Best Overall Kayak
Wilderness Systems Pungo 120
Length: 12′ 2″ | Capacity: 325 lbs
The Wilderness Systems Pungo 120 is a time-tested classic, excelling in almost all our testing categories. It stands out for its stability and maneuverability while retaining decent tracking and glide. With a 20-inch cockpit length and padded seat, it’s also one of the most comfortable options we tested. The Pungo is a highly versatile and comfy vessel popular amongst the company’s armada of boats because of its broad paddling diversity. Many boats are either short and wide or long and narrow, forcing the user to pick between maneuverability and tracking. Wilderness Systems has successfully created a high-quality hybrid crossover that can competently float through gentle currents and cruise across glassy lakes. With all the extra features this boat has to offer, it is easy to see why it scored so well in our tests.
Although the Pungo 120 is slightly lighter than average, the bulky nature of the design makes it difficult to carry solo. The storage hatch cover requires a bit of care and attention over time and is a slight departure from the rest of the boat’s incredibly durable construction. And while expensive, the price is more than justified by its versatility. This multifaceted boat allows for different styles of paddling in different environments. If you want a one-boat quiver, this is a high-value craft.
Read more: Wilderness Systems Pungo 120 review
Best Sit-on-Top Kayak
Wilderness Systems Tarpon 105
Length: 10′ 6″| Capacity: 325 lbs
The Wilderness Systems Tarpon 105 builds upon the well-established and ever-popular Tarpon sit-on-top design series. This maneuverable kayak offers excellent storage, comfort, and functionality. The exceptional stability and open design make hopping on and off easy. It’s also self-draining, so it doesn’t collect pools of water in the cockpit, which is much more comfortable. The Tarpon has higher functionality than your average sit-on-top kayak, and it was an easy pick over the other models we tested.
Although the Tarpon is one of the more expensive kayaks in the test, the solid all-around handling and the number of extra bells and whistles it offers justify the price. Like its sister vessel, the Aspire 105, the Tarpon’s versatility makes the price point all the more palatable. This well-rounded boat can perform the function of multiple boat designs.
Read more: Wilderness Systems Tarpon 105 review
Great Value for a Sit-On-Top Model
Ocean Kayak Malibu 11.5
Length: 11′ 5″ | Capacity: 360 lbs
If you want to get the most for your money from a versatile kayak, then look no further than the Ocean Kayak Malibu 11.5. Ocean Kayak took their time-tested Scrambler 11.5 and added a host of upgrades, such as a seat pad, adjustable backrest, and a splash-resistant dry hatch, to create a top-notch boat at a mid-range price. Standing out for its construction quality and design, the Malibu edged ahead of the competition with its versatility and features. This boat’s long keel and pontoon-style tri-form hull design makes for great tracking and glide, in addition to offering incredible stability in strong wind and waves. With enormous storage wells on the bow and stern, this boat is ready to be loaded with anything you’d need for a long day trip or even an overnight excursion.
This is one of the slightly heavier options we’ve tested, but the trade-off for this is superior stability. You can quickly get in and out of the Malibu on the beach or in the water, making it a fun and safe choice for both younger and older paddlers. And you can’t beat the price-to-value comparison with this durable boat. It offers various usages, from surfing waves to fishing to sunbathing, all in one comfortable and durable package.
Read more: Ocean Kayak Malibu 11.5 review
Best Bang for the Buck
Old Town Vapor 10
Length: 10′ 0″ | Capacity: 325 lbs
Unsure if you want to take the big plunge on an expensive, high-end boat? Old Town has created a budget option to get you out on the water, to have fun and enjoy the wonderful world of boating without putting a huge hole in your wallet. The Old Town Vapor 10 is an excellent beginner’s boat at a significantly lower price than many other sit-in models. With its 10-foot length and flat bottom hull, this boat is maneuverable, sturdy, and forgiving for the beginner paddler. A large cockpit makes for easy entering and exiting on the beach, and the pointed bow helps cut through waves and track across the water, which we found helpful in windy conditions.
This option is one of the less expensive boats on the market. To make that happen, Old Town made some sacrifices. The Vapor is not very hydrodynamic. If you are hoping to go somewhere fast, there are better options. One thing that also stands out is the seat’s lack of padding and adjustability (especially if you have ever sat inside one of the more comfortable options). However, the no-frills approach also eliminates the number of parts that could break. This boat is worth considering if you are looking for a decent quality kayak that is half the price (or less) of some other award winners.
