The 5 Best Beginner Kayaks [Reviews]
Trying to find your perfect first kayak can be tough, my beginner kayak buying guide will set you in the right direction
A good kayak suited for the water you’re kayaking in is the difference between a bewitching adventure or horrid nightmare.
However, there are so many kayaks out there! How is anyone supposed to choose?
Have no fear! We compiled a comprehensive beginner kayak buying guide to give you the information you need to make an informed decision.
In this article we reviewed the following kayaks as we found them to be the best kayaks for beginners:
What To Know Before Buying The Best Beginner Kayak
When you are looking to buy your first kayak, there are some things you need to ask yourself before you begin your search to ensure that the kayak you get is the right one for what you want to do.
Purpose of the kayak
The first questions you want to ask yourself is: what do you want to do with your kayak? Are there gentle rivers you want to float down to relax? Is there a great fishing spot on the lake? Do you want to chase the whitewater rapids down the canyon?
These are essential questions to ask because fishing kayaks will not work well on rapids. Kayaks designed for stability and maneuverability in the rapids will not be pleasant to relax on the river. If you are doing long touring kayak trips, you’ll want a thin, lightweight kayak with room for storage.
Fishing kayaks are made specifically with fishers in mind. They’re not racers nor would they be good for overnight or long-distance trips. Instead, they are designed to give you a comfortable morning with plenty of room for your poles, bait, and any fish you might bring back. The thing that attracts people to these boats is that you can approach low water zones that a standard fishing boat just can’t get to.
Recreational kayaks are perfect for floating down the river or paddling around the lake for fun now and then. It’s an excellent beginner kayak since it is typically wider and thus more stable. These kayaks are often the cheapest ones on the market and are readily available at any hunting store or even a Walmart.
There is a trade-off for that stability, however. Because of the shape required for stability, it doesn’t cut through water or wind as well. It also causes more drag, making it harder for you to go far or fast, all this makes them the best beginner kayaks overall
A touring kayak can be considered a “step-up” from a recreational kayak–it goes far and fast. Its long, narrow shape will also cut through the winds and currents. The length also helps it to keep going straight.
A touring kayak is not recommended for a beginner kayak until you’ve had a little bit of experience in a recreational kayak. That’s not to say you can’t do it, but most people find it easier to get their bearing with a significantly more stable kayak before moving to the shakier touring kayak.
Kayaks for whitewater rapids are built for speed and maneuverability in tight places. Depending on what kind of rapids you are looking to go through will change which kayak you are looking for. For example, there are the short playboats that are used for surface tricks to the “all-mountain” river runners for the common whitewater rafter to the long creekers for overnight trips. Knowing where you’ll spend most of your time will help you to pick the one most suited for your rapids.
It’s a misnomer that kayaks are for one person and canoes are for multiple people. It is true that due to a canoe’s design, they can take more people than a kayak typically can, but it’s common for kayaks to be tandem. If you are looking to share a kayak ride with someone else, whether it be your spouse, a friend, or your son or daughter, this might be a kayak to look into.
These kayaks are designed to be stored or transported in small places. Inflatable kayaks can be cheaper than their hardshell relatives sometimes and are significantly lighter to carry. While some people are concerned that the materials used to construct it is easily punctured, however, they are designed to be strong enough to withstand everything from rocks to fishing hooks.
One Of The Best Sit On Top Kayaks For Beginners
This is a fairly middle-of-the-road sit-on-top kayak that’s great for those just getting into the sport. As a sealed sit-on-top, it’s essentially unsinkable (you might end up wet, but the boat doesn’t have any compartments to fill with water. The Access’s hull design is built for stability, with a 31-inch width and an aggressive chine (how sharply angled the hull’s bottom is); it doesn’t feel the slightest bit tippy.
Superior Tracking And Maneuverability
Perhaps the best thing about Perception’s Access is the kayak’s superior tracking and maneuverability. For a nine and a half foot boat, the Perception Access does a fantastic job at tracking a straight line, something rarely seen in small kayaks. This is most likely due to the hard chine-style hull, which is very angular and has a strong centerline running down the hull. To the sides of that centerline though are two more lines and a flat bottom that lifts the hull out of the water as you’re going forward. This helps the Access stay higher above the waterline so doesn’t encounter as much drag.
