and a light weight.

There are some excellent articles on this site that explain the differences and benefits of the various types of kayaks. You’ll be ahead of the game if you study them. You would also have a better idea of what you want if you could find a way to rent some other types of kayaks and/or take an instructional course.


Actually, checking your local Craigslist, this Current Designs Whistler is an excellent price ($450) and would probably suit your purposes well. It is not only $1,000 cheaper than that shortie Mirage but weighs nearly 20 pounds less despite being 4’ longer. No contest on which would be faster.

The paddle that comes with it looks iffy, but there is a Werner Skagit also for sale in another ad for only $100. At 230 cm, considering your height and the width of the Whistler, that would probably fit your use. There are even some used PFDs (life vests) listed on Craigslist, but it would be safer to buy one new.

Reviews of the Whistler:


By the way, the lakes surrounding Madison are pretty chilly, in the low to mid 60’s water temp. That may not sound bad but you wouldn’t want to be immersed for long in that. Don’t count on paddling in shorts and a t-shirt. Without some protective clothing (like a wetsuit or Hydroskins and a windproof jacket) you could lose dexterity in the water within 30 minutes and have trouble getting back in your boat if you capsize.


thanks, willowleaf.

I was under the impression the added speed of pedal kayaks is due to leg muscles are larger and more powerful. I also was hoping I could switch between pedaling, and paddling as the muscles get tired. that brings me to the question if a pedal kayak seat position is in a way to make regular paddling suck?

I do see many reviews are related to fishing.

I’m open to regular kayaks and had looked into the paddle issue. But I need to paddle first to really know if I’m a low or high angle paddler etc. Once I have some experience I’m all for investing in a better paddle. Obviously a non-pedal kayak will open more options (even used) and be cheaper.

I may have over-stated speed needs. If I choose between stability and speed, I take stability. I’m also more planning to kayak when it is warm and possibly jump into the lake to cool down. So I may more be a sit-on kayak type. Maybe that will change, but when it is colder I will ride my bike. We have 90’s now (June).

I remember from my vacation the sit-in kayak took on water and even when I turned it upside down, some water stayed in. Certainly a problem when I climb in on the lake.

Many years a go I sailed a bit in a club with very small boats. Part of the certification was to cap-size the sail boat and erect it again. I’m not saying I can still do that, but would be comfortable to climb onto a kayak. But a sit-in kayak would be filled with water.

I did some more research and saw some nice features (keel wheel etc.). Like all equipment hobbies, there is “good enough”, and “nice to have”.

If you don’t like being wet, don’t consider sit-on-top kayaks: being wet is part of the experience and is unavoidable.

I also mentioned that you need to be conscious of the weight of kayaks. Sounds like you generally paddle alone – do you really think you can easily load a 75 or 85 pound kayak on your roof rack alone?

Kayak paddling is not that tiring for someone of reasonable fitness who is in a properly sized boat with a good quality paddle and proper paddling technique (for that you need some lessons from a qualified instructor). I am 70 years old and can kayak all day without becoming tired.

Speaking of all of that, there is an excellent kayak dealer in your city, Rutabaga Sports. They offer on site rentals and demos. stock many quality brands and also offer guided trips and instruction. You need to pay them a visit. They will be able to answer all your questions and guide you toward the right boat for what you want to do.


Good points on the loading weight. Yes, it would be alone most the time. I’m not an Arnold Schwarzenegger either. So less weight is better.

Getting wet isn’t a problem. In the heat, it is more welcome :-). Maybe i change my mind later, but right now my plan is to make kayaking complementary to my biking hobby and I can avoid kayaking when it is too cold in the water.

I’ll check out some of the local stores in the next weeks.

Definitely look up Rutabaga. They are premier canoe & kayak retailer. As Covid restrictions ease they MAY be starting up some on-water classes and, maybe, demo time.

Also, consider a canoe. You can combine you biking & paddling by using the bike as shuttle. It is possible to create a trailer for the canoe that will tow behind the bike.


There once was a lurker who wanted
A pedalboat fit to be flaunted
On only clam lakes
—Maybe with a few hakes—
By sharks he was not really daunted!

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That isn’t a bad idea. but the canoe needs to be large enough to hold my bicycle as well (I do NOT trust leaving my bike on-shore). But that would ruin my idea of being able to capsize the boat… but it creates some more issues with more weight, needing a quite larger canoe etc. I’m not excluding the idea, just making some assumptions. I’m not excited by the idea of seeing my bike sink to the bottom of the lake…

I just a read a book by an ex Navy SEAL and he “commuted” to work by running to the water with the kayak attached to his backpack and on wheels, then kayaking a few miles , and then running the rest to work with Kayak in tow. But the closest body of water is 4.6 miles from my home. I’m not quite sure I would do that often. But would not exclude that option! it sure would be a good workout and conversation starter…

Obviously my exploring then is limited to how far I can kayak from that point. How many miles can a “normal” person actually kayak in a hour or for how many hours? Looks like going to all the nearby lakes would be 20 miles roundtrip from the spot I could walk to. It includes a lock, so it may take longer than one thinks.

Any more advice on if a pedal kayak would be beneficial for the distances? i realize there are people who swear by pedal, some swear by Paddle.

Once a year I do a 100 mile bike ride. So I’m not too incapable. But 20 miles kayaking may be something I have to work up to.

Pedal kayaks are designed for fishing = 2 hands free for the fishing pole and many are stable enough to stand on comfortably in calm waters.

No doubt in the future someone will develop one for fitness peddlers however pedal kayaks right now are as wide as a barge.

