The Kayaking Popularity Explosion

While out on a local lake two days ago, I happened to notice no less than a dozen kayaks. Ten years ago, perhaps, there would have been two. I’ve been around boats most of my (long) life. I started thinking about just “when” kayaks started to be seen everywhere, and why? (I don’t think I saw more than two or three kayaks on midwestern waters during the last half of the previous century. Was I not looking?)


You’ve got to be where they are when
they are.

That will vary from season to season and for different weather conditions.

I don’t have an answer to your question.

I paddle my solo canoes a bit more often than my kayaks.

I’d say 10 years ago
I can’t tell if the “explosion” is still going on, but I bet I saw almost two dozen kayaks on car roofs today, and that was in about 40 minutes of driving. I would estimate that kayaks have been nearly as popular as right now for close to ten years. Rec kayaks are cheap to buy and easy to use, and they are everywhere.

Not so here as a blanket rule.
Maine Island Trail monitors noted far more overnight kayak activity twenty years ago than now. Today the trend is toward quick day trips that are led by outfitters.

The cycle on the Maine ocean does not necessarily reflect cycles elsewhere.

So on inland lakes yes rec kayaks are in profusion. Twenty years ago there were none. When registration starts up along with collection of excise tax you can bet most of those rec kayaks will disappear.

So there is no one answer. In the Adrrondacks you will hear of an explosion of pack canoes. Not kayaks.

its all about plastic, not performance
What is happening with “rec” kayaks also happened with whitewater boats in the 80s. Durable plastic boats became more readily available and became affordable. You’re seeing that on a large scale with all sorts of retailers selling “rec” kayaks. Kayaking has gone mainstream. School is out, the weather is warm, so right now you see a lot of “casual” paddlers. Typically, in my neck of the woods, Southern WV, you mostly see whitewater kayaks but now if you drive on route 19 you notice lots of rec kayaks, usually in the back of pick up trucks. They have replaced and surpassed the popularity of the aluminum John Boat sold by Sears.

What’s fascinating to me is how different parts of the country reflect different boats and styles of paddling. Whitewater play kayaks and rafts are the norm where I live. Touring boats, not so much. I’ve never seen a wave ski, paddle boarding is considered an oddity, and we have our own version of a “guide boat”, its called a dory. I’ve never seen anybody pole in wv or even paddle a canoe made of Kevlar. I have a much harder time finding folks who will paddle a class I or II stream than a class III, IV.

What I like about this website is its diversity. We all embrace “paddling”. Is there a right way to do it? Sure there is, its my way of course!

compared to…
“The Kayaking Popularity Explosion”

Should have seen the early 1970’s and the “The Bicycling Popularity Explosion”. Suddenly everyone was doing it – and one thought “What are you all doing getting involved in MY hobby?” :^D :^D :^D

popular culture and recreational cycles
I worked in the wilderness recreation business in the 70’s and had friends that were outfitters well into the 90’s. Also been a member of a wilderness activities club for over 40 years, so I’ve watched with interest the cycles of sport popularity. In the 70’s it was backpacking, Nordic skiing (on mostly wooden skis with bamboo poles!) and mountaineering oriented rock climbing and alpine ice climbing.

By the 80’s backpacking had waned and the hot sports were windsurfing, extreme rockclimbing (redpointing 5.10 and up routes while dressed in flashy lycra)and mountain biking. Orienteering had a brief run in popularity and standard Nordic ski touring lost ground to waxless plastic skis and “skating”.

In the 90’s the fad for alpine mountaineering began to grow (with the proliferation of young tech millionaires and empty nest Boomers willing to pay guide services to hustle them up notable peaks worldwide). There was a surge in specialized WW kayaks and WW rafting took off. Single track extreme mountain biking also grew madly during that decade and outdoor high tech gear became the style rage on high school and college campuses. With the rise of SUV’s as a “be cool” must-have, they were increasingly accessorized with skis, canoes, WW kayaks, off road bicyles and surfboards.

In the ought’s (first decade after 2000) it seemed to me that the popularity of the “Survivor” and Bear Grylls sorts of shows, blended with the paranoiac atmosphere prompted by 9/11 and the rise of apocalyptic religious and political mindsets, led to a resurgence in interest in backpacking (though more as a practice for having to “live off the land” due to circumstances rather than for enjoyment of the outdoors.) In fairness, increasing environmental and “green” awareness also led to more people taking camping and hiking vacations. I also suspect that the popularity of TV shows like the X Games broadcasts and the various reality overland races prompted more interest in kayaking during that decade.

Now that we are in the 2K teens (not sure what else to call the decade that started in 2010) SUP’s seem to be blossoming and I am noticing a resurgence in canoeing as well as an explosion in rec kayaking and even kayak touring. Hard to tell what is coming up next. I suspect one trend we will see is more new and improved lightweight rigid, inflatable and folding kayaks and canoes.

Odd sidebar: a single friend of mine who has been an obsessive dater through the personal ads for about 10 years has commented that 8 out of 10 personal ads he reads list “kayaking” as a hobby. But when he asks women he dates about their paddling experience, most confess they have “rented a few times” or “have not kayaked yet but think I would like to.”


