I need some help. I am 5’5", 120 lbs and very much a beginner. I’m looking on craigslist to buy a used, plastic kayak to use on mild rivers and lakes. What size/length would be appropriate for me?
Your best bet is to get to some place
on the water and rent a few different lengths.
If you have never paddled before and don’t know if you are going to stay with it, your best bet is to get a new 10 footer at one of the big box stores.
If you have paddled before and know you will be staying with it, get a 14 footer.
You can always graduate to a 16 footer later if it all works out.
Try to buy before you buy. You can’t do that with the big box store yaks, but you certainly should buying used
Based on your height and weight, you should be looking at boats designed for smaller paddlers. Boats for smaller folks will not be significantly shorter than boats for larger paddlers. They will be narrower and will not be as deep.
A boat that's too wide, too deep, or that has too much volume for your size will be uncomfortable to paddle and difficult to control.
Go to the manufacturer's websites and make a list of models that sound like they might fit. You can go to a dealer and sit in boats to get a feel for what works. It's also getting to be the time of year when dealers have demo days, which are great opportunity to try a lot of boats.
Here's one that's good for folks your size;
Would also check out local paddling
groups as many members willing to share their boats a bit to give you more trial time on the water in different boats. More towns/counties now buying fleets and offering paddle trips too. We’re planning club demo days where members are bringing many of their boats to a local safe water and sharing among ourselves and newbies who’d like a try. R
You are 1.5" taller than me
and lighter by a bit larger proportion. nystrom has a good point - if you go too wide you'll be knocking your knuckles a lot, or will find yourself investing in a paddle to handle the problem that is longer than you'll want if you go to a narrower boat later. I did that for a number of summers at the place we rent in Maine, but it was their Swifties etc so no money ever came out of our pockets for this ill-fitting stuff.
In general, the 10 footers are going to be very wide, enough to cause this problem, for someone in our height range.
You may want to consider the Wilderness Systems Tsnami 135. It's well-sized for you, should be findable used or demo, plastic so it won't be too pricey. This is a medium length boat, so it is still long enough to be helpful in car-topping.
Believe it or not, for shorter or smaller people it is actually easier to load and unload a slightly longer boat from the roof. The 10 footers can be nearly impossible on a tired day because they are too short to slide unless you are putting them in the back of a truck.
The LLBean Calypso is another candidate - it comes in two lengths, 12 and 14 ft, and we have seen it be a great first boat for lighter women. I prefer the 14 footer for a solo paddler because it has a couple more safety attributes like full rigging around the edge, but either of these would probably work and are likely to be available used.
You can get a small kayak cart to move it between car and launch.