first kayak for short woman

I’m 5’2" about 120 lbs and all the sea kayaks I’ve rented feel HUGE. I want something I can lift myself, but I’m thinking plastic since I’m in Northern IL and scrape bottom on rivers around here. I like rivers, light whitewater, short camping trips, and eventually would like to try Lake Michigan, Apostle Islands, etc.

If one boat can’t do it all, maybe I would rent a fiberglass sea kayak for long trips (I’d probably be on a group tour anyway) so buy something for everyday / rivers / light whitewater. I don’t want to be the slowest paddler in the pack either.

check out the Dagger Alchemy S
A couple of female friends have them, one of which is your size. They make a low volume version. They are great for surfing and rock gardening out here on the Northwest coast so should work well for rivers. They run about 1000 new. At 14ft they won’t be bath tub like most of the recreational boats.

lady’s boat…
…there are some boats on the market geared towards smaller framed people …like the TsunamiSP or the Necky Eliza. keep trying boats, if possible, till you find the right one for you.

also, the only way your gonna get a comparatively light boat is too go with fiberglass or other composite boat and they cost big bucks and u’ll cringe every time you scrape bottom with those hi-dollar boats.

Rental fleet is likely the issue
Rental places have to get boats for the average paddler - that’s not you. There are boats out there for smaller folks, like the Avocet LV, but you won’t find them in a rental fleet.

You need to get to demo days where there is a better chance of checking out boats for small paddlers.

More on the lifting part
The only distance that you have to be able to lift a kayak is from the ground to a cart, or maybe shift it a smidge when landing on some beaches. And with many carts you just lift one end, so you aren’t carrying the whole weight.

For car-topping the boat, you slide it. You don’t have a boat right now so it’s too much information, but between carts, add-ons from rack maker, towels and a variety of rollers there is just about always a way to slide a sea kayak off and on the roof of a car single handed, so that you are never carrying the whole weight. Rec boats without rigging and being short are actually harder.

I am 1.5" taller than you and weigh 130, and while it takes longer than with my husband helping can load and unload a 65 pound 17 ft plus sea kayak myself. There is no way I can put that on my shoulder for a full lift.

People new to paddling are unaware of the tools available and often start looking for a boat that is not apt for their longer term goals because of weight concerns. Canoes offer different challenges - but kayaks can usually be slid around with impunity, especially plastic hulled ones. That’s good, because the plastic ones are a bit heavier.

long boats vs short
Celia brought up some great points on lifting and limiting your lifting. In addition, I would point out that longer narrower boats are infinitely easier to carry than shorter boats.

Try working with a coach or experienced paddler who can work through the logistics with you of loading and carrying your boat.

I do clinics at events showing women how they can lift and carry their boats independently and the short wide boats and sit on tops are much harder to deal with both carrying and on the roof.


Demo days and symposiums are coming up. Here’s one you might want to attend:

I’d encourage you to “test-sit” boats every opportunity you get to start building a list of candidates to paddle.

You might consider a whitewater boat for some of your river paddling and surf and pool use. They do come in a range of sizes and used ones are fairly inexpensive.

how about . . .
a plastic Tsunami 135 for your rocky river and

an Impex Mystic (14 feet) as your sea kayak?

Both fit small people nicely. I had a kevlar Mystic that weighed 38 pounds; the fiberglass version weighs about 43, I think.

Your instinct to have a plastic boat for banging around a rocky river is a good one. Good luck!

G in NC

me again
So how long is the right length? I have a feeling I’ll be 90% rivers, hopefully with some “bumpy water” in places. 10% Lake Michigan - not too far offshore - but I’ll need to be able to paddle in non-flat water without being too slow for the pack. Not sure about surfing, but planning to try it.

Not sure if fiberglass is worth the cost to me, and might limit the rivers I can do.

I’ve read about crossover boats- are these any good? And how frustrating would it be to paddle these down a river?

And what sort of cart should I get?


I’m signed up for a Door County paddling trip that weekend! planning to attend the Aurora paddlefest in June.


– Last Updated: Apr-06-12 4:26 PM EST –

A crossover boat that'd be a good fit for you may be hard to find. The Pyranha Fusion S and Approach 9.0 are narrower than the Remix XP9, but they're still 25 inches wide.