Read more: Old Town Vapor 10 review
Impressive Lightweight Performance
Length: 12″ 0″ | Capacity: 295 lbs
The Eddyline Skylark stands out in part for its ABS construction which balances the durability of a plastic kayak with the look and performance of a lightweight composite kayak. Weighing in as one of the lightest boats we tested, we could load the Skylark onto our cars solo. Even more impressively, despite being lightweight, this kayak still has robust footpegs and handles, two dry storage hatches, seat adjustability, and padding. If you want a high-performing vessel that won’t weigh you down, this one is our favorite — if you can afford it.
The Skylark is stable and one of the easier kayaks to maneuver. In addition, its cockpit is designed to accommodate a spray skirt, so advanced users can use this to keep themselves dry. If water does get inside, the sealed chambers ensure that it won’t reach your storage hatches, and this can reduce the chance of sinking if the kayak capsizes. It should be noted that if the Skylark takes on water, the lack of a drain plug makes it difficult to drain.
Read more: Eddyline Skylark review
Best Glide and Tracking
Dagger Stratos 12.5 S
Length: 12′ 6″ | Capacity: 250 lbs
The Dagger Stratos 12.5 S is an exceptionally well-designed boat, with its length and hull engineered to deliver an efficient glide and cut through glassy or turbulent waters. If desired, the cockpit accommodates a spray skirt, and — skill-dependent — the Dagger 12.5 can navigate class III whitewater. With two dry deck hatches and additional on-deck storage, this kayak is ready for multi-day adventures if you are.
Not all paddlers are ready or want to take their paddling to that level. This kayak is more than most people need for hitting the water for an occasional casual float, and it may cost more than you want to pay for such an activity. Unless you aspire to explore great distances or intend to navigate ocean or river currents, other more stable kayaks can get you floating for much less money.
Read more: Dagger Stratos 12.5 S review
Best Portable Model
Oru Beach LT
Length: 12′ 3″ | Capacity: 300 lbs
The Oru Beach LT took top honors in our review of top inflatable kayaks with its light, portable, and space-saving origami-style design. For boaters with limited storage space, who drive small cars, or that rely on public transportation, the 26-pound Beach LT is a clear winner. It is a luxury to store a boat in a closet, grab it by the shoulder strap, and be able to transport it without a fancy rack or straps. Larger, rigid options like the standard sit-on-top or sit-inside kayak this review focuses on will never afford this luxury. Within minutes of setup, you could be on the water in the Oru getting your paddling fix. If you want to go even smaller, the 17-pound Oru Lake makes hiking your boat to a more remote location a true reality.
Although there is so much we love about this setup, some minor design flaws affect performance. Limited bracing points and a large cockpit decrease the stability of the Beach LT and can make for a wetter ride on windy days. Also, the boat’s light weight is apparent in the wind — it can get wind-cocked and blown around without a skeg or rudder to help it keep its heading (our tester found that the Oru is much less wind-affected than other inflatable models, but it can’t compare to the hard shell models.) If you bail in open water, this kayak is harder to self-rescue, so it should be kept in sheltered conditions. The Beach also doesn’t come cheap. But if you have limited space, this may be your best option to get out on the water as often and with as little hassle as possible.
Read more: Oru Beach LT review
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Why You Should Trust Us
We tested these kayaks over multiple seasons and in various conditions, predominantly in Lake Tahoe and the surrounding Sierra rivers and lakes. We categorized our testing data and observations into key performance metrics, attempting to quantify those metrics when feasible to be as consistent and objective as possible. For example, we counted the number of strokes it took to make a 180-degree turn to test maneuverability and measured the distance traveled from full speed to a complete stop to measure glide and tracking. We also brought together a diverse group of testers of all different sizes, strengths, and experience levels to help gauge more subjective metrics like comfort, stability, and maneuverability.
