The kayak, known as the Eskimo's boat, was originally made from whale bone and seal skins. It sits low in the water, is small, portable, and highly maneuverable. Until the advent of the modern sea kayak, canoes were used in placid lakes and rivers, while kayaks were reserved for whitewater. To make an educated selection you will want to examine the following:
How will you use it?
Have you kayaked before? Where do you plan to use it? Ocean? Lake? Whitewater?
What activities will you be using it for? Camping? River running? Diving? Fishing? How much gear do you need to carry?
Your first decision will be one of style, which will depend on conditions, intended use and personal preference.
The five basic designs
There are five general types of kayaks. The main differences are length, and whether you sit on top of or inside of the boat. Each type has advantages and general use, although there is some cross-over depending on your needs.
River kayaks are designed so that you sit in the boat, legs inside, and seal out water with a spray skirt. This design allows you to roll and stay in the boat. It can be used in any type of water, but is most often seen on rivers and whitewater. (Shop Recreational Kayaks) | (Shop Whitewater Kayaks)
Sea kayaks are modern versions of the traditional Eskimo kayak and are used for touring, and travel-trekking over long distances. They often have gear storage compartments, rudders to steer with and, like the river kayak, you sit in them and use a spray skirt. They are very long in length which allows them to travel fast and track well. (Shop Touring Kayaks)
Sit-on-top kayaks are a recent design that is a cross between a surfboard and a kayak. These boats are often called ocean kayaks, though this is actually the name of the manufacturer that popularized them. One or two models are made for whitewater, but they are best in slower water or the ocean, and are used to dive, fish, observe nature, play in the surf, and all around family fun. (Shop Sit-on-Top Kayaks)
Inflatable kayaks: The ultimate in convenience is an inflatable kayak. Developed for ease of transportation on airlines, in vehicles, or on foot, they breakdown to fit in a bag that is the size of a large backpack. These kayaks are quick to assemble, and store easily, even in a small apartment.
(Shop Inflatable Kayaks)
Pedal Kayaks are the newest kind of kayak and are particularly nice for river fishing since you can pedal forwards or back to hold your position in moving water while keeping your hands free to cast. The hulls range from pure kayak to hybrid kayak /canoe's like the Ultimate. The prop drive is quiet, efficient, and low maintenance. On the downside, you sacrifice a bit of room though because the peddle mechanism takes up space. These boats are for flat waters only and should never be used in whitewater.
( Shop Pedal Kayaks )
Design and feature
Width, length, and hull shape will determine the kayak's stability and maneuverability. Other features, such as inside storage and accessories, provide convenience and use flexibility.
Width, or beam, is one of the most important considerations. The wider the hull; the more stable, and harder to paddle, the kayak will be. A narrower hull is faster and more maneuverable in fast water, so is recommended for whitewater.
Length affects speed and maneuverability as well. Longer boats travel faster, and track straighter. Shorter boats turn better, but don't track well.
Hull design, or the cross section of the boat, greatly influences its stability.
- Initial Stability is a measure of how far you can lean out before the boat starts to tip. This is influenced by the bottom shape; flat, round or V-shaped.
- Secondary Stability is a measure of how far you can tip the boat before it becomes unrecoverable and flips. This is influenced by the shape of the sides. A long, gentle upwards curve provides the greatest secondary stability.
A flat bottom has great initial stability, and so is steady and secure on calm water, which is great for the sports enthusiast as well as the general recreational. Kayaks with a shallow, slightly arched bottom offer the best all-around performance, with less initial stability, but good secondary stability. This works well in waves and whitewater. A round bottom kayak is designed for specialized use. Fast and efficient, it has great secondary stability, but very little initial stability.
Keels, the ridge on the bottom of the boat from bow to stern, provide better tracking in short kayaks, and help the boat resist crosswinds (by decreasing sideslipping). A keel is not good in whitewater, or situations where quick maneuvers are essential. Straight keels have no rocker (the curve of the keel line from bow to stern), which allows for exceptional tracking ability, but lacks maneuverability. The more extreme the keel's rocker; the more maneuverable it will be, but with decreased tracking ability.