Length is less important than width, depth, volume, and fit. A boat that's too wide and/or too deep will be uncomfortable and inefficient to paddle. A boat that's too big will be harder to control in wind and waves.

I've had fun paddling 14' and 16' kayaks in rivers because they fit me well enough that I could edge and lean aggressively. On flat water I can turn my 16' sea kayak faster than most short rec kayaks because I can get it on edge. You can't do that in a boat that's too big.

Narrower beam and lower deck also lets you use a shorter paddle, keep your hands lower, and get your strokes in closer to the hull -- all good things for a small person trying to maximize efficiency.

A lot depends on your percentage of moving vs. flat water. If you're mostly paddling flatwater -> class I something like the Tsunami SP might work. Nice narrow beam, and you'd be able to near the top of the weight range so maneuverability should be good.

My wife is 5'0", so I understand your frustration with oversized boats. She ended up with a 14' WS Tchaika(discontinued)for lake paddling, and is faster and happier in it than she was in her 16' Avocet.

If you find something that feels good except for the cockpit fit, there's always foam and contact cement...

When we were renting, we found temporary hip pads to be helpful:

What kayaks have you paddled so far?
Without knowing what you already feel is bargey, it’s hard to come up with appropriate suggestions beyond “Don’t get kayaks sized for the average U.S. man”.

Best stick with plastic, since 90% rivers is your estimated venue.

Also, do you think you will get interested in WW kayaking? That may skew the answers toward different models than if you think you will get interested in long-distance open water paddling.

As for carts, the stronger and more stable models (such as the C-Tug) may not fit inside your hatch compartment. It’s a trade-off between small size and stability or load capacity.

Choice of roof racks and loading accessories will depend on the vehicle height/configuration. There are a lot of “it depends” variables, so more info would be helpful in narrowing down your options. For example, while I (~5’3" and 105 lbs) can shoulder-carry long heavy sea kayaks for a short distance, there is no way I can safely load one by myself onto my 4WD truck’s topper roof. I am simply too short, and I don’t want to slide the boat over the edge of the topper roof. Nor will I ever give up having a truck, because I absolutely love all the things they can do. My solution is to use a light-duty trailer. But that option itself is loaded with lots of other questions to ask first, too (such as “Do you have storage room for it?” and “Can your vehicle tow it?”).

Budget also figures into your choices. The systems that allow you to load kayaks by the side of the vehicle (into J-cradles) and then hoist the strapped-in boats to the roof with mechanical aids seem like a good solution. But they are expensive and add more weight to the roof load, plus you are then restricted to using J-cradles only.

Suzanne is right about wide boats being harder to hoist onto a shoulder than narrow boats. The reason is that the wider boats require longer arms and wider shoulders to reach the far side of the cockpit, which is part of the recommended lifting procedure. So it is good that you don’t want a bargey boat in the first place.

While I have not tried one yet, maybe one model for you to demo would be the smaller of the 2 plastic P&H “surf/rock garden” kayaks. This is one that I’m interested in paddling because it is shorter than a typical sea kayak and appears to be well-suited for situations that require lots of quick maneuvering.

Good luck searching! And don’t get too hung up on the idea of “perfect for everything”. No such thing, and your interests may evolve away from your original ideas anyway. Just get out there and put in some butt time, at the least.


Where your conflicts in boat use are…
Your biggest conflict in the right boat is between the bumpy water in rivers and trying to keep up with a group on Lake Michigan. Lake Michigan is sea kayaking, and it is likely if you do find a group to paddle with they’ll be a lot of sea kayaks.

Now some groups have a slow section - locally we have a Lilly-Dippers group on evening paddles (self-named, no one inflicted it on them) and the boats with less hull speed like the crossovers work fine there. But they are not remotely fun for someone who wants to paddle with the fast group, for the most part in 16 ft plus sea kayaks.

It’s also not about the length, as said below, exactly. All boats have a built-in hull speed - it is the result of the geometry of the hull shape.

Whitewater boats are designed to have relatively slow hull speeds because that is an advantage in WW - a boat that moves less quickly thru the water gives you more time to see a standing wave and spin around to play on it. A boat designed for touring needs to have faster hull speed because it is about getting across long distances faster, not stopping to play every 30 feet. The crossover boats are somewhere in the middle.

