Created thousands of years ago by the Inuit, kayaks were primarily used for fishing and hunting. Even though fishing is still fairly popular when we’re discussing kayaking, it is far from the only use for a kayak. At that time, the kayaks were used as a stealthy way to sneak up behind hunted animals.
In 1931, modern white-water kayaking began. Adolf Anderle was the first to use a kayak and go down the Salzach Gorge, thus marking the beginning of white-water kayaking as we know it today. In 1936, kayak racing was introduced in the Berlin Olympic games. Nowadays, kayaking is a fairly popular sport worldwide.
Kayaks are nowadays made from various materials, and for various purposes. Materials range from polyethylene, which is the most common material due to its performance and price, to carbon fiber and fiberglass, which are more expensive but offer better performance. There are even inflatable kayaks, made out of inflatable fabrics such as rubber or PVC, for those who can’t afford to store a hard-shell kayak and transport it everywhere they need it. As far as purposes go, you will find fishing kayaks, lake kayaks, white-water kayaks, touring kayaks, etc. Their names usually tell you what they’re for, and if you investigate deeper you will find that even though some of them might appear similar, there are some differences that set them apart. For example, you will find mounts for fishing equipment on a fishing kayak, but those are obviously not present on a white-water kayak.
For the purpose of this guide, I will focus on lake kayaks. Lake kayaks are usually user-friendly kayaks for people who want to get out on the water. They are also known as recreational kayaks, and they are easy to maneuver and pretty stable, which makes them ideal for calm waters such as lakes. There are usually large, open cockpits, that let you get in and out with ease, and you can keep your gear inside. They are a great way to enjoy a day out on the water.
If you’re only starting out in the sport, there are a few things to know. The first thing is to know what kind of equipment you will need. The basics are the kayak and the paddle, and you will want to look into a wet suit, helmet and buoyancy aid as well.
We’ll begin with the obvious one – the kayak itself. If you’re a beginner looking to enjoy days out without any specific purpose, you will want a lake kayak, or recreational one, they’re both basically the same thing. You might be tempted by the speed you can achieve in a white-water kayak, but be aware that they require quite a lot of skill to be able to control them. Fishing kayaks can also be interesting, with all their mounts and other bells and whistles, but if you’re only out to have some fun, those bells and whistles will soon start to get in the way. And, last but not least, the storage options of a touring kayak might lead you to believe that you can take everything you need, and more, but that will slow you down severely and trust me, you don’t want that when you’re trying to learn. Therefore, we go back to the original choice – a lake kayak. More on how to choose one below.
The paddle is twin bladed, and they’re usually around 2 meters long. However, the size should depend on your height and the width of the boat, as well as your paddling style, so make sure to get an expert’s advice before you buy. A wet suite will make sure that you stay dry even though you’re constantly getting sprayed with water. A good rule of thumb would be a standard, 4:3 style wet suit, which is 4mm thick on the body, and 3mm thick on the arms, to begin with. A helmet is also important, since it protects your head from rocks and hard objects you may hit. Last but not least, you should invest in a buoyancy aid. If you want to begin kayaking, you probably know how to swim, you should be aware that an injured kayaker can’t swim that well, let alone an unconscious one. Try on a few before you buy and get one that fits tightly, yet gives you room to move your arms, you’ll need them for paddling.
Nowadays, it might seem that just about anyone makes kayaks. There are plenty of brands to choose from, and all have extensive lineups, that are, honestly, confusing for a beginner. Which brand to go for? How much money to spend? Which model to buy? To help you with this, below you will find a guide that describes all the things you need to be careful about when you’re buying a lake kayak, and makes your decision easier.
When buying a kayak, there is one big trade-off to think about, and that is tracking versus turning. A boat that tracks well, which means it maintains a straight line with ease, doesn’t turn well. This is something that you should be aware of when buying, and keeping in mind the locations where you’d like to paddle can help with the decision.
Stability is the other important design consideration. A lake kayak is usually fairly stable, mostly due to the hull design. The hull has a flat bottom, which gives you the most initial stability in flat water. There are two ways to define stability, primary and secondary stability. The primary, or initial stability, is noticeable when a boat is at rest. This will give you an idea of how easy it will be to enter and exit the boat, as well as how comfortable you’ll feel when it is moving fairly slowly. If you’re a beginner, high primary stability can be very beneficial. Secondary stability, or final stability, is the feeling of tipsiness when the boat is moving. Generally, if a kayak has high initial stability, it will not be as stable in rough conditions. And the other way around, if a boat feels tipsy when at rest, it tends to become fairly stable in rough conditions. When you’re getting a lake kayak, you will be moving in flat water, and chances of rough conditions are very slim, which means you need to aim for high primary stability. Advanced paddlers often need a boat with higher final stability, because that means that the boat will be much more stable once they pick up some speed and the conditions get a bit worse.
Inflatable kayaks are a pretty interesting category. They can be deflated in a matter of minutes, which makes them much easier for storage and transport. They are certainly ideal for people who have smaller cars with no roof racks, or people who can’t really afford to store a large kayak in their home. However, they do come with a performance loss over hard-shell kayaks. They tend to be more difficult to maneuver, and often slower. Maneuverability is important, especially for beginners, and a slow kayak can take away part of the fun.
