Newbie, need info on selecting kayaks

Greetings. I’m looking into making my first kayak purchases (for me and my wife) and I was looking for a bit of advice or links to good articles to assist me in my mission. I’ve done some research, but now I’m having problems getting to the next level of knowledge to make a more informed decision and focus my search. Our goal is to spend less than 1k per boat and we really would like to find them used for less. We would like to try before we buy, but I would like to narrow it down a bit so I can start watching for demo opportunities or potential CL steals.

A bit about us:

We are on the cusp of 30, both reasonably fit. I’m 5’11", 200-225 with long legs. She is 5’6" 150-175. We fairly regularly kayak (6-10 times per year) and always use rentals. Most trips are 2-5 hours, though we have done full days on a couple trips. No idea about distances as we rely on the rental trips and times. Almost all is calm flatwater, with some possibility of light rapids. I don’t expect that either of us have good technique or paddling skills.

What we hope do:

We are looking for durable and multi-purpose kayaks so that we can do a bit more than the rentals allow – different locations, overnights, light whitewater, etc. I expect that 75-80% of our trips will be full day or 1/2 days on flat calm water. The rest would be a mix between overnighters, Great Lakes, light whitewater, and maybe calm seas. We wouldn’t be looking to do more than 1-2 nights out of the kayaks, the Great Lakes/Ocean only in the calmest of conditions, and whitewater maxing out around class 2-3 range. For nything outside of these conditions, we would be happy to get rentals or something.

What I think we are looking for:

When it comes to boats, we are looking for something that can meet most (preferably all) of the trips above. We do a lot of rivers – some of which are small, so as I understand it, anything over 14’ is prolly out. We are both more concerned with stability and efficiency than speed, but I am far more comfortable with trading some stability out for efficiency/speed than my wife is – though I think we will both get a lot better with the stability thing as our technique improves. We would like to have at least 1 dry hatch on each boat for gear, lunches, etc. Also, neither of us are a fan of the SOT designs and would prefer cockpits. Weight is not a huge issue for us.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding is that I should be looking at the Day-Touring, Cross-over, or Hybrid rec/touring type boats. Something in the 10-12’ range. Possible options include: Dagger Axis 10.5 and Katana 10.4, Liquid Logic Remix XP and Stinger XP, the Pyranha Fusion and Fusion RT, or the Hurricane Excursion 128. I’m sure there are others too, these are just a few that I found that seem to maybe fill our need.


  1. Am I going to be able to find a kayak that can fill these needs or am I asking too much from one boat?

  2. Am I overlooking something important or should I be making other considerations while shopping?

  3. Does anybody have any good links or advice that would assist me in my journey?

    Much appreciated. Thanks.

Find a pool session or two
You said Great Lakes. Not a place to mess around with 70%. Find some pool sessions if you can to get some basics in rescues and maneuvers, you will be able to make a MUCH better boat choice.

Hatches aren’t just for storage…
the bulkheads provide flotation when needed. A single bulkhead boat when swamped may be unrecoverable in open water. A large body of water can go from calm to quite challenging with a change in the wind. Be prepared.

I don’t see why you wouldn’t want to consider 14’ and longer boats. It’s true they can’t be turned around on a narrow creek as easily, but paddling in reverse isn’t that hard either. With a longer boat you can enjoy the needed volume with less width. Easier paddling will result. Far better handling in choppy waters, too.

Take some time reading the kayak manufacture’s websites. You can learn a lot about what they intend the boat to be used for.


day touring

– Last Updated: Nov-19-15 7:37 PM EST –

You stated: I expect that 75-80% of our trips will be full day or 1/2 days on flat calm water. The rest would be a mix between overnighters, Great Lakes, light whitewater, and maybe calm seas.

