New advice on 1st kayaks

Never owned or even used a kayak. We’ve bought a place in the driftless area of southwest Wisconsin and would welcome advise on purchasing our first kayaks and paddles.

We’ll be paddling the Kickapoo River and its creeks and tributaries. The rivers/streams in this area are flat, narrow and shallow. A few riffles in just a few spots. In all of the spots I’m familiar with the water depth isn’t more than 3ft and much of it is 2ft or less.

Any advise on the brand/model of kayaks to buy for this type of water? We want quality but would like to keep it under $1,200 each. Oh, I almost forgot, I can’t imagine us paddling for more than 3 hours on any given day so we probably wouldn’t need a lot of storage but would like some…

All advise or questions would be greatly appreciated. Don’t want buyer’s remorse…

My advice would be for you to spend the rest of this paddling season (until the water gets too cold) renting kayaks or canoes from local outfitters.

This will allow you to understand more of what you want and gain some paddling experience.


Yes, that’s a good idea. Also you might try to meet up with some paddlers in the area and see what equipment they use. Once you have a bit of an idea what you like, then I advise looking at used boats. You’ll get a much better quality boat for the same money.

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From what I recall of the week we spent there (not much) most rivers if you sink you can stand back up and wade a few feet to shore. Plenty of opportunities to avoid strainers, practice sharp turns, etc. I’d probably go with something with a tough bottom and not too expensive. Honestly a little rec kayak might be a good fit? (I paddle an aluminum canoe, so take my advice with several grains of salt)

Lovely area, have fun!

I’d look at boats around 14 ft long and plastic. Used if available. Check out Dagger.


I wold start by checking out the PDF version of issue #10 of this magazine for an article on types of kayaks California Kayaker Magazine - South West's source for paddlesports information.

Within those, in the conditions you talk about, you could use recreational, sit on top, or touring. To keep it easy. likely either recreational or sit on top.

Boats don’t get damaged easily, but the value does drop a fair amount from new to used, so often good to go for used boats for first boats.

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It’s been thirty years since I paddled there, but for shallow midwest streams with shallowpatches where you need to get out and walk or move the boat around logs etc, I would stick with a canoe. I own lots of kayaks and that’s mostly what I paddle, but canoes are the right tool for where you want to paddle.

Check the Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace ads in your area for used kayaks – this is a good time of year to find deals on them at the end of the season. I did a quick look (I am in another state but have family on SW WI so I checked Lacrosse and Dubuque listings) and found this one which is a good quality boat suited for the use you describe:

There is also a post by what seems to be an outfitter selling used and new boats and located in Boscobel. These are not as nice as the Current Designs Squamish in the other ad, though :

There is also a dealer with a huge stock of new and used boats in Lone Rock, WI. Might be worth checking out. Since they also stock canoes, you might also want to consider small solo canoes which can be perfect for the kind of waters and trips you decide (I have one and often use it instead of the kayaks.)

Until you have a feel for what works for your paddling outings, buying used is a better strategy. Decent used boats can usually be sold for close to what you paid for them and you could get two for the price of what you would put up for a single new one.

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I want to thank everyone responded to my query. Very helpful recommendations. As there are three kayak and canoe rental outfits within a couple of miles of our place, I will try their boats before taking a leap.

Again, thank you all…

You will likely care about comfort as much as anything else. Best assessed by spending time in rentals or boats owned by friends to get a sense of that.

Be sure to ask the rental outfits what they recommend, especially if they run guided trips… They can give you the plusses and minuses. Outfitters often sell some of their rental fleet every Fall and if you are renting will sometimes credit your rental fee toward the purchase of one of their boats as well as making an effort to rent you a boat that may be best suited to your needs.

Great advice here. Only caution is that many rental operations rent only low-mid level boats in terms of quality and features and most durable models. So you can get a bad impression. If there is availability, spend the few extra dollars to rent a serious boat.

Where you’re paddling , your options will expand significantly as your skill level goes up with experience, and you’ll also get a better sense of what you like to do while paddling. For example, fishing the shallow creeks and narrow rivers from a lightweight two person canoe , with one paddling / skulling and the other casting, can be a perfect two-person adventure, and the same boat is also excellent for bird/wildlife watching as you can move almost silently .

A SOT kayak has a very short learning curve and can be used for almost anything, especially kayak fishing and outfitted from simple to extreme…serious Kayak-fishing boats have pedal-drives so you can move front or back and turn while both hands are free. An enclosed kayak is not well-suited to fishing, river camping or even picnicking, but a SOT is more work to paddle upstream or on a windy day on the lake. As recommended above, there will be lots of used boats on CL in your area, and even minor repairs are easy on plastic, fiberglass or kevlar boats.

Another thing new paddlers don’t think about is that PFD’s are different for different types of boats and activities, and having the right type ,proper-fitting PFD can actually enhance your enjoyment in addition to maybe saving your life.

Finally, when you have some sense of what kind of boat(s) you want, and in that process what your proper paddle length and style is, there is NOTHING more romantic as a birthday, anniversary or Christmas gift than a proper-fitting custom -made wooden paddle. I’ve been through 5 canoes and three kayaks during my 35 year marriage but the Steve Mitchell bent-shaft paddle my wife got me as a first anniversary gift still goes on every trip.

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It’s time to wander on over to Rutabaga in Madison. They have a lot of inventory, a rental program, and very knowledgable staff. They also sponsor Canoecopia every March (, the canoeing answer to the car lover’s Chicago Auto show.
The driftless area is a beautiful place. And the Kickapoo is one of several great paddling streams. Don’t forget the Wisconsin River itself.

Sounds like you have some good paddling locations in mind. If not mentioned yet, make sure to review car-topping techniques on YouTube. It’s good to determine what type of carriers will work best for your kayak(s) … (rollers, saddles, J-cradles, etc), and to have a base rack system compatible with your vehicle that works with your carrying system. Use lashing straps (the type you hand tighten, minimum 1" wide). Do not use ratcheting straps unless you’re tying down a tank. It’s too easy to damage a kayak using the ratcheting type. Wheels always make it easier to get from vehicle to water (look for used with “no flat” tires), Wheeleez is awesome, but hard to find used. Our first kayak was a tandem SOT. It took about 1 week or less for us to want singles. I always recommend 12 ft or longer SOT for a first kayak (if you can cartop that length), and with sliding footpegs. The molded footrests are never comfortable enough, and after 30 minutes or less, you start feeling those molded ridges against the sides of your ankles. Before buying, don’t forget to check the bottom of the boat for deep or excessive scratches, and the entire boat for damage. Sit on it (with sellers permission) to see how it feels & to make sure it “fits” right. Happy paddling!


Excellent “insider/experienced” advice. Just the sort I was hoping to get. Thank you very much!


Thanks Steve. I didn’t know about Rutabaga. It’s on the way between my home and the cabin. I also had been planning on attending Canoecopia in the spring.


I was surprised that Old Town was not mentioned, they offer a variety. Pay attention to the weight of the boat, as you get a little older, all your boats seem to gain weight.

Thank you so much for the caution about ratcheting ties for kayaks, mpkayak4fun! Yesterday I saw two unhappy reviews on Amazon from 2 different paddlers who had their kayaks damaged, including one woman who was taking her brand new kayak on its maiden voyage.