In this Guide
Kayaking is quickly becoming one of the most popular ways to explore the outdoors. These slim little boats offer their owners the opportunity to enjoy lakes, rivers and oceans from a different perspective—all while getting a great workout.
Kayaks come with a wide range of designs and features, each built with a specific purpose in mind. Some designs are perfect for cutting smoothly through the flat surface of a lake, while others are meant to ride high along the choppy surf of the ocean. Choosing the right model can be a challenging task, but in the long run it’s well worth the effort!
We’re going to remove some of the mystery from the process of shopping for your next kayak. Our reviews take a deeper look at some of the top selling models on the market, using information gathered from a wide variety of sources, including Consumer Reports, expert opinions, and user reviews.
These are some of our top picks from each category. If you’re not quite sure what to look for, scroll down to our Buyer’s Guide. There, we explain how to pick the right one for you, what to look for in each category, and which important terms to understand when shopping for one online.
Our Guide to the Best Rated Kayaks
Best Inflatable Kayaks
The term “inflatable kayak” might conjure up the image of a rubber pool toy—not exactly the sort of watercraft you’d like to rely on deep in the wilderness or far from the shoreline.
But many of today’s inflatable models are actually sophisticated, durable boats made to handle some of the most challenging elements of nature. They’ve got rugged shell materials that are a far cry from the cheap, easily-punctured rubber crafts of 20 years ago.
These models are favored among people with limited storage space, as well as hikers and campers who need to carry all their equipment on their backs.
In additional to being more portable than their hardshell counterparts, inflatable versions are often less expensive. They’re an accessible choice for family vacationers or other folks who won’t be out on the water every weekend.
When comparing our top inflatable picks, we looked for durability, price, and how each model performed out on the water. Here’s the winner in our matchup:
Top Inflatable Kayak: Advanced Elements AE1012-R AdvancedFrame
Quick take: A hybrid folding frame model that blends performance and portability.
Our top pick among inflatable models is actually a hybrid model, combining the sturdy frame of folding models with the lightweight portability of inflatable models. The Advanced Elements AE1012-R AdvancedFrame offers the best of both worlds.
The AdvancedFrame features a collapsible aluminum frame inside the inflatable body. The metal ribs in the bow and stern help this it to retain some of the tracking and speed of hardshell models.
It’s our favorite inflatable model on the market right now for its seamless blend of portability and performance at an affordable price. We think it tracks and maneuvers just like a hard-bodied model, with comfort and speed to rival any fiberglass boat.
Top Rated Fishing Kayaks
Fishing kayaks are those that come equipped with features and accessories tailored to the needs of anglers out on the water. This usually includes holders for fishing rods and extra cargo space for gear.
Although body shapes can vary significantly among fishing models, fishing models generally have wider bodies for extra stability. This allows users to reel in catches without fear of tipping over. Some models are so stable that they even allow you to stand up to cast!
We’ve put together a whole guide specifically for anglers looking for vessels. In it, we introduce you to a host of great options from budget craft to deluxe boats for the most ardent fishermen.
When finding the best models for fishing, we looked for features that actually proved useful to fishermen and women. We also compared stability, performance, and price. Here’s one of our all-time favorites for using your rod on the water:
Best Fishing Kayak: Malibu Kayaks Stealth 14
Quick take: Stable and versatile with tons of extra cargo space.
Our favorite fishing model is the Malibu Stealth 14, which is renowned for its stability and cargo space.
The Malibu 14 is also a very versatile choice, at home on a wide variety of different bodies of water, from rivers to flat lakes to the choppy surf, according to its owners.
In addition to the ample cargo space provided by the Stealth 14, this one has another unique feature—the “live bait tank” in the center. The center console comes with a plug that allows water to filter in and flow out, allowing fishermen to keep live bait on board.
The Stealth 14 also has a casting platform where anglers can stand up to cast. All in all, this one comes packed with interesting and useful features for fishing—none of which diminish the Stealth 14’s performance on the water. It’s stable, maneuverable, and rides incredibly smoothly in all conditions. If you’re looking for something to fish from, this is for you!
Read more of our Top Fishing Kayaks.
Best Rated Sit-on-Top Kayak
A “sit-on-top” model simply refers to any kayak without the top part to cover the person’s lower body. Instead of your legs running down the front of the craft, you’ll be completely on top of the boat. This broad category encompasses models that are designed for many different functions, including fishing, recreation and surfing. The big advantage of this format is its safety. These kayaks are super stable, and roll much less easily than sit-in models.