If you remove the whitewater, a day touring or touring kayak would fill all the needs. Dagger Alchemy, P&H Delphin, Valley Gemini, etc. Older boats like Necky Looksha Sport, Necky Chatham 16 (for her - you likely wouldn't fit), Wilderness Systems Tempest 16, and the like would also work. This category is my guess of what you would do best with.

If whitewater is important, then a crossover kayak could work (Jackson Karma RG, P&H Fusion, etc.). You would take a very significant hit on boat speed and carrying capacity if you do this, so may limit your longer trips/overnights.

Definitely want a boat with bulkheads and sealed compartments - safety along with the dry-ish storage. The crossovers only have rear bulkheads (if any), so you would want to add float bags in front of your feet for safety.

If you haven't yet, I would suggest signing up for a day long basic sea kayaking class. It should cover a bit on boat design, along with the important safety aspects (rescues) and lots of other basics.

what pete-ca said plus
Stay away from non-bulkheaded ‘rec’ kayaks.

All the paddling locales you describe require ‘proper’ boats with bulkheads, hatches, safety lines,

and more importantly the SKILLS! to use the boat properly.

If you really want to do some trips and not fumble your way through I would suggest taking a multi-day course, such as those offered by body-boat-blade or Kayak Academy. Kayak academy offers a 5 day course with 3 days on a big lake and 2 days in the San Juan Islands.

It will make things much more enjoyable and safer.

These are both PNW outfits but I’m sure there are east coast versions.

Some idea of where you are might help
You mention small stream and the Great lakes. that suggests somewhere in an arc from New York to Minnesota although I also see that you mentioned ‘ocean’.

Some thoughts: don’t worry too much about length. It’s usually more about the paddler than the boat. On rivers, I usually am in a 15 ’ 6" or 9"canoe and have been down many a small stream in a 17’ 9" tandem with few problems, the most being tight twists in log jams. Kayakers in our group seem to be happy in Remixs and Stingers.

For big water you will want longer more capable kayaks. You will bog down in the short boats and you really do want fore and aft bulkheads or good, well attached air bags.

Whitewater: you mention ‘light’ whitewater and then also class 2-3. What is your reference for class 2 - 3? To be honest for many paddlers those are two VERY different experiences. My references for Class 2 - 3 are Slippery Rock Creek and the lower Youghiogheny in Western Pennsylvania. Those can both be pretty entertaining.

Training & classes: There is a lot to be said for learning what others have learned. How you go about it depends a lot on your and your wife’s learning styles. Formal training in classes or symposium can be good but just paddling & trying out stuff is also fun. There are more videos and books out there than anyone needs. Paddling with good paddlers is also useful.

Don’t worry too much about the boat at first. As you paddle more you will gain a better understanding of your needs.

Much appreciated
Very useful advice. Exactly the sort I was looking for.

We will both be doing classes before we take the boats out. Likely before we even make the purchases. At this point, I’m just trying do research to parse down the many brands and types to a more manageable list.

I also was not putting much emphasis on bunkheads. I will pay far more attention to that. I will have to do some specific research on them.

I’m happy to give up 1-2 of the extras – like whitewater. At the end of the day the flatwater is what matters. Everything else is just extra. We can rent rafts, like we do now, when we get the urge to whitewater. It doesn’t happen often enough to be a deal breaker.

When you say speed, that is interchangeable with cruising/gliding, right? We aren’t trying to win any races, but definitely want to move efficent on the water. We are sick of pushing a wall of water trying to paddle the recreational rentals. It gets real tiring after 5 hours.

A few thoughts on length

– Last Updated: Nov-19-15 9:57 PM EST –

It's a very common perception that kayaks of 14 feet and longer are a poor choice for twisty rivers. Just be aware that a decent paddler in a 14-foot touring kayak should be able to match any of the maneuvers done by a decent pair of paddlers in a 17-foot, general-purpose tandem canoe, and look how long people have been paddling canoes in these places with no trouble whatsoever (oh, and don't use rental boaters as your measurement tool here!). Also, look how many people paddle 14-foot solo canoes in such places. There are a lot of people paddling boats who really don't have skills to match what their boat can actually do, and I think some of them give advice like what you've heard about boat length. I wouldn't rule out 14-foot boats for what you describe. They'd be fine (or maybe a 14-footer for you and a 13-footer for her if you are still worried about it). You could even go longer.

