One of the most exciting outdoor adventures you can partake in is the kayak camping trip: paddling off with a boat full of gear to places that are inaccessible to those confined to dry land. But for such an undertaking, you’ll need the right boat, and you have to choose between a lake kayak or a sea kayak.
Lake kayaks are more commonly referred to as touring kayaks. They perform well in small lakes and in rivers (except waterways with whitewater features). The term “sea kayak” is something of a misnomer though, as these boats are designed for any open water, whether it’s actually the ocean or just the interior of a large lake. Choosing the right kind of kayak will depend on the type of conditions you intend to paddle through.
While there is some overlap between lake and sea kayak lengths, sea kayaks are often considerably longer. The shortest sea kayaks come in at 12 feet but they can go all the way up to 24 feet, while lake kayaks are usually between 8 and 14 feet.
This difference comes about for two reasons. Lake kayaks need to be able to maneuver around obstacles, while sea kayaks usually have plenty of time and space to avoid any obstacle they might come upon. The maneuverability of a lake kayak is important if you’ll be weaving through tight bends in a shallow waterway. On the other hand, the sea kayak’s extra length enhances its performance in wide-open spaces by improving tracking (the ability to paddle a straight line) and increasing speed.
While sea kayaks are not always narrower than touring kayaks, most are 4 to 6 inches narrower. The boat’s width changes its hull shape, with sea kayaks having a very angular profile and lake kayaks being rounded and bulging a bit around the cockpit.
In open water, the narrow hull helps a sea kayak cut through the waves and also keeps it going in a straight line. The tradeoff is that sea kayaks can feel very tippy to paddlers who aren’t accustomed to them. The extra width of a lake kayak slows it down and causes it to ride on top of waves instead of cutting through them. But it will be more stable, which is handy if you want to stop paddling and relax for a while, without the fear of capsizing.
Lake kayaks and sea kayaks also differ in the type of features and equipment they have, with sea kayaks usually having more gear attached to them. As sea kayaks are typically longer than touring kayaks, they often have a front hatch since it can be difficult to access things that are stored in front of the foot pegs on these longer boats.
Sea kayaks are also outfitted with retractable skags and rudders. A skag is a blade-like device that lowers from the stern of the boat to improve its tracking. This makes the kayak less maneuverable, but can be very helpful in keeping you going straight while crossing a large body of water. Rudders look similar to skags and are controlled by ropes attached to the foot pedals. Pressing the rudder to one side helps turn the boat without using the paddle; the paddler can keep a consistent rhythm for forward motion, while using their feet to control the direction of the boat. Lake kayaks are usually not outfitted with nearly as much gear, limited instead to recreational accouterments, like fishing rod holders.
Which One is Right for Me?
The answer is to this question fairly simple: do you think you’ll be spending more time in the ocean or on rivers and lakes? If it’s the former, you need a sea kayak. Lake kayaks are not safe to use in the open ocean, while sea kayaks can be used, though not as efficiently, in rivers and lakes.
You should always buy the kayak that will keep you safe in the most dangerous conditions you intend to paddle, and accept that it won’t be the ideal boat in some other places. If there’s going to be a lot of cross over in your paddling environments, a good option is to purchase a shorter sea kayak and just know that it won’t be as fast or track as well as a longer one when used in the ocean.