In general, sit-on-tops are best for sunny climates because they offer less protection from the elements. They’re also great models for beginners or “weekend warriors,” since you don’t need to learn complex roll or exit techniques to safely operate them.
Another great advantage of sit-on-tops is the low cost. For casual or amateur kayakers, sit-on-tops allow a quick, easy, inexpensive, and fun way to get out on the water.
Best Sit-on-Top Kayak: Perception R15 Pescador 12.0 Kayak
Quick take: A high-end fishing option at an entry-level price.
The Perception Pescador 12 is a sit-on-top model designed for fishing, although most people will enjoy paddling this great model around. We love this sit-on-top because it offers the quality of a high-end option at an affordable price.
That’s not just talk, either—the Pescador is actually a rebrand of a model that cost nearly twice its current price, the Wilderness Systems Tarpon. During the year it came out, the Tarpon topped many “best of” lists. Now paddlers can enjoy that quality at a fraction of the cost.
Owners report that the Pescador 12 is uniquely versatile, equally fun to paddle in lakes and rivers as in ocean surf. Fans of the Pescador 12 call it the best kayak for the money, and it’s easy to see why.The ride is smooth, stable, and responsive, and the vessel has a storage and weight capacity that belies its size!
Read more on our Best Sit on Top Kayaks.
Best Cheap Kayaks for Beginners
If you’re just buying one for the first time, you may be at a loss for where to begin. Luckily, there are some great beginner-friendly models with a gentle learning curve.
When looking for beginner options, the two qualities we looked closely for were stability and price.
Price is important because many beginners are not sure if they want to invest a great deal of money in an activity they haven’t tried yet. Stability is important because stable models are more forgiving of beginner mistakes.
We also looked for durability, as novices will probably bang up their kayaks quite a bit during the learning process.
Finally, we made sure that any option we chose was reviewed by a good amount of first-timers, so we could determine how easy-to-use each model was in the real world.
Top Recreational Kayak for Beginners: Sun Dolphin Aruba 10
Quick take: An inexpensive option with a lot of bang for your buck.
One of the most popular recreational models for beginners is the Sun Dolphin Aruba 10. This 10-foot sit-in model earns high marks among first-time users, and even earns some praise from more advanced users as a secondary option.
The Aruba 10 offers a lot of quality for price. Users say it’s durable and is highly maneuverable. The wide body shape is well-suited for stability, while the narrow front and sides are designed for superior tracking.
It’s also easy to move around on land, with a short length and lightweight body. For beginners, the Aruba 10 offers some of the highest quality among kayaks in the entry-level price bracket.
Read more on our top Kayaks for Beginners.
What to Look for When Buying a Kayak
Before you buy, it’s important to know a little bit about the different types of vessel available. Each one is designed for a specific purpose, and using the wrong model out on the water is at best frustrating, and at worst dangerous.
One of the best ways to learn how design can affect performance is to try out a few different models from a rental shop. The length, shape and weight can all have a profound effect on how it moves out on the water.
Even if you can’t get out on the water in advance, we’ll help you understand the basics of each category. That way, you can at least get a general sense of what you’re looking for. If you’re having a hard time making decisions, you could also try visiting your local outdoor rec store, just to see a few of these things in person before you get back to your online shopping.
Different Kayak Styles
It’s important to buy the one best suited for your intended purpose and the bodies of water you will use it on. Each category specializes in a different area.
This is the most popular style you’ll find available at rental shops and retailers. Recreational vessels are stable, inexpensive, and easy to use. If you’re new to kayaking or just a casual boatsperson, they’re probably what you’ll be looking for.
Models in this category are usually somewhere between 10 and 12 feet in length.
They’re best suited for the calmer waters of protected bays, lakes or ponds, since they aren’t as adept at handling currents, wind or waves. If you want to head out on rougher waters, a sit-on-top model is a better choice.
Touring models provide better performance than recreational models, but are often much more expensive. They’re usually longer (between 12 and 17 feet), and narrower than recreational models.
We generally recommend these to more experienced paddlers who will appreciate the streamlined designs for speed. Experienced folks will also have an easier time staying upright in one of these, since they require some finesse to stabilize and turn.
Touring models are ideal for traveling long distances, and they’re what the passionate journeyer wants, especially inland. Find the right touring kayak for you!
Recreational and touring vessels both fall under the umbrella of “sit-in” kayaks. You sit down in the boat itself, with the prow covering your legs. Sit-on-top models are different. You’ll be completely on top of the boat, aside from some indents for your feet and luggage.
The benefit is that these craft roll much less easily. That’s why they’re more stable and safe for newcomers, as well as anyone who wants to be out on choppy, open waters.