Crossover kayaks really shine in "fairly big" whitewater, say, rivers with a lot of Class II and maybe III (not just a few short rapids). On the flats, crossovers are slower than slow, and very splashy and loud. Still, as someone pointed out, plenty of people are happy in them. For longer trips, I just don't think they'd be so happy on flatwater if they could compare their crossover's performance to that of something a little sleeker.

What are you thinking as far as "light rapids"? Here's one photo of my usual paddling partner (about 5'3" and lighter than average build) in a 13-foot touring kayak.

On this particular trip, she did this stuff for three days and never even batted an eye. She has no special skills but plenty of seat time. Okay, that's not entirely true. She batted an eye here (wouldn't do it without some people waiting below):

Lower water would have made that boat tougher to use, but since most of the water was flat, it would still have been a good tool for the job.

We live in central North Carolina. But I’m from Michigan and my family has property along Lake Michigan. I also really want to do Isle Royale at some point – though decent touring rentals are possible for that.

Lots of river options locally and the Altantic if we are up for a drive. Same with whitewater – nothing like out West, but still a goodtime. The biggest whitewater I would even think of us doing, is maybe Cumberland River, near Cumberland Falls KY. Certainly not going to try to take on something like the New River Gorge without special equipment.

Some thoughts
Honestly, if you intend to paddle any of the Great Lakes, your MINIMUM boat length should probably be 14’. The notion that you will only go out on the big lakes in “mild” conditions is not realistic. Conditions can and do change on them within seconds, without warning, and you MUST be prepared with competent boats and skills for strong winds and waves. I lived near and paddled on Lake Michigan for 4 years – also lost two family members to the lake when a sudden storm came out of nowhere while they were swimming offshore. These are serious waters.

Touring boats are designed to be more stable in rough water than shorter, wider boats. And most are quite versatile and enjoyable on rivers and smaller lakes. I have taken a 15’ poly touring kayak on some open rapids up to Class II on occasion (though I would not go past that and there are better boats for such outings – most people keep a second kayak for that kind of paddling if they do it often.)

More thoughts
First, all new paddlers tend to rank stability high. It is normal. There is a problem here - efficient as in fast thru the water and stable as in won’t capsize are completely different hull designs. And no you do not want to try a 10 to 12 foot boat for ocean touring. Your arms would fall off - there is a reason for those narrower hulls of sea kayaks.

But if your home base is central North Carolina you have an additional wrinkle. As you get into it, you are probably close to more moving water than anything else. Even very mild moving water has a tendency to capsize new paddlers. It is surprising how mild a current can put a new paddler into the water.

Hence my most important suggestion - find some winter pool sessions in a nice warm (usually over 80 degree) pool. Spend all the time you can figuring out how to fall out of boats and get back in, or roll it up - basically get over any fear of capsize - so you can relax and move on to the paddling part.

You have a huge advantage with it being two of you. Assisted rescues are really easy with a properly equipped boat, and you can learn together.

It is only beginning paddlers that feel capsizes mean you are a bad paddler. Most paddlers who have become good took a lot of unplanned swims while they learned.

RE: Pictures
These pictures are exactly what I’m talking about. I wouldn’t be willing to go even as far as the second picture until we got a lot more experience. Eventually we might work up to a bit more years down the line. But for the most part, I’m mainly interested in the first picture when I say light whitewater.

