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What Are The Different Types Of Kayaks?

by Assessor


Composite kayaks are made from layers of fiberglass or aramid cloth laminated together with some sort of resin. In general, composite kayaks are lighter and stiffer than rotomolded designs. This makes composite a good choice for longer touring kayaks. Composites are also the best choice for building a kayak that is ultra-lightweight or a high-performance racing design.



ABS plastic kayaks fill a middle ground between rotomolded PE designs and composites. They cost more than rotomolded boats but less than composites, and they’re roughly in between the two materials in terms of stiffness and impact resistance. Many light touring and touring designs are built in this material and offer excellent value.

The one category of kayaks you’ll rarely find in hard-shell designs are folding or collapsible models. There are some rigid kayaks that come apart into two or more pieces for transportation or storage, but the category of travel kayaks is dominated by inflatable and folding designs.


Inflatable kayaks

Inflatable or blow-up kayaks are a good option for kayakers with limited space to store their boats. Inflatables typically come in whitewater, fishing and recreational designs. Whitewater and fishing inflatables are usually made from tough materials similar to those used in whitewater rafts. Recreational designs use lighter materials and are usually a little less durable but more affordable.

Whitewater inflatable kayaks offer an option between rafts and whitewater kayaks for paddlers looking to explore wild rivers. Recreational designs are suitable for quiet water adventures. Both are available in solo or tandem designs.

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The chief advantage of inflatable designs is their compactness for storage and travel. They are also among the most affordable options in collapsible kayaks. Inflatable kayaks are less rigid than hard-shell designs, so they don’t perform quite as well. They also offer fewer design options and features than rigid kayaks, but if you’re looking for a kayak to store in your closet or a tough boat to bomb down the river, they’re a great option to consider.


Folding kayaks

Folding or foldable kayaks typically offer the most high-performance options in collapsible kayak designs. Traditional folding kayak designs use a rigid frame covered by a flexible waterproof skin. Some newer designs use folding panels that form the hull of the kayak when snapped together. Either option creates a hull that is stiffer than an inflatable and in some cases approaches the performance of high-end hard-shell touring designs.

Folding kayaks come in recreational and touring designs. They are often wide and stable, particularly tandem folding designs.

The biggest advantage of folding kayaks is they offer a compact option for storage and travel. Folding kayaks are more expensive than inflatable options but typically offer superior performance on the water. Because of their rigid design, folding kayaks are a poor choice for whitewater paddling where impacts with rocks could bend or break their frames.

If you’re looking for a compact kayak for storage or travel and you can afford to spend a bit more money on your kayak, folding designs should be at the top of your list.


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Types of kayaks by design

Sit-on-top kayaks

As with other designs, sit-on-top or sit-on kayaks come in a wide range of designs. There are sit-on-top recreational kayaks, sit-on-top fishing kayaks and specialty racing sit-on kayaks called surf skis.

There are two main advantages to sit-on-top kayaks. First, they won’t fill with water if flipped over. This makes them easier to get back onto in deep water and is one of the reasons sit-on-tops are a good choice for a recreational kayak that you plan to paddle far from shore. Second, they are easy to move around on, whether you are turning around to grab a fishing rod or getting onto them at the beach. Almost all fishing kayaks are sit-on-top designs for this reason.

If you’re paddling a sit-on-top in cold water you might get wet and cold. This is the biggest disadvantage of sit-on-top designs. Another is that sit-on-tops tend to be heavier than similar kayaks with a cockpit.

Sit-on-tops are an excellent choice for recreational paddlers who paddle farther from shore, anglers who want a versatile kayak for fishing and for anyone who gets into high-performance surf ski racing.


Sit-inside kayaks

The most common type of kayak is a sit-inside or sit-in kayak. The full range of designs in this category is staggering. There are sit-in recreational kayaks, whitewater kayaks, touring kayaks, sea kayaks, racing kayaks, tandem kayaks—the list goes on and on.

The biggest advantage to sit-inside kayaks is they can be sealed off from the elements with a sprayskirt. This means they are warmer and drier to paddle in cool weather or on cold water. A closed cockpit can do anything from seal out a light drizzle to protect a paddler from smashing surf or turbulent whitewater—it just depends on the design.

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Sit-inside recreational designs are found everywhere and are a good option for paddling close to shore on calm water. Longer touring designs are faster and frequently have safety features that come into play for open-water touring or camping. Whitewater designs will run steep drops or surf a river wave. The choice of designs is almost endless.

The biggest disadvantage of sit-inside designs is they can be tricky to get back into if you fall out in deep water. Sea kayakers need to learn special skills to get back in their kayaks. Recreational paddlers should stay close to shore. Whitewater kayakers will want to learn to roll their kayaks to avoid a swim if possible.

There are so many options in sit-inside kayaks it can be difficult to provide a short summary.


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