Buying a kayak
I should preface this by saying that I am writing this geared towards people who are interested in kayaking in Michigan, and mostly in the lower peninsula of Michigan. We do have abundant opportunities for kayaking, from the Great Lakes down to small rivers, but no real whitewater to speak of. For people from other areas, most of this will apply as well, but you should seek out some one with local knowledge for more information.
When people find out that I kayak a lot, they will often say to me that they have been thinking about trying it, then ask me what kayak should they buy. My answer is always the same, borrow or rent a kayak at least a few times before purchasing one, for several reasons. One, you may not like it after you’ve tried it, not everybody does. Two, you may like it, but find that you aren’t cut out for it for some reason.
I have kayaked with several hundred people over the last few years, and most people who try it, love it! But, there have been a couple of people who didn’t like it, and there have been a few people who liked it, but lack the sense of balance needed to remain upright in a kayak. Kayaking does require some physical skill. And it can be a dangerous sport, people drown while kayaking all too often.
The biggest reason to borrow or rent at least a few times is so that you are an informed shopper when you do make the decision to purchase a boat. Do not rely on salespeople to make the decision for you, they will sell you anything just to make a sale, and will often sell you the wrong thing because they are overstocked with that model, and that applies to all your kayaking gear, not just the kayaks.
Kayaks come in a large array of sizes and shapes these days, each is best suited for one type of water. There are long, slim kayaks over 20 feet in length designed for open water kayaking such as the Great Lakes, oceans, or other large bodies of water. There are short stubby kayaks less than 10 feet long designed for whitewater kayaking on rivers, and many models in between.
Before you buy a kayak, you should have some idea where you intend to kayak. If the idea of paddling on Lake Michigan appeals to you, then one of the long, slim boats is probably best for you. But, try taking one of those kayaks down a narrow river choked with fallen trees, and it will be the worst day of your life.
By the same token, taking a whitewater kayak across an open body of water on a windy day will make you wish you had a different boat, and a new pair of arms.
It boils down to tracking versus maneuverability. Tracking is the kayak’s tendency to continue going straight as you paddle. On open water, it is a great thing, especially if there is a breeze trying to blow you off course all the time. But when there’s an obstruction in a river that you are headed straight for, you want to be able to turn your boat to miss the obstruction, and you’ll find yourself fighting against the boat to make it turn.
Maneuverability is a great thing when you’re running a river full of rocks and trees that you need to avoid, but on open water, you’ll tire yourself out trying to stay on course.
Most kayaks fall somewhere between the extremes of the long open water boats, and the short whitewater boats, and they are refered to as recreational kayaks. But there are huge variations within that group, in length, tracking, maneuverability, and other options. There are the traditional sit inside kayaks, and the newer sit on top kayaks to choose from. I can’t tell you which kayak is right for you unless we’ve paddled together a few times.
The general rule of thumb is that for kayaking rivers, a kayak 12 feet long or less, performs best. For kayaking large bodies of water, you should look for a kayak at least 16 feet long.
When considering a kayak, size is the first thing to look at. Not only the length of the boat, but the width as well. They are now making some models of kayaks in narrower versions for women. A petite woman in a wide kayak is going to have to work harder when paddling due to the blade of her paddle being farther away from her hands and shoulders as she reaches out to the water with her paddle in a kayak that is too wide for her. I have the opposite problem, at 6 foot 6 inches and 300 pounds, I have trouble finding a kayak that I can fit into. That’s one reason it is important to try out at least a few kayaks before you purchase, so you’ll know what style and size of kayak fits you best. Even when it comes to width, every one has their own preference. Some people like a snug cockpit and even add extra padding to their boats to make the fit tighter. Others like a more open cockpit, especially if they worry about not being able to exit the boat if they roll. That’s up to you to decide, and you won’t know until you’ve been in a few kayaks while on the water.
I’ll tell you why I chose the kayak I have now, and hopefully you’ll be able to apply these things to your own situation.
First of all, I am an all season, all-weather kayaker, so a sit inside kayak is a must for me. I want to be protected from the elements at least somewhat if I am kayaking in the winter. If you only plan to kayak in the summer, and don’t mind getting wet, then a sit on top may work for you, especially if you plan on fishing from your kayak.
I insist on having a kayak with a dry hatch, a storage area where I can stow things and have them stay dry. I consider that a safety feature as well. The dry storage area acts as a flotation chamber to keep my kayak floating in the event I do go over. I believe the sit on tops all float, I know that some of the sit inside boats sink when they are filled with water. If you have, or you purchase, a sit inside boat with no dry storage area, you should really consider adding some floatation bags that they sell to keep your kayak from sinking if you go over.
Footpegs are a must on a sit inside boat, you actually do more of your maneuvering with your lower body and torso than you do with your arms and shoulders. Ask any one who has paddled a kayak with out foot pegs how they liked it, and you’ll find out how important foot pegs are.
A deck bungee system is almost essential for holding your other gear in place while on the water. If you find a boat you really like but it doesn’t have a bungee system, you or the dealer can add one.
My boat has the option to add a rudder to it, I have never felt the need. I kayak rivers most of the time where a rudder is seldom used, since rivers are shallow in places. For an open water boat, I wouldn’t have one without a rudder.
A drain plug is nice, but I can usually get most of the water out of my boat by flipping it upside down, as can most people. You can always add a drain plug if your boat doesn’t have one.
Some of the other features kayaks may come with such as paddle holders, or small storage areas are nice, but the biggest thing is how well the kayak handles in the type of water that you plan on paddling. It is getting harder to find stores that let you try a kayak before you buy, but it is well worth the effort and the few extra dollars they may charge to get the boat that’s right for you.
Generally with kayaks as with everything else, you get what you pay for. Sometimes an inexpensive kayak isn’t really a bargain. Unless you plan on only using a kayak once or twice a year, please buy a good one. I have seen several inexpensive models that perform really well, but they don’t hold up to very much use at all. I have seen people’s footpegs break, the bulkhead to the dry storage area fall out, and even seen kayaks break from only a light impact. The first kayak of the model I have now developed some cracks in the hull due to a design flaw. The manufacturer replaced that one with the new version free of charge for me, but others haven’t been so lucky. When their kayaks cracked or broke, the manufacturer didn’t stand behind their boats, and the owners were forced to replace or repair the kayaks at their own expense.
That doesn’t mean you need to spend thousands of dollars on a kayak, but I would be leery of some of the cheap kayaks if were you.
To sum it all up, try renting or borrowing a few times until you get the feel for kayaking. Know what type of kayaking you would like to do before you decide to purchase your own boat. Talk to other kayakers about their boats when ever you get the chance, and ask them for their recommendations. Listen to the sales person’s recommendations, but don’t take them as gospel, they are trying to make a sale. They don’t have to paddle what they sell you, you do. At some of the big box stores, the person trying to sell you a kayak may not have ever been in one. Purchase a kayak that fits the way you want to kayak, and your frame. If at all possible, try before you buy. That’s getting harder to do in the west Michigan area now that Powers Outdoors in Rockford has closed, and the Outback in Holland has stopped carrying kayaks, but there are still a few places that will let you try out a kayak before you buy. Remember that just about any option you may want on your boat other than a dry storage area can probably be added to a boat that doesn’t have that option, and base your purchase on the kayak’s performance in the water, rather than options.