Shops that let you try before you buy

Whenver a newbie signs on and asks for advice on boats, the near universal response is “try before you buy.” Good advice, I suppose, but I’ve run into more shops that WON’T let you take out a new boat to try more than I have shops that do. Even the ones that do are often very reluctant and have to be pressed before they agree. There are some once-a-year demo days, but if you aren’t free on that particular day (or hear about it after the fact) you’re often out of luck.

I fully expect some responses along the lines of “that’s not my experience.” That’s what I’m hoping for. Please reply with the name or names of shops that you have patronized which are “try before you buy” friendly. A list of these shops would be immensely helpful to newbies looking to buy a new kayak.

Here in Charlotte
Great outdoors provision will bring a boat down for you try, if you contact them. They want you to have the right boat but don’t want to be bothered with people who are not seriously shopping.

Out doors etc (before it closed down ) built a pond out back so you couldsit in the boat and practice rolling.

Dicks sporting goods goes apoletic when you even think about trying before buying…Guess where I don’t go anymore?

has a very liberal return policy. Although it’s not a “try before you buy”, it’s more a “buy and if you don’t like it bring it back and we’ll sell you something else or give you a store credit.” policy. It’s not as good as a free demo, but it’s the best I’ve found in these parts. Again, not a whole lot of water very close. Although there are a few instruction schools with big pools that you can demo in if you are taking lessons.

Shops/designers who allowed me to:
…paddle their boats before purchase of the boat or the design (to build):

Charles River Kayak (Boston,MA

The Kayak Centre (Wickford,RI)

The Sakonnet Boat Shop (RI)

Nick Schade ( …am building his Hybrid Night Heron)

Eric Schade ( ) whose Shearwater Design is now also available thru CLC


Florida Bay Outfitters in Key Largo
For those in this area or willing to drive down, Florida Bay Outfitters is a great Paddle shop. they have done it for me (let me domo)and I have seen them bring down a brand new boat to their bay (which is about 80 feet from their back door) and let you demo.

Remember that a paddle shop understands even better than you do the importance of trying out a boat before you buy. Most of these places must rely on repeat business and I can assure you that they have mine. Only if they do not carry a line that I am looking for will I consider going elsewhere.

As an example. I am not a big time buyer being a relative novice. However, my wife and kids are getting into paddling. We went down there to look at boats and she was able to try out the phoenix 14 ft from Hurricane, Wilderness Systems Tarpons, and they even brought out the brand new Kea’s for the kids to try out with the paddle that comes with it that is the right length for the kids.

When I was looking for a boat for me a few months back, I was able to demo whenever I wanted the same boat over and over again. I rented the boat a couple of times not because I had to to try the boat out but because I felt it wasn’t right to be down there 5 different times in the same boat without being fair to them also.

guess where I am going next month to buy a sit on top for my wife and a couple of Kea’s for the kids?

Many shops have scheduled
demo days once or more per season when they bring a large number of boats to a body of water and allow people to try them out and compare one to another. Check and see if any near you do this. Also, some manufacturers do the same.

Also, you may want to check out the Getting Together board, many felow p.netters will let others give their boats a try.

My experience is that the likelihood that a shop will allow you to demo a boat is higher if it is independent (not a big sporting good store) and inversely proportional to the distance between the shop and the water (shop on the water = very high likihood).


Atlantic Kayak Tours - Peekskill, NY
AKT allows you to paddle up to two kayaks within one half hour (15 min. per boat) for free. For $40 you can rent one or more fiberglass or kevlar boats for three hours. If you buy a new boat from them within a monthof your demo, they’ll refund the cost of your test paddles up to $80.

Also every Thursday night during July and August, you pay $20 for a 2 hour skills session and the opportunity to try any gear - paddles, PFDs, kayaks.

In Oregon :slight_smile:
In Portland:

Alder Creek Kayak and Canoe

Portland River Co.