Plenty Of Gear Storage
At 50 lbs. it’s not the lightest kayak of the bunch, but that’s to be expected of a sit-on-top model. The grab handles on both sides of the cockpit allow for solo carrying, but it’s not a comfortable experience – better to carry it with a partner by taking the bow and stern handles. It also does a decent job at holding all your gear, with large bungee tie-down areas at the bow and stern. However, the Access doesn’t have any in-hull storage, so that’s something to keep in mind if you’re bringing items that can’t get wet.
Probably the best Beginner Kayak around
The Access from Perception Kayaks is a good choice for paddlers looking for an easy to handle sit-on-top that isn’t overly expensive. With its large storage areas, it’s even a solid option for kayak anglers. This makes it our choice for the best sit on top kayak for beginners
A Top Flatwater Kayak For Beginners
While Old Town is better known for their canoes, their Dirigo 106 is one of the better flatwater kayaks on the market right now. Built from three layers of polyethylene, it’s one of the most durable kayaks you could get as a novice paddler. However, at 42 lbs. it’s not especially heavy for a boat that’s ten and a half feet long. Old Town’s reputation comes at a price though, so expect to pay at least double what the budget models cost.
An Easy To Paddle Kayak For Beginners
The Dirigo 106 is easy to paddle, but it’s not a starter boat, and comes with quite a few extras not seen on cheaper kayaks. The rear hatch has a great waterproof seal to keep your gear dry should you enter choppy waters. Deck rigging on the bow and stern can be used to hold your paddle if you’re taking a break or doing some fishing. There’s also the Glide Track foot brace system that lets you easily adjust the footpegs to keep your thighs in the most comfortable and most effective bracing position. But what really stands out is the comfortable seat, with a plush cushion and fully adjustable backrest; it’s a cut above most kayaks designed for beginners.
Made With Beginners In Mind
The Dirigo’s hull was made with novice paddlers in mind too, as it’s near impossible to capsize the incredibly stable hull. The hull flares quite a bit around the cockpit, which makes this one of the easier boats to get in and out of. However, that wide middle does create more drag, so don’t expect this to be a very fast kayak.
The Dirigo is a good choice for paddlers that want a high-quality boat that they won’t need to trade in for something better in a year or so. If you’re only using it on calm water and will be utilizing the extra features that it offers, it’s worth the price for a good beginner river kayak
A Kayak To Move You From Beginner To Advanced
Wilderness Systems is known for building kayaks for more experienced paddlers, and the sit-in Aspire 105 straddles the line between the beginner and intermediate market. Out of all the kayaks reviewed, the Aspire is one of the most costly, but also the most well made.
It terms of handling, the Aspire 105 is second to none, tracking better and having greater maneuverability than nearly all of its competitors. Its ability to keep a straight line is mostly due to its drop-down skeg, which can be deployed on longer outings and when the water gets rough. However, it also has a flattened hull shape that glides over the water and is able to make very quick turns. It should be noted that those turns will take longer with the skeg down; there’s always a trade-off between tracking and maneuverability.
It’s Heavy Because It’s So Durable
One problem that the Aspire 105 has is weight though, coming in at 48 pounds. The Aspire has a thicker hull than most models, which gives it great protection against bumps and scrapes but also makes it less portable. If you’re not going very far from the car to the put-in point this won’t be much of an issue. Unfortunately, Wilderness Systems commitment to higher-end materials didn’t extend to the rear hatch, which is constructed from lightweight plastic that is more prone to breakage and warping.
Overall The Best Sit In Kayak For Beginners
The Aspire 105 is a great beginner boat, especially for those that don’t want to spend money upgrading in the near future. If you aren’t doing whitewater or long-distance trips, it will perform well for a number of years and you won’t have to think about getting something new anytime soon.
One Of The Best Budget Beginner Kayaks
Sundolphin’s ten-foot-long sit-in Aruba is one of the most basic kayaks a beginner can purchase and it’s priced well for those not wanting to spend a lot on their first boat. The Aruba 10 is constructed of relatively thin polyethylene, which weighs a paltry 40 pounds – not bad for a hardshell of this size. If you’re new to kayaking and aren’t sure if you’re up for lugging a big boat around, this is one of the most portable models out there right now.
