One of the best things about kayaking is the vast range of activities that open up for you—from the adrenaline rush of running whitewater rapids to the placid serenity of a day out fishing on a lake.

Each activity has its own specific design of kayak to go with it, from the short and wide play boat to the long sleek lines of the sea kayak. Sometimes telling these crafts apart and picking the one that is a fit for the adventure you want to take can be tricky. To help you out, we've put together a guide explaining the types of kayaks at your disposal, the differences between them, and what conditions you should use them in.

Sit-on or Sit-in Kayaks

One of the most significant differences between types of kayaks is whether they are sit-on (with a sealed hull) or sit-in (where the paddler’s lower body is inside the hull of the kayak). Both kayaks have pros and cons, depending on what conditions you are paddling in.

Sit-in Kayak: When paddling in a sit-in kayak, your legs are enclosed within a cockpit. A spray skirt is attached, which stops water from coming in over the top. Keeping your legs dry and out of the wind will help you stay warmer, so sit-ins are typically used when you're out on colder waters.  

The downside of a sit-in kayak is that if you do happen to capsize, exiting and re-entering your kayak is much more of a challenge than it is with a sit-on design. Learning how to exit and re-enter a sit-in kayak underwater requires a few lessons with an instructor. Additionally, with the space in the hull flooded, will need to bail out your kayak or paddle it to shore to drain it before you can continue.

Sit-on Kayak: While a sit-in kayak keeps your legs warm and dry, getting a sit-on kayak means you are going to get wet. Spray from the waves, riffles, and paddle splashes will have you spending most of your time a bit damp. With this in mind, sit-on kayaks are best used in warmer temperatures and over warmer water.

The benefit of a sit-on design is that it is straightforward to get on and off your kayak, like when you’re boarding or just feeling like going for a swim. It probably won't be the most graceful thing you've ever done, but you can re-enter a sit-on kayak from the water.

Types of Kayaks

Recreational Kayaks

Designed to be stable and easy to steer, recreational kayaks usually feature a wide hull, are generally less than 12 feet long, have a small area to stash essentials, and include a large cockpit for easy access. They are best used on lakes, flatwater streams, or areas of saltwater that are protected from wind and waves.

Type: Sit-on or sit-in

Pros: Recreational kayaks are built wider at the beam (the width of the hull) for increased stability, lessening the chance of you capsizing. Shorter than touring kayaks, recreational kayaks are also more maneuverable. If you're just starting out with kayaking, then you might be more comfortable with a recreational kayak's increased stability.

Cons: A recreational kayak’s enhanced maneuverability comes at the cost of its ability to track (keep a straight line). This means they can be difficult and tiring to paddle for long periods of time. Additionally, because it’s designed for use in calmer waters, the recreational kayak will struggle with waves and rapids.

Day-touring Kayaks

Longer and sleeker than recreational kayaks, with a hull typically 18 feet in length, the day-touring kayak moves more efficiently through the water. This allows the boat to stay on track for longer and reduces the effort needed to paddle. Day touring kayaks are ideal for beginners looking to take extended kayaking journeys and develop their skills before moving to a touring or sea kayak.      

Type: Sit-on or sit-in

Pros: Day-tourer kayaks combine the stability and portability of a recreational model but with greater control in rougher waters. They offer more storage space than recreational designs but maintain the more substantial, easy-to-access cockpit. On top of this, as a result of them being shorter than a true touring kayak, they are easier to stow and transport.

Cons: Because day-touring kayaks are designed for a very specific purpose, the day-touring kayak only really excels in that one role. It's not intended to be taken on long journeys, like a standard touring kayak, and is not as stable and easy to use as a recreational one. If you are planning on only taking day trips, then this design is ideal. If you want something more multi-purpose, then I recommend investing in another kayak.

Touring Kayaks

Long and robust, the touring kayak is fast and efficient over long distances. Between 12 and 24 feet long, most designs come with one or more internal bulkheads that allow for a significant amount of internal storage. To compensate for wind or tidal movement, touring kayaks are often fitted with a rudder or skeg (a fixed rudder) to aid steering.

Type: Sit-in only

Pros: The touring kayak’s sleek silhouette and narrow beam allow it to move quickly through the water and track in a straight line for an extended period. This reduces the physical strain on the paddler and makes the kayak ideal for lengthy journeys. Larger storage capacity lets more equipment be kept on-hand. Lastly, a spray deck, and internal bulkheads lessen the chance of the kayak getting flooded.

Cons: The same length and narrow beam width that allows a touring kayak to cut efficiently through the water makes it far more difficult to make tight turns. This makes them unsuitable for narrow watercourses or those that feature a number of bends or switchbacks. Learning to evacuate and re-enter a touring kayak requires taking lessons from a professional instructor, as you have to learn to disentangle yourself from the spray deck when exiting underwater. A touring kayak’s long length can also make them difficult to transport to the water and store when not in use.

Sea Kayaks

A variant of the touring kayak, the sea kayak has a higher rocker (the curve from bow to stern) that helps it crest into oncoming waves. It also has a narrow, V-shaped front profile. This design makes them able to deal with rougher waters, but at the expense of stability.

