When deciding on what type of kayak to buy, especially if it is your first, it helps to know a little about what types are available. Some are better suited to specific purposes. You need to decide what you are going to use your kayak for, and where. Do you plan to do mostly rivers where there may be some stretches with moderately fast water? Do you just want to paddle lakes and large rivers? Are you going to fish, or do any coastal paddling?
There are for basic types of kayaks, each with their own pros and cons. The majority of uses allow you to choose any of the three, according to your personal preferences.
Sit Inside Kayak (SIK)
Pretty much just a canoe with a covered deck. They keep your center of gravity low to the water to improve handling and stability, and offer good protection from the elements. With a spray skirt, they are almost waterproof and unsinkable. Capsizing (a disaster in any other kind of boat) only requires a little training and the mere flick of a paddle to roll you back upright and paddling again (known as the “Eskimo Roll”). They offer ample dry storage beneath the deck, and extra flotation bags can be added below if needed or desired.
Equipment below the deck is safe, even during a capsize. Long Touring and Sea Kayaks are very, very fast and efficient, and are almost always SIKs. In a good SIK, you can paddle across the ocean if your skills and stamina are up to it. You’ll quit before the boat does. The only cons are that SIKs are more difficult to get in and out of, especially in the water. It takes some practice. Another con is that all water that enters the cockpit winds up in the bottom, and needs to be pumped out with a hand bilge pump. But both of these cons are relatively minor, and easily adjusted to.
Sit On Top (SOT)
These are basically a hollow surfboard with a seat and footrests. You sit on the deck on a moulded seat with an adjustable and removal seat on top of it. They are great boats with less of a learning curve than SIKs. They are easy to get in and out of, even in the water. They make excellent dive boats, and are preferred by a lot of anglers. Since there is no cockpit, you have all the room you need to be comfortable. Heavier and a little slower than comparable SIKs, they still paddle very well. You sit a bit higher than in SIKs, so your center of gravity is a little higher, but they usually are just a tad wider so you are more stable and less likely to capsize.
One thing you can do in a SOT that you can’t do in an SIK is fall out of the boat, so you need to hang on in big waves. If you do capsize, you are going in the water. But, it is easy to manually right the boat and hop back in. They do provide below deck dry storage storage, so the only thing you have to worry about is what you have with you on deck. Eskimo Rolls are not possible unless you have a specialty model that has knees straps. In, or rather on an SOT, you are completely exposed to the elements, so in cool water and weather, they might be uncomfortable. You will get wetter in a SOT than a SIK. but SOTs have scupper holes in the deck so water just goes harmlessly through them and back into the lake or stream. You can always wear neoprene chest waders and a drytop, a dry suit, or a wetsuit in very cold weather. Goretex works well for most situations.
Inflatables and Folding Kayaks
These can be of either SIK or SOT types. They will have the same characteristics as the hardshell models. Modern inflatable kayaks are marvels of engineering. Some of the top of the line models handle better than comparable hardshells. They can be stored and transported easily, especially to remote locations. There are inflatable models that fit into a backpack-style case to be trekked into the wilderness. They easily fit into the trunk of any car, and some can even be carried on a bicycle. They are made of very tough PVC, and some models feature an extra tough nylon cover that makes them even more puncture-resistant and stiffer for easier paddling. Besides the ease of storage and transport, they can withstand damage that would kill a hardshell.
A hole in a hardshell means the end of your trip until you can get it home and do extensive plastic welding on it. With an inflatable, you simply slap on a patch or patches and continue your trip. They have multiple air chambers so they are almost unsinkable unless you manage to poke holes in several locations on both sides, and even then, the floor is inflated, so you can still get to shore. Can they withstand an attack by an angry alligator or shark? Probably not, but neither will a hardshell…. I own two, an Advanced Elements Convertible, and a Sevylor Rio. I’ve used them for over 15 years, and wouldn’t trade them for any amount of money. Folding kayaks have been around for a while and are even used by the military forces of several countries, including the United States. They are very portable, rugged are comparable to most hardshells.
Tandems are just two-seat versions of the other types. Other than being a little heavier and a bit longer, they have all the same characteristics as the others, but you get double the paddle-power.
One other type worth mentioning is a pedal-powered yak. These are SOTs with a pedal propulsion system. Very popular with die-hard yak anglers, they are expensive, complicated, heavy, and in my opinion, defeat the purpose of having a kayak. But that is just my opinion. The people that I know that have one absolutely love it, so who am I to judge. The advantage to these is that you can fish while underway because your hands are free. You don’t have to set the paddle down, grab a rod, then put the rod down and grab the paddle to move somewhere else. All the ones I have seen have been very well-made.
Go out and have some fun!