We categorized our test data and observations according to these six testing metrics:
- Glide and Tracking (30% of overall score weighting)
- Stability (20% weighting))
- Maneuverability (15% weighting)
- Ease of Transport(15% weighting)
- Comfort (10% weighting)
- Construction Quality (10% weighting)
Our diverse testing team is led by expert paddler Sara James. The University of Leeds Kayaking Club occupied much of Sara’s focus during her undergraduate years, where she was quickly thrown into competitions for a wide variety of kayak-based disciplines. For the next decade, Sara continued to kayak and travel in search of whitewater from the UK to Uganda, Nepal to New Zealand, and Iceland to India. She finally settled in California, USA, and has been exploring the rivers and lakes of the Sierras for over a decade. Creek boating, touring kayaking, stand-up paddle board, ripples, or raging rapids: if it floats and involves a paddle, Sara loves it all.
Dan Kramer brings a wealth of paddling, rafting, and marine experience to this review as well. He teaches Swiftwater Rescue at Lake Tahoe Community College, in addition to teaching beginner and intermediate rafting classes and at whitewater guide schools. He is also a licensed Merchant Mariner with the US Coast Guard and captains sightseeing and watersports boats on Lake Tahoe in the summer.
Analysis and Test Results
We chose some of the top models on the market to undergo a rigorous testing process on rivers and lakes in the Lake Tahoe region. The goal was to find out which ones were worthy of an award. We determined which performed best in each metric, assigning a weighted score to each model. We then added the scores up to assign winners. Our goal is to give you an excellent resource to help you decide which kayak to buy.
You can expect to encounter a wide range of prices when shopping for a recreational kayak, as a boat’s price is mainly determined by the materials, quality of its design, seating system, and the other extra features included. We considered all these factors during our testing but never considered price or value as a performance metric during testing. That said, we understand that not everyone can purchase the most expensive boat with all the best features and latest technologies, so we try to provide a range and highlight high-value products that can save you some bucks while still performing well.
The Eddyline Skylark outperformed all the kayaks overall and in several individual metrics. However, the Wilderness Systems Pungo 120 trailed close behind AND is offered at a more competitive price point. Our favorite budget options are the Old Town Vapor and Ocean Kayak Malibu 11.5 — while they score a bit lower, the sacrifices in performance are relatively minor. Very economical options are also available, like the Pelican Brume 100XP, but this is several steps down in performance compared to the premium models. Another consideration is durability. The Dagger Stratos, Ocean Kayak Malibu, Perception Tribe 11.5, and Perception Hangtime, as well as the Wilderness Systems Pungo and Tarpon, are all built with thicker, more durable plastic than the cheaper options tested. They will likely last longer and may offer a better value over time.
Glide and Tracking
Our test experts paddled each kayak in our lineup in a 50-meter sprint across flat water. We calculated the average of three timed tests for better reliability. We also collated observations and feedback on how easy keeping each boat in a straight line felt. For kayaks that had a rudder, we tested this with the rudder both in and out. Glide was tested by measuring the distance each boat moved in a smooth continuous motion before coming to a halt. Our testers used up to eight strokes to get the kayak up to speed and then stopped paddling once they reached a marker buoy on the water. We then measured the distance from the buoy to where they stopped gliding and came to a stop. This helped us determine which boat and hull designs shed water the best to allow the boats to move the most effortlessly and efficiently.
Thanks to its hull shape, length, and drop-down skeg, the Dagger Stratos 12.5 S glides exceptionally well, keeping track over long distances with minimal effort. The Eddyline Skylark and Hobie Mirage Compass trail in a close second for this metric, with the other longer boat designs like the Wilderness Systems Pungo 120 and Old Town Loon 120 also excelling at staying on track and gliding efficiently.
Models with rigid, pronounced multi-chine, V-shaped hulls, like the Eddyline Skylark, Ocean Kayak Malibu 11.5 and Perception Tribe 11.5, track well and help the boat get the most out of their glide. In contrast, kayaks like the Jackson Staxx, the Wilderness Tarpon 105, and the Pelican Brume 100XP lose some glide due to their wider, flatter bottoms, which pushes across the water’s surface instead of slicing through it.
Having to deal with an upside-down kayak is not much fun, and ultimately the goal is to keep upright on the water. Most of the kayaks we selected for this lineup are aimed at the recreational touring market and are designed to be stable and easy to paddle. However, some boats excelled in this task more than others.
The wider kayaks scored higher in terms of stability, with the Perception Hangtime, Hobie Mirage Compass, and Wilderness Systems Tarpon proving the most difficult to tip over. The Jackson Staxx also performed very well; that said, although wider than most kayaks, the slightly higher seat position can make users a bit more vulnerable to the wobbles, particularly around moving currents.