As far as materials go, they’ve certainly come a long way from the initial ones that were used by the Eskimos to make their kayaks. Nowadays, you can choose from plastic and fiberglass to carbon and wood, and even inflatable fabrics. However, they all serve different purposes and all come at different price ranges, so read on to see which to go for.
Plastic is by far the heaviest, and the most common variety you’ll find is polyethylene. However, it is extremely resistant to damage, which can be fairly beneficial if you’re a beginner. It is recycled from consumer and industrial scrap, and can be easily recycled afterwards. Most beginner kayaks are made of polyethylene, and there are a few reasons for that. First of all, it is a bit heavier, which makes it a little more stable, even though it is slower. Second, it is usually very cheap, and always much cheaper than premium materials such as carbon or Kevlar. As far as lake kayaks go, if you’re after a hard-shell kayak, polyethylene is the way to go.
Fiberglass is a bit more rigid, and as a consequence, more efficient. However, unlike plastic, once you damage it, it cracks on impact and is fairly difficult to repair. It comes at 2/3 of the weight of polyethylene, but a beginner kayak paddling on a lake will not even notice that, and the damage resistance trade off isn’t really worth it. The same can be said for exotic materials, such as Kevlar or carbon. They’re even lighter, but more susceptible to damage, and they’re also quite expensive.
Inflatable boats, as we mentioned, are best for portability and storage, but they do come with tradeoffs in terms of performance. They usually sacrifice speed, and tracking, and the price and performance can range from cheap and not very good ones, to some expensive and high-performance models.
When you’re looking at a kayak, if you need it for recreational paddling, a large cockpit is always welcome. And, you will find that most lake kayaks do indeed have large cockpits, and you shouldn’t buy one if the cockpit is small and offers limited space. Why, you may ask? First of all, you need to feel comfortable. A whitewater kayak will have a snug cockpit, since you need to move your entire body to maneuver the kayak. However, in a recreational kayak, that is not necessary, and comfort is much more appreciated. Next, if you’re out for fun, you will probably want to bring some gear such as binoculars or a camera with you. A large cockpit will let you store this inside, and have it near you at all times, so you don’t have to dig though the storage compartments. One more thing a large cockpit offers is easy entry and exit. With time, you will come to appreciate if you don’t have to struggle for a few minutes to get comfortably inside your kayak.
The inside organization of the cockpit is also important. It contains all the contact points between you and your kayak, and you need to make sure that all of them are per your specifications. Your feet are constantly laying on the foot braces, so you should look for ones that suit your size, or maybe even adjustable ones that let you choose your position accordingly. Adjustable foot braces or pegs will also keep the price higher should you want to sell the kayak afterwards. The seat should be fairly comfortable, since even as a recreational paddler, you will most likely spend a few hours out on the water, and a comfortable seat is important in such a situation. You wouldn’t want to be dealing with pain and cramps, would you?
Touring kayaks are famous for having plenty of storage area, but you might not find that with a lake kayak. However, you might even not need it. If you only plan on spending a few hours on the water, you don’t need a huge hatch and two bungee rigs on the bow and stern. You only need the essentials, and considering how spacious lake kayaks tend to be, you can count on the storage provided to you by the cockpit itself. However, when you’re out in the water, you’re most likely to have some sort of electronic devices with you, such as a smartphone, and possibly other items that you’d prefer if they stay dry, such as a wallet or card holder. For these situations, you will want to have a waterproof hatch, albeit a small one, that can keep your essentials dry. Most lake kayaks offer this, but it is an important thing to keep in mind when buying one.
Last but not least, when buying a lake kayak, your budget is another important part. Kayaks range from fairly cheap, to pretty expensive ones, and you should set your budget before you even start looking at them. You will undoubtedly be tempted by a kayak made of more premium materials, or one that comes with a lot of bells and whistles, but the truth is that you often don’t even need them. As far as brands go, you will find plenty to choose from, but going with a reputable manufacturer will almost always guarantee a higher quality, and better customer support in case you need it. Manufacturers worth mentioning include, but are not limited to Ocean Kayaks, Perception Kayaks, Riot Kayaks, Wilderness Systems, Malibu Kayaks, Old Town Canoes and Kayaks, Jackson, Sun Dolphin etc. These are all brands that have quite a few recreational models, and you can choose one according to your budget and requirements.
There is actually a pretty easy way to describe a lake kayak. Take a touring kayak. Then, remove most of the storage available, enlarge the cockpit, add a couple of inches of width and shorten the boat by a few feet. There, you now have a recreational kayak. They’re usually 10 to 12 feet long, and they’re by far the most stable kayaks you can buy. Even though they won’t go anywhere especially fast, you can be sure that they are very beginner friendly and comfortable. If you simply want to get on the water and not much more, they’re your best bet. The only thing you usually give up is speed, but if you’re out to have fun, speed isn’t such a big deal anyways. Shorter boats usually mean that the water has less time to get out of the way, and fill the space behind the kayak, and if you try to move too fast, you will have a big bow wave as a consequence. If you take your time, however, you will preserve energy and still get anywhere you want to. A good analogy would be an under-powered compact car. As far as performance goes, it’s not a big deal, but it will get you from point A to point B. They’re fairly fuel efficient as long as you drive them the way they’re intended to, but if you try to peg the speedometer, you’re in trouble. All in all, for people who are usually beginners, and want something to get them out on the water and keep them stable, a lake kayak is the best bet. And the guide above should help you choose one and not make a mistake.