There are aspects of hulls that tend to be associated with each of these purposes. The WW boats will have greater width their length than touring boats. By the time you get to a 17 ft plus sea kayak the ratio gets pretty skinny.

The really interesting thing about the newer designs of short fully capable little sea kayaks like the Delphin and the Dagger Alchemy series is that they have hulls designed to make them fun play boats in surf, picking up some characteristics from why WW boats are designed the way they are, but that dimension lives inside of a full out sea kayak.

But this group is designed to have less hull speed. So if you are paddling with a fast group of paddlers in mostly longer, less playfully designed sea kayaks, you want to have a really good stroke to keep up without killing yourself.

I’m not trying to point you one way or another, just indicate that you are likely to find any first boat to be a compromise in terms of what it does well. One option that many folks have taken is to start with the sea kayak and acquire used WW boats cheap. They are going to get scratched up anyway on rocks, it doesn’t matter if someone got a few there ahead of you.

Also, the issue that angstrom mentions is right on. You want a boat with a quite low profile in terms of width and height around your body, and at your size we are talking much more low and narrower than an average sized guy would find comfortable. It is noticeably more difficult to get a decent stroke if you are banging into the boat every time you try and get a paddle into the water.

When you go to these demos, grab the attention of someone who seems to be there to help rather than sell a particular boat and have a good conversation about fit. That can make all the difference in a kayak.

cross overs are a good choice
They paddle ok on bumpy rivers and tour ok. They are still going to be slower than a 17ft glass sea boat but you can also drag your plastic boat around on rocks and not care.

North Shore makes a low volume plastic touring boat that fits small women well. Not out yet but a couple of friends of mine were reviewing it for Sea Kayaker magazine a couple of weeks ago. It looked pretty good.

You have the right people
here answering your questions. I would really like to thank Celia, Pikabike and Angstrom for all their posts here. My wife is 4’11 and 95lbs, they gave me good advice and I was able to read their posts to others to get the info we needed. We looked all over but were unable to find a Mystic. Instead we bought two Tsunami SP’s for her share with the kids until we see the new thermoformed Seaward model due out next year. The SP is a great fit though.

Pikabike, have you looked at the Malone seawing kayak carrier with stinger attachment? (youtube) I bought this set up when I read reviews from short ladies saying it allowed them to load their own boats on SUV’s. My wife will still need a small ladder to get the straps done on top of her mini van. Also when researching life jackets you mentioned being in between sizes. We found a Salus PFD’s in XS fit her perfectly. The SM Betsea was still way too big but the Salus Amyot in XS is perfect, comfortable and made in Canada.

Thanks again all and good luck in your boat hunt Kay.

I’ve seen photos of the Stinger but so far, none in person. The catch is that the few times I rooftop my sea kayak, I use Spring Creek’s cradles, which are fantastic. However, they are sticky enough that kayaks should be lifted sideways onto them, not slid on from the back. Also, I set the tilt of each cradle to roughly fit the shape of the hull rather than having the cradles standing perfectly straight upright.

The PFD you mentioned is new to me. I’ll keep my eyes out for it, as well as for the new Kokatat model (Aries?). Thanks for the tips!

Manatou 14’
My wife is your size, she loves her Manatou 14’and it does not swallow her up like many touring boats she tried out. We use it on rivers and lakes, nothing over class 2 moving water. the Manatou has a skeg for windy conditions and weighs 46lbs. she is able to load it by herself fairly easily.

I’d be concerned about…
We are talking the Manitou 14 with a 24 inch width and 275-325 lbs weight capacity? I couldn’t find depth but I’d wager it is fairly deep for someone my size to carry that kind of capacity.

I am a little taller than the Oper, a smidge heavier, and that boat would be way too wide and deep for my purposes. I have a roll, and the OPer is talking about paddling in environments where that is not an uncommon thing. At that point you want a boat that fits a bit tighter than it appears the Manitou 14 could.

We have paddlers around here with the Manitou, and for the stay-upright-flat-water paddler it seems to serve very well. I am not convinced that this is an accurate description of the OPer’s purposes.

Manatou 14’
She did have to put in larger thigh braces to tighten up the fit. You are correct about the roll, She can do it in a pool with a paddle, but has not had to roll in any rougher water, and hand rolling is pretty tough. The large cockpit does make wet re-entry more managable.