The central third of the Dagger Stratos hull is flat, enhancing its stability. However, its narrow width and V-shaped ends make it prone to feel more tippy when it’s sitting on flat water (primary stability). When on edge (secondary stability), the kayak feels stable and easy to control, and it could be said that, like a road bike, it is most stable at speeds and when dynamically moving.
The Eddyline Skylark and Pelican Brume are surprisingly steady even when paddled in gentle currents and despite their smaller size. This can be attributed to the relatively large surface area of the flat hulls, which gives them excellent primary stability. However, if you accidentally get either of these kayaks on edge, expect to fall in, as neither has good secondary stability. They’re just not designed to operate this way. If your hobby involves moving around in your kayak, say fishing or playing kayak games, or if you have a fidgety dog or child on your lap, you’ll want to consider a more stable option such as the Hobie Mirage Compass or Perception Hangtime. Or better yet, consider a two-person option.
We wanted to see how easily we could make a controlled series of directional changes in each boat. First, we determined how many sweeping paddle strokes were required for each boat to complete a 360-degree turn from a standstill. Next, we set up a short slalom course to see how quickly each boat responded to a zigzagging snaking course and multiple turns.
The shorter kayaks are generally easier to move around; size helps the Eddyline Skylark, Pelican Brume, and Wilderness Systems Aspire 105 make sharp turns in small spaces. These kayaks also excel in this test due to their flatter hull shapes. On the other hand, the more V-shaped hulled boats like the Old Town Loon, Perception Tribe , and Jackson Staxx are noticeably more sluggish when turning around and require extra effort to make tighter turns.
Many kayaks have a combination of hull types. The Old Town Vapor and Dagger Stratos have a V-shape for their hull’s front and back thirds and a flatter central third. This flat-ish central hull makes maneuvering easier across currents or eddy lines if you’re on a river. Despite being long, the Stratos excels in its maneuverability in moving currents. Expert paddlers enjoyed surfing the Stratos on glassy waves and paddling across dynamic currents. For those that enjoy rock gardening, the Stratos is the perfect playful friend for an expert in this dynamic environment.
Retracting the rudder can further improve the maneuverability of the Dagger Stratos, Hobie Mirage Compass, and the Wilderness System Aspire 105.
When considering maneuverability, we also evaluated how easy it is to re-right and empty an upturned kayak. Self-rescue may be essential if you’re out in open water and far away from land. Some sit-on-top kayaks have self-draining holes, making this task much simpler. Others require a bilge pump (and some practiced skills) to re-enter, a few can accommodate a spray skirt, and those that have mastered a kayaker’s roll can re-right themselves.
If you’re fortunate enough to be close enough to land to haul your kayak to the side, you can tackle the task of emptying it there. But unless you pre-plan and add floatation bags to your kayak, hundreds of liters of water are heavy to move around and will take some time to empty. Some basic techniques and a well-positioned drain plug will make this task quicker and less tiresome.
The sit-on-top models are the easiest to re-right, particularly the Ocean Kayak Malibu and Wilderness Systems Tarpon due to the sensible handle positioning. The sit-inside kayaks are more difficult as these take on water quickly and can swiftly become a sinking hazard if you don’t attend to them.
Ease of Transport
This is one of those things that you may not think much about until it’s time to load your boat on or off your vehicle roof, carry it to and from water access points, or portage it. However, since you have to carry your boat every time you use it, it’s a critical aspect to consider. You may not want an overly cumbersome kayak that you can’t carry by yourself without the assistance of a cart or friend — no matter how nice it is. To test this, we looked at each boat’s weight, width, and length and the location and design of its carrying handles.
The weight of the boats we tested range from the 40-pound Pelican Brume 100XP to the hefty 83-pound Hobie Mirage Compass. But this doesn’t tell the whole story: the width and length also play a big part in how easy or difficult it is to carry a boat, how well it will fit onto or into your vehicle, and if it will fit in your storage space. While you consider how much weight you want to haul around, also lay out the length and width of the boat you’re considering using a measuring tape to ensure it’ll fit where you want it to.