Easy To Maneuver For Beginners
As for the hull, Sundolphin went with a planing hull design and a steeply angled bow. This type of hull rides high in the water, meaning you won’t encounter as much resistance from the water during a turn. Overall, the Aruba is one of the most maneuverable boats for beginner kayakers. On the other hand, you’ll need to make more adjustments to keep it on track; a situation where that resistance to turning would be an asset.
However, the Aruba is no star in the comfort department, with a molded plastic seat and thin backrest. Many users will be irked by its footpeg adjustment system too, which requires you to climb inside the kayak’s cockpit to unlock and reposition them. Most boats have a small handle that you can twist near the seat to unlock the pegs, which makes this seem like a bit of an oversight.
Lacking In Storage Space
Those wanting ample storage in their kayak might also be disappointed with the Aruba. With only ten feet of length, there’s really not much space in front or behind the paddler. There’s a small indentation for a water bottle behind the bow, with bungee straps to secure it and a little hatch at the stern that’s somewhat difficult to open from inside the cockpit without turning yourself into a pretzel.
Another Great Sit On Top For Beginners
The second sit-on-top on the list, the Frenzy from Ocean Kayaks is something of an upgrade over Perception’s Access. It’s around the same size at nine and a half feet and a very similar weight of about 50 lbs. It also has a bow and a stern tank with bungee cord tie-downs to provide more adequate storage space.
A Most Stable Kayak For Beginners
The most noticeable difference between them comes in the hull design; the Frenzy has an even more aggressive chine than the Access. It retains the strong centerline but doesn’t have as much of a planing hull. On one hand, this makes for better tracking, and as such, the Frenzy is a slightly better touring kayak. It’s also very stable, so it shouldn’t feel tippy and it might even be a good choice for a fishing kayak. However, it does harm in the maneuverability department. While the Frenzy is still one of the best beginner kayaks, it takes more time and effort to execute a turn with it.
Offering Great Primary Stability
One of the other complaints with the Frenzy is that it has a rather narrow seat that’s only 18 inches across. Larger paddlers might find this uncomfortable and constricting – the exact opposite of what you want from a sit-on-top model. The narrow seat is most likely due to Frenzy’s unique hull shape though, which is designed to give it good primary stability (the resistance to tipping to one side or the other) and secondary stability (the resistance to flipping over completely once the boat is leaning significantly). It’s hard to find a boat that does both, so if you’re searching for a very stable kayak, the Frenzy might be your best option.
With Perception Kayak’s Access being so similar, the extra cost of the Frenzy is only justified if you’re prioritizing stability over all other factors. If that’s the case though, the Frenzy could be the perfect kayak for you.
The Best Beginner Kayak Buying Guide
Should I sit inside or sit on top?
A kayak’s seats are designed in two main ways. One way has you sitting on top of the kayak, the other sitting inside the kayak. The best option depends on where you will be kayaking and what the weather will be around you.
If it’s warm a sit on top will be fine, if you don’t want to get wet a sit in will be a better choice
Sit inside Kayaks
This version is typically used for touring and whitewater kayaks. It tucks you down inside the frame of the kayak. This gives you more protection against the wind, and enables you to cut through it better. It also shelters you against the elements if you are kayaking on a cold day or in cold waters.
Because you are sitting inside the kayak, there’s less storage room and it’s harder getting in and out. You also don’t have the option to switch your positions around. When you are in the kayak, you are in.
Sit on top Kayaks
This is the version used frequently by recreational or fishing kayaks. It’s easier to get in and out. It also has more storage room since there aren’t walls built up around you. You can shift your position so that you are always comfortable.
Sit on top kayaks are better for warm, calm weather since they don’t provide you with any protection nor do they help you cut through the wind.
One of the materials often used for beginner kayaks is plastic. Plastic is good because it’s one of the cheapest materials and it’s sturdy. With some materials, you have to be careful about bumping into things lest you scratch or dent it. Not so with plastic. I’ve bumped mine into rocks, the riverbank, pushed myself across a sandbar when the water got low and scraped it over trees that lay right below the surface of the water. In the water, it works great.
