Plastic vs Composite Kayaks: Which is better?

When purchasing their first beginner kayak, novice paddlers are confronted with so many different types, brands, and models of kayaks that choosing a single kayak from among the many can be a daunting task. Thus, for most novice paddlers, the first decision is based on cost because plastic kayaks are inevitably much less expensive than composite kayaks are.

However, while a lower purchase price is certainly a desirable trait in a kayak, the fact is that both plastic and composite kayaks have distinct advantages and disadvantages over the other and thus, choosing between the two types of kayaks is well worth careful consideration.

In the following article, we will examine the pros and cons of plastic versus composite kayaks.

Pros and Cons of Plastic Kayaks

Plastic kayaks are heavier than composite kayaks.

As a general rule, plastic kayaks are far more popular among novice kayakers than composite kayaks are due to the fact that they are significantly less expensive than composite kayaks. Consequently, the vast majority of recreational kayaks and all sit-on-top kayaks are made from rotomolded plastic.

Plastic kayaks are far more durable than composite kayaks.

Therefore, plastic kayaks are a far better choice than composite kayaks are for river runners and whitewater paddlers as well sea kayakers who commonly launch from, or land on, rocky shores, as well those who like to play in rock gardens.

Plastic kayak

However, plastic kayaks are also far heavier than composite kayaks of the same size and thus, not only are plastic kayaks far more difficult to load and unload from a vehicle, they are more difficult to transport to and from the water. In addition, because rotomolded plastic is inherently less rigid than hand-laid fiberglass, Kevlar, or carbon fiber, plastic kayaks have less rigid hulls than composite kayaks do.

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Therefore, plastic kayaks require more effort from the paddler to maneuver them as well as to propel them on the water. Consequently, plastic kayaks can feel slow and unresponsive compared to composite kayaks.

Pros and Cons of Composite Kayaks

Composite kayaks are lighter and more durable.

On the other hand, composite kayaks have distinct advantages and disadvantages over plastic kayaks. For instance, the first and most glaring difference between these two types of kayaks is the fact that composite kayaks are significantly more expensive than plastic kayaks. However, this is due to both the cost of the materials they are made from as well as the method used for their construction.

For instance, composite kayaks (regardless of whether they are made from fiberglass, Kevlar, or carbon fiber) are made from a woven fabric which is impregnated with an epoxy resin in order to make it rigid.

Therefore, in order to construct a composite kayak, skilled craftsmen have to cut the fabric to shape and then place it in a mold and then coat it with epoxy resin while squeezing out the excess. Furthermore, both the hull and deck must be molded separately and then joined by hand. Then, once the hull and deck are joined, the entire kayak must be painted with gel coat and then outfitted.

Composite kayak, where the spray deck is attached

However, in order to construct a rotomolded plastic kayak, plastic beads are placed in a metal mold which is then joined to form both the hull and the deck. Then the mold is heated to melt the plastic and, once the plastic has liquefied, the mold is tilted and rotated to evenly distribute the plastic inside of the mold. Then, the mold is allowed to cool and the finished kayak is ejected, trimmed, and outfitted.

In addition, although composite kayaks are less durable than plastic kayaks are, they make up for this deficiency in other ways. For instance, an average touring kayak made from fiberglass commonly weighs 50 to 55 pounds whereas, a rotomolded plastic kayak of the same size and shape would likely weigh 60 to 70 pounds. Therefore, due to the significant difference in weight, composite kayaks are both faster and easier to maneuver on the water; not to mention being easier to load and unload from a vehicle.

It is far easier for kayak manufacturers to mold fabrics such as fiberglass, Kevlar, and carbon fiber into complex, finely tuned, shapes than it is for them to rotomolded plastic.

Composite kayaks not only have more rigid hulls and decks, they also have significantly more efficient hull designs.

Because composite kayaks are built using more rigid materials, they flex less on the water. Also, because their hull designs are more efficient due to the use of the more rigid material, they translate more the energy supplied by the paddler into momentum. Thus, not only are composite kayaks faster and easier to maneuver than plastic kayaks, they also require less effort form the paddler to do so.

Therefore, even though composite kayaks are significantly more expensive than plastic kayaks are, they are far better suited for paddling over long sea distances and, especially so when carry a load of camping gear, dry bags, food, and fresh water.

Plastic or Composite Kayaks?

So, although novice paddlers purchasing their first kayak will undoubtedly be confronted with a myriad of kayak brand names, kayak models, and hull and deck designs, for most paddlers, the choice comes down to expense. Thus, in that case, paddlers inevitably find themselves presented with the choice of purchasing a plastic or a composite kayak.

However, in order to wisely make this choice, paddlers first need to understand the advantages and disadvantages that each type of kayak construction presents and then choose accordingly because, if the paddler’s intended use for the kayak warrants the extra expense, then the extra performance provided by a composite kayak is well worth it. But, if the extra expense is not warranted, then having a composite kayak instead of a plastic kayak is certainly nice but may not be worthwhile.

Thus, when choosing between a rotomolded plastic kayak and a hand-laid composite kayak, you should carefully consider all of their various pros and cons and choose accordingly.

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