Since sit-on-top options lack the top portion of sit-in models, they’re mostly intended for warmer climates. In cold temperatures, they lack the same amount of protection from the elements as sit-in models.
They’re usually used for recreational purposes, though they’re also quite popular for swimming, diving and fishing. You’d typically use one of these in coastal locations as opposed to rivers or streams, but if safety is a big concern, they work well anywhere. Just don’t expect them to keep up with a sleek touring vessel.
The fishing kayaks category encompasses any model with additional features or accessories for anglers, whether it’s rod holders, extra storage space, or bait wells.
They come in many different designs, although stability is usually a preferred feature in a fishing model. So, you’ll see lots of sit-on-top designs in this category.
Remember that you don’t necessarily need one of these to fish. Many sit-on-top models work well without extra features. On the other hand, if you’re looking to actually mount your pole or have a dedicated bait well, you’ll want something in this category.
Whitewater models—as the name suggests—are designed specifically for navigating whitewater rapids. They’re usually short with a curved bottom to better navigate rapids. In general, we simply recommend sit-on-top models for stability in rapid conditions.
If you’re planning to kayak at sea, you have a few options. For playing around in the surf in warm locations, you can get away with a good sit-on-top vessel. If you’re planning longer jaunts, such as to paddle out to an island, you’ll want a sea-ready version of a touring kayak. The easiest way to learn more, and figure out which is the right approach for you, is to read our review page for the best sea kayaks.
Inflatable vessels used to be a very bad idea indeed, as any older kayakers among you will know. Thankfully, today’s models are much improved!
They’re a good option for people with limited space. Modern inflatable models are durable and versatile, and many can perform quite well on the water.
All else being equal, however, inflatable options do trade some performance on the water for their convenience on land. Learn more by reading our Review for the Best Inflatable Kayaks.
You can also check out our page for the top tandem kayaks in the market. Tandems are the obvious choice for hitting the water with a partner. They’re perfect for families, too! We’ve got all sorts of tandem recommendations, for any conditions!
The dimensions of a kayak—the width, depth and length—have a significant impact on performance. When buying yours, you’ll want to make sure the dimensions are suited for the activities you intend to use it for.
As a general rule, short models are more maneuverable than longer ones. They turn faster, and are more stable. Shorter vessels are better for beginners, for choppy conditions, and anyone who’s going to be doing more leisurely boating. That’s why recreational models are shorter than touring models.
Longer kayaks are better at tracking—the ability to move in a straight line without veering off to the side—and are easier to paddle long distances. Touring kayaks are significantly longer than recreational models for that reason.
Width (sometimes referred to as beam) affects the stability and speed of the kayak. Wider hulls tend to be more stable in calm waters, but tend to move at a slower pace.
Narrow designs can be more difficult for beginners to keep upright, but offer more speed to experienced paddlers. As you become more experienced, you’ll be better able to handle the rolling turn technique needed to use a touring vessel properly.
The depth of the kayak can also affect speed.
The “deeper” the hull of the kayak, the more space and room it has for storage and/or comfort. Taller passengers should look for deeper models for more comfort.
However, shallower kayaks offer less surface area for wind resistance, and tend to be faster as a result. If you’re after speed, you’ll want something shallower.
As you may have noticed, kayaks don’t just vary widely in dimensions—they also come in a variety of different shapes. The shape of a hull is yet another feature that determines the speed, stability, maneuverability, and tracking of a kayak.
Flat-bottomed hulls are generally found on recreational kayaks. They’re ideal for stability in calm waters, and generally don’t require too much training before heading out on the water.
Kayaks with rounded hulls offer slightly less stability, although they are still more stable than V-shaped hulls. The rounded shape allows kayakers to move a bit faster, and these hulls are usually found on day touring kayaks.
Read more: Reviews for Recreational Kayaks
V-shaped designs are the fastest in the water, making it the preferred hull shape for touring kayaks. V-shaped hulls also turn more easily. However, they offer the least initial stability, and require a bit of practice before they can be used effectively.
If you look at a kayak from the side, you may notice that some models curve upward (like a banana) while others are relatively linear and flat (like a cucumber). This is called the “hull rocker,” and more curve means more “rocker,” to use the boating jargon.
The hull rocker affects the kayak’s ability to travel in a straight line or turn. The more rocker a kayak has, the easier it is to turn.
However, hull shapes with less rocker are better at moving in a straight line, making them better suited for traveling long distances.
You can also read our review page for the best kayak seats. Don’t see what you’re looking for here? Want to check out how our picks stack up against the competition? Check out the best selling kayaks on Amazon for the most popular models online today.