Dealing with lack of kayaks to try
My first kayak (a rec kayak) and my first sea kayak (CD Squall), I knew I needed to demo before deciding to buy. I was too new to paddling to know my preferences. If I had not been able to demo them, I simply would have bought something else that I could demo.
At that stage, I might not have known what was “right” but I would have been able to tell if something was awful. The point of renting, then, was mainly to rule out the “awfuls.” It worked. I happily paddled that first sea kayak for several years…all the while noting what I liked or didn’t like about it.
By the time I got my second sea kayak (built it, actually–no demo available closer than 2000 miles), I had moved from “eliminate the awfuls” to “take a chance on the probably-betters.” Part of this change came after renting a bunch of different sea kayaks when visiting other places. So one option is to visit places (vacations; yes this will take time) where you can rent different styles of kayaks. Keep note of what you like or dislike about each one, and try to see if there is a pattern (e.g., “I like soft-chined kayaks better than hard-chined”).
I wasn’t completely satisfied with the wood kayak as an all-rounder for me. But since by now I had an even better idea of what I wanted, I again took a chance when I bought my 3rd sea kayak without demo’ing it. I had sat in the bigger version of this kayak and knew I liked the outfitting. The length, beam, and deck height specs looked good. This time, I hit a bullseye: I LOVE this 3rd sea kayak and would be happy to paddle it for the rest of my life.
I still think it’s best to rent or demo before buying. At the beginner level, you “eliminate the awfuls.” After that, it helps you figure out what you like best. From my own experience, I can say that it is possible to buy something wonderful without having paddled it first. But it is definitely more of a gamble. Better to take your time and slowly accumulate your own opinions from renting and demoing as many kayaks as you can.
BTW, the kayak I am so happy with is a Tempest 165. Haven’t had any problems taking photos from it.