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14’ - 16’ canoe (pretty standard sizes) would work. Pop the wheels off & strap the bike in & you’re good for normal paddling. Now that won’t work if you are working on capsize and recovery. If that was something down the road that might work you could pick up an inexpensive used bike to lock up (& maybe take the seat & front wheel with you).

Speed - does depend on conditions, the craft, and the motor but starting a fairly realistic expectation including some poking around might be 2 - 3 mph. Good experienced paddlers will be faster but it is work sustaining over 4 mph for most of us. Elite C2 marathon boats will sustain 6 - 8 mph over 120 miles (maybe 40% or less back waters) in the AuSable Marathon.


I love to bike and I’m finding I love to canoe as well. If I want to peddle I will take a bike and if I want to paddle I will take the canoe.

For me both are not about speed or efficiency and if I need to get someplace I take my car. I get a better workout on my beach curser bike than on a race bike given the same distance and the bike I like the best is a heavy touring bike that has very low gearing that doesn’t get me there fast but it gets me there.

For me my canoe is the same if I only go 1-2 MPH it’s fine with me. We just did a 12 mile down creek trip and it took close to 5 hours and it was mostly quiet and we just enjoyed the wildlife and nature and what was around the next bend. We even had lunch on the way in our boats.

It all depends on what your goal is. I like to go a ways and drop anchor and fish a spot and move on. With one person and one car it is hard to go from point A-B and a better method A-B-A if moving water is involved A-B should be into the current or the wind. Sometimes you can get a friend to agree in advance when you give them a call they drive to where your car is at put in and you tell them where you are at and they drive to pick you up with your car set up to haul the boat. As an example our 12 mile 5 hour float would only take my neighbor 30 minutes to come and switch cars and pick me up. Normally if I’m going out alone I will go to a lake where I can put in and take out at the same place.

My canoe I bought used for 150 bucks and where I live I don’t worry about leaving it sitting at a launch site for a hour or two. Different areas of the country are different and a very expensive boat or bike might be a different story. If you want to bike as a shuttle back to your car buy a $50 beater and a log chain for a tree and it will be there. :canoe:


It is getting a little dated, but I wrote an article for California Kayaker Magazine some 10 years ago comparing the Hobie to Native Watercraft pedal boats. Might be worth a read. Issue #2 at California Kayaker Magazine - South West's source for paddlesports information


All good points. I also was wondering (or questioning) how my bicycle strength translates to a boat. On a bicycle you are on a saddle and “ride” for better performance. sitting on a seat is different and less efficient. Sounds like most of the added drag of the pedal kayaks is due to the width, which also has advantages (stability).

Regardless of propulsion, am I wrong to focus on sit-on kayaks? Remember, I’m new, and also may jump in the water (voluntarily or not). It looks like they often are wider, which adds drag, and stability. But for a newbie this doesn’t’ seem to be a bad compromise.
I didn’t review the entire market, but it looks like most sit-on kayaks are in the 30" width range. this isn’t too far from the 34" of the Hobie.

I think I now tend more to car-transport since any bike or foot transport would limit me too much for type of boating and locations. Last year I begrudgingly gave in and started riding my bike at locations requiring a car to get to. and I’m glad I did since that opens up so many more locations. Same will be true for boating.

I realize there is only so much one can learn online. Maybe it is best to start used and cheap and see how it goes. With that experience I can make a better decision for a new “really good” boat.

Whistler 450 end of story.

I recommend that you temporarily suspend speculating about boats until you have gone to Rutabaga and talked to them and had them show you different boats AND possible signed up for a class and some demos. You are far from having enough knowledge yet to select a boat.

As for the bike shuttle thing, the idea with a bike is that you can paddle a river by padlocking your bike and the kayak tow cart at the destination that you plan to paddle to (usually downstream). Then you drive your car up to where you will start kayaking, unload the kayak and paddle down to where the bike is. There you unlock the bike and cart, hitch the kayak to them and ride back to where your car is parked.

BUt since you are talking about paddling the local lakes I presume you will paddle out and come back to the same spot where you launched. right? So there is no reason to haul your bike on the kayak, just lock it at the launch site if you tow the kayak with it.

By the way, you can buy folding kayaks that pack down into a duffle bag I have owned 7 of them and currently have 5. This one, a 12’ Pakboat Puffin, weighs 24 pounds, takes 20 minutes to set up and fits in a duffel bag once taken apart.


And here is a cyclist in France who tows her Pakboat (same model as mine) with the bike and carries her folding bike in the kayak:


Do yourself a favor. Go talk to Darren at Rutabaga. I’ll bet he can point you in the right direction and may have a deal. You don’t want to get near the Hobie pedal system in the lakes around Madison. Unless things have changed weeds and aquatic plants make these things a royal pain in the . You need to rent some boats and demo some boats and see what kind of performance you get from a sit in or sit on kayak, before dropping money for a Hobie.

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If you get a sit in kayak do yourself a favor and go to shore before you decide to jump in the lake.

The CD Whistler posted by Willowleaf would be ideal for your use and you should seriously consider it. Paddle it for the summer – if you don’t like it, sell it in the fall for what you paid, effectively a free summer-long rental.

I have a fiberglass version of the boat (Pachena), my starter boat, and will never sell it. It is very forgiving, easy to paddle, and has been a great loaner since getting more boats in different style. I still paddle it regularly, though, it’s always a pleasure.

Do buy a good pfd and the lightest paddle you can afford.

I don’t think a pedal kayak is worth the trouble, by the way.