This determines weight, durability, and price level. Folding and inflatable kayaks have very different materials than those that are rigid.
- Polyethylene is a nearly indestructible plastic (Think Tupperware) that is molded to the boat design or, in folding kayaks, to the design of the crosspieces. It is fairly lightweight, tough and can be mass produced easily. It is often combined with recycled plastics. Crosslink polyethylene is a structural sandwich of closed cell foam (for buoyancy) surrounded by layers of crosslinked and high-density polyethylene (for strength and abrasion resistance). Though heavy, it is economical, and can take great abuse and be popped back to its original shape. Even when filled with water it will remain afloat.
- Trylon is a type pf Thermoformed plastic used that in recent years has become ubiquitous in the automobile industry. It has a bit more flexibility then fiberglass (maybe too much flex for some people) and is stiffer then Polyethylene. Trylon's greatest strength is that it is lightweight, making it ideal for small fast boats that are easy to carry and load/unload solo. The material is also easier to repair then polyethylene and cheaper to produce, resulting in a lower average price. It's weakness is that - just like the Thermoformed plastic on your car - sudden impacts can break and deform it. So if you're looking for a whitewater boat Trylon isn't for you; but if you're more interested in Class I & II water it might just be perfect. Hurricane Kayaks is the only brand we currently carry that uses this material and they specialize in fast lightweight recreational boats.
- Royalex (Uniroyal) is an exceptionally tough, multi-laminate composed of layers of ABS, ABS foam, and cross-linked vinyl. Moderate in price, a kayak made from this material can be popped back into shape with a minimum of hull distortion.
- Fiberglass (15 - 25% heavier than Kevlar) easily reproduces subtle and sophisticated shapes, and can be formed into the sharpest of all entry lines. It is moderately expensive, and, though fairly easy to repair, is easily damaged, so is not a good material for technical whitewater use.
- Kevlar is very strong, lightweight, and expensive but, because of the lighter weight, makes a boat that is responsive and easy to paddle. It is difficult to repair and susceptible to UV degradation.
- Aircraft aluminum alloy is used for folding kayak frames, is lightweight, strong, and will not rust. It should be anodized to prevent corrosion, and is usually shock-corded for easy assembly.
- Hypalon (Dupont) is a synthetic rubber coating formulated for maximum protection against the sun's ultraviolet rays, and for superior abrasion resistance. It makes the base fabric totally air retentive, and is used in the hull of folding kayaks.
- Cordura nylon (1000 denier) is very abrasion resistant and, when coated, waterproof. It is used for the deck or body skin of folding kayaks.
Other features to consider include:
End loops (or grabloops) are used for easy transport and/or water rescue;
Knee braces give you something to push against for better control, and/or to assist with rolling in whitewater. Sit-on-top kayaks generally have knee straps instead of braces, and Ocean Kayak's Knee Tree helps you to roll an open, sit-on-top kayak;
Rudders, on sea kayaks, are operated with foot pedals, via a cable system. Retractable rudders allow you to learn to steer with your paddle;
Storage ports with watertight hatches, available in most sea kayaks, and some sit-on-top kayaks, to keep gear and equipment dry.
Molded exterior shelves are convenient for photography, fishing, or diving, and can sometimes be an additional seat.
Rules of the water
- Always, always wear a life jacket.
- Prepare for weather changes. Cold is cold, but being wet and cold can cause you to lose valuable body heat 35 times faster than when you are dry.
- Sun can also be a problem. Reflected glare from the water can hurt your eyes and cause you to burn faster. Good sunglasses, sunscreen, and a hat can help to keep you comfortable.
- Don't discard waste, food, or trash in the water. Shorelines and areas near the water are often fragile; take care when using them.
- If you fall overboard into rapid water, position yourself sitting in the water with your feet in front of you (to protect your body from rocks) and face downstream (so you can see where you are going). Attempt to position yourself upstream of and behind your boat, holding on to the upstream grab loop.
- Drinking and boating don't mix, ever.