Not much beats a day on the water in the heat of summer. In a kayak, you get an up-close view of the surrounding aquatic habitat and have the freedom to go where bigger boats can’t. Plus, without a noisy engine in tow, you have a better shot of scoping out wildlife or landing a prized catch.
A vessel this versatile comes in different shapes and with varying features, and investing in your own doesn’t have to mean taking out a second mortgage. We found the best models for every type of adventurer, whether you’re fishing, touring, or spending a relaxed day away from the shore. Read quick reviews of our favorite picks below, then keep scrolling for buying advice and in-depth reviews of these and other great options.
Kayaking is a fairly distant activity to begin with, which means it’s probably safe to hit the water despite the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. But remember to check the local regulations at your destination and follow these guidelines on how to recreate responsibly at this time.
Types of Kayaks
Your first choice when buying a kayak is whether you want a sit-in or sit-on-top design. For relaxed recreation on relatively calm water, the type of kayak that’s best for you is a matter of personal preference. But certain features from each design lend themselves to particular types of kayaking.
Sit-in kayaks are good for multi-day touring boat trips and running rivers. The upper deck provides a good amount of protection from the water, especially when you add a spray skirt, like you would use when whitewater kayaking. This type of boat also has more storage space, either in one or more covered hatches or within the bow and stern. However, this space below the deck can fill with water if you tip over, which can make righting the watercraft more challenging.
You won’t have to worry about that with a sit-on-top kayak, which is the best choice if you are paddling in the ocean. The hull is sealed, except for a few small holes called scuppers that act as drains for any water that does find a way inside. Without an upper deck, some people find a sit-on-top kayak easier to get in and out of. Companies may add an elevated seat, which provides a better vantage point and greater range of motion for kayak fishing. Just beware that you will probably get wet while on board, either from paddling, water splashing against your boat, or a combination of the two.
Companies change the shape of a kayak depending on its intended use. A wider boat provides a more stable but slower ride, which is ideal for recreation and fishing. These types of kayaks typically measure between 28 and 36 inches across at their widest. Faster boats, like touring kayaks, are narrower and longer (usually at least 11 feet) so they can move through the water more efficiently. Covering a lot of water quickly might sound appealing, but remember that the longer the kayak, the more difficult it will be to turn.
How a Kayak Tracks
Companies don’t just focus on the basic dimensions of a boat when designing a kayak. They alter the shape of the hull and can add accessories that help a kayak track, or stay on your chosen course despite chopping water or windy conditions. Kayaks with V-shaped bottoms and less curve from bow to stern track straighter than other designs. In rougher conditions, though, you’ll want a boat with a tracking fin, skeg, or rudder to provide more support. A tracking fin and a skeg both extend from the bottom of the kayak, but whereas a skeg can be retracted while you are on the water, a tracking fin can only be removed before you leave terra firma. A rudder flips down from the boat’s stern and its angle can be adjusted in the water, which gives you the greatest degree of control and often the most tracking support.
Pay attention to the weight of the boat, especially if you plan to frequently transport your kayak with a rooftop rack. The heavier it is, the harder it might be for you to lift and carry it from one place to another. You should also make sure the kayak’s capacity is large enough to safely carry you and any gear onboard. (For boats with elevated seats, make sure the chairs are rated to your needs, too.)
You should also find a boat with the features you want, and kayaks meant for specialized activities have customized components. Fishing kayaks have more storage space, so you can haul your bait, tackle, rods, reels, and other equipment. The hull might even have a spot for your fishfinder’s transducer. And so you don’t have to juggle paddling and casting, fishing kayaks are typically operated with a pedal drive system, though this addition won’t come cheap or light. Like fishing boats, touring kayaks also have room for your gear and frequently come with bulkheads to keep water out of the bow and stern.
How We Evaluated
To determine the best kayaks, we researched the market, spoke with product managers, and relied on our own experiences using similar kayaks to the ones on this list. We compared 18 models based on their individual designs, features, weight, capacity, dimensions, and cost. We also read reviews from expert sources, such as Paddling Magazine and Kayaker Guide, and consulted more than 9,800 customer reviews on Amazon, Walmart, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Cabela’s, and REI. All this helped us narrow the list to the eight great options below.
Wilderness Systems Tarpon 105
Type: Recreational or Fishing | Weight: 55 lbs. | Length: 10 ft. 6 in. | Boat Capacity: 325 lbs. | Tracking System: Rudder-capable
The Tarpon is as feature-rich and versatile as it is popular. For 2020, Wilderness Systems adds a few more bells and whistles. Reviewers commend the kayak for its comfortable and adjustable seat that features ergonomic padding. What’s more, while some sit-on-top designs have multiple built-in footrests, the Tarpon has an adjustable system for a custom fit. The Tarpon has a front hatch, side compartments, a new removable dry box near the seat, and a large mesh-covered storage well in the rear. Another new feature is the water bottle strap that has a magnetic closure to quickly secure or release your water bottle or thermos. The recreational kayak has a compatible rudder if you will mostly be paddling on rough waters and can easily transform into a fishing rig. Mount rod holders and other gear to the accessory rails on the sides and just behind the front hatch. When it’s time to cast, make use of the paddle holder on the bow. Reasonably priced to boot, the Tarpon is a winner if you’re looking for a dependable sit-on-top kayak.