– Last Updated: Jun-26-13 10:40 AM EST –

In the twin cities MN, I see a lot of of plastic kayaks, SUP's and low level (plastic/alum) canoes. SUP's have really exploded in popularity up here (for some reason)

somewhat common are nice canoes (fiberglass, kevlar, carbon)

Less common are sea kayaks, and surf skis. It kinda depends on where you are though. In the city there are more SUPs and rec kayaks. I assume this is related to space constraints and availability (lots of places rent boats like this). In the burbs by my house there are more sea kayaks, skis and nice canoes, but everyone has a 2-4 car garage to use as a boathouse (and a couple extra bucks to burn on toys)

Your thoughts would live longer on
Paddlers Place Discussion Forum.

Plus, what’s to think about? I have eight canoes and four kayaks.

But I can only take up one boat’s spot on the lake.

One observation not enough, & gas prices
You saw a lot of kayaks on that one day. It could be nothing more than a school or other group. If it were lots of onesie-twosies separate paddlers on many days, that might show a local trend. But not just a bunch of them on one day in one place.

Based on seeing the daily inundation of youth groups from ONE (greedy) outfitter at one of my old practice places, somebody could get a wildly inaccurate view of kayaking popularity there. A lot of people going out once or twice a year does not equal a lower number of people who go out many times each. I know that despite those crowds there, kayaking was not popular in that area (except for WW kayaking). Not ten years ago, not last year, or anywhere in between.

There WAS, however, one odd little blip of popularity. It occurred around 2008 when gas prices first hit $4/gallon. That summer, lots of fishermen and some boaters told me they were interested in buying a kayak, to avoid the gas costs. It was a short-lived blip, similar to but smaller in magnitude than scooter popularity or driving at slower speeds–both of which were also motivated by desire to reduce gas consumption. When gas prices came down, however slightly, both trends vanished. There must be an awful lot of barely-used scooters sitting around.

No good numbers - reports
prior thread

Kayaks are fading out …
SUP is the explosive growth market.

Will eventually come to where you are .

Availability of cheap rec boats
The availability of cheap rec boats started an enormous surge in paddle sport popularity. Dicks Sporting Goods, West Marine, Ocean State Job Lot etc. Who would ever think that these places would be selling $350. recreational kayaks. Many of these people advance to much more expensive boats and also learn good skills too. I think this price availability has turned kayaking into a very common commodity.

People refer to the word “kayaking” now with these beginner boats in the assumption as this is what “kayaking” is.

I just came back from Traverse City, MI a meca for Midwest/Michigan outdoor sports. On the roads and in the parking lots two out of every three cars had a rack with some sort of recreation item, in order it was kayak, SUP and then bike. In seven days across northern Michigan I saw only two boats that would not be considered recreational and those two were hanging under a dock on Mackinac Island. I was thining “all of this awesome shoreline and water and these people are just bopping around the bays in these plastic tubs?”

I was severely disapointed in the lack of higher end kayaks rolling along the highways. Lots of factors to consider is that maybe the locals have their gear stored at home and the cars we saw were vacationers brining their plastic pelican kayaks north? While we did see a lot of rec boats, on the other hand there was a lot of money rolling around on car tops in SUP’s. There aren’t many poly SUP’s on the lower end of the price scale, so you’re easily paying $1500+ for a decent SUP. In the retail market, every sporting goods store had 10+ rec boats strapped to the outside of their buildings while we saw no less than five surf shops what carried high end SUP’s and the trendy board gear that goes with the sport.

Just a few observations,


We see some SUP’s for day paddling
but canoes still reign. We have wilderness tripping opportunities nearby that are more canoe than kayak oriented…

Meaning portages are involved. The funny thing is this is the heartland of SUP. Its called poling. And it can be done in a standard canoe. Some polers have started to use SUP paddles for the open lakes… That’s a trend you might not see everywhere.

kayaks everywhere
They are cheap and light. That appeals to newbies.

no. They are simply cheap
Light and strong always is more expensive.

Great thread!
This is one of the most interesting threads I’ve ever seen on PNet, especially Willowleaf’s summary by decade of the outdoor fads.

There’s been an explosion of plastic rec kayaks where I live in central NC (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill) with a couple of big lakes to use them on. But there are also lots and lots of people here with high-end sea kayaks including home-built wooden kit boats and strippers. The aea kayakers get to the coast when they can, and to the lake when they can’t. Lots of sharing of skills here with novices.

But, oh, how I wish I could spend a month in Maine every summer!

Ginger in NC


– Last Updated: Jun-28-13 3:31 PM EST –

The lady who cuts my hair knows I kayak. Yesterday she asked me if I had any advice on kayaking near Beaufort and Shackleford Banks. Her immediate and extended family have gotten into the fishing kayak thing but apparently they like to tour around in them as much as fish out of them.

Splashing yes, Paddling no

– Last Updated: Jun-28-13 9:28 AM EST –

In Michigan I see many ""floatin' tubs"" but few that
have any knowledge of paddling, stroke mechanics, etc.
Just because someone buys a kayak for $200 doesn't
automatically mean they know a drip about kayaking.

People seem to want cheap splash fun, and have little
interest in the fact that kayaks "transport" people
to and from a destination (often with cargo) .
A simple 5 mile or 10 mile afternoon paddle
is an ordeal many rec paddlers have trouble with.

From what I've seen, they want to float,
more than they want to actually paddle.
A $200 kayak is one teeny tiny step up
from a brand new tractor tire inner tube.