Out of the water, it’s heavy, especially if it’s a rotomolded kayak (a kayak that is all one plastic piece). Also, it doesn’t dismantle or deflate for easy transportation. Depending on your vehicle and the length of your kayak, you might have to invest in a rack for your car or a trailer.
If you want a kayak that is durable, but lighter than the plastic, look into composite kayaks. They have less drag than the plastic kayaks and, because of their stiffness, are very responsive in the water.
If you have areas where you will be doing a lot of portaging (carrying your kayak and gear over dry land to the next body of water), your back and shoulders will thank you for going with the lightest kayak possible.
Kayaks can also be made out of wood. It creates a gorgeous kayak that can be even lighter than a composite kayak. However, people who have wood kayaks usually build it themselves or pay someone else to buy it for them. This drives the cost up. A wood kayak is meant for gentle waters, so do your best to keep it off of whitewater rapids.
It’s necessary to take the length of the kayak into consideration. A short kayak can spin around in an instant, but because of that, it’s harder to keep going straight. A long kayak is easy to keep it headed where you want to go, but not so great for turning.
Longer kayaks also have more room for storage. If you are going on an extended trip, you want to make sure that the size you get has the space you need for tents, food, and any other equipment you might be taking.
Another consideration is transportation. If you have a smaller vehicle, a long kayak might not work for you, or you might have to get a trailer to haul it in.
Width and depth
The width and depth of a kayak also play a big part in how it will handle. A narrow and deep kayak will cut through the water with the least amount of resistance. However, it will have less stability. A wide and shallow kayak will be very stable. However, it will drag in the water, making it less ideal for distance trips.
Extra Kayak Features
Here are some extra features that go into making a great kayak amazing.
A spray skirt goes over the cockpit on sit in kayaks and prevents water from splashing in. If it’s a cold day or whitewater kayaking is on the itinerary, this helps to keep you dry.
The rocker is the curve of the kayak that brings the bow and stern (front and back) out of the water. It also enables a kayak to cut through waves and better jump off of drops or obstacles in whitewater rafting.
A skeg is an optional fin that can help you keep your kayak going in a straight line. It’s helpful for long treks across lakes when you have other surface conditions that are battling you.
A rudder is used to control the direction of the kayak. For an easy, on the go rudder, you can brace your paddle against the kayak with the blade in the water and pull or push the same as you would a rudder.
When you get a kayak, it’s also important to have paddles. There’s no point in having a kayak if you can’t go anywhere in it!
Make sure that the paddles you have are suited for you. If they are too long, they will wear you out sooner than you want. If they are too short, you won’t be getting a proper bite of the water without overreaching.
The best material to have the paddles constructed of is fiberglass or carbon fiber. They are the lightest materials (which makes it easier to paddle) and are strong enough to give you a solid stroke. Paddles are also made of aluminum, but these are distinctly heavier than other materials.
Another good option to look for is a blade feather. A feather is the angle of the blade (the wide part of the paddle you stick in the water). This makes it easy for you to switch between a causal stretch or a more vigorous one where you are covering distance. In my experience, switching the angle also gets me moving my arms in different ways and preventing fatigue from setting in too soon.
Where to learn and practice kayaking
When you first get in a kayak, it can be confusing to figure out how to paddle and navigate! It’s important to start off in a safe environment where you have the chance to feel how your kayak reacts to you and experiment.
The best place to start off would be a small lake or slow river. Pay attention to the traffic however. At one of the lakes near me, there is usually a lot of motor boat traffic on the weekends. Dealing with wake and learning how to kayak at the same time can be overwhelming. Go when it’s not busy and you have plenty of room.
Kayaking is a wonderful way to get out on the water. Thanks to the wide variety of them, you have the ability to traverse a wide range of landscapes.
By considering the different places you want to kayak, you can get a basic idea of which category will work best for you. Then you can narrow it down to the specific by considering how stable you want it to be verus how you want it to travel in the water, if you want to add any accessories, and if your paddles will work well for you. Don’t forget to consider the weight if you have portages or its storage if you have limited space.
Before you know it, you’ll be kayaking around your local lake, river or rapids.