Beginner’s Guide to Buying/Building Your First Sea Kayak

Beginner’s think they can use their intuition to buy a kayak that's right for them. Like moths to a flame they end up attracted to the least seaworthy, most inefficient, poorly designed boats with bad ergonomics (vessels that hardly deserve to be called kayaks). In addition to having serious safety problems, the boats beginners usually choose hinder their learning and aren't much fun to paddle. Here's a tip: if a new sit-inside touring kayak sells for less than $1000.00, it's not worth owning -- not even for a beginner. Even if it's only $100, it ain' t no bargain. There are reasons why some kayaks are so cheap, and you don't want to find out the hard way what's wrong with these boats. The only exceptions to this that I know of are Sit-On-Top style kayaks (open deck), but if you are looking for a closed cockpit kayak, forget the cheap junk.

If you don’t yet own a kayak, but are thinking about buying or building one, the best advice anyone can give you is to take a lesson first. See our SK101 Beginning Sea Kayak Safety Skills course. If you can't take one of our lessons, be sure the lesson you take includes actual practice tipping over and getting out of a kayak while upside down (with an instructor supervising). When you’ve done enough wet-exit practice to overcome your fear of capsizing, come take our SK111 Paddle Strokes and Rescue Techniques course or SK115 Training Camp. These courses cover the many ways to steer without ruddering (i.e. leaned turns, carved turns, sweep strokes, sequentially combined strokes, etc.) as well as bracing and rolling. If you have already learned to roll, brace, etc., see our "Experience Novice’s Guide to Buying a Kayak", or click here. The more you’ve learned about paddling technique (and I don’t mean from YouTube etc.), rescues and safety, the smarter you’ll be about choosing a kayak that is right for you. If you buy a kayak before taking lessons you'll regret it after your first lesson if not sooner. Lessons aren't an expense, they're a money saving investment (which may save your life too).

If you are dying to buy something now, buy a roof-rack and kayak carrying cradles/saddles for your car. Regardless of what kayak you end up with or even if you just rent kayaks for a while, you will need a sturdy roof rack with cradles etc. (see our "Buyers Guide for Kayak Roof Racks and Cradles"). And if you happen to be in the market for a new car, be sure to consider how suitable your next car will be for carrying kayaks. Is the roof of an SUV too high for you to load a kayak onto? Is the roof of a two-seat sports car too short to keep a kayak from teeter-tottering? Does Yakima or Thule even make a rack solution suitable for carrying kayaks that fit the car you are thinking about buying? (check the fit guides on and The Kayak Academy can help you get a roof rack and kayak cradle system that is right for you and your vehicle (we sell Thule, Yakima, and Malone racks).

Another little item you will need before buying a kayak (in order to take lessons or test kayaks) is some appropriate kayaking footwear -- not sandals. Sandals can be dangerous if a foot peg slips between your foot and the sandal or a strap or buckle gets caught on a seat. At best, sandals are uncomfortable in a kayak ... your heels get sore from rubbing against the bottom of the kayak. Sport sandals are so bulky they lead people to buy an oversized kayak, and then they wonder why they can't keep up to their friends. Wetsuit booties are the standard footwear for kayaking, and they are a versatile first choice as they are good for rafting, snorkeling, sail-boarding, SUP paddle boarding, etc. A few of the water shoes on the marker work well for warm weather paddling, but most of the current selection of mesh water sock/shoes are not well designed for kayaking - they're either too bulky at the toes and heels or they fall off in the water or even inside the kayak. So invest in booties with a medium thick sole (not too bulky, but thick enough you can walk on rocks without hurting). Most of the water shoes and booties on the market are either so narrow that they are not comfortable for average width feet -- especially if you will be wearing neoprene socks or dry-socks inside the shoe for warmth. At the Kayak Academy we go to great lengths to offer you a selection of footwear we've tested and found to work well for kayaking, and we give you sizing tips to help you find booties that fit you right for kayaking with or without a dry suit on.

Why not start with a "recreational kayak"?