That’s logical
When it comes to rapids, start small, and work your way up as your skills develop and as you see fit. I think you’ll find that a boat that is reasonably efficient on flatwater will negotiate occasional rapids just fine. Learn to backferry this kind of boat and you will be able to do “must-make” maneuvers where there’s hardly any room to spare, without the dangers associated with traditional steering. Once you step up to rivers which have a large portion of rapids compared to flatwater, then shorter, more squirrelly boats might be just the ticket. By that time, you will no longer be happy with just one boat each :slight_smile:

speed = crusing
For most of us speed equals ability to cruise, not race speed (though we have racers here also).

There are 2 areas that primarily affect speed - splitting water and water line.

For most of us, the main effect is how much water we need to split. A wide boat requires more effort to move forward than a narrower boat of the same depth. I can cruise along at 3 mph in my 24" wide 14 foot boat, and 22" wide 3.5 in my 17.5’ boat. A shorter boat pretty much has to be wider so that you get the same amount of flotation.

At higher speeds (and only higher speed), water line kicks in. This sets the maximum hull speed. The longer the boat, the higher the maximum hull speed. For people cruising (not racing) this really doesn’t have much impact except when you sprint for something (like to get out of the way of a breaking wave or jet ski). But where hull speed may not be an impact, that general rule of a longer boat being narrower means that longer boats are in general take less effort to move through the water.

So in general, unless there is some on-water reason (narrow channels and such), get the longest boat you can handle off the water (store, transport, carry, etc), as it will help you a lot on the water.

You’re in a fine area for watersports
and you should be able to find some dealers in the area.

Some thoughts - look at the 14’ - 15’ plastic boats to start. They are good for a lot. Some of the people here have suggestions.

Consider checking out NOC (Natahala Outfitters) for whitewater.

Consider going with a guided trip for early big water trips. I don’t know anything about the seaboard but I know several on the Great Lakes. Michael Gray has a n Isle Royal trip scheduled for 2016 ( along with others.


One more thought
You can pick up really decent whitewater boats pretty cheap if you become interested in really working it. A couple hundred bucks if you lay in wait on places like Crags list. WW folks turn over their boats much more frequently than sea kayakers. I am still able to have a ball with an Inazone 220 or 222 (l forget which) l picked up for a couple hundred bucks several years ago now. So worry more about the boat for camping and lakes.

narrower boats
Another factor some people don’t take into account is that if you are going to be traveling with your kayaks (as you indicate, wanting to bring them from NC to MI) it is easier to load two kayaks under 24" in width on a standard car roof rack than wider ones, especially if you drive a compact car. Narrower boats tend to be lighter than wider ones as well. Such factors are, of course, secondary to the performance features that suit what kind of paddling you want to do, but they might be taken into account when you are deciding between several similar options.

That’s definitely the impression I got from the replies. I appreciate it everybody. You really helped me better focus my search.

And no worries, will be doing pool classes to learn the safety maneuvers.

Thanks much all.

kayak choice
I am also 5’11" and 220 lbs, and 65 years old. New to kayaking this year and can only say this is a sport that has the potential to be deadly with out adequate training.

Having said that l have a Current Designs Solstace that is a truck for handling gear and is fibreglass. I just this month acquired a 16’ Necky Chatham and absolutely love it! Tight cockpit and l never thought l could get into it but it fits like a glove and a wet exit is a snap. It is a rotomold but l am thinking l may start looking for a fibreglass version to replace the Current Designs Solstace.

Try them before you buy though l picked up mine for about $500.

You’ve likely seen other paddlers have racks with several kayaks, there’s a reason for that. There is no one boat that does everything equally well. You can do mild winding rivers with a full on touring boat, but it’s not anywhere as easy as with a shorter boat that turns well. Doing open Great Lakes on a short kayak that’s suited for winding rivers can turn deadly, certainly isn’t safe. No kayak shorter than at least 16’ with at biggest a keyhole cockpit belongs on the big lakes.

Basically figure out what you’re going to use the boat mostly for and buy a boat for that, then later you can add to the collection or just rent for other uses.

Bill H.