Type: Sit-in only

Pros: The sea kayak is easier to control, tracks straighter, and is less likely to be swamped by waves than a standard touring kayak. This makes it specifically designed for journeys on coastal waters. Modern sea kayaks are designed to carry large amounts of equipment. For example, expeditions of two weeks or more, in environments ranging from the tropics to the Arctic, can be taken in sea kayaks.

Cons: As with the day-tourer kayak, the sea kayak is designed to excel in one environment and loses many of its advantages when taken out of that environment. It's higher rocker makes it less maneuverable on flat water, while it's narrow profile makes it less stable than a standard touring kayak.

Whitewater Kayaks  

Whitewater kayaks range from 4 to 10 feet in length and are specifically designed to move quickly down fast-flowing, rocky courses. They are typically made of hard-wearing rotomolded plastics.

Type: Sit-in only

Whitewater kayaks are split into two general types:

  • Playboats: Playboats are the shortest whitewater kayaks. They have a scooped bow and blunt stern, making playboats highly maneuverable and robust. By utilizing the speed gained by traveling through rapids, these boats are used to perform technical tricks in a sport known as rodeo boating.

Pros: Playboats are highly agile and their hulls are very resistant to damage. They excel at navigating steep, rocky waters that have fast-flowing water.

Cons: Because of their design, playboats are inherently unstable and their scooped bow makes them slow in open water.

  • Creekboats: Creekboats are longer and have more volume than a playboat. They are used to run narrow, low-volume waterways.

Pros: Due their stability and buoyancy, creekboats are more multi-purpose. They can be used on larger rivers. In this scenario, their greater volume allows them to navigate the flatter stretches and their stability will enable them to negotiate rapids.

Cons: While they are multi-purpose, creekboats are not built for comfort or long journeys. They also do not have storage space.

Inflatable Kayaks

Most inflatable kayaks are designed to be recreational. Before use, you can inflate them with a foot or electric pump. Their wide and sturdy hulls make them suited to calm water. Inflatable kayaks can be folded down to a convenient size—some models can even be worn as a backpack. There are a lot of negative myths about inflatable kayaks, most of which are untrue.

Type: Sit-on or sit-in

Pros: Most inflatable kayaks are made of hard-wearing,rubberized nylon that won't bend or dent on impact with rocks. This means they can weather slightly rougher waters. They are stable and easy to maneuver, making them a great first craft for beginners or children. Some high-end models feature internal ribbing for extra stability and are designed as serious touring kayaks.

Cons: While they are rugged, any holes in an inflatable will render it useless if unable to patch, which is known to be difficult. Additionally, their high rocker and light weight mean they can be difficult to paddle in high winds or rough water.

Folding Kayaks

Folding kayak. Assembling the kayak on the shore of the Bay of Kotor.

Based on the skin-on-frame boats used by the Inuit and Greenlandic cultures, the technology behind folding kayaks has seen significant advances in recent years. New materials allow for full-length touring boats to be packed away into a small suitcase. They are light enough to be carried with relative ease. This makes them the perfect solution to storage and transportation issues associated with longer, non-foldable touring kayaks.

Type: Sit-on or sit-in

Pros: Folding kayaks are unique in their ability to fold down into a portable package. They are lightweight and allow those without significant storage space to access kayaking.

Cons: The materials used to keep the kayak light are not as durable as a standard kayak hull. Folding kayaks are prone to cracking after extended use. Due to the need to fold flat, there are no internal bulkheads in a folding kayak, meaning less storage space and more opportunity for the kayak to flood.

Fishing Kayaks

As kayak fishing becomes increasingly popular, more kayaks are being made with features such as pole rests, a flatter hull for stability, pontoon stabilizers, and even pedal-powered water wheels that let you keep your hands on your fishing pole.

Type: Sit-on or sit-in

Pros: Designed to be shorter and lighter than traditional touring kayaks, fishing kayaks are easier to store on a car rack and maneuver in and out of the water. Most models also offer storage space where you can keep your catch.

Cons: Because of the need for portability and a stable platform to cast your line, fishing kayaks are slower and require more energy to paddle than touring kayaks. Designed for short journeys or day trips, they lack the storage and comfort you may want for longer excursions.

Tandem Kayaks

Squirt Boats: With a volume that is less than half of a normal kayak of the same length, squirt boats are ultra-light and flat while still being able to accommodate the kayaker’s legs. Designed for whitewater kayaking, 70 to 80 percent of a squirt boat sits underwater, so it can take advantage of underwater currents to perform quick maneuvers.

Surf Ski and Wave Ski: Surf skis can be up to 21 feet long and 16 to 20 inches wide. They use their narrow front profile to cut or punch through large, broken waves. The wave ski, a variant of the surf ski, is used to take advantage of wave swell, similar to a surfboard. Wave skis feature a wide, flat hull that is often less than 10 feet long.

Slalom Kayaking: Designed to be used in whitewater slalom races, slalom kayaks have a flat, saucer-shaped hull with a high rocker. This makes them very maneuverable and able to make tight turns at high speed, but slow over open water.