- Kayaking is a great way to spend time on the water, no matter if you prefer just paddling out on a calm lake, riding river rapids, or fishing your favorite spot.
- Not all kayaks have the same design, with some meant specifically for sea touring and tandem kayaking, while others are inflatable or use internal pedals for movement instead of paddles.
- We tested over a dozen kayaks from brands like Oru and Dagger to find the best currently available, no matter if you prefer white water, the open sea, or to kayak with a partner.
- Our top sea kayak pick, the Dagger Stratos 14.5, is a highly stable and easily maneuverable boat that performs well in open ocean yet can still be used on lakes and in rivers.
As is the case with many other outdoor activities, kayaking can be as intense or as relaxing as you’d like. Whether you’re looking to enjoy a gentle paddle across a serene lake or an adrenaline-inducing ride through turbulent whitewater, the sport has something to offer just about everyone.
It also makes for an excellent form of exercise and is a great way to bond with friends and family in the outdoors. Kayaks can also be used in both wilderness and urban settings, providing unique perspectives on both environments.
How to shop for a kayak
Unsurprisingly, getting the most out of any kayaking experience starts with having the right boat. Over the years, kayak designs evolved dramatically to the point where you can now buy highly specialized models purpose-built for a specific type of paddling.
If you want to explore coastlines and paddle on the ocean, for example, a longer, more stable sea kayak is required. If gently flowing rivers and flat lakes are more your style, a more traditional recreational or touring kayak is what you seek. And if your goal is to make epic whitewater runs, you’ll want a shorter, more maneuverable kayak designed for those conditions.
In addition to deciding what type of paddling you’ll be doing, there are a few other options to consider as well. For instance, do you want a more traditional sit-in model or a sit-on-top kayak? Sit-in versions tend to offer better performance and feature a closed cockpit that provides a measure of protection from the elements. Conversely, a sit-on-top model leaves the paddler exposed but is often more comfortable, easier to get in and out of, and is better suited for warmer environments.
For those who want to bring a buddy along on their paddling adventures, kayaks also come in tandem versions. These models feature multiple seats, allowing two people to share the same boat. Due to their increased capacity, they’re also longer and more stable than a single-person kayak and have the potential to be faster provided both paddlers work well together. Tandem boats are great for people who know they’ll be kayaking together regularly, allowing them to buy just one boat they can share, rather than purchasing two single-seat models.
What else to consider
The vast majority of kayaks available today are made from a hard plastic shell. This allows them to stay lightweight and provides exceptional levels of performance and buoyancy, although the rigid structure makes transporting and storing the boats a challenge.
Inflatable or folding kayaks overcome those problems, however, with models available that can be stored in a closet or under a bed and transported in the trunk of a car. These types of kayaks tend to sacrifice a bit of performance in terms of speed and tracking but are a viable alternative for those shopping for a space-saving option.
How we test
Each kayak featured in this guide went through a series of on-water tests to see how well it performed across these four categories: Performance, versatility, durability, and value. Specifcally, here’s how each category factored into what kayaks made this guide:
- Performance: How a kayak performs in the water comes down to how well a kayak handles in the water, how stable it is across a variety of water conditions, and how easy it is to steer, paddle, or pedal. Of course, some kayaks are more well-suited to specific conditions and ride styles, and those differences were certainly heeded during our tests.
- Versatility: A recreational kayak may not be the best in white water (or vice versa) but kayaks should still have some level of versatility to them — even if you are just in the market for a hyper-specific boat to do one or two things well. Each kayak has its limitations but the best can at least somewhat handle rides outside their purview.
- Durability: Kayaks can take a beating, whether they’re getting thrown into the back of a truck or stored in a garage among throngs of additional gear. Because of this, boat durability is vital — you’d prefer the thing to last you at least a few years before you ever have to think about it running the risk of taking on water.
- Value: A sum of its categorical parts, value isn’t just an analysis of its price. Of course, that does matter but it’s always better to spend more on one high-quality kayak than to spend less on several shoddy boats.
With this in mind, we’ve hit the water in a number of the latest kayaks to find the best models currently available. We’ve broken our selections down into a variety of categories based on the type of kayaking, so if you’re in the market for a new boat of your own, these are the models that should be on your short list.
Here are the best kayaks:
Updated on 9/23/2020 by Rick Stella: Updated the section on how to shop for a kayak, included a rundown of how we tested each featured product, checked the availability of all recommended kayaks, and updated the prices and links where necessary.