Almost all the boats we tested have bow and stern handles; however, the quality and comfort varied greatly. The Jackson Staxx, Tarpon, and Pungo offer the most robust design to compensate for their extra weight. The Staxx, Tarpon, and Perception Tribe 11.5 also offer side handles on the port and starboard sides right by the seats, which we found particularly helpful when hauling these kayaks around. Although the Hobie Compass has handles positioned on the side, the shallow depth of these handles gives them little functional use when this heavy vessel.
The Tarpon, Pungo, Tribe 11.5, and Malibu 11.5 all come with replaceable stern skid plates. These take the brunt of knicks and scratches if you need to pull your boat behind you on the ground.
No one wants to be uncomfortable when enjoying the activities they love. Comfort is a critical component to consider when you’re sitting in a kayak for hours. There are many types of seats, cushions, back bands, footpegs, and knee or thigh braces that provide stability, control, and a smooth and comfortable ride. Some vessels go above and beyond to ensure you don’t spend your whole trip wishing to escape your boat because your back is aching or your feet are falling asleep.
We analyzed the posture, user-friendliness, and comfort of each boat’s foot and thigh bracing systems and seats. The Old Town Loon, Jackson Staxx, and Wilderness System Tarpon 105, Pungo 120, and Aspire 105 are options with excellent seating and bracing systems, wide-open cockpits for ease of access, and adjustable features for personalized comfort. The Staxx is also notable for the amount of legroom — something taller users really appreciated — and the slightly raised seat that helps keep your bottom dry.
The premium outfitting in the Dagger Stratos makes it more comfortable than your average touring kayak; however, the smaller cockpit size means that entry and exit are more awkward for those who are less agile or have longer legs. Larger sizes are available, but if you are looking for some good lounging, the Stratos is not the ticket. The Hobie Mirage Compass caters to the comforts of paddlers, particularly as the option to pedal rather than paddle can relieve the stress of tired arms. It is also available with numerous additional extras, such as a sunshade, fishfinder, camo package, and turbo fins, all to enhance the user’s experience.
But comfort doesn’t come without a cost, and the comfortable Hobie Compass will cost you significantly more than introductory-level models like the Old Town Vapor. The cushioning in the Vapor is basic, with little adjustability in the seat. This is fine for an hour or less of paddling, but if you love spending time on the water, you’ll want to add cushions or spring for a more supportive — and expensive — boat. In addition to the higher price tag, super comfortable models typically weigh more.
The way a boat is designed and manufactured and the material it is constructed from are key attributes indicating the durability of a craft. Generally, these kayaks can take a licking when transported or paddled. You can drag them over beaches, paddle them around and over rocks, or expose them to the sun for long periods without fearing they will deteriorate quickly (though you should avoid all of these things if you want to maximize the longevity and quality of your vessel). Boats can be manufactured with several materials, but the primary two used in recreational versions are high-density roto-molded linear polyethylene or Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene (ABS).
The boats we tested use similar polyethylene plastics but different densities. We compared the vessels’ sturdiness, including their out rigging and other features, to determine how well they would withstand rugged use. Seats, handles, foot braces, deck storage bungee cords, dry storage hatch covers, and locking levers were some features we examined during our testing.
The Pelican Brume uses much less plastic than the other boats, making for a much thinner hull and deck. Boats like this are more flexible and seem much less durable than the sturdier plastic used to construct the Dagger Stratos, Eddyline Skylark, Perception Tribe, and models from Old Town and Wilderness Systems. This was especially evident when we tied the kayaks to our roof racks and noticed the thinner plastic quickly buckling or “oil canning” when put under pressure. Thinner plastic kayaks are not designed to be put under stress, hence the lower quality material and price tag.
On the flip side, the Dagger Stratos 12.5 S is constructed from premium materials with premium outfitting and is ready to be pushed to the max. With a central pillar to ensure it will not crumple under pressure, this boat is prepared to be pushed harder, further, and longer than any of the other models we tested.
It was a blast playing around on the water, testing and comparing all these fine kayaks. After reading our testing analysis and buyer’s guide, we feel confident that you will better understand the wide world of kayaking. With so many options on the market, no one boat is right for everyone. We hope you take our information and use it to find the qualities, styles, features, and price tag most appealing to you. After all, the best boat for you is the one you feel the most comfortable in and enjoy paddling the most — the one that gets you out on the water as often as possible.