Most "recreational kayaks" (and some low-end fiberglass touring kayaks) lack basic safety features such as sufficient buoyancy (in both ends), perimeter safety lines for holding onto the kayak in the event of a capsize, and handles that won't take your finger off when the kayak rolls over. A touring/sea kayak with proper buoyancy will float horizontally with the cockpit coaming above the water - even when completely swamped and with the weight of the paddler in the kayak. This means the kayak can be bailed out -- assuming you carry a bilge pump. In contrast, most "recreational kayaks" tend to go vertical or float in a bow down attitude when swamped (especially those under 12' long and any without front AND rear bulkheads), and generally the cockpit coaming on a swamped "recreational kayak" will be under water -- making it impossible to pump or bail the boat out. Any kayak, no matter how stable, can capsize - even on a small lake. Buoyancy can be provided by front and rear bulkheads or float bags. Unfortunately most "recreational kayaks" lack front bulkheads, and it is impractical to use float bags in them because their short stubby shape makes the air bags slip out of the cockpit when swamped. For Rec kayaks shorter than 12', even if they were fitted with front and rear bulkheads, there's just too little volume in the bow of a kayak this size to make it float horizontal when swamped with the person in the kayak. If you must go out in one of these boats, stay within a few feet of shore at all times. Note most everyone over-estimates their swimming distance, and one's swimming distance will be further shortened if the water is cold.

What about building a kayak?

People who build a kayak before taking lessons make many of the same mistakes as people who buy a kayak first. In some ways these problems are even worse for people who build their own kayak because they invest so much time and labor into building their kayak that their emotional attachment to it leads them to suffer with their mistakes longer than someone who bought a mistake. Furthermore, when a beginner builds a kayak in their garage, they are out of the loop for meeting more knowledgeable paddlers who can mentor them, and they miss out on the free advice that others get from hanging out at their local specialty kayak shop - advice that could help keep them out of trouble. If you decide to build your own kayak, remember the more you know about paddling and kayak safety the smarter you'll be about choosing which kayak model to build and what details (deck rigging etc.) you can improve on while making it. So take good lessons first.

And what about buying a "beginner's kayak"?

We used to say that there was no such thing as a "beginner's kayak" ... what usually passes as a beginner's kayak are boats so poorly designed that only a beginner would be foolish enough to buy one (the 1985 Yugo's GV of the kayak world, only worse since even Yugo's had brakes and seat belts). Lately, this has begun to change. Ideally, in addition to being affordable, a beginner's kayak would be a kayak that was designed well enough that a beginner could actually use it to learn kayaking fundamentals (including rolling and re-entry rescues), and do so with the same level of safety as in a full-fledged sea kayak. We've now identified a few touring kayaks that fit this criteria and they are all available from our kayak store. See the new Dagger Stratos, Dagger Alchemy 14 and the North Shore Aspect (all of these are available in two sizes to fit most people well enough for learning real skills). Such kayaks are starting to define a new genre' sometimes called "rec-touring kayaks" that bridge the gap between the all too common really bad rec kayaks and full-fledged 16' - 18' sea kayaks. However, the term "rec touring" lacks a formal definition so it is ripe for marketing abuse so watch out for what other brands and stores may call "rec touring" even though it lacks adequate safety features or doesn't make a good kayak to learn in. For your safety and long term enjoyment of the sport we still recommend taking a lesson first, but for those who can't wait to buy a their first kayak, come see us and we'll help you find a kayak fits right and is worth owning as a beginner.

If you have to buy a kayak NOW, then at least buy it from a specialty shop like ours - not some big box or sporting goods store where the staff know less than you do. Find a sales person who is an expert sea kayaker with experience teaching beginners so you'll get good help choosing a kayak that fits you right. The best school for sea kayak lessons is also the best place to buy your kayak -- at the Kayak Academy we don't simply sell boats, we inspect them, tune them, give them our free dealer prep and put a little bit of the Kayak Academy into every kayak you buy from us. The Kayak Academy carries a variety of kayaks that meet the above safety criteria for beginner kayaks, and we have them to fit almost all sizes of paddlers. We also carry all the best retractable skeg type sea kayaks from several leading manufacturers including Valley, Tiderace, NorthShore, Wilderness Systems, Dagger, and Eddyline Kayaks. It's not just which kayak you buy that matters, it's where you buy it. A good specialty kayak shop cares about its customers and will help you buy a kayak that is the right size and type for your needs. And even the same model kayak won't be the same if you buy it from a store that is all about the bottom line.

Call at (206) 527-1825 or email us to arrange a demo/test paddle and an intro safety clinic (if needed).

Kayak prices and specifications are on our Kayak Store web page.