Scapoosse Bay Kayaks

In Bend: Alder Creek

All of these shops have multiple brands and are ‘on the water’, making demos a no-brainer.


Good folks in Wisconsin and Iowa
Rutabagas and Carls Paddlin’ are located in Madison, Wisconsin. Both let you try out boats. Rutabagas is built on a pond, and Carls is on a narrow waterway. Canoesport Outfitters in Indianola, IA will transport boats to a nearby lake.

I’ve had great luck talking to folks at all three spots. They have knowledgeable sales folks and let you try before you buy. All these folks are worth the 3 hour (one-way) trip from my house.

There is a local shop (15 minutes away) that calls itself a paddling shop that specializes in sea kayaks but also sells a few canoes. They won’t let you take a canoe out for any trial at all. They’ll only let you take their rental kayaks out (a subset of what they’ve got available). I’ve removed them from my “possible” list because of their style which was almost offended when I said I needed to try a boat before I buy it.


another great shop in Wisconsin…
is Zeller’s Ski and Sport in Green Bay. Although they are well into their winter season, during the paddling season they let you demo basically any boat at any time as they are right on the water.

they also
give free workshops (kayak repair, cold water paddling, etc) on a regular basis. The owners are incredibly knowledgeable and generous with their time.


Greensboro, NC
Get Outdoors (Pro Canoe and Kayak) let me use a boat or two. I have also rented boats at a reasonable rate from them.

Kentuky Kayak kountry
In grand rivers ky. they do trips on saturdays that also let people try more than one kayak.

they even will/have take a trailer of difirent kayaks down to nickle branch. so people can try mulitiple kayaks.

Billington Sea Kayaks…
…in Plymouth Mass.

-Florida Bay Outfitters on Key Largo

  • Nantahala Outdoor Center, Bryson City NC
  • There is one on the Homosassa River, but the name slips my mind now
  • Kitty Hawk Kites, Kitty Hawk, NC



In SW Ohio…
Whitewater Warehouse in Dayton is a great source for demos and rentals of ww and touring yaks.

D&D Outfitters in Cinci also allows demos.

Billington Sea
I work at billington sea kayak in Plymouth mass and we do demos everyweekend saturdays 10-5, sundays 11-4 as long as the pond isnt frozen. our website is

Laacke & Joy In Milwaukee

– Last Updated: Oct-17-05 4:50 PM EST –

It has a great selection of kayaks. It's located on the Milwaukee River and test paddles are encouraged.

Rutabaga in Madison is however my favorite....

Fluid Fun…
…in Bristol Indiana usually has about 350 boats in stock. They are located on the St. Joseph River near the Michigan border and are happy to let you test boats. Great people and a great shop.


Oakland, Ca.

– Last Updated: Oct-16-05 10:27 PM EST –

California Canoe and Kayak//

They have a public dock about 100 feet from their front door and allow people to demo their boats. Not sure for how long you can take one out but I do know they let you take it out on the water. I used their demo program where the $200 I paid would give me three months of free use of their boats, plastic I can take away and paddle somewhere else, fiberglass you can't drive away with. At the end of the three months if you buy a new boat from them they put the $200 towards the new boat purchase. Decent group of people.

Hudson Valley NY…Impex dealer
If you’re near Hyde Park NY and are interested in the Impex line of boats go see Marshall at The River Connection. He doesn’t rent but will deduct the cost of a lesson or tour off the purchase of a new boat.

As total beginners, my wife and I spent hours with Marshall discussing which boats would be right for us and trying on just about every boat in the showroom. On our first 2hr lesson (which I think ended up being more like 4 hours) Marshall brought along every model we showed an interest in. Four different boats in all.

We have since gone on two Hudson River tours with Marshall, his wife Dorothy, and Mike, all certified instructors, and the nicest folks you could ever hope to meet. The level of personal attention, professionalism, quality equipment, and spectacular paddling environment made our introduction to kayaking a truly enjoyable experience.