Old Town Sportsman PDL 106
Type: Fishing | Weight: 76 lbs. | Length: 10 ft. 6 in. | Boat Capacity: 450 lbs. | Tracking System: Rudder
Old Town pulls out all the stops for this premium fishing kayak. The hefty pedal-operated boat can haul up to 450 pounds, and at 36 inches wide, is very stable. The PDL Drive has bike-like pedals that rotate 360 degrees and also operate in reverse. If you overshoot your destination, simply pedal backward to change directions. Between the front hatch, side pockets, under seat storage area, and the tank well at the stern, you have lots of room to stow your stuff. There’s also a horizontal rod storage system, three rod holders, accessory tracks, and a place to attach a paddle if you want the backup. Also available in a 12-foot model, the Sportsman PDL has a spot to mount your transducer, a padded casting platform, and comes with a tackle box.
Pelican Mustang 100X EXO
Type: Recreational or Fishing | Weight: 39 lbs. | Length: 10 ft. | Boat Capacity: 300 lbs. | Tracking System: None
A good kayak for beginners, the Mustang packs in a lot of features without costing a small fortune. Make use of the two rod holders and cargo space (there’s a front hatch and an included 17-liter storage box that fits behind the set) for an early morning fishing session or paddle leisurely around your nearby waterway. The kayak doesn’t have an additional tracking system, so plan to stick to lakes and slow moving rivers. Its lightweight design makes the Mustang easy to transport and capable of supporting a decent size load. The padded backrest and knee pads adjust to your needs, and you have ready access to your phone and water bottle thanks to the dedicated holders on-board for each. Plus, Pelican stands behind its product by offering a limited lifetime warranty.
Perception Expression 11.5
Type: Touring | Weight: 44 lbs. | Length: 11 ft. 6 in. | Boat Capacity: 250 lbs. | Tracking System: Skeg
The Expression provides all the basic features that you need for touring at an approachable cost. The narrow design favors speed over stability. If you’re used to the feel of a recreational boat, that might be a bit shocking initially, but you’ll appreciate the fast gliding when you’ve got a long day on the water ahead of you. It doesn’t hurt that the kayak is fairly lightweight for its length, either. As for storage, a rear hatch, protected further by a bulkhead at the stern, offers a dry place for your haul, and bungee cords on the deck secure other items. Pack wisely, though, as the kayak only supports 250 pounds. Although the Expression is shorter than most in its category, it is easier to turn and small enough to fit in cliffside alcoves and other spots where other boats can’t go. Plus, you can add a rudder to the boat and keep the skeg stowed when you will be traveling in choppier conditions. If you are just getting into multi-day boat trips, this is a fine entry-level choice.
—BEST VALUE FISHING KAYAK—
Lifetime Tamarack Angler 100 Fishing Kayak
Type: Fishing | Weight: 52 lbs. | Length: 10 ft. | Boat Capacity: 275 lbs. | Tracking System: Tracking fin
Tricked-out fishing kayaks typically cost a grand or two (if not more), but by skipping the pedal drive system and keeping the feature set to only the essentials, Lifetime defies the norm with the Tamarack. The kayak has a decent amount of storage between the two covered hatches and the bungee cords at the bow and stern. There are also three rod holders, including one that adjusts, and a place to store your paddle while you cast. The padded seat keeps you comfortable as you wait for the fish to bite, too. Of course, there are some trade-offs for your savings. The Tamarack is shorter than most fishing kayaks with much less capacity. That means you will cover less water in the same amount of time and will need to pack more efficiently. But you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better deal on a fishing boat than this.
Hobie Mirage Passport 12.0
Type: Fishing or Ocean | Weight: 83 lbs. | Length: 12 ft. | Boat Capacity: 400 lbs. | Tracking System: Rudder
Take to the ocean or prepare to reel in a few catches on the pedal-powered Mirage Passport. The 12-foot model is new for 2020 and, like the original 10½-foot Passport, relies on Hobie’s MirageDrive Classic propulsion system. The pedal drive easily clicks in and out of place, has adjustable cranks that you can set to your height, and operates with a stair-stepping motion. We found it easy to use even in shallow water. The Passport’s wide design ensures a stable ride and the rudder makes it capable in varying conditions. For anglers, the kayak has two rod holders, a transducer cavity, tackle storage, a padded standing platform to cast from, and several accessory rails for mounting gear. There’s also an 8-inch hatch within arm’s reach and storage space at the bow and stern. These features don’t come light or cheap, but the Passport is a good choice for ocean kayakers, anglers, or anyone looking to move through the water hands-free.
Type: Recreational | Weight: 20 lbs. | Length: 9 ft. 6 in. | Boat Capacity: 275 lbs. | Tracking System: None
Under 10 feet and weighing just 20 pounds, the new Inlet is the smallest kayak from Oru yet. That makes it easy to carry and compact enough to fit in the trunk of a sedan or your closet at home. Once you get to your destination, it unfolds in less than five minutes thanks to an easy-to-use buckle-closure system. And like almost every other sit-in kayak, you can still adjust the boat’s backrest and footrest. The Inlet is made with 5 mm double-layered polypropylene, so it offers more protection than an inflatable kayak might if the bottom brushes against some unseen rocks or sunken tree limbs. Because it doesn’t have a tracking system, though, you’ll want to